Saturday, September 10, 2005

Along came Polly

I am not generally one for engaging in armchair-psychology, but surely there must be some clinical explanation for the type of frenzied and incoherent analysis of the US consistently offered by The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, especially as exemplified by her column today. It is clear that she despises American culture in general and particularly the government and economy which it has spawned, and that this hate drives much of her bile. But she has somehow convinced herself that hurricane Katrina has once and for all exposed the US as the morally empty shell that, presumably, she has always known it to be. Is there a clinical term for this kind of desperate, I don’t know, wishful thinking?

Not one to mince words, Toynbee describes the US as an illusory “Oz” where “the Wizard is a small man with no magic power at all”, a “fearsome robotic dinosaur stomping across the landscape”, “a gigantic Power Ranger toy, all bright gadgets and display but no power and nothing inside,” a “Buzz Lightyear” which “can't actually do anything useful after all”, and finally as a “hollow superpower.” All that comes in the span of 3 sentences. I think it’s safe to say she’s got a problem with the US.

Naturally, as with any lefty rant against the US, Iraq must feature, and Toynbee follows the script, even to the point of ingeniously invoking the image of Vietnam. Toynbee is nothing if not original. But her real purpose is to spin Katrina, and she gets to it quickly. Exposing her inclination to use a human tragedy in order to prop up her political ideology, she writes:
But it took Hurricane Katrina to expose the real emptiness under the US carapace. No wonder governing Iraq was far beyond the competence of a nation so feebly governed within its own borders.
Even if we are to accept the questionable presumption that the government’s response to Katrina was “feeble”, it is clearly ridiculous to conflate its management of a calamitous natural disaster with every day governance. Surely Toynbee knows this, which, as I said, shows exactly her purpose…to exploit the tragedy of Katrina in order to advance her preconceived prejudices against American governing principles.

Mistaking cause for effect, Toynbee asks:
How does a state where half the voters don't believe in government, run anything well?
A more interesting question might be how Toynbee can believe in so much government when the one she has runs hardly anything well. But we’ll leave that for another day, for her own question is built upon a fallacious caricature. There are virtually no voters, not even in Louisiana, who “don’t believe in government”. What many voters do believe in, however, is limited, decentralized government. But of course it’s a lot easier to rail against a straw man than an actual, substantive argument, so Toynbee, displaying a certain intellectual dishonesty, takes the path of least resistance.

Not content to mischaracterize the thoughts of people who aren’t in a position to set her straight, Toynbee takes on the very founding principles of America. In what seems more an expression of desire about the fate of American than an observation she says:
A nation ideologically and constitutionally committed to non-government is bound to crumble at the core. Rome had no doubts about governance.
It is, of course, manifestly idiotic to assert that a nation the founding ideology of which not only expressly endorses government but even goes on to explain its purpose – “…that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” – is committed to “non-government”. But I am at a loss for words to describe the kind of bizarre thinking which concludes that a nation can be “constitutionally” committed to non-government, a constitution being the very laws and principles which define the functions and powers of, well, government.

(Toynbee’s remark about Rome seems to indicate that she thinks the Roman Empire has not yet “crumbled”, but even she can’t be that daft, so perhaps I am missing something.)

In addition to having exposed the inadequacies of American governing principles, Toynbee thinks that “above all [Katrina] shows how the rich don't acknowledge shared nationhood with the rest.”
What the great Louisiana catastrophe has revealed is a country that is not a country at all, but atomised, segmented individuals living parallel lives as far apart as possible, with nothing to unite them beyond the idea of a flag.
How strange, then, that people from as far away as Connecticut are banning together to help out their fellow “atomized, segmented individuals” who have lost their homes. And that evacuees from New Orleans are currently being housed and cared for by people from as far north as Minnesota and Michigan, as far west as Arizona, and as far east as Florida and North Carolina. And that Massachusetts has budgeted $25m for relief of the victims of Katrina. And that California has deployed all kinds of resources to the disaster area. And that even a small township in New Jersey has set up its own relief fund. (This is not, obviously, an exhaustive list.) Not to mention the huge amounts of private funds that have been donated or relief.

Living as far apart from each other as possible? Nothing to unite us beyond the idea of a flag? What utter rubbish. That Toynbee can look at how Americans have responded to Katrina and conclude as she does shows just how utterly blind her ideology, or perhaps simply her hatred for American culture, has made her. Her thinking, if it can be so characterized, is simply beyond rational understanding.

Perhaps sensing herself getting into uncharted territory, Toynbee quickly retreats to safe, well-trodden left-wing ground.
The 40 million with no health insurance show the social dysfunction corroding US capacity. For the poor at the bottom of the New Orleans mud heap, there never was even the American dream to cling to.
What is she talking about? Does Toynbee think that health insurance would have spared those who drowned in the flooding, or provided clean water for those stuck in the Superdome? Does she imagine that an American NHS might have saved those stuck on the roofs of their houses sooner? I’ve puzzled over this for some time now, and I am still at a loss as to its relevance, apart from as a generic denunciation of American free-market economics. What it has to do with Katrina is beyond me. Indeed, even taken on its own, the reference to insurance is incoherent. What “social dysfunction” is shown by those who lack health insurance? US capacity to do what? Does even Toynbee have the slightest clue what she is talking about?

Getting into full, class warfare, high dudgeon, she procliams that:
…to talk of "average" incomes or GDP per capita in the US is meaningless: there is no "average", only first world and third world, with virtually no mobility between the two.

The “US-as-third-world” theme has become all the rage among the anti-American left since the disturbing scenes of last week were broadcast, so it is no surprise that Toynbee raises it here. And while it may be true that the images we saw from New Orleans brought to mind images of the third world, or that it was indeed much like a third world country for the few days it took for the relief operation to gain steam after Katrina hit, the notion that the poor in the US regularly live in third world conditions is patently absurd. The poverty experienced in the US is primarily a first world kind of poverty.

46% of all poor households actually own their own homes.

76% of poor households have air conditioning. (By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning)

97% of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

78% have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

As for the lack of mobility, that’s bunk too. This is not to belittle the hardships suffered by the poor in America, or even to suggest that serious poverty does not exist there. But for Toynbee to imply that third world conditions are a staple of life for America’s poor is simply beyond the pale.

Providing a particularly inapt metaphor (and not just because of the outdated understanding of economics it betrays), Toynbee says:

Who has what defines a nation, not how much is in the pot from which only the well-off feed.

Considering that we are increasingly seeing reports about America’s obesity problems, and that the rates of obesity are highest among both blacks and the poor, the suggestion that the less “well-off” are having a hard time “feeding” out of the “pot” in America rings a bit hollow. Certainly, in any event, the suggestion that Americans are suffering from actual third world conditions is at least a tiny bit overwrought, don’t you think?

Segueing into a critique of her own country, Toynbee says:

But before we get too piously smug about America, just imagine a flood crashing through the Thames barrier and drowning London and Essex.

An interesting admonition, that, considering the piety and smugness she's shown throughout.

Given the righteous indignation with which she's entertained us so far, Toynbee does at least have the style to provide us with a little levity as a conclusion. Having condemned the UK for being a bit too much like dreadful, “atomized” America, and not quite enough like gloriously socialist Scandinavia, she hilariously leaves us with her desire to “…bring the share of wealth closer to the way we were before Mrs Thatcher.”

Ah yes, those halcyon days of the pre-Thatcher era, when unemployment, growing piles of rubbish, and the inability to bury the dead were equitably distributed to everyone across the country.

Surely she was joking. Wasn’t she?


Blogger Marc said...

No, she wasn't joking, Scott.

This us usual for her and the Guardian.

Now you see why Scott Burgess

hammers her and the Guardian relentlessly.

Good thing you're here now as Scott is on a two week holiday.

This why I keep pushing people to start their own blog. We need as many voices spreading the word as we can get.

As bad as she is, one has to wonder at the people who buy the Guardian. Are they that dumb?

8:19 AM  
Blogger The g-Gnome said...


Good fisking. A few thoughts -

The 'shock and awe' analogy she deploys is not original. As far as I can see, the first commentator to use it was the eminently more sensible and reasonable Kathleen Parker, in a 'Townhall' column of September 7, 'Shock and Awe in America' -

Parker is a South Carolinian conservative and free thinker, so her chances of ever being carried in a British newspaper are next to none.

Toynbee writes,

"Iraq has shown that smart missiles, heavy-metal techno-tricks and soldiers whose helmets are electronically controlled from Southern Command in Tampa, are virtually useless".

She's seen 'The Phantom Menace' too many times.

If I may say so, you have taken apart her ignorance of consitutional history with almost surgical precision. However her hatred and loathing of America and Americans per se blinds her to making an argument which, pardon the metaphor, certainly seems to hold water - that, given that the prevailing neoconservative ideology stands or falls on the global projection of national power and Katrina has shown that the national power has difficulty projecting itself nationally, then the clock is ticking on its (neoconservatism's) future.

I have to take issue with you on the question of mobility. Of the links you provide, the first is several months old, the second is several years old. Before Katrina hit, Michael Barone published an article which which acknowledged declining mobility, and tried to put a good spin on it. The URL is -

Of course, there are two reasons why it is risible that any extreme left-winger such as Toynbee should deride any society wih declining social mobility.

Firstly, the maintenance of the poor in poverty through the extension of welfare mechanisms, is one of their primary political aims, and does as much to erode social mobility as libertarian anarchocapitalism.

Secondly, to deride declining social mobility in the USA while ignoring the pitiful state of social mobility in the UK is as sure a 'motes and beams' job as only a leftist could concoct.

What she says about obesity should not be discounted so easily. Given its prevalence amongst 'the poor', it should rank amongst the meters of poverty. However, her analysis of what would happen if a similar meteororlogical event struck the UK is egregious and incomplete.

The question she raises of what would happen if a similar event struck the UK is not original. As far as I can see, it was first raised by, ahem, me, last Sunday, and has also been raised by Alice Thomson in the 'Telegraph' last Tuesday and Alice Miles in the 'Times' on Wednesday.

Incredibly, Toynbee focusses only on what benefits the poor would be able to get. She assumes that if a catastrophic event like Katrina were to strike, the first thing the government would do would be to re-open the dole offices. Perhaps other considerations make take priority.

However, she also completely ignores what I believe would happen if such a catastrophe struck, that certainly in the west of Scotland we would see a breakdown in social order as great as that which occurred in New Orleans. The reason for that breakdown was not 'gun culture' or, as ome argue, skin tone, but welfarism itself, particularly the operation of welfarism in societies rooted in Anglo-Saxon individualism. It is not in our psyches to receive cheques to do nothing - when that prop is taken away, we revert to individualism, ad the rule of law can go to ...

Finally, my commisserations on the spam comment problem you seem to have been experiencing. I have recently had to re-alter my settings completely as a result of mine.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


Thanks. I take your point about the mobility issue, especially the link that is a few years old. I should have found a more recent study or left it out.

I don't think that the diffculty in projecting national power locally is necessarily an indication of the ability to project national power globally. The projection of such power domestically is complicated by all kinds of issues...historical, legal, cultural...that do not necessarily impact on such a global projection, or at least not in the same, restricting way. The projection of national power is, ultimately, military power, and it is far easier for the fed to implement that globally than domestically. Having said that, however, it is entirely possible that the positive correlation between the level of governmental incompetence and the scale of the project being undertaken, especially outside the military, will, as you suggest, undermine the neoconservative ideology in the long run.

BTW, you said that we should not discount what Toynbee says about obesity. Actually, she didn't say anything about it. I introduced it to counter her "US-as-third-world" meme, and her ill-chosen metaphor that only the "well-off" get to feed from the national "pot". It may be true that obesity could rank as a meter of poverty in the US, but if so it would only strengthen my argument that poverty in the US is not a third world poverty. Certainly obesity wouldn't rank as a measure of poverty in, say, Niger.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Keep 'em coming.


9:52 AM  
Anonymous tired & excitable said...

No, it's truer to say that the positive correlation between gov't incompetence and the scale of the project undermines gov't itself. Surprising (to me anyway) is that seems to be a pure Cato/Libertarian argument. But it's also a constitutional one, in that the powers not specifically granted to the Feds are specifically reserved to the states and the people. (Can the Brits say that? Hell, no!)

Ultimately, it may well be that the safest route to safety in any storm, the one most guaranteed to avoid extremist whackos of all stripes, is good ol' American pragmatism, i.e., case-by-case. Is it broke? If so, fix it. Otherwise, leave well alone.

How frightening that must be to clapped-out nanny-state bigots like Toynbee and all those dim-bulb "reporters" feeding at the trough at the BBC.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous David H said...

A good fisking of Poll's monumentally stupid article - why this woman isn't laughed out of public life is a mystery. I notice she repeats the same old 40 million Americans without health insurance statistic' that's been doing the rounds in the leftist media. This figure needs to be challenged whenever it's quoted - as Stephen Pollard points out, the correct figure is actually 32 million, and this figure itself is only a snapshot. The vast majority of those without health insurance are only temporarily in that position either through unemployment or simple lack of organisation. The 'true' figure for the hardcore without health insurance would be closer to 8 million.

The true test of a health service is the average level of outcomes for diseases and trauma. On that basis, by any measure, the American health service system is miles ahead of ours.

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...


I think you misread what Polly was talking about a bit. As I read it, her article was only part about criticizing the American system. Interestingly she was being critical of the voters as well. Mostly she was commenting on "the utter failure" of conservatism, that its failure is now "laid bare" for all to see, both in Iraq and with Katrina. I didn't get the reference to the 40 million uninsured either. I couldn't tell what she was relating it to. Basically she calls us blind and arrogant. She also calls us detached and distant from one another, indeed with reality. Note how she makes fun of our heavy reliance on technology to get things done, particularly in Iraq. The impression I get is she's a bit of an anti-technologist, that it gets in the way of human beings relating person to person, and that closer human contact is better than the separation that technology allows. She can have that view, but in my experience, technology can help bring people who would've never met, together.

She is being a snob, thinking she and her leftist ideology know better than those who believe in freedom of action and free enterprise.

She wants Britons to get the impression that Katrina is the final straw, that you should take it as a demonstration that the American system that's being "peddled around the world" is disasterously wrongheaded, and should not be emulated. The only reason she says that the Britons should not be too self-assured that they would not suffer the same fate is she knows the UK has already gone part way down the path of a more liberalized economic system, and suggests that it turn back, to pre-Thatcherite days, indeed emulate the systems used on the European continent. Yeah, I bet you'd like 10-12% unemployment...

I take your word for it that those "halcyon days" were actually worse than now for the Brits.

8:13 AM  
Blogger tacnik said...

i think america will always be an 'object' of desire and revulsion to those who dwell upon it. im not sure how it could be anything else really.

2:09 PM  
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10:30 PM  

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