Wednesday, January 21, 2009

the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Lords and ladies,

I'm excited to let you know about the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, a new group blog featuring myself and some other worthy bloggers. It's an attempt at a group blog that groups together long-form conversations on individual topics, into series. To that end, at the right hand side of the page you will find a drop-down menu that contains different series which you can then peruse.

I think, for me, this is a good vehicle for blogging for now. Of necessity my posts there will be less personal. I have truly been blown away by the number of people writing me emails and commenting to let me know that they were moved by my blog, it's been a humbling and wonderful feeling. I do hope you'll check out the new digs.

Just so you guys know, for some reason Blogger no longer emails me when someone comments, so your best bet is to email me if you need.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

exciting new bloggy opportunity

I just wanted to let anyone out there know that, if you are interested in more content from me, I'm currently involved with some people on a pretty exciting new development. I can't really say more at this point but you can bet that I'll give you guys the relevant links when things are ready. If anybody's interested, that is.

Hope things are grand for all of you.

Monday, January 12, 2009

same-sex marriage podcast

A conversation between me, John Schwenkler and Scott Payne is up at Scott's great blog the Politics of Scrabble, here.

I hate my voice!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

bye for now

I could go into a big spiel here, but to be simple about it, when I first started doing this I said that if I ever stopped having fun with it, I would stop. And I've been realizing lately that it hasn't been fun for a long time. So I'm gonna stop.

You can always drop me an email if you feel like it, and maybe I'll catch you in the comments on other blogs. All my best. Cheers.
paul says, in comments,
Again, dude, your ego/insecurity is showing --- I say this purely in the spirit of constructive criticism, but seriously, talking earlier about how Ta-Nehisi really wasn't ready "for the majors," getting very defensive about anyone who had a traditional Ivy-league eductional track, constantly talking about your intelligence in a very obviously competitive but ostentatiously "self-effacing" way, and now saying "those fancy writers at the Atlantic are just using the fancy masthead to bludgeon people who didn't go to fancy schools! My views count too!" You are undoubtedly a knowledgeable person, and a very good writer, but this just does you a disservice, and doesn't add to the point of this particular post, but just makes you look sort of shrill and weird. In fact, it was literally a parenthetical insertion: "(There is, truly ...)"
To paul's specific point, I can only say that, while many things make me jealous of Ross Douthat, neither his education or his job are one of them. But then, you know what good my own assertion is about stuff like that, right. Then again, that's all you have to go on, isn't it? Hell, maybe there is no Freddie deBoer....

Something that I think many people don't understand is how many parts of our artistic and intellectual culture come back to the competition between the smart kids back in school. I'm not kidding. I really think that we erect so many status objects in our middlebrow culture because so many of us got used to the fight to demonstrate that, among the smart kids, we were the smartest. I don't think blogs would exist, or at least would have nearly the same ubiquity or energy, if not for the sense in which many of the brighter people felt that they were never quite bright enough. Athletic ability or good looks or musical talent are all competitive too, of course, but I think where those cultures nurture self-confidence, those who are sorted (or sort themselves) into the "smart kid" pile tend to have a life-long sense of not being quite good enough, which is part of why people fight tooth or nail for, for instance, admission to Harvard, or the right internship, or, like, winning a game of goddamn Trivial Pursuit.

The inevitable yes, but: I don't, actually, feel particular pressure to win those kinds of laurels, and haven't, since certain events in my childhood and adolescence that made me who I am, and that are none of anyone's business. Sorry, even I have my limits. Now, I'm a jelly of insecurities and neuroses in many areas of my own, but they aren't the ones many people I know feel. You could check my bank account to get a good sense of how little that's worth, but at the end of the day, I don't think things are the way paul thinks. But what do I know? And what do you know?

To put it another way, paul is in a position to wonder aloud about my own insecurities and identity because I write my blog in such a way that he can have any notion of such things; I'm pretty sure, for instance, Ezra Klein doesn't get comments like this. Which is fine! It's my fault! But, again, this has only as much value as you choose to give it.

Ross Douthat is settling scores

In my comments, it's occasionally suggested that critics of Israeli policy don't actually face frivolous accusations of anti-Semitism, and that I'm exaggerating such things. I tend to think that this would come as a surprise to Commentary magazine, Abe Foxman, Marty Peretz, etc. But here's Ross Douthat, of the eminently respectable and well-read The Atlantic, smearing Stephen Walt by saying that Walt alleged your typical loony tunes anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. I was going to say that Douthat insinuated it, but really, though he's providing himself the usual amount of cover, he's making that libel plainly enough that I don't think I need to call it insinuation at all. (Surely, the Jews/Israeli lobby trick he pulls amounts to an accusation of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering.) Make no mistake, Ross Douthat is calling Stephen Walt an anti-Semite, and he's using the trope of the Jewish conspiracy to do so.

Walt and his coauthor did indeed suggest that there is a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States. This is a point that I don't, actually, think Douthat or most anyone "serious" would argue. There is a pro-Israeli lobby, just as there is a pro-French, pro-Russian, pro-whatever lobby, and further few honest people would deny the fact that the pro-Israel lobby is one of the most powerful in American politics, just as no one denies that the NRA or the AARP are powerful lobbying interests. The idea that this is equivalent to saying that there is a Jewish conspiracy that, in Douthat's words, is an "all-powerful lobby shaping U.S. policy and public opinion to its specifications" is simply dishonest, just a basic, childish lie, the kind of elision and distortion that has been used again and again to shrink the debate about Israel in this country. That there are lobbies for individual countries in this country is a plain fact. That they have relative strengths is a plain fact. That Israel's lobby is particularly strong is a plain fact. That this strength has consequences for US foreign policy is a plain fact. The notion that acknowledging all of these plain facts is the same as saying that there is some sort of Jewish conspiracy controlling the United States is a pathetic libel, and one which only diminishes the person making it.

Again, my example of the Chinese lobby is instructive. Near the end of the Clinton years, it was alleged by good Clinton-hating conservatives that the Chinese lobby was too powerful and too connected, and that this had disastrous consequences for our country. This allegation is functionally identical to the idea that the Israeli lobby is too powerful or entrenched. And yet I don't remember vague accusations of being a conspiracy theory nutcase being thrown at Rush Limbaugh or his ilk, nor do I remember anyone being accused of being an anti-Chinese racist, directly or indirectly. I look forward to reading from Douthat a piece about the crazy conservative conspiracy theorists who believed that the Chinese controlled the United States. And, you know, how none of them would ever be taken seriously enough to write for the Atlantic! (There is, truly, no sadder and more self-defeating writerly trope than when someone tries to impress others with the supposedly awe-inspiring reputation of the publication they write for. Wow! The Atlantic! You know, Jayson Blair wrote for the New York Times.)

This is the schizophrenic conversation one is forced to have on the issue; at the precise moment that people are denying to me that critics of Israeli policy are subject to vague accusations of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory in order to delegetimize them, a blogger on one of the most widely-read mastheads on the Internet... tries to delegitimize a critic of Israeli policy with vague accusations of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory. I have a lot of disagreements with Walt and Mearsheimer, but I have the good sense to actually criticize them for what they've actually argued.

Douthat is someone who I've admired, but to make a drive-by accusation of anti-Semitism using the stunningly empty "Jewish conspiracy" slander diminishes both him and the Atlantic, and as is always true of frivolous and politicized accusations of anti-Semitism, hinders our ability to fight the real thing. There is a real enemy of anti-Semitism in this world, it is particularly virulent in the Arab world, and those who throw around such accusations withough cause, explicitly or implicitly, do no favors either to the Jewish people or to Israel.

Update: To be clear, Ross and I can disagree about the relative merits of The Israeli Lobby and the credibility of its authors. But surely saying that Walt and Mearsheimer are alleging a Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style conspiracy is a slander. I thought they went to great pains to deny such a conspiracy. I find their reading of the situation in some ways simplistic, in some ways overdetermined, and rather overdone; but that's a far bore from endorsing one of the most well-known and ugly anti-Semitic stereotypes.

What's more, the kind of protectionism I think Ross is engaging in here makes it harder for those of us who want to point out the inanity of the "Jews control everything" meme. You'd be amazed at the emails I've gotten, in only a half-year of blogging; not by people saying "the Jews are wicked" but by people saying "aren't you scared? Aren't you afraid you won't ever get a job/get ahead in media if you keep criticizing Israel?" I try to remain patient and explain that, besides the fact that I don't really want a career in media, I'm not scared because there isn't some grand Jewish conspiracy that is going to keep me from getting a job for criticizing Israel. But I feel like a lot of the less sophisticated out there feel that way, and I think when they see things like bright people like Ross Douthat calling critics of Israel conspiracy-alleging crazies, it plays into their notions of a media protecting Jewish interests. It's self-defeating. If Mearsheimer and Walt are cranks or anti-Semites, the truth will out naturally, not from stretching the truth to allege that they are conspiracy mongers.

Methods to provoke depression: the latest in an ongoing series

Step one: Spend 50 minutes generating an impossibly in-depth personal profile, education and work history and CV for a college's online employment database, necessary just to access the system.

Step two: Discover that the college's employment database has had only a single posting for the past five weeks, seeking an "Animal Anesthesia Technician II."

Step Three: Hit the whiskey.

Monday, January 5, 2009

why is gender difference disqualifying of same sex marriage?

I read stuff like this post from Helen, the latest in the loooong series on Culture11 considering same sex marriage, and I find myself debating what exactly is important and what is debating semantics. It can get a little deep in the weeds.

Here's the thing: I don't, actually, care what you call it. Some people have suggested that the way to go is to actually turn every civil marriage into a civil union, and to let religious institutions designate whatever couplings they find legitimate marriages. This strikes me as a good suggestion, and one that elides the kind of definition-changing that many conservative opponents of gay marriage find so scary. I've read that some proponents of gay marriage say that they will sue for the right to be married by particular denominations or churches if given the legal right to marry, though this may be just scare-tactics from those opposed to same sex marriage. I hope that's the case, as suing a church to force it to recognize your marriage strikes me as a tactical disaster and a philosophical injustice. I would prefer that religious organizations recognize same sex marriage, but then, religious organizations and I tend to have little to do with one another, and as long as we are to respect any notion of free religion at all, the freedom to give sacraments or similar is an elementary aspect of that freedom.

Whatever you want to call it, though, this is the bottom line for me: from the state's end, it has to be called the same thing for heterosexual couples as homosexual couples, or it simply isn't an equal relationship. Separate is inherently unequal. Many people have said they support civil unions for same sex couples and marriage for heterosexual couples, with the two institutions being functionally identical-- so what's the big deal? The big deal is that the division therefore exists solely to differentiate, and thus to degrade, the same sex institution. From the state, it's either civil unions for everybody, or marriages for everybody, but not one for one group and another for the other group. Not if we honor our commitments to equal protection and equal rights under the law. For the religious designation, that's between you and your church and your god.

I bring this up because many people see marriage, as Helen does, as bound up in child-rearing and traditional gender norms. The problem is that many people, straight or gay, don't particularly give a shit about child-rearing or traditional gender norms, thanks, and will be subverting them anyway. The difference is that the straight couple gets to subvert them from inside marriage and the gay couple doesn't. This is yet another example of a situation where cultural conservatives are trying to use form and rules to fight a battle that was won in psychology and culture long ago. Respect for traditional gender roles and traditional notions of marriage can't be enforced; you can calcify the institution and draw the boundaries so that you're excluding gay people who might undermine them, but the straights inside are doing a very fine job of undermining all on their own. Conservatives love to say that government can't do everything, and they're right. One of the things government can't do is force people to respect norms and codes that they don't want to.

Look, I'm on record as being a passionate defender of both marriage and romantic love. I wish more people would live out the philosophical tenets implied in their marriage oaths. But those things can't be enforced, and never could be, not by law, morality or religion. Only the individual respect for fidelity and individual love for one's partner can create the kinds of attitudes I want people to show towards their marriages, and I find respect for fidelity and love for one's partner to be attributes shared by both some straight and some gay people. And I really can't understand how belief in same-sex marriage means that we're denying gender difference. Sure, there are important differences between the genders. I still think any adult should be able to marry any adult. Where's the contradiction? Helen is adamant that the genders are different but doesn't do us the favor of describing why, exactly, gender difference disqualifies same sex marriage.

She says
A culture that cannot acknowledge gender differences has hobbled itself: it can’t speak the truth and, if we know one thing about truth, it’s that it always comes out one way or another. If we can’t talk about gender, we can’t develop helpful ways to deal with it; if we can’t deal with it, we guarantee that, when gender differences do surface, it will be in unhealthy ways. If gay marriage consigns us to that slow, unpleasant declension—and it does—it’s something to think twice about.
Uh, why does gay marriage consign us to that slow, unpleasant declension? I don't understand how boys and girls being different means a boy can't marry a boy. Yes, gender differences, being to one degree or another matters of physiology, will always be with us. But marriage is a human institution, and we can change it if we want, and in fact must if we don't want it do die. If the idea is merely that only a woman can fulfill traditional ideas of what it means to be a wife, again, there are many, many women who are in marriages and are not fulfilling traditional ideas of what it means to be a wife. So why discriminate? Here, again, I think the train has left the station, but social conservatives want to persist to keep up appearances. It's like the woman in a shattered and loveless marriage who still puts out the fine China. You can go through the paces if you'd like, but you can't change the actually salient issue. For all of their skepticism about government, many cultural conservatives sure put a lot more faith in legal distinctions to produce cultural consequences than they should.

All of this assumes, anyway, that gay people aren't interested in fulfilling the conventional marriage norms. Some aren't. Some are. Some do, in fact, have remarkably pedestrian (some would say boring, though I wouldn't) desires for lifelong monogamy and child-raising. I think people who desire a healthy modern state of marriage should welcome them into the institution, or else they honor only form and not spirit. But even if you don't approve, the way forward remains blissfully simple-- leave them alone, live your life, let them live theirs. What a country, huh?

moral equivalence and intentionality

Without diving back into the weeds of the Gaza issue in particular, I hope, I want to flag this post of Jon Chait's, as it's very instructive of typical hawkish argument regarding any conflict.

Chait's argument rests on two common but illegitimate memes, the sin of moral equivalence and the heal-all of intentionality.

Chait here has a particularly empty application of the moral equivalence attack. If you're unfamiliar with this tactic, it's when a defender of pretty much any bad behavior by this country or one of its preferred states excuses that behavior, by way of saying that the person criticizing the behavior is drawing a comparison to the actions of an antagonist of the United States. So, here Chait criticizes Matt Yglesias for supposedly drawing a moral equivalence between Israel's actions and Hamas's actions. You see this all the time, though; following the Georgian conflict, some (such as myself) pointed out that Putin's actions amounted to a neocon's dream. This attitude was derided as being an act of moral equivalence. What makes this maneuver so aggravating, to begin with, is that those who use it see no particular reason whatsoever to actually explain why there is in fact no moral equivalence between the actions compared. So, in this post, you'll notice that Chait spends no effort or time at all describing why, exactly, the killing of civilians by Israel is fundamentally different from the killing of civilians by Hamas. Jonah Goldberg has taken this tack for a long time. He'll merely run a post alleging moral equivalence, with no notion at all about a reason why the particular moral comparison is invalid. Simply stringing the two words together seems to be taken for some sort of damning argument. I personally dislike debate performed in shorthand.

What's weird about this is that comparison between behavior is a rather essential element of any kind of moral discourse. When we talk about right and wrong, we often try to derive meaningful comparisons between behaviors as a way to illuminate what is and isn't acceptable behavior. As I will persist in saying, the comparison doesn't generate morality; most of us believe in some sort of categorical vision of morality, and indeed, those who argue against such things are commonly accused of the worst kind of moral relativism. The idea is not that Hamas or Israel are made moral in relation to each other; each one has moral content independent of the other. We can make comparisons between moral content, though, to better get a grasp on any individual situation, and hopefully to sort out judgments. These comparisons are always only as valid or meaningful as we make them. It's like the old question of whether it's ever valid to compare contemporary leaders to Hitler. How are you comparing them? Any comparison that calls two different people or actions identical is invariably wrong, but that doesn't mean that we reject outright the use of comparison or metaphor to help solve moral quandaries.

This is particularly important when we consider foreign policy because this is a realm where hypocrisy is rampant and particularly damning. We advance moral readings on countries and their actions in part out of categorical claims about what is right for any country to do. If, like me, you're a small-d democrat, you believe that the best available form of governance available to us is self-government, you articulate that point when judging totalitarian societies; but you damn well better apply that thinking equally, meaning, for example, that you have to support the rights of the Iranians to elect theocratic politicians even while you are horrified that they've done so. And when you deride acts of aggression or violence against civilians, you damn well better deride those things when perpetuated by your own country. This is why many were so strident, following the attacks of 9/11, in asking the United States to stop spreading violence and instability in the world, while at the same time condemning Al Qaeda in full voice. You must reap what you sow; to be taken seriously as a moral arbiter you've got to live up to your own moral code. Jon Chait and many others would wave their hands and banish those kinds of appraisals of American or Israeli actions simply by invoking the term moral equivalence. But most of us believe that it is a elementary aspect of morality that it be applied equally to different agents.

The common slide, in such a discussion, is to move from saying "You're saying Israel's actions and Hamas's actions are the same" to "You're saying Israel and Hamas are the same." Well, that's not actually true; it's certainly not true of Matt Yglesias, whose record will show that he has consistently criticized Hamas, and it's not true of me or of Daniel Larison or any number of other critics of the assault on Gaza. The point is not that Israel is "as bad" as Hamas or any such thing. The point is that the same moral imperatives that tell us that Hamas's actions are inexcusable equally tell us Israel must cease its behaviors that cost so many innocent people their lives. The point isn't "Hamas and Israel are the same." The point is that if we believe in a categorical vision of morality. Maybe Jon Chait or others like him are pure moral relativists, but I kind of doubt it.

As far as intentionality goes, I've written about it at length before, primarily here. I won't rehash those arguments beyond saying that intent of countries is never uniform, is unknowable, and ultimately can't be a panacea against culpability for acts of aggression, or we lose any meaningful ability to judge the behavior of nations. Intentionality, also, becomes a maneuver used to absolve our country or preferred states from sin, and it again rests on pure assertion: the United States and its favored nations never intend to kill civilians, while the antagonists of the United States always do. So the Georgians, who we favor (at least in comparison to Putin's Russia), attacked South Ossetian separatists out of a desire to fight terrorism and rebuke authoritarianism from Russia, and never intended to kill civilians. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is one of our designated enemies, and therefore was a cruel dictator acting aggressively without regard for the innocent lives he put at risk. That is a naive and hopelessly biased way of looking at the situation, but it has the benefit, as all appeals to intentionality do, of being nonfalsifiable: there is no referent to check, no way for anyone to independently confirm who is telling the truth. Intention has no physical referent in the world, which makes it unverifiable, which is one of several reasons why it is a lousy notion to hang foreign policy judgment on.

In the case of Israel and Hamas, at least, we get no particular claims from Hamas that they aren't trying to kill civilians. And, not coincidentally, Hamas and Hezbollah are some of the only agents in international conflicts where you can find almost no one, and certainly no one in the media or political mainstream, willing to defend their attacks. That's as it should be. The IDF, meanwhile, has the cover of not only a government that claims to minimize civilian death but a credulous Western media, which tends to take those things at face value when they come from status quo governments, and particularly those broadly aligned with American interests. You can judge the IDFs commitment to minimizing civilian deaths on your own. If pressed, I would say that I think that, indeed, the IDF has greater respect for civilian lives than Hamas, but that this is again damning with faint praise, and I have always had a hard time synthesizing three claims: first, that Israel has one of the most competent and most disciplined militaries in the world; second, that the IDF tries its utmost to minimize civilian death; and third, that the IDF has killed thousands of civilians in the past decades. Ultimately, though, as I've said, I don't find judging intent a worthwhile or meaningful activity when analyzing foreign policy.

For too many people, analysis of foreign policy and the ethics of aggressive action really boil down to one question: did we do it? Or did they?

Update: Jeff Goldberg orphans a claim of moral equivalence: "I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy." Why? What about the comparisons J Street draws is unfair or unhelpful? Why do you think just saying the words "moral equivalence" somehow exculpates Israel from any moral judgments of its behavior whatsoever?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

neoliberalism, liberal hawks and my political identity



Occasionally, you hear right-wing defenders of Mickey Kaus's relevance say that it's unfair to marginalize him as a figure on the left, because he really believes in liberal causes, and is a reformer from within liberalism, not a double agent, and he just wants to change what we consider the basic definitions of liberalism, etc. etc.... This would all be a little easier to swallow if Kaus didn't habitually mock liberals-- not "the left", but "liberals"-- as looney tunes, make a big show of being outraged for being considered a liberal ("Me! A liberal!"), things like that. Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of those who find Kaus unfairly relegated to self-caricature at his blog on Slate, where he daily burnishes their credentials as "even the liberal Slate...." I don't think that you can reasonably attack people for not paying great attention to a man who claims to support the Democrats cause but sees a greater enemy in Bob Kuttner than in John McCain.

People tend to say that neoliberalism's central tenets are about suspicion of unions, support for globalization, disagreement with identity politics. All of that is true, but it ignores the most obvious aspect of neoliberalism: distancing from, and disrespect towards, anyone that might be considered to the left of you. "I'm a liberal, but I'm not one of those." Neoliberalism is at once reformer of the left and mocker of the left. This is in marked contrast to various insurgent movements within conservatism, which tend, whatever their individual philosophical perspective, to assert that they are the true conservatives, the keepers of the real right-wing flame. Neoliberal arguments can be exercises in "I'm more centrist than you;" arguments between camps within conservatism are usually exercises in "I'm more conservative than you." The consequences and the meaning are clear: conservatism is something to be celebrated and pursued, liberalism something to be mocked and denied. This definition of proud conservatives and capitulating liberals seeped into the national understanding of both and helped set the stage for the triangulating Clintonite '90s and the kind of Democratic party that was utterly unable to offer a meaningful alternative to George W. Bush in the '00s. We've seen the consequences.

All of this is old hat now, and has been told by many more knowledgeable than I am, and better writers than I. The story of how neoliberalism neutered and undercut any kind of a progressive response or electoral challenge to George W. Bush and the resurgent GOP has been told in many fora. It's a compelling story. It isn't, actually, my story. While I have lived with the consequences of the liberalism of surrender, as we all have, I wasn't around to see the battles for the control of liberalism in the '80s, or aware of the neoliberalism-made-flesh of the '90s. No, my coming of age as far as political coalitions go, as opposed to my stances on policy, was born in the leadup to the second Iraq war, and the days of liberal hawk dominance.

Whatever the traditional neoliberals' failings, however much they might have contributed to a political landscape that made Bushism inevitable, one thing that they did not do was engage in the kind of vicious and unapologetic attacks on the anti-war left that became so dominant in the run-up to the war. Mickey Kaus, whatever my disagreements with him, was as far as I can tell from the record an Iraq war skeptic, who engaged in none of the vitriol that became the status marker for "serious people" on the left. Michael Kinsley, maybe the patron saint of neoliberalism, wrote one of the most moving and cogently argued texts advising against the war. The neoliberals have traditionally denounced "unreconstructed" leftists, but when bashing leftists became not just internecine fighting but the supposed duty of all right thinking people, they weren't the ones engaging. No, it was the liberal hawks who were enthusiastically excluding people with whom they disagreed from the ranks of the serious and or the principled, not the classic neoliberals of the '80s. And it's the liberal hawks who were unwittingly responsible, I think, for the political zeal of myself and a generation of unapologetic liberals like me.

It's funny, but though all of this happened a mere six or seven years ago, I don't think people remember the ugliness of the liberal hawk line, the anger and accusation within it. People remember that there was a battle for the soul of liberalism; people remember that, sad to say, the liberal hawks won it. They remember the reasoning from the liberal hawks, but I don't think they remember the rhetoric. It was nasty. The New Republic and Slate.com, the two most obvious vehicles for the liberal hawk sentiment, weren't filled just with passionate argument but with accusations of support for totalitarianism and with comparisons to the appeasers of Stalin. People like Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg and Tom Friedman and Jeff Goldberg and others didn't merely argue passionately for American invasion of Iraq, nor did they argue just that the left should support such an invasion. They brushed up close against eliminationist rhetoric, and implied or stated that those who did not see the wisdom or virtue in the invasion should not merely be marginalized, but excluded from the ideological base and the ranks of the serious or principled entirely. Slate.com was a daily dose of invective, every day I read it, against me and those who felt like me. This was not done in a vacuum, either, but in the context of an emboldened and angry conservatism that routinely made accusations of anti-Americanism and appeasement for terrorism. It was quite an education.

(A nice place to start to get an idea of this sort of rhetoric would be the three-week discussion in Slate about invading Iraq from 2002, which begins here.)

Well, now we've moved to a different era. The people who were so derided and marginalized by the very serious liberal war supporters built the architecture for the 2006 Congressional elections that signalled the end of Bush's America, and helped pave the way for the most liberal president, certainly, of my lifetime. Kaus, in keeping with his neoliberal tendencies, sees in Obama somehow a rebuke of Bob Kuttner and liberalism. If you had told me five years ago that my president-elect would have been pro-card check, pro-Freedom of Choice act, sponsoring a massive green jobs stimulus project, and consistently and clearly calling for withdrawal from Iraq, well-- this liberal would have danced a jig. The Mickey Kaus's, like the liberal hawks, can declare victory all they want. I'll keep our candidate. Things change in American politics, and all victories are temporary. It does seem, though, that my side has wrestled control of the direction of American liberalism, and though the liberal hawks were tough and unfair, they have given me and my ideological comrades the benefits of toughness and clarity. I am stronger for having gone through the leadup to the Iraq war, and so are those like me, and I don't see capitualation to accusations of pacifism, appeasement or naivete in the near future for the American left.

Look, I'm not Erik Erickson, and I'm not Peter Beinart circa 2002-- I'm not interested in excluding people with whom I disagree from the liberal or Democrat coalition. I'd prefer to let that disease fester on the other side, thanks. And, you know, better to have them in the tent pissing out, etc. We can keep Mickey Kaus as a kind of batshit uncle living in the attic of liberalism. I do think, though, that we are inevitably all shapers of who and which ideas are going to be of great influence in our movement, and I doubt the Mickey Kaus's will be of great influence moving forward. But he's still in our coalition. What favors do we do ourselves by drawing the bounds of our party so tightly that we inevitably leave some to wander over to the other tent? None.

And that refusal to exclude, from party or respectability, must also be extended to the liberal hawks, and has been. There has been little in the way of consequences for any of the myriad of pundits, right or left, who were so deeply wrong about the war in Iraq. Indeed, the "I was wrong on Iraq" column is the kind of thing professional writers love to write, at once apologetic and self-congratulatory, and always filled with lots of "If only I had known...."s. What they focus on, though, is their failings in assessing the situation, in supporting the war, and not, in general, the failures in their rhetoric about the war. That, to me, would be a better and more powerful reassessment, realizing that exclusionism and red-baiting are corrosive to the project of liberalism. But while those lessons appeared to me unlearned, and while there is still a strong strain of liberal hawk apologetics within the coalition of the left-- see, for example, James Kirchick's continuing bid to brand himself a kind of Axe Body Spray of bloggers, so, so extreme and manly-- we can't cast anyone out, or make even vague overtures in that direction. That was a failing of the liberal hawks, this exclusionism, and we can't repeat it, as tempting as that might be.

What I will do, and what I think very many of my peers will do, will be to continue to refuse to play ball with those who would equate discretion with cowardice and restraint with appeasement. I think American liberalism has learned some lessons, and as painful as the education has been, ultimately I think it has crafted a tougher, smarter, and more assured liberal base, one unmoved by macho posturing. If nothing else, I have been emboldened by insults and marginalization, as I came up into a political understanding at a time when my views were reviled. And it has left me with my political identity-- no capitulation, no triangulation, no surrender.

(Bloggingheads video via Andrew.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009



Thought the sports fans out there would get a kick out of this-- a good friend of mine is getting married in a week. This is the invitation that was sent out. To answer the obvious question, yes, his fiance is a very cool, laid-back girl.

a note

I hate having to do this, but I feel compelled.

Drawn from Culture11, for awhile now I've had a troll named Roque Nuevo. He's a pretty boring boiler-plate apologist for imperialism and status quo governments. His particular twist is that he accuses me of, for some reason, believing that I'm making a difference or something. His rabid nature is actually kind of funny, as are his wild swings as to what exactly constitutes appropriate or ethical behavior, depending entirely on whether or not he can use them to bludgeon me with. I won't censor comments, aside from instances of a) spam, b) statements that I feel are genuinely libelous or slanderous, or are close enough to warrant fear, or c) implied or stated threats of violence. All of this is in addition to whatever Blogger's terms of use policy is. I've been holding to that quietly, and hope I can continue to; this is such a low-traffic blog that it really shouldnt be a problem. So Roque or whoever else is free to continue to excoriate me.

However, in a comments thread on Culture11, here, within the course of saying that I suck in every way possible, he says that I "believe that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an accurate analysis of international politics." This comes as a great surprise to me, particularly considering the fact that I have never read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, people can call me vain, or unprincipled, or stupid, or self-absorbed, or pretty much whatever else they want to. And they can feel free to do it here or in whatever particular forum they prefer. What they can't do, ethically, is claim that I've said something I haven't said, or that I've endorsed a book I haven't endorsed. I think that breaks the covenant of acceptable dialogue. So I'm responding in the best way I know how, which is with words of my own. So: I don't draw any lessons from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in fact have not read it, and don't plan to. I'm not an anti-Semite. I don't believe in any Jewish conspiracies that run the world.

As for Roque's other condemnation, the idea that I somehow think I'm accomplishing something, or the insistence by him and some other commenters that Israel isn't my business-- I find this all pretty weird. Am I accomplishing anything by blogging? Probably not. Is our national discourse accomplishing anything? I believe it is. The value of words is ephemeral and uncertain. I'm sure I haven't changed anything with what I say. I still believe there's value in saying it. As for the greater question of whether or not I have the right to speak out on Israel, first, this is a uniquely bad example for someone of Roque's opinion to invoke, as the relationship between Israel and the United States has beome so entwined and symbiotic that it would be foolish to say that Americans don't have legitimate interests in Israeli affairs. What's more, it's a bizarre notion of being a citizen of the world that suggests that only members of certain countries can weigh in on the value of those countries' actions or leadership. Do people not weigh in on Darfur? Somalia? Did people exercise this kind of restraint in regards to Iraq? Do they do so now in regards to the regime in Iran? Does Roque Nuevo? Weird.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't tried everything yet. And I resumed the struggle.

*****
Estragon: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir: That's what you think.

Gawker in an age of poverty

I'm finding it very hard to generate any sympathy at all concerning the layoffs and cutbacks at Gawker media. Apparently there's been many people let go, blogs under the Gawker imprimatur are being sold off, and there's a great deal of uncertainty and stress in the company, as there is in many companies. It's sad whenever people are let go, and it's particularly a problem in the context of so many new job losses-- all of these people, presumably, will go on to seek new jobs, and so for every new layoffeee there is that much more competition. I don't cheer the news of anyone's termination.

But I can't find much sympathy for people who, when the subject is layoffs at other companies in media or publishing, have responded with cackles of glee and derision. Cruelty is Gawker's brand, its only commodity. Gawker has elevated casual bitchiness to an almost astonishingly pure hatefulness. And now, in the face of their own misfortune, it is difficult to find room within myself for empathy for the people who have inflicted so much unapologetic bile. Something like this-- I'd like to feel a great deal of unhappiness for this women. But I only have to click her name on the post and browse around in her work and realize that this is someone who, were she to read an identical post by someone who worked at Conde Naste or Random House or the New York Times and was laid off, would feel no particular guilt in roasting that person over the coals. That's the price of killing of your own impulse for humanity. You have no standing to ask for compassion for anyone else.

(I wonder, by the way, if the post I linked to was the most honest thing that woman ever wrote for Gawker. The great comforting lie the Gawker set of the world tells itself is that they are only cruel in service to the truth; but when I read that site or its various permutations all I think, the whole time, is what a lie the whole enterprise is. Even in this post, the blogger can't quite allow herself to be genuine.)

Will Gawker survive the economic downturn? Who knows. My feeling is that people will have quite enough suffering, thanks, without needing the kind ginned up by Gawker. I'm not much for predictions, but if I had to guess, I'd say that this country is going to get acquainted with poverty in the coming years. In the face of such a thing, Manhattan elitist backbiting bullshit stops seeming funny and glamorous and is revealed to be the empty, self-obsessive exercise of small minds it always has been. The cliche is essentially true, that being nice is overrated; but being kind most certainly is not. I hope the people laid off by Gawker Media land softly, but I'll be shedding few tears for them.

Update: In the interest of fairness, I'll quote commenter Josh:

I do know the ex-Gawker blogger in question personally a little bit, and she's an absolute sweetheart...I think you're misrepresenting her work in particular, and even Gawker somewhat in general....know Gawker has a reputation for being terribly cruel and maybe I'm just missing something, but I don't see much of that, especially not over the past year. Bitchy for sure, in many cases, and snarky -- but I guess I see cruelty as being out-and-out mean to no worthwhile purpose. Their targets tend to be public figures who've done stupid or arguably immoral things, and while that doesn't mean Gawker or anyone else should have carte blanche to attack them, there is a long-standing tradition of calling celebrities, politicians, various bigwigs et al. out and serving them a sort of rough justice.

It is certainly possible that I've misrepresented this blogger Sheila, and if that's the case, I do apologize. As far as Gawker goes... I remain unconvinced. I can see how, if you're a Gawker commenter, it could be a useful social tool. But I do know of many situations where Gawker has, in fact, attacked people who aren't really public figures at all, and I think their definition of who exactly constitutes a public figure shifts pretty much to suit whatever interests them at the moment. Who knows, I could be wrong. I do think, though, that Manhattan insiderism is not going to be a growth industry in the near future.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

final thoughts on Gaza for now

This post is meant, for the near future, to bring my blogging about this situation in Gaza to a close; at some point, the conversation becomes about your own sizzle, not the geopolitical steak. I've said near enough what I want to say, and now like many people I am left with yet more grim moments of head-shaking and feelings of futility. There are few issues that can leave me feeling such a sense of helplessness.

I would add onto this post by Daniel Larison a simple point. I don't go around proclaiming the moral superiority of the Israeli leadership to Hamas because, as I have often repeated, I find one of our central problems in rationally discussing foreign policy the fact that we spend so much time talking about the superiority of one agent over another, we lose sight of a pretty well-agreed upon standard of moral dialogue: the notion that actions and agents have moral standing of their own, irrespective of their relative standing. I have tried to say, again and again, that Israel's actions have their own moral content, whatever the respective moral content of the actions of Hamas. Too much argument in this debate is wasted establishing the relative moral bona fides of one side or another. See, for example, Jon Chait, for a bright and principled person whose argument seems to me to be crippled by his inability to ask questions about the absolute moral standing of Israel's actions, rather than focusing on the superior morality of Israel. This is part of why I find Joe Carter's position so baffling; I thought I was arguing for the opposite of moral relativism.

Yes, if you insist on knowing, I find the actions and attitudes of Israel's leadership to be superior to those of Hamas. It's not close. How could it be? Israel is a flawed but functioning liberal democracy. It has a robust system of human rights protections, and though I would desperately like those protections to be more equitably applied to those living in the territories, they are a damn sight better than anything that Hamas would dream up if you gave them a thousand years. I do not cotton to the constantly asserted, never proven notion that the Palestinians would all choose at a moments notice to drive every Israeli into the sea; but do I believe Hamas has anything else on their mind? No, I don't. Yes, indeed, Israel's government is on a different moral plain entirely from Hamas. What, exactly, is that supposed to mean for our purposes? Why is that dispositive of anything at all? This is another moment in the weird phenomenon where those who claim to love a country most hold it to the lowest possible standards. Israel should be a vastly more moral agent in the world. I expect it to be, and I want it to be. If the most we can expect from the most vibrant and free democracy of the Middle East is "better than Hamas", then those nihilists you sometimes encounter who want to nuke the entire Middle East may have a point after all. Morality asks the most of those who are most capable of moral action; you and I have known that since our days on the playground. I expect more from Israel so I'm harder on Israel. That may not be fair. It's life.

I am sure that the accusation of naivete or idealism is applicable to my views on just warfare. All I can say in my defense is that, first, I think the unique nature of this particular debate pushes all of us into philosophical extremism. I find myself so quick to attack the killing of innocents in Palestine or Lebanon because I find the situation so strange, so daft, where so many otherwise principled people seem so quick to justify the killings of people they know to have committed no crime. In what other situation can you expect such rancor in favor of collateral damage, but in the discussion of Israel? When American troops kill innocents, as sadly happens, many argue for the necessity of the kind of combat that kills civilians. Very few, that I encounter, argue passionately for the righteousness of those killings, as they do with Israel/Palestine. Very few seem so preoccupied with absolving any responsibility whatsoever from the United States or its military. That is what people are saying, though, when they say that only Hamas is to be blamed for innocent death. I find myself reacting in such full throat against this killing not because I find the innocent dead somehow worse in Palestine than in Iraq or elsewhere, but because there are so many contrary voices concerning Israel and only Israel.

At the end of the day we must trust to the opinions of the people we argue with as they are expressed. There's a weird phenomenon whereby I or others like me post about Israel and Palestine, spending equal time or near to it decrying the insane behavior of Hamas as the counterproductive behavior of Israel; and yet our criticism is almost universally a product of the notion that we are showing unequal anger towards Israel, that we are being overly critical of Israel. I've talked already about some of the reasons I find it necessary to criticize Israel as I do. What I find underpins the criticism, rarely explicitly stated but seemingly assumed, is the idea that I don't really think what I'm saying when I condemn Hamas and their actions. To which I can only say, I do; there's little else that I can do. There is no referent for my intentions, just as there is no evidentiary way to disprove the idea that no Palestinian wants or could want anything else than to destroy Israelis. We have only the basic assumption that the Palestinians, like all people, ultimately want peace and prosperity. I have only the basic assumption of good faith behind my assertion that I want Hamas to stop firing rockets, and for the Palestinians to once and for all learn the patently fucking obvious lesson that Hamas has nothing of value to offer them.

It is on balance both an unfair thing to ask Israel to be better than her opponents and at the same time the only thing we can ask. I find that a fact of life on earth; the better you are, the more that is expected of you. Israel has enough of the conditions necessary to be the kind of nation we have imagined, in the last several hundred years, a nation could be-- peaceful, free, respectful of other people and cultures, even-handed, and strong. I want Israel to live up to that potential. Palestine is not yet there. That excuses none of their behavior, but it perhaps explains it. I look forward to a time when Palestine is ready to reject terrorism or cultural war. But it will take infrastructure, stability, freedom and a rise from poverty for it ever to be so. Israel alone can truly be partners with Palestine in that project.

New Years Teenaged Eve



Last night, I noticed that at the crucial moment on Dick Clark's New Years Rocking Eve with Ryan Seacrest (seriously, that's the name; kind of an exemplar of what happens when you let some committee name something), on stage with host and hell-spawn Ryan Seacrest were Taylor Swift, age 19, the Jonas Brothers, ages 16, 19 and 21, Demi Lovato, age 16, and... Lionel Ritchie, age 59. I guess they needed to appeal to the older set somehow, huh? Meanwhile, Taylor Swift got her midnight kiss from, yes, near-60-year-old Lionel Ritchie. I like to imagine Ritchie (who is a pop legend and has become very underrated) was thinking "Still on top, baby!

truly typical

Via Rod Dreher, here's a classic example of the establishment media's take on Israel/Palestine-- all Israel, all the time, without a hint of neutrality or balance. That's fine within this individual piece; op/eds and commentary aren't required to show balance. But, of course, the idea that The Washington Post would run such a screed if it was pro-Palestinian is so absurd it doesn't merit denying. That's the American media and Israel, one side, all the time. The op/eds and commentaries calling for moderation or restraint on the part of Israel, meanwhile, (including mine!) take every opportunity to attack Hamas and remind everyone involved that Israel must be defended. The supposed extremists, again, are the ones who make every appropriate caveat and concession, while the supposed moderates expect absolute fidelity to one side and one position, and will attempt to excommunicate those who don't play ball with accusations of bigotry.

Bonus points to this guy for straightfowardly making the "Hamas is worse so Israel can never do wrong" argument. It's nice to see empty moral rhetoric that's actually just hanging out there for all to see. Also nice, the "intentions are the only thing that matter" argument, which I'm sure would come as a surprise to, say, a Vietnamese family that has endured cancer and horrible birth defects thanks to Agent Orange. And, again-- the idea that this episode leaves Hamas weaker is utterly contrary to history. Assaults like this one feed Hamas, playing directly into the extremism and violence that keeps that horrible organization alive.

Of course, some my commenters will soon appear to tell me that, somehow, my criticism of this guy's commentary is still somehow strawmanning. I don't know, maybe they'll claim that there's no such thing as The Washington Post.

Update: I like arguing politics, you know? It's one of my passions. That's part of why this conversation about the conversation is important, because on a national, mainstream level, we don't really have an argument about Israel and Palestine. We have one side of an argument. That's part of why Glenn Greenwald is doing such yeoman work; he's demonstrating the weird condition of a situation in American political life where we only hear one side of the tale. That's a big problem in a democracy, and people like myself are trying to change it, to open the debate to new opinions. I'm not looking to invite people who are out to kill innocent Israelis into the discussion. I'm looking to invite people who don't tow the same predictable extremist line that our MSM does.