The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal.com’s “Best of the Web” written by the editor, James Taranto.
He Doesn’t Stand a Chance in the Swimsuit Competition
“Former Miss America May Take on Senator Mitch McConnell’–headline, ABCNews.com, May 22
Atheists: Pope Francis Is All Right–Now That Would Be News
“Pope Francis: Atheists Are All Right!”–headline, Salon.com, May 23
Breaking News From 1789
“George Washington Unveils New Basketball Court”–headline, Sports Illustrated website, May 20
“Two assailants hacked a man to death on a busy southeast London street Wednesday afternoon before delivering a rant about Islam to bystanders, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short a diplomatic trip to Paris to deal with what he described as a likely terrorist attack,” the Washington Post reports.
A reader sent this to us as an “Out on a Limb” submission. Christina Lamb, whose Twitter bio describes her as an “author, foreign correspondent, long time follower of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” had the same idea, only without irony. She tweeted yesterday (quoting verbatim): “are we not jumping to conclusions calling beheading an islamist terrorist attack & not violent madmen using name of islam?”
Say what you will about Twitter, it has a way of forcing people to reduce complex ideas to their essence. The proximity and brevity of Lamb’s two formulations–an “Islamic terrorist attack” and “violent madmen” killing in the name of Islam–make obvious what a lengthy exegesis might obscure: that they denote exactly the same thing. As a matter of pure logic, her statement is the equivalent of asking “Are we not jumping to conclusions by assuming A instead of A?”
Yet rhetorically and emotionally there is a world of difference between the formulations. Whereas “Islamic terrorist attack” puts the focus on a systematic threat, “violent madmen” puts it on the idiosyncrasies of the particular perpetrators. The former tends to induce vigilance, the latter resignation. It’s what psychologists call a “framing effect.”
Similarly, the continuing debate over the Internal Revenue Service scandal in large part concerns how to frame the incomplete information that is available. Some of these attempts are as transparently absurd as Lamb’s tweet. Bloomberg columnist Clive Crook finds himself sympathizing with the IRS, “much to my surprise”:
Plainly, if IRS officials were systematically discriminating against conservative groups with the aim of harassing or suppressing them, that’s outrageous, not to mention criminal. If this was going on at the direction or with the knowledge of the White House, then the scandal rises, of course, to Watergate proportions. But there’s no evidence of any such system or conspiracy, and the idea seems improbable. What we do have, though, are tax laws so complex, and so muddled with the regulation of political spending, that straightforward enforcement is almost impossible.
Wait a minute. “No evidence of any such system or conspiracy”? Hasn’t Crook heard about the inspector general’s report? It found precisely that the IRS was “systematically discriminating against conservative groups,” in Crook’s words? The question of what the IRS did has already largely been answered. What we don’t know is why.
Casting about for an explanation that exonerates not only President Obama but the entire political left, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber comes up with one: “The more we learn about the IRS vetting of conservative groups, the less it looks like an abuse of power than something much more mundane–a beleaguered agency with too few resources to handle its work-load.”
But then Scheiber manages to convince himself it isn’t mundane but “slightly sinister.” Demonstrating his ignorance of both architecture and dancing, he alleges that “conservatives have laid the groundwork for a cynical two-step. First, squeeze funding for government programs, making it harder for civil servants to do their jobs. Then, when the inevitable screw-up comes, use it as further justification for cuts.”
There are some obvious problems with this framing. The IRS’s efforts against Tea Party and other conservative groups were both selective and overzealous. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the IRS was underresourced, it would still not be legitimate for decision makers to set enforcement priorities on the basis of political ideology. Anyway, if a shortage of funds had been the problem, you’d expect enforcement to be lax, not overzealous
Writing in the New York Sun, Larry Kudlow draws the opposite inferences from Crook regarding the still-unanswered questions about the scandal:
When you get right down to it, the political targeting and stalling of tax-exempt applications by the IRS was an effort to defund the Tea Party. Rick Santelli, one of the Tea Party founders and my CNBC colleague, was the first to make this point. I’ve taken it a step further: The IRS was taking the Tea Party out of play for the 2012 election, as it looked to avoid a repeat of 2010 and another Tea Party landslide.
There are a lot of numbers out there. Some say Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status averaged 27 months for approval, while applications from liberal groups averaged nine. In one extreme case, according to the Washington Post, the IRS granted the Barack H. Obama Foundation tax-exempt status in a speedy one-month timeframe. Yet some conservative groups waited up to three years, and some still haven’t received approval.
But there can be only one reason for the stalled-out approval process for conservative groups. The IRS was trying to put them out of business. Thus far, there’s not one wit [sic] of contradictory evidence. . . .
No one knows the exact facts, which presumably will come out in the hearings. But this is important stuff. It is conspiracy stuff. Criminal stuff.
This column is generally on Kudlow’s side here, which is to say that we share his outrage about the IRS abuses. But we’re uncomfortable with his framing. What if congressional investigators, or a hypothetical special prosecutor, fail to find evidence of crime, conspiracy or direct White House involvement? Then guys like Crook and Scheiber will crow that they were right all along.
But they aren’t. This may turn out to be one of those cases in which the real scandal involves legal, not illegal. Obama’s endless demonization of his political adversaries and lack of respect for the gravity of his own office certainly aren’t illegal. The media smear campaign against the Tea Party was protected by the First Amendment. And the IRS could have violated the constitutional rights of countless Americans without running afoul of any criminal statutes in the process.
The scandal here is that an agency of the federal government used its fearsome authority to benefit the party in power. If it did so unthinkingly, that is even more disturbing than a criminal conspiracy.
For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.