Archive for January, 2010

The Republic Will Neither Rise Nor Fall Due to Barack Obama

January 29, 2010

Andrew Sullivan writes:

My foreboding sense is that America may have already passed the point of no return in terms of civil, constitutional governance. I do not believe that in the Bush administration, the United States was effectively governed by its Constitution. The forms were still there, but the reality wasn’t. Beneath it all, the desire for despotism ran, fueled by the despot’s greatest ally, fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of terrorists, fear of gays, fear of immigrants, fear of the inevitable uncertainties of real reform.

Although I share his dismay at actions taken by the Bush Administration and supported by a frightening number of Americans, I cannot help but think that the assessment he offers here is too dire. Ours is a nation that won a war against the British Empire before its colonies even agreed on a sustainable way to close ranks. Its early years saw the spread of slavery, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a campaign against Native Americans that approached genocide. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus to win a war that pitted Americans against one another on actual fields of battle. The highest murder rate ever recorded in this country came in San Francisco in the years following the gold rush. That same city was utterly destroyed in an earthquake, home to Chinese laborers who were treated little better than slaves, and was once seized by vigilante businessmen with a private army who informed the mayor that they’d impose marshal law — and did so! Woodrow Wilson’s affronts against civil liberties alone dwarf anything done by the Bush Administration, World War I began a long period when fear of foreigners radically curtailed the ability of newcomers to arrive here, the fear of immigrants seen now is tame compared to all sorts of historical moments, the internment of Japanese Americans most prominent among them, and gays are thankfully more accepted now than at any time in American history. Indeed, they are a generation away from full marriage rights and perhaps months away from the ability to openly serve in the military.

Every obstacle and injustice to American flourishing that I’ve cited required citizens to speak up for positive change. On issues including torture, gays in the military, foreign adventurism, the war on drugs, and the deficit, I share Mr. Sullivan’s concerns, applaud many stances he’s taken, hope for progress, and lament our polity’s inability to adopt more sound public policies.

But we’ve overcome greater challenges than this in the past, the progress this nation has made even in the last couple generations is stunning, and it is flatly incorrect to say that we’ve passed the point of no return for civil, constitutional governance. It’s worth putting things in perspective because it is precisely hyperbolic assertions about how the center cannot hold that pushes nations toward undue panic.

Later in the same post, Mr. Sullivan writes:

…this fever feels to me like either the kind that precedes the final death of this republic into a carnival of FNC-directed war and debt and drama led by charismatic media-emperors or empresses – or the fever that finally ends the sickness, and restores some sense of civic responsibility and republican virtue. Last night, I saw one of the few men left able to see the depth of the crisis and not lose faith in this country’s ability to overcome it.

I reject the notion that the United States of America is in a position so dire that it can only be saved by a particularly noble leader. Arguments for that proposition could be made for the tenures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and maybe even FDR. It is notable that even those men never behaved as if that proposition were true, and anyway the challenges we face, however grave, pale in comparison to their burdens. Would anyone trade our challenges today for the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II? I wouldn’t even trade places with the Americans who endured the Carter Administration.

Mr. Sullivan concludes:

I believe our crisis is deeper than many now believe – because it is not just a crisis of economics, of debt, of over-reach, of an empire now running on its own steam and unstoppable by any political force, but because it is a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems that marks the distinction between a republic and a bread-and-circuses Ailes-Rove imperium.

Among other mistakes, this gives Roger Ailes and Karl Rove far too much credit. Lord knows that their cynical, brazenly dishonest brand of self-aggrandizing propaganda does damage to our society, but these are men who influence a small minority of Americans who obsess about cable news, treat politics like a team sport, and play a minuscule role in the lives of most ordinary Americans. I am not among those who argue that men like this should be ignored, but in exposing their wrongheaded rhetoric and indefensible behavior, we must keep perspective, else they damage America by driving those that oppose them to overreact. There is a strong case to be made that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are dysfunctional in ways that render them incapable of governing well. That is certainly my belief. It is also my contention that reacting to this circumstance by putting all one’s hopes in Barack Obama is an unwise and unnecessary overreaction.

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings

January 20, 2010
BOSTON - JANUARY 17:  U.S President Barack Oba...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.

I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.

Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.

On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.

I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.

Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.

When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.

So it goes.

An Exegisis on the Schadenfreude That Some Movement Conservatives Call Humor

January 15, 2010

In her new diary at The Daily Caller — a publication I recommend reading here — SE Cupp has published what must be the worst article so far written by a movement conservative in 2010. Perhaps its most execrable quality is a certain kind of pseudo-humor seen every so often on the right from writers who conduct themselves as though they once read PJ O’Rourke but misunderstood.

The shtick in her introductory column is that the reader should learn all her shortcomings upfront “because it will lessen the blow later.” So pretend “we’re on our first date,” she writes, “and we’re getting to know each other.”

…I’m a misanthrope. That’s because most of the people I meet fall far short of the examples my mother and father set decades ago. Whereas they are compassionate, hard-working, down-to-earth, unpretentious, God-fearing common folk, you are an entitled, self-important, elitist and condescending snot weasel who wears his empty moral relativism and cheap “Daily Show” pieties like they are Olympic medals.

In addition to being a misanthrope, you should know I don’t care much for other living things either. I don’t really care that polar bears may not live to see the birth of my great-grandkids, or that I just shot a deer with my 12-gauge, since it will make for really tasty jerky, and I probably just prevented 14 future car accidents. I would fish every trout out of the Housatonic River if they let me, and grill them up with some lemon and dill. Catch-and-release is for wimps, and nature’s bounty is mine for the taking.

The so-called “environment” doesn’t really tug at my heart-strings either. I will use as much water as comes out of my faucet, kill enough trees to TP the White House, and burn enough electricity to power the Magic Kingdom, simply because you insist doing so will make me a “bad person.” I recycle because, in Manhattan, I’m required to, and if I had a car, I’d get the one that left the biggest carbon footprint, because the flatulent cows in Australia and your pampered dog Fluffy are worse for the planet than my Hummer would be. The ice caps may be melting in the Arctic, but I’ve got more pressing concerns — like my letter campaign to bring back the British “Office,” and pretty much everything else.

This excerpt is sufficient to understand her approach. What can we make of it? After a paragraph the reader surely thinks that it is a joke premised on the idea that the statements offered actually aren’t true — you’ve got the woman at the table explaining to her date how superior her family is, and how she hates people like him due to their shortcomings, even as she calls him condescending. A person possessed of any self-awareness couldn’t write such a thing in earnest.

But then what to make of that next two paragraphs? Here we have this movement conservative bragging about her utter disdain for the environment, using a tone that is neither serious nor satirical — it’s difficult to believe she celebrates the deliberate waste of natural resources, for example, but equally impossible to imagine that she’s being sarcastic, and is actually making a case for conservation. Her effort borrows some of the trappings of humor, like a toddler who has learned to make the drums go “ba dum ching” after some baby babble, but the words themselves are hollow non-jokes, mere delivery vehicles for the schadenfreude her audience craves.

So why not just write a column that says, “Liberals like the environment, so I say let it burn. I take amusement in their pain. I feel insecure when they judge me, so I set out to provoke their disapproval”? Ah, well, it’s rather embarrassing to think like that when it’s put so nakedly! Better to cloak one’s words in the illusion of confident humor, pose as a misanthrope, and rely on accusations of humorlessness against your critics should any challenge your work.

Well I’ve read PJ O’Rourke. And you, ma’am, are no PJ O’Rourke. What you are is a writer whose prose deserve to be marked by a poseur alert. Being familiar with many sports fisherman, I am tempted to nominate you for the inaccurate pose that true outdoorsmen like you disdain catch and release because it is for wimps — in fact, sports-fishermen as a whole are intent on preserving the resource, and champion catch and release — but you’ve left me no choice but to cite this passage:

So let’s pretend we’re on our first date, and we’re getting to know each other. You are sitting across the table from me at some trendy, low-lit, beautiful-people lounge that you picked and I probably hate. You’re sipping from a glass of small-batch bourbon that you ordered to prove how “old-school” you are, and I’m sipping from a glass of small-batch bourbon because that’s what I drink.

And name-check in columns, apparently.

The Triumph of Political Correctness

January 12, 2010

Beyond the rise of identity politics on the right, we’re seeing movement conservatism adopt an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to political correctness. As Ilya Somin writes in a great post that I came across via Professor Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit:

Various Republican politicians and some other conservatives are calling on Harry Reid to resign because, back in 2008, he said that Obama had a chance to win the presidency due in part to the fact that he is a “light-skinned” black who doesn’t speak in “Negro dialect.” For reasons outlined by senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh, I think these remarks were not racist, even if they did use outdated terminology such as “Negro.” In addition, I believe conservatives should think long and hard about whether they really want to promote such an expansive definition of racism.

Conservatives and to a lesser extent libertarians are often accused of being racist for things like opposing affirmative action, skepticism about broad antidiscrimination laws, claiming that intergroup differences in income are not necessarily due to discrimination, arguing that some cultures are better than others, and so on. If the GOP wins this particular fight and Reid is forced to resign, there will be a new norm in public discourse under which no prominent person can openly say the same kinds of things as Reid without being labeled a racist. This norm will ensnare some people of all persuasions. It will also have the unfortunate effect of making honest discussion of racial issues even more difficult than it often is already. But in many settings — especially the media and the intellectual world — it is likely to be used most aggressively against conservatives and libertarians. And if conservatives complain that such attacks are unfair, their credibility will be undermined by their own previous attacks on Reid. I realize, of course, that it’s tempting to score some political points against Reid, especially at a time when Republicans see the Democrats’ popularity plummeting and hope to make major gains in the November elections. However, even forcing Reid to resign probably will have only a minor, temporary impact on the overall political balance of power. By contrast, the effect on discourse norms will be much more permanent.

If you’re keeping score, we’ve now got Rush Limbaugh arguably leading the United States in accusations of racism, Liz Cheney upset that insufficient political correctness is being applied to Harry Reid, and Abigail Thernstrom calling him a “racial boor” (in a post that argues the truly damaging thing about Trent Lott’s racial gaffe was the apology!).

Linda Chavez posts what the critical movement conservative’s reaction should be:

If Harry Reid were a Republican, he’d be history. But, on the other hand, his actual remarks, while politically incorrect, weren’t racist. If anything, what they suggest is that he believes race matters more to whites than it actually does. Democratic politicians believe that most whites harbor prejudice towards blacks; it’s why they believe you need racial preferences. If he owes anyone an apology, it’s the American people.

As it happens, I agree that a Republican who made a remark equivalent to what Senator Reid said would be excoriated, but having long chided a subset of liberals for making accusations of racism that aren’t warranted by the facts — see the Duke lacrosse case if you doubt this happens — I’ll be sorely disappointed if I now must live in a society where injustices of this sort are twice as frequent, but ideologically balanced. Perhaps John Tabin will regard this as mere hand-wringing. He criticizes me by saying that I diagnose “the pathologies of the right like a doctor who thinks every little sniffle is pneumonia.”

I’ll double down: I think there is substantial evidence that the right is infected with the cancers of identity politics and political correctness, and that aggressive treatment is warranted. Does Mr. Tabin agree, given the numerous examples offered here and elsewhere, and Mr. Somin’s point about how this sort of thing is likely to have a permanent effect on our national discourse?

Or does he stand by his statement that I’m overreacting?

I’ll gladly link any answer or counterargument he offers.

Instapundit, Cont'd

January 11, 2010

If you read my recent post on Instapundit, be aware that Professor Glenn Reynolds has responded on his blog. Since he and I disagree on some matters, I hope you’ll do him the courtesy of checking out his whole post so you’ve got the most fair assessment possible of his perspective.

I do want to address a couple of things that don’t seem fair to me.

He writes:

IT’S HARD TO TAKE CONOR FRIEDERSDORF’S CRITIQUE OF LAZINESS SERIOUSLY WHEN HE SAYS THIS: “I’m not sure if traffic is up at Instapundit these days or down.” And when, you know, there’s a sitemeter that answers the question right on the Instapundit front page. But Friedersdorf can’t be bothered to look for things like that.

There are two problems:

1) I never accuse Professor Reynolds of laziness. My critique was that Instapundit sometimes fetishizes pithiness at the expense of substance. I don’t speculate as to why the blog does that — in fact, I say I am puzzled by it — but I am quite sure that laziness isn’t the issue, since its author is anything but that. I’ll never know how he writes that blog, fulfills his duties as a parent, husband, and law professor, and still manages to write books and articles, scuba dive, and take digital photos, among other things. But I’m impressed!

2) I actually did check Instapundit’s site meter, and as far as I can tell — having just checked again to make sure I wasn’t missing anything — it is only possible to see the site’s traffic for the last 12 months. See for yourself, and please let me know if I am wrong about this. Of course, the level of traffic actually isn’t even neccesary to my argument, since I was saying that regardless of whether traffic is up or down I prefer the Instapundit of old (even if the figures were easily available, I don’t know that it would’ve been fair to call me lazy for not looking them up), but seeing as how I did try to look them up, and couldn’t find traffic figures for Instapundit circa 2002 to 2005, it seems like an especially unfair criticism. (Perhaps Professor Reynolds can see farther back on his site meter than I can because he is logged in or privy to administrator pages?)

Professor Reynolds also writes:

He’s got a point to make here. Which is, I think, trolling for his Tucker Carlson’s new venture, which launches Monday. Good luck with that, Conor. I understand you’re planning to distinguish yourself by featuring carefully researched, non-sloppy pieces. . . . .

I am not sure why Professor Reynolds initially thought that I work for Tucker Carlson’s new venture — I haven’t the least bit of affiliation with it — and I am even less clear on why working there would motivate me to write a piece criticizing Instapundit, but I do think it is especially unfair to accuse me of sloppiness while getting all of these facts about me wrong in a way that mis-characterizes my motives. To his credit, Instapundit did update the post with a correction upon learning that I do not work for The Daily Caller.

I still don’t understand the line about my not being a serious blog reader.

But I’m glad that Professor Reynolds also noticed the compliments I offered him and his site. After getting some angry e-mail from far left blog readers who claimed I pulled my punches, I want to reiterate that I genuinely regard his writing as worthwhile and his site as well worth keeping in your RSS reader — should anyone imagine that I offered any compliment in that post without meaning it, let me assure you that I am willing to defend every word I published.

Finally, I want to address a note that Jim Treacher, a blogger at the Daily Trawler, sent to Professor Reynolds, and that he subsequently published.

Conor Friedersdorf is not working for the Daily Caller. I am, though! Check me out starting in about 11 hours or so.

P.S. Could you maybe put up a correction that Friedersdorf has nothing to do with the Caller, and we’re no more fond of his attempts to divide and conquer than you are?

It is perfectly fair to correct the record regarding my involvement in the site, and I wish Mr. Treacher great success at his new digs (go check them out), but I must say that his remark about my “attempts to divide and conquer” are nonsense. It is unclear whether he is referring to my post on Instapundit, or a quote published in The Washington Independent, but I suspect the latter, so here is the exchange between reporter Dave Weigel and I.

Mr. Weigel’s question: “…since you write a lot about what conservatives need to do vis a vis journalism, are you optimistic about the Daily Caller? What does it need to do that Breitbart et al are not doing?”

My answer, as rendered in his article: “I hope that The Daily Caller aspires to produce writing that is as well written and professionally edited as the stuff that the talented Tucker Carlson writes for Esquire,” said Friedersdorf. “The alternative — the Andrew Breitbart model — is to publish poorly reasoned, atrociously edited screeds on the cheap, on the assumption that ideologically friendly readers will keep clicking anyway.”

Who calls that “an attempt to divide and conquer”? Are Andrew Breitbart and Tucker Carlson supposed to be allied generals whose respective armies of journalistic staffers will be weakened without one another? I don’t get it. Even if I can’t understand the exact nature of Mr. Treacher’s critique, however, it is evident that he is both upset that I am criticizing someone on the political right and quick to presume that I have some kind of strategic motive. Though what could conquest mean here, I wonder?

Let me set the record straight: with the possible exception of Human Events, a publication that may betoo corrupt to be worth saving, I want every journalistic enterprise I critique to improve and succeed. When I criticize Mr. Breitbart, or his sites Big Hollywood, Big Government and Big Journalism, part of my project is pressuring them to do better work. In fact, I’d happily provide my counsel to anyone at those sites privately and free of charge, and I think that much of the critiques I’ve published thus far are constructive.

This shouldn’t be very difficult for Mr. Treacher to believe, since I’ve been calling for quality conservative journalism for a long time — as you can see here, this particular project of mine long predates Mr. Breitbart’s sites, and even back then I was praising Tucker Carlson (see paragraph 10).

I am a writer. When I critique people or sites, it isn’t because I’ve got a personal grudge against them, or because I want them to fail, or because I want to divide and conquer them, whatever that means — it is because I think they are wrong on some matter of substance. It is weird that this most straightforward motivation doesn’t seem to occur to Mr. Treacher as a possibility. As long as journalists on the right conceive of themselves inside some kind of war metaphor, where criticism is considered to be the disloyal act of a would be conquistador, they’ll exist inside a movement bubble where they never get tough criticism save from ideological opponents who really are thinking strategically, and would rather see them fail than improve.

Instant Pithyness Corrupts Instantly

January 8, 2010

In college, I wrote a humor magazine that included top ten lists. They ran down the left margin of 8.5×11 sheets of paper, so the punchlines had to be pithy. The Top 10 Things That Would Change Without Index Fingers? Number 7: “Rock, paper, scissors becomes rock, paper, fuck you.”

In that kind of writing, one must abandon a lot of jokes that almost work, or else foolishly press on despite the fact that the punchline cannot be pithily expressed. Space being limited, these not yet ready for prime time one-liners end up inscrutable. They can be deciphered by the few people who already share all the assumptions that helped you to conceive the joke, but outside that cocoon, the words committed to the page are inadequate.Thus the writer is asked to explain the joke, a feat that takes a minute. Confident comics are happy to oblige; those too insecure to engage assert that anyone who didn’t understand must be stupid.

All this helps us understand the most aggravating characteristic of Instapundit, a blog that has many good attributes too. Professor Reynolds is an astute man, a pioneer in the medium, author of a pretty good book, a usually sensible columnist, someone who kept a relatively even keel in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, purveyor of several sensible if brief points per day, and an aggregator who links some good stuff one wouldn’t otherwise see. But he too often writes posts whose pithiness comes at the expense of substance, accuracy or integrity.

This flaw is easily forgiven when he is writing about frivolous subjects, but it rankles when he tries to have it both ways, publishing posts that are political commentary, ideological point scoring, or a critique of another writer, and reacting to the inevitable blow back by ignoring his interlocutors or else blaming them for misunderstanding him, even when they read his words in perfectly reasonable ways.

This alternating evasiveness and passive aggression is somewhat puzzling, because Professor Reynolds is perfectly capable of holding his own in reasoned argument. See his columns or a law review articles — these bad qualities are nowhere to be found, or so I gather from the several dozen short pieces and handful of long pieces I’ve perused over the years. I recommend them! And I find myself nostalgic for the Instapundit of old. I wonder whether I am remembering it accurately, or whether it’s me that’s changed. Unsure, I dip back into the unread posts on my Google Reader with cautious optimism, and quickly enough become frustrated by the Pajamas Media version of Instapundit, where the unpredictability is gone, the typical reader is never challenged, and instead of an intelligent voice having interesting arguments with ideological opponents there’s just Twitter length sniping at them.

Why has a tenured law professor who doesn’t need the money or even the page views settled on this particular approach to the medium? So many posts either panders to or coddle the movement conservative’s ideological preconceptions — so you have controversial plank X in the Tea Party platform, and Professor Reynolds signals his agreement with it, almost always without any argument about why it is correct. Other times he actually disagrees with plank X, something he’ll occasionally make known, but very seldom does he actually argue against plank X, or try to change anyone’s mind about it. Instead he’ll note that while he happens to be against plank X, other people who are against it are silly or annoying or hypocritical or ham-handed in their advocacy or approaching things in the wrong way or are the subject of a really funny Mark Steyn one-liner.

Instapundit punts on the substance of so many matters, choosing instead to make the pithiest point that jives with his readers’ sensibilities. There’s a climate change conference? Well is it cold there? Did anyone fly there on a private plane? Did any MSM reporter betray bias in their writeup? There’s your Instapundit climate change coverage for the day. Single instances of this behavior aren’t egregious, but the aggregate effect is to set daily Instapundit readers adrift in a constant stream of straw men and irrelevant points cheaply scored, losing site of the issue for the pith.

Then there are the occasional times that a Glenn Reynolds post is particularly egregious in its pandering, or wrongheaded in its substance (this latter happens to us all). Due to his stature, intelligence, and past demonstrations that he is a reasonable person capable of productive debates, he is called out on his post in the manner familiar to everyone who blogs. “How can you say that about Y?” his critic demands.

Usually he or she is ignored — there’s only so much due diligence a single man can do if he’s to teach law, produce Web video, record pod-casts and produce so much pithiness and useful links every day (seriously, how does he do it all?) — but sometimes there is a response, almost always evading or pithily dismissing the critic’s point without addressing it, or else feigning shock, shock that anyone could ever think that his post was saying that — I’ve never said or meant that — never mind the peculiar way I wrote my post, or that I link almost exclusively to people who think that, always mock opponents of that, and never mock or even argue with anyone who does think that.

Sometimes Professor Reynolds has half a point in the resulting exchange. I take him at his word that he really is against torture, for example, though I still find it absolutely bizarre that he is less against torture than he’d otherwise be because Andrew Sullivan annoys him. What I wonder is what would happen if Professor Reynolds faced a mock trial where for a prize of $10 million he had to persuade a randomly selected jury that he honestly holds the views he claims to hold as they read his blog everyday for a year. Would Professor Reynolds grasp why sometimes these jurors would be confused or feel misled about his actual views? Would his style change? I’d give up In N Out for a year to see this experiment play out.

Every time I’ve done an “Instapundit sanity test,” where I show one of these kerfuffles he’s occasionally engaged in to apolitical friends clueless about the blogosphere, they’re sympathetic to the person accused of having misunderstood him. “Wait, he’s against torture? Well don’t just show me this ‘heh’ post that set off the kerfuffle, show me the post where he makes the best case against torture. Oh, you can’t ever recall having read one like that?” These people tend to naively presume that political arguments are grounded in beliefs about specific issues, rather than the belief that one side is right overall, and therefore it is fun and loyal and savvy and righteous and pithy to zing the other side, ideally acting as though the zing is rooted in some greater symbolic import, or is another data point revealing the way things are, instead of being, say, a transient, irrelevant example of hypocrisy by the least defensible guy on the other side.

There is actually a service rendered here. People like reading Instapundit! He brightens the days of so many office workers. I am not being flip. That is truly significant. So are the digital camera recommendations, the links to great Radley Balko and Megan McArdle stories, the occasional law review articles, the way he’s helped to advance the careers of people like Michael Totten, the occasional examples of pith that are grounded in substance and genuinely held beliefs — so funny, so quotable, so wise.

Even at the height of my frustration with the man, I’ve tried to give him credit for all this. Instapundit remains in my Google Reader. I look at it multiple times every week. I have tremendous respect for the second career this entrepreneurial guy has built, and I hope that he, the Instawife, and the Instakids enjoy health, happiness and prosperity. Seriously. I’d probably enjoy having a beer with Glenn Reynolds. The fact that all these non-bloggy things seem most important to him too makes me like him even more.

These praiseworthy attributes are unfortunately accompanied by these lamentable aspects of Instapundit. They are trending in the wrong direction too, and that makes the blogosphere a worse place: one where pithiness is prized too highly, cheap demonstrations of pseudo-hypocrisy and insubstantial zings take the place of considered opinion (or substantial zings!), and too many bloggers on the right try for an Instalanche by producing more of this Glenn Reynolds bait than they otherwise might. (The imperative to link stuff from Pajamas Media hasn’t helped either — and it’s so often Alfonso Rachel too. Why not give us all Roger Simon and Andrew Klavan?)

Perhaps this background information will help Professor Reynolds understand why I reacted so unfavorably when I saw him uncritically link a Pajamas Media piece titled, “Dear Mr. President, Your Policies Are Hurting Women the Most.” That’s the most cliched kind of identity politics, I wrote, akin to that old New York Times joke: “World Ends, Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.” Then Professor Reynolds updated his post, claiming, “Conor Friedersdorf is immune to irony.” So I re-read the Pajamas Media letter. Hints of tongue-in-cheek? None. Ironic tone? Certainly not. What’s going on here? Querying a few friends, I didn’t find anyone who took it ironically either. And let’s be honest, do numerous Congressional Representatives ever co-sign ironic op-eds?

Querying Twitter, I got a response from John Tabin, who hazarded that “appropriating the language of identity politics to tweak the left is not the same as embracing identity politics in earnest.” In other words, it quacks like a duck, but isn’t one. But doesn’t the Pajamas Media piece, which begins “We recently called together a bipartisan forum of women to discuss how the debate over health care affects them,” embrace not just the language of identity politics, but also its substance? Mr. Tabin postponed his answer until the following morning. It is here. The thrust of his argument:

Conor’s problem seems to be that the letter is seriously suggesting that Obama’s policies are especially bad for women. And he’s right, it is. But the subtext is important here. As Conor points out, the Congresswomen are mostly talking about policies that Republicans believe are bad for everyone. The purpose of noting that some of them are disproportionately bad for women, though, is indeed to note the irony: Women are supposed to be one of the groups that liberals are especially interested in protecting.

Of course, the hypothetical New York Times headline writer genuinely thought the end of the world was bad for everyone! But I digress. Instapundit jumped back into the fray. “JOHN TABIN takes the time to explain,” he wrote. “I thought about doing that, but it spoils the pithiness when you have to help people who don’t catch on. This blog is for serious blog readers. The rest will have to keep up if they can. Hang on tight!”

Spoken like a tenured professor! Unfortunately, I’m not the only kid in the class who is having trouble keeping up. Check out the comments on the original piece at Pajamas Media, where it’s criticized on the same grounds I raised (and defended by folks who think it is entirely in earnest). The commenters at this site seem unaware of any irony in the piece too. And I remind Professor Reynolds that I’ve been reading his site for many years, interviewed him for publication, and linked by him more than a few times over the years. That I’m not a serious blog reader isn’t really even a plausible criticism. Or was that ironic too? You never know when you’re arguing against someone who could take it onto Twitter.

In comments at The American Spectator, self-described Instapundit fan Chirs BD sums up my feeling:

Wouldn’t irony need to be one of the letter’s themes — or at least its discernible motivation — to level such a charge at one of its readers? Reynolds was basically faulting Friedersdorf for not connecting a bunch of dots that weren’t laid out by the letter itself (or by Reynolds’ link to it).

Friedersdorf made a simple point that stands on its own: If identity politics is bad for thee, it’s bad for me. Reynolds then stepped in and essentially said, no no, you shouldn’t interpret the letter on its face like that, nor should you should interpret my un-elaborated link on its face… rather, you should have read all this other stuff into it and conclude with this other interpretation.

That strikes me as a bit unfair. And it’s *definitely* unfair to say, “Sorry, I didn’t feel like explaining my derision of you because I didn’t want to ruin my pithiness.”

It’s hard not to escape the feeling that Instapundit’s original link, just like the letter itself, was actually quite earnest — and that “irony” was merely a convenient way to rebuff embarrassing criticism after the fact.

Another AmSpec commenter writes:

To those of you who think this is not identity politics: Let’s say Barack Obama and the Dems explained that “Jesus would support health care reform” and “without this health overhaul, Christians will be hardest hit.” Would that be identity politics? Because if you don’t see the commonality here, I think there’s some very serious cognitive dissonance going on.

Identity politics encompasses a larger sphere than leftists manipulating their interest groups along the traditional rhetoric of “the oppressed” and their cadre of college-educated Oppression Studies majors. When you use a certain defining characteristic of a person as a reason to be for/against something, you are undermining both traditional concepts of humanistic liberalism and conservative rule of law–that law should only be legislated on the basis that it is applied equally across the citizenry.

I’d say that whatever the intent of the GOP writers and Professor Reynolds, the piece is being taken earnestly by the vast majority of the people who read it. I didn’t make this point in my first post decrying identity politics, but an obvious peril of adopting tactics and language you’ve long deplored, under the thin cover of doing so ironically, is that a lot of people won’t get the joke, and after your first hint of short term success — effectiveness is why the other side used the tactic, after all — you’ll find yourself behaving worse than they do.

This seems like something the right should worry about and worthy of discussion to me, and as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the Glenn Reynolds approach to argument, where pithiness rules them all, detracts from rather than facilitates that conversation. I’m not sure if traffic is up at Instapundit these days or down. Maybe people like the new Glenn Reynolds better than the old. Though I find even the knew Instapundit worth reading, and Professor Reynold’s non-bloggy writing reliably good, I sure miss what Instapundit used to be.

The Triumph of Identity Politics

January 6, 2010

You’ve heard the old conservative one liner poking fun at the left’s penchant for identity politics — “The New York Times: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.” If the joke has long since grown tired, it’s only because it so pithily satirized a certain kind of liberal orthodoxy. Search back through the archives of the mainstream media, and you’ll see the same world view at work in headlines scarcely less absurd than the one in the joke.

Alternatively, you can see the same idiocy on display at Pajamas Media, a cite created as an alternative to the tired orthodoxies of the mainstream media that turns out to publish work that re-purposes the most tired tactics of identity politics to score cheap political points.

The headline: “Dear Mr. President: Your Policies Are Damaging Women the Most.” What follows isn’t satire. It is a deadly series “exclusive” wherein “nine GOP congresswomen tell the president how to make 2010 a better year for struggling women.” The stimulus bill, cap and trade, and health care reform are the specific issues discussed. What a coincidence that the primary items opposed by the GOP are also the areas where President Obama is being accused of injuring women! It’s almost as if this is a cynical exercise in using identity politics for partisan ends.

If a New York Times editorial titled “Dear Mr. President: Your Policies Are Damaging Women The Most” appeared during the Bush Administration, Professor Glenn Reynolds would’ve mocked it with an Instapundit “heh,” but because Barack Obama is president, and the item is published by republicans at his pet site, he uncritically links this nonsense.

Luckily, Andrew Breitbart has launched Big Journalism today. Surely someone there can hold Pajamas Media to account, and help ensure that right of center sites don’t continue engaging in the most blatant sort of identity politics. Because we’re actually against that for substantive reasons. Right guys? I wasn’t alone in earnestly being against this stuff regardless of its partisan implications, was I? Victor Davis Hanson? Mark Steyn? Will anyone back me up here?

UPDATE: I see that Professor Reynolds has updated his post with the message, “Conor Friedersdorf is immune to irony.” Ah, cryptic retorts! What is the implication here? That the item was posted in jest? That the whole thing is tongue in cheek satire? Or did GOP Congressional representatives and Pajamas Media actually publish that letter, and there is some other irony that somehow makes it not an example of identity politics? Is the irony that the right is now using rhetorical weapons it once denounced — even, I now see, at Big Government, where they’ve included the item in question in their aggregated stories at the top of the page?

Perusing the comments on the item, the Pajamas Media readership seems to think the letter is real and unironic. A Texas Congressional Candidate seems to think so too.

Or is “ironic” the word we’re now using when the right takes things that they’ve always complained about the left doing, and then knowingly does that same thing for political gain? So Rush Limbaugh just ironically calls people racists, and the Congressional representatives are just ironically saying that Obama policies hit women hardest, except they really think they’re bad for women, but not in the same way the left would mean it, or something? Or is it that they actually think President Obama’s policies are great for women?

Enlighten me in language that isn’t cryptic and I’ll update!

Torture and Just War Theory

January 6, 2010

Andrew Sullivan:

Force and violence can be defended morally in war as the least worst option in a world where evil exists, and where the enemy is at large and fully capable of killing you. But when you have captured the enemy, when he is utterly under your control, tied naked to chair by shackles in a cell, the morality of the use of force shifts dramatically. When you unleash violence against him when he cannot defend himself, you have crossed a core moral line.

Marc Thiessen replies:

Andrew’s argument rests on the presumption that that once a captured terrorist is in custody, he has already been rendered “unable to cause harm” (the standard in the Catholic Catechism), and because he is powerless and completely at the mercy of his captors, any form of coercion is therefore unjust.

He is incorrect. Even when he is in custody, a captured terrorist like KSM is not powerless; he remains an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands — simply by withholding information about the terrorist attacks he has set in motion. KSM had not been rendered unable to cause harm when he was interrogated by the CIA. Before his capture, he had set in motion plans for new attacks. By withholding that information while in custody, he held in his hands the lives of thousands of people.

Indeed, when KSM was brought into custody, he was asked by the CIA for information about those planned attacks. He replied: “Soon you will know.” With this statement, he communicated to his captors that: a) he had information on planned attacks, and b) he would not divulge that information until the attacks had occurred. There could hardly be a clearer moral case for coercive interrogation.

Even while sitting in a CIA black site, KSM remained an unjust aggressor who actively [Conor here: surely that word should be passively] threatened our society. He possessed the power to kill. The government had a moral responsibility to render him unable to do harm by compelling him to divulge this information.

Sigh. By Mr. Thiessen’s logic, it is a moral imperative for the American government to torture every prisoner of war captured in a foreign conflict who has knowledge of future attacks. I’d wager the Pope doesn’t share his view of “coercive interrogation.”

Full Body Scanners Revisited

January 6, 2010

Joel Mathis at Philadelphia Weekly has been kind enough to respond to my recent post on full body airport scanners:

Conor Friedersdorf chalked the opposition to scanners up to prudery, claiming they’d be worth it if they somehow made it quicker to get through airport security.

“My hatred for lines is such that I’d gladly walk a gauntlet of TSA employees completely naked were it offered as a speedy alternative to arriving at the airport two hours early and standing in line for 45 awful minutes,” Friedersdorf wrote. “But don’t the people who are apparently uncomfortable with this get checkups at the doctor? Didn’t they take showers after gym class? Shouldn’t it be far easier for the modest person to stay dressed while passing through a scanner being viewed by a TSA employee they’ll likely never see again? So long as faux-nudity isn’t irrationally fetishized, I don’t understand what the big deal is here.”

Here’s the problem: Airport security isn’t the after-gym shower. In that case, you might’ve been naked, but so was everybody else in the class. The vulnerability was roughly equal. Not so in an airport security line. Chances are, faux-nudity will be fetishized; this kind of stuff always is. Sure, security professionals claim that the virtually naked images won’t be stored—but does anybody really want to bet on how long it takes for some of those images to hit some creepy website? Why on earth should we have any confidence?

I suppose it is possible that an image like this one might be saved somehow by a TSA worker in violation of protocol, uploaded to some obscure Web site for the 7 people who get off on body x-ray scans, and… then what, precisely? I am sorry if the answer is obvious, but I am unsure how it would affect my life if a weird scan that doesn’t even identify me by name or race winds up somewhere on the Internet.

The writer goes on:

Ann Davis, a TSA spokesperson, says that screeners shouldn’t have been waving my birth control in the air.

“We do instruct our officers to screen passengers with the utmost respect and dignity,” Davis says. “We expect a high level of professionalism. We’ll investigate when we get reports otherwise.”

And yet problems happen. Dirtbags get jobs that require a discretion they lack. The problem is that—unlike Friedersdorf’s fantasy—TSA screeners aren’t doctors, who have years of training on how to act professionally and a massive financial incentive to keep their jobs. Instead, the airport security line usually appears to be staffed by people who couldn’t quite make muster to staff the overnight shift at 7-Eleven.

Oh, come now, apologies for being graphic, but once we get old enough doctors strip us naked in private rooms where they penetrate our orifices with their fingers. We hardly require the same training and professionalism for someone who is going to sit staring at a monitor as thousands of people pass briefly by, never interacting with him at all.

Mr. Mathis concludes:

It’s possible that the government will decide full-body scans are a necessary tool to deter terrorists, and we will probably adjust. But when I think about standing in an airport security line, watching a blue-shirted man wave my condoms around to his friend, I know abuse of a full-body scan by TSA screeners isn’t just a possibility—it’s a dead-on certainty.

For me this example demonstrates how TSA is capably of abusing passengers in the course of searching their luggage far more than they’d be by having them walk through a full body scanner.

Torture, Slippery Slopes, and Debating the Subject

January 2, 2010

In his latest post on torture, Andrew Sullivan makes an important point: it wasn’t so long ago that torture advocates justified barbaric interrogation techniques by arguing that they’re needed in ticking time bomb scenarios — usually to prevent an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction — whereas now, having slid down the slippery slope, a majority of Americans favor waterboarding the man who tried to blow himself up aboard that recent Detroit-bound flight, despite the fact that we aren’t in a ticking time bomb scenario, or faced with an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction.

This is terrible news for those of us who regard torture as morally and strategically counterproductive, and for everyone who has regard for the rule of law, since the practice is illegal under both domestic law and international treaties. It is also an illustration of the populist passions that can arise after an attempted terrorist attack, when long established legal precedents are particularly important to respect.

A peripheral matter worth noting is that the torture debate has inspired the latest round of zings between Mr. Sullivan (a former colleague at The Atlantic for whom I’ve guest blogged on several occasions) and Professor Glenn Reynolds, author of Instapundit, who I once interviewed here and here.

This post by Professor Reynolds puzzles me:

YEAH, BUT WITHOUT ANDREW SULLIVAN’S ANTI-TORTURE BLOGGING IT WOULD HAVE BEEN 56%: 58% Favor Waterboarding of Plane Terrorist To Get Information.

UPDATE: “My conclusion: the debate is over, and Dick Cheney won it.”

Reader Michael Gebert blames Andrew: “If fighting terrorists creates terrorists, surely being an endless hypocritical scold about waterboarding creates Dick Cheneys.” Yeah, I actually agree with Andrew on torture, but the more I read his stuff, the weaker my sentiments on the subject get . . . .

Professor Reynolds has a stunning disregard for his responsibilities as an influential writer if his stance on a question as important as torture is significantly influenced by a matter as trivial as whether he is annoyed by Mr. Sullivan’s prose. My God, man, you’re a successful, middle-aged law professor whose every “heh” is consumed by a large swath of the conservative blogosphere everyday, and you’re telling me that distaste for the commentary of a man you apparently don’t even respect is causing your anti-torture sentiment to wane? Obviously I am in no position to referee disputes between these two bloggers, having a close professional connection to one of them, but whether one thinks that Andrew Sullivan possesses healthy or overactive self-regard, we should all be able to agree that his personality traits haven’t the slightest bearing on the rightness or wrongness of torture, or how vociferously its opponents should write against it.

The same applies to anyone out there who finds his participation in the torture debate being driven partly by personal feelings about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, or any other single individual. Can you imagine how little we’d think of an influential World War II era columnist who revealed in his memoirs that he would’ve taken a harder line against POW torture, or the mistreatment of interned Japanese, or some other morally charged issue, but that he didn’t due to the hectoring tone of another pundit?

People whose argumentative style one finds annoying can be read on both sides of every issue. By all means, attack that style if you wish. But allowing whoever drives you most crazy to influence the substance of what you’re saying? The torture debate is too important for that — so important, in fact, that I’d like to encourage anyone who opposes torture, but doesn’t like how it’s being opposed, to show us how to make persuasive arguments.