(Or, Blogger vs. Blogger, with Me in the Middle)
I hate it when bloggers I enjoy reading get into a fight. Last week when I went on my break, I recommended Tom Spencer’s blog for his thorough, ongoing coverage (and critique) of the administration’s rhetoric toward Iraq. Armed Liberal, whose blog I've read and respected for some time now, followed my link to Tom's site, wasn't impressed, and said so at some length. Tom replied in A.L.'s comments and on his own site, and A.L. appended some additional observations to his original post. A.L. also asked, "And Jeff – what the hell are you thinking?"
I should probably let this go, but at the risk of further annoying Tom and A.L. (and because other bloggers, like Ted Barlow, are standing on the edges of the fray), I'll offer some thoughts. First (and I'm sorry to say this, Tom), the post that A.L. quotes is not Tom's finest work. The rapid-fire series of links are accompanied by text that, while grounded in what I think are fair observations, is nevertheless rather over the top, laden with heavy-handed sarcasm. To consider just the first of the comments that A.L. quotes: there are certainly grounds to think that the administration has manipulated the timing and content of its push against Iraq so as to improve the Republicans' chances in the fall elections. The fact that, after weeks of pushing for immediate action on a congressional resolution, the president left Washington almost immediately after the vote for two weeks on the campaign trail suggests that maybe, just maybe, the need for immediate action wasn't quite as urgent as the president suggested. But the flip way in which Tom suggests the next step in a wag-the-dog sequence isn't calculated to appeal to any but the most dedicated partisans.
Second, despite the above, A.L. isn't entirely fair to Tom. By quoting Tom's text without including Tom's links, A.L. effectively removes Tom's comments from their context, making them seem simply like the meandering observations of an unfocused mind—you know, the kind of thing Larry King used to do in his USA Today column. A.L. also makes the mistake of judging Tom's blog from a single post. But bloggers, even the best bloggers, sometimes write bad posts. I certainly have. We’re busy people who make our living by means other than blogging; what we write isn't always (or even frequently) going to be the most polished, fully-considered text around. Tom's been busy grading papers, a task that is bound to make anyone extremely grouchy (it usually leaves me questioning the meaning of my existence), and maybe a bad mood affected his writing. Maybe he was in a hurry. Who knows? But having read Tom's blog for a couple of months now, I feel confident in saying that, whatever the failings of the particular post to which A.L. linked, Tom's a sharp guy whose observations are usually worth reading.
A.L. focuses not merely on the individual deficiencies he finds in Tom's post but on a bigger picture as well, one that goes to the decay in politics as it is practiced in this country. He writes:
[I]t conveniently ignores the culpability of his team (sadly, it’s mine as well) in looting the public purse, and building Sky Boxes to keep the unwashed at bay. We are in an era when the entrenched political classes have sold their souls to powerful monied interests, to the clear detriment of the average American. From top to bottom, good people go into the system and venal functionaries rise to the top.
As long as each party can blow enough smoke at the other guys as the cascade of scandal unfolds, they have some prayer that their own venality, self-interest, and corruption will get overlooked. Because I’m a liberal, I’m supposed to overlook the sins of ‘my guys’ and put a magnifying glass to the sins of the ‘other team’. Well, [&$#@] it. They’re all sinners, and until enough of us are willing to stand up and point to the dirt on our hems, this problem isn’t going to go away.
Now, I don't really disagree with this. Our political system is a mess, with both of the major parties unresponsive in important ways to the needs and desires of the populace. Neither party is the sole repository of all that is true and light and good, just as neither party has a monopoly on venality and cynical manipulation of the media and the public, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. I've written critically of Democrats before, and I'm sure I will again.
On the other hand, timing matters. We're now less than two weeks from an important and closely-fought election, one that will determine control of both houses of Congress as well as of statehouses across the nation. It's inevitable that, as election day draws nearer, partisanship is going to increase (things got so bad in the comments sections at MyDD that J. B. Armstrong decided to turn off the comments feature until after the election). At a time like this, I think it's unrealistic to expect that people are going to engage in extensive criticism of those who fall, roughly speaking, on their side of the political divide. There are lots of things that I'd like to see from Democrats that I don't see now, and there are some Democratic positions and conduct from some Democratic politicians that I don't regard with favor. But at this point it's too late to change anything before the election—we're stuck with the candidates we have, and if a Democratic commentator is reluctant to criticize the flaws in a Democratic candidate for fear of assisting the campaign of an even worse Republican, I'm not going to throw stones. As Jonathan Chait's review of Ralph Nader's campaign biography in the American Prospect effectively demonstrates, in politics as in so many other things the perfect is the enemy of the good, or, if you insist, the less bad (not that Nader represented the perfect, or even the good, in 2000). At this point, I'm much more concerned with keeping control of the Senate than I am with reforming the Democratic Party; as far as I'm concerned, we can return to that long-term project two weeks from today.
One comment on cheerleading: A.L. is right that the kind of partisan rhetoric he criticizes is unlikely to persuade. But I think it still has a place. Maybe A.L's and my perspectives on this are shaped by our surroundings. A.L. lives in California, where Democrats dominate the state government, and where one of the few good things that can be said of the incumbent governor is that he is marginally better than his bumbling opponent. Democrats in California are not embattled, for the most part, so it's easier to focus on their flaws (especially with someone like Gray Davis around). On the other hand, I live in a conservative area; although Indianapolis has a Democratic mayor and Indiana has a Democratic governor, political discourse here is dominated by Republicans. The town, county, and congressional district where I live is so dominated by the Republican Party that the Democrats usually don't even bother fielding candidates. Most of the political rhetoric I encounter around here consists of Republican cheerleading. So, frankly, sometimes I need a good dose of something like Atrios to help keep my spirits up.
Update: Tom Spencer has written a gracious response to this post.