Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day

Outside the Grand Mosque in Paris.

Charlie Hebdo, the Democratic Bargain, and the Limits of Solidarity

Every free society makes a bargain when it comes to free speech. The bargain says that we believe that it's so essential to human flourishing that everyone be able to say what they want that we're willing to tolerate speech we despise. Every society draws borders around that right—here in America, which may have the most liberal speech laws in the world, you can still be prosecuted for inciting violence or sued for intentionally spreading harmful lies about someone—but the essence of the bargain is the same.

But free speech also means that everyone else has the right to tell you that what you said was stupid or wrong. As we've had the chance to consider the horrific murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and what they say about free debate, there are some who are willing to criticize the magazine for its particular brand of satire, albeit carefully. No sane person is saying that the magazine's staffers deserved to be killed for their humor, but there are commentators questioning whether the magazine's cartoonists should be held up as heroes of free expression for what they did before the awful attack. Even as millions around the world proclaim "Je suis Charlie," there are people like Arthur Chu offering notes of dissent:

The editors, writers, and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were human beings with families, friends, and loved ones. Their deaths should be mourned for that reason. But no more so than the Sodexo building maintenance man or the two cops who were also killed in the crossfire.

I join with those who call for grief at the deaths of twelve human beings—but I'm not down with mourning the work that Charlie Hebdo was doing or standing up and saying "Je Suis Charlie," like what they did was a holy mission. If anything the work the two cops and the maintenance guy were doing deserves more respect and probably helped a lot more people.

Let's be real about what Charlie Hebdo is. Calling it "journalism" isn't quite right. Even the term "satirical newspaper" puts it on the same level as The Onion, which isn't very fair to The Onion, which strives for at least some degree of cleverness and subtlety, most of the time.

Not being a regular reader of the magazine, I'm only familiar with those parts of Charlie Hebdo's oeuvre that have been circulated this week, but it's clear that they take pleasure in giving offense. I have to agree with Chu when he argues that being an "equal opportunity offender" isn't really much to be proud of; it's a way of saying that the substance of your critique is less important than whether it's spread widely enough around. And when they targeted the sensibilities of devout Muslims, the cartoonists and editors at the magazine took a risk, but of a particular kind. They knew that there would be some number of angry fundamentalists who would want to do them harm. The attack on their offices is something they no doubt anticipated, at least in dark, fearful moments.

They took that physical risk, which certainly required courage, but it wasn't much of an intellectual risk, precisely because they operated within a free society. For instance, the magazine spends a good deal of time mocking religion, but satirical blasphemy has political sting only in an environment where religious authorities hold power and piety is expected of all. France, however, is one of the most secular countries in the world; in this international poll, 63 percent of French respondents said they were either "not a religious person" or "a convinced atheist." Only China, Japan, and the Czech Republic ranked higher in atheism. In France, mocking religion isn't all that bold and shocking, even if they did their best to make the mockery vulgar enough that somebody (they surely hoped) would be offended.

But does saying "Je suis Charlie" necessarily mean that you celebrate the work they did before this week? I don't think it does in the minds of many who are saying it, nor should it. The people holding up those signs are announcing their commitment to an ideal of free speech that has nothing to do with that speech's content. The horror of the murders comes from the fact that the victims were killed because they drew or published cartoons (in addition to those who just happened to get in the killers' way); it would be no more horrible if the cartoons were funnier or more insightful.

I do wonder, however, what the reaction would be if the people who had been murdered worked at a magazine whose essential worldview, and not just its expressions of that worldview, were far more repellent. If someone killed the people who run the white supremacist website Stormfront, we'd all say that it was an unjustified and inexcusable act, that freedom of speech protects even them, and if it didn't then it wouldn't be freedom. But we wouldn't be gathering together in public to hold up "I am Stormfront" signs, no matter how profound our commitment to free speech. Solidarity has its limits.

Mike Huckabee Is Literally a Con Artist

Mike Huckabee is widely known as an amiable fellow. Whatever you might think of his politics, he seems like a nice guy. But Mike Huckabee is a con artist. Literally.

Like many conservative pundits, Huckabee maintains an email list that he uses to generate income. The way it works is that because of his public profile, lots of people will sign up for his list, and then he can sell those names and addresses to people who want to sell things to those people. Maybe it's a book from a conservative publisher, say, or a pitch to donate to a conservative cause. But in many cases, it's just a con. Like this email that Huckabee recently sent, which Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski shares with us:

Let's be clear about what this is. Huckabee is partnering with another con artist, whose con is to use people's religious faith as a way to sell them bullshit "miracle" cancer cures and nutritional supplements.

He's hardly the only one playing this game. There's a long history of conservatives buying and selling lists of their supporters to be used as marks for all manner of scams. If you're interested, Rick Perlstein explains it here in detail.

The key element in the confidence man's game is confidence—the confidence that the mark has in the con man. The mark needs to trust you, and then you can steal anything from them. And the people on his email list, who I'm sure consist mostly of elderly white people in the South and Midwest, trust Mike Huckabee. When the snake-oil salesman with the secret biblical cure for cancer pays Huckabee to send a promotional email to that list, he's renting that trust, which will enable him to steal those people's money.

Now let's think about this on an individual level. Right now there's a devout couple in their 80s who just found out that their 55-year-old daughter has cervical cancer. They're terrified. They'd do anything to help her. And then they get an email from that nice Mike Huckabee, pointing them toward a miracle cure for cancer hidden right there in the Bible. It must be legit, because Mike Huckabee wouldn't rope them into a scam. So they head right over to the web site, watch the video about the "Matthew 4 protocol" and the "frankincense extract," then they send away for the free bonus gift of "The Bible's Healing Code Revealed" which comes with a one-year subscription to Dr. Mark Stengler's Health Revelations—half price if you're a senior citizen!—and they whip out that credit card and start ordering all the supplements they can. They tell their daughter, with pain and fear in their voices, that this is what can cure her if only she'll believe and they keep buying.

These are the people—gullible, afraid, at the most desperate point of their lives—that Mike Huckabee sees as marks just waiting to be scammed.

I happen to find Huckabee's opinions on public policy repellent. But even if you're a conservative who agrees with him on political issues, how can you look at this kind of thing and not be disgusted? So the next time you see Mike Huckabee on TV, with his ready smile and easy laugh, and you catch yourself thinking that he's a nice guy, remember how he makes money. 

Fat Is Freedom

Like Ed Kilgore, I couldn't help but notice this colorful detail from a New York Times story today by Jonathan Martin about how the seemingly different Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush share a challenge in that both have been out of elected office for most of the last decade while the Republican party has sprinted to the right:

Three years before he ran for president in 2008, a newly slim Mike Huckabee peddled a book with a title that doubled as a lecture: "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork." Now, as he considers a second White House run, he has written another book with a decidedly different but equally direct title: "God, Guns, Grits and Gravy."

Mr. Huckabee's earlier effort delivered a "12-step program to end bad habits and begin a healthy lifestyle," as the subtitle had it. It is almost unthinkable that an aspiring Republican presidential candidate would do the same today, given conservatives' strenuous opposition to Michelle Obama's healthy eating and exercise campaign.

In its own vivid way, Mr. Huckabee’s march from author of a self-help and clean-living guide to cheerleader of artery-clogging calories and conservative traditionalism highlights the Republican shift during the Obama era.

I doubt that Huckabee's recent return to corpulence was a deliberate strategy meant to capture the Republican zeitgeist. But is it really true that conservative loathing of anything contaminated by contact with Barack Obama is so encompassing that it includes not only policies like cap and trade or an individual health insurance mandate that they used to embrace before Obama got a hold of them, but even something as seemingly unassailable as exercise?

I guess the answer that Martin is implying is, sort of. It's perfectly fine for a Republican to eat healthy foods and stay in shape, so long as they keep those habits on the down low. But what they can no longer do is advocate that to others as a wise choice to make. Once the message "eat right and exercise" became associated with Michelle Obama, it became toxic to conservatives.

But there's one Republican whose opinion I'd be interested to hear on this topic. Here's a little trip back in time to 2002. The subject was the forced regulations of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and National Economic Council director Larry Lindsey; Lindsey had angered President George W. Bush by saying publicly that the Iraq war could cost as much as $200 billion, a number that turned out to be too small by a factor of 10, but within the administration was regarded as absurdly high, since the war was going to be a piece of cake. Here's the interesting detail we learned at the time:

Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve governor, was at loggerheads with O'Neill as the administration devised a package of tax cuts that is to be a centerpiece of Bush's legislative agenda next year. Bush blamed Lindsey for many of the administration's economic missteps in recent months and even complained privately about his failure to exercise, aides said.

That's right: George W. Bush never liked Larry Lindsey because Lindsey was fat, and to Bush, who exercised every day, that showed a weakness of character. Just one more way in which Bush was never a real conservative, I guess.

Even if you were to accept that as a general matter liberals hate conservatives just as much as conservatives hate liberals, I think even conservatives would have to admit that folks on their side put more time and thought into doing things that they hope will irritate their political opponents. It comes in forms that are positively deranged—people outfitting their cars to emit as much toxic smoke as possible—and more benign, like the wave of GOP politicians posting pictures of themselves eating Chick-fil-A because they thought liberals would be aghast.  

But liberals are seldom as horrified at that sort of thing as conservatives hope. They might mock it, but that doesn't mean they're actually enraged. I think I speak for most liberals when I say that if conservatives want to stop exercising because they think staying in shape would make Michelle Obama happy, they should go right ahead. Mike Huckabee can bathe in gravy if he likes. Chris Christie can tell himself that every stromboli he inhales is an arrow fired at the enemies of freedom.

Though it does appear that a couple of the potential GOP candidates are looking disturbingly trim. If Rand Paul or Marco Rubio want to be competitive in 2016, maybe they should spend some time bulking up at the Iowa State Fair. Too bad the deep-fried butter on a stick is gone.

Photo of the Day

Woman in baseball uniform, date unknown. (California Historical Society)

What I like about this photo is the fact that while the young lady is ready for a vigorous game of running, throwing, and ball-swatting, she's posing in what looks to be the parlor of someone's house, or more precisely, a wall painted with a mural meant to look like the parlor of an elegant house. And also standing on a bearskin rug. Which I guess was how bases-and-balls players prepared for a big game back then.

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