The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Articles filed under The Media

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.

In Texas, Even Democrats Use Their Guns

In the age of armed Tea Partiers and conservative brick-throwers, you can always count on Texas to turn it all around. This story, from my tiny hometown newspaper, takes the cake:

Freestone County resident running for State Representative for District 8, Democratic candidate Charles E. Morgan, was arrested Thursday April 15, 2010 on a charge of phone harassment; a Class B Misdemeanor.

According to court documentation, on August 23, 2009, Morgan placed a phone call to Anadarko Petroleum Corporation’s emergency phone, wherein Morgan threatened to bring a gun to the residence of Anadarko employee Kelly Hutchinson. The recorded phone conversation was submitted to authorities by Hutchinson, who filed a complaint of phone harassment.

Morgan has been an active representative for Citizens for Environmental Clean-up (CEC), speaking before the County Commissioners Court on several occasions about installing air quality monitors and conducting a noise assessment for the county.

Where else would an armed Democratic candidate threaten a petroleum corporation with a gun over environmental disagreements?

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.”

On the Wrong Side of the Historical Tea Party

Nothing gets me going quite like Sarah Palin’s idiotic foreign policy pronouncements, so I’m especially glad to see Will Saletan point this out:

Sarah Palin thinks Barack Obama is a wimp. She’s been going around to Tea Party rallies, invoking the spirit of revolutionary Boston and castigating Obama for failing to exalt American power and punish our adversaries. She seems blissfully unaware that the imperial arrogance she’s preaching isn’t how the American founders behaved. It’s how the British behaved, and why they lost. Palin represents everything the original Tea Party was against. …

The British hawks, like Palin, saw self-restraint as wimpy and dangerous. If Britain retreated from the tax policies that had provoked the Tea Party, they warned, the colonists would take this as “Proofs of our Weakness, Disunion and Timidity.” Miller writes, “Few Englishmen believed that the mother country could retain its sovereignty if it retreated in the face of such outrage: it was now said upon every side that the colonists must be chastised into submission.”

China and Destabilizing Deficits

China is now running a trade deficit — not a surplus. This might be a surprise to those of you who faithfully follow the Opinion pages of The New York Times.
On New Year’s Eve, Paul Krugman came out swinging: “China’s currency is pegged by official policy at about 6.8 yuan to the dollar. At this exchange rate, Chinese manufacturing has a large cost advantage over its rivals, leading to huge trade surpluses…The bottom line is that Chinese mercantilism is a growing problem, and the victims of that mercantilism have little to lose from a trade confrontation.”

The following month, Krugman basically hit the publish button again, though with more provocative language. And not three days later a New York Times editorial, Will China Listen? [presumably to Krugman], offered a strikingly similar condemnation: “China’s decision to base its economic growth on exporting deliberately undervalued goods is threatening economies around the world. It is fueling huge trade deficits in the United States and Europe.”
So what happened? How did the coronated world-leader in predatory trade practices become a net consumer? The answer is partly way down under , as China’s appetite for commodities and energy continues to soar. But if the financial crisis taught us anything it’s that China’s economy is not export-dependent, and it probably hasn’t been for some time. In late 2008 and early 2009, as the global consumer began stashing cash under her foreclosed-upon tool shed, doomsday media headlines predicted economic and social catastrophe in China. Here are some of the choice headlines: Rising Desperation as China’s Exports Drop (NYT), China’s Hard Landing (Fortune), and The Last Pillar of China’s Economy Falls (Time). Ouch. The basic assumption – which some still defend – was that China’s economy couldn’t survive a precipitous drop in its exports. Apparently no one was convinced by Jonathan Anderson’s thorough assessment way back in 2007 on the diminished role of exports in China’s economy. In 2009, outflows fell by 16.4% and the country’s account surplus with the US narrowed by about 35%, yet total economic activity (GDP) in China remained remarkably bullish, growing by more than 8%. So much for export dependence.
Back to the here and now. Is the RMB undervalued? Probably somewhat. It was undergoing a steady appreciation against the USD before Beijing threw on the brakes, not moments before the markets took a dive. And recently the RMB has depreciated along with the dollar against most other currencies, though that may say more about the dollar than it does about the RMB. Regardless, Beijing has a great deal of interest in a stronger RMB – as China-based companies buy up foreign commodities and brands (a la Volvo) – which is why we will likely soon see just that.

There are a few things that people don’t often recognize about trade with China. First, about 55% of China’s exports are actually produced by foreign companies with international investors. That number goes up above 80% in high-tech industries. For many businesses, China serves as a final assembly center for components and materials sourced from countries around the world. For example , Apple’s iPod is manufactured in China, but less than 5% of its end value is actually created by Chinese citizens or resources. For the difference we must look elsewhere, such as Australian metals or well-paid creative service jobs in the US. Those well-paying US jobs wouldn’t exist unless companies like Apple are allowed to source different parts of the production process to different markets. China is just one stop among many production hubs in an intricate commerce network that drives efficiency and lowers prices for end consumers. This global economic restructuring should be welcomed so long as more value is being created than lost. Unfortunately, wealth in the US is less evenly distributed now than it was, and that’s a problem, but China didn’t tell us to spend our credit line dropping bombs and neglecting schools. That one’s on us.
At the same time, more than 70% of US-based companies are operating in China not for labor but for the consumer market. China has become a major highlight on otherwise depressing balance sheets for scores of US-based companies. For example, it looks like GM will sell more cars in China this year than in the US. And they are not alone. Look at Boeing, Nokia, Volkswagen, or Coca-Cola. Or basically any luxury brand you can think of. To be sure, there are disconcerting challenges for foreign companies operating in China, such as ambiguous legal frameworks, IPR theft, information censorship, and limited market access in sensitive industries, among others. But China is an unparalleled long-term business opportunity, already paying out USD and EUR dividends for many, as 71% of the US-based businesses reported profitability in their China operations for 2009, which, if you didn’t notice, wasn’t exactly a boon year for the global economy. 

Don’t get caught up believing that all of this could make or break the US. Because then, tragically, it just might. China’s exports are not prominently responsible for recent economic woes – particularly unemployment – in the US. At most, China and other major developing economies are just begging a lot of tough questions for Americans about global economic activity in the 21st century. Turning back the clock is not a good option. And painting China as the villain in our economic tragedy is a debilitating mistake, because it actually leads people to believe that for some reason forces within the US are not responsible for economic conditions in the US.
The US economy is in trouble, and confronting China on currency practices is like blaming the bat boy for striking out. The very thought betrays a sickening, corrosive sense of entitlement and disgusting priorities. You see it in record fiscal deficits, accumulated to fight wars while high-school graduation rates are below 80%; you see it in Easy Street bailouts that don’t allow the failures of profligate do-nothings to fail; you see it in protectionist legislation designed to prevent Americans from ever having to compete in a global market; and you see it in headlines running on the country’s most well-respected newspaper such as Will China Listen?.
Maybe it is time for the US to listen. Or just go back to work.

NOTE & INTRODUCTION: A few excerpts of this post appeared on my previous blog,, which has since been ‘harmonized’ by the great firewall. And I thought I was being pretty good to China… For those of you who don’t know me, and for full disclosure, I recently moved to Shanghai from Beijing, and now work in one of those comparatively well-paying creative service jobs, within the energy industry, that probably wouldn’t exist were it not for free markets and international commerce.

Salvaging CNN Must Involve Compelling Images

Compared to present day CNN, I’d much prefer the alternative lineups proposed by either Jay Rosen or Ross Douthat, but even these ever astute writers miss diagnosing what I regard as the biggest flaws in cable news, and are insufficiently radical in imagining alternatives.

Put simply, both writers fail to grapple with the medium of television and its comparative advantages. Yes, CNN is competing with Fox News and MSNBC, but it is also competing with The New York Times, The Drudge Report, National Public Radio, Twitter, and every other medium Americans use to stay informed and satiate their appetite for current events.

Unless CNN can persuade more people to meet these needs by watching television, it is fighting a doomed battle for a shrinking percentage of Americans who watch cable news, many of whom are going to die in the next decade or two. (Recent posts about the successful growth of NPR in recent years would do well to point out that its staffers have been quite adept at harnessing the particular strengths of radio — listening to a show like This American Life, it is evident that its producers think very carefully about how to showcase on the medium of sound.) Take a story like the Tiger Woods affair: watching it on CNN is very inefficient. The images are inevitably boring aerial shots of his house or stock footage of him playing golf, and the same information is endlessly repeated as if you’re living in a loop, whereas if I turn off the TV, I can drive at the same time as I follow the story on sports radio, or work at the same time as I absorb it via Tweets, or quickly scan a Web article that doesn’t keep regurgitating the same information.

Even more depressing from the perspective of CNN is the fact that Web operations like The New York Times Online can now offer video that is comparable in quality to what CNN broadcasts, so even a story that is enhanced by some moving pictures doesn’t necessitate turning on the TV — just as the Web has made long form journalism the comparative advantage of print magazines, the Web magazine makes longer form, broadcast quality narrative video a comparative advantage of television networks.

Mr. Douthat noted that there simply aren’t enough exceptionally newsworthy, visually compelling news stories to fill up 24 hours of CNN airtime. More about that in a moment. His suggested replacement — quality political debate — is no more visually compelling. Guys in shirts and ties and women in blouses talking to one another in a studio doesn’t harness the comparative advantage of television. If I can listen to quality debate on the radio while I drive or surf the Web, or tune into on my iPod, or watch an opinionated vlogger via my RSS reader, why would I instead consume it on television, where the need to book guests who meet some minimal aesthetic standard and are physically convenient to a studio inevitably degrades the level of discourse?

So what do I suggest? Unlike Mr. Douthat, I don’t think there is a dearth of stories suited to a visual medium, or that covering more stories with an emphasis on moving pictures is necessarily prohibitively expensive. There are talented documentary journalists all over America who would thrill at a new market for work that is shorter form than their films, but longer form than anything reaching a mass market today — and they wouldn’t have to be paid much. I think that CNN should borrow from certain news radio programs, and structure things as follows: breaking news of the sort it does now on the hour and the half hour, and in between more considered segments of various lengths streaming in from freelancers all over the country, showcasing interesting visual risks, creative approaches to storytelling rather than the same old reporter standing in front of where news happened several hours before, etc. Put another way, CNN should turn some of its hours into the visual equivalent of a magazine rather than a newspaper, and it should also create particular shows organized by subject.

Mr. Douthat wrote, “You won’t be surprised to learn, too, that I’d like to see a serious hour-long show focused on religion and/or the culture wars — a kind of serious analogue to the Daily Show’s ‘This Week in God,’ you might say, featuring a nightly interview round-table that would accommodate new atheists and neo-Calvinists alike.” I’d rather see an hour long religion show in which video journalists broadcast moving images to tell stories from congregations all over America — show me the staid protestant church in New England, the snake handling Pentecostals in Appalachia, the Amish teens striking out into the world to help them decide their future, the mega-Church of Rick Warren, the charity projects some Catholics are doing in Tijuana, etc.

Just as The Big Picture is far more interesting and wonderful than the usually boring photo on the front page of the newspaper, and the audio interviews in This American Life are so much more rich and varied than the sound-bytes heard on straight news programs, CNN could broadcast moving pictures that are far more varied, interesting, and creative than the formulaic crap they so often show today — and even their boring video is better than the endless time spent inside the studio staring at an anchor, a news desk, or talking heads. Either cable news is going to capitalize on the comparative advantage its medium affords, or it is going to die, whether sooner or later.

Show me things I need to see — or else why would I watch?

Fool Me Once...

I wonder if Andrew Breitbart, Fox News, James O’Keefe, and Hannah Giles will apologize to Juan Carlos Vera, or issue corrections to what can no longer be considered a journalistic effort. They portrayed this guy as a willing accomplice to the smuggling of underage illegal immigrant prostitutes. As it turns out, he used what little English skills he possessed to draw out their made up story, pin down contact information, and report what he found out to police soon after the twenty-somethings left his San Diego office.

In other words, Mr. Vera did the right thing. Mr. Breitbart can claim he was ignorant of that fact. But unless he publishes one hell of an apology… well, even if he does so I can’t say I’ll ever again be inclined to trust anything he publishes, so I guess now that the truth is out it’s another public test of his character. Will he persist in arguing that the means justify the end even when it involves tarnishing the reputation of an apparently innocent guy?

Sometime this week I’ll issue appropriate corrections to any factual errors I find in stories I’ve written on this subject, presuming that the California Attorney General report reveals any. In the meantime, even the fact that some ACORN employees behaved inappropriately doesn’t change the fact that I missed half the story here for too long, irrespective of whether rereading my work shows it to be technically accurate or not. Initially I trusted “Big” content far more than I should have — an especially vexing realization given that the suspicions I’ve always had about the Breitbart approach to discourse. I should’ve known better, and I let the illusion of evidence (misleadingly edited video, transcripts I read too credulously) fool me.

I suppose this post frees commenter Chet to pursue corrections from all the other sites that were misled by Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Breitbart. Go get ‘em…

A Hastily Compiled, Non-Definitive List of Books That Have Influenced Me

Tyler Cowen has posted a list of books which influenced him the most, and, on Twitter, Mr. Gobry has asked for similar lists from TAS contributors. Happy to oblige! I’m not sure if the books below are truly the absolute most influential in my life, but they’re certainly the ones that immediately stick out in my mind as having stuck with me over time.

Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury: I’ve always been a little perplexed by the book’s reputation as a defense of free speech. It is, of course, but that’s not its most important point by far. Instead, it’s a novel about mental debilitation and loss of empathy induced by media overload — in particular, overload on shallow, visual, electronic media. It’s also a novel about the love of stories, and the way written stories in particular can provide humans with meaning, purpose, and escape; by the book’s end, the hero joins an outcast community in which individuals devote themselves not only to learning works of literature, but to immersing themselves in them, fusing their identities with these works and, in a sense, becoming them. For reasons that should be obvious, I’ve long found this wonderful and tremendously appealing.

Videohound’s Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics: Before the Internet, and thus before easy access to IMDB and the rest of the digital cinemaverse, cinephiles had to rely on incomplete reference books in order to familiarize themselves with back catalog films. For years, I poured over Videohounds’ cult film guide almost daily, and its sensibility — a quirky mix of giddy, passionate, erudite, snarky, and critical — helped shape my appreciation of and attitude toward pulp ever since.

The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov: As an eight year old first reading the book, I loved Asimov’s cleverly constructed murder mystery story, and as an already-devoted sci-fi geek (Star Trek was a staple in my household), I loved the intricate future world Asimov designed even more. But what stuck with me most was the slightly detached, slightly cranky, cerebral-but-not-stuck-up quality of both the detective protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the storytelling itself. As with most of Asimov’s characters (and, as I understand, Asimov himself), Baley was a hyper self-aware invert somewhat vexed by people and social situations, but who solved problems by thinking them through as thoroughly as possible and accepting whatever results, often imperfect, came of this method. Perhaps to my detriment, I related to this quite a bit and found it a useful model for understanding human relations.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture — frequently crude and base — but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.

Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card: Speaking of hyper-cerebral! Scott Card’s later books descend into a near-parody of the Asimovian worldview, with protagonists who presume (and act upon) an absurdly concrete and knowable understanding of human behavior. But while you can find hints of this in Ender’s Game, it works anyway, in large part because of the young age of its heroes. These days, I prefer the first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, both of which are more mature in their outlook. But the original is the one I’ve read most often, and the one I think of most.

The Catcher in the Rye — J.D. Salinger: Yes, another novel about a social outcast who spends too much time in his head. But it’s a classic for a reason, and an enduring portrait of adolescent questioning.

American Pastoral — Philip Roth: Probably the finest work of prose in the bunch, and arguably also the most mature, it’s one of those novels that’s both impressive and gripping — not only do you admire it, but you can’t stop flipping pages as you do.

You may have noticed that except for the Videohound guide, it’s all fiction. For a reason! While I read a lot of magazine-length nonfiction, I read very little in the way of nonfiction books. And what I have read came later: In my formative, pre-college years, I probably read fewer than a dozen non-fiction books (not counting school text books, although I suppose I didn’t actually read most of those either). It’s not that nonfiction books haven’t influenced me — think of obvious libertarian touchstones: The Road to Serfdom, The Law, Capitalism and Freedom, The Calculus of Consentbut I read them most of them post-college and, as a result, I suppose I don’t feel like they’re really, well… as much a part of me in the Fahrenheit 451 sense.

Another Exceptional Critique of Lowry and Ponnuru

Daniel Larison offers another deconstruction of the infamous essay and the even weaker response:

[T]heir argument is not really with Obama’s belief in American exceptionalism, but something much more basic. They do not much care for his domestic policy, and they have a sneaking suspicion that there is something wrong with his foreign policy even though they cannot actually prove it. For whatever reason, instead of advancing policy arguments against the administration’s agenda, they have concocted a half-baked theory to make American progressivism and American exceptionalism appear antithetical to one another when any halfway honest accounting of modern domestic and foreign policy tells us that they have been complementary and closely linked. From my perspective, that is one reason to be very skeptical of American exceptionalism, but there is no real reason why anyone who believes in American exceptionalism should doubt Obama’s belief in the same.

Conor dealt with this business here and here.

The Party of Small Government

I’ve got a piece up at Newsweek looking at how Paul Ryan’s deficit-killing Roadmap For America might cause problems for the GOP.

Evangelical Humanitarians, Condoning Anti-Tax Violence, Etc.

Peter beat me to recommending Ross’ great column on the health care summit, but almost everything in the Times Week In Review section is worth a read this week.

Nicholas Kristof on evangelical humanitarians expanding the definition of “pro-life”:

A pop quiz: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization?

It’s not Save the Children, and it’s not CARE — both terrific secular organizations. Rather, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.

…Evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.

And Frank Rich on Republican pols who got way too close to condoning the suicide attack on the I.R.S. building in Austin:

What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass — or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a “Tea Party terrorist.” But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack’s credo — rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.

Elsewhere we have a clash of European privacy and American speech, the terrifying things that could happen if we leave health care alone, and some typical Gore on climate change.

The Winners

My picks for the best journalism of 2009 are posted here.

The Best of Journalism: 2008

(Originally published in Culture11, I am republishing this feature at The American Scene in advance of the 2009 awards. Is an enterprising editor perhaps interested in paying to publish those? If not you’ll see ‘em here.)

Best Storytelling

Trouble in Paradise by William Prochnau and Laura Parker

Perhaps you’ve seen Mutiny on the Bounty. Did you know it was a true story? Or that the rogue sailors kidnapped Polynesian women, sailed away to escape the British Navy, and wound up on a remote island where they proceeded to develop a society whose social mores were a bi-cultural mix of Polynesian and rogue sailor? That’s just the beginning of the most fascinating story I read all year.

Best Personal Essay

What Kind of Father Am I? By James McConkey

The writer, an octogenarian, looks back “at a lifetime of parenting sons and being parented by them.” His essay brims with all the wisdom of a life well lived, rendered with dramatic tension and ringing as true as Leo Tolstoy at his best. The personal essay form is so often the province of the young these days. We cannot compete with the best our elders can muster.

A Woman’s Place by Caitlin Flanagan

The writer, musing on “Katie Couric’s long day’s journey into the evening,“manages to capture a ubiquitous but little remarked upon fact of modern life — the way in which television and its characters insert themselves into our lives, age as we do, provide us with succor, and come to feel as though we know them. It’s the rare magazine piece on a celebrity that’s worth reading.

Best Court Reporting

Dispatches from the R. Kelly Trial by Josh Levin

The writer captures the absurdity of the rapper’s… well, the absurdity of everything about him.

Best Profile

A Boy’s Life by Hanna Rosin

“Since he could speak, Brandon, now 8, has insisted that he was meant to be a girl,” says the subhead. “This summer, his parents decided to let him grow up as one.” The story,exhaustively reported and scrupulously balanced, delves into the scientific debate about the nature of gender, and asks “whether the limits of child indulgence have stretched too far.”

Best Review

Big Kills by Anthony Lane

The writer cinches this award with the first paragraph alone:

What is it like being Timur Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.

Read the rest here.

Covering the Economic Disaster

The Giant Pool of Money by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson

The single best piece of financial journalism ever produced. You’ll even understand it!

The End by Michael Lewis

“The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. The writer, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.”

Foreign Affairs

Policing Afghanistan by Graeme Wood

In Afghanistan an ethnic minority group that traces its lineage to Genghis Khan is proving to be an excellent source of recruits as Allied forces try to professionalize the police force. Why are they so professional in comparison to other Afghan policemen? Is using a minority group to police the majority setting the stage for horrific reprisals once Western forces leave the country? The writer answers these questions in an elegantly written, exceptionally contextualized piece reported while running through grape fields, avoiding Taliban ambushes and IEDs.

Into the Valley of Death by Sebastian Junger

This dispatch from “the deadliest pieces of terrain in the world for U.S. forces” chronicles Army outposts where “men spend their days in a surreal combination of backbreaking labor—building outposts on rocky ridges—and deadly firefights, while they try to avoid the mistakes the Russians made.” This piece made me appreciate, more than anything else I’ve read, the dangerous conditions braved by Americans on the front lines.

Best Campaign Coverage

The Magazine Industry!

Whether measured by scoops, quality of analysis or enjoyability of the read, newspapers were handily outshone by magazine writers covering election 2008 — notable mentions go to John Heilemann at New York, John Dickerson and Chris Beam at Slate, Marc Ambinder and Josh Green at The Atlantic, and Camille Paglia at Salon.

The Hardest Vote by George Packer

The writer tours Ohio, capturing the disaffection of working class voters.

Story I’d Most Want Every Mayor in America to Read

The NYPD Diaspora by Heather MacDonald

Want to reduce the murder rate in your city? The writer argues that crime-fighting techniques pioneered by the NYPD are doing just that all over America as former New York cops become police chiefs elsewhere.

Excellent Articles to Read Together

Food for Thought by John Schwenkler

The writer argues that renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause.

Farmer in Chief by Michael Pollan

The writer pens a letter to our next president about our blinkered agricultural policies.

Best Article on a Topic You Don’t Actually Need to Know Anything About

Up and Down by Nick Paumgarten

Every interesting fact related to elevators, and the story of one man trapped inside one. Will he live? Will he die?

The What You Are Afraid Of by Adam Sternbergh

The writer demonstrates his genius by penning a whole story about the comments section of a Brooklyn Web site — and it’s somehow gripping from start to finish!

Best Piece of Meta Criticism

How Wood Works: The Riches and Limits of James Wood by William Deresiewicz

If you like great literature, critics, and getting deep into the weeds about the ways in which they intersect, this piece is for you.

Best Legal Story

Too Weird for the Wire by Kevin Carey

“How black Baltimore drug dealers are using white supremacist legal theories to confound the Feds.”

Best Non-Fiction Book

The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

This exhaustively reported look at the Bush Administration’s use of torture and other illegal methods in the War on Terror has an ideological edge to it. No matter, for the facts presented are too powerful to be ignored, though that is just what segments of the right-leaning press is doing.

Best Story About an Absurd Topic

Hot for Creature by Eric Wills

“Thirteen years ago, William Dranginis saw Bigfoot. Fifty grand, a van, and a camera in a log later, the quest continues.”

Somehow, I Ended Up in a Bloggingheads Called "Puppies Are Awesome"

But don’t let that fool you: There are no puppies involved, just TPM’s Brian Beutler and myself talking health care reform.

Since puppies actually are awesome, and I wouldn’t want to leave you disappointed, here’s a picture of Bartleby:

Who Is the Inventor of Pomoconservatism?

James Poulos, Jeopardy champion!

The Gatekeeper

My first magazine feature for Reason — a look at the Congressional Budget Office — is now available online.

A Strange Argument About Political Journalism

In our recent Bloggingheads, I complained to Peter, as I am prone to do, about political writers and commentators who knowingly mislead their audiences. One of his responses was to say that it seemed as though what I want is more earnestness in political discourse.

That actually isn’t the case. Earnestness has its place in political discourse, especially when you’re trying to persuade people who are inclined to dismiss your arguments before even considering them. It also characterizes some of my blog posts (perhaps too many, as one can certainly be over-solicitous of folks who are going to focus on what they imagine or tactically assert to be your motivations). But I believe that sarcasm, polemic, satire, hyperbole, dark humor, and writers whose tone is seldom if ever earnest, whatever else it is, all have their place in journalism and conversations about politics more broadly. It is entirely possible to be fair, truthful, and logical without being earnest at all.

This brings me to Helen Rittelmeyer. Since she’s been honest about her dislike of my writing, I’ll disclose that her prose often drives me to distraction, probably more than it rationally ought to do — I spent half her piece on lady blogs mentally screaming at my laptop for her to acknowledge the existence of men’s magazines, and to grapple with them in her argument. It is precisely because Ms. Rittelmeyer is smart, and has a lot to offer as a writer, that it vexes me when she papers over flaws and incompletely fleshed out aspects of her arguments with nice turns of phrase, unkilled darlings, and too cute cleverness.

As best as I can tell, her argument in this post is that if you believe journalists shouldn’t lie, or write stuff they don’t believe for money, or allow partisan loyalties to color their writing in ways that mislead or misinform, you’re not qualified to write about politics. Of course, she doesn’t put her argument as starkly as I’ve just done it, but read the whole post yourself. Isn’t that what she’s basically saying, beneath the rhetorical flourishes that make the argument as she puts it seem less absurd?

Let me put it this way: I think pacifism is wrong, but I wouldn’t ever try to talk someone out of it; I’m glad that there are pacifists in the world, and I admire the commitment of the real pacifists I’ve met. But I wouldn’t send one to cover World War Two. I wouldn’t send a society matron to cover the NCAA playoffs. And I wouldn’t assign a punctiliously honest, “enlightened discourse” loving, goo-goo throwback like Conor to cover politics.

I’d like to hear more about why Ms. Rittlemeyer wouldn’t send a pacifist to cover World War II. Whatever her answer, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be analogous to sending a society matron to cover an NCAA playoff game, since the underlying relationship is different in kind. As far as I can tell, the wisdom of assigning me to cover politics isn’t usefully informed by either analogy — violence is intrinsic to war in a way that isn’t true about dishonest journalists and politics, and I’m sure I observe politics a lot more closely than the archetypal society matron watches college basketball. As far as I can tell, we have the assertion from Ms. Rittlemeyer that a desire for honest public discourse is disqualifying without any coherent account of why this is so.

Then there is this:

No one has railed against mercenary journalism as fervently as Condorf. He always insists that you should never write something you don’t believe simply because you can get paid to write it. But if sending Conor to cover politics is like sending Dorothy Day to cover the Battle of Normandy, then it’s strange to hear him admit that money is the only reason he writes about politics so much. Remember, it’s not just that Conor doesn’t like writing about politics, or that it doesn’t interest him. It’s that his deep and powerful aversions to things like money, naked ambition, and team loyalty make him constitutionally ill-suited to political journalism. No crime there, but it does make his career seem masochistic.

Again, beneath the writerly flash this is certainly wrong, and perhaps empty. Does Ms. Rittlemeyer think that journalists should write stuff they don’t believe for monetary rewards? It sounds like an absurd question, but she certainly treats my belief that they shouldn’t do so as a quaint, fundamentally unserious curiosity. The pacifist analogy remains problematic for all sorts of reasons — to pick just one, it’s perfectly clear how more Dorothy Days among the allies could’ve weakened the fight against literal Nazis, whereas reducing mercenary journalism would be bad how? Ms. Rittlemeyer also seems unable to grasp the distinction between criticizing journalists who write stuff they don’t believe for money, on the one hand, and being someone who writes what he believes about politics more than he otherwise would because there is a market for it.

Why she believes I have an aversion to money, ambition or loyalty is beyond me. And while it’s true that I’d gladly start spending 40 percent of my time on fiction and 40 percent on travel writing tomorrow given a winning lottery ticket, that hardly makes writing about politics a masochistic exercise, seeing as how I’ve chosen it myself instead of any number of other careers I am perfectly capable of doing. I’d gladly go another round about the necessary attributes of political journalists, if there is actually anything more than what we’ve seen so far to her argument. Meanwhile consider this a broadsword to its slight sternum.

Newer articles ↑

Older articles ↓