Tuesday, February 12, 2013

always try to be the talent

A few people have sent along this exhausting profile of Ezra Klein from TNR-- sorry, from the new TNR-- on the theory that I would enjoy hate-reading it, on the related theory that I hate Ezra Klein. I find this odd. How could one hate Ezra Klein? Hating Ezra Klein would be like hating spearmint or navy blue. He's about as upsetting as an actuary.  He's wrong about a lot of things, but he's so resolutely inoffensive in his wrongness that I can't be bothered to get mad. Getting mad after reading an Ezra Klein column would be like running wind sprints after eating Thanksgiving dinner. Someone like, say, Will Saletan, who marries deep ignorance about what he writes on to a powerful hatred of women's autonomy and delivers it in a self-fellating grandiloquence-- that's worth hating. Klein? It's like picking Labrador for your least favorite dog breed.

Of course I don't read him, but judging by that profile, I get the impression that he doesn't particularly want people to read him, in the old-timey "move your gaze along lines of text to obtain propositional content" sense. Rather I think he wants everyone to kind of politely accept that there's blocks of print under those lovely graphs somebody else made and not look too deeply into it. You might find that profound emptiness in there. It's like that guy you know who wants to be a writer in the sense that he wants to do everything but write-- to have ink stains on his fingers and wear tweed and hang out at independent coffee shops and be known as a writer, but not to bother spending time at the keyboard. If Klein is a writer, he's a writer who hates words; I've never had much use for Ideas, myself. Klein has recently taken to showily eschewing the labels of liberal or progressive, but of course what he really wants is to be known as a progressive who doesn't want to be known as a progressive.

There are, to be sure, many things to object to both in the TNR profile and the general Klein phenomenon. He has that habit of believing entirely contradictory things that is common to the professionally bland. He claims that he is a stoic empiricist, yet lionizes David Brooks, a man who simply invents facts about the world around him and uses them to justify all manner of policies. (Pro tip: empiricists are people who undertake empiricism, not those who just read empirical reports, or read the abstracts, or have their younger, brighter researchers read them.) He claims to operate from a  pragmatic belief in the power of good governance, but famously brought Paul Ryan to manual release because of his intellectual bona fides; never mind that Ryan is a man who would like very much to defund government to the point that the average American city looks something like the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket. Like all of those bright young things, he supported the Iraq war when it was polite to do so, then pivoted, effortlessly, to opposing it, once that became the fashion. Here is a man who has developed every conviction as if, well, as if he would one day have them presented in a profile for TNR. And he complains that we care too much about personality in politics while participating in a puff piece where he asserts the importance of wearing jeans to his personal brand. 28 is a little young to want to be the cool dad, Ezra.

Yet I am, in fact, quite like Klein in one sense: I too believe in the power of systems over the power of personality. For as much as you likely have heard that I dislike so-and-so personally, I have always (always) grounded my critiques of the DC koffee klatsch in the notion that social capture is systematic to elite media, and if I lived in a different age, I'd complain about reporters at press clubs instead. Let me be plain: all of the profound failings of what Ezra Klein is have very little to do with who Ezra Klein is. Klein is just a doofus with good enough looks to appear on cable. The profoundly ossified world of professional blogging is not the way it is because Ezra Klein lacks personal virtue. It is the way it is because of structural and material realities in the age of American decline, the combination of self-perpetuating familial success and the mythology of meritocracy and the inoffensiveness of whiteness and that peculiar notion of likability-- which always seems to attach to the people who already have everything going for them. They all congeal, until suddenly, you've got the President's ear. I'm saying: if I thought that the problem was that the boys on top weren't good enough dudes, the problems would be easy to fix. The dudes are just dudes. The system is failed. Ezra Klein? Ezra Klein is Zelig.

Ascending to the position of the Lord High Broder does not come without disapproval. Here's a scoop you won't have to dig very far to hear: Klein, "such a nice guy" reputation aside, is more feared than loved. Like all ambitious men, he must know that it's better for them to fear the consequences of disloyalty than desire the embrace of friendship. Bright young things who pile their gear into mom's SUV and arrive in DC with an internship and a dream-- they have a habit of ending up unsatisfied. In the five years I've been doing this, I've gotten dozens of emails from them, on the way up, or on the way out. And the overwhelming impression is that they are afraid of the Ezra Kleins of the world. I think that makes all the difference, though I know many disagree. But then, that's the problem with conceiving of yourself as still being the kid at the keyboard: you will always fail to understand your own power over people. The people who came up from the bottom in some shitty newsroom at some shitty paper in some shitty town, slitting throats all the way... they know the power they wield. When you've made your whole living by being known as a good guy, who's ever to tell you that you exercise power, that you have the ability to make and break the white-knuckled strivers of the world?

Would I feel any differently, myself? I'd like to think so. But then, I've known what gig I've wanted since I was 11 years old, and it has little to do with Ezra Klein. If what I wanted was to be in his world? I'm sure I would find him enchanting, or barring that, fear him enough to fake it.

Ultimately, there isn't much to worry about, when it comes to Klein, other than the miserable death of the American left-wing, that last betrayal of the egalitarian dream. If it isn't glaringly obvious, "Unkind writing is unthoughtful writing" is how social justice dies, how you strangle the child of equality in her crib. Nobody who ever materially suffered could be so luxurious in their disdain for anger; nobody who has ever been desperately afraid of the rent coming due could mistake bloodlessness for maturity. It turns out, in fact, that a chart tends to serve precisely its purpose, which is to express injustice in language quotidian enough that no one will ever be inspired by it. I started writing because there was no other way to deal with a world of human cruelty; if what I had to say made mothers want me to marry their daughters, I'd slit my wrists.

But then that, too, is one of my forbidden opinions, the type that get the patient explainers patiently explaining. That's why I want to take Klein's opinion that "we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly underrate seeing Washington as a system" and show it to him, and his admirers, and my own frequent critics, to ask if that system does not happen to include the lives of those who write about it. I'm only trying to play by the rules that he's dictated.

In that, I share a condition with many people I admire: playing by the rules of men (always men) who aren't quite sure how they got to dictate them. The depth of Klein's privilege is that he gets to decree that the system he wants examined stops at his door, as the throbbing, gendered power dynamics that seep from that profile make plain. Staring at the piece, from the newly rebranded TNR, owned by a Facebook millionaire who speaks in cliched aphorisms, in a profile of someone who has meticulously curated an image for just this moment-- there's some sort of perfection there. Such a profound monument to everything unimportant, such a preference for emptiness and the status quo, such a failure for the people whose lives are dictated by "policy." But oh, those eyes! And oh, that web design!


Anonymous said...

Just wondering, why do you like Matthew Yglesias but not Ezra Klein?

Also, the link to the profile is wrong.

Freddie said...

Fixed it, thanks.

As far as Yglesias goes... I dunno. Again, Klein is just a guy, working a system. I guess I like Yglesias a bit more personally, in part because he's always been more upfront with his "product differentiation" stuff. But who knows.

Anonymous said...

i think you're in love with ezra klein

Anonymous said...

Stars! Why Freddie, you'll never meet a nice girl to take to the cotillion with all that negative nitter-nattering about that sweet boy Ezra Klein!

Freddie said...

i think you're in love with ezra klein

Who isn't? He's a dreamboat.

Anonymous said...

personally, I liked almost every douchebag, dork and blogger I ever met in DC -- except Ezra Klein.

j r said...

"Ultimately, there isn't much to worry about, when it comes to Klein, other than the miserable death of the American left-wing, that last betrayal of the egalitarian dream."

I largely agree with this post and I think that you hit the nail on the head talking about the difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to be like a writer. There are people who want to be reporters and there are people who want to be on Charlie Rose talking about important things. Klein is certainly the epitome of the latter.

I do have to question, however, whether Klein is a symbol of the death of the American left or a symbol of its ultimate fulfillment. And maybe those two things are one in the same.

Don O'Neill said...

I prefer Yglesias to Klein too, but it's important to note - and I'm very glad you did it here Freddie - that both of them originally made names for themselves by supporting the Iraq war. That act, more than any other, launched both their careers. I remember being infuriated when their support for war actually helped them cultivate reputations for being honest and thoughtful. It was enraging to watch them both switch sides, taking their reputations with them, rewarded for wrongness.

Brett said...

I don't see how you could hate Klein, either. He's basically just an aggregator now, putting the research of his team into readable twelve-point essay form. It's supposed to be dispassionate.

He used to be more opinionated when he was blogging for TAP, though. I think that and the whole JournoList debacle drained most of the color out of his commentary.

Milo Busbecq said...

Holy. Shit. But you're a terrible writer. I stand in awe.

Phil Perspective said...

JournoList didn't hurt him at all. Remember, Joke Line and a bunch of other Villagers were in on it. After all, if he learned anything from it he wouldn't have written glowing tributes to the Zombie-eyed Granny-starver.

Are you on Twitter? If not, I find it funny that you follow what happens on it so much.

Devin Mitchell said...

Supporting the Iraq War is difficult to forgive, though Klein certainly wasn't alone. I don't really have a problem with the rest of his work.

For someone you don't "hate," this was a pretty scathing critique. I mean, come on, "a doofus with good enough looks to appear on cable." A fair bit of baseless psychoanalyzing too.