Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some impertinent and irresponsible observations on the GOP debate

• Props to Rick Perry for giving Obama a sliver of credit in the death of Bin Laden. Except Perry doesn't know how to pronounce the word "props"! When he uttered the words "I give more props to those Navy Seals," he said "propes"—long o. The rest of the world says "props"—short o.

• The volume of applause for the large number of executions in Texas was just creepy. One need not be universally opposed to capital punishment to find the applause level weird.

• Speaking of weird, I think the prize must be given to Ron Paul, at least in terms of self-presentation. Did the stuff about the "fence" being used to "keep Americans in" come from left field? I'm inclined to think it came from no field at all. His performance confirmed that his candidacy is marginal and that he's a little nuts. (For what it's worth, I don't think one should judge libertarianism by Ron Paul.)

• Speaking of marginal candidates, there were no howlers from Michele Bachmann. I was hoping that she would say something comparable to her remark about our alleged fear of the "rise of the Soviet Union." I was disappointed.

• When I was in high school, I used to watch Newt Gingrich on C-SPAN give rousing speeches on economic policy to the camera. (Yes, that's the type of thing I did in high school, as those who knew me then can confirm.) I sort of miss old Newt. He ain't dumb. But he's not a serious candidate, though he is undeniably responsible for one of the best comic moments in contemporary politics. I mean, John Lithgow's ultra-dramatic reading of a press release from the Gingrich campaign.

• Jon Huntsman's experience with China is not trivial. I'm glad he brought it up. He struck me as sane, sober, reasonable. And he likes Captain Beefheart! Your mileage might vary, with both Huntsman and the Captain. (Though you can't really deny that the latter's a genius.)  

• About Mitt Romney, it was often quite difficult to see his eyes when he was speaking. More often than not, Romney works hard to connect what he says with the question that is actually posed. I admire this.  I doubt it will play in Peoria. Perry is savvier, I think, in taking the question as an occasion to say whatever he wants to say, in the manner that he wants to say it. One might think that avoiding questions is cowardly. But machismo suffices to override the perception of cowardice, even as it confirms its reality.

• Perry understands little about the practice of natural science. There is a sense in which he is correct to say that with respect to global warming, the "science is not settled." Natural science is never settled in any absolute sense. It is fallibilist. It is perpetually open to new findings, new evidence, new results, no matter how certain present claims may appear. (As my old professor Alasdair MacIntyre once said in class, if you want to study something that is really conclusive, go with trinitarian theology or art appreciation.) Moreover, if the term "settled" is to have any meaning at all in natural science, it does not mean "absolute unanimity." Natural science neither has nor demands total agreement.  There should always be contrarians to raise questions and push inquiry further. The term can only mean "substantive or overwhelming consensus" among natural scientists who are currently at work on the topic(s). Is there such a consensus among current scientists about global warming? That's the question—an empirical question which Perry notably avoided. It has nothing to do with whether "the science is settled" according to some fantastic standard to which practicing scientists never appeal.

• Perry understands even less about the history of natural science. The appeal to Galileo was inept and ignorant. Was it an off-the-cuff remark? A scripted line? The fruit of Perry's reading about the Galileo episode? (OK, I think we can eliminate that last option.)

• Perry has not an inkling of what the word "philosophical" means. But neither do the moderators. On this point, they're just as bad, and perhaps more damnably, since they are (one presumes) better educated. They seem to think that "philosophical" is a synonym for "general." It was amusing to hear them bat the word around.

• Summary judgment: Perry did plenty well for himself in this debate, if the criterion is appeal to the base. Those who think Perry "performed poorly" are using a criterion in which Perry himself has no interest.

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