In Which Markos Moulitsas Becomes Bad For the Left
September 1, 2010

Markos Moulitsas
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

I have a paleoconservative friend who, when I’m berating the modern right, will often respond with something like: “Well, don’t get too comfortable. Give your leftist friends a couple more years in power, and they’ll turn into rabid animals too.”

I begged to differ, instead reiterating some version of Jon Chait’s thoughts on the topic:

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism.

I still believe this to be true, in some sense, for the moment—though I would again caution that a governing philosophy can’t be pragmatic on the level of first principles because first principles can’t be pragmatic. But to pretend that it’s not possible for any ideological movement to slide into epistemic closure is to practice exactly the sort of self-deception that makes one so vulnerable to that very phenomenon.

My friend considers that process inevitable, and I would like to disagree—sadly, one of the giants of left-wing activism seems firmly committed to proving my friend’s point.

In Jamelle’s excellent review, he points out that Moulitsas is primarily an activist, not a journalist, and that this book is likely more about rallying the troops than painting an accurate portrait of the modern right. Fair enough. But Jamelle’s review also does a pretty thorough job of demonstrating why that’s no excuse. Once the loudest voices among the liberal base start showing a Jonah Goldberg-style willingness to sacrifice honesty for pom-pom shaking, Chait’s defense no longer works at all. I hate to go all “a pox on both your houses,” since Kos is still correct on a number of policy issues—but if the process by which he reaches those conclusions is this thoroughly corrupted, then the conclusions themselves are largely a happy coincidence.

In my book, that doesn’t count for a great deal. Not considering how bad this style of argumentation is in the long run, both for the left and the country as a whole. If liberals embrace American Taliban-style thinking, then we’re bound for a conservative resurgence and a liberal meltdown that will leave us much in the same position as the modern right: intellectually bankrupt, blindly emotive, and capable only of making noise and obstructing policy. In the shorter term, the left will have completely alienated those conservatives who we could actually make common cause with.

I can understand the impulse for this kind of rhetoric. My theory is that Kos is trying to gin up enough enthusiasm in the netroots to blunt conservative enthusiasm going into 2010. It’s a wise short-term play if you consider the goal to be simply subverting conservatism whenever you can—and, if at all possible, crushing it for good. But we’re not going to get rid of conservatives, nor should we want to. Instead, the goal should be a two-party system in which both sides show at least some appreciation for what David Foster Wallace called the Democratic Spirit. If Kos and his right-wing counterparts have their way, then the American D.S. will be dead in a generation.

Lucky for us, there’s hope. The proof: a prominent left-wing publication (the Prospect) publishing a review (Jamelle’s, see above) that rips American Taliban to shreds. As long we still have room for that sort of intra-movement dissent, we’re doing significantly better than the right.

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Culture War 2.0
August 20, 2010

Glenn Beck
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I was initially skeptical of Adam’s assertion that we’re in the midst of a new culture war, since the battle lines are drawn more or less the same way they always were: those who believe in American pluralism and equality of opportunity versus a group of predominantly Christian conservative white folk fueled by class and race resentment. So what if this time around, the white supremacist rhetoric is a little more subdued and euphemistic?

But on further reflection, I think Adam’s spot on. The clash on first principle grounds may be more or less the same, but there is something new and undeniably peculiar about the right-wing culture warriors self-image as a guerilla revolutionary. You can see it in everything from the silly Tea Party tricorner hats to Glenn Beck’s confounding claim that he and his followers are going to “reclaim the civil rights movement.

This isn’t just a matter of posturing, but a matter of policy. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a radical, historic pivot point in American history. The Dixie Democrats and others who opposed the civil rights movement (the same one their ideological descendants now want to “reclaim”) were fighting to maintain the status quo.

Now the situation is more or less reversed, if not exactly. When progressives aren’t playing defense, they’re pushing reforms which, while deeply important, likely won’t register on the great richter scale of history the way the Roe v. Wade decision, or the rolling back of the Jim Crow laws, did. The new right-wing cultural warriors may lace their rebuttals with references to the America of their childhood, or America the way the Founders intended, or some other platitudes about a grand, bygone Golden Age, but they’re not really advocating a return to some prior status quo. Instead, they’re advocating a radical, sweeping revolution.

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John Stuart Mill on Partisanship
August 15, 2010

Mill, weaned on the philosophy of Jeremy Benth...
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I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.

I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.

In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.

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Recommended Reading for the American Left
August 14, 2010

Via Crooked Timber, here are parts one and two of an excellent interview on the philosophy and theory undergirding leftist thought. I haven’t read the full thing yet, but the early portions are an excellent overview of some of the concepts and ideas that are all too frequently absent from the American liberal lexicon. Unsurprisingly, this interview comes by way of the UK-based New Left Project; the British left and right both have firmer intellectual and theoretical foundations than American liberalism or conservatism, the latter of which has a stalwartly anti-intellectual foundation. But even American liberalism, as I’ve written before, suffers for appearing more like a list of disconnected policy preferences and priorities than a cohesive political vision.

It’s important to understand the philosophy that unites these policy preferences, and it’s very important to understand that there is, in fact, philosophy involved. Mainstream liberal arguments often take root in this notion of American liberalism as a technocratic, empirically-based approach to governance. Conservatives are the ideologues, goes the subtext; we’re the logical pragmatists.

That’s a deeply unsatisfying, even anemic, understanding of liberalism. There is an ideology, and a set of moral principles underlying the liberal worldview which anyone interested in left-wing American politics would do well to engage with. This interview is a great place to start.

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The Flat Earth Society
August 10, 2010

Conservapedia logo
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For as much as conservatives like to go on about the horrors of radical ideologies like Islamocommunazism, conservatism itself has morphed into the sort of rigid secular dogma that would leave Soviet Russians scratching their heads in bafflement. It’s gotten to the point where true believers verify every single claim—metaphysical, empirical, completely subjective—using one criterion: Is it sufficiently conservative?

Understanding that is the only way to make sense of this remarkable spectacle: Conservapedia’s assertion that the theory of relativity is nothing more than another Socialist lie.

We get to laugh at this kind of story because the theory of relativity doesn’t have a great deal to do with how the US government sets policy. But American conservative leaders apply the same model of reverse-reasoning to virtually every policy question. The most powerful ideological movement in the country is one based on the total suspension of critical thought.

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The Left’s Poverty of Good Cultural Criticism
August 8, 2010

Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm in Mad Men) of ...
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There’s a reason why I’ve been dedicating so much Internet to push back on bad, or just plain lazy, commentary on this season of Mad Men; and it’s not because I’m a slobbering fanboy (well, not solely because I’m a slobbering fanboy). Because the show is such a locus for cultural criticism right now, it’s a good jumping off point for discussing the condition of pop culture crit at large, especially left-oriented pop culture crit. And as you might be able to guess from my previous posts on the subject, I would evaluate that condition as, “pretty poor.”

Of course, not all the criticism I’ve been hitting comes from the left. Katie Roiphe is, well, Katie Roiphe; her whole shtick revolves around being “counterintuitive” enough to hook in her New York Times-reading audience, but still bland enough that her writing won’t actually challenge them on any level. As for the National Review piece, conservative criticism is just too easy a target (Big Hollywood, anyone?).

(Aside: I am being slightly unfair here. As with conservatism at large, there is some smart and interesting stuff going on around the margins, albeit from people who have been explicitly exiled from the tent. For example, I do enjoy right-leaning libertarian Peter Suderman’s movie reviews.)

But the left could stand to learn some cautionary lessons from the right’s excesses. For example: their complete subjugation of art to ideology, so that every work of film and literature is evaluated on the basis of how conservative it is. This is little more than aesthetic Stalinism, and it’s why evidently sentient, self-aware human beings will sometimes end up championing Red Dawn as a cinematic masterpiece.

On the left, we have not done much better, and Mad Men is a perfect example of what went wrong; rather than being dug into as the rich subject for literary criticism it is, it’s been batted around like an ideological tetherball. Are the female characters sufficiently feminist? Does this show glorify drinking and adultery? Is Christina Hendricks too sexy or not sexy enough? And so on. It’s criticism by checklist.

There is obvious merit to evaluating the gender politics of a work of art, but only if we acknowledge some shades in tone a little more subtle than sexist/anti-sexist. And besides, treating any work of art as if how it approaches these questions is the whole conversation is ludicrous. The anti-Semitism on display in The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and The Merchant of Venice is, in all three cases, contemptible; but no one who claims to respect and appreciate literature should ever deign to classify The Merchant of Venice as “an anti-Semitic play,” as if every single line of dialogue was just another morsel of crude, anti-Jewish invective. Doing so would constrict our understanding of the play’s considerable merits; and, indeed, our understanding of ourselves, and art itself.

The same goes for popular culture. It’s not enough to say, “This movie is good because it features strong female characters.” That may be a part of what makes it good, yes—but as I wrote in my previous post, real art is less about answers that it is about impossible questions. Good criticism grapples with those questions, and, in doing so, challenges the critic’s most deeply held principles. Maybe one day, we’ll see more of that on the left and fewer of these dull-as-rocks reaffirmations of our policy positions.

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What Breitbart is Doing to Journalism
August 3, 2010

This is the subject of my latest column.

Also: Yadda, yadda, Tumblr Tuesday.

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One Quick Note On the Shirley Sherrod Fallout
July 24, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod fiasco (background here) is regrettable for a number of reasons, but one consequence that’s stood out in my mind is a particularly disingenuous new meme being promulgated by defenders of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative factions and figureheads that feed off of racial resentment. Here’s a taste from Michael Moynihan:

But the unfair charge of racism, fascism, and Nazism, correctly denounced when spouted by Glenn Beck, seems something of a regular feature on Journolist.

Or:

But false (or flimsy) accusations of racism abound—they are everywhere one looks—though they rarely provoke the level of outrage seen in the Sherrod affair.

Or:

All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren’t stupid but “neo-fascists.”

And so on and so forth. It’s actually pretty clever: you concede that Sherrod was unfairly maligned, and then say, “See? Both sides have to deal with unfair accusations of race-baiting.” It’s a pretty exemplary model of false equivalence done well.

Of course, the difference comes down not to the accusation itself, but to context. Sherrod’s remarks weren’t just taken out of context—they were deliberately manipulated in the most misleading way possible, and most of what has been said in her defense was all about simply stating the real context. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, just provided her full speech with minimal comment.

Moynihan and others, on the other hand, defend folks like Beck and Limbaugh by kvetching disingenuously that their remarks were “taken out of context” without actually explicating the context. And there’s a good reason for that: the context just makes them look even worse.

So a word to my conservative friends: I’d caution you think really hard about what you’re doing here. I’m sympathetic to reasonable conservatives upset with having their entire movement painted as racist; may I suggest that those same reasonable conservatives can do something about this by condemning and ostracizing overtly racist elements on the right. At the very least, refrain from circling the wagons around them. How hard could that be?

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Transatlantic Punditry
July 20, 2010

My new Salon column is up, and this one puts my semester abroad to good use, taking British PM David Cameron’s recent “big society” announcement as a jumping off point to explore some of the differences between his party and the American Republican Party. As I put it:

Tories, for all of their myriad flaws, seem to be responsible adults who share some acquaintance with the real world. Republicans, on the other hand, are Republicans.

Go ahead and read the whole thing. And if you like it, today being Tumblr Tuesday and all, feel free to shoot me a recommendation.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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