APRIL 30, 2007
Eric Alterman's reply to my cover story on the netroots is mostly agreement framed as disagreement. I write about how the conventional wisdom in Washington and the pressure to be seen as responsible caused mainstream liberals and journalists to miss reality. My point is that the netroots have helped break down one epistemological prison but have created another. Neither the David Broder method of establishing truth nor the Markos Moulitsas method of establishing truth is very reliable. Yet the reflexive equivocators use the bloggers to justify their reflexive equivocation, and the bloggers use the reflexive equivocators to justify their reflexive partisanship. Alterman concludes that the netroots have made the country a better place, and my piece concurs.
So I'll focus on Yglesias. If I have bolstered Yglesias's reputation in a way that advances his career, I'm glad to have helped. I think he's the best blogger there is and entirely deserving of the breathtaking success he has enjoyed. But, given his astonishing success--a large base of readers, a job with The Atlantic, a book contract, all before his 26th birthday--it is odd that Yglesias believes the incentive structure of political journalism punishes his ideology. How much higher does he think he should have risen?
I'm surprised Yglesias objected to my description of his blog passage. What he wrote in the post I cited was, "I don't write about this issue much because, hey, I don't want to be a wanker." He now says his point was, "I don't go out of my way to harp on points of disagreement with the liberal orthodoxy." But that just isn't what he wrote. If I wrote that I don't drive through poor neighborhoods, that wouldn't be the same as writing that I don't go out of my way to drive through poor neighborhoods.
Indeed, he made a similar point in another post he wrote in January:
A separate question is whether or not journalists think of themselves as political actors. Overwhelmingly, I think journalists would tell you "no, they shouldn't" and that most liberal (but not conservative) pundits would agree. To me, this is wrong. I could in perfectly good faith spend all my time looking for flawed arguments for conclusions I agree with, finding far-left people with unsound views to denounce them, and mocking the foibles of politicians whose views I agree with on the merits. A blog like that might even be entertaining and perhaps widely read. I wouldn't do a site like that, however, because I think it would be irresponsible. I'm not a political activist by trade, I'm a writer, but hopefully my writing has some kind of impact on the world and I'd like it be a good impact rather than a bad one and that's something I try to take seriously.
Again, he's making my point for me. There are three possible stances to take. One is that you should go out of your way to highlight your disagreements with the left, to show your independence. Another is that you should go out of your way to minimize your disagreements with the left, in order to avoid adverse political effects. The third is that you try to ignore the political effects and just say what you think. He explicitly renounces options number one and number three.
Yglesias, oddly, describes my view of the cooperation between the netroots and other liberal bloggers--"the two groups generally regard one another as allies and criticize one another tepidly if at all"--as "conspiratorial." Huh? Where's the conspiracy? If I wrote this of the relationship between the right-to-life movement and the GOP, or the civil rights groups and the unions, would that also be conspiratorial? All I wrote was that the two groups are allied and don't criticize each other much. Nothing Yglesias writes contradicts this interpretation. Indeed, Yglesias agrees that this is true.
In fact, in his reply he writes, "Moulitsas is prone to grandiosity and overblown rhetoric." This was an offhand remark, intended to defuse a criticism of the netroots. But it's not a point he makes very often. Do most liberal bloggers believe this? They almost never say so, even though Moulitsas is an enormously influential figure. It's almost as if the two groups generally regard each other as allies and criticize one another tepidly if at all.
Yglesias defends the netroots and left blogosphere's antipathy toward TNR as entirely rational. His own reply proves otherwise. He writes that TNR's "main institutional and emotional commitment is to right-wing Israeli nationalism." Any reasonable observer would interpret that to mean TNR supports settlements and opposes a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and possibly favors deporting them. This impression is totally inaccurate, as ought to be clear from, for instance, this editorial: "sometimes one gets the impression that the rejection of peace plans has become an unexamined reflex, a cognitive habit, of Likud governments. This would be a terrible mistake." And this:
Israel needs more than a security strategy, it needs also a historical strategy. As even some senior members of the Likud now seem finally to recognize, the demographic clock is ticking ruthlessly between the river and the sea, and unless Israel's government takes the need for diplomacy seriously, and prepares itself for a moment of truth about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Israel will find itself in a crisis even graver than this one. Sharon's decision to leave Gaza and its settlements is a fine start, if a start it is.
Yglesias also writes, "a certain proportion of TNR's published material evinces a kind of sneering dislike for liberal politicians and activists, even as TNR writers happily market themselves as liberal (but independent-minded!) pundits when such a label suits them." That's a remarkable passage. Yes, some proportion of TNR's published material sneers at liberals. How does this contradict ("even as") the notion that TNR is a mostly liberal magazine? It's only a contradiction if you think a liberal publication can't sometimes express strong criticism for some liberal politicians and activists. And not only that, Yglesias won't even concede that many TNR's writers are genuine liberals. We only "market" ourselves as liberals when it "suits" us.
Yglesias writes that, since the netroots are to the left of TNR or the Democratic Leadership Council, it's natural that they disagree. Of course it is. My point was not that there's anything unnatural or wrong about the fact of their expressing disagreement. My point was that this disagreement often manifests itself in the form of paranoia and wild distortion. Yglesias's reply is a perfect illustration of this. And that fact that it comes not from a ranter but from one of the most reasonable liberal bloggers is extremely telling.