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Bill Clinton talks to Simon Schama
October 16, 2011 10:14 AM   Subscribe

"You can’t convert the ideologues because they don’t care what the facts are. With the world as it is, you have to fight the fight you can win, and the fight you can win is economics."

Bill Clinton talks with Simon Schama about the state of American politics.

"Do you really think America has what it takes to get out of this deep hole?" He shifts his chair closer to me. "I’ll give you an honest answer. I’m absolutely confident we have what it takes. But I’m more worried now than I have been for many many years …"
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting looking at the body language between Clinton and Schama captured in the FT photo.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:19 AM on October 16, 2011


At first glance, the photo makes it look like Clinton is now sporting a white old-guy ponytail.

Which would probably suit him quite well, I think.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:22 AM on October 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


The first time I ever heard of Bill Clinton was in 1984, in a news report about his Democratic Leadership Council organization where he was quoted as intending to make the Democratic Party more "business-friendly". I remember that because my first thoughts were (1) this guy's gonna be President, (2) he has no idea what damage he's going to do to this nation. He still doesn't.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:36 AM on October 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


he has no idea what damage he's going to do to this nation. He still doesn't.

As you may recall, President Bush worked swiftly to fix the damage done during the Clinton presidency.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:42 AM on October 16, 2011 [11 favorites]


Clinton characterises the core problem as the dominance of “ideology” over “philosophy”.

He's making up distinctions where there are none.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:44 AM on October 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


"the fight you can win is economics."

The fight you can win is the fight you actually become involved in. Until that happens, you're just a spectator.
posted by tommasz at 10:45 AM on October 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


He's making up distinctions where there are none.

Yes, I thought that read like a wriggle. The point about doing what you can is of course straigtforward enough, but it seems at minimum misguided and at worst utter folly to place ideology outside of the debate when the problems are so clearly linked to an ideological turn that has lasted for decades now - to neoliberalism (which ties in with what oneswellfoop said about 'business friendliness').
If you read about the history of that, you can see that concerted efforts were made from Hayek and the Mont Perelin Society onwards to get those ideas into places of influence, and having come to ascendancy in the US and UK spreading these ideas wider through various world bodies and well-funded foundations. Which is not to paint it as a merely a dastardly conspiracy, but just to assert that the ideas do matter.
posted by Abiezer at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mont Pelerin Society, even. So shady and dastardly it's impossible to type their name.
posted by Abiezer at 11:03 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, was the collapse of depression era firewalls between trading and banking and the repeal of Glass-Steagall "ideology" or "philosophy."
posted by ennui.bz at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2011 [14 favorites]


I don't think I've ever heard a better explanation of the problems today in American politics, or the way forward, than that quote.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 11:18 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Clinton years were dismal from a true economic perspective; they LOOKED great because we were on a debt-fueled orgy of consumption, so the overall numbers for the economy looked great. But we were actually digging ourselves into a very deep hole, and the policy responses since have been focused on avoiding paying the price for the Nasdaq and Dow bubbles.

Of course, we can't actually avoid that fallout, we can only delay it and make it worse -- so courtesy of intervention we had the housing and debt bubbles, and then courtesy of yet more (massive, unprecedented in the history of the world) intervention and bailouts, we're now in the middle of the government finance bubble, where a HUGE part of the total debt for housing is guaranteed by the government, and the government is the source for about half of all home loans in the country. It appears that all large private debts are potentially public ones... the companies that took the risk simply have to make sufficiently large Bambi eyes, and issue some dire prognistications about the terrible consequences if their particular business goes under, in order to be propped up by the government.

We just keep digging the hole deeper, sending more and more and more systemic resources to the guys who play with wealth tokens, instead of the people actually creating wealth.

We have privatized profit and socialized risk, incurring unpayable long-term debts to avoid short-term pain.

And this is all rooted in the 1990s... all of this pain could have been avoided with better oversight and an understanding that liquidity injection treats symptoms, but makes the underlying disease, the one causing the liquidity crunch, worse.
posted by Malor at 11:30 AM on October 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


Taken together:

he was quoted as intending to make the Democratic Party more "business-friendly"

and

the fight you can win is economics

Tells me that his advice is for people to play the game that business has already mastered.
posted by rhizome at 11:37 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


He's making up distinctions where there are none.

The quote later in that paragraph makes clear the distinction he has in mind:
The problems with ideologies is that you’ve got all the answers in advance, so evidence is irrelevant, experience is irrelevant, how the competition is doing is irrelevant.
it seems at minimum misguided and at worst utter folly to place ideology outside of the debate

Given what he means by "ideology", as shown by the quote above, it is outside (reasoned) debate by definition. He's not putting it there; the ideologue did that by adopting it as an ideology in the first place.
posted by stebulus at 12:22 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


But here’s what I know … People have been betting against America for 200 years – it’s a maddening country – and they all wound up losing money. They said Washington was a mediocre surveyor with a set of false teeth; on the way to his inauguration an Illinois newspaper said that Abraham Lincoln was a baboon, he’ll ruin the country … Khrushchev said he’d bury us, the Japanese in the 1980s were going to bury us too.”
The problem seems to me is that this time, America is betting against herself.
posted by fullerine at 12:30 PM on October 16, 2011


Two excellent minds. Thanks for posting this.
posted by xod at 12:36 PM on October 16, 2011


Given what he means by "ideology", as shown by the quote above, it is outside (reasoned) debate by definition. He's not putting it there; the ideologue did that by adopting it as an ideology in the first place.
Still seems to me that if economics is where the fight is going to be we're going to find that it's an ideological battleground, one a prevailing ideology has worked hard over decades to prepare in its favour. Doubtless Clinton knows this, so not sure how he's expecting to deliver a different set of economic policies without taking on those ideas at some point. I don't think the current ideological climate unchanged has enough room to allow doing anything effective enough to win the argument by doing things better.
posted by Abiezer at 12:58 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dude, what's with all the FT love of late with metafilter? It seems as if at least once every couple of days someone dumps a single link post with some neoliberal nonsense from the FT like they were on a schedule.
posted by jake1 at 1:03 PM on October 16, 2011


The quote later in that paragraph makes clear the distinction he has in mind

An ideology is just a set of values. There is nothing about "ideology" that makes it, in principle, outside of debate. It might be, or it might not be. Making up distinctions where there are none is a common pastime of politicians: we have a philosophy, they have an ideology; we have a plan, they have an agenda; we are enthusiastic, they are zealots.

There is no distinction worth making between a "philosophy" and an "ideology". As a "centrist" politician, he just wants to invent a distinction that allows him to criticise people he agrees with for the exact same thing that he wants to take credit for himself. It's duplicitous.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a good paper for what it does (and Pearson interfere less editorially than most owners AFAIK); just read it critically same as anything else. Shame I can only see it online, or I could look like I had some money leafing through a copy in a cafe.
posted by Abiezer at 1:10 PM on October 16, 2011


Dude, what's with all the FT love of late with metafilter?

An interview with bill Clinton by a famous historian is pretty much always going to hit the front page.
posted by empath at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


[...] we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.
The German Ideology, Karl Marx, 1845

[...] it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that 'men' 'represent to themselves' in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there. It is this relation which is at the centre of every ideological, i.e. imaginary, representation of the real world. It is this relation that contains the 'cause' which has to explain the imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world. Or rather, to leave aside the language of causality it is necessary to advance the thesis that it is the imaginary nature of this relation which underlies all the imaginary distortion that we can observe (if we do not live in its truth) in all ideology.
Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser, 1970
posted by xod at 1:17 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


He gets intense at this point. “There isn’t a single example of a successful country on the planet today – if you define success as lower rates of unemployment, higher rates of job growth, less income inequality and a health system that produces the same or better care at lower cost – that doesn’t have both a strong economy and effective government that find some way to work in harness with each other … If you don’t do that, if you don’t have a system by which the poor can work their way into it, then you lose the social cohesion necessary to hold the country together and that is a big problem.

In other words, this isn't a single example of a successful country that isn't successful.
posted by three blind mice at 1:40 PM on October 16, 2011


An ideology provides all the answers.

A philosophy provides all the questions.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:19 PM on October 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


Making up distinctions where there are none is a common pastime of politicians: we have a philosophy, they have an ideology; we have a plan, they have an agenda; we are enthusiastic, they are zealots.

I am not sure I understand what you're saying.

The literal meaning of your words seems to be that you deny any difference in meaning between the words enthusiasm and zealotry (for example), and you claim that the distinction is invented by politicians. That seems clearly false.

If you mean that politicians often make up distinctions between factions, and deploy (legitimately different) words to convey those (duplicitous) distinctions, then, well, I agree.

If you mean something else, I hope you'll explain further.
posted by stebulus at 2:30 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I believe it's called 'framing'.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:38 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ideology starts with a desired truth and finds evidence for it. Philosophy considers evidence and derives truths. Compare religion and science, or adversarial and inquisitorial legal systems.

The concepts do interact a lot: ideologies are often based on philosophies, and philosophies often include critical examination of ideologies (which themselves are part of the evidence the philosophy considers). Where they interact best is the "aspirational truth", the desirable hypothesis: a statement that might be true, or might become true; the word "should" belongs to both concepts.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:48 PM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Another way to look at it is parsing of if-then statements. If X, then Y. The philosopher presents evidence for the connection, and reasons backwards from Y to X; the ideologue merely asserts it. Intellectual honesty, and cognitive (non-)dissonance, are the main differentiatiors.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:53 PM on October 16, 2011


Philosophy must take at least some axioms to be true as first principles in order to build meaning out of any sort of evidence. It is impossible not to take a few things on faith, otherwise the world would be incoherent. And as humans we have to make a lot of approximations, rules of thumb, and many, many principles that we just hold to be true without being able to prove them, as rigorous logic can't be worked out nearly as fast as things come at you in the real world. Ideology vs. philosophy is at best a matter of degree and of judgement. And, being humans, we're going to be more judgmental of views opposed to our own.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:23 PM on October 16, 2011


Goddamn, I am getting tired of seeing articles I enjoyed nit-picked to death by the Metafilter armchair intellectual brigade. When did we decide to specialize in the most negative possible interpretation of the world's literature? Critical reading isn't synonymous with criticizing, you know.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:30 PM on October 16, 2011 [22 favorites]


There is a feeling which has intensified these last days, of a lot of people being impatient for change. We are in a really, really bad state, and there is this sense that the elites haven't understood this entirely. Everyday new posts here on metafilter or more news in the msm add new dimensions to the urgency we should feel. And as I see it, every day, people get more desperate.
I don't agree with the more radical posters here, but maybe that is because I am old, and beyond the struggles they have only just begun.
posted by mumimor at 3:45 PM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting looking at the body language between Clinton and Schama captured in the FT photo.

yes, Schama wasn't kneeling.
posted by the noob at 5:38 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always liked Bill. Sure, I was too young and ignorant to really pay much attention to what he was up to, politics-wise, but I always liked him more than either of the Bushes.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:59 PM on October 16, 2011


And this is all rooted in the 1990s

Convenient for the argument, too shallow. Other symptoms:
1. Wage stagnation began in the 1970s.
2. Reaganomics.
3. Dreams of Empire since WW2
4. Dreams about future technical capabilities more based in theory than practice.

IMO, ultimately American fantasies sprouted from the 19th-century greed-grab of natural resources which, to people without calculators, seemed inexhaustible. Teddy R. understood better. It was cheap immigrant labor that made that resource extraction possible. Now we disrespect them (our grandparents) by denying that.

And when the Limits to Growth became obvious, our leaders put their fingers in their ears and hummed. And We, the People, just mortgaged the homestead and kept pretending we were rich.
posted by Twang at 8:45 PM on October 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Clinton years were dismal from a true economic perspective; they LOOKED great because we were on a debt-fueled orgy of consumption, so the overall numbers for the economy looked great. But we were actually digging ourselves into a very deep hole, and the policy responses since have been focused on avoiding paying the price for the Nasdaq and Dow bubbles.
No offense but that's bullshit. It's not even technically correct. Clinton ran a surplus at the end of his term. His debts were always way, way less then presidents, particularly Bush I and Reagan.

A lot of that had to do, really, with the end of the cold war and the reduction in the amount of money that needed to spent on military equipment.

After Clinton left office, Bush II went back to running up massive deficits.
Isn’t the real challenge, I suggest, one of counter-persuasion; the battle for reason itself? Perhaps, then, Clinton might yet follow John Quincy Adams’ example and run, as he is constitutionally entitled to, for a seat in the House? There, amidst the flat-earthers and holy rollers, he might yet make the case for American governance. President Clinton could morph into Speaker Clinton. Think of the apoplexy of the foe!

Amused, he doesn’t take the bait. “I don’t think so, no, there are plenty of well-qualified people in Congress who can do a good job
In other words, hobnobbing with billionares is way more interesting then sitting in congress.
Goddamn, I am getting tired of seeing articles I enjoyed nit-picked to death by the Metafilter armchair intellectual brigade. When did we decide to specialize in the most negative possible interpretation of the world's literature? Critical reading isn't synonymous with criticizing, you know.
It's a message board. What else are we supposed to do here?
I always liked Bill. Sure, I was too young and ignorant to really pay much attention to what he was up to, politics-wise, but I always liked him more than either of the Bushes.
He seems like a fun guy to have a beer conversation with, he seems like someone who genuinely enjoys conversation and discussion. In contrast Obama seems cold and guarded -- perhaps not so in person, and bush? Well, bush was just stupid. Economically, he probably just got lucky. The internet bubble was fueled by something real (and btw Malor, there were plenty of bubbles during the gold standard era, actually there were more fact) and another very important aspect was the low price of oil in the 1990s. Economists have said the 1990s were hit with "positive shocks" It didn't really have that much to do with the Fed as far as I know.
posted by delmoi at 9:23 PM on October 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


The Clinton years were dismal from a true economic perspective; they LOOKED great because we were on a debt-fueled orgy of consumption, so the overall numbers for the economy looked great.

That, and we were overwhelmingly gainfully employed, with money in the bank, and our country was reducing its debt while increasing its status worldwide as the technological and commercial leader of the nascent internet.

But, yeah: other than all that, dismal.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:38 PM on October 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Just found this article, Bill Clinton's Role in the Mortgage Crisis which discusses the consequences of the Glass-Stiegel repeal.

To whatever extent Clinton contributed to the decline we've experienced once our fossil-fuel binge began to end (clear by the time of the '73 oil crisis, exacerbated since by the stonewalling of efforts to switch to alternative fuels), the GS repeal (led in Congress by Gramm) without question turned loose the dogs of speculation that turned the terra firma of housing into a round-the-clock casino, and began the generation of hundreds of trillions of derivatives. They are still sitting in dark basement corners waiting to rise up and finish The Decline of the West.

A sample paragraph:
With the stroke of a pen, Bill Clinton ended an era that stretched back to William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson and reached fruition with FDR and Harry Truman. As he signed his name, in the whorls and dots of his pen strokes William Jefferson Clinton was also symbolically signing the death warrant of Liberal America and its core belief in the level playing field that had guided the Democratic Party…
posted by Twang at 11:29 PM on October 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Addendum: After he signed the (veto-proof) legislation repealing Glass-Stiegel (the Repub's controlled Congress), Clinton remarked ''We have done right by the American people.''

This is the same "Democrat" who signed the legislation effectively ending Welfare. With a promise to do something to restore benefits to the most needy. A promise that (to my knowledge) was never kept.

Throw in NAFTA and GATT and clearly Clinton (along with many Southern presidents) was significantly to the right of the Dems who had ruled from 1930-80 ... and who truly did right by the people. Since then, the decline is evident on every graph, every main street, every face, and in every classroom.
posted by Twang at 11:55 PM on October 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


The literal meaning of your words seems to be that you deny any difference in meaning between the words enthusiasm and zealotry (for example), and you claim that the distinction is invented by politicians. That seems clearly false.

Yes, the words are different. The most major difference is a difference in connotation and it the difference in connotation that I'm talking about. I can choose to describe people as either "ideologues" or "being guided by a philosophy". If I'm Obama or Clinton, say, and I want to distance myself from the left, I call them "ideologues". If they want to praise someone someone, I can praise how their philosophy guides their actions. But whether I choose "ideology" or "philosophy" depends almost entirely on how I perceive the group I want to describe.

We usually think of making distinctions between words as increasing our ability to describe situations. However, this distinction does just the opposite; instead of adding useful description, it merely signals where we stand relative to the group we're describing. People in this thread, echoing Clinton, have described ideology as being an inflexible thing that cannot change, as opposed to a philosophy that can. This is merely to say that you believe that "ideologues" are closed-minded, and people with a "philosophy" are open-minded. However, there is no basis for this distinction in the history of the word "ideology".

Let me tell you why I think this is a critical issue, because it may clarify my viewpoint. I believe that one of the most dangerous trends on the left (and in politics in general, but this is less of a problem for the right) is the constant thrashing of people with values beyond those of identity and power. A person who is "guided by a philosophy" that all people are entitled to affordable healthcare will probably have some words of criticism for the "centrist" politicians that were working on healthcare reform. But if you speak too loudly, you'll get called an ideologue or a zealot, ironically, for expressing the very concerns that drove the healthcare reform movement in the first place! But we have to understand that "ideologue" is politician-speak for "Look at how disagreeable they are; we're not like them." It's a word which helps to build a common identity with some people ("independents" and "the center"), while distancing themselves from others ("the left").

The political "center", by necessity, works by eschewing values as much as possible (they are dangerous because the "center's" values can change rapidly) and exploiting peoples' identities and dislike of strong opinions. So we're left with politicians who don't believe in much at all. They believe in "consensus," as if that were valuable for its own sake. They call themselves pragmatic, when, in actuality, they are simply people who want to get (re)elected. Ideology is dangerous to a politician, so they put it down. People with an ideology are harder to divide and take advantage of, because they are less susceptible to identity games.

I am an ideologue: my politics are guided by a central philosophy, a set of core values. There are elements of my belief system that are changeable (my preference for public option), and there are others that are not (that people are entitled to equal treatment). A person without an ideology is adrift, ripe for being taken advantage of by politicians. Don't let politicians put down ideology, because it's the only thing that keeps politics from being just another sport.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:24 AM on October 17, 2011


It's funny how this story reminded me of the Rolling Stone interview with Clinton back in the heady early fall days of the '92 campaign.
posted by dhartung at 1:25 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is merely to say that you believe that "ideologues" are closed-minded, and people with a "philosophy" are open-minded. However, there is no basis for this distinction in the history of the word "ideology".

I have no quarrel with your main point about how the accusation of being an ideologue is used by centrist politicians against those who take more principled stances, but I'm not sure you're right about the history of the words. Well, depending on how long a view you're taking.

The OED sez:
ideologue 2. A proponent or adherent of a political, economic, or other ideology, especially one who is uncompromising or dogmatic.
They give citations from 1955, 1972, 1986, 2001. So it seems that "ideologue" has implied "closed-minded" for at least 50 years1, which seems plenty well-established to me. That would make your position one of wanting to reclaim the word, I think.

As for the word "ideology" itself, the OED documents no connotation of inflexibility, but we do have:
ideology 2. Abstract speculation; impractical or visionary theorizing. Now rare.
(The citations are 1813, 1827, 1839, 1881, 1932.) Although impracticality is not by any means the same thing as dogmatism, they do have a common element, namely loving one's ideas more than the reality they purport to be about. (I happen to have this affliction, and it does make me both dogmatic and impractical.) It doesn't seem much of a stretch to me for a word used for the one to be applied also to the other.

1According to Google ngrams, "ideologue" wasn't much used at all before the 1950s, "ideologist" being more common before then. But the OED doesn't document the "uncompromising or dogmatic" aspect for "ideologist".
posted by stebulus at 9:56 AM on October 17, 2011


The OED sez:

Seriously? What matters is how Clinton meant it. I mean, even if he didn't offer a definition, we would have to decode what he meant rather than what it means. In this case he gave a definition. In some other thread I was reading yesterday, somebody pointed out that thinking critically and making criticism doesn't include criticizing.
posted by Chuckles at 1:33 PM on October 17, 2011


The ClintonBush years were dismal from a true economic perspective; they LOOKED great because we were on a debt-fueled orgy of consumption, so the overall numbers for the economy looked great. But we were actually digging ourselves into a very deep hole, and the policy responses since have been focused on avoiding paying the price for the Nasdaq and Dow bubbles.

FTFY
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:48 PM on October 17, 2011


Ideology refers to a set of beliefs, doctrines that back a certain social institution or a particular organization. Philosophy refers to looking at life in a pragmatic manner and attempting to understand why life is as it is and the principles governing behind it.

From
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:52 PM on October 17, 2011


Seriously? What matters is how Clinton meant it. I mean, even if he didn't offer a definition, we would have to decode what he meant rather than what it means. ... thinking critically and making criticism doesn't include criticizing.

I don't know what conversation you're reading, but in the one I'm reading, Clinton's meaning is not in dispute, and I haven't criticized him or anybody else.
posted by stebulus at 8:43 PM on October 17, 2011


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