Bland assertions

One of our commenters remarked a few days ago that much of punditry suffers from saying nothing at all. At least, it doesn't say the kinds of things one can subject to any kind of serious critical scrutiny. If it can't be subjected to scrutiny, then it's not saying much. Maureen Dowd suffers from this. But if one reads The Daily Howler, as one should, then one might come to the view that Maureen Dowd says quite a lot, it's just that none of it can be subjected to critical scrutiny–so she says nothing at all. In the interest of enlarging the regions of punditry we analyze, take a look at the following from Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post: >Today, the mood feels different — whether it's because that electability strategy didn't work out so well; that Bush will be out no matter what; that Democrats seem favored to win in 2008; that Iraq is more of a disaster; or that the primary is far enough away that voters can vent now and strategize later. >For the moment, Democratic primary voters don't want Kerryesque parsing. "Let the conversation begin," Clinton's banners proclaim, but she's not saying what many of them want to hear — words like "mistake" and "sorry." >Instead, in the Clintonian formulation, the mistake was Bush's and the regret is that he misused the authority he was given. Iraq "is a gnawing, painful sore," she said. "People are beside themselves with frustration, and I understand that completely." >But people in that agitated state don't want to hear about the 60 votes required to proceed to Senate debate on a nonbinding resolution. "I know that is hard medicine for some people, because people say, 'Just do something,' " Clinton acknowledged. And so on. It's difficult to imagine what evidence could be advanced to support such broad assertions about what people want or what "the mood" is like. It gets worse. By way of conclusion, Marcus writes: >But Clinton in person seemed "much more inspirational and much more genuine," Cesna said, complimenting her willingness to stay more than an hour after the meeting, answering questions and posing for pictures. "She's willing to do her job to meet people in the state and maybe dispel some of the coldness and harshness that people feel about her." >In other words, campaigning in person Clinton can win over skeptics. But her nuanced position on the war, at a time when base voters are impatient with nuance, means laying off the doughnuts isn't going to be her biggest challenge here. The evidence for that claim seems to be the opinions of one slightly skeptical voter. In all of this, however, Marcus neglects to tell us what Clinton's position is that has won over that one skeptical voter a year and a half before the next election.


I wonder what our readers think of this from today’s New York Times:

>KINGSTON, R.I. — There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.

>His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

>But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

>For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

>He likened his situation to that of a socialist studying economics in a department with a supply-side bent. “People hold all sorts of opinions different from the department in which they graduate,” he said. “What’s that to anybody else?”


On the left-hand side of our page we have placed some fixed pages that explain what we’re up to and who we are. As a matter of fact, we added another one about bias. People accuse of this too often. Here’s what we wrote:

>You might have noticed that this page criticizes conservative commentators far more than it does liberal ones. It does. Is this evidence of some kind of bias? Nope.

>First, bias has to do primarily with accurate presentation of fact. For this reason, newspapers can be biased in their presentation of facts, or in their selection of facts, or in the way they interpret factual disputes. Judges can be biased if they tend to accept the factual claims of one side of an argument over another. And so on. The basic question of bias, as you can see, relates to assertions regarding whether or not a certain state of affairs obtains. Since we are largely not interested in questions of fact, we can’t be guilty of this.

>Second, over the two years that we’ve been doing this, we’ve had the opportunity to get a pretty good look at the punditry in the major daily newspapers. We have pointed out numerous times in posts that for the most part, conservative columnists defend their positions with arguments. For this reason we admire them. We also think that few liberal columnists argue as energetically as their conservative colleagues. Since the liberals don’t argue, you will find the conservatives strongly represented on our pages.

>Third, we’re not a newspaper and we have no commitment to “balance.” We find those accusations meaningless anyway. Balance exists in nature. Just because George Will cannot envision anything other than a moronic liberal interlocutor, doesn’t mean we have to go find a liberal who does the same thing.

>Fourth, the failure of some particular argument of some particular conservative writer does not in any respect entail the liberal counterpart. It entails–if we’re right–only the failure of that particular argument.

>Finally, we don’t ask you do draw any conclusions other than the ones we explicitly make in the individual posts. If you think–as many often do–that those conclusions are unwarranted, then tell us. We take all thoughtful criticism seriously.

>–The editors

I thought I’d foreground that because I’d like to hear some comments on it. Another thing we do in these pages is complain about the standards of our national discourse. Thus this website. Editors, we thought, don’t check anything other than grammar on the op-ed pages. Or so we thought. Today, the Washington Post’s ombudsperson Deborah Howell wrote (a propros of the William Arkin blog entry we discussed yesterday):

>Readers usually take things literally. And an editor should have told him to take out the word [mercenary]. That’s what editors are for: They keep opinion writers from making fools of themselves.

Really? That doesn’t seem right.

True Americans

William Arkin, who writes a blog for the Washington Post, recently incurred the wrath of the blogosphera when he lamented some soldiers’ inability to distinguish between supporting the troops and supporting the mission the soldiers have been ordered to do. He wrote:

>Friday’s NBC Nightly News included a story from my colleague and friend Richard Engel, who was embedded with an active duty Army infantry battalion from Fort Lewis, Washington.

>Engel relayed how “troops here say they are increasingly frustrated by American criticism of the war. Many take it personally, believing it is also criticism of what they’ve been fighting for.”

>First up was 21 year old junior enlisted man Tyler Johnson, whom Engel said was frustrated about war skepticism and thinks that critics “should come over and see what it’s like firsthand before criticizing.”

>”You may support or say we support the troops, but, so you’re not supporting what they do, what they’re here sweating for, what we bleed for, what we die for. It just don’t make sense to me,” Johnson said.

>Next up was Staff Sergeant Manuel Sahagun, who is on his second tour in Iraq. He complained that “one thing I don’t like is when people back home say they support the troops, but they don’t support the war. If they’re going to support us, support us all the way.”

>Next was Specialist Peter Manna: “If they don’t think we’re doing a good job, everything that we’ve done here is all in vain,” he said.

>These soldiers should be grateful that the American public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and the President’s handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and their respect.

>Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order.

>Sure, it is the junior enlisted men who go to jail. But even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We don’t see very many “baby killer” epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is being spit upon.

>So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?

I know some of the readers here are “troops” (as William Safire would not say), so it would be interesting to have your feedback on this. The interesting thing about Arkin’s post is the vitriol it produced. For instance:

>You know I’m sick and tired of liberals deciding domestic policy, simply because they control all of the airwaves.It’s hi time that we true Americans (Stop the Liberal presses).We do need to boycott their networks and Put major pressure on their sponsers.We need to shut the liberals up.let’s give them a new assignment to report first hand accounts of unemployed and worthless. Let’s do it on behalf of any soldier that you know.Because My two nephews in Iraq do not deserve to die on behalf of people who hate them.

That’s nutpicking–combing comments to find a nutjob’s comment and then concluding that everyone in the comment section (and the blog) is a nutjob. No one’s doing that here. But I couldn’t find anyone who seriously addressed the distinction between supporting that troops and supporting the war effort.

Trust but verify

Found this wandering about the blogosphera and we were impressed by the bolded claim by Jonah Goldberg (yesterday was his big day):

>You know, Jim does make a good case and I hope he’s right. I think about this a lot. I get a lot of grief from longtime readers about how I’ve “matured” or “grown up.” And the truth is I have. Though I still think there’s a lot of room left for humor (and once the book’s done and put to bed, I’ll bring back some pull-my-finger G-Filing), I’m basically burnt out on the smash-mouth stuff. When I criticize younger lefty bloggers for their excesses, I get a lot of “Hello Mr. Kettle, pot’s calling on line one” grief. That’s all fair to a point. But the basic fact is I don’t do that stuff very much any more because it’s cliched and boring to me (in much the same way I dropped most of the Simpsons and French-bashing stuff the moment it threatened to become a catch-phrasey schtick). I did that back when the blogosphere was brand new, I was young, and the Rolling Stones were only on their 33rd comeback tour.

>Simply as a writer, when I see the nasty stuff now, on both the left and the right, my first reaction is to think how easy — and therefore uninteresting — it is. The Edwards bloggers’ anti-Catholic diatribes bore me more than they offend me because they are precisely the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a living cliche who can’t imagine the other side might be worth listening too. That’s why I harp so much lately on the issue of good faith in writers (See my recent bloggingheads appearance for example) and why I like debating Peter Beinart so much. I’m more interested in arguments than posturing for your own side. Liberal bloggers like Kevin Drum actually hold open the possibility that the opposition might have a point. The Pandagon crowd is all about cheerleading. Cheerleading has its place, but it’s only of use to those who already agree with the cheerleaders. That’s why I’ll read Drum, but I ignore most of the lefty bloggers. Who has the time to waste on what amount to tasteless joke contests about the “enemy” when you’re the enemy and, in my case, you’re the butt of the jokes? I have a similar attitude toward the highchair pounders on our side like, say, Michael Savage (assuming he’s still alive).

>Ramesh once said to me that he wants to grapple with the left’s best ideas, not their worst. And while I think it’s important to point out how bad the really bad ideas are (and have fun doing it), I think he has the right idea. If the human sacrifice of these bloggers helps move the blogosphere in that direction, it’ll be a win for the Republic.

Our necks hurt from nodding so much. But we’ll be watching, as we already have. Click here for that.

Tell me why

This tidbit from E.J.Dionne’s latest illustrates a point we’ve been making for a while:

>The impatience of the administration’s critics is entirely understandable. But it would be a shame if impatience got in the way of a sensible long-term strategy to bring America’s engagement in this war to as decent an end as possible as quickly as possible — even if not as quickly as they’d like. The anti-surge resolution is a necessary first step, which is why those who are against a genuine change in our Iraq policy are fighting so hard to stop it.

There isn’t anything wrong with this as far as it goes (or as far as we could tell). But we’ve long complained that the “liberal” columnists differ as a group from the conservative ones. The most prominent conservative columnists make ideological combat the centerpiece of their writing, thinking perhaps that that’s what the op-ed page is for. I’d be inclined to agree with them. That’s how it should be. Outside of Krugman, however, the liberal columnists largely don’t argue in the way their conservative colleagues do. So, while people like Krauthammer and V.D.Hanson argue in forceful (but erroneous terms) for the position that the Iraq war has gone swimmingly (but for the Iraqis), Dionne takes it for granted that it’s been a disaster and talks instead about the parliamentary process of bringing it to an end. It’s not wrong that he does this. It’s just a poor match for his more strident conservative colleagues.

Intellectual liberals

We’ll give Dinesh D’Souza a break today–and maybe tomorrow as well. But don’t worry, we’ll come back for him (in the meantime, he seems to be having trouble remembering his book’s thesis).

A colleague of mine sent me an article from the Chronicle Review where Russell Jacoby reviews some recent works by conservative writers and calls them “facile.” That’s not a difficult charge to substantiate in that he includes P.J.O’Rourke among conservative intellectuals (Note to conservatives–we think you can do better than Bill Kristol, the Kagans, George Will, David Brooks, Dinesh D’Souza and V.D. Hanson). If anyone knows of conservatives of intellectual heft please notify professor Jacoby.

We’d like to point out the spectacularly dumb version of the “liberal intellectual” he contrasts with the conservative one. While the conservative eschews the confines of academia for the think-tank, the liberal wraps himself in an impenetrable haze of verbosity. He writes:

>Several answers suggest themselves. Leftists largely inhabit the academy, and the professoriate does not prize elegant writing. On the contrary, it distrusts clear prose as superficial. Oddly, English and literature professors led the way. A trip to Paris, a bottle of wine, a Foucaultian appetizer, and a Derridaian main dish, and they became convinced that incomprehensibility equals profundity.

>Over the years the menu has changed, but the damage has been done. Leftist scholars continue to believe that clotted language confirms insight; to write well receives little regard. Consider the ringing conclusion of a recent manifesto of the radical intelligentsia, Eric Lott’s The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual: “If patriotism itself is rethought as ‘plural, serial, contextual and mobile,’ in Apparduari’s words, then postnationalist collectives of labor and desire might earn the devotion they deserve.” Lott — yes, an English professor — crafted that sentence.

This is what someone (I don’t remember who) called nut-picking. It’s the practice of trolling through the comments on a (usually liberal) blog in order to find someone who says something crazy that confirms the idea that all of the people on that blog are crazy. So Jacoby picks a sentence out of the context of an academic discussion for the same purposes. Someone out to remind him that audience matters. Second, since Jacoby seems to believe that academia is clotted with liberals, perhaps he could find one or two who write clearly, forcefully and intelligibly on matters of public concern:

>Remember that key fact Al Gore mentions in An Inconvenient Truth, that a statistically insignificant number of peer-reviewed scientific journals questioned the reality of global warming and the role of human activity in causing it, but over fifty percent of journalistic articles did? Well, that’s the kind of intellectual irresponsibility that actually endangers lives by passing along misinformation that is created by people with an obvious material interest in keeping our defenses down. It hides under the guise of “objectivity,” but that’s nonsense. Are there two sides to the debate over whether gravity exists as well?

That was impenetrable. Especially the part about gravity.

Wasn’t me

Before the 2003 Iraq war–the one that’s still going on now–some argued (Here’s Molly Ivins–may she rest in peace–from 2003) that removing Saddam might lead to ethnic bloodletting on a massive scale (1991 Dick Cheney among them). How things change when the foot’s on the other shoe:

>Of all the accounts of the current situation, this is by far the most stupid. And the most pernicious. Did Britain “give” India the Hindu-Muslim war of 1947-48 that killed a million souls and ethnically cleansed 12 million more? The Jewish-Arab wars in Palestine? The tribal wars of post-colonial Uganda?

>We gave them a civil war? Why? Because we failed to prevent it? Do the police in America have on their hands the blood of the 16,000 murders they failed to prevent last year?

That’s not the accusation. The claim is we knew or should have known a civil war was the likely consequence of our willful ignorance of the realities of Iraqi political and ethnic realities and our Rumsfeldian strategy for giving them a free society–where people are free to live life and make mistakes. Knowing that such violence and bloodshed and chaos and destablization of the whole region was the likely consequence of our action, and doing it anyone, makes us morally responsible. Do we pull every trigger and cut off every head and blow up every Mosque? Nope. But that hardly means we’re not responsible for that happening.