If you have a terrific idea for a change in public policy that you’re convinced will benefit millions of people, but you don’t personally know any of the people it will benefit, what would be the harm in inventing a fictional family and presenting them to the public as real potential beneficiaries? Wouldn’t you be promoting the idea of democracy and public citizenship, even though it was a lie? Wouldn’t real families make themselves known soon enough and your made-up one be forgotten?
Believe it or not, this line of thought seems to be gaining in popularity. The problem with it, of course, is that its practitioners’ lies are sometimes discovered, at which point their callous remarks serve to weaken democracy. And, often, no real families fitting the criteria they postulated are ever found.
According to the Feb. 1 Washington Post, John R. Lott Jr., a thinker at the American Enterprise Institute think tank invented a fictional reader to praise and defend in debates on the internet a book that Lott had written. The book was called “More Guns, Less Crime,” so the invented admirer was, of course, a woman. She claimed to have once been a student of Lott and to still consider him the best teacher she had ever had.
This is sad and funny, but it may at first appear to constitute a nod of respect in the direction of democracy.
When the citizens of New Orleans voted themselves a minimum wage law last year, the spokesman for a coalition of hotels and restaurants said they had chosen not to spend millions of dollars trying to defeat something that they could fight in court for less money and with more certainty of success. When a district court upheld the new wage law, the opposition denounced the judge as “popularly elected.” (The Louisiana Supreme Court later tore up the law.) John Lott didn’t dismiss public opinion in this way. No, it’s tempting to think, he at least had the decency to pretend that someone else agreed with him.
I think it’s a serious mistake to interpret his action that way. His lack of remorse suggests that he completely fails to grasp the notion that going out and talking to real live humans about what they actually think might have shaped a better book. Lott told the Washington Post that he preferred to pretend to be someone else because when he spoke in his own name “you just get into really emotional things with people. You also run into other problems.”
People are emotional, whereas Lott is rational. Why burden him with the “problems” of being disagreed with?
We have moved beyond the practice of depicting an exception as a rule. President Bush used to be fond of finding one of the few non-wealthy families that would benefit from one of his tax cut schemes and presenting that family as typical. Lately I haven’t seen him bother.
During the debate over the estate tax, the Farm Bureau sent out an emergency plea to all of its chapters asking them to identify a farmer who had lost a farm to the estate tax. Not a single one was found. Putting the most generous interpretation on this, those out to defend farmers against the “death tax” arrogantly assumed they knew what people’s situations were, acted on that assumption, and then tried to find the people. This gets the proper steps of a public campaign exactly backwards.
In the Feb. 2 Washington Post Magazine, Gene Weingarten describes his attempt to find African American members of the African American Republican Leadership Council. The group’s website featured white faces. The honorary chairman was African American, but was completely unaware of the honor he’d been given. Thirteen of the 15 members of the Advisory Panel were white. The organization reacted to the inquiry by putting images of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell on its website and announcing that its new director was an African American. However he said he hadn’t taken the job.
Where’s the harm, right? If you can’t find any Republican African Americans, why not create an organization to welcome them and develop them into leaders? Well, the group’s spokesman told Weingarten there was no need to elect African Americans to Congress, whites could look out for their interests just fine.
Remember that Republican memo urging lobbyists on Capitol Hill to wear hardhats and work clothes to a rally? Far more efficient than disturbing people who are actually busy working, right?
If we really need names and faces, isn’t it easier to invent them, the way the health insurance companies do for their commercials or a certain New Republic writer did for his reporting? After all, our democracy is well established. There’s no need to get carried away about it. Right?