Archive for April, 2010

Race, The Tea Parties, and Mr. Blow's Column

April 30, 2010

A couple weeks ago, this New York Times column by Charles Blow irked me — in a post at The American Scene, I made two arguments: 1) Mr. Blow showed profound disrespect for a black man, a Latina woman and an Asian man who spoke at a Tea Party rally by calling them minstrels. 2) It’s unfair for liberals to laud the act of highlighting diverse voices when it is done by a television network, a university, or a corporation, criticize conservatives for an insufficient commitment to highlighting diversity, and then criticize the right for running a minstrel show because it chose a speaking lineup more racially diverse than the people in attendance.

Four writers criticized my post, and the followup post that I wrote: Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie, Jonathan Bernstein, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. All are writers whose work I enjoy, and I spent a lot of time thinking about their comments. Soon enough, it was apparent that we all agreed about one thing — it was unfair and inaccurate for Mr. Blow to assert that the speakers in question were minstrels.

What did we disagree about? It is harder to say.

Mr. Coates offers a couple of worthwhile insights: he says that being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” is something that political movements inevitably endure if they invest in the project of racial progress, and that the conservative movement must change more than optics if it hopes to win over minority voters — it must change some of its attitudes and its approach to certain policies. All that seems accurate to me, and I thank Mr. Coates for putting it more succinctly and eloquently than I could’ve, but I don’t think it is inconsistent with anything I wrote in my posts, or that it rescues Mr. Blow’s column from either of the criticisms that I offered. In a followup post, Mr. Coates writes that “no one likes to be called a racist, but you don’t evince a concern about racial equality because you hope to avoid that charge.” Agreed. I’d want the Tea Party movement to stand against racism, and for racial progress, even if it were attacked everyday as being racist — and again, I don’t think that is inconsistent with anything I offered in my initial posts, or that it is a defense of Mr. Blow’s column, which made some very specific unfounded allegations about a particular Tea Party rally.

What about Mr. Bouie, Mr. Bernstein, and Mr. Serwer?

They agreed that though the speakers in question weren’t minstrels, Mr. Blow was justified in finding something “untoward” about their role at the Tea Party rally. “It flows from the fact that those voices are forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals to show the white Tea Partiers that they’re on their side,” Mr. Bouie wrote. “… conservative activists have a habit of categorically defining people of color as ideologically hostile, so that their mere presence isn’t enough to convince organizers or attendants that their sympathies are shared. In turn, this suspicion requires those singular voices of color to ‘perform’ and show their loyalty, in order to gain acceptance.”

I didn’t find any evidence of elaborate tribal signaling or prejudicial stereotyping in Mr. Blow’s column.

After the first round of back and forth, Mr. Serwer began to zero in on what I think is the root of our disagreement.

He quotes this little bit from the Charles Blow column:

The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God.

Mr. Serwer interprets that passage as follows:

I won’t speak to the third example, but the first two speakers’ statements are explicitly related to racial superstitions they assume their audience holds about them. The doctor is signaling to his mostly white audience that he is not the type of black person who ‘blames racism for everything,’ and the Hispanic immigrant is letting his audience know that she’s not some foreign moocher who came to the U.S. for a handout. The fact that reaffirming the racial resentments of conservatives is the price of the ticket for a person of color with conservative views is pretty infuriating. Race is being ‘used as a cudgel’ against these Tea Partiers by their own ideological fellows in ways Friedersdorf has not begun to consider. That’s what I meant when I said he was being ‘oblivious.’

On reading Mr. Blow’s column, I interpreted the same passage in a totally different way. In a couple of academic settings, I’ve been close friends with “students of color” with beliefs about race and politics that didn’t square with the liberal consensus. They got a lot of grief for it, complained a lot in private conversation about how they were treated, and predisposed me to react the same way to the passage above as the blogger at The Blanks Slate:

I am black. I am a (small “L”) libertarian. I have, at various points in my past also self-identified as “conservative” and “Republican.” And, as most black people of our general political stripe can attest, with it comes some pretty nasty insinuations and a lot of name calling.

“Sell-out.” “Oreo.” “[Uncle] Tom.”

It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to be branded a race-traitor by your own people; that explicit and ultimate denigration of your identity and character that says what you believe is incompatible with what you are, where you come from, and how much you care about other people like you; that your politics shows that you are ashamed of your blackness–and thus should be ashamed of who you are.

Later in the same post, he writes:

Indeed, I would say that Blow, Bouie and Serwer may have misidentified whom exactly the black tea partiers were signaling to with their “I’m not a racist” signs. Is it really all that unlikely that those who have, for years, endured smears and hateful venom from their racial kindred be a tad sensitive to accusations of racism-by-association from the likes of Keith Olbermann or thinly veiled accusations of Tomism from Charles Blow? (It’s not like these insults are new. Seriously. At all. You can even read a book about it.) National media personalities who don’t know us, and apparently don’t understand us, just throwing out words like “minstrel” and “racist” just because some assholes show up fully displaying their ignorance. Yes, the Right has a racist past. But, duh, the Left does too.

BREAKING: AMERICA HAS A RACIST PAST.

I’m not a tea partier, but I know something about how they feel. I’ve found it quite ironic that we have to defend ourselves for being different–for being individuals and thinking for ourselves–against vicious slurs by supposedly enlightened ones who think we should all think and vote the same.

When I read Mr. Blow’s description of “a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism” and “a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement,” I didn’t assume the speakers were nervously signaling to other Tea Partiers that they were “good minorities,” I thought their rhetoric was a reaction against liberals and media folks who, by their lights, implicitly insult them as self-hating minorities every time they write that the Tea Party movement is racist. It irks some conservative “people of color” when they hear that, so much so that some of them react by saying what amounts to, “Hey everyone, liberals say this movement doesn’t like black people — well how do they explain my presence here? Take that liberals who think all minorities think like they do!” I didn’t see any nefarious signaling going on because I presumed I was seeing another instance of that kind of reaction, which I’ve seen before.

I actually think that Mr. Serwer and I were both wrong to make our respective assumptions (though it’s worth noting that I didn’t further assume that he was being so unsophisticated about racial conversation that he should be accused of obliviousness — the charge he levied against me). In fairness, neither of us were at the rally — it’s perfectly plausible that he could’ve been right, and that I could’ve misinterpreted things; and vice-versa. Mr. Blow just didn’t present enough information to draw any sort of conclusion, and I think my complaints about his NY Times column were justified in part because if he actually witnessed a minstrel show, or elaborate tribal signaling rituals, he would’ve had damning details to report.

In an effort to get to the bottom of all this, I decided I’d try to contact the speakers so that I could interview them, and ask them about their Tea Party experiences, whether they felt pressured to signal solidarity with the crowd due to their race, etc. That Mr. Blow rendered them as a black, a Hispanic, and an Asian, rather than using their names, didn’t make the reporting any easier, but I finally spoke to the Latina woman, Adryana Boyne, whose speech is actually online — and although I haven’t as yet reached the black doctor, Delwin Williams, or the Vietnamese immigrant, Tom Ha, I have been directed to videos of their speeches that are also posted on YouTube. On the whole I think they vindicate my position, and I am certain that they further undercut the account offered by Mr. Blow, who misrepresented things rather strikingly.

Let’s begin with Mr. Ha, the Vietnamese immigrant. As is obvious the moment he is introduced by the MC, he wasn’t asked to speak because he is a minority, or to add racial diversity, or to be a minstrel — he’s there because he fled Vietnam when the Communists took over, and like so many Vietnamese Americans who escaped that horror, he embraced conservatism out of anti-Communist zeal. In his estimation, as in the estimation of many older Vietnamese in Little Saigon, Orange County, near where I grew up, American liberals are but communists in waiting — who better to speak at a Tea Party rally than someone who fled the reds, and sees in Barack Obama the thing he escaped? There is a lot to object to in his speech, but I defy anyone to demonstrate that it is racially “untoward,” or that he is “forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals.” (The video is here — be warned that if you want to see Mr. Ha speak, you’ll be forced to endure some downright awful music that is annoyingly dubbed over his words.)

Also note how glib and misleading it is for Mr. Blow to dismissively characterize his speech merely writing merely that he describes the Tea Party leader as God, as though that is the main thrust of his remarks — it comes at the end of his speech, and isn’t put as absurdly as Mr. Blow makes it sound.

The speech of Dr. Delwin Williams can be seen here. It begins at the 3 minute mark, when he introduces himself as someone who wants to speak about “the Obamacare bill” from his unique perspective “as a physician.” And speak he does for almost four minutes, reading from notes and pontificating on the health care system. He obviously doesn’t feel as though being black requires him to signal his solidarity in any special way before he’ll be taken seriously — indeed, he just launches into the substance of his remarks straight off, and earns his share of applause.

Mr. Blow makes it seem as though a black doctor just climbs up on stage and bashes Democrats for crying racism, but actually, the black doctor makes most of his remarks on his profession, addressing race starting at around 6:45, when he briefly makes three assertions: 1) there are so many cries of racism nowadays it’s hard to tell which ones are real and which aren’t; 2) the Tea Partiers are called racist, but being involved in two local Tea Party groups, he’s been well treated and found everyone to be good non-racist people; 3) though all Democrats don’t falsely cry racism, the ones that do, and progressives (who he seems to view as race-baiters), should be ashamed of themselves. Whatever you think of all this — and I think some of it is obviously unfair to progressives — it is difficult to watch his speech and conclude that he is creepily being forced to prove that he is “one of the good ones,” as Mr. Blow put it, or especially to suggest that he isn’t taken seriously until he engages signaling on matters of race.

Finally there is the “Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement,” from whose bio I’ll now quote:

Adryana Boyne is a Political Commentator, Political Consultant and the National Director of VOCES Action, a non-profit organization that helps to inform, motivate, and empower Latinos in returning our country to its conservative values and to educate and help non- Latinos to engage with the Latino community. Mrs. Boyne also is a GOP Spokesperson to the Media on Hispanic Affairs and a spokesperson to the Spanish Media. She was elected at-large as a National Delegate at the 2008 Texas GOP Convention. Born in Puebla, Mexico, she became naturalized as an American citizen in 1994. She has received a Presidential appointment as a Member of the Texas Board of the Selective Services (Appointment given by President Barack Obama on 02/04/09 under the recommendation of President George W. Bush). Mrs. Boyne was honored in 2009 by the RNC among the Top “Hispanic Republicans Making Their Voices Heard”.

Here is the video of Ms. Boyne’s speech. It’s the most difficult to characterize. She is definitely quite explicit about her loyalty to the United States, in the “I’m a proud legal immigrant” kind of way, and that plus the welfare line makes one think that maybe she felt some need to signal something to the Tea Partiers, as Mr. Serwer suspected. But at 6:53, she says, “Now the liberals always portray all Latinos as ignorant, entitlement grubbing persons who always vote Democrat. Well, I’m a Latina, and I don’t want entitlements. I don’t want government run health care.” It sure sounds like Ms. Boyne is reacting against the way she perceives that liberals stereotype her, not the way she imagines that her fellow Tea Party activists see her, and that’s at least a big part of why she keeps saying that she’s never taken an entitlement.

After talking to her on the phone, I am persuaded that she really does think liberals see her in the light she describes (though of course I think it is absurd to say that “the liberals” are “always” portraying Latinos that way). Additionally, her whole life’s work is spent trying to convince fellow Latinos that their natural home is the Republican Party, on the theory that they are fiscally and socially conservative, so playing up her identity as a Latina who doesn’t fit into the stereotypical box is an occupational necessity in addition to an honestly held conviction. Later in the speech, Ms. Boyne launches into Spanish — a lot of her work is doing outreach to Spanish language media — and she says that though the bulk of Tea Party folks are supportive, she’ll occasionally run into small groups who complain that her whole talk isn’t in English, or who hassle Spanish language media that Tea Party organizers invite to cover their events. Far from signaling solidarity with these Tea Partiers, Ms. Boyne gives them an earful, and then continues doing what she does.

Does she also note that she’s a loyal American because otherwise some folks will notice her Latina accent, conclude she’s an immigrant, and wonder “what kind of immigrant” she is? I’d bet a lot of money that some people do wonder just that, shameful as that is, and perhaps that knowledge is part of why she takes special care to note that she’s a loyal American. On the phone, I asked her about this, and she said that she includes the part about her oath as an immigrant because she is proud of it, and because sometimes she thinks that the fact that she took an oath to the country means she is in some ways more patriotic than a native born American, who never affirmatively chooses the values of this place. (It’s also worth noting here that, even during the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama very deliberately framed himself as someone uniquely American, signaling his status as a member of the tribe rather than an other — the unfortunate necessity for this, or at least its usefulness, doesn’t exist only within movement conservatism.)

Mr. Blow also mentions AlfonZo Rachel’s speech in his column. It is here, and neither minstrely nor signally.

After reviewing all this video, there may be minor disagreements or differing interpretations about a single speaker, and especially the complicated Ms. Boyne, but on the whole, I think it is accurate to conclude that my initial complaints about Mr. Blow’s column were well-founded, and the assumption that all or even most minority speakers at this Tea Party rally felt a need to elaborately signal their loyalty in order to be accepted is wrong. In their posts on this subject, my interlocutors suggested, in ways that sometimes puzzled me, that I am averse to acknowledging aspects of movement conservatism’s history that are racially creepy. That isn’t the case. I understand the historical and cultural reasons that many blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are suspicious of this largely white populist movement.

But understanding the suspicion and where it comes from doesn’t mean refraining from defending the Tea Partiers, and especially specific gatherings of a some small percentage of Tea Partiers, when they’re attacked unfairly. In this instance, the defense happens to involve disproving some allegations about a black man, a Latina woman and a Vietnamese man that were themselves grounded in racial prejudgment, and corrosive to the ability of these people to be judged as autonomous individuals rather than stereotyped due to the color of their skin. Having said that, I think this has been a productive conversation, I hope I’ve represented the insights and arguments of everyone in a fair way, and I hope that if there are objections or disagreements that remain, folks will keep it going now that we’ve got actual footage to discuss rather than a misleading, reductive paragraph in a newspaper column.

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The Worst Thing About Talk Radio…

April 29, 2010

… is when its hosts lie with impunity.

Now you can do something about it.

Initial Thoughts on Immigration Reform

April 28, 2010

On the Arizona immigration bill, a few words — I am a firm opponent, despite my overall desire for better enforcement of federal immigration law. Put simply, I do not trust Arizona police, especially in Maricopa County, with the additional discretion they’ve been given. Sheriff Joe Arpaio already presides over a police department credibly accused of racial profiling — and as reporting by William Finnegan in The New Yorker and Radley Balko in Reason make clear, the criminal justice system in Arizona’s biggest metropolitan area is rife with serious problems that threaten the liberty of citizens and immigrants alike.

Beyond the near inevitability of racial profiling, there is the conventional objection to local police enforcing immigration law: doing so discourages people in immigrant neighborhoods from working with police. Undocumented residents won’t act as witnesses or good Samaritans or report being victimized by crime if calling 911 might well result in their deportation. It is folly to alienate so many residents from police officers who require their cooperation to keep all Arizonans safe.

So what do I propose? After all, illegal immigration is a serious problem: newcomers to America are a benefit to our nation, but the costs they impose on schools, hospitals and other social services are born locally, and folks unlawfully in the country are unlikely to inculcate in their kids the civic habits that are critical to the health of any democratic polity. Arizona’s porous southern border is also troubling given Mexico’s increasingly violent drug trade.

Personally, I’d like to see a path to citizenship for folks already here illegally, and an increase in the number of immigrants able to come here. As a political matter, this can only happen once the southern border is secured — and reluctant as I am to reach this conclusion, I think that’s as it should be: the amnesties of the past have promised better enforcement, but it’s never been delivered, effectively kicking the problem down the road, or even exacerbating it.

On the other hand, I am loath to support better enforcement unaccompanied by the guarantee that once illegal immigration is under control, legal immigration will be expanded. Yes, immigration imposes costs on some Americans, but that has always been the case, and the cost born by the natives in the much poorer America that my ancestors immigrated to were much higher. It doesn’t seem fair to keep newcomers out so that I can pay marginally less in local taxes, or even so that a poor American can earn marginally more at their job.

My proposal:

— A physical wall along the entire Mexican border. I don’t like the symbolism of closing the country to newcomers either, but realistically, the status quo is worse for everyone involved: we’ve got a partial wall that incentivizes border crossings through the most dangerous parts of the desert, and a corruptible, heavily armed border patrol hunting illegal immigrants by day and night. A solid wall would significantly reduce the number of illegal crossers, it couldn’t be corrupted by drug traffickers, it wouldn’t ever abuse illegal immigrants it deters — it is, all things considered, the least bad solution, and it is mere sentimentalism to instead favor the status quo, a partial wall and the symbolism of armed border guards and a deadly desert rather than a tall slab of concrete.

— Automatic increases in legal immigration quotas pegged to every measurable decrease in illegal immigration.

— The auction of lots of visas for high-skilled immigrants, with the profits allocated to jurisdictions that bear the costs of low skill immigrants.

— Pass the DREAM act.

— As I once wrote in regard to immigration policy in Southern California: “Every Southern California jail should verify the legal status of inmates and deport those in the country illegally — it matters little whether illegal immigrants trust their jailers. In Los Angeles County alone, the LA Times estimates that 40,000 illegal immigrants pass through the jails each year (among 170,000 total inmates). Multiply that by Southern California’s five counties over multiple years and countless crimes can be averted. Latino advocacy organizations may object, but they shouldn’t: if these convicts return to their country of origin rather than their ZIP code of residence, law-abiding illegal immigrants will benefit as much as anyone.” This avoids the trouble of having local police enforce immigration law, and gets rid of the profiling problem too since everyone convicted of a crime is checked.

It’s been a long time since I wrote about immigration policy. Maybe I am missing some drawback to these ideas, or social science data demonstrating that some assumption I’ve made is wrong — let me know. I am as yet undecided on how exactly a path to citizenship should work. But the priority should be on transforming people off the books into equal citizens and civic participants. None of this guest worker program nonsense: these are people, not workers, and it is folly to create a second class of non-citizens.

The Politics of Schadenfreude

April 28, 2010

What we have seen over the last ten years is a tendency to make loathing for liberals the thing that truly matters, and usually liberty becomes important to most conservatives only when it is useful to berate liberals. To the extent that liberals have defended constitutional liberties against anti-terrorist government intrusions, it is the latter that most conservatives have embraced. It is not just that loathing for liberals exceeds love of liberty, which might be true for members of all kinds of ideological movements, but that love of liberty becomes almost entirely contingent on whether or not it can be marshaled in opposition to liberals.

— Daniel Larison

I’ve long noticed a similar phenomenon.

See here.

Is Rush Limbaugh the Biggest Racial Demagogue in America?

April 28, 2010

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who broadcasts to legions of listeners ostensibly horrified by frivolous, cynical accusations of racism, has once again engaged in politically motivated race-baiting, reconfirming his stature as a hypocrite who denounces identity politics despite regularly engaging in it.

His latest remarks can be heard here.

As I wrote recently at The Daily Beast:

…even a cursory review of Limbaugh’s radio archives reveal the talk radio host to be a frequent race-baiter, one of the guys who obsessively trades on race.

In fact, based entirely on statements made by Mr. Limbaugh in 2009, one begins to wonder whether he’s been a bigger racial demagogue than even Al Sharpton during that period.

At the very least, he’s been bandying about the ‘r’ word rather frequently.

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? “He’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “He’s an angry racist.”

Sonja Sotomayor? “She’s a bigot. She’s a racist,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.”

President Obama? He’s “the biggest reverse racist in history.” On another occasion: “Just as he is ACORN, just as he is Van Jones, he is racism.”On a third: “How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people.” So implicitly Mr. Limbaugh is labeling multiple figures within the administration as racists too.

Democrats generally? “The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign.”

Liberals? “You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left.”

It is early yet in 2010, but already I predict that Rush Limbaugh will once again accuse more people of racism in the calendar year than Al Sharpton does.

The Fraud That Conservative Entertainers Can Never Acknowledge

April 22, 2010

In a recent post, Ross Douthat wrote that “conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” Jim Manzi took this as a direct challenge, penning a post at National Review’s group blog, The Corner, that persuasive demonstrates epistemic closure in Mark Levin’s bestseller Liberty and Tyranny.

This upset Kathryn Jean Lopez, who defended Mr. Levin, arguing in part that it is unfair to treat him as a “mere entertainer.” This is odd, since Mr. Manzi actually treats him as a book author whose arguments warrant a substantive reply. But anyway.

The subject I want to grapple with is Mr. Douthat’s characteristically thoughtful response to Ms. Lopez:

Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”

Mr. Douthat’s analysis is smart, as far as it goes, but it ignores the reasons why neither Ms. Lopez nor Mr. Levin can acknowledge (if they even believe it themselves) that Mr. Levin’s radio show or his book are “only entertainment.” Consider the promotional blurb put out by Simon and Schuster, Liberty and Tyranny’s publisher:

Mark R. Levin now delivers the book that characterizes both his devotion to his more than 5 million listeners and his love of our country and the legacy of our Founding Fathers: Liberty and Tyranny is Mark R. Levin’s clarion call to conservative America, a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century.

And later in the same blurb (note the unintentionally accurate first bit):

As provocative, well-reasoned, robust, and informed as his on-air commentary, Levin’s narrative will galvanize readers to begin a new era in conservative thinking and action. Liberty and Tyranny provides a philosophical, historical, and practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision and ensuring the preservation of American society.

This language is in keeping with the way Mr. Levin himself talks about the book, and the way its fans receive it. Thus in order to claim Liberty and Tyranny as mere entertainment, he would have to admit that all the claims about it being a “new manifesto for the conservative movement” and “a practical framework for revitalizing the conservative vision” are cynical, fraudulent claims.

As it happens, I know many fans of talk radio personalities. Almost without exception, these people regard the consumption of politically themed radio shows, Fox News, and books by conservative authors not merely as entertainment, but as civic participation. Often times these people’s hearts are in the right place — they are burning with an earnest desire to improve America, to inform themselves about its political debates, and to support folks they regard as public intellectuals representing them in political discourse.

Visit the Facebook page or fan forum of any popular talk radio host and you’ll see overwhelming evidence that this characterization is accurate. It isn’t uncommon for Mark Levin’s fans to explicitly thank him for safeguarding liberty against tyranny, Bill O’Reilly wrote a book titled “Who’s Looking Out for You,” and Rush Limbaugh regularly asserts his importance as a bulwark against Democrats and their agenda.

I am not sure whether these people are aware that they are mere entertainers, or if they really believe that their talk radio shows or red meat books or whatever are “worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right” — and I am sure we’d all be better off if Mr. Douthat prevailed, and they were considered mere entertainers. But imagining that this is even a possibility ignores overwhelming evidence that their very existence as popular entertainers hinges on an ability to persuade listeners that they are “”worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors.”

That is why the constant failures of these men to live up to their billing is so offensive, destructive, and ruinous to conservatives — and it suggests that one line in Mr. Douthat’s post requires a qualification: “There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable,” Mr. Douthat wrote, and I’d add, so long as its producers don’t fraudulently claim it is more than that. There is something wrong with producing politically themed entertainment, and pretending that it has more intellectual rigor than is in fact the case, or that it is an earnestly offered statement of the truth, or that it actually grapples with its subjects.

Liberty and Tyranny perpetrates that fraud in its section on climate change, and I suspect that is why Jim Manzi was so offended by its misleading, willfully ignorant content — he knew that as an expert on the subject he could see the book for what it was, whereas most of its readers would trust the author and his framing of the book in a way that would leave them woefully misinformed.

Marc Thiessen vs. Jane Mayer, Cont'd

April 15, 2010

Over at The Corner, Marc Thiessen continues his attack on Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who panned his book, Courting Disaster, in a scathing review that pointed out its numerous inaccurate passages. Mr. Thiessen responded to that review here. I argued that his response is unfair to Ms. Mayer.

Before I address the errors in his latest post, I want to step back for a minute and explain to Mr. Thiessen something about the larger controversy. The core of his argument, in his book Courting Disaster, and in the present exchange, is that the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation tactics,” — a euphemism that encompasses techniques I and many others find to be illegal torture — were indispensable to national security. As Mr. Thiessen puts it in his latest post:

I would certainly welcome it if Mayer, Friedersdorf, and all the other critics would finally come out and admit publicly that enhanced interrogations did work — that lives were saved thanks to the information the CIA program produced.

Despite his assertions, Mr. Thiessen hasn’t proved this to be so, and I want to explain why. Implicit in his work is the assumption that the CIA interrogation program “worked” so long as it can be shown that a detainee subjected to these techniques provided intelligence that saved American lives. This is a flawed metric.

One problem is that in any individual case, it is impossible to determine whether an approach other than “enhanced interrogation” could have elicited the same intelligence, or even better intelligence, something that Mr. Thiessen himself admits.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, a case where a detainee who was water-boarded gave up information that he would’ve otherwise withheld. In this circumstance, Mr. Thiessen would claim vindication, point to the American lives saved by the information, and assert it as proof that the CIA’s entire “enhanced interrogation” program “works.”

What is myopic about that assumption, and the whole body of Mr. Thiessen’s writerly output, is that overall efficacy, overall impact on American lives, and overall impact in the War on Terrorism is the actual metric that determines whether or not an interrogation program “works.”

Were I to implement an interrogation program where the CIA questioners spoke only Chinese, it might well save American lives in a single instance, when the particular detainee hails from Beijing, whereas the failure to elicit information from every other detainee would mean that, on the whole, the strategy didn’t work. Similarly, it may be the case that in a single instance, “enhanced interrogation techniques” elicited useful information, even information that saved American lives, but that other consequences of the program make clear that it was an overall failure.

What kinds of “other consequences”? They’ve been discussed endlessly in the debate over detainee treatment, but to quickly rehash the relevant arguments, some of which I find persuasive, and all of which I find plausible: A) Seeing as how the detainees are basically being tortured, “enhanced interrogation” produces false leads from people who just want the pain to stop — and having to track down these false leads is an inefficient waste of resources that distracts anti-terrorism forces, perhaps costing American lives. B) Alternative interrogation tactics that don’t involve torture are simply more effective, either because interrogators have a lot more experience implementing them, or because of the way that the average human being reacts to different methods. Numerous experienced interrogation experts have made this claim. C) The FBI and some talented interrogators are uncomfortable with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As a result, using them entails the employment of marginally less talented interrogators in the short term, and in the long term affects the number of people who are even willing to train as interrogators. D) The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” makes some countries less likely or entirely unwilling to give us custody of suspects in the War on Terrorism. E) The fact that we use horrific techniques like waterboarding serves as a recruiting tool for organizations like Al Qaeda, and undermines moral authority that is crucial to winning our wars abroad — General Petraeus makes this latter argument. F) A reputation for the use of “enhanced interrogation” makes the enemy less likely to surrender, and makes anti-terrorist Muslims less likely than they’d otherwise be to report intelligence about other people to American forces, especially when they are unsure of someone’s guilt.

Given all these factors, it is wrongheaded, simplistic and indefensible to prattle on about the CIA interrogation program having been proven to work based solely on the argument that some useful information has been gleaned. I am sure there are also other arguments about the strategic benefit of torture, as opposed to its tactical efficacy in a given situation. Suffice it to say that Mr. Thiessen doesn’t have a persuasive rebuttal to these arguments.

Incidentally, in his post at The Corner, Mr. Thiessen continues to conflate a tactical success in a single enhanced interrogations with the CIA program “working.” He writes:

Friedersdorf goes on to charge that I incorrectly claim Admiral Blair, Leon Panetta, and John Brennan all supported the CIA program. This is not what I said. Their opposition is well documented in my book, and should be obvious to any sentient reader (if they supported the CIA program they would not have shut it down). What I do is quote them admitting that the program worked.

In fact, I never charge that Mr. Thiessen makes incorrect claims about these men supporting the CIA program — it’s far sneakier than that. What I wrote is that “he purports to defend his own position about enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, by selectively quoting people who turn out to argue that either enhanced interrogation generally, or waterboarding in particular, shouldn’t be used and do more harm than good. That he neglects to mention their words when they are contrary to his own arguments is telling.” I encourage readers to go here and judge for yourselves if you feel misled by the way that Mr. Thiessen quotes his sources. Perhaps he didn’t intend to be misleading, and it is his curious definition of the word “work” that is actually getting in the way here. This is most evident in the case of General Blair, so let’s look at his whole quote again:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

Mr. Thiessen persists in summarizing the views of a man who says these techniques do overall damage to our interests — that their costs “far outweigh their benefits” — by saying that he believes these techniques “work” (and when he quotes the man he leaves out the second sentence entirely!).

That is my well founded objection.

So Mr. Thiessen persists in acting as though whether “enhanced interrogation” works is a matter of proving that in some individual instances information was elicited that saved American lives. Before we granted that possibility for the sake of argument. Now let’s grapple with that narrow matter.

Even proving that American lives would’ve been lost but for these techniques — a difficult thing to demonstrate — wouldn’t salvage Mr. Thiessen’s project, given other objections just listed. But it is relevant to the dispute with Ms. Mayer that I’ve weighed in on.

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Over at True/Slant, Conor Friedersdorf comes to Jane Mayer’s defense, claiming Mayer didn’t really mean that the CIA interrogations “yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because — aha! — I left out that she attributed this claim to “many critics.” Please. Asserting that “many critics” say CIA interrogations yielded no intelligence is like saying “many critics say you beat your wife.” It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them. Of course she did. The whole purpose of her review was to rebut the arguments I present in Courting Disaster that the CIA program produced invaluable intelligence.

Even in focusing on a line at the beginning of Ms. Mayer’s piece that was meant to summarize the state of debate, Mr. Thiessen is in the wrong, especially in asserting that these critics are “unnamed.” Ms. Mayer’s review begins by summarizing the Courting Disaster assertion that if not for the CIA interrogation program, a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights would’ve succeeded. She writes:

His account of the foiled Heathrow plot, for example, is “completely and utterly wrong,” according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006. “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.,” Clarke said, adding that Thiessen’s “version of events is simply not recognized by those who were intimately involved in the airlines investigation in 2006.” Nor did Scotland Yard need to be told about the perils of terrorists using liquid explosives. The bombers who attacked London’s public-transportation system in 2005, Clarke pointed out, “used exactly the same materials.”

Is Peter Clarke not a named critic who asserts that CIA interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit?

Another named critic in the piece:

Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert who is writing a history of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” told me that the Heathrow plot “was disrupted by a combination of British intelligence, Pakistani intelligence, and Scotland Yard.” He noted that authorities in London had “literally wired the suspects’ bomb factory for sound and video.” It was “a classic law-enforcement and intelligence success,” Bergen said, and “had nothing to do with waterboarding or with Guantánamo detainees.”

Later in Ms. Mayer’s piece:

Thiessen’s impulse, however, is to credit C.I.A. interrogators at every turn. He portrays the agency’s coercive handling, in 2002, of Abu Zubaydah—he was subjected to beatings, sexual humiliation, temperature extremes, and waterboarding, among other techniques—as another coup that saved American lives. Information given by Zubaydah, Thiessen writes, led to the arrest, two months later, in Chicago, of Jose Padilla, the American-born Al Qaeda recruit. But Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent, has testified before Congress that he elicited Padilla’s identity from Zubaydah in April, 2002—months before the C.I.A. began using its most controversial methods. Soufan, speaking to Newsweek, said of Zubaydah’s treatment, “We didn’t have to do any of this.”

Is Ali Soufan not a named critic?

And still later, Ms. Mayer writes:

Thiessen, citing the classified evidence that he was privileged to see, claims that opponents of brutal interrogations can’t appreciate their efficacy. “The assessment of virtually everyone who examined the classified evidence,” he writes, is that the C.I.A.’s methods were justified. In fact, many independent experts who have top security clearances, and who have had access to the C.I.A.’s records, have denounced the agency’s tactics. Among the critics are Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., and four chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Last year, President Obama asked Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, to give a classified briefing on the program to three intelligence experts: Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska; Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel to the C.I.A.; and David Boren, the retired Democratic senator from Oklahoma. The three men were left unswayed. Boren has said that, after the briefing, he “wanted to take a bath.” In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “I left the briefing by General Hayden completely unconvinced that the use of torture is an effective means of interrogation. . . . Those who are being tortured will say anything.”

Is David Boren not a named critic?

I excerpt at such length because it is the only way to show how careless and misleading is Mr. Thiessen’s assertion.

“It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them,” he writes. “Of course she did.”

Unnamed critics!

As for the question of whether or not Ms. Mayer agrees with them, I think it is fair to say that overall she does not think there is compelling evidence that the CIA’s interrogation program “works,” but that neither does she “declare categorically” that they ““yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because a reporter as careful as she is, fact-checked by the New Yorker staff, doesn’t make unnecessarily strong categorical declarations — rather, she reports on strong critiques, and at the beginning of an article in which they’re presented she writes that the book “offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”

It is the inclusion of these numerous named critics, saying just that in relation to various examples, that make her summary early in the article a fair one– and it is telling that Mr. Thiessen obsesses on that line, what he inaccurately calls Ms. Mayer’s assertion, when the critiques most devastating to his book are elsewhere. Put another way, the journalistic hedgded assertions of Jane Mayer are nevertheless plenty powerful enough to devastate Courting Disaster.

Marc Thiessen Responds to Jane Mayer

April 14, 2010

In National Review, former Bush Administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen responds to the review of his book written by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Mayer declares categorically that “the Bush administration’s interrogation policies . . . yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”

Here is what Ms. Mayer actually said in her article:

Thiessen’s book, whose subtitle is “How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.

Conclusion: When Mr. Thiessen uses ellipses be sure to check up on what he elides.

Mr. Thiessen continues:

She must not have been listening when Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared: “High value information came from [CIA] interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.”

This neglects to mention the other statement by Admiral Blair that appeared in the same New York Times article:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

She must have forgotten that when she herself interviewed Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, he told her, “Important information was gathered from these detainees. [The CIA program] provided information that was acted upon.”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article:

Dick Cheney has repeatedly claimed that “enhanced” interrogations yield results. Opponents say that torture is counterproductive. Panetta is more agnostic. He told me, “The bottom line would be this: Yes, important information was gathered from these detainees. It provided information that in fact was acted upon. Was this the only way to obtain this information? I think that will always be an open question.” But he is certain that “we did pay a price for using those methods.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

And she must have forgotten her 2007 interview (also quoted in the Panetta article) with John Brennan (now Obama’s homeland-security advisor), in which she asked him if enhanced interrogation techniques “were necessary to keep America safe,” and he replied: “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article with a bit more context:

Brennan has described himself as an internal critic of waterboarding—a position that friends, such as Emile Nakhleh, a former senior officer, confirm. Yet, in an interview with me two years ago, Brennan defended the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and extraordinary renditions, in which the C.I.A. abducted terror suspects around the globe and transported them to other countries to be jailed and interrogated; many of those countries had execrable human-rights records. He also questioned some people’s definition of “torture.” “I think it’s torture when I have to ride in the car with my kids and they have loud rap music on,” he said. Asked if “enhanced” interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, he replied, “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the C.I.A. was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

In other words, Mr. Brennan is advocating for “enhanced interrogation” but using that term in a way that excludes waterboarding as something that should not be done.

To summarize so far, Mr. Thiessen accuses Jane Mayer of asserting that Bush era interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit, even though she doesn’t assert that — rather, she very clearly reports, accurately, that some of Bush’s critics assert that position, never asserting it herself.

Subsequently, he purports to defend his own position about enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, by selectively quoting people who turn out to argue that either enhanced interrogation generally, or waterboarding in particular, shouldn’t be used and do more harm than good. That he neglects to mention their words when they are contrary to his own arguments is telling.

And we’re only three short paragraphs into Mr. Thiessen’s article.

In paragraph four, Mr. Thiessen notes that various Bush Administration officials assert that the Bush era interrogation program was valuable. This is indisputably true, and in no way disproves anything in Ms. Mayer’s review. He then writes, “In her review, Mayer asks us to accept that all of these CIA directors and directors of national intelligence from both Democratic and Republican administrations are wrong, and she is right. Readers can judge for themselves.” In fact, Ms. Meyer isn’t pitting Bush era officials against herself — she is pitting their views against numerous credible sources, including intelligence experts, who she quotes at length to rebut assertions by Bush Administration officials, and who offer a different account of interrogation practices from 2001 to 2008.

There is a lot left in Mr. Thiessen’s piece. I don’t have time to assess its remaining paragraphs right now — wading through all the source material is time consuming work — but depending on whether anyone else writes persuasively about them I may return to the subject of his latest writing.

UPDATE:

My question is this, and I’m sure it applies to many of us, and not just Thiessen — does he realize what he’s doing as he does it? Does he realize that eliding “according to many critics” and instead preceding a quote with “declares categorically” is a mis-characterization? Does he think people won’t notice? Or, in his mind, does he really think that Mayer did declare this categorically?

And if Thiessen does understand what he’s doing, isn’t there a point where if you find it necessary to argue so dishonestly for your position that you re-consider that position? Around the fourth time you strip away clarifying context from a quote, doesn’t a little voice inside your brain start to whisper about whether what you’re doing is right?

I wonder about this too.

UPDATE II: A response from Mr. Thiessen and my rebuttal are here.

Breaking into Journalism from the Right

April 13, 2010

Megan McArdle is always worth reading, and she says a lot that is true in this post on the closing of the conservative mind, but I think she is mistaken about a couple of points that are of particular interest to me.

She writes:

It is not impossible to go from conservative ideological media to the elite mainstream press, and indeed people have done it. But the people I know who have managed are noticeably moderate. They also tend to be absolutely brilliant, rather than merely solid reporters who really know their stuff–particularly if they are something other than the house conservative on an otherwise liberal opinion page. The political and technical standards for graduates of the Washington Monthly or Harpers do not seem to be quite that high.

When it comes to conservatives who’ve become commentators on predominantly liberal sites, Bill Kristol’s stint at the New York Times, Erick Erickson on CNN, and the factually challenged Marc Thiessen’s ascent to the Washington Post op-ed page are but a few examples that show how possible it is to transition from the conservative ideological media to the elite mainstream press.

These particular conservatives managed the feat despite their well documented indifference to intellectual honesty, but don’t be discouraged, aspiring conservative writers, there are plenty of better journalists who’ve made the transition too: Jonah Goldberg has a column at the Los Angeles Times, David Brooks went from The Weekly Standard to The New York Times, Peggy Noonan began in the Reagan White House and wound up at The Wall Street Journal, Rod Dreher wrote at National Review before going to the Dallas Morning News, David Frum worked on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and at National Review, and now publishes in all sorts of mainstream outlets, Bill Bennett is a regular commentator on CNN, Malcolm Gladwell went from The American Spectator to The Washington Post to The New Yorker. Quibble with any three of these folks and the overall point still stands, bolstered by many folks I haven’t mentioned: lots of people, including many who aren’t particularly moderate, make the transition from conservative ideological media to mainstream outlets, and if anything this is becoming ever easier to accomplish, or so I gather based on stories of the bad old days.

In my personal experience, mainstream outlets are actually eager to hire conservatives so long as they subscribe to basic professional standards, and I am not alone in thinking so. As I reported in a Doublethink essay awhile back:

In August 2007, veteran conservative journalist Robert Novak appeared on the Diane Rehm Show, where he advised young, right-leaning aspirants in his field to “go into the closet” if they want to succeed. “Don’t tell anybody you’re a conservative, because you’re not going to get the job,” he said, “and you’re not going to get the advance.”

Better advice is offered by Dr. Stephen Bird, academic director for the National Journalism Center, a nonprofit that places mostly conservative journalists in numerous mainstream media internships every year, hoping to bring more depth and balance to American reporting. “Here’s what I tell interns going into the media,” he says. “Pursue excellence in everything. Everyone admires excellence and gravitates toward it.”

Bird notes that though the proportion of conservatives among journalists is incrementally higher relative to the early 1980s, the right remains outnumbered. “I would think it would make them more marketable—any time you’re in the minority you become more desirable in the marketplace,” he says. “I just think that’s a true statement. I’ve told them that at different times, just as I’ve told people of different minority groups that they have a better marketing position. They need to know that when it comes time to negotiate a salary.”

J.P. Freire, an editor at the Washington Examiner, is one young conservative journalist for whom this rings true. “I think it’s kind of an ace in the hole,” he says. “As a conservative in a liberal field, you come up with angles other people don’t consider, get stories no one else thinks of doing.” Freire wrote for a movement publication in college, worked as managing editor of the American Spectator (where he is now a contributing editor), and before that at the New York Times, where he served as an assistant to former op-ed columnist John Tierney. Later, he was offered a job heading up the team of Times newsroom assistants, which he’s long regretted having turned down. “I liked the environment. I thought everyone was fine, and I was openly conservative,” he says. “The reporters I talked to seemed very fair. I think most of them knew they were to the left and tried to control for it.”

Eddie Barrera has had a slightly different experience. He’s an editor at Adotas, a Web magazine devoted to media and technology. A onetime New York Post reporter who later worked for The Los Angeles Newspaper Group, rising from staff reporter to desk editor, Barrera says that though it may have once been true that conservatives had a tough time getting a fair shake, it’s no longer the case. “As far as the bosses I’ve had, I’ve been treated very well in my career,” he says. “I’m pretty outspoken, and I haven’t always been treated well by all of my colleagues. But it hasn’t hurt my advancement.” Asked how he’d advise a young person starting out in the field, Barrera says that one rises in accordance with one’s talent and work ethic.

That’s been my experience in journalism, though I was warned against entering the field as student at Pomona College. I remember attending a lecture-dinner at Claremont McKenna College where talk at my table turned to the Los Angeles riots. A fellow student argued that inner-city blacks were justified in lashing out at police, given the prejudice they endure. A conservative dining companion was vehement in his rebuttal. Even a black person treated unfairly by a white cop hasn’t any right to lash out against other people, he insisted. As for improving minority success in the job market, he argued that anyone who finished school and worked hard would be a valued employee, excel regardless of societal racism, and find himself better off. But when I made an offhand comment about pursuing journalism after graduation, the same conservative student was aghast. “Why go into that liberal media?” he asked.

He insisted that I’d be foolish to enter a field where my fate would be controlled by leftists who’d treat me unfairly, even if only behind my back. “It may be just one liberal boss who messes with you,” he said, “but you won’t have anyone on your side to back you up. Little things can make a big difference in your career. And if you want to rise to the top know they’ll never let a conservative get there. The New York Times will always be edited by a liberal.” So much for working hard and assuming I’d be treated fairly absent clear contrary evidence.

Fortunately, I ignored his advice. I took a job at a major newspaper chain, where ideology never once impeded my rise, though I never concealed my beliefs and vocally supported the recall of Democratic California Governor Gray Davis. When I left that newspaper, I was offered a scholarship to a graduate program in journalism, where my professors were almost entirely left of center. As it turned out, they weren’t merely fair instructors, but exceptional ones who were willing to help me improve whatever writing I submitted, even if they disagreed with the arguments therein. Theirs was a pedagogical and journalistic project, not a political one. They’d treat anyone fairly who was also there to do good journalism, and editors at most publications employ the same litmus test in my experience.

What about folks hoping to transition from conservative outlets to reporting positions? Ms. McArdle says they’re required to meet higher standards than someone at The Washington Monthly or Harpers, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s been some years since I read Harper’s regularly, but Robert Boynton and Jack Hitt are the two alumni of that magazine who I can think of off the top of my head, and they’re damn talented guys whose work is far more reported and narrative than it is ideological. The Washington Monthly is famous for its alumni going on to great posts in journalism — and again, the lifetime output of James Fallows, James Bennett, Nick Lemann, Mickey Kaus, among many others, handily demonstrate that its staffers are exceptionally talented, and that they’re often doing challenging reported pieces that aren’t particularly ideological, though all are obviously liberals. Even taking The Washington Monthly today, it is difficult to think of a conservative outlet where people are doing reporting or narrative journalism of the same quality — and individual writerly talents like Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review and Matt Labash and Matt Continetti at The Weekly Standard are perfectly capable of getting MSM gigs if they want them. (Reason magazine is a hotbed of journalistic talent too — and far more consistently rigorous in its intellectual standards than NR or The Weekly Standard — but I am omitting it from this discussion on the assumption that it’s a solidly libertarian magazine. As MSM publications aren’t sensitive to having “enough libertarians” in the same way that they seek token conservatives, I actually think talents like Radley Balko and others suffer — they’d certainly be better choices than a lot of the conservatives hired at prestigious publications.)

There are plenty of talented journalists at conservative publications, but their numbers don’t even come close to the number of talented journalists at left-leaning publications, as the results of the Best Journalism of 2009 makes perfectly clear. Conservative journalists should be killing on stories like this one or this one or this one — or to cite a newer example, especially this one — but even on many subjects where ideological predispositions would seem to give them an advantage they seem to get beat, perhaps because on the left there are journalists who happen to be liberal, whereas on the right it’s as often people who think of themselves as conservatives first, and journalists second.

I realize that some of this actually reinforces Ms. McArdle’s arguments, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise, or that I completely disagree with her post — I merely disagree with the assessment that it’s significantly more difficult to move from conservative leaning publications to mainstream publications, so long as you’re doing work as good as your competitors — and I encourage any young person on the right considering a career in journalism to be unafraid of ideological discrimination when making your choice. Given the financial state of this field, that should be the least of your worries.

In Defense of Hipsters

April 13, 2010

In order to save Elizabeth Nolan Brown the trouble, let me note yet another instance of normally sane journalists suspending critical thinking and their sense of fairness whenever a story presents an opportunity to mock hipsters.

The headline here is New York’s Hipsters Too Cool for the Census — this atop a subhead informing us:

Many New York City residents aren’t returning their census forms. The return rate is only around 50 percent, but the lowest rate of return (around 30 percent) is the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These young, recent graduates with ironic mustaches and plaid shirts are apparently too busy tweeting to fill out a simple census form.

So already we’re told that the hipsters are “too cool” to fill out census forms, and that they’re “too busy Tweeting” to fill them out, despite the complete lack of evidence for either of those propositions, and the fact that the very article bearing that title and subhead contains multiple other explanations for the low census return rates.

1) The transience of Williamsburg residents.

SMITH: Two 20-somethings, Nate and Mike, are working behind the counter. They share an apartment and should be sharing a census form, but…

MIKE: Did we get the forms?

Mr. NATE STARK: Yeah.

MIKE: We did. I didn’t see any yet.

Mr. STARK: We still get mail from the past 30 people that have lived there. So it’s like who knows if people are getting these.

2) Political reasons.

Just outside the record store, I meet Jamie Lilly. She knows the ads. She got the form but she thinks that returning it is just supporting a government that she doesn’t believe in.

Ms. JAMIE LILLY: You know, on a personal note, maybe some people, they figure what’s the point to be counted if you don’t count for much anyway? If we don’t count, why be counted?

3) A large population of census ambivalent Hasidic Jews.

…you can’t blame it all on the cool kids. This is the Hasidic part of Williamsburg, where the Satmar Orthodox Jews live. Only one quarter of households here so far have participated. Not only are they reluctant to fill out the census, they don’t even want to talk about it.

That’s if we merely look inside the NPR story for information that discredits its own headline and subhead. Doing additional research by looking up demographic data from the relevant community board, we see that the area is roughly 38 percent Hispanic, that 20 to 24 year olds make up just 9 percent of the population, and that more than 50,000 people lack English proficiency.

So enjoyable as I’m sure it is to make the most tired hipster jokes ever in headlines and subheads, I’m confident in saying that neither recent college graduates “being too cool” nor their “being too busy Twittering” explain the low census form return rate in Billyburg.