September 16, 2006

They say compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Laws and Sausages, The Old Dirty War — tomemos @ 11:06 am

One thing I’ve added to this blog that wasn’t on the Raptor one is a links section for the political blogs I go to. I added them because I visit them regularly, because some of them are really interesting to read, and because I think the netroots movement is an important one that has the potential to revitalize the progressive movemnt. Funnily, though, I’ve added these just as I’ve started to recognize some doubts about left-wing blogging that have recently come to a head.

The big controversy in the lefty blogs a couple weeks ago was the ABC dramatization on the years leading up to 9/11. The controversy was that the show suggested that hesitation and incompetence in the Clinton administration helped Osama bin Laden escape capture, leading him to plan the most infamous terrorist attack in history. The blogs’ position, predictably, was that this was another case of the media being hijacked by right-wing ideology, and bloggers got people to call and deluge with petitions ABC, Disney, and just about anyone who supported or was insufficiently scathing about the show. Somehow, I just couldn’t get particularly worked up about it, so the week was essentially a break from political blogs. I agree that the show was bad news, but something like 25 entries in three days at Daily Kos seems a little excessive when you’re talking about television. (Yes, I did write an entry on Veronica Mars last week; why do you ask?) After all, if we’re going to ridicule the right-wingers who got the Reagan biopic taken off CBS, we may not want to attack this sort of thing with all guns blazing.

But mainly, the lefty-blog outrage over this television event was a contrast to last July, when most of these same blogs were utterly silent about the Israel-Hezbollah war. At that time, I started to wonder why no one was discussing it, and as if on cue Kos posted an article, “Why I won’t write about Israel/Palestine/Lebanon Fighting”, which explained a lot, perhaps more than he meant it to. The relevant excerpt:

It’s clear that in the Middle East, no one is sick of the fighting. They have centuries of grudges to resolve, and will continue fighting until they can get over them. And considering that they obviously have no interest in “getting over them”, we’re stuck with a war that will not end in any forseable future. It doesn’t matter what we bloggers say. It doesn’t matter what the President of the United States says. Or the United Nations. Or the usual bloviating gasbag pundits.

When two sides are this dead-set on killing each other, very little can get in the way.

Now, this is very unhelpful. It’s almost an encyclopedia of unhelpfulness, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. It’s arrogant and condescending, basically to the point of racism (“oh, you know those Semites—they love getting blown up!”), assuming that since factions on both side are committed to violence, the entire populace is “dead-set on killing each other.” In Europe, that kind of thinking is why American travelers put Canadian flags on their backpags: everyone figures that of course all Americans support the war. The post is fatalistic—if it doesn’t matter what anyone does or says to avert or quell the violence, then efforts at negotiations aren’t even worth the cost of the plane tickets, and we should just save our interest and help for nations that aren’t having problems. And it is extremely simplistic. The violence in the Middle East is not just a bunch of people who are mad at each other; there are many concrete local and international issues that contribute to the animosity and violence, and these can be addressed in other ways than simply waiting for all the violent ones to kill each other. (Did the people of Northern Ireland stop killing each other because they got bored?) This reductionism (is there a noun form of “simplistic”?) is the post’s most damning problem, because it does the very opposite of what commentary and analysis are supposed to do: make complicated issues more comprehensible through the use of insight and reason. All this is is an argument for ignorant pessimism.

And the reason this post has stuck with me so long is that, reading it, I belatedly realized how simplistic and closed-minded the political blogs I read are. Certainly no one else I read was quite as crass as Kos about the issue, which fits my profile of him; while I think Kos is sometimes a good writer, he shares with George Bush a defiant pride in his own ignorance (he once titled an entry, “Who is Garrison Keillor, and why is he such an asshole?”). Nonetheless, it is true that left-wing bloggers by and large did not touch Lebanon. Atrios never said anything about it that I remember. The catalyst of Kos’s entry is Kevin Drum’s explanation of why he won’t discuss the matter, in which he gives mostly the same reasons (albeit more diplomatically) that Kos does. (Billmon is a notable exception to this; he blogged about the war daily, usually very well.)

I’d love to believe in an innate difference between left-wing and right-wing blogs, but I have to conclude that, whether they’re on the left or the right, political bloggers want simple narratives. Kos’s aggressive reductionism in describing the Middle East betrays his real reason for not writing about it: it’s way too complicated for his purposes. Neither party in the US, and (as far as I can tell) no faction in the Middle East, has a workable solution in mind, and all of the sides in the conflict have plenty of blood on their hands. These bloggers want something with a clear partisan hero and a clear partisan villain: bad dumb bad Disney/ABC attacking good Bill Clinton. This is what they do best, and my favorite writing in left-wing blogs has generally been about the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina: disasters that were demonstrably caused by Republican action or inaction (with a healthy amount of Democratic inaction in the former case). By that standard, where’s the percentage in writing about violence in the Middle East, a loaded issue with no clear good guy, no clear solution, and a tendency to make everyone mad?

(Right-wing bloggers wrote plenty about Israel and Lebanon, because for them and their readers it was a clear-cut case of good and evil with a simple solution: shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out. In fact, the only thing I remember seeing Sadly, No! say about the crisis was that the right-wing commentary was insane.)

This love for simple narratives is why, to varying degrees, both left- and right-wing blogs love to speak with contempt about the “MSM.” The mainstream media does indeed have its share of problems; mostly, though, it is committed to balance and objectivity. Certainly that commitment is problematic in its own way, since there are different kinds of “balance,” and objectivity should mean more than simply “quote the RNC Chair, then quote the DNC Chair”—but the principle of objectivity is important, and I’m afraid that the desire to hear only one’s own political viewpoint betrays an impatience with, or a fear of, critical thinking. Progressives are amazed at the characterization of the media as “liberal,” and rightly so…but few will admit that though the media isn’t liberal, they dearly wish it were.

So then what are those links doing there? Well, I do see value in political blogs, and even, to a degree, in their uncompromising positions on political issues. In fact, plenty of political issues do have a good guy and a bad guy; I believe that those who support gay marriage and legal abortion are 100% right and their opponents are 100% wrong. With evolution or global warming, it’s something like 105%. These battles need to be fought as if they were battles, and left-wing blogs are valuable for overcoming the sort of subjectivist self-doubt that plagues progressives all the time and conservatives not at all. As you can see, I’m not immune to partisan simplicity myself, but I would hope that I recognize when such simplicity is unproductive. Dogma is problematic enough when it’s associated with issues like God, morality, the Revolution, and so on. When dogma is just attached to the battle of parties, as if they were sports teams—the New York Donkeys versus the Mississippi Elephants—it becomes a silly waste of time, without losing its dangerous power to close off critical thinking.



  1. ever since my boss outlawed non work related internet, i’ve barley had enough time to check my e-mail at home so i certainly don’t have time to read political blogs. instead, i turn to the best source of fair and openeminded news/opinions i know of. my dad. he’s always up for a good discussion be it about politics/news/life or other such interesting things. and he always knows whats going on as well as whats already gone on so he was always relate current events to their roots and give a much better perspective on things. for movies/music/culture i talk to my brother. if i want “let them all blow eachother up” kind of talk, i just talk to my mom when she’s mad. 🙂 unfortunatly none of my family blogs so i alone have access to this wealth of fun. ha ha ha ha. 🙂

    Comment by ariela — September 17, 2006 @ 5:00 am

  2. I disagree – I think the brouhaha over the 9/11 movie was important, particularly given its proximity to an election. The Republicans and Democrats aren’t so much running on competing policy platforms as they are on competing versions of history: what led up 9/11? Whose fault was it? Has Bush been effective in executing the War on Terror? Was Iraq a legitimate target in the war on terror etc.? These answers to these questions are all (in the broader cultural sense, not in the partisan political sense) still up for grabs. The movie’s attempt to add another layer, to contribute to the larger cultural debate surrounding these questions, particularly in an election year, requires a response. Of course the netroots’ demand that ABC not air it is absurd (and speaks to my problem with the netroots which I’ll get to in a minute) – the point of protesting the movie is not to censor it. The purpose is to raise a public debate about it, to force ABC to clarify that the movie is fiction and was altered for dramatic effect and to demonstrate that the movie is just another layer, another revision, and not the definitive historical assessment of 9/11.

    I completely agree with what you’re saying about the netroots and Kos in general. Although in their defense the reason they may not have commented about Lebanon was that it was, frankly, outside the (admittedly narrow) area of their expertise. But anyway, I think what you’re picking up on is the netroots’ authoritarian tendencies – that anything that diverges from their partisan line, that deviates from those very simple narratives and attempts to add in shades of gray or ambivalence, is somehow betraying the cause of the Democratic Party and of the progressive movement in general. I think part of my resistance to Lamont came out of my general distaste of the left-wing blogs that were singing his praises (the simplistic narrative of “Lamont Good! Liberman Bad!” ) and for their inability to even countenance the thought that Democrats could vote for Lieberman and that to do so was equivalent to voting for George Bush.

    On another note, given that you’ve written two blog posts in a row on TV, I’ve noticed a certain (and in my opinion at least, unfounded) disdain you have for it. You seem to have felt less guilty for writing on what were, frankly, equally if not more trivial subjects (“My Humps”?). Yet I think this is a discussion for another medium. I’ve already written to much . . .

    Comment by Brandon — September 17, 2006 @ 10:40 pm

  3. That’s insightful about my disdain for TV, I hadn’t noticed that. My parents discouraged TV in our house—our TV was on a wheeled cart so it could be rolled into a closet when not in use— and always referred to it with contempt. I’ve only recently begun availing myself of non-Simpsons TV, and I guess on an irrational level I still feel like I’m slumming when I do (and yet not when I watch sports; who knows?). From a blogger’s perspective, I also think there’s a degree to which music is a little more universal than TV: if you spend time in public spaces, you’re unavoidably going to hear bad pop songs, whereas bad TV is pretty avoidable so it’s harder to justify a lengthy discussion of it.

    And you’re right that the show is important. I guess I was turned off because bloggers chose to portray it as the most important thing happening that week, which makes sense as a motivational tool but which seems disingenuous. At least an election or a war is an actual event.

    Comment by tomemos — September 18, 2006 @ 1:53 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: