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Michael Kinsley

When Ideology is a Value

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page B07

It's been less than a month since the gods decreed that because of the election results American political life henceforth must be all about something called "values." And I gave it my best. Honest. But values won. I'm sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as "values." News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now the tale of Bill O'Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.

Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct when it gets labeled as a "value"? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay-marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a "value," while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones barely qualify as an opinion.

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Those labels don't confer any logical advantage. But they confer two big advantages in the propaganda war. First, a value just seems inherently more compelling than a mere opinion. That's a big head start. Second, the holder of a value is held to be more sensitive to slights than the holder of an opinion. An opinion can't just slug away at a value. It must be solicitous and understanding. A value may tackle an opinion, meanwhile, with no such constraint.

No doubt there are strategists all over Washington busily reconfiguring their issues to look like values. Highway construction funds? Needed to help people get to Grandma's house for Christmas. You got something against family values, buddy? Or Christmas? Especially humiliating are efforts by liberals to reposition the issues they care about as conservative and therefore, we hope, transform them into values. Welfare? It (like nearly everything else) is about families, of course. And affirmative action is about work and opportunity. Liberals' motivation -- a simple instinct that a prosperous society ought to mitigate the unfairness of life to some reasonable extent -- isn't considered a value. So let's keep that one among ourselves.

Why do you care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Wouldn't you prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose? For example, suppose we had a government that was capable of ensuring enough flu vaccine to go around, like the governments of every other developed country in the world. Wouldn't that be nice? And if you could have that kind of government, would you really mind if a few more of its leaders secretly enjoyed Janet Jackson's halftime show at the Super Bowl?

The Republican congressional leadership says that a clause giving congressional committee chairmen the power to examine anybody's tax returns just slipped into a big spending bill by accident. Whoops! Okay, it's the holiday season: I'll buy that. Maybe. But if so -- and call me a valueless heathen if you must -- I would like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from now on to read the laws he intends to impose on the nation, even if he does it on Sunday mornings and has to miss church.

It's not just a question of values getting in the way of more pressing matters. It's also a question of how much you want the government to worry about your values. My answer is: Not very much. My values are my own business. True, they are influenced by various private and public institutions of society and by the culture at large -- no doubt in unhealthy ways, very often. But I don't relish the idea of government getting involved to rectify any perceived imbalance. And I thought most conservatives agreed with me about this. But politicians who get elected because of their values are likely to see values as part of their mandate. That's ominous.

Values have a wonderful quality not shared by other political issues that are more reality-based, such as the war in Iraq or the growing national debt: They can be nearly cost-free. This is often true in the simple economic sense that practical problems cost money whereas spiritual problems, even if real, usually don't. It's also true in the political sense that value-based issues usually don't require much of a tradeoff on the part of the voters. You can be as pro-family as you want, without concern that you're giving up valuable anti-family values.

A country whose political dialogue is all about values is either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems. When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company