Archive for October, 2009

The Many Projects of American Conservatives

October 27, 2009

Damn you, The New York Times, give Ross Douthat a blog! Don’t you understand that delay makes no sense? You’ll get exceptional content for the same outlay in salary, better print columns, and ideas that more fully penetrate the national conversation. What’s your downside?

My interest in the matter is selfish. Due to Mr. Douthat’s extended absence, Rod Dreher and I have been talking past the folks at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen in a sprawling, muddled debate about the state of the right, the role dissident conservatives should play, and the wisdom of attacking talk radio hosts, among other issues. If only there were a deliberate writer who would ponder our entries, clarify the issues at stake in a concise, hyper-linked summary of our views, and proceed to offer a fair-minded assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, finally adding a bit of insightful analysis that moves the whole conversation forward. Already I’m plotting my final escape from Washington DC. Should Mr. Douthat and his calming influence on the political blogosphere remain absent much longer I may just stop writing about politics entirely. Alternating between avocado farming and my book project sounds like a fine life indeed.

Meanwhile I can only offer this imperfect monster of an essay. This all began when Freddie wrote this post, where he castigates dissident conservatives for disavowing the various sins of the Bush Administration rather than taking responsibility for them. I responded by arguing that Freddie possesses an incoherent notion of what it means to take responsibility for something, and pointed out that the political philosophy of conservatism is distinct from the governing coalition of George W. Bush Republicans and even from “movement conservatism.”

Enter Julian Sanchez, who charitably restates Freddie’s screed. He writes:

It’s not that opinion writers should have bad consciences about not being party activists, or that a fondness for Edmund Burke actually makes one “responsible” for whatever some racist loons shout at a town hall, which would be silly, but is also an easy way to read the claim on a first pass. Rather it’s that there’s an actual conservative base out there supporting the political actors, they’re not going away anytime soon, and if the conservative movement’s going to pull out of this toxic death spiral, someone who’s not an imbecile or a psychopath is going to have to identify with them enough to lead them out of the fever swamps. Someone has to play Prospero here and say: “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

The temptation for someone who wants to see a sane conservative movement is to think that if only you can sufficiently distance yourself from the crazy shouty people—the ones on the radio and the ones in their audiences—you can rope together the more moderate conservatives with a big chunk of independents and forge some new untainted coalition. But no, you go to politics with the base you’ve got, not the one you might wish you had—you’re actually going to need at least some of the crazy shouty people. Presumably there’s a limit, and there are voices you do need to marginalize if conservatism itself isn’t going to be marginal—the Michael Savages and Orly Taitzes. But if there’s value to pointing out that Rush Limbaugh is a crass blowhard, it’s also a little too easy.

Agreed, though I insist on reaffirming the distinction between the political philosophy conservatism and “movement conservatism.” The flaws that are so evident on the right are entirely due to the latter.

Let’s travel back for a moment to the Civil Rights era, when many conservatives were saying, “Slow down, desegregation is happening too fast,” while many liberals were saying, “The time for justice is now.” Were I alive during that era I’d like to think that I’d have sided with the liberals. It certainly would’ve been the right choice, as even folks like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley ultimately acknowledged. That is an example of how the political philosophy conservatism was inadequate to the circumstances of the country. It is a perfectly conservative impulse to resist rapid social change. In that case, it was also a perfectly wrongheaded stance.

The present moment is different. Consider the most egregious blunders championed by the right lately. You’ve got the Iraq War, an ill-considered Utopian adventure in nation building; a radical attempt to revamp the separation of powers; a regime of lawless torture that utterly ignored the corruptibility of all humans, especially those in positions of power; irresponsible deficit spending; the appointment of unqualified people to staff the federal government; and a slow federal response to a national disaster. Unlike the conservative failure on civil rights, these weren’t instances where the philosophy of conservatism was coherently applied, but proved inadequate to specific circumstances, or led its adherents astray due to some feature embedded in the body of thought. On the contrary, the Bush Administration would’ve done far less damage to the country had it adhered more closely to conservatism properly understood, or even coherently understood.

As a practical matter, “the conservative movement” now refers to a political coalition most recently led by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Tom Delay. Often the thread that connected its actions to the political philosophy of conservatism was impossibly thin. Other times it was nonexistent. This is a political coalition that deemed John Ashcroft excessively respectful of civil liberties, and replaced him with Alberto Gonzalez. It claimed power to detain an American citizen indefinitely without charges, based solely on a judgment made by a president who wasn’t subject to oversight — and its lackeys, from Rush Limbaugh on down to self-described conservative Republicans, too often went along with these policies, insisting all the while that they were inherently conservative.

On domestic policy, “the conservative movement” made dissenting noises about spending, and rebelled against Harriet Meyers, but on the whole it failed to prevent the most egregious missteps by its chosen leaders in the Bush Administration – at the base and elite levels—because its heretic hunters excelled at privileging loyalty, political gain and cultural cues above honesty, principled dissent and actual policy outcomes.

After the fact, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who championed George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries despite serious questions about his preparedness for higher office, disclaimed all responsibility for his deviations from the political philosophy of conservatism, yet somehow the Republican president’s excesses never inspired the apocalyptic rhetoric that the Obama Administration has inspired in its first year. We know what it looks like for the talk radio right and the grassroots to oppose a political figure. Measured against their own standards, they supported rather than opposed George W. Bush, and they’ll defend him more than is defensible even today.

It is “the conservative movement” — this political coalition, its leaders, its propaganda arms, and the most indoctrinated subset of its base — that needs someone to say, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine,” and that person must be a charismatic, line-muddling political figure, not a writer or a journalist. But that isn’t to say that intellectuals haven’t any role to play.

Those who were part of “movement conservatism” during the last decade, and who despaired at its direction, are right to shout, “never again will this political movement be defined by an absence of principled dissent, for that is how good ideas, the ability to govern, and prospects for political success are destroyed.” That is David Frum’s project, Bruce Bartlett’s project, George Will’s project, and Peggy Noonan’s project, insofar as they share one. These folks are lifelong Republicans who saw “the conservative movement” turn from a principled philosophy to a successful governing coalition to an unprincipled, corrupt, dysfunctional entity that is finally more a moneymaking machine than credible governing alternative. Put another way, they’ve seen the candidate of “the conservative base” go from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, and they’d like to see the trend reverse itself, so that the Republican Party can again successfully govern the United States.

Though his approach is different, I suspect and hope that this is also Rich Lowry’s project. When William F. Buckley ran National Review, one could write for it as a principled conservative who wasn’t a “movement conservative,” and I see Mr. Lowry trying his best to carve out a space where that is still true.

It is a space shared with writers like Jonah Goldberg, who aren’t themselves heretic hunters, and make real contributions to public discourse, but whose default mode of argument is so often “but the left is hypocritical, or more corrupt, or wrongheaded,” that one cannot help but conclude that he and his fellow travelers taken different lessons from the last 8 years than the other writers I’ve mentioned.

National Review also hosts writers who are staunch defenders of what I regard as the Bush Administration’s most indefensible excesses. Andy McCarthy is foremost among them, though one must give him credit for doing his damnedest to argue on substance, offer truly held convictions, and engage in arguments to defend his ideas. Much as I abhor his conclusions, it is proper, I think, that he is part of the conversation at the magazine. The same goes for Mark Levin, of whom I’ve also been critical: his writerly persona in the pages of NR is so distinct from his talk radio persona that one can hardly believe they are the same person, though I think that both versions are guilty of extreme straw-manning.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here: folks who are loyal to the Republican Party, folks who want to reclaim the political coalition of movement conservatism, folks who see those projects as indistinguishable, and others who disagree, among many other things. These distinctions are useful in understanding what is going on today among conservatives who participate in public discourse. Note that when Mark Thompson says he agrees with Freddie that the dissident conservatives aren’t doing their jobs, he ignores these distinctions, and conflates two other groups that are distinguishable from one another: conservative dissidents and conservative wonks.

These are sometimes overlapping categories. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat arguably fit into both camps, as does Ramesh Ponnuru. David Frum isn’t a wonk exactly, though he sure is knowledgeable about policy, and dissents from mainstream “movement conservatism.” Of course, there are wonks who aren’t dissidents — see the Heritage Foundation — and dissidents who aren’t wonks: Rod Dreher, Daniel Larison, and myself, to cite three dissidents who possibly have more policy preferences in common with the folks we’re dissenting against than with one another! What draws us together, by my lights, is that we identify with the political philosophy of conservatism — albeit different threads of that philosophy — rather than the political coalition of “movement conservatism,” so we can appreciate aspects of one another’s oeuvre, especially when we’re writing against the most absurd orthodoxies of thought within the political/ideological coalition.

My sense is that among us, Daniel Larison is most interested in politics, though he understands he is so far outside the mainstream that he has little chance of influencing it in the short term, whereas Rod Dreher and I are less interested in electoral politics, and more interested in our own related but distinct projects: aspects of American culture, in Rod Dreher’s case, and the intersection of public discourse and American journalism, in my case.
That isn’t to say that we’re entirely uninterested in politics, anymore than it is to say that Ross Douthat isn’t at all interested in journalism, or that Rich Lowry is uninterested in culture. It’s just to say that every writer has his own primary interests, obsessions, and areas where he thinks he can make the biggest difference.

This helps explain, I think, why Rod Dreher is confused by what is written at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It’s as though he is saying, “So I subscribe to the political philosophy of conservatism — what do you mean I should take responsibility for bringing a sane, right-leaning political coalition back to power in this country? That isn’t my project, and even if it were the base wouldn’t listen to me anyway.”

Put another way, tweaking Rod Dreher for his failure to fully invest himself in reforming “the conservative movement” with wonky solutions acceptable to the base makes about as much sense as criticizing Reihan Salam for failing to abandon his cosmopolitan tendencies long enough to convince culturally conservative Texans to raise backyard chickens in the name of spiritual fulfillment and environmental sustainability. What a shame it would be if everyone who understood and embraced conservative insights uniformly turned their attention toward or away from politics! It is preferable that folks who identify as conservative adopt different postures toward “the conservative movement,” play greater and lesser roles in shaping it, wield influence in different places, and make varying contributions to American culture, political and otherwise, more generally.

This may not even be inconsistent with returning “the conservative movement” to health as soon as possible.

As Julian Sanchez hypothesizes:

For now what we want are a bunch of divergent visions and internecine critiques rendering the concept of conservatism sufficiently contestable that a few years from now, someone can fuse together enough of the various strands to make some kind of coherent coalition capable of holding a majority, and plausibly call it by that name. At that point, it will be necessary for someone to “take responsibility” for a new conservative movement; right now I think we should be content to watch them pump a few more shotgun shells into the zombie carcass of this one.

One thread remains in this blog conversation. After I objected that The League of Ordinary Gentlemen wanted dissident conservatives to “assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them,” Mark Thompson insisted that I got their critique all wrong: “Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse.”

E.D. Kain agreed:

My critique is simply this: engage in a fight over ideas, often and passionately. But engage. Don’t try to unseat the champions of the right. Try to change their hearts and minds, or at least use them to reach their audiences.

Soon after, however, he wrote another post suggesting that conservative dissidents should become duplicitous writers. Of course, that’s not how E.D. Kain labels his approach. Wait. Double-checking. Ah, actually, it is basicallyhow he labels it: “Let’s call it the Trojan Horse strategy.” Go read it for yourself.

Okay, are you back? It contains some good advice, and some less good advice. On the whole, however, the idea is that Rod Dreher and I should make the following calculations: 1) we’d like “movement conservatism” to improve; 2) it can only be improved from the inside; 3) Forcefully arguing for our true beliefs will prevent us from being insiders. 4) We should therefore conceal our true beliefs, and instead focus on advancing calculated positions that E.D. Kain regards as the wisest way forward for conservatives (if only folks like Rod and I would get busy putting ourselves into a position of manipulating them into doing what’s best).

I’ve already offered my own as yet un-refuted account of an intellectually honest writer’s duties, so I won’t repeat it here. But I would like to make one last point about why the assumptions beneath The League of Ordinary Gentlemen advice to conservative dissidents is flawed.

E.D. Kain again:

What Conor is suggesting is that a war against the pundits – against Beck and Limbaugh, et al. – is a fight over ideas. I would argue that calling people like Limbaugh out for some stupid thing(s) he’s said is not in fact a battle of ideas. It’s just your classic personality politics. A number of dissidents on the right have fallen into this very trap, engaging their loud, swaggering opponents on their own terms rather than within the framework of ideas. And all this does is alienate the base.

Admittedly, when I criticized Mark Levin for telling a female caller that her husband should shoot herself in the head, I was engaged in criticism about tone, not ideas. This makes sense, I’d argue, insofar as I care about healthy public discourse beyond its impact on conservatism and/or “the conservative movement.” The vast majority of my criticism of talk radio types, however, is decidedly about substance and ideas, whether I am criticizing them for transgressions against conservatism properly understood, or transgressions against society more broadly. Saying that Mark Levin contributes to the conservative inability to understand its ideological opponents by using straw men in his influential book isn’t about personality. Nor is explaining the many levels on which Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about white kids getting beat up in Obama’s America is damaging. Nor is my argument that it’s a disservice to young people on the right when their elders convince them that they won’t be treated fairly in a cultural career. These are influential, wrongheaded ideas that I am writing against, and they are thus worth refuting. And what good can it possibly do?

Consider my most recent piece on Rush Limbaugh. It offered an ironclad argument that he constantly accuses people of racism. I’ve long regarded frivolous accusations of racism — especially against political opponents — as a pernicious force in American life. Almost all conservatives agree. As the most viewed piece at The Daily Beast for a solid four or five days, it is very likely that I drew attention to a behavior of Mr. Limbaugh that non-listeners inclined to be friendly to him wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps they’ll now afford the benefit of fewer doubts to a media figure who misinforms his audience often enough that he isn’t due any.

There’s a fair chance that someone on Mr. Limbaugh’s staff saw the piece. I received a dozen or so e-mails from people who described themselves as conservatives, and said they enjoyed the piece, and several more from independents who said it made them better disposed toward conservatives to see folks on the right acknowledging Mr. Limbaugh’s hypocrisy. I also got notes from fellow writers — including two people from solidly conservative magazines, one of them NR — that they were unaware of the problem’s extent, and agreed with me. One even said he e-mailed Mr. Limbaugh to tell him so (though having heard no public apology I have my doubts).

Finally, Ramesh Ponnuru (not my correspondent) wrote on The Corner(emphasis added):

I don’t think the parallel Friedersdorf draws between the use of the label against Limbaugh and its use by Limbaugh is quite right. Most importantly, Limbaugh didn’t make up now-Justice Sotomayor’s wise-Latina comment. But it does seem as though Limbaugh makes accusations of racism too much, perhaps in the belief that the only way to get liberals to stop playing the race card is to deploy it against them.

Will a popular column at The Daily Beast, a mild rebuke from a writer at The Corner, and e-mails from some probably small, inherently unknowable number of conservatives and some greater number of independents and liberals make Mr. Limbaugh marginally less likely to race-bait so frequently or shamelessly in the future? I hope so. Will a subset of his audience be more attuned to his behavior and dismissive of it if he does persist? Yes. Perhaps it’ll take another blogger who remembered my piece criticizing Mr. Limbaugh after his next tirade to make any significant difference. I don’t know.

But I do think that forceful, accurate, intellectually honest arguments matter over time. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. There is a rather widespread assumption that criticizing talk radio hosts does no good, but it is always ungrounded by any evidence, it assumes a readership composed entirely of un-persuadable ditto-heads, and it ignores the fact that talk radio hosts sure go out of their way to demand apologies or target their interrogators whenever they are criticized.

I am a writer, one who happens to subscribe to many tenets of the conservative political philosophy, who is invested in many of its insights being implemented in public policy, and who aligns myself with “the conservative movement” only when I think it is in the right, and rejects it when I think it is wrong. I’d like to see the GOP be a successful party that wins elections, governs well, opposes responsibly, and implements various conservative ideas, but I’ve got no particular loyalty to it, unlike Peggy Noonan or Rich Lowry or David Frum, so when it goes off the rails, it doesn’t win my vote.

I am a journalist with more than one project. Writing about the conservative political philosophy, its wisdom, and its role in public life is one of them. The role that public discourse plays in society is another. Apolitical narrative journalism is a third. I’m sure someone else will make reforming “the conservative movement” their life’s work rather than an occasional side interest, but that person isn’t me, nor is it Rod Dreher, nor do we have any obligation to focus on improving society in that particular way, though I like to think both our efforts help a bit on the margins.

Mostly, however, I just want Ross Douthat back so I never have to write, and you never have to read, a substitute as overly long and inferior as this one again. Damn you, The New York Times!

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Fox News vs. The White House

October 24, 2009

Scattered thoughts on the Obama Administration’s battle with the cable news network:

1) I haven’t watched enough cable news to judge whether Fox News is definitively different from CNN and MSNBC. But I have watched enough of all three networks to say that all cable news is definitively inferior to news produced by newspapers, magazines, news radio, and wire services. If you’re mostly relying on cable news for your information you’re getting a blinkered view of reality.

2) Say for the sake of argument that Fox News is “different.” If I had to bet, I’d put my money on that proposition, though again I haven’t watched all the networks enough to make that pronouncement definitively. Even so, I am uncomfortable with the White House being the one that decides who gets access. Conversations about which news organizations are legitimate strike me as worthwhile. But the POTUS shouldn’t be driving those conversations.

3) Fox News defenders are trying to draw a distinction between its commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, and its news programming. They say that while the former may be “biased” the latter is just like other cable news networks. But the complaint against Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Beck and Mr. Hannity isn’t merely that they are furthering an ideological agenda — it is that they are doing so by uttering falsehoods. It’s fine to say that a commentator should be free to offer his opinion, but that isn’t license to mislead the audience, or to be intellectually dishonest. Calling oneself an opinionated commentator shouldn’t be the same as saying, “There is no standard to which I am accountable.”

4) Probably the Obama versus Fox News battle is going to help both parties at everyone else’s expense.

When Intellectual Honesty Is News

October 22, 2009

In the United States, we’re now accustom to professional talking heads beamed into our living rooms due to their on camera polish rather than the substance of their views or the experience they bring to bear. Intelligent young magazine editors are sent to pundit school. Barack Obama, an enjoyable man to hear speak, is regarded as a historically great orator, though his speeches are intellectually thinner than recent masterpieces, and so obviously inferior to history’s greatest orations that one is tempted to despair at the modern era. A sizable number of Americans regard this as the best speech of 2008.

This facade sometimes slips, like a mistake in the Matrix that hints at the underlying reality. Thus Hillary Clinton reacts in a perfectly human, understandable way to a mistranslated question before a foreign audience, displaying frustration far less dramatic than what you’ll see at rush hour on any freeway, and the anchors freak out, dedicating the lead story at 11 0’clock to her “angry outburst.”

All this is brought to mind by a couple of items I’ve seen an appearance by Ross and Reihan on an N+1 panel. One impressive thing about both of them is their uncanny ability to come across as quite polished public speakers even as they’re articulating very complicated thoughts. I’ve seen them speak in person, watched them on television, heard them on the radio, conversed with them across a table, and seen them on Bloggingheads. They’re invariably so impressive on style and substance — whether complementing one another or speaking on their own — that I’d gladly trade their oratorical ability at this moment for my ability at whatever point in my life I’m best at it.

Okay, cue the New York Observer story that prompted this blog post:

Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnist for The New York Times, was made visibly uncomfortable for a moment while onstage last night at the New School’s Tishman auditorium.

I mean, really? That’s your lead? A guy on a panel was “uncomfortable” for “a moment”? Call Drudge and cue the siren! What kind of weird place have we reached when it’s news that a guy, being peppered with the most difficult questions a roomful of smart people can muster, once during a session displays a moment of discomfort? I’ll tell you what kind. We’ve reached a place where a stunning number of folks you see commenting on television or other public venues care so little about the substance of what they’re saying that even when they and everyone else knows their words are utter idiocy, they still refrain from displaying actual discomfort, because to them it’s all a game, unconnected to any sense that words have consequences, or that integrity is partly a matter of challenging one’s own own ideas out of a lingering sense that commenting on public affairs confers some responsibility, and that it is shameful to frivolously and lightly proffer arguments that one isn’t able to defend.

Only a society that long ago reached that place has gossip sheets writing excited leads about a polished speaker feeling a moment of discomfort when challenged with a difficult question, one that is causing him intellectual ferment. Why look, honey, that man is grappling with his thoughts! Let’s all laugh at his quaint display of intellectual honesty! This is particularly noteworthy because, as The Observer makes clear, after that *shocking* moment of discomfort, Mr. Douthat gathered his thoughts and cogently addressed the subject at hand.

Elsewhere in New York this week, hundreds of makeup slathered pundits spewed forth transparently idiotic talking points on all manner of subjects, without betraying any sign of thought or shame. As yet, the New York Observer hasn’t found that worth remarking upon.

Getting Ayn Rand Objectively Wrong

October 20, 2009

Hendrik Hertzberg is a talented writer, and his blog at The New Yorker is definitely worth reading. Exceptional recent entries include remarks on the death of William Safire and this fascinating mini-history of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

Hard to say how a man so consistently informed could permit himself this lapse in a post on Ayn Rand:

As a political ideology, Objectivism, which has exerted a tremendous influence on the American right, is a vulgar inversion of vulgar Marxism; it teaches that all economic (and moral) value is the creation (and province) of rich people, while everybody and everything else (the poor, of course, but also workers and the government) is in every way a parasite. The proof of the superiority of the rich? They have more money.

What an utter misrepresentation of Objectivism. The ideology is known to most of its adherents through Ms. Rand’s two most popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It’s been awhile since I’ve read either, but if memory serves, the moral hero in The Fountainhead spends most if not all of the book poor — certainly he is poorer than the commercially successful architect portrayed as an immoral intellectual fraud. There is also a multimillionaire media mogul character who is portrayed as the inferior of the obviously financially poorer protagonist.

In Atlas Shrugged, uber-rich railroad tycoon James Taggart is the greatest villain in the book. His less wealthy sister Dagny is his moral superior. So is vastly less wealthy Eddie Willers. The moral hero, John Galt, is a manual laborer who refuses to sell his uber-efficient motor on the open market because he regards it as corrupt.

A simplified but basically accurate distillation of Objectivism: using one’s mind or labor to create actual value is the root of all economic and moral worth. Having more money isn’t itself proof of anything. It is astonishing how glibly folks dismiss Ayn Rand, whose flawed system of thinking isn’t mined for its insights, as is the case with other philosophers. Instead all her work is dismissed as though it must be judged as a package that cannot be disaggregated.

This is, incidentally, something that Ayn Rand herself asserted — that one must either embrace her whole philosophy or reject it entirely. This most dubious proposition is the single aspect of her oeuvre that her critics seem to accept without question.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

October 18, 2009

Anyone who wonders whether demagogues on the left and right do real damage to the audiences they mislead need look no farther than how the partisan media is “reporting” on the vaccine for the swine flu. I am sensitive to this topic because I have cable news watching grandparents who I’d like to see survive the winter. The chances that they’ll do so are marginally improved if they get the flu vaccine, or so the best scientific information available suggests, there being no guarantees in these matters.

Chris Beam rounds up coverage in the partisan media that is bound to reduce the number of folks who get the flu vaccine.

On the anti-government right, swine flu vaccinations are seen as an example of government overreach. Last week, Rush Limbaugh made headlines by announcing that he would not be getting a shot. “Screw you, Ms. Sebelius,” he said on his radio show, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “I’m not going to take it precisely because you’re now telling me I must.” Glenn Beck has declined to say whether he’s getting vaccinated. But he’s made his position pretty clear, suggesting that the vaccine may turn out to be “deadly,” raising the specter of mandatory vaccines (they’re voluntary), and saying he wants the “U.S. out of my bloodstream.”

On the left, there are prominent doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood celebrities skeptical of vaccines in general—and the swine flu vaccine especially. In a September article written for the Huffington Post, Dr. Frank Lipman recommended against getting vaccinated, arguing that the virus seems benign and the vaccine is unproven. Earlier this year, Jim Carrey—yes, that Jim Carrey—penned a HuffPost column reiterating the oft-made (and widely discredited) point that vaccines may cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy made a similar argument in a famous (and also largely discredited) 2005 article that appeared in Rolling Stone and Salon. The anti-vaccination movement is hardly exclusive to the left wing, but declines in vaccination rates have occurred in large part because of affluent parents in states like California.

Now, thanks to the government’s plan to ship 250 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to all 50 states this month, the two sides have finally found common cause. They may hold different political opinions, but they share a worldview: distrust—of doctors and modern medicine or of government. There’s even some overlap. Beck, for example, said that “you don’t know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s”—a fear commonly cited by vaccine skeptics. (Claims that the 1976 flu vaccine caused Guillain-Barré syndrome have not been proven.) Meanwhile, those who fear the needle aren’t all that confident in their government, either: Dr. Lipman warns that HHS has given the drug companies manufacturing the vaccines immunity from lawsuits.

So there you have it. Demagogues on the right and left whose irresponsible rhetoric is very likely to cost lives this flu season by scaring folks who’d otherwise get the flu vaccine into going without.

On Racism and Race-Baiting

October 16, 2009

In a column at The Daily Beast, I argue that although Rush Limbaugh constantly complains about race-baiters like Al Sharpton, the talk radio host is himself constantly accusing his political adversaries of racism.

Before I cite numerous examples, I say this:

I share a powerful distaste for characters like Al Sharpton, who deliberately play on the racial anxieties of Americans. As one of the most powerful slurs in American life, “racist” is an accusation that ought to be made rarely, after careful deliberation, with incontrovertible evidence, and never merely to score points at the expense of a political adversary. So I join Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. McCarthy in asserting that Mr. Limbaugh has never been proved a racist, and that race-baiting is an awful feature of American public discourse. It damages reputations and undermines our ability to target actual racism. Those who engage in it deserve our ire.

Adam Sewer is upset by my position — characterizing it, he draws the conclusion that I subscribe to “a milder version” of the proposition that “there are no racists in America.”

This is inaccurate. I think that there are plenty of racists in America.

Mr. Serwer goes on to write:

Friedersdorf’s definition of “actual racism” excludes pretty much anyone who isn’t wearing a white sheet and brandishing a noose, which in a practical sense, just means that you can be as racist as you want as long as you make a minimal effort to conceal or deny it. Or you could just say you aren’t a racist after saying something racist, Friedersdorf will apparently “take you at your word.” What’s the substantive difference for Limbaugh’s targets between Limbaugh employing racism in political argument as a “provocateur” and him somehow not being a racist on the inside? Does that somehow mean that people won’t internalize the message he sends when he implies black people are all on welfare?

A couple points in response:

1) Racism isn’t the only race-related sin in America that harms its targets — one can be a racial provocateur or play on the racism of others and hurt society in profound ways, without ever hating people of a different race, or thinking that they are inferior. Mr. Serwer and I seem to agree that Mr. Limbaugh hurts minorities with some of the comments that he makes. For example, when Mr. Limbaugh claimed that in Barack Obama’s America, white kids are getting beat up on school buses, he stirred up racial anxieties in a way that victimizes credulous white people and black people. Describing his comments as racial provocations rather than racism doesn’t imply that it isn’t wrong, or that no one is hurt by it.

2) Mr. Serwer is right to conclude that my standard for labeling someone a racist isn’t perfect, insofar as some actual racists won’t be branded for lack of proof. Similarly, the presumption of innocence in criminal law, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for proving guilt, results in some criminals going free for lack of sufficient evidence, despite their guilt. This is galling, sure, but it’s also the most just approach.

Finally, Mr. Serwer writes:

What Friedersdorf is doing by describing the term “racist” as “one of the most powerful slurs in American life” is making an implicit comparison to the word “nigger.” The only problem is that “nigger” is a figment of the American racial imagination, a term that does not describe any actual human beings, whereas racism is all too real — if more appropriately applied to behavior rather than individuals as a whole. “Racist” is only a “slur” if it is inaccurate.

That implicit comparison hadn’t actually occurred to me — I think there are important differences between the words, the most important of which is I think “racist” is a word that discredits the person being labeled, whereas at this point the n-word is a slur that discredits the person doing the labeling. I agree, however, that racist is only a slur of it is inaccurate. My column on Mr. Limbaugh’s use of the term should be evidence enough that it is frequently bandied about inaccurately by people who want to trade on the power it confers. I regard that as an important trend to oppose, whether the perpetrator is Rush Limbaugh or Al Sharpton.

Conservatism Isn't to Blame for the Right's Recent Woes

October 13, 2009

“Take responsibility!”

That phrase has meaning when a pregnant woman tells a man, “take responsibility for the child you helped conceive.” It makes sense when a judge tells a negligent property owner, “take responsibility for the rabid Bengal tigers you’ve loosed to guard your unfenced suburban construction site.”

In his latest post, Freddie offers a vision of “taking responsibility” that is different, insofar as it is nonsensical and incoherent.

The setup: In 2005, a devastating hurricane hit New Orleans, Louisiana. The suffering and death left in its wake are owed to factors including a population beset by endemic poverty, utterly incompetent local Democratic officials, a dearth of disaster preparedness, an unqualified Republican appointee leading FEMA, and a Republican president inadequate to the task of leading federal disaster relief efforts.

Thus Freddie is making demands about “taking responsibility,” but they aren’t directed at the locals in charge, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or the Louisiana Congressional delegation, or the unqualified FEMA head, or the Republican Party, or the Bush Administration, or President George W. Bush — no, he wants responsibility taken by everyone who subscribes to a common American political philosophy that calls for government limited by constitutional bounds, preserving the wisdom contained in tradition, and an aversion to rapid change.

To use his terms, Freddie wants conservatives, especially ones named Ross Douthat, to take responsibility for Hurricane Katrina, and every other ill of the Bush Administration, because even though George W. Bush violated numerous tenets of conservatism, he called himself a conservative, and that means that everything he did is the responsibility of everyone who also calls him or herself a conservative. Or something.

Before delving any deeper, let’s afford Freddie a long excerpt.

Ah, but I hear the keys of Conor Friedersdorf clattering away now. That wasn’t me, he insists, and it wasn’t Ross! That, after all, is all you ever hear from conservatives these days. It wasn’t I who sent our soldiers into Iraq, it wasn’t I who left children to drown in New Orleans, it wasn’t I who ordered federal prosecutors fired for failing to politicize prosecution, it wasn’t I who sat idly by as the financial sector plunged itself off of an abyss…. The only consistent definition of conservative I now feel confident in is that a conservative is someone who is not responsible for anything that the Bush administration or Republican congress has done. No, no one is responsible for the Bush administration and its many crimes. No one is responsible for the congressmen who cheered their way along. No one is responsible for the systematic failure of the Republican party machine, which placed such a pathetic, unqualified and ignorant man in the greatest seat of power the word has ever known. No, don’t blame any actual conservatives for conservatism massive failings. Such a thing wouldn’t be fair. The fact that we now have outrage and scandal over Nobel peace prizes and NEA conference calls, when in the recent future we had hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and children shivering chest-deep in putrid water– hey, that’s a facet of the fact that no one is responsible for the GOP. No one is responsible for conservatism, and Freddie, stop being unfair.

This is sloppy reasoning. It treats conservatism as though it is indistinguishable from the Republican Party and the Bush Administration — as though a political philosophy and an American political coalition are the same things — and it proceeds to make a rather stunning implicit assertion: that if one objects that conservatism isn’t responsible for some ill, one must necessarily believe that no one is responsible for it.

In fact, this Conor Friedersdorf “clattering away” on his laptop doesn’t think that no one is responsible for Hurricane Katrina’s unnecessary casualties. He thinks that responsibility is borne in various amounts by a long list of people that starts with Ray Nagin and ends with George W. Bush. What would it mean, exactly, for me to say, “I, Conor Friedersdorf, as a self-described conservative, take partial responsibility for the mismanagement following Hurricane Katrina?” Either it would be meaningless, or it would mean that I recognized some part of my political thinking that, prior to the hurricane, led me to wrongly believe that the federal government shouldn’t respond to natural disasters, or that levies shouldn’t be built to withstand strong storms, or that presidents should error on the side of committing too few resources when a major American city is underwater. Believing none of those things, I am hard pressed to know how I could coherently “take responsibility” for Hurricane Katrina even if I desperately wanted to do it.

Freddie writes:

This is the true consequence of conservatism’s never-ending series of rendings and divisions: because every conservative these days fancies himself a sect of sanity in a failed ideology; because so many conservatives have taken to patting themselves on the back for their distance from the rabid rump of the conservative base, and doing nothing else but that; because American conservatism has become an army of Andrew Sullivans, parties and cliques of people who proudly declare themselves to be of no party or clique, a never-ending stream of self-styled iconoclasts who take the rich pleasures of being individuals and take none of the hard-fought, difficult and tiring dignity of being responsible for something; because of this, conservatism is lost. The problem is not that conservatives fall too quickly in line. The problem is that conservatism is a line of people insisting that they aren’t a part of the line and as such are not responsible for the actions of the line.

After the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, Abu Ghraib, reckless spending, the appointment of incompetents, and every other Bush-era ill, Freddie casts about for the problem on the right and decides that it is people like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan who are to blame, due to their unwillingness to take responsibility for their ideas. It is difficult to imagine a more wrongheaded account.

In fact, the most disastrous policies of the Bush Administration — the Iraq war, the torture, and the irresponsible deficit spending — were all profoundly anti-conservative, and insofar as conservatism as opposed to jingoism or excess partisan loyalty among Republicans were to blame, the problem was precisely that the conservative base too easily fell in line behind an incompetent leader because they called themselves conservatives, and he called himself a conservative, and they’re the same word! Just ask the intellectually dishonest talk radio hosts, who acted as enablers for Bush’s most damaging policies by spreading the meme that one must support him in order to be a loyal conservative.

Freddie writes:

Everyone laments the Republican party’s various failures, electoral or otherwise; no one is responsible for the Republican party. Everyone delights in the rank, unfocused and violent anger of the Tea Parties; no one will claim them as their own. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is an ideology in a decaying orbit, an ideology that prides itself on insisting on personal responsibility as so many, thanks to their well-polished, phony individualism, refuse to take any responsibility for the whole.

Again, there are actually lots of people who are responsible for the Republican Party — the party officials at the grassroots level that I’ve been interviewing, state and national leaders on up to Michael Steele, every elected Republican in the country, and to some extent every voter who registers as a member of the party. Contra Freddie, there isn’t anyone who claims that “no one is responsible for the Republican Party.”

I find it especially weird that I am one of the two people mentioned in a post about conservatives who think that “no one is responsible for the Republican Party,” seeing as how Freddie knows that I am even now surveying GOP County Chairmen, and that I am on record lamenting the malign influence talk radio hosts have on Republican candidates.

Even more bizarre, however, is levying the same criticism at Ross Douthat, a man who has co-written a Freddie-approved book about how best to reform what he regards as a broken Republican Party! If that isn’t “taking responsibility” for the GOP’s future I don’t know what is.

Hello world!

October 9, 2009

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

When Punishment Is Enough

October 1, 2009

My sense is that jailing him now is a purely punitive act — insofar as I know, he hasn’t raped anyone else in the years between his trial and his recent arrest, given his age future rapes are quite unlikely, the circumstances surrounding his case are so unusual that it is unlikely to have any effect on deterring similar crimes in the future, and the victim herself no longer wants him to be tried.

So unless I am missing something — and I may be — punishment is the only reason to try and jail Roman Polanski. Perhaps that helps explain why so many people are calling for his release.

But not me.

Assuming for the sake of argument that there isn’t anything going on here except purely punitive justice, I say punish him — send him to jail for the rest of his life, and sully his name.

A Blogger's Lament

October 1, 2009

…but someone is wrong on the Internet!

In a comment about politics, Kevin Drum writes, “I sure feel crazier these days. How about you?” Yes, I think I do feel crazy, because almost every day lately I am flabbergasted by a subset of people for whom all political conversation is treated as if it’s some kind of kabuki dance. It frustrates me to no end, and if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll offer an example.

There is one necessary piece of background information — the depressing Web site Newsmax published a column by a guy named John L. Perry outlining all the reasons it would make sense for the military to depose Barack Obama, all but advocating that it happen.

Now set that aside and consider something I wrote yesterday:

…readers ask who I think would be a successful Republican candidate in 2012. I take this to mean “someone who could plausibly defeat President Obama’s bid for re-election.”

My somewhat uninformed guesses: David Petraeus and Colin Powell (who’d have all kinds of difficulty winning the primary). These accomplished generals share one related trait: deep credibility as men who are serious about national security, enabling them to run as sane, experienced stewards, rather than bellicose idiots so desperate to seem toughest on terrorism that they spend the primaries calling for “doubling Gitmo” and competing to see who would torture in more contrived ticking time bomb situations.

They’re also both post-partisan figures of the kind that Americans seem to like, haven’t got long voting records to be picked apart, and can nevertheless credibly claim more executive experience than President Obama. I’m sure there are other candidates who could also mount a credible challenge, though I don’t know who they are.

Obviously there is a difference between saying “David Petraeus is the man with the best shot at beating President Obama in 2012,” and saying, “I want David Petraeus to run for president and win in 2012.” As it happens, I very clearly said the former, and I don’t actually know who my ideal candidate in 2012 is, or whether I’ll vote for President Obama or whoever runs against him, or even whether I’ll cast a ballot at all.

But okay, some folks took my post as a statement that David Petraeus is my ideal 2012 candidate — probably due to analysis I offered about the likelihood that he’d run on a saner foreign policy platform than other Republicans. I don’t particularly mind that mistaken assumption. It is in the nature of blogging that some nuances get lost, whether due to sloppiness by the author or the reader. I am guilty on both sides all the time.

What I mind is the blogger Doug J at Balloon Juice, a reasonably popular blog, who read the post I excerpted above and wrote this:

Maybe I’m way off base on this, but in my opinion, the Conor Friedersdorfs and Nicole Wallaces of the right aren’t so different from coupmeister John L. Perry. The idea of David Petraeus sweeping in and becoming president in 2012 isn’t unethical or unconstitutional, but I can’t help but think that Friedersdorf and Wallace simply want an institution they see as Republican—the military—to depose a Democratic president they dislike. (Friedersorf’s other preferred candidate is Colin Powell.)

The desire to depose Obama runs much deeper on the right—even the so-called moderate right—than anyone is willing to admit. The Perry piece wasn’t any kind of outlier.

Though I realize that this isn’t any more egregious than all sorts of stuff that gets published each day in the blogosphere, and that I may be trying the patience of readers by highlighting it at such length, I can only say that for whatever reason I feel a particular contempt for that post, and were its author sitting in a dunk tank right now I’d forgo throwing baseballs and just use my fist to depress the lever so as to reciprocate his sense of fair play.

Imagine it! Writing that David Petraues is the guy who’d enjoy the most success were he to run on the Republican ticket, and being told as a result that deep down you want the military to depose President Obama — a notion that the bulk of Balloon Juice commenters accept as sound analysis.

There is, in truth, zero desire on the moderate right “to depose Obama,” an absurd assertion all its own, but what bothers me here is the ease with which a literate person considered worth reading by his fellow citizens jumps to the most absurd conclusions about someone — me in this case — because I am on the right. Insofar as conversations across ideology are necessary for a healthy polity, it is depressing to see how many erroneous assumptions his orthodoxies of thought so quickly produce — that I dislike President Obama, that I am a Republican, that I see the military as Republican, that I harbor desires about the 2012 election that I will not admit, and that I want the president deposed, if you care for a list.