November 14, 2003

Damn 'These People': Andrew...

Damn 'These People': Andrew Sullivan didn't like Michael Kinsley's latest column, which questioned whether Bush meant his high-falutin' speech about global democratic ideals and whatnot. As is common enough, both on Andrew Sullivan's site and on the sites of others who were supportive of the Iraq war, this single entry point of disagreement is used as a bludgeon against an entire group of humans:

Kinsley's gaffe, however, is revealing about certain strands in some liberals' thought these days. For them, 9/11 changed nothing important; it meant relatively little; it was a distraction from more important issues like Enron, as Paul Krugman opined, during the height of the Raines madness. These people don't just have blinders on; they've attached them with super-glue.
All italics are mine. Do you see what's going on here? Kinsley -- a commentator I have criticized in the past -- is not being addressed in this passage. It's the "certain strands in some liberals." Unless, that is, Sullivan truly believes that, for Michael Kinsley, "9/11 changed nothing important." I don't believe that Sullivan believes that.

This type of argumentation strikes me as pernicious, inaccurate, and ultimately boring. I could take any right-of-center column -- say, this idiotic Weekly Standard cover story about "the risks for the United States inherent in a united Europe" (including such memorable lines as "the federalists strenuously deny that they are building a European über-nation") -- and I could immediately declare that Gerard Baker's "gaffe" is "revealing about certain strands in some conservatives' thought these days," and then go off and ascribe to these imagined conservatives beliefs that I know Baker himself does not have. Tempting as that might seem, it's ultimately an exercise in extrapolative partisan fantasy, and more often than not a poor substitute for actually debating a column on its merits. And this, obviously, is a tendency found all over the political spectrum.

Let's be direct, and yet anecdotal: I am surrounded by liberals, and always have been. Through this blog, and through my normal course of living, I know a hell of a lot of people who describe themselves, or can reasonably be described, as "liberal." And I don't know one -- really, not one -- for whom "9/11 changed nothing important; it meant relatively little." It was a transformative experience for everybody, regardless of whether they supported the Iraq war or not, and to accuse a group of people of not realizing the gravity of the massacre is a slur bordering on the vile. In fact, I hear that it's even possible to believe that "9/11 changed everything," and to therefore be against the Iraq war (George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and pro-democracy philanthropist currently being tarred as an anti-Semitic Jew, just wrote an essay on this topic in the new Atlantic).

Soros more than deserves to be challenged for his words (and his deeds, which include donating hundreds of millions of dollars to foster the civil societies of post-Communist Europe). He has taken what seems to me to be a rancid turn against capitalism, and I'll hopefully be reviewing these and other pontifications from his forthcoming book. But he and Kinsley are just that -- he and Kinsley. Their darkest thoughts don't symbolize the Liberals' New Whatever; they're just Kinsley's and Soros' thoughts. I take Andrew Sullivan, who I like, to be symbolic precisely of Andrew Sullivan. These people certainly are annoying, but collective definitions almost always fall apart under individual scrutiny.

Posted by at November 14, 2003 02:51 AM
Comments

Very well put.

Blogging is certainly conducive to the glittering generalization. You expect it from a certain screedy kind of blog, and most bloggers are guilty of it from time to time. You just learn to adjust the squelch in order to cut through the white background noise.

I'm wondering if different standards will become recognized for "important" bloggers. As an A-lister, should Sullivan be expected to adopt the same, less strident tone he takes in his Sunday Times columns, for example? The "tar them all with the same brush" shots from the hip that blogging sometimes produces certainly wouldn't or shouldn't survive the editing process in a mainstream publication.

Blogs often represent the development or evolution of a thought, sort of like thinking aloud. I wouldn't expect that to change even for the mightiest of the mighty, but you're very right to make the call on the 911 generalization.

Posted by: Steve at November 14, 2003 03:31 AM

Why that's exactly what I've been on about! I'd call it good old-fashioned intellectual sloppiness. Not to pick on Sullivan too much -- oh screw it, let's pick on Sullivan, he deserves it -- but you can spot those sloppy generalizations all through his blog copy. Scan for phrases like "anti-war types," for instance, as thougout, you'd think an A-list blogger and brand-name journalist would know better.

This is sort of a tangent, but Matt, you wrote, "I am surrounded by liberals, and always have been." And yet, as I think you pointed out recently, you began this blog in the heady post-911 days by slamming the "Consequentialist, Pacifist Chomskyite Left." (Yes, I went back and checked.) I sometimes get the feeling Sullivan's surrounded by liberals, too, and that's what keeps him going. My point is that people argue with what they're familiar with and what's around them -- that's normal, to a degree. A certain amount of contrarianism is even healthy; and without a few broad generalizations, political discussion would mean next to nothing. But once you start engaging in actual discussion, that helpful contrarianism is often revealed as little more than a pose. And a silly one, at that.

Few people get as specific as "Consequentialist, Pacifist Chomskyite Left." It's usually more along the lines of, "You know what I hate about these liberals!?!" The argument isn't with an actual political opponent, but with a fictitious version of that opponent. This is why Sullivan's arguments often reveal more about his own Manhattan cocktail party worldview than whomever he's trying to criticize (when he's not scoring good hits, that is).

We're all guilty of it, whether blogging or just talking. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't at least try to avoid it. Sullivan doesn't even try.

Posted by: Scott MacMillan at November 14, 2003 05:07 AM

You people drive me nuts!

K

Posted by: Ken (not that one) at November 14, 2003 06:46 AM

Great screed Matt.

Posted by: henry at November 14, 2003 08:28 AM

Scott -- Excellent points, including the one about how generalizations are actually necessary. I think it is natural, or at least let's say natural to me, to spar with who you know, and to perhaps save your most high-octane vitriol for people who remind you of your (younger) self.

And you're right, I was appalled by the Consquentialist Chomskyite Pacifist Left (however large or small that group may be) in the wake of Sept. 11, and I would probably still be appalled by the Ted Ralls of the world if I was currently paying them any heed. And I'm glad there are people out there who are saying "Hey look at this poisonous Ted Rall column... what a jackass!" He and those people deserve scrutiny, as do those people on the lunar Right. It's just the Ted Rall = Michael Kinsley = People Who Were Against the War conceptual leaps that irritate the hell out of me. At least, at 2:51 AM on a school night, after a few cocktails.

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 14, 2003 09:30 AM

I am at a loss of words for what has happened with Soros. His 'guilty rich Jew' thing was so weird. And now his emotional and financial commitment to take down Bush. I dunno - WTF?

Posted by: vlad at November 14, 2003 10:26 AM

Matt, Lilek's Friday Bleat takes a somewhat different perspective. There are currents of thought in the world, after all.

http://www.lileks.com/bleats/index.html

Posted by: Crid at November 14, 2003 12:14 PM

I liked this post a lot. One quibble-- Soros has in no way turned against capitalism. He has turned against the klepto-capitalism which has infected many of the multinatinals, who puruse short term profit over />
4) If this is noty">

I liked this post a lot. One quibble-- Soros has in no way turned against capitalism. He has turned again klepto-capitalism, what is?


But he was not so sanguine in 2002, when a French court found him guilty of insider trading and fined Soros 2.2 million Euros (roughly $2 million). He told reporters he would appeal the verdict but as of yet has not, dismissing the court’s ruling as “a queer decision.” To this multi-billionaire, a $2 million fine is a trifle, a mere slap on the wrist.

Posted by: vlad at November 15, 2003 05:34 AM

Sorry, I have to disagree with the idea that there's nobody for whom 9/11 didn't change anything. I have a couple of lefty friends, and therefore get copied on emails reflecting the opinions of many more, who are vexed to the extreme about the possibility that the Patriot Act might be used to make librarians inform on people who shouted "Praise be upon him, this is just the bomb recipe I'm looking for" when they checked out The Anarchist's Cookbook, but who seem blithely unconcerned about the 3000 actually killed (that's right, not "had their bank records examined" or "were denied a lawyer," but "had their life ended prematurely"). I really think it's not real to them, what happened that day, but the idea that Bush and Ashcroft want to suspend the next election and would wage war just to make Halliburton richer is self-evidently true. So no, I can't agree at all that everyone, all the way to ANSWER, is operating in the same reality and was affected just as deeply by it.

Posted by: Mike G at November 15, 2003 08:07 PM

Oh, and by the way, about the comment that a Chomsky only speaks for himself-- believe me, the words of the Castro-fellatin' SOB from MIT come straight out of the mouths of the folks I'm talking about, along with every false fact they've picked up from Moore, Ivins, etc.

Posted by: Mike G at November 15, 2003 08:09 PM

oho! great post.

here's a response.

Posted by: harm d. at November 16, 2003 02:37 PM

I'd say that Chomsky probably speaks for people who go around saying "Chomsky speaks for me", and I certainly know some of those. But if you know thing one about American politics, it's ridiculous to suppose that the large chunk of the US population who vote Democratic or disapproved of the Iraq war are all in this camp.

I think the standard rhetorical attack is to admit that they aren't *explicitly* advocating extreme ideas but to sort of suggest that *secretly* they are entertaining them and the looniness we see is just the tip of the iceberg. You can make this emotionally plausible to a certain type of audience if you phrase it correctly.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at November 16, 2003 03:59 PM

...Oh, yeah, and there's the Loyalty Oath Gambit: insist that your ideological opponents have a moral obligation to immediately denounce the raving wingnuts in their own ranks, or be assumed sympathetic. That's always a good one.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at November 16, 2003 04:01 PM

YOu know, Sullivan did say "some liberals," not "liberals." What would satisfy you instead? A list of names? Or maybe a disclaimer, something like: "The term 'liberals' used herein is not meant to refer to the many America-loving, democracy-supporting liberals that are located at (urls)." [GRATUITOUS SIDESWIPE] Gee, Dan Perkins didn't have to do any of that when he inked out his "Chickenhawk" cartoon. [/GRATUITOUS SIDESWIPE]

As an aside, one can argue about whether or not the people he is talking about are really "liberals" at all -- I prefer to call them "reactionaries," "know-nothings," and "fools." Oh, and "isolationists." But that's just me.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at November 17, 2003 04:16 AM

"Anti capitalist" billionaires. Only in Europe, my friend. Heh.

Posted by: hugh macleod at November 17, 2003 05:52 AM

Matt, your point may be fair enough about Sullivan's tendency to paint with too broad a brush -- although we all do that sometimes [Ed. - Isn't that a generalization itself?] -- but here I think he was fairly referring to Kinsley and others who make similar arguments about Bush's critiques of nation-building without addressing September 11. There's a reason why I, too, blogged this Kinsley piece myself. And personally, having read a lot of his columns, I really don't think that September 11 changed much for Kinsley -- he's certainly given not a shred of indication in his writings that he thinks September 11 changed the way the United States needs to deal with the rest of the world. Besides, it's a bit bizarre to complain about hysterical overgeneralization in criticizing a Kinsley column that compares Bush and his supporters to 1930s Stalinists.

Posted by: Crank at November 17, 2003 07:06 AM
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logical opponents have a moral obligation to immediately denounce the raving wingnuts in their own ranks, or be assumed sympathetic. That's always a good one.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at November 16, 2003 04:01 PM

YOu know, Sullivan did say "some liberals," not "liberals." What would satisfy you instead? A list of names? Or maybe a disclaimer, something like: "The term 'liberals' used herein is not meant to refer to the many America-loving, democracy-supporting liberals that are located at (urls)." [GRATUITOUS SIDESWIPE] Gee, Dan Perkins didn't have to do any of that when he inked out his "Chickenhawk" cartoon. [/GRATUITOUS SIDESWIPE]

As an aside, one can argue about whether or not the people he is talking about are really "liberals" at all -- I prefer to call them "reactionaries," "know-nothings," and "fools." Oh, and "isolationists." But that's just me.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at November 17, 2003 04:16 AM

"Anti capitalist" billionaires. Only in Europe, my friend. Heh.

Posted by: hugh macleod at November 17, 2003 05:52 AM

Matt, your point may be fair enough about Sullivan's tendency to paint with too broad a brush -- although we all do that sometimes [Ed. - Isn't that a generalization itself?] -- but here I think he was fairly referring to Kinsley and others who make similar arguments about Bush's critiques of nation-building without addressing September 11. There's a reason why I, too, blogged this Kinsley piece myself. And personally, having read a lot of his columns, I really don't think that September 11 changed much for Kinsley -- he's certainly given not a shred of indication in his writings that he thinks September 11 changed the way the United States needs to deal with the rest of the world. Besides, it's a bit bizarre to complain about hysterical overgeneralization in criticizing a Kinsley column that compares Bush and his supporters to 1930s Stalinists.

Posted by: Crank at November 17, 2003 07:06 AM
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