Thank You, Ms. Lerner, for Doing Your Job

The formula for polemical writing typically advises beginning with acknowledgments of the valid or at least arguable points of the other side. These acknowledgments are typically rather perfunctory, though well meant. But I really mean them: any targeting by the IRS of a group solely on the basis of political ideology, while giving a pass to groups with the opposite ideology, is wrong. Richard Nixon should not have done it when he sought to have the IRS target specific individuals known in his circle as his enemies list. The IRS should not have implied that the NAACP was treading on dangerous ground relative to its tax-exempt status in George W. Bush’s administration, nor should it have attempted to intimidate a church that had a speaker—not a church employee—advocating some political point not friendly to the Bush administration. The Nixon case had nothing to do with tax-exempt, non-profit status, unlike the Bush cases and now the Obama case.

I remember no particular outrage in either of the Bush cases. Now, however, we have a full-blown ersatz scandal, with both Republicans and Democrats preening in high dudgeon. But there are some specifics to this case that I have heard nowhere else other than from Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, The Last Word. These include: (a) the actual law states that organizations should be denied tax-exempt status unless their activities are “exclusively” devoted to “social welfare” and thus not even a little bit political; and (b) as early as 1959 the IRS essentially ignored the law Congress wrote and passed, and substituted the word primarily for Congress’s exclusively. That one change in wording means that organizations which claim that their primary purpose is social welfare, but which allow up to 49% of their purpose to be devoted to political advocacy, would be approved for tax-exempt status. But by the law, as actually written, the IRS could not approve their tax-exempt status since any political activity would bar that status being granted. So, by law, only an organization that is exclusively a social welfare organization—which is to say, an organization without any political action activity at all—can be granted tax-exempt status.

Democrat Carl Levin in 1994 inquired of the IRS about the use of these two mutually exclusive terms, exclusively and primarily. The IRS replied in a letter obtained by O’Donnell that the IRS interpreted the word exclusively to mean primarily. This is the point that should make us mad with the IRS—that somewhere, at least by 1959, it was violating the law by rendering one critical word in the law null and void, and all on its own substituting for that word another word that was totally incompatible with the word Congress wrote. The difference between exclusively and primarily is the difference between dog and cat or often and never—they are not exactly opposites, but they do not overlap since they each exclude the other. They are not subject to possible misinterpretation by being roughly synonymous like sometimes and occasionally. They mean very different things, and the IRS had no business changing the meaning of the law by changing those words. The IRS doesn’t tell us that we should “primarily” or generally not cheat on our taxes, but that we should “exclusively” or never cheat on our taxes. They would not be happy if we “primarily” didn’t cheat. God didn’t tell Adam and Eve to try not to eat the apple, or not to eat much of it, or not to eat it unless it looked like it was about to rot. He told them, quite unambiguously, Don’t eat the apple. There was no room for interpretation. When the IRS changed that one word, they committed their original sin.

So since the IRS should all along have been following the law and rejecting applications for non-profit, tax-exempt status for groups engaged in any political activity at all, it was actually right to be questioning or rejecting applications for groups with Tea Party in the name, just as it would have been right had it received applications from groups with Democratic Party, Republican Party, Communist Party or other groups who are obviously engaged in politics, and not just primarily, but exclusively. But even by the lesser standard of the word primarily, they should have been rejected, or at least questioned, since an organization which included in its name a well-known political group could reasonably be assumed to be primarily devoted to political activity rather than social welfare. What we don’t know is how many liberal groups with red flag words in their names were applying and, equally important, being accepted for tax-exempt status. We do know that many conservative groups were applying, but without knowing about the number of liberal groups applying and being approved, the notion of “targeting” is itself misplaced. And if the number applying is small, then the word targeting is simply wrong. You just can’t compare fifty to two. We don’t know the numbers, and we should know them before passing judgment. If, on the other hand, the fictitious Tea Party for American Progress and many similarly named groups were being stalled or rejected, while a roughly equal number of the equally fictitious Radical Leftists for Radical Change and other similarly named groups were not, then we have targeting. Either way, it is reasonable to infer orientation from such names. They tell us their purpose; we know what Tea Party means these days, just as we know what Occupy Wall Street means. When the name itself bespeaks political action, whether left or right, the IRS employees asking for more information before granting tax-exempt status were not stalling but doing their job. And their boss, Ms. Lerner, was apparently doing hers. Nor should we forget that many conservative Republicans would love to see the IRS dismantled, so it seems no huge stretch to conclude that many conservative groups took the opportunity to exploit the IRS misinterpretation of the law that allowed them to conduct political fund-raising and advocacy behind a charade of “primarily” social welfare fronts, all while mooning the very organization they loathe. By contrast, and presuming their applications were comparatively few in number, liberal groups were either too honest or too dumb to exploit that same misinterpretation.

So the IRS is guilty, but not of what it is currently being accused. It is guilty of changing the meaning of the law decades ago, and continuing to ignore the original meaning to this day with impunity. I have not heard a single legislator berate the IRS because of that. Why has no Congressman hurled thunderbolts at the IRS for unilaterally changing the law that Congress itself wrote and passed? That change has led us to this: judgment calls as to what is 49% political and what is 51% political. Returning to the law as written, with that unambiguous word exclusively, would get us away from that by eliminating from tax-exempt status any group doing any politics at all. In so doing, it probably would make most Americans happier knowing that the tax system is not effectively subsidizing numerous political groups whether of the left or the right.

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Rush Limbaugh and his Low Information Voters

Perennial blowhard Rush Limbaugh bewails the state of American democracy, given its recent re-election of a moderately liberal black man—a deplorable state of affairs due, in Mr. Limbaugh’s view, to the empty-headed hordes of “low information voters.” These poor saps are, by right wing definition, liberal voters, or even those with middle-of-the-road political dispositions. Certainly any Obama voter must ipso facto be low information, and almost any supporter of a Democrat. But Limbaugh is wrong forty-two percent of the time, and he lies fifty-eight percent of the time, which means that his caterwauling should be ignored one hundred percent of the time. A more accurate definition of a low information voter is the modern descendant of a species discovered by H. L. Mencken: the knuckle-dragging boobus americanus, who, squatting beside the radio, listens raptly to Limbaugh’s mummery and mistakes the sputum dribbling from his mouth as actual reality. This pitiable cretin bears, as Mencken once noted in a slightly different context, “all the stigmata of inferiority—moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear.” In other words, the true low information voter is the Limbaugh fan, first cousin to Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, but even further debauched. In addition to the stigmata, and since reality is an insufficient explanation for the menacing forces presumed to be surrounding him, Rush’s typical listener leaps to conspiracy theories, filters out any tincture of rationality, and sees himself as the hapless and innocent victim of the vast and bellicose armies of radical leftists seeking to dispossess him of his guns and his lesser constitutional freedoms. Not that he has ever read the Constitution or would actually agree with any of its sentiments, other than the second amendment. In short, he is as ignorant as a housefly. This constellation of unenviable traits makes him the perfect gull for Rush, who has slopped at the trough of public stupidity and paranoia for years and made a fine living at it. Rush’s overriding message is akin to a gigantic, engorged, suppurating boil on the end of his nose waiting for the scalpel, and when its blade pricks, the fetid ejecta splatters over all of those within earshot, anointing them with his imbecilities and lies, and leaving them feeling as if they have been bathed by John the Baptist himself. But in truth, their low information status has just been lowered into negative digits, their fragile hold on reality further loosened, their panic heightened, and their fact-free anger stoked. They rush, so to speak, headlong into the darkness, girded for the Apocalypse, oblivious.

Last Lecture, Three Lessons

Last Lecture, Three Lessons

This item is a bookend to “First Lecture, Last Year,” dated August, 2011

Let’s make the circle complete, and end where we began. If you would close your eyes, and imagine the things that I will be telling you.

It is March 12, not 1346, but 2013, maybe 2014. You are not in Bologna, Italy, but in Hattiesburg. You have just come in to Room 135 of this building, and your doctoral committee is also arriving, all with smiles and genuine bonhomie. This is the day of your final doctoral dissertation defense, and you are just a touch nervous, but still confident. Your chair would not let you be here if he, or she, did not believe that you were ready. One of your goals was to get to this day and to know your topic better than anyone in the room. You are professionally dressed, comfortably chit-chatting with the faculty as all of you move to the conference room and have a seat—you at the head of the table—all waiting for the last committee member to arrive. Unlike that little time-traveling you did back in HE 711 to the University at Bologna in 1346, here there are no malodorous smells, since your committee members have all thoughtfully showered. More judicious dental care has preserved at least most of their teeth. Your shoes are fitted to each foot, and you didn’t even have to use pig grease to shine them. Academic debates over transubstantiation are not foremost in your mind, and though you do have a worry list, flea bites and bubonic plague are not on it. The fact that you are here does not mean, happily, that you are necessarily a white European male. You might be, but you don’t have to be.

After all have arrived and exchanged the pleasantries that lubricate our daily interactions, your chair asks you to excuse yourself and close the door. Doris smiles and tells you that you will do fine; she knows you well and has a good sense of your likely triumph, having seen quite a few precede you. You thank her and sit down, and your mind wanders back over the events during the last four years or so that have led you to this climactic moment. Obviously one of those events is the day you actually made the commitment to do something about that long-simmering and even taunting thought about pursuing a doctorate in the first place—the commitment coming in the form of an actual application. That very first class of your very first course you remember well, just because it was the first. The courses proceeded, and your knowledge grew incrementally. Some classes were better than others, some harder than others; but overall, the two or three hours out of class for each hour in class was hard and often intense. You selected a chair, and then a full committee. You may have dealt with the stresses of work and family while immersed in those studies—the sick child, the possible slight annoyance of a significant other that you had to leave for class, the supervisor and parent both asking you when this would be over, the juggling of job and school. There were the challenging papers, and your self-recognition that your writing and research skills needed ramping up. Then there was the day you first got the idea for a dissertation. Oh, you were so naïve! It was so unsophisticated, such a jumble, a miasma of possible so-called research questions, bouncing around in what was then a methodological fog in your brain. But clarity started to take shape with your pre-proposal. You even had a disagreement with your chair, but you finally took his advice, and even eventually came to see, in your own good time, the rightness of it. You and your chair worked out any differences and procedural questions you might have had before your proposal defense, as well as before this final defense. So after being your critic, even making that most unenthusiastic face after hearing the first version of your idea, she ultimately became your greatest advocate, almost your coach at the point of defense. The proposal defense had been a warm-up for this one—in some ways harder, since you were persuading them to approve what you were proposing, in effect getting them on board. But today could be easier, since you’ve sort of done it before and you would mostly be explaining what you did and defending your interpretation of what you have done. Or at least so you hope. Just then, as all these thoughts and recollections are flitting through your head, the door opens, and your chair, all smiles, invites you back in.

It’s possible that you have to do a Powerpoint presentation, but it’s also possible you and your chair have decided to proceed the old fashioned way, with you only responding to questions. Your chair tosses out the first one, a real softball about what caused you to be interested in this, and maybe a little summary about how you went about it. No problem. It’s a nice ice-breaker and confidence-builder. Then others join in, moving in a sort of around-the-room pattern. You field questions about specific findings and your interpretation of those findings; you even tie in some of the theory and related literature. Professor X asks you a specific question on theory, but your research questions are perfectly derivative of your theory, and you handle it adroitly. He then asks you what your study “proves,” but you are way too smart for that old sucker punch question and don’t fall for it. Professor Y refers you to page 84 and asks you about a passage, but she doesn’t seem quite satisfied and makes a suggestion for a revision. There’s a good bit of page-turning through the document, with some questions related to particular passages, while other questions were broader and comprehensive. Professor Z, after some other questions from chapters four and five, comes out of left field and asks you what books you read; he is interested in the tenor of your mind. He then advises you to squeeze the lemon a little more in chapter five: get a little more out of the data; do some more meaning-making.

After a little over an hour, your chair wraps up and excuses you from the room for a second time. You step out, feeling pretty good. You chat some more with Doris, who reassuringly tells you that you did fine. After just a few minutes, your chair opens the door, all smiles again, and says, as she so loves to be the first to do, “Congratulations Dr.” and then your name. Your brain, even your skin, floods with relief and justified self-satisfaction. You come back into the room, and your chair reviews the revisions, including some substantial ones, that you will need to make for the final read, the one before the very final draft. Professor Z would like to read your revised Chapter five, but the other members are content to leave any final revisions to the discretion of the chair. You get hugs or handshakes from the other committee members, and then it’s just you and your chair for some clarifications, debriefing, and general decompression.

You drive home, aglow. You are on a Dissertation Defender’s High—the DDH. On some not-far-distant day, you will muse over what other things you have learned during this last formal component of your education—the things other than writing better prose, learning course content, and discovering research methods. You will reflect on the idea that you yourself have the potential to be your own best teacher, and that your education is primarily in your own hands, and that you should be a self-directed learner. Then the second lesson emerges when you begin to have an inkling that partly what a real education means is a divesting of your certitude, a Descartes-like willingness to entertain doubt about your fixed assumptions, and an enhanced willingness to hear the admonition of 17th century Oliver Cromwell, who implored: “I beseech thee, by the bowels of Christ, to consider that ye might be wrong.” You’ve known just a few too many people who, through their own ignorance, simply would not budge on matters where there just might be legitimate alternatives, and you resolve not to be one of those people. And finally, you reflect on a third lesson, this one from Michelangelo, long after that youthful but exquisite Pieta and even decades after the Sistine Chapel when he said, in his eighties: “I have just begun to learn the alphabet of my profession.” Your formal education may be over, but your learning is lifelong. But these three musings are for another day. The remains of this day are for celebration.

You may open your eyes. Class dismissed.