Monday, December 10, 2012

Rich's Poverty

My previous links were more placeholders than anything; last night, I had an exam which needed studying, and no Facebook argument is worth that. But now that I have the time for this, I'll try to demonstrate the intellectual poverty of this Rich post.

The statement of Rich you quoted attempts to paint the entire conservative movement as ignorant of the truth using a poll from the website "Right Wing News." My guess is that Rich has chosen that site, in particular, because its name would suggest to a reader who knows little about conservatism that the right wing derives much of its news from there. I, for one, had been on the site maybe once in my life before this fracas. But in trying to find the post Rich quoted, I found this rather helpful link from it, which lists the 50 most popular conservative sources of news and opinion ( Note that Right Wing news is 48th out of 50.

Finding the original post didn't take me long, however, so here it is:
Note that the post's author solicited the opinions of "over a hundred" bloggers, of whom 43 replied, and of whom none were on the previous top 50 list (already, we have obvious response bias. Surely you're not anti-science!?). Here is a list:

101 Dead Armadillos, Argghhhh!, Basil’s Blog, Cold Fury, Conservative Compendium, The Dana Show, DANEgerus Weblog, Dodgeblogium, Cara Ellison, Exurban League, Fausta’s Blog, Freeman Hunt, GraniteGrok, House of Eratosthenes, Infidels Are Cool, IMAO, Jordan Woodward, Moe Lane, Mean Ol’ Meany, The Liberal Heretics, Midnight Blue, Pirate’s Cove, Nice Deb, Pundit Boy, Professor Bainbridge, Pursuing, Liz Mair, Moonbattery, mountaineer musings, No Oil For Pacifists, No Runny Eggs, Right View from the Left Coast, Russ. Just Russ, Say Anything, Don Singleton, The TrogloPundit, The Underground Conservative, This Ain’t Hell, The Virtuous Republic, Vox Popoli, WILLisms, Wintery knight, YidwithLid

Of these, I have heard of exactly two. Do you see any National Review, American Spectator, Weekly Standard, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, or even Fox News sources on that list? I sure don't (I don't see any of them on that top 50 list from earlier either). That is the mainstream of the conservative movement, to say nothing of the Republican Party. These people are bloggers. They are not think tank directors, politicians, or anything like that. Blogging in the modern age, as you might know, has an incredibly low threshold: I have one, and anyone reading this post right now could start a blog to denounce me if he or she so wished (try here). This is not, then, a poll of conservative historians or academics either--a right-wing version of the Schlesinger presidential poll. Nope, just bloggers.

So, in short, you have a not very popular website soliciting the opinion of 100 much less popular websites, and 43 of them reply. This, to Frank Rich, is supposed to represent the entirety of American conservatism. On Nov. 6 of this year, dozens of twitter users called for Mitt Romney's assassination. If you say that twitter represents an even lower threshold than a blog, I'd agree, but remember that twitter is also a more frequented medium than any of the blogs on that list. Does that mean the entire left-wing wanted to kill Mitt Romney? No, it doesn't--the internet has emboldened fringes from both sides of the aisle, fringes by no means representative of the party's mainstream.

But I'm not sure if these people represent a "fringe." The figures Rich mentions, after all, do appear on the lists of some people--even when the post's original author did not specify exactly what kind of "worst" person he desired. If some left-leaning blogger had composed a similar list, without knowledge of the backlash this one caused on both sides of the aisle, I am most certain that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan would appear near its peak, as would Richard Nixon--and I, as a conservative, wouldn't care. And speaking of Nixon, if you take a look at the list, he's on there! Bipartisanship! And the figures Rich mentions appear there as well, just not below Obama, FDR, and Carter.

Now, I'm guessing that most of you would argue that I haven't assailed Rich's central argument yet: i.e., the right is in a sort of "truth denial" because it thinks that Presidents are worse figures than assassins and murderers. As I said already, the post's author didn't specify what kind of "worst" he wanted: as conservative political bloggers, for what other purpose than political figures who did the most to advance a political vision they disliked would they have divined the solicitation was intended? Liberals should consider it a sort of perverse compliment that conservatives think so poorly of overtly progressive presidents--what do you expect? I'll grant to Rich that Booth, Oswald, and McVeigh are pretty terrible people, but there are certain aspects of even those figures that liberals have often struggled to digest. Booth is pretty straight-up bad (more bipartisanship!); Oswald was a communist ("good people," right?); and McVeigh earned the respect of no less a figure than Gore Vidal. These facts don't necessarily defeat the argument in and of themselves, but they should at least give liberals something to think about.

As for the poll itself, its author came to regret compiling it, and explained why its results came in as they did. Check out his explanation. In the same post, he also lists his own 20 worst figures in history. Here are the first five he lists:

Aaron Burr: Shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and led a treasonous plot to take over part of the United States.
Aldrich Ames: A CIA spy for the Soviets.
Al Capone: The Chicago mob boss whose name is synonymous with organized crime.
Alger Hiss: Hiss was a Soviet agent who penetrated to the highest levels of FDR’s administration
Barack Obama: His profligate spending, at a time when the United States desperately needed to cut back, imperiled the continued prosperity of the country in a way no previous President ever had before.

But before you get worked up by Obama's inclusion (and possibly that of Hiss, if you are still beating that dead horse) note that the list is alphabetical, nothing more. The author's list still contains suggestions with which you will disagree--but so what? Cory Peters asked what happened to "reverence for our leaders"; to him, I would ask where that reverence was during, say, the Reagan administration, or the Bush administration ("Dissent is the highest form of patriotism," in all its fabricated glory). You guys don't like them, I don't like Obama or FDR (who, among other things, interned thousands of Japanese-Americans, you should recall). No historical figures are without their blemishes--even the best of them are human, just like the rest of us. I don't get "sick to my stomach" when someone brings up Iran-Contra to me; FDR's being considered by conservatives as one of our history's worst figures (a characterization that mostly excludes his World War II legacy, considerable as it was--not entirely due to his own efforts, however [remember Eisenhower and Patton?]) should delight liberals, as it means that he was successful in advancing a liberal vision. What, do you expect conservatives just to roll over when a liberal is successful, to fall in line and worship him dutifully?

Oh wait, maybe so. Or at least, that's the idea I get of Frank Rich. Rich dedicates so much vitriol to attacking the conservative movement by picking out its fringes, its most embarrassing elements, and its mistakes and then playing a game of connect-the-dots to paint it as essentially a fascist, racist organization that I have no other conclusion to reach than that he would rather see it not exist. If his goal were to play a sort of anti-Buckley and purge the movement of its fringes, I might join him, but that is not his goal. His goal is to take the tiniest pockets of thought, to make the most tenuous and dubious connections, so as to color the entirety of American conservatism as a collection of racist, sexist, homophobic, plutocratic ideologues not worthy of debate.

And that is what really bothers me about Rich. A man of his intellect ought to spend his time picking on intellectual targets his own size, such as syndicated conservative columnists with a profile similar to his own. But that would make it a lot harder for him to remove all of conservatism's legitimacy through his audacious game of connect-the-dots. That man will not rest until all of America resembles the left-of-center environment in which he has spent his entire life (Harvard, New York, New York Times, New York Magazine...), until there is no opposition to what he wants to see liberalism enact in America (by the way, how much could such a man know about conservatism in America, other than the caricatures he absorbs of it through interactions with other like-minded people?). I, for one, do not think that way. I do not want Democrats and liberals to disappear from political life. At their best, they are fun to argue with and present thought-provoking ideas on the inadequacies of the free market. But Frank Rich is not liberalism at its best. He is nothing more than a vile partisan, who would love nothing more than to see his opposition wither away, and his pieces are designed to reinforce the prejudices of people who share this view. But don't take my word for it. Here's what the New Republic said in 2011, in a list that also called out Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand:

"As former New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s average word count has increased, his writing has steadily become more predictable. From breathless diatribes on the Tea Party (over the course of two years, nearly 40 of his weekly columns touched on the unsavory patriots) to his fascination with the president’s placid demeanor, Rich writes cultural and political criticism with yesterday’s CNN headlines as his starting point. Rich, now a writer for New York magazine, has never been a brilliant political thinker; he is, in fact, an utterly conventional pundit of the old salon liberal variety. In his radical stance, he reminds us of Paul Krugman, except that Krugman is a scholar whose authority about his subject (economics, not politics) is unimpeachable, whereas Rich only knows what he’s learned from the media this past week. He is a clicker-intellectual."

Bonus read: Christopher Hitchens reviews one of Frank Rich's books:

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