Certain writers for whom I have the utmost respect, like James Fallows, Eugene Volokh, and Reihan Salam, manage to forcefully argue various matters even as they treat their interlocutors perfectly charitably. It’s a trait that always impresses me. On more than one occasion, I’ve cited the wisdom in the examples they set to young writers who’ve sought out my advice. In my own writing, I try hard to presume good faith in those with whom I disagree. When I succeed it typically strengthens the quality of my work; after failing I often regret it.
What I wonder is whether this approach to public discourse is prudent to adopt as a general rule. I want to think so. It’s nice to have a reliable standard to apply, even when living up to it is difficult. But I have my doubts. Take the theory Dinesh D’Souza is putting forth about The Roots of Obama’s Rage, as he titled the book length version. Were I to write an honest assessment of his argument, it would be no less scathing than the responses by Heather Mac Donald and Andrew Ferguson. I can’t help but cheer their essays. Would it be possible to make all the same substantive points while being more charitable toward the author? I actually don’t know… but assume so for the sake of argument.
Even given that hypothetical, how are we to respond to the letter Mr. D’Souza sent to The Weekly Standard in response to the Ferguson review? Here is the most egregious passage:
I cannot recall a more dishonest review in recent times, and would not have expected it of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. My friends tell me I should not worry about Ferguson’s Lilliputian arrows. This book is my sixth New York Times bestseller and my biggest book yet. The book’s impact can be gauged from the intensity of White House attacks on it, and also from the indignation of liberals from Maureen Dowd to Jonathan Alter to Keith Olbermann. Leading conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich have lavishly praised the book. Interestingly, however, Gingrich’s remark that The Roots of Obama’s Rage is “the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama” seems to have rankled some lesser pundits on the right. What does Gingrich’s comment say about what they have been writing about Obama all this time? The implication is that these scribblers have completely missed the boat! Here we may have a clue to the roots of Ferguson’s rage.
In situations like these, I can’t help but think that the rule about subjecting the words of interlocutors to the most charitable interpretation possible fails. It’s possible that D’Souza lacks the critical distance or intellectual capacity to see that his theory is full of obvious, gaping holes, even subsequent to their being pointed out in venues across the ideological spectrum. Or maybe he sees them after the fact, but is too prideful to admit them? Alternatively, it’s possible that he’s a charlatan who knowingly wrote a hack book, but is so immoral, intellectually dishonest and ballsy that he’s nevertheless attacking his critics in uncharitable, self-righteous language.
I’m sure there are other theories that could explain his recent output, but I can’t think of any that don’t reflect very poorly on its author one way or another. Is it worse to innocently produce stunningly shoddy work in one’s professional area of expertise, or to cannily produce a dishonest product that earns you a lot of money? Judging by my own moral code, I’d say the latter is much worse, but some in the world of ideological book publishing clearly subscribe to a different system of ethics than I do. Were I trying to be a charitable reviewer, would I presume the motivation that I find least repugnant? What if my subject’s code is different than mine? Isn’t a journalist actually bound to follow the evidence in assessing what motivates an author? Or is it improper to even try because we can’t ever know for certain?
I don’t have answers to these questions, I sometimes wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to stop writing entirely about subjects that raise them; and other times I provisionally conclude, with fleeting conviction and in worse moments a bit of sanctimony, that it’s important for some people to subject the shoddiest journalists to critical scrutiny — even while giving thanks that lots of people ignore them, and spend their time on worthier subjects. Does it make sense that I’d pay money to stop the authors I mentioned at the beginning of this post to refrain from tilting at my windmill of choice, Mark Levin, even though I’ve clearly deemed it worthwhile to hold forth on the subject, and think that it was a good thing for Jim Manzi, another writer I admire, to issue his own scathing critique?
I can’t articulate a general standard that makes sense here, nor am I entirely clear on how I might improve what I’m sure are my flawed methods for engaging in this project.
What I can explain is how I react when I read sentences like this one:
My friends tell me I should not worry about Ferguson’s Lilliputian arrows. This book is my sixth New York Times bestseller and my biggest book yet.
Were political authors truly freed from worrying about anything but the market performance of their books, we’d be a lot worse off, not because the reading public is stupid, but because they’ve got jobs and lives that don’t allow the vast majority to make informed decisions about the titles they buy (a situation made worse by the fact that a lot of the people and institutions they imprudently trust are more than willing to tout books based on metrics other than intellectual honesty, accuracy, and overall quality).
It’s forthright reviewers like Andrew Ferguson, intellectually honest writers like Heather Mac Donald, and insofar as I succeed in this project, bloggers like me who make possible something that the ideological book market alone doesn’t: the possibility than an author who sells lots of copies, but falls below some minimal standard of quality, will be publicly embarrassed among his peers, and denied the respect of thinking people. Very few humans — even the worst sell-outs or least talented hacks — are fond of facing the rightful consequences of their defective output. Culpable along with substandard authors are the people who know damn well the poor quality of their work, but are complicit in investing their books with the veneer of respectability, whether because they are ideological allies or else fellow participants in the partly corrupt business of ideological book-selling. The sorry state of political non-fiction is on their conscience.
These are the most charitable words I can honestly offer on this subject, and although I’ve done my best, as always, to hit all the right notes, I can’t help but simultaneously worry that I’ve been too harsh and not harsh enough. I’d actually love to see a round table discussion on charitableness in public discourse that included Fallows, Salam, Volokh, Mac Donald, Ferguson, Michael Lewis, Katie Roiphe, Mark Oppenheimer, Jay Rosen, Christopher Hitchens, Bob Wright, Michael Kinsley, Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Chait, and Ta-Nehisis Coates. Damn. Is that too many people? But I can’t bear to cut any of them.