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02/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chait Notes Lack Of Outrage At Obama Dinner

Jonathan Chait, writing for The New Republic, notes that President-Elect Barack Obama's decision to have dinner with a room of conservative writers didn't result in a notable spasm of outrage from liberal circles. Chait's observations as to why make perfect sense to me:

I'll get to my hypothesis why liberals aren't upset in a moment. But first imagine this counterfactual: George W. Bush (or maybe a victorious John McCain) sat down before his first inauguration with Paul Krugman, E.J. Dionne, and Frank Foer. Would conservatives have reacted with the same equanimity? No, I think they'd have gone nuts. And the reason is that they wouldn't have confidence in Bush or McCain to be surrounded by liberal ideas without being deeply influenced by them. I don't think they'd have reacted this way if, say, a President Mitt Romney did the same thing.

And that's why liberals aren't having a cow. They know that Obama understands far more about policy than any of his right-wing dinner companions, is used to being exposed to opposing ideas, and won't come out of that dinner telling his staff, "Hey, did you know we cut half the capital gains tax and raise more revenue?"

This takes me back to my days studying dramatic theory and criticism, as the essential argument (which I'll explain in terms blunter than are deserved) between Plato and Aristotle over poetry. Plato opposed poetry and the performance of plays, reasoning that they were a pale imitation of a world that was already a pale imitation of the "Ideal world," meaning that these arts were intoxicating lies that led to inappropriate emotions and left people exposed to bad ideas. Aristotle, by contrast, felt that poetry served a vital societal need, providing a safe environment for people to purge themselves of emotion so that they could start thinking clearly. If you write enough about literature and society, sooner or later you realize how persistent this argument has been over time. And if you pay attention to politics, this ancient philosophical battle pops up again and again. If you boil down the monolith that's referred to as "the Culture War," you'll find Plato and Aristotle at the bottom of your centrifuge.

And it redounds, all over our political discourse. Sympthize too strongly with, say, Palestinians, and you are a terrorist. Criticize American foreign policy, and you aren't a patriot. As these examples indicate, I tend to think that the Platonic side of the argument (which I find to be the less sensible) aligns more often with conservative thought, but this is by no means exclusive to it. For example, you'll meet plenty of liberals who believe gun owners are irredeemable, violence-prone hayseeds, which is neither fair nor true.

But, to go back to Chait's point, not only is it unsurprising that the left hasn't freaked out about Obama's decision to meet with these conservative writers, it would be ridiculous if they did, given the presidential campaign we'd just gone through. After all, the Platonic argument was central to the GOP's message that painted Obama as unfit for the office: Obama was once in a room with Bill Ayers, Bill Ayers has some objectionable ideas, ergo, Obama was obviously influenced by these objectionable ideas. For anyone to suggest now that Obama's dinner arrangements would transform him into an dedicated swallower of Bill Kristol's policy logic would, indeed, be a bit psychopathic.