06 January 2010

A Pathetic Fallacy

In literary criticism, the "pathetic fallacy" is the attribution of sentience to inanimate objects. In the newest issue of The New Yorker, editor Hendrick Hertzberg plays literary critic with progressive critics of President Obama and the Democratic party. By blaming weak, dishonest or corrupt Democratic leadership for the compromised form of the present health-care reform legislature, Hertzberg argues, progressives (not to mention "the nether regions of the left blogosphere) are guilty of the pathetic fallacy because they attribute conscious will (and worse, the will of Democratic leaders) to the inertia of a gridlocked legislative system where blame (if blame is even allowed) properly lies.

As far as Hertzberg is concerned, progressives should content themselves with legislation which Hertzberg himself acknowledges to be flawed and incomplete. They should rejoice because Paul Krugman and other academics and editors say that the bill is great, a milestone that establishes the principle of universal health care coverage even if the practice proves initially imperfect. Hertzberg appeals to a history of incremental reforms, hoping to remind progressives not to expect or demand complete reform in one radical stroke. But he protests too much against criticism of Democrats. Here's the key paragraph:

The left-wing critics are right about the conspicuous flaws of the pending health-care reform—its lack of even a weak “public option,” its too meagre subsidies, its windfalls for Big Pharma, its capitulation on abortion coverage, its reliance on private insurance. And there are surely senators and representatives whose motives are base or, broadly speaking, corrupt. But it is nonsense to attribute the less than fully satisfactory result to the alleged perfidy of the President or “the Democrats.” The critics’ indignation would be better directed at what an earlier generation of malcontents called “the system”—starting, perhaps, with the Senate’s filibuster rule, an inanimate object if there ever was one.

I don't know if there's a literary term for the opposite of the pathetic fallacy, but there should be one to describe what Hertzberg does here. He wants us to blame a "system" that may as well be an inanimate object, given how unwilling he is to attribute its inertia to the people who, at this particular moment, constitute the system. He'd have us believe, in effect, that the Democrats could not help but deliver a compromised bill because of circumstances beyond their control. I'm not saying that Obama, Reid, Pelosi et al are perfidious, but "weak," "incompetent" or "compromised" may come closer to the truth.

Given the timing of his editorial at the start of a congressional election year, I can't help suspecting Hertzberg of a larger agenda. The moral of it is instantly recognizable, even though he never utters the magic formula himself: he's warning progressives against "making the perfect the enemy of the good." This is one of the most popular arguments of apologists for the American Bipolarchy, and closely related to the "lesser evil" principle that empowers Democrats (or Republicans) to do as little as possible of what their constituents actually want. The reasoning is: if you hold out for the perfect against the merely good, you'll end up with the bad. A system founded on such reasoning is one in which no incentive exists for politicians to strive for the perfect, since no one will pressure them to do so. This system has a conscious mind, and it has little but contempt for radicals of any philosophical heritage. History may prove Hertzberg right in his belief that the reform legislation is a crucial step in the right direction, but he is almost certainly wrong to claim that this was the best that could be done, and he is morally wrong if he means to argue that progressives shouldn't demand something better or blame our nation's leaders for failing to deliver. When he appeals to objectivity, history will judge Hertzberg's argument. To the extent that he demands acquiescence in self-interested Democratic incrementalism, he reveals himself as part of the system -- not the one he deplores in print, but the one he sustains in practice.

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