The American Scene

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Articles filed under The Media


Is Charitableness Desirable In Public Argument Always Or Just Usually?

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.

It Ain't About News Versus Opinion

Scanning his story archive, I see that New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has done a fair amount of writing about the news media. For that reason, it’s particularly surprising that his piece on the firing of Juan Williams is rife with confused analysis that is strangely common among newspaper journalists, but obviously wrong to most of us who’ve spent lots of time thinking these issues through.

Here are his opening paragraphs, where his questionable frame is introduced:

NPR’s decision on Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision on Thursday to give him a new contract put into sharp relief the two forms of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Mr. Williams’ NPR contract was terminated two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worried when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said that he was reflecting his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons some traditional journalists. That Mr. Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.

Note all the problems with this analysis. First off, there are a lot more than two forms of journalism competing for the attention of Americans. Second, the difference between NPR and Fox News isn’t that the former offers “the view from nowhere” while the latter prefers polemical points of view — and although I think that it’s impossible to actually find the view from nowhere in American media that isn’t even all I mean here. It would be one thing to say that the Associated Press of old, with its ideal of straight news reporting, represents one style of news coverage, whereas Fox News with its opinionated delivery represents another.

But NPR and Fox News are actually similar in some of the ways that Mr. Stetler says they’re different. Both media organizations broadcast a mix of coverage, some of which is labeled news and other coverage it labels opinion. At both places, the line between these two styles of broadcast are a lot muddier than management likes to acknowledge. The business models of both organizations depend on catering to the sensibilities of people with a certain world view. And I am not just talking about ideology when I say that.

Despite identifying as a right-leaning independent with conservative and libertarian sympathies, NPR is much more my style than is Fox News. Sometimes when I listen to the radio network, I’m attune to the ideologically liberal assumptions that inform its coverage. But more than a political ideology, I’d say NPR’s sensibility is informed by a sort of urban cosmopolitanism and a commitment to airing a diversity of viewpoints — a commitment that is certainly executed imperfectly at times, but that is nevertheless noticeable in the coverage that is presented. I also think there are people doing reporting at NPR who try their best to give facts without bias, and believe that’s what their superiors want them to do. There are times when I think NPR coverage doesn’t do justice to conservative insights, but there are other times when I think they’ve done their best to present strong arguments with which a majority of their audience will disagree.

Fox News is motivated not by a general preference for point of view polemics — it isn’t a network likely to hire Glenn Greenwald, an opinionated polemicist with a large fan base, to deliver analysis. Rather, its general preference is for news and opinion material that appeals to Red America. How is this different from NPR’s general preference for content that appeals to Blue America? Well it isn’t entirely different — like I said, it’s wrong to pretend that these media outlets neatly represent two competing styles of American journalism — but I think if you asked the average NPR listener if they want to hear and understand the strongest arguments contrary to the liberal consensus, they’d say yes (how they’d react if they were given that wish is another matter).

Whereas if you asked the average Fox News audience member if they want to hear and understand the strongest liberal arguments on that network, many would say, “We’re already awash in the opinions of the liberals of the mainstream media, which controls everything but Fox News and Rush. Why should we give liberals an outlet on the one network that is for us?” At its core Fox News is presented as an alternative to the MSM, a project that only makes sense operating in opposition to the cultural landscape that surrounds it. NPR is presented as a mainstream media organization that makes sense independent of the cultural landscape that surrounds it (even if that may actually be impossible).

Once you understand this, it’s easier to grasp why it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear Will Wilkinson on NPR making a forceful, sophisticated argument for the free market… whereas it would be shocking if an intelligent liberal were given a commensurate shot at making a forceful argument on Fox News. The exception is someone like Christopher Hitchens, who might be put on a shout fest show and by sheer determination slip in a good lefty point, before reassuring the audience that he too is threatened by Islamic terrorism. But the typical liberal invited to appear on Fox is Alan Colmes, who for a long time served as the Washington Generals every night for Sean Hannity. If you have a network where Hannity regularly comes off as the more learned, persuasive interlocutor, you’re not trying very hard to give your audience an accurate view of the world.

Let’s return to the NY Times article, having skipped down a bit:

Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question — an expectation written into the organization’s ethics code.
That expectation can erode under television lights and on Twitter. At outlets like NPR, some journalists have found it difficult to not share their opinions, especially when they are speaking in forums that lend themselves to commentary, like “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, called the Williams case an “object lesson in how different news organizations have different values.” She said the ethics guidelines at many news organizations matched those at NPR.
“If you make some outlandish statement on your Facebook page or at a public event somewhere, you are still representing your newsroom,” she said. “So there are consequences to that.”

What bothers me about NPR and the way it’s handled this is the fiction that Juan Williams was fired merely because his impartiality was compromised — as if the higher ups there would’ve minded if he went on cable television to insist that the mosque and community center near Ground Zero would send a desirable signal of American tolerance to the Muslim world, for example. An NPR contributor can safely express lots of opinions without getting fired. I’d have a lot more respect for NPR if it said, “The NPR audience has certain values and sensitivities, and the particular viewpoints Juan Williams expressed transgressed upon those sensitivities. It therefore made it much more difficult for us to present him as a cohesive part of our brand, so we’re firing him.”

The problem is that NPR wants to preserve the illusion that open-mindedness and a diversity of viewpoints is its brand. Again, I think that NPR does this better than a lot of media organizations, and certainly better than Fox News. I can only laugh at Williams when he says…

This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff…

…and then proceeds to sign a 2 million dollar contract at a place where there is much less diversity of opinion. But if NPR were being honest, it would fess up that diversity of opinion is a competing value, and in its view a less important one than making sure it doesn’t transgress against the multicultural sensitivities of its staff and largely liberal audience.

Here’s the rest of Mr. Williams quote:

This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Let’s be honest: that kind of rhetoric is a much better fit at Fox than NPR, so in the end everything has worked out.

(I’ve written about other aspects of the Juan Williams controversy here and here.)

UPDATE: See James Fallows here for an eloquent defense of NPR as a whole that I’d like to associate myself with.

Bloggers That Deserve A Wider Readership

Who are they?

I’d like to highlight them, and I trust the readership of The American Scene is always looking for new sites to read.

Appreciating the People's Currency

Krugman is still beating the war drums about China’s export-dependence. I believe this is his sixth such condemnation of the year, though in the fourth he recognized that not everyone agrees with his analysis:

“There have been all sorts of calculations purporting to show that the renminbi isn’t really undervalued, or at least not by much. But if the renminbi isn’t deeply undervalued, why has China had to buy around $1 billion a day of foreign currency to keep it from rising?”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke seems to have the answer: “In a closed economy investment would equal national saving in each period; but, in fact, virtually all economies today are open economies, and well-developed international capital markets allow savers to lend to those who wish to make capital investments in any country, not just their own.” Unfortunately this is not the case in China, which restricts capital outflows while encouraging foreign direct investment. Your average Wang can’t use RMB savings to purchase USD assets or to invest in a Wisconsin cheese company. China makes it relatively easy to bring money in but tough to get money out.

As Jiawen Yang and Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou explain in the International Research Journal of Finance and Economics: “If Chinese investors were allowed to adjust their investment portfolio and diversify into international asset holdings, it would certainly create a significant downward pressure on China’s currency… China’s rapid accumulation of international reserves has mainly been built through increases in capital inflows, which are a result of a few key non-market driven factors (such as controls on capital outflows and the preferential treatment of foreign investment).”

Or in the words of Linda Yeuh, Director of the China Growth Centre at Oxford, writing for the IMF, “This growth of credit in an economy with capital outflow controls means investments will be largely domestic, increasing the likelihood of asset bubbles in the stock and housing markets and generating concerns about a banking crisis… With enough capital outflows, appreciation pressures on the currency may even ease.”

Does this mean the RMB is overvalued? Well it’s hard to say exactly, and probably not, but we must start by recognizing that China’s capital controls (before FOREX purchases) actually encourage RMB appreciation. Then, the People’s Bank offsets the relative absence of capital outflows with centralized FOREX purchases, which could be seen as a sort of pressure valve to keep the RMB from appreciating faster than it already is against a wide basket of currencies. That does help exporters by preventing artificial appreciation and stabilizing prices, but the RMB would be overvalued if they didn’t. By how much is hard to say. I’m just not as confident as Krugman because I don’t know how much money would flow if the capital restrictions were lifted (and hopefully, but gradually, they will be).

Capital outflow controls are a form of currency manipulation, but I don’t see how or why this is all one grand scheme to protect exports. There just isn’t enough evidence that China’s economic growth is export-dependent. In 2009, despite a precipitous drop in exports, domestic demand grew by 12.3% and production output grew by 9%. Think of it this way: it would be weird if China was risking a trade war and geopolitical conflict just to defend 10% of value added to the country’s gross domestic product. If you don’t believe me or Jonathan Anderson , maybe believe DeutscheBank: “The impact of 3-4% annual RMB appreciation on the economy is modest. If the RMB appreciates 3% vs. the USD per year, it reduces GDP growth by 0.2%.” That would bring China’s GDP growth down from like 11.4% to 11.2%… scary stuff. This is an important point, because it undercuts the alleged motive behind China’s ‘mercantilist’ currency practices. If China is not an export-dependent economy, what incentive would they have for aggressively devaluing the RMB? You can’t have it both ways.

Would an appreciating RMB be overwhelmingly positive for the US? Probably not, as more than half of China’s exports are produced by foreign companies. So basically you would tax those globally-focused companies who are striving to compete in the global economy, and you would raise prices for US consumers (and make saving even harder). You would also encourage a trade war with one of the fastest-growing consumer of US products, like our world-class, savory chicken feet. Some of China’s production would probably shift to Indonesia or Vietnam, or more impoverished regions of China, and maybe a few manufacturing jobs would remain in the US for a few more months — but the reality of globalization won’t disappear. And neither will the need to train future generations to compete and/or be self-sustaining in the future global economy. Krugman helps me to make this case:

“The undervalued renminbi is good for politically influential export companies. But these companies hoard cash rather than passing on the benefits to their workers, hence the recent wave of strikes.”

Krugman was presumably referring to the well-publicized strikes at Honda Motor Company — the Japan-based automotive giant that manufactures components in China. How a Japanese industry leader becomes politically influential in Chinese government circles is beyond me. Regardless, this is just one small example of how major multinational companies benefit from global supply chains that drive down prices for consumers everywhere. Lower input costs allow for greater sales and better margins, meaning that companies can grow, research, invest, and hire. As economies grow, so do wages and so do living standards. That’s exactly what we’re seeing. Believe it or not, China is now loosing jobs to lower-cost manufacturing hubs throughout Southeast Asia. We should be celebrating this — free markets are bring people around the world out of poverty in mass.

If Krugman really wants to address the US trade deficit, he should set his sights on the single greatest contributor: petroleum. And the long-term market opportunities for US-based companies in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Russia and Qatar are almost insignificant compared to those in East Asia, places like India and China. With the overwhelming majority of US-based companies operating in China for market access (and not cheap labor), now is not the time for burning bridges. Instead, we should focus on promoting greater market access and legal protections for US companies in China. More importantly, we should drop the victim complex and go to work. Part of that will require figuring out how to get Americans, who are still some of the world’s most productive and capable workers, more involved in global (in particular, Asian) economic development. China will eventually consume more than the US, and be a bigger economy, and we want to be involved when it does. China is already on the cusp of running an account deficit with the world, although per capita income in China is only fraction of that in the US. As domestic consumption continues to increase in China, so will the opportunities for US companies.

In all of Krugman’s rants about China’s predatory currency policies, he refuses to even tip his hat to the opportunities of globalization. That’s not constructive judgment — it’s just complaining.

TAS Writing Assignments

The American Scene is an awesome place and thanks to Ross and Reihan we’ve managed to put together some of the smartest minds on the internet (and, well, me). Unfortunately, precisely because of the awesomeness of the Scenesters, most of us have outside gigs (guilty!) that prevent us from writing here as often as we would like.

But there’s stuff from us that I’d love to read!

So I’ve decided to just hand out writing assignments. Watch out, they will be graded and will be on your permanent record.

Ross: A book. What would a truly pro-life, modern society look like? Pro-lifers rightly make the case against abortion but I think it would be very useful to also make the case for what a pro-life society would and should look like. I also happen to believe that many “pro-life” politicians delude themselves about what true pro-life policies would entail. It would not simply entail outlawing abortion.

It would entail a massive public/private network of support for women who have unwanted pregnancies. A truly pro-_life_ society would also have different policies and attitudes toward end of life care. Ross is the writer who’s been one of the most lucid in hinting about this stuff in various interviews and blog posts, but I think we need an in-depth look at what, looking over the abortion law hill, true pro-life policies would be. It seems to me that Ross is the best-placed to do this, and it would be a true service.

Reihan: You need to write more books, dude! One a year should be a minimum. Here’s the next one: tomorrow, the US Constitution is amended, making Reihan Salam Secretary of Education for life, with dictatorial power to run roughshod over Congress, the courts, unions, states, etc. What does education in the US in 2030 look like? You have 300 pages.

Peter: an article. What percentage of GDP would an ideal libertarian state consume?

This ideal libertarian (as opposed to minarchist or anarcho-capitalist) state would presumably fund a well-functioning justice, police and national defense system. Note that Switzerland, a country that is rightly admired by many libertarians, is a heavily militarized country, precisely to ensure its neutrality/non-interventionism. An ideal libertarian state would also presumably provide some sort of negative income tax as well as school vouchers and vouchers for (catastrophic) health insurance. While such programs would mostly involve cutting checks and thus comparatively small bureaucracies, they would still be not-insignificant wealth transfers from Peter to Paul.

Also note that while you can reasonably argue that an ideal libertarian state would experience high economic growth, these kind of expenditures would hold relatively constant as a percentage of GDP. As libertarians are fond of pointing out, we spend more on health today than in 1900 because we’re much richer.

So, what would all of those wealth transfer schemes take out of GDP? 20%? 30%? …40%?

Bonus question: how would the ideal libertarian state raise that money? Libertarians don’t like corporate income taxes for a bunch of very good reasons. They also don’t like the VAT because it desensitizes the citizenry to tax increases. They don’t like taxes on capital. They certainly don’t like import duties. So how would this ideal libertarian state raise this not-insubstantial revenue? Would it be mostly through personal income taxes? If so, might the higher brackets of personal income taxes have… gasp high marginal rates?

POULOS: A 3-5 page explanation of what, exactly, “postmodern conservatism” means. That my grandmother can understand. My grandmother is not dumb, and not poorly read, mind you. But she needs things explained clearly. So do I, in this regard, evidently.

I will probably come up with ideas for the other Scenesters (and Scenesters are welcome to come up with writing assignments for me!).

Go!

The California Section RIP, Cont'd

The title on this post refers to the first thing I wrote for The American Scene. Looks like I was right.

But Enough About Me. Let's Talk About You. What Do You Think Of Me?

Just a short note of a personal aggrandizing nature.

In addition to blogging here at TAS, going forward I’ll occasionally be blogging at The Economist. I’m supposed to be at their Democracy in America blog but the first item I wrote for them – about the Basel III banking agreement – was posted at their Free Exchange blog instead. You can find it here. When I do post anything over there, I’ll be sure to link to it here as well.

As well, I’m in the process of setting up a site, currently called “Millman’s Shakesblog,” to talk about Shakespeare, and theatre more generally, and literature and the arts even more generally, but it’s going slower than I had hoped owing to my general technical incompetence. In any event, once it’s fully up-and-running I’ll put this year’s theatre reviews from Canada (and future ones from New York, Chicago, and anywhere else I go to the theatre) there, and instead of posting future Shakesblog stuff here I’ll probably just post there and put a link here. Or maybe I’ll cross-post in both places. We’ll see.

Anyway, look forward to seeing you in both new venues, as well as here.

Explaining Intellectual Honesty

Matt Yglesias is puzzled by the term. I’ll have a go: “Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make.

Advocates, by contrast, make the best arguments they can think of for the position that they are obliged to take by their position. They are still supposed to be honest – they are not supposed to actually lie. But they are not expected to follow their own consciences with respect to the arguments they make or the positions they advance.

I’m not 100% sure that’s what the phrase is supposed to mean, but given that a substantial fraction of people who opine for a living behave as advocates, it does seem there ought to be a phrase to distinguish those who don’t. “Intellectually honest” fits the bill for me.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

So, the last three books I have read: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. It’s interesting to think about these novels in relation to one another, since their authors are all approximately the same age — roughly my age, as it happens: the youngest, Chabon, is four years younger than me — and represent three interestingly different takes on The Novel As A Genre. Franzen these days works wholly within the realist tradition; Chabon likes to experiment with the conventions of genre fiction; Wallace does . . . well, his thing, his blend of metafictional play and moral seriousness.

Of the three, Freedom is the least satisfying to this reader. I don't know whether, as some have argued, the conventions of realistic fiction have grown stale beyond the possibility of recovery, but they’ve grown stale for me. At least within the American context. Franzen’s long book focuses on a couple, Walter and Patty Berglund. They meet, they date, they marry — he without reservation, she with some reservation, for she is far more sexually attracted to Walter’s musician friend Richard than to Walter. They have two children, a boy and a girl. They rehab a house in the city (St. Paul, Minnesota). They are good liberals. Walter works in conservation; he’s a nonprofit guy all the way. When their son Joey becomes a teenager they have a lot of trouble with him, in part because he becomes a conservative, or more conservative than they are anyway (partly in sheer cussed rebellion). The son goes through some hard times but eventually gets his ship righted. Walter and Patty each have affairs. They break up for a while. Near the end of the book they have the chance to get back together, and I won't tell you whether they take it, or what circumstances determine their success or failure.

It’s a story that, put in these schematic terms, has been told hundreds of times, and one might think that John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, to mention just two practitioners of the craft, had said all there is to say about this particular kind of life. So there’s something admirable about Franzen’s insistence that, whatever you’ve read before, you haven't read the story of these particular people, and their story is worth the telling and worth the listening. He seems to be challenging himself as a novelist to do the extraordinarily difficult thing: to make us care about characters as commonplace as the Berglunds.

(Incidentally, while there are a few pages of the book which focus our attention on the uses and abuses of personal freedom, that theme doesn't seem central to the story, to me anyway, and I wonder why Franzen gave the novel its title.)

Franzen is an exceptionally skilled writer, and one of the ways we see that skill is in how he opens and closes his novel. Most of the book is told from the points of view of the major characters — Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey — but the opening and closing scenes come from the perspective of the Berglunds’ neighbors (two different sets of neighbors). It’s as though Franzen is saying, Here’s what these people look like from the outside, but I show you what they’re like from the inside.

As I say, this is admirable and it’s skillfully done, but I never cared about the Berglunds — except, perhaps, during the last twenty pages, which are simply and hauntingly beautiful by any reckoning. But when can't bring yourself to invest, emotionally, in characters over the five hundred preceding pages, even the most brilliant final chapter can only do so much to recover the book for you.

I believe that people like the Berglunds matter — I’m a Christian, for heaven’s sake, I believe they matter to God Himself far more than they could ever matter to me — but that doesn't mean that I think their lives are interesting enough to sustain a book this long. There’s the question of the intrinsic value of ordinary people, and then there’s the question of the suitability of those people for novelistic representation. Those questions need to be kept separate. The Berglunds don't seem to me to be a good use of Jonathan Franzen’s energy, intelligence, and time. But God bless him for trying, all the same.

UPDATE: Looking at this, I realize that I should have noted that while Wallace is about the same age as Franzen and Chabon, he wrote Infinite Jest in his early thirties. It is his forthcoming book — The Pale King, left very unfinished at his untimely death — that he was working on at the same time that Franzen was writing Freedom and Chabon The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It will, obviously, be very, very interesting to see where Wallace was headed as a writer when he died.

"It Hurts Her Cause, It Doesn't Help It"

In the ongoing story of Shirley Sherrod, the one thing that is broadly agreed upon by everyone from Ann Coulter to Barack Obama is that the two-minute version of Ms. Sherrod’s speech, as published by Andrew Breitbart, casts her in a significantly more negative light than the full, unedited version of her forty plus minute remarks. That is the only conclusion that can be reached by a person of sound judgment who watches the full video.

But imagine that you’re not someone who gets their news reading stuff on the Internet. You’re an American who heard someone discussing this story at the office, found your interest piqued, and tuned into the radio on the way home in hopes of learning more.

If you listened to this radio show — and a lot of people do — here is the version of events that was presented to you:

By the way, I have to make a comment. I’m watching this relentless assault on my friend Andrew Breitbart. It’s disgusting to me. He got a video. He made it public. Turns out the video was edited. The full video was always available at the NAACP because it was at their event. And they took the video. They could’ve released it immediately. And all this attack on Breitbart because he didn’t have the full video.
And yet I’ve now watched the full video. My buddy Brent Bozell watched the full video. We broke the story here about what the rest of the video actually shows, and what the audio says.
And she’s a race-baiter.
In other words, it hurts her cause, it doesn’t help it.

Stunning, isn’t it? The host tells his trusting audience that if you watch the whole video of Ms. Sherrod’s speech — a story he claims to have broken! — she comes off looking worse.

He says this too:

And I watch some people in the conservative media just, just – it’s pathetic. You can make your point about being accurate. We get that. What about the rest of the video. ‘Well, she has a story to tell.’ SO WHAT!? That doesn’t justify her attacks on millions of other Americans who also have stories, by the way. Black, white, brown and in between. Some of whom have been discriminated against, some of whom have been Holocaust victims, or had all kinds of challenges that they’ve overcome. They’re not racists because they oppose government run health care. They have stories to, you know. This is sickening to me.
Now that we have the whole video, nobody wants to talk about the whole video. Instead they want to trash Breitbart.

Stunning, isn’t it? He tells his audience that now that we have the whole video, “nobody wants to talk about the whole video.” I ask you, people of the Internet, is that true in the reality where you live? It seems to me that people are pretty keen to discuss the whole video! Are the listeners of that man — especially the ones who rely on him as a primary source to stay informed — well-served by being told “no one” is talking about the full video, because it does more harm to Ms. Sherrod than it helps her?

I try the patience of some readers by regularly writing about talk radio hosts. It isn’t a fun beat, for all the obvious reasons (hate mail, gratuitous insults, having to listen to their shows), and an additional one too: there’s precious little opportunity for inventive prose — I’d much rather write about beers I like or the Marquis de Lafayette’s return visit to America or places I’ve traveled (and I swear, I’m going to do more of that, especially since I post for free on this time-consuming subject far more often than I sell magazine pieces).

It is nevertheless important to engage prominent talk radio show hosts by setting down their words on blogs, because otherwise their most indefensible nonsense just drifts off into the air unchallenged, a convenience that allows them to grow lazy in their call-screener-maintained cocoon while retaining more respect than is deserved from their ideologically friendly colleagues outside of it. The good folks at National Review or The Weekly Standard, which have covered this story well from various perspectives, might read Liberty and Tyranny, and being people that work a lot during the day, assume without ever thoroughly checking that the quality of argument on Mark Levin’s radio show is comparable.

Given the discussion at The Corner over the last several days, however, it’s unlikely that they’ll see the talk radio host say that the full video makes Ms. Sherrod look worse, that since its release no one wants to talk about it, and even that conservatives (like many of them) who covered Sherrod sympathetically are being “pathetic” — and to take his judgment quite as seriously as they once did, or not worry just a little bit that his audience of loyal conservatives are being given bad information

It isn’t that they’re the victims of lies. But they are being misled by an intellectually arrogant man too think-skinned to accurately gauge when his critics are making sense, incapable of self-correcting, and unable to persuasively defend his work in any medium except one where he has call screeners and a mute button.

If nothing else, I hope I am making it increasingly untenable to retain stature as a serious thought leader while simultaneously saying things on the air that cannot be persuasively defended online — which isn’t to say that all Web outlets are created equal:

In closing, I dare Mark Levin to engage in a written online debate with Slate’s Will Saletan on the Sherry Sherrod story.

UPDATE: Incidentally, even Andrew Breitbart himself now says, “I grant her that she had her redemptive transformation.”

storytelling

Over at the PoMoCon blog, Robert Cheeks asks a question about this statement by Shirley Sherrod: “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.”

Now I don’t have a problem with Ms. Sherrod’s use of the phrase. I’m not offended in the least. But, my question is, is it permissible for a white federal bureaucrat to use that phrase (“. . . his own kind would take care of him”) to describe his/her dealings with an African-American?

Well, presumably not. But I have a question of my own: How does Robert Cheeks think that Shirley Sherrod was using that phrase? I ask not because I think there’s anything particularly or inappropriately aggressive about Cheeks’s question, but because it seems so oddly irrelevant. It’s a question that would only arise, I think, in the mind of someone who doesn't fully grasp that Shirley Sherrod was telling a story. Sherrod was not delivering a lecture; she was not presenting a position paper; she was not outlining policies and procedures. Instead she was narrating events that occurred twenty-four years ago — and among those events, the ones she was clearly most interested in were internal, mental: her chief purpose in her talk was to deliver an account of her own state of mind and how it changed.

So in that light, look again at the sentence that Robert Cheeks finds noteworthy — “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him” — and then listen to her whole talk, or read the transcript. Isn't it perfectly obvious that the whole point of the talk is to narrate her own movement from a place where it seemed natural to her to think in terms of “my own kind” and “his own kind” to a place where those distinctions are abolished?

And that this is her purpose she makes clear not only at the end of her talk but when she introduces the story of how she dealt with Roger Spooner: “When I made that commitment [to work in rural Georgia], I was making that commitment to black people — and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He'll put things in your path so that — that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.” What she found was that if the lawyer who was supposed to be working to help Roger Spooner was “his own kind” it was only in skin color, because, though Spooner was paying the lawyer, he wasn’t getting any help from him. Sherrod saw that Spooner was too poor to mean a damned thing to the man who was supposed to be working on his behalf. And so, at the end of the anecdote, she circles back to her point: “Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don't have access the way others have.” It’s as clear and straightforward a critique as you could possibly ask for of the idea — the idea that Shirley Sherrod had in 1986 — that people of the same skin color will necessarily see one another as of the same kind, as kin, as sharing a common nature. (Those italicized words are extremely closely related: see chapter two of C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words.)

If you understand this, you’ll also understand that the responses from Sherrod’s audience are not remotely what Andrew Breitbart has said they are, but instead are ways for the audience to register that they’re tracking with the path of the story. And I bet that pretty much everyone in that room understood what kind of story Shirley Sherrod was telling: it was a testimony, a conversion narrative, of the kind that Christians have told in churches from time immemorial. If you think that Shirley Sherrod endorses thinking of white people as being of a different “kind” than her, you may as well also think that St. Augustine endorses the stealing of pears. Because her story is in the same genre as his Confessions (which title, as Garry Wills has pointed out, might better be translated Testimony).

As Andrew Breitbart has so helpfully reminded us, “Context is everything,” but especially in stories — and more especially still in stories that narrate a personal transformation. In political and journalistic and blogospheric environments dominated by sheer polemic, it might be worth our while to pause to remember that there are other, and very ancient, ways of getting a point across.

He's Still Calling Her Racist

This is damning.

And I hope that it spells the end of Andrew Breitbart as an oft-lauded, influential voice on the right.

Note particularly the charge of racism he still levies against Shirley Sherrod, the ongoing invocation of turnabout is fair play, and the fact that he himself says he wasn’t duped by his source.

I’m sure he’ll be back on cable debate programs. His interlocutors should prepare:

Thoughts on the ongoing JournoList story

— Contra some members of the defunct e-mail listserv, its contents aren’t boring and innocuous, though Jonathan Chait persuasively demonstrates that The Daily Caller is misleading in some of its characterizations (see the additional e-mails he posts).

— It’s telling that so far there haven’t been any journalists who claim to write with neutrality who’ve been caught in a lie. As yet, all the people urging different coverage on colleagues have been opinion folks. I think that it’s perfectly fine for openly opinionated journalists to argue that the merits of a situation demand different coverage, but objectionable to urge a certain kind of coverage for purely tactical reasons — stepping outside the world of “objective” reporting doesn’t absolve you of the journalistic imperative to put pursuit of truth and accurate renderings of reality above all else, no matter the ideological results. Leave information trickery to activists.

— Spencer Ackerman is a talented reporter whose work on the War on Terrorism and related issues I very much value and admire, even if I don’t much care for his least temperate outbursts.

It vexes and disappoints me that he wrote this:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country? What lurks behind those problems? This makes them sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

There’s a lot to object to in there. Let’s zero in on the worst of it. It is inexcusable to advocate targeting someone as a racist not because there is truth to the charge, but because it might improve the left’s chances in ideological battle. It isn’t merely that cynically using race as a political cudgel weakens the charge so that there is skepticism even when racism is actually happening. The worst thing about this — and other things are very bad indeed — is that Mr. Ackerman’s strategy inevitably involves persuading minorities that more people bear racially motivated animosity toward them than is in fact the case.

— Insofar as I know, neither Mr. Ackerman nor anyone else on Journolist actually followed through with cynical race-baiting, which is to their credit. Ironically, their staunchest critic, Andrew Breitbart, is engaged in that kind of behavior right now.

— Readers might recall that the Jeremiah Wright story was rather well covered during Election 2008. In other words, the most activist inclined members of JournoList weren’t very influential in shaping coverage even given a private forum to lobby a bunch of their colleagues.

— Here is the entirety of Kevin Drum’s role on The Daily Caller’s story:

Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman’s strategy. “I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he’s trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he’s not going change the way politics works?”

Here is how Mark Levin characterizes Mr. Drum’s role: (drum roll) link.

— It’s also worth observing that the Spencer Ackerman approach to political discourse as articulated above (though not practiced in his published work that I’ve seen, which isn’t nearly all of it), and the Andrew Breitbart approach, contain a striking similarity: Does the truth or relevance of racism accusations matter? Actually, it’s just a propaganda tool to be used in the ideological battleground of public discourse, where my side is right, we must send the other guys a message, and the ends justify the means because this is war, blah blah blah.

But American journalism isn’t merely an arena where progressives and movement conservatives battle it out for rhetorical supremacy. And everyone who views it that way is part of the problem — they persuade themselves that any behavior is justified, because the other side started it. But that’s nonsense. This scorched earth, activist approach to public discourse began long before any of us were born, the guy who “started it” is a long forgotten member of an indeterminate side, and his approach hasn’t yet overwhelmed us only because most people who participate in America’s ongoing conversation aim higher.

— Finally, I can’t help but reflect that beyond being wrong, the race-baiting that Mr. Ackerman rants about once on a private list-serv, and that Mr. Breitbart ostentatiously engages in on public sites, is basically pointless even as political strategy. Why don’t more people realize this? Does it seem at all plausible that accusing Fred Barnes of racism would actually advance the long term prospects of progressivism? Is it really plausible that any insult Mr. Ackerman offers is going to leave hack conservatives “sputtering in fear”? Come on. Being attacked by strident progressives helps people like Karl Rove, just like a virulent, unfair attack by Karl Rove would be about the best thing that could happen to Spencer Ackerman.

Similarly, consider the output of Andrew Breitbart. Ultimately, is it a victory for conservatism to make the NAACP look bad, or to force ACORN to reorganize under a different name, or to force the resignation of Van Jones, or to target this poor woman at the USDA? Hardly. The short term tactical victory is a distraction that gives the feeling of victory without actually shrinking the size of government or accomplishing any other conservative end. As far as I can tell, this is how politics works in the United States.

And if conservatives want to actually improve the country, rather than satisfy a trumped up lust for inconsequential victories in the culture war’s most absurd corners, they’d do better to focus on stories like this one. As I’ve noted before, journalism is a profession overwhelmingly populated by liberals, so they can afford to have some of their talent spending energy targeting Fred Barnes and doing other inconsequential bullshit — meanwhile the New York Times still gets published every day and the New Yorker comes out every week. The right doesn’t have this luxury. Unfortunately, many folks on the right think that battling the most vitriolic folks on the left is productive, despite the absence of any evidence for that proposition. Now I am going to eat a delicious peach from Trader Joes.

The Thorny Issue of What's Not Covered

Over at Hot Air, there is a post up that challenges some arguments I made after The Washington Post accepted Dave Weigel’s resignation. Those unfamiliar with my take can make due with this summary: A reporter ought to be judged on the merit of the work he or she publishes, rather than his or her privately expressed opinions, rants, etc. Press critic Jack Shafer has a similar take. This middle manager disagrees.

In his response, Blogger Karl complicates my “it’s about the work” argument:

In practice, questions of journalistic ethics often involve issues of what does not appear on the page or screen. When former CNN honcho Eason Jordan revealed that his network suppressed stories about atrocities in Iraq, it raised questions. When Reuters spiked a story about hedge fund trader Steven Cohen, it raised questions (for a variation on this theme, check the WaPo). When the L.A. Times told its bloggers not to write about the National Enquirer story on the John Edwards – Rielle Hunter affair, it raised questions (as did the fact that Mark Halperin and John Heilemann kept quiet about it while writing their book on the 2008 campaign). When the NYT slow-walked the ACORN and Van Jones stories, public editor Clark Hoyt opined that the paper risked “looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.” Thus, when a journalist uses a professional forum to encourage his colleagues to boycott The Washington Examiner, curtail coverage of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment (including criticism thereof), and to spin the Massachusetts Senate election as a function of Martha Coakley’s awfulness — because doing so would help the Democratic Party — ethical questions are definitely on the table, even if Friedersdorf wants to continue to blind himself to them.

A few caveats. I hate the formulations “raises questions” and “questions are definitely on the table.” I dissent from some of Karl’s examples — for example, the New York Times was absolutely right to react slowly to the ACORN story considering the factually misleading presentation that turned out to be given on Andrew Breitbart’s sites. And I don’t think that Karl is accurately characterizing what Dave Weigel was trying to do on JournoList (though I think he is being earnest and honorable in his inadvertent mischaracterization).

In theory, however, I agree that a reporter must be held responsible not only for what he or she publishes, but also for ignored stories, withheld facts, etc. Were there evidence that Mr. Weigel was guilty on this score — had he written an e-mail that said, “I’m not going to cover this Tea Party speech because I think it makes the movement look too good, and I want them to fail” — that would indeed be a firing offense.

But there isn’t any evidence of that. Even what Karl alleges — and what doesn’t seem true to me — is that Mr. Weigel was engaged in serial attempts to get other reporters to cover things in ways that made their work epistemically closed. As I wrote previously, “For what it’s worth, I do disapprove of anyone, Dave Weigel included, encouraging journalists ‘to operate as a closed media ecosystem that excludes competing political narratives.’” So if, contra my perception and his public assurances to the contrary, he did that, I object! Similarly, if he encourages his friends and family to only read The Washington Independent for all their news, and ignore every other media outlet on the planet, I object! I just don’t think it bears on the quality of his work, his employment at The Washington Post, etc. Similarly, should Karl go to a bar after work with a bunch of other conservative journalists, and tell them, “Damn you all, stop linking that Conor Friedersdorf, his writing is given too much attention, and he ought to be shunned,” I’d object, but I wouldn’t think it tells me anything about the quality of his posts at Hot Air.

As it happens, Karl also thinks that Dave Weigel is guilty of ignoring actual stories relevant to his beat. He writes:

Weigel may be a talented and hard-working writer, but selective reporting is his stock-in-trade. The signature of his body of work at the WaPo was his disproportionate focus on what he deemed to be the fringe of the Right. Thus, during a period where the biggest story in America was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Weigel wrote a number of pieces about birther Orly Taitz and virtually nothing about Gulf state Governors Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour, either of whom could seek the GOP presidential nod in 2012. Taken as a whole, Weigel’s portrait of the GOP and the conservative movement for the WaPo (and the Washington Independent before that) was about as fair and accurate as “A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America” is as a map of the nation.

I disagree with this assessment. Did Mr. Weigel cover the fringe of the conservative movement? Yes. I’d argue, however, that every story he covered (or at least every story I saw) is clearly justifiable as a news item, and I haven’t heard any account of news he came across but refrained from publishing in the same way as Eason Jordan in pre-war Iraq. It’s telling that the example Karl offers in the excerpt above is so weak. Yes, the oil spill was the biggest story in America for awhile, and I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Weigel didn’t write about Governors Jindal and Barbour. But the news media was all over the oil spill story. There are plenty of beat reporters covering it already, and political reporters who’ll exhaustively cover 2012 hopefuls, and statehouse reporters who cover the two governors in question.

Dave Weigel is covering lots of conservatives who get play in movement press, but who are ignored in the mainstream media. It’s long been a complaint among these people — the grassroots, lets call them — that they’re ignored by the establishment media. Starting covering them exhaustively, however, and a reporter is accused of focusing on the fringe. Suddenly the complaint is that Mr. Weigel takes them too seriously. There is simply no way to strike a balance in a way that doesn’t make someone on the right unhappy.

I’ve noticed this same phenomenon when I engage talk radio hosts in argument about the substance of what they’re saying. Suddenly, the complaints about the mainstream media ignoring Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or Glenn Beck despite their enormous popularity among conservatives cease, and the new complaint is that they’re just entertainers or satirists whose words aren’t to be criticized in the same way as other people.

In the end, it amounts to saying, “Cover the politically marginalized among us when it makes us look good, or advances the conservative movement, or the electoral chances of Republicans, because it isn’t fair that we’re so powerless and ignored — but ignore fringe stuff that makes the movement look bad, or hurts its electoral chances, because the people doing that stuff are ignored, powerless, and on the margins.”

Were I covering Mr. Weigel’s beat, I’m sure I’d have chosen a somewhat different mix of things to report on, and the same would be true for any reporter given the job. It involves a lot of subjective judgments about news, a sense of what one’s colleagues and one’s competitors are covering, the information needs of the audience etc. The fact that so many serious people found Mr. Weigel’s blog an indispensable source that offered information no one else was reporting suggests that, all things considered, he was doing a damn good job choosing what to cover, and certainly not so bad a job that he should’ve been forced out.

Friedersdorf wants to gloss over the questions raised by Weigel’s behavior on JournoList. However, Weigel’s disproportionate focus on the fringe of the Right, and his apparent double standard when it comes to coverage of the Leftist fringe, demonstrate that Weigel’s work on blogs was (and is) wholly consistent with his unofficial activism and anti-conservative invective on JournoList. It is not surprising that Friedersdorf cannot see that, given the degree to which Weigel’s selective reporting confirms Friedersdorf’s pre-existing attitudes about the Right.

Someone trying to gloss over a story doesn’t address it in multiple blog posts over several weeks or create YouTube parodies that attract 30,000 views. I appreciate that Karl and I disagree about this subject, and even that he thinks my biases are leading me astray. Perhaps he’s right! Everyone has biases that lead them astray. I don’t think that’s what is happening in this conversation, but I would think that, right? Nevertheless, I take steps to guard against my biases, so that even if I’m wrong, here or elsewhere, I do a minimal amount of harm.

I try to be transparent about my reasoning, avoid logical fallacies, read widely, link to people who disagree with me, and engage even forceful criticism from people hostile to my views. I’m sure I do a less than perfect job living up to all that, but I try hard, and I’m confident enough to put my record up against anyone online — even though I am hardly unique, and would do no better than a whole bunch of writers I admire from all parts of the political spectrum. It’s just the expectation in parts of the blogosphere, and I never ask anyone to meet standards that aren’t already achieved by many hundreds if not thousands of other writers.

When I complain about epistemic closure, I am talking about folks who do few or none of these things — and whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a journalist, that’s not Dave Weigel.

Comments can be e-mailed to Conor dot friedersdorf at gmail IGNORETHIS TEXT dot com — I’ll post concurrences and dissents as appropriate.

UPDATE:

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It’s a good point, and I’d add that supra shoes I think you’ve written a very smart comment there.

Orientation Day in the MSM

Hey Guys

I miss the old TAS crowd. Come visit me at The Agenda!

This is pretty shameless. I’ll make up for it by writing some terrible microfiction.

David Frum vs. Jonah Goldberg on Bloggingheads

It’s a credit to both of them that they agreed to debate one another. Below is one of the clips I found most interesting.

It’s heartening to hear Mr. Goldberg acknowledge that the most powerful talk radio hosts in the conservative movement are making untrue claims, and that those claims have negative consequences, though he and I apparently disagree about whether things are worse now than before.

Race as a Cudgel, Cont'd Again

Awhile back, I criticized columnist Charles Blow for a piece he did on a Tea Party rally near Dallas. After watching speeches by a black doctor, a Latina activist, and a Vietnamese immigrant, Mr. Blow wrote a column that basically called them minstrels. Several bloggers I enjoy pushed back against my post, and the whole thing went a couple rounds.

In a serious breach of blogging etiquette, I withdrew from the conversation so that I could do some reporting, hoping that I could get ahold of the speakers in question to get their perspective. At this point, I’ve talked to one of the speakers, and found video posted of all four speeches mentioned in the column — so I’ve revisited the topic here, where you can find all the relevant links.

Hang On to Children's Tapes

Twenty-one years ago Monday, a pivotal editorial published by the Politburo of the Communist Party of China in the People’s Daily denounced student demonstrations in Beijing, which had up to that point been peaceful and moderate, as “premeditated and organized turmoil with anti-Party and anti-socialist motives.” This declaration set off a series of fiery reactions that ultimately led to the chaos and violence of May 35th, 1989.

Zhao Ziyang spent his last sixteen years under house arrest. A former General Secretary of the Communist Party, at the very pinnacle of power, Zhao was unceremoniously banished to seclusion after the Tiananmen Square massacre for his opposition to conservative forces within China’s elite political establishment. Though often forgotten, as a non-person in China, Zhao is today remembered tragically for his failure to achieve a moderate or peaceful compromise between student protesters and a paranoid politburo in Beijing.

In his exile, Zhao had plenty of time to reflect on the events that unfolded in the spring of 1989. Unbeknown to his captors, and even to his family, Zhao produced hours of audio memoirs in secrecy by recording over old, poor-quality tapes of kids’ music and Peking Opera. He created a basic filing system with faint pencil markings, using no titles or legible notes. Over the years, Zhao quietly passed on the recordings to several trusted friends, careful to only disseminate portions at a time to hedge against the danger of confiscation. It turns out these recordings were probably just the copies. After his death, the presumed original tapes were found in plain sight, casually littered among his grandchildrens’ toys in the den.

The recordings have since been transcribed and translated, and offer a rare piece of insight into one of the most obfuscated and symbolic moments of modern history. This is the story of a noble yet pained statesman, proud of his position but aggrieved by his failure to prevent bloodshed. As Zhao recalls when tensions escalated past the point of no return:

“I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students… I refused to accept the assignment to chair the meeting of cadres to announce martial law [in Beijing]. I said, “It seems my mission in history has already ended.”

Read on.

On The Party of No

In what is merely the latest vindication of the movement to liberate him, Ross Douthat offers a sharp post on The Conservative Mind, Circa 2010 (emphasis added):

Even if you don’t venture into the wilder parts of the blogosphere and just stick with National Review, The Weekly Standard, National Affairs (which has made a big difference on this front) and a few other outlets, you’ll find a pretty lively debate about everything from financial reform to health care to taxes, with plenty of room for diversity and disagreement and heterodoxy. I’m not going to argue that this is a golden age of conservative domestic policy, exactly, but I do think that the end of the Bush administration has opened up space for a lot of interesting conversations, and allowed some impressive younger thinkers come to fore. Jim Manzi, Yuval Levin, James Capretta, Nicole Gelinas, Brad Wilcox, Luigi Zingales, Ramesh Ponnuru, my former co-author … maybe it isn’t the lost early-1970s world of Commentary and The Public Interest, but it certainly isn’t an intellectual wasteland.
The problem, as I’ve argued before, is that with rare exceptions (a Mitch Daniels, a Paul Ryan), there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them. This was true during the stimulus debate, it was true during the health care debate, it’s been largely true during the financial-reform debate, and I’m worried that it will be true once we start debating the deficit in earnest as well…
What you don’t hear enough from the pundits and intellectuals, I think, are complaints about this state of affairs. Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.

In National Review, Jonah Goldberg says that Mr. Douthat is “basically right” in his take (though he reserves the right to revise and extend his remarks). I hope he’ll weigh in again, because I’m a bit confused. In another recent post on epistemic closure in conservatism, Mr. Goldberg wrote, “It seems to me that when liberals control all of the policy-making apparatus, being the party of no is a perfectly rational stance that has less to do with a poverty of good ideas than an empirical appreciation for political reality. Lord knows the Democrats did not ride back to power on the backs of nimble and novel public policy prescriptions.”

This seems somewhat contradictory.

In his post, Mr. Douthat asserts that conservative magazines and columnists should call out GOP politicians for offering bromides instead of substance. If that is basically right, then isn’t Mr. Goldberg’s writing in defense of “The Party of No” a small example of the way conservative intellectuals are complicit in the dearth of “nuanced right-of-center discussion”?

Some of Mr. Goldberg’s critics assume that he is never critical of the right, a charge that I find unfair, but whereas Mr. Douthat thinks, for example, that “there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them” during the health care debate, Mr. Goldberg believes the GOP “did succeed in undermining the Democrats’ central talking point: that the Republican party has no ideas on health care. It may have been dull enough to force Osama bin Laden from his cave, but the Republicans patiently telegraphed an inconvenient truth: They do care about health-care reform; they just loathe Democrats’ version of it (and, yes, have much to gain by blocking it).”

Mr. Douthat made the same complaint about the way the GOP handled the stimulus debate, whereas Mr. Goldberg seems to have endorsed the approach. In another column on the same subject, he wrote:

If the stimulus bill is good policy, let Democrats take the credit for it and Republicans the blame for opposing it. If it’s a disaster, let all praise and honor go to the GOP and let Democrats pay the price.
Democracy is about disagreement; let the parties have their disagreement.

I’m not saying Mr. Goldberg is wrong on the merits here — I am skeptical of the stimulus myself — but I just don’t think that his approach to the issue, or his writing on the health care debate, or his approach to punditry generally, is compatible with believing that Mr. Douthat has things basically right. Or again, in his post, Mr. Douthat says this about the unwillingness of conservative intellectuals to call out Republican politicians:

This is part of why David Frum attracts so much attention, positive and negative: Not because his policy preferences are so far outside the conservative mainstream, but because he’s made it his business to hold various prominent right-wingers and Republicans accountable for being vacuous or inflammatory, instead of just training all his fire on liberals. I don’t always agree with the targets he picks and way he goes about it, but conservatism needs more of that kind of internal criticism, not less.

Here is Mr. Goldberg on David Frum. Suffice it to say that his analysis is much different. I’m left wondering what exactly Mr. Douthat and Mr. Goldberg agree on, beyond the fact that the right’s foreign policy debate is largely closed to anyone who disagrees with the aggressively hawkish consensus.

If I might pivot to a related point, Mr. Douthat says the right would be better off if its intellectuals would “call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” I agree, but I’d go a step farther: National Review and The Weekly Standard should rethink the kinds of politicians they get behind, whether its the former throwing its support behind a dubiously qualified Texas governor during the 1999 GOP primaries, or the latter leading the charge to imbue former Governor Sarah Palin with a coherent political philosophy that she most certainly doesn’t possess. What incentives can there be for rising politicians on the right to embrace substance when smart young writers like Matthew Continetti at publications like The Weekly Standard join talk radio and Fox News in lavishing their attention on perhaps the least substantive GOP politician in America today?

I am curious to see whether these problems persist or abate as the GOP field shapes up in advance of the 2012 primaries — and if going forward Mr. Goldberg endeavors “to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”

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