On Twitter today, Glenn Greenwald generously linked my Marc Thiessen take-down. It’s gratifying to get traffic from a writer so uncompromising in his assessments, and as I’ve noted to several friends lately, I find Mr. Greenwald’s blog an indispensable read on civil liberties. Despite our many disagreements on political philosophy and domestic policy, I am certain that come what may in this country, he is a blogger who’ll offer informed, intellectually honest arguments in favor of constitutional protections and against government abuses — and agree or disagree with his War on Terrorism coverage, it is evident that if you put Mr. Greenwald in charge of World War II era California, we wouldn’t have imprisoned Japanese Americans, and had he lived during the Red Scare, he would’ve been arguing against Joseph McCarthy. In other words, Mr. Greenwald staunchly advocates for principles that are convenient to forget and important to remember in wartime, even when they are unpopular. What a valuable safeguard in a conflict as indefinite and amorphous as any we’ve ever fought.
I do wish that he wouldn’t have used this formulation in his Tweet:
Conservative Conor Friedersdorf: “Why Self-Respecting editors should be embarrassed to publish Marc Thiessen”
It is a small matter, especially as regards Mr. Greenwald, who doesn’t make a habit of this, but the practice has been on my mind lately, and has significance in general, so I am going to address it here. As I’ve noted on many occasions, the political philosophers whose views I find most persuasive and applicable to American governance are conservatives and libertarians — there are liberal philosophers whose ideas I also appreciate or even advocate, but it is my belief that the insights of the right are most often given insufficient due. In other words, it is defensible to call me an American conservative, especially if you’re coming from Glenn Greenwald’s perspective.
But there are a few things I don’t like about affixing an ideological label to my name. Foremost is the implication that my philosophical affiliation has some bearing on the issue at hand. Whether Marc Thiessen’s articles are professional efforts at opinion journalism or poorly reasoned, factually inaccurate embarrassments may be a matter that people disagree about, but it isn’t a disagreement grounded in differences of political philosophy — Mr. Greenwald and I surely agree that right-thinking conservatives, liberals and libertarians should join in putting his submissions into the discard pile, since it is the quality of argument and professionalism that is wanting, so much so that his work is deficient in a magazine geared for folks of any ideological persuasion.
Since political philosophy is irrelevant, affixing “conservative” to my name must have another purpose: it is meant not to identify the tradition of thought that I find persuasive, but rather to place me into a political coalition for rhetorical effect or as context for readers: “Why look, this guy is a member of the same political coalition as Mark Theissen, and even he, a fellow conservative, thinks that Mr. Thiessen is an embarrassment.”
I understand why this might seem like a legitimate thing to do if one didn’t think about it long enough. But I don’t share a political coalition with Mr. Thiessen or his allies — that is to say, those on the right who argue that waterboarding isn’t torture, that the Bush Administration took the appropriate approach to detainee issues, and that lawyers who represented War on Terror detainees are equivalent to mob lawyers. I’d never support a candidate who believed those things, I write against them, and insofar as I care about the Republican Party at all, I do my utmost to steer it in as far in the opposite direction as possible. When it comes to the War on Terrorism, Mr. Theissen and I share neither an ideological nor a political coalition, even those we both call ourselves conservative — as far as I can tell, that’s because he is using the word to refer to the political coalition called the conservative movement, whereas I am using the word to refer to a body of thought contained in old books. On domestic policy, I think there is still some overlap between these camps, but on foreign policy, not so much.
Perhaps I am saying all this poorly. Let’s try a couple of examples to flesh out what I mean. Were Rich Lowry and I arguing about Milton Friedman, a writer we both respect, invoke, and lay intellectual claim to, this would be a perfectly legitimate rhetorical device for someone like Mr. Greenwald to use — “look, even conservative Conor Friedersdorf, who avers that Milton Friedman is a genius and agrees with him on big picture stuff, acknowledges that this particular assertion the Nobel laureate once made was undermined by subsequent events — even someone who shares the same core premises as Mr. Lowry and most other conservatives agrees with my interpretation in this case.”
On the other hand, say I am arguing with the editor of World Net Daily about whether or not President Obama is eligible to be President of the United States. In that case, I don’t think it would be legitimate to say, “look, even conservative Conor Friedersdorf says he is a natural born citizen…” — the fuller, more honest statement would read, “even conservative Conor Friedersdorf, who has almost nothing in common with World Net Daily’s agenda, and thinks questions of presidential eligibility are utterly unconnected to ideology, political philosophy, or political coalitions, thinks that he’s a citizen — even someone who rejects all the core premises of World Net Daily disagrees with them.”
As you can see, this kind of invocation makes no sense when you think about it. In fact, the illegitimate kind of invocation is made so frequently, and the legitimate kind so infrequently and even then with so little value added, that I wish people would just quit labeling people by affiliation entirely. I am loath to abandon labels that I regard as accurate descriptors of my beliefs — doing so seems inaccurate and disingenuous for the sake of convenience — but it would sure be convenient! Finally, if anyone can say all this more succinctly, I hope you’ll do so in comments, as I found my thoughts on this matter quite difficult to articulate. It seems like the kind of dynamic Julian Sanchez would explain better than I.