Is Freedom the Enemy of Equality?
I’ve never listened to Jason Lewis. I’ve never been tempted to. I’m still not.
Yesterday he had an opinion column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (since he’s syndicated, I assume his column also appeared elsewhere). This particular piece gave me a lesson in how to make an almost rational-sounding argument through lying about the other guy’s intentions. You can find the particular column I’m discussing here. Go read it and then come back. I’ll wait.
Let me preface my comments by saying that the dishonesty here is not limited to conservative talk show hosts and opinion writers. I’m sure people of all political stripes (and of all professions) often do it. It’s just easier to see when it so blatantly misrepresents one’s own viewpoint.
Let me also sidestep the question of whether a lie is still a lie if a thing is said with the honest conviction that it’s true. In this particular case, the issues involved have been so well discussed that I find it difficult to believe someone with the gifts of a Jason Lewis can be as ill-informed as he would have to be in order to believe the nonsense he wrote, particularly since his profession is based on knowing things about these topics. If he wrote what he honestly believed to be true, then he is a total incompetent.
But this isn’t about blasting Mr. Lewis. It’s about the technique, and the damage this technique causes. As I said, he’s not the only perpetrator, and conservativism is not the only source.
The false portrayal of viewpoints is depicted even with the title and summary of the column: “Do you want equality or freedom? Conservatives prefer the latter. So did the nation’s founding fathers.” There are three clear lies in these short sentences, all of them lies by implication.
First is the lie that there is a contradiction between “equality” and “freedom,” as if we can have one or the other, but not both — and as if these two things are somehow inversely tied to each other. But of course, it depends on what these words mean. More on that soon.
Second is the lie that conservatives prefer “freedom” (even while restricting voting rights, restricting marriage rights, restricting abortion rights), which necessarily carries the unstated implication (made explicit in the article) that liberals do not. Though again, it depends on what that word means.
Third, the lie that our founders did not value “equality” all that much. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” “Equality” is mentioned in the Declaration long before “freedom” is; in fact, the word “freedom” appears in that document exactly zero times, although the “free system of English laws” does appear once about two-thirds of the way through.
That last comment of mine was entirely unfair. It is possible to mention a concept without using a specific term for that concept. Examine the entire first sentence of the Declaration’s second paragraph:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Anyone who can see any contradiction here between “equality” and “freedom” — in fact, anyone who can claim that the two are not inextricably linked — must mean something very different by these words than did America’s Founding Fathers.
Reading the whole article by Mr. Lewis eventually gives a sort of general impression of the odd definition Lewis has for the words “equality” and “freedom.” He means them both in a purely economic sense, not in any political sense that the founders would have meant when using these words in a political document. Lewis seems to mean “equality” in the sense of “everyone has roughly the same after-tax income,” and “freedom” as “having the lowest taxes possible for me, and for those who are wealthier than me — while insuring that people who earn less are taxed more.” But by not setting these definitions into clear terms, he avoids the inconvenient problem of being laughed out of a job.
And now you’re probably ready to accuse me of committing the same error Lewis committed, that I am unfairly criticizing him by mischaracterizing his viewpoint. I urge readers who feel that way to correct me by using quotes from the linked article. He uses all the usual and empty current memes, such as condemning the 51 percent (up from the more-oft-reported 47 percent) of Americans who don’t pay Federal income taxes, and about how awful it is that people in the top tax brackets have a higher marginal tax rate than do people with less wealth. These are the sorts of things he relates to the words “equality” and “freedom;” not free speech, not equal protection under the law, not the right to vote, not the right to worship as you please. Only taxation.
The push to redefine these terms in these ways is vile and destructive. Americans need to be aware that it’s happening. To Lewis, less economic equality equals more absolute freedom, although tax rates should be made more equal — and this would somehow make us all more “free.”
So he goes about contrasting “equality” and “freedom,” and further insists that liberals want everyone to be restricted to the same level of income. Of course this is not what liberals want, and he can’t point to a single source that says they do. This is the crux of his argument — a misstatement of the beliefs of others; the implication that liberals want to achieve “equality of outcome” (his words; a common but completely false conservative meme); and that “the founders” would support his definition of “equality” meaning “flat tax rates,” and “freedom” meaning “increasing concentration of wealth into ever-fewer hands.”
I pick on Lewis here, not because he is particularly pernicious or more dishonest than the average conservative commentator (George Will, Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, for example). Nor do I single him out because he is conservative. I do it because he is local, which gives me a sense of responsibility to make sure it’s known that not all Minnesotans are wack jobs (at least, some of us are wacky in completely different ways). And I do it because he is more blatant and less sophisticated in his dishonesty than many others, and thus presents it in a more-obvious fashion.
Again, conservatives are not the only ones guilty of this sort of mischaracterization. I invite readers to submit examples of other syndicated columnists, from a variety of viewpoints, who also rely on Orwellian misdirection and mischaracterization to make their points — bearing in mind that there is a difference between satire and mischaracterization.
It is vital to recognize when those who wish to shape our opinions resort to dishonesty and innuendo. The whole concept of logarchism requires clear thinking. The survival of America — of equality and freedom — depends on it.
About dcpetterson (198 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson