Talk show host Jason Lewis

Not so handsome

I’ve never lis­tened to Jason Lewis. I’ve never been tempted to. I’m still not.

Don’t con­fuse him with the actor from Sex and the City with the same name. This Jason Lewis is a local radio talk show host and a syn­di­cated colum­nist, and isn’t nearly as handsome.

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.