Veering into the Abyss

by Henry on May 13, 2006

I’ve been travelling back and forth between Ireland and the US, attending a conference and grading over the last week, so I couldn’t participate in the Jonathan Chait bashing that’s been convulsing the left blogosphere. But I can’t resist pointing out the sheer silliness of this purported riposte from Chait.

But it’s not true if you take account of their political style, which is distinctly New Left. It’s a paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage. The fact that the contemporary blog-based left, unlike the McGovernite New Left, lacks a well-formed radical program is some measure of comfort. However, I think there’s lots of evidence to suggest that this style of thinking is suggestive of a tendency to move in more radical directions over time. That, of course, is exactly what happened to the New Left, many of whose members starting off as relatively sensible liberals, or left-liberals before veering into the abyss.

This smear by association deconstructs itself – if you want to complain about bloggers’ paranoid, Manichean worldviews brimming with humourless rage, surely it’s best not to do so in paranoid, Manichean blogposts brimming &c&c. Chait, in his efforts to carry out the New Republic’s self-appointed guardianship of sort-of-slightly-liberal-centrism (and to vilify those who have the impertinence to be to his left) becomes that which he’s complaining about. Peer not too long into the abyss of the blogosphere lest it peer back into thee.

In any event, I’d take the humour of McGovernites such as John Kenneth Galbraith (who as Scott McLemee pointed out last week was not only known for witty epigrams, but also for elaborate spoofs) over that of New Republic apparatchiks any day of the week. As McLemee’s piece shows, Galbraith’s spurious psychologist Herschel McLandress, had the New Republic faction’s number a long time ago.

Epernay [Galbraith’s pseudonym] enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. … He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)

{ 23 comments }

1

Barry 05.13.06 at 4:01 pm

Ah, right-wing freudian projection strikes again. TNR has been steadily going whackjob under Peretz. And Chait, who used to be normal, is obviously drifting into the TNR abyss, which has spawned so many sleazeballs (Kelly, Sulivan, Beinart, Barnes, etc.).

2

Delicious Pundit 05.13.06 at 4:45 pm

No, see, this is a “well-formed radical program.” The guys from Kos are just feisty. Chait needs to learn the difference.

Speaking of feisty, I assume Washington writers don’t drink at lunch anymore; I think their work would be better if they still did.

3

John Emerson 05.13.06 at 4:49 pm

The DLC may still end up controlling the Democratic Party, and they may succeed in nominating Hillary for President too. None of them have learned anything since 1992, and for them “Nader” “McGovern” and “Dukakis” are crushing one-word refutations of anyone who wanders to the left of Lieberman. (Though at the same time, they seem to be planning to run on “competence”, which didn’t work very well for Dukakis).

They seem supremely confident that, once they’ve whipped and humiliated us on the the Democratic left, we’ll put it all behind us and cheerfully go to work for Hillary. (Lesser evil, you know. And party loyalty). But I just don’t know if I’d be able to. There won’t be another Nader, but a lot of people might just give up.

4

Bruce Baugh 05.13.06 at 10:52 pm

I share John’s concern, and it’s not just a matter of left versus right-pretending-to-be-center. I know a fair number of folks who are very moderate and middle-of-the-road in their outlook, who are really not much interested in any big sweeping changes to, say, health care, but who do still appreciate competence and conviction. (“And convictions,” one of them likes to add, feeling that a lot more hides should be nailed to courtroom walls.) They tend to share the malaise, because they’re no more interested in sustained justifications for supporting the Iraq war or pretending to be fundamentalists than, say, John or I am. The DLC is the voice of a particularly cowardly “moderation” that alienates even honest moderates.

5

RedWolf 05.14.06 at 12:21 am

Henry, with all do respect your post is, by and large, name calling. Historically, both the extreme left and the extreme right are humorless; there is nothing there. Not reading the NR, or for that matter any other collection of mediocre writing – NYT, WP, and on and on, I don’t know what Chait wants. I do, however, read CT and Henry, you don’t read too humorful.

6

abb1 05.14.06 at 4:04 am

The guy who wrote this can’t be all that bad.

OTOH, as for those with paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage – cut them some slack and have some sympathy: there are good reasons for rage these days.

7

DivGuy 05.14.06 at 6:24 am

They seem supremely confident that, once they’ve whipped and humiliated us on the the Democratic left, we’ll put it all behind us and cheerfully go to work for Hillary. (Lesser evil, you know. And party loyalty). But I just don’t know if I’d be able to. There won’t be another Nader, but a lot of people might just give up.

I dunno. It seems to me that the Lesson of Nader is that the “lesser of two evils” is very real and very lesser. We’re talking about the difference between going to war with Iraq and not going to war with Iraq. The difference between a failed response to Katrina in which many more died than they had to, and a relatively successful response to Katrina. And the estate tax and the deregulation of health insurance and massive corruption in contracting and all that.

I don’t want Hillary to be the nominee. I’ll fight for other candidates who provide a progressive alternative. But if she wins the primary – and I would put good money on that right now – I’ll fight for the lesser of two evils. Because the lesser of two evils is much less evil.

8

Barry 05.14.06 at 9:26 am

“Not reading the NR, or for that matter any other collection of mediocre writing – NYT, WP, and on and on, I don’t know what Chait wants. I do, however, read CT and Henry, you don’t read too humorful.”
Posted by RedWolf ·

Redwolf, Chait writes for ‘The New Republic’, and occasionally for other places, like the LA Times op-ed page.

I think that your assignment of his writing, based on what he says, says something about him.

9

abb1 05.14.06 at 9:59 am

Come to think of it, the NR does have a “paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage” as well – concerning some very specific subjects. On other subjects they feel that being nuanced, ambiguous and humorous is a must. Is this hypocritical?

10

Tom Doyle 05.14.06 at 9:05 pm

abb1:
Come to think of it, the NR does have a “paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage” as well – concerning some very specific subjects. On other subjects they feel that being nuanced, ambiguous and humorous is a must. Is this hypocritical?

Is it possible to have “paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage” only “concerning some very specific subjects?” That is to say, if such a “worldview” only concerns “specific subjects” then it would seem to be something other than a “worldview,” IMHO. By definition, that is.

All the best

11

Keith M Ellis 05.15.06 at 2:20 am

It seems to me that John Emerson’s comment inadvertently validates Chait’s accusations to at least a small degree. I read newdonky.com regularly, and assuming Ed Kilgore’s views are representative of the DLC’s, then I don’t think Emerson’s characterisation is accurate. It seems extreme, cartoonish. Isn’t that exactly what Chait is talking about?

To the degree that the left blogosphere’s accusations against the DLC are specific and thoughtful they usually have merit and are at least partly true. But it’s my impression that this is the exception, not the rule, and that the strawman is more likely.

What I personally find very tiresome and dispiriting are the attacks on the center-left that imply an equivalency to the right. The attacks on Clinton are a good example—though her liberal credentials are certainly tarnished here and there, can anyone really believe that a comparison to BushCo is in any sense accurate or justified? That’s what blows my mind. Maybe she could be fairly compared to a very moderate and centrist Republican. But that certainly doesn’t describe this Presidency or those who have controlled the GOP for some time now.

12

abb1 05.15.06 at 3:30 am

Keith, is it unjustified to point out that in some respects the DLC is not that different from BushCo? And in some respects the New Republic is not different from the Weekly Standard.

13

Ginger Yellow 05.15.06 at 4:46 am

14

Scott Spiegelberg 05.15.06 at 9:31 am

I agree with the sentiments of #7. I have specific issues that are important to me. The candidates’ stances on these issues determine my support in the primary, and in the general election. I find it highly unlikely that a Republican candidate would come close to agreeing on my important issues, thus even a too-conservative Democratic candidate would be highly preferable.

15

Keith M Ellis 05.15.06 at 12:22 pm

Abb1, yes, I think it is unjustified to make those statements. Yes, TNR supported the war. I don’t know if the DLC, as an organization, did.

Other than that, though, on every major policy in contention I can think of the DLC is opposed to BushCo. I won’t make such an absolute statement regarding TNR because a) I don’t read TNR; and b) their contrariness means they’re all over the map.

When the DLC supports things like universal health care, the estate tax, higher CAFE standards, environmental protection…I don’t understand what filter through which you’re viewing them that would lead you to believe they’re ideologically similar to BushCo.

16

melior (in Austin) 05.15.06 at 1:07 pm

As was the case with the wingnut reaction to Colbert’s masterful performance, someone should inform Mr. Chait that it’s unfair to characterize something as “humorless” just because you’re too thick to get the jokes.

17

abb1 05.15.06 at 1:12 pm

Well, one could say that the DLC and BushCo represent interests of pretty much the same group – big business – except that the DLC people are not insane.

You’d think that being not insane should be a big advantage, but not necessarily. If you strongly feel, for example, that big business is your enemy, you might prefer the BushCo – the worse the better.

It’s not how I feel, but I can see the logic here.

Besides, there’s a whole large group of people to whom the war is a very big deal and not a humorous matter at all.

18

Tom Doyle 05.16.06 at 3:23 am

Keith M Ellis: It seems to me that John Emerson’s comment inadvertently validates Chait’s accusations to at least a small degree. I read newdonky.com regularly, and assuming Ed Kilgore’s views are representative of the DLC’s, then I don’t think Emerson’s characterisation is accurate. It seems extreme, cartoonish. Isn’t that exactly what Chait is talking about?

In my opinion, no. John Emerson wrote:

The DLC may still end up controlling the Democratic Party, and …nominating Hillary for President too. None of them have learned anything since 1992, and for them “Nader” “McGovern” and “Dukakis” are crushing one-word refutations of anyone who wanders to the left of Lieberman…They seem supremely confident that, once they’ve whipped and humiliated us on the the Democratic left, we’ll put it all behind us and cheerfully go to work for Hillary. (Lesser evil, you know. And party loyalty). But I just don’t know if I’d be able to. There won’t be another Nader, but a lot of people might just give up.

I’d say he expresses a strong dislike of the DLC’s substantive sectarian political orientation, its polemics in support of the same, and its assumption that its defeated factional foes will enthusiastically support its candidates notwithstanding.

These are issues of intraparty ethics, etiquette and comity which all contending factions should bear in mind. Are John’s criticisms of the DLC well taken? I think he overstates the situation, but 1) my view (and his) on these matters are necessarily subjective judgements, and 2) his take is not obviously unreasonable.

But what Chait says:

But it’s not true if you take account of their political style, which is distinctly New Left. It’s a paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage. The fact that the contemporary blog-based left, unlike the McGovernite New Left, lacks a well-formed radical program is some measure of comfort. However, I think there’s lots of evidence to suggest that this style of thinking is suggestive of a tendency to move in more radical directions over time. That, of course, is exactly what happened to the New Left, many of whose members starting off as relatively sensible liberals, or left-liberals before veering into the abyss.

is simply preposterous. I don’t recognise what he’s talking about, but it isn’t remotely applicable to what John E wrote.

19

Barry 05.16.06 at 1:05 pm

What’s really bad about Chait’s article is that it’s part of a trend. I was reading his work back when he was in college. He’s clearly caught TNR/DLC-itis, where the worst enemies are those in the Democratic Party who won’t sell out in advance, preferably letting the GOP win.

I don’t want to think where he’ll be in ’08 – probably supporting the GOP after Lieberman’s third-party bid for the presidency crashes before take-off.

20

harry b 05.16.06 at 2:41 pm

divguy; you don’t know who the lesser eveil will be in 08, because you don’t know who the candidates will be or what the political dynamic will be that will be set in motion. Think back to 92. What if Bush snr had won? Would that have been the worse evil than Clinton winning? I didn’t think so at the time, and I still don’t (that is, I recognised and recognise that it might have been, but the case wasn’t clear). I didn’t realise that Clinton’s victory would set in motion a political backlash that would lose Congress to the Republicans in 94 for at least 12 years. That was a major evil of Clinton’s victory. If the Dems win back the House in 06 (I think they have demonstrated ample capacity not to win it, but suppose they do) will a Hillary victory (if the Dems are foolish enough to choose her, which they probably are) lose it for them in 2010?

21

Barry 05.16.06 at 4:44 pm

Or will a Dem victory in the House in ’06 put just enough of a brake on the administration that things don’t get a lot worse?

Trying to play these forecasting games doesn’t work well, IMHO, except in actual games, where things are limited and under control. Putting one’s batters in a particular order in baseball, for example, if simply playing the odds, and that’s with only a few people, and simple actions going on.

In the political world, the most important rule is that stuff happens. If you hold the power, you have more decision-making ability than if you don’t.

22

Albert Saur 05.16.06 at 7:38 pm

I agree with most of you about Hillary Clinton. I think she would be a good President, but I don’t think she can be elected. People that like her, like many of us, are not passionate about her. People that dislike her are passionate about their hatred. It’s the negative passion that would defeat her.

23

harry b 05.18.06 at 11:27 am

barry — I agree with you. So, the issue is, who holds the power. It would be odd for a party sincerely to hope to lose elections in this game-playing way. But the left doesn’t have a party. So it is always playing a lesser evil game; whoever wins we don’t have power, so we have to make calculations about what is in the medium-to-long run better for us, and if we think victory now for one of those parties is sufficiently likely to be sufficiently better we put some efort into making it happen. My judgment about Clinton in ’92 was that it wasn’t, and that was before finding out what the worst evils of his victory would be. I’m convinced I was right. I say that as someone who thinks he has been wrong about quite a lot of things over time (both matters of principle and political calculations).

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