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May 10, 2007

Truth and the Blogs

My long-promised reply to Jon Chait's netroots article is up at TNR today, and I hope folks read it.* It's really about quite a bit more than his piece, and I'm very happy with how it turned out. I'm less pleased with Jon's response, which seems a studied attempt to distort my argument and decontextualize my points. For instance, he writes that "[Klein says] I provided no examples. This is just weird. I wrote about the hysterical treatment of liberal heretics, the propagandistic use of the epithet "chickenhawk" to dismiss any and all critics, and the attack on Salon for reporting fairly on the Edwards blogger fiasco." Sadly, my charge was that he doesn't buttress his claim that "In the netroots, the measure of an idea is its rhetorical effectiveness, not its truth." None of those examples prove his point in the least. Jon ideologically dislikes the term "chickenhawk," thinks people should be nicer to his magazine, and is confused by what went on during the Edwards story (which I actually reported on through that night). None of his examples contain a lie. If they're the best Jon could furnish, his argument is weak indeed.

To keep this from becoming too long, I'll jump to Jon's close, where Jon concludes that I'm making an "ultra-relativist" argument, which states that "We all have our biases, none of us is pure, so there's no real way to say who's the propagandist." I expect stronger ripostes from Jon, particularly when my piece contains the following nut graf:

To varying degrees, we all take instrumental attitudes toward the truth. The press does not report truths at random (you don't watch the 9 o'clock news to learn about how plants photosynthesize, whether turpentine sales are flat this year, and whether someone just named a baby girl "Mary"). The truths they tell exist in an uneasy tension between what they define as "newsworthy," what will attract the largest audience (white girl kidnapped in Aruba!), what will give them a relative advantage over their competitors, what will preserve their reputations for objectivity, what won't offend their advertisers, what won't get them hassled by Brent Bozell, and so on. Lefty bloggers, who believe their vision of the world--Iraq is going poorly, Social Security is not in crisis, Bush is very bad--is true, tend to offer the truths they find informational, which also happen to accord with their vision of the world. So the question is not who has a purer commitment to the truth, but whose guiding impulses are doing more to accurately inform their audiences. In other words, whose instrumentalism is better?

Jon doesn't want to argue the substantive point here because it's an argument he and his magazine simply cannot win. I don't fault him for that, of course, but it's rather the opposite of "there's no real way to say who's the propagandist." Indeed, reading Jon's attempt to spin away my points, one might conclude that his arguments were motivated more by a desire for "rhetorical effectiveness" than "truth."

Welcome to the blogosphere, Jon!

*The added bonus of the article is that it includes the backstory to my name. Since this will surely be a pub trivia mainstay well into the future, you may want to take a look. (And for those having password troubles, Fred has advice in the comments)

May 10, 2007 | Permalink


Do you really want to have your byline in the New Republic?

Posted by: Marshall | May 10, 2007 11:00:41 AM

I'm a writer. I like having my byline everywhere.

Posted by: Ezra | May 10, 2007 11:07:17 AM

Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I figured here would be a good place to ask: I'm doing some research on health insurance and was wondering if anyone knows a good source of data for health insurance participation rates in different countries? Thanks.

Posted by: Peter | May 10, 2007 11:37:34 AM

Here is a username and password for the convenience of your readers who wish to access the TNR article referenced.

Username: usuck
Password: usuck

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 10, 2007 11:44:31 AM

The magazine has editorially opposed Social Security privatization, and it has published numerous articles criticizing the notion, dating back to a time when opposing privatization outright was considered irresponsibly liberal. -Chait

"irresponsibly liberal"
Speaks volumes about the objectivity of the TNR view of liberal policy ideas. He’s condescending towards the left in the middle of a sentence about TNR supporting lift wing ideas.

Posted by: ChrisB | May 10, 2007 11:45:46 AM

Fred, Thanks.

Posted by: eriks | May 10, 2007 11:51:42 AM

I think it's right that 1998 was the real starting point, but I think y'all really underestimate the 2000 selection as the spark.

You have to remember that in the early stages, it was only a handful of people who knew or had a friend who knew HTML who could do much with the net. There were a small number of liberal sites that had an extraordinary number of readers and participants (Bartcop, MWO, Salon) and a handful of political bloggers, many of whom were writing their own code.

The numbers of readers and forum participants exploded after the Selection, and there was an enormous intensity of people wanting to Do Something. I was one of the people who figured out how to use my webspace and write my own code. Then Blogger picked up and I passed the address on to Atrios and told him he needed to start a blog.

The availability of blogging software was what made the real difference for a lot of people, but we'd all been wanting to do something long before March of 2002. And lots of us were.

Posted by: Avedon | May 10, 2007 12:15:04 PM

Ezra, nice try taking Chait seriously. Me, I doubt I'd be unable to resist the temptation to mention his strawman self-immolation of "Bush hatred" (a bullshit boogeyman of the right during the 2004 campaign) and, even worse in terms of understanding "the netroots" or anything to the left of Joe Lieberman Weekly, his "Dean-o-phobe" blog for TNR.

I can't read Chait's views on "the netroots" without thinking of the Dean-o-phobe thing especially, and I can't believe he's writing in anything resembling good faith as long as that lingers out there without any effort on his part to explain or assimilate it into his analysis.

Posted by: Chris | May 10, 2007 12:21:17 PM

Are you saying Ezra Klein is a pseudonym? Was I supposed to know that?

Posted by: Steve | May 10, 2007 12:22:32 PM

Of course, it's CHAIT who's the relativist, as when he writes:

"Klein wants to turn the whole discussion into an argument about which side was "right." Of course, there's no such thing. I am not arguing that there is some single Truth....What I'm arguing is that there's such a thing as the truth as an individual sees it."

Posted by: Jay Gold | May 10, 2007 12:37:35 PM

Nope -- Ezra Klein is my real name, but there's a story behind it.

Posted by: Ezra | May 10, 2007 12:56:41 PM

It was a great piece Ezra. You are corect when you write "I'm less pleased with Jon's response, which seems a studied attempt to distort my argument and decontextualize my points."

Good job.

Posted by: Armando | May 10, 2007 1:05:42 PM

Chiat still comes across as speaking from the dias to the unwashed hordes kept safely from the good people in the box seats and dias by that burgundy cordon (being policed by the 'security' guys with lumps in thier jackets and bullying in their hearts).

Maybe TNR sees itself as the New York magazine of politics?

"Condescension in the defense of privilege and propriety is no evil!"

I don't think I'd enjoy having a beer with Chiat - if he ever deigned to mix with the dirty rabble (and I doubt he's ever had any beverage so populist as beer, anyway).

Did you all notice that Chiat's TNR responses warned us at the top that this was the 'final' word on this topic?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 10, 2007 1:22:43 PM

The first comment is on point. Atrios calls it navel-gazing and there's something to that. Really, who cares about TNR or reads it?

You like your byline everywhere? Try your local PTA newsletter, because it's at about the same level of relevance for many of your would-be readers.

Posted by: MikeB | May 10, 2007 1:24:14 PM

Ezra, I'm consistently dense when attempting to understand these allusive memes such as your name stemming from Joe Klein or Project Ezra. Am I supposed to take it that you are, in fact, named after Project Ezra, or was that an ironic statement? Please be explicit for dopes like me.

Posted by: Marshall | May 10, 2007 1:32:33 PM

I've got say I think Chait has the better argument here. The core of the original piece is the drawn equivalence between the liberal blogosphere and the counterpart conservative movement which they seek to emulate. This is a substantively correct observation. Insofar as the liberal blogosphere wants to be part of a movement--and who can dispute that they do?--there will always be a certain pressure there. It's the pressure to conform, to be partisan, to be activist, and to win. Chait has never said that the blogosphere generally participates in lies, or untruths. But spin? Advocacy? Groupthink? Of course. Those are useful tools for any movement; indeed, they are necessary ones.

I would also note that Chait draws the distinction between the "netroots" and the "wonkosphere," a distinction which he apparently invented and isn't very good. Nevertheless, the difference between a pure advocacy blog like Daily Kos and an intellectual blog like TAPPED or this site is pretty huge. Chait's original piece focuses outside attention on the Daily Kos or the "netroots" side of things, so it's no surprise that he ends up sayings things like "establishing the truth about an idea matters less than phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way and repeating it as much as possible." Visit Daily Kos any day, and this is self-evidently true. Obviously Ezra Klein's detailed musings on health care policy would not fall into that category, but Chait doesn't make that assertion.

I dont think Chait's reply to your piece can be dismissed as "spin" either. He says: "Can [Ezra Klein] not see the difference between someone who is trying to describe the world as he sees it, regardless of where his argument leads him, and somebody who is trying to create a message that will advance liberal politics?" You seem to be saying that, because there are all sorts of truths, the important thing is "whose guiding impulses are doing more to accurately inform their audiences." But is that the case? Are there really no tradeoffs involved here, is it really just that one approach is flat-out better than another approach?

I don't believe that things are that simple. To put the point to it, the liberal blogosphere is better than TNR in some ways and worse than others, and vice versa. Each has a different approach to politics and serve different functions. Though perhaps one is vastly more important than the other... the conservative movement is being duplicated on the left, and the battle is joined at last.

Posted by: Korha | May 10, 2007 1:40:10 PM

And of course TPM started in the middle of the recount fiasco. But even JMM didn't come to jesus on iraq until late in the pre-war cycle (like others in the wonkosphere, including Yglesias).

Posted by: dbt | May 10, 2007 1:48:30 PM

Long time reader, first time commenter.

I can't speak for anyone else, but one thing that helped move me towards the liberal blogosphere was Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign. In 2000, I had endless conversations with smart people who care deeply about this country and the world about whether voting for Nader was an ok thing to do. The people I talked to were generally more informed about actual policy issues, and international affairs than I was. They were people who work in schools, and in low income communities, and in international human rights organizations, and they supported Ralph Nader. I was, and remain, convinced that Nader's campaign was disastrous, but I found myself having to defend the democratic party from some totally reasonable and strong attacks. My friends (and family) said that the democrats were so closely aligned with the interests of corporations and rich people that democrats were not worth voting for. I didn't believe that in 2000, and I tried to get Gore elected, but those conversations I had with Nader supporters were convincing, and they presented lots of damning evidence that pretty well convinced me that if I was going to keep supporting democrats, I was going to need to make some effort to counteract the corporate love affair they had going on.

Of course, as I write this, i realize that I am a person whose politics have always been to the left of mainstream democrats -- my parents were to the left of mainstream democrats, and so were my grandparents, and all of my friends and all of their friends. But, before Nader conversations started happening, I assumed that our little pocket of Philadelphia was just the most liberal place on earth and we always would be in the minority.
I just wanted to add that little reference to Nader, because that mattered quite a bit for me, even though, in some ways it strikes me as absurd to have these detailed conversations with Jon Chait about who cares about facts, who's meaner to opponents, etc. My political views are to the left of his, not based on some knee-jerk lunacy on my part or on his, but based on some combination of my values, my understanding of the facts in the world, and my judgements about the probable outcomes of various policy options. So, I read liberal blogs because it's more interesting to read things written by people who tend to share my values and judgements than it is to read things written by people with other values and judgements.
There are intellectually honest (and dishonest) people almost across the political spectrum (though it seems like honesty matters less on the right). But, now there are just more voices to the left of the spectrum, and those voices represent a huge number of people who were being very badly represented before.

hmm. work interruption, and now my thought has trailed off . back to work for me.

Posted by: Laurie | May 10, 2007 1:57:00 PM

Then Blogger picked up and I passed the address on to Atrios and told him he needed to start a blog.

Not just Blogger, but Blogspot: free hosting made a difference, and I think it created a 'second wave' that distinguished the earliest tech-oriented proto-bloggers and Blogger users (who had web skills and access to hosting) from the political bloggers who came out of forums such as Salon's Table Talk, or the rudimentary comments system offered by MWO.

[Anyone remember Warblogger Watch? It was a rude, crude group blog that was among the first to attack the wave of post-9/11 armchair generals and saber-rattlers head on. Also, Roy Edroso's Crank Watch.]

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | May 10, 2007 2:22:06 PM

The Democratic party and the liberal media reacted to the 2000 election as if it were politics as usual -- donkeys and elephants. A great many people had an uneasy sense that it was something very different: the beginning of an effort to turn the US into a totalitarian one-party state. We could see that the election had been stolen, and that the techniques for the the theft had been blessed by the Supreme Court, yet the press and the Democratic Party acted as if nothing unusual had happened. The Then the lies that led us into Iraq made that uneasy sense a clear reality. Yet the Democratic Party and the media continued to behave as if we were in the middle of just another election cycle.

The effort to impose totalitarian rule on our country has not been defeated. But two institutions have managed to function well enough to derail it, perhaps. The first is the existence of an independent criminal justice system peopled with honest prosecutors. Without Ronnie Earle in Texas, who brought Tom Delay down, the House and probably the Senate would still be in Republican hands. Continuing with Patrick Fitzgerald, whose conviction of Scooter Libbey revealed the corruption at the heart of the Iraq Was and not incidentally struck fear into the hearts of every mid-level political appointee in the Justice department, and including the honest prosecutors who would not bring unfounded vote fraud cases in order to steal the 2006 election, the tradition of independent and honest prosectors may have saved democracy.

The second is the netroots. The press reaction to the prosecutor scandal was that of Jay Carney at Time magazine: a minor mishandled personnel matter. Without the hard work of independent bloggers like Josh Marshall, there would have been no investigation. By the 2008 election, crooked prosecutors would have occupied US Attorney's office and even the possibility of free elections would have been lost for a generation, at least.

Chait understands none of this. He writes as if we were not in the throes of the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. He thinks we are talking about political differences. He does not understand that the continued existence of democracy is at stake.

Posted by: bloix | May 10, 2007 2:25:28 PM

Yeah, once you draw the distinction between the netroots and the wonkosphere, Chait is right. That's why I only read blogs in the wonkosphere, like this one and particularly Glenn Greenwald. The cheerleading and groupthink on the netroots blogs isn't any better when it's coming from a leftwing source than when it's coming from a rightwing source. Both kind of insult my intelligence.

Posted by: spike | May 10, 2007 2:38:59 PM

Indeed, how dare our supposed friends make quarter with the enemy? They critcize extremism, but is this not the time for extremism? Is this not the great struggle of our era? Let all hear the clarion call: the continued existence of democracy is at stake!

If you are not with us, then you are against us.

Posted by: Korha | May 10, 2007 2:39:40 PM

The problem is whether one is talking extreme or not. If you assume that anything left of where politics has been going in the US is extreme then by that definitione even the guy recently elected in France is "extremely" leftist because the definition is dependent on what an extreme right position defines as extreme. That to me is the bizzareness of such commentary. There is a such thing as the extreme left, it doesn't exist in the US. That folks are unable to see this is truly scary to me because it means the Jedi mind tricks have truly done their number on many so-called smart people.

Posted by: akaison | May 10, 2007 2:47:55 PM

I was really named after the non-profit Project Ezra.

Posted by: Ezra | May 10, 2007 2:49:10 PM

By the way- if you want an idea of extreme left think communism or socialism- can anyone with a straight face claims that our system or anyone seeking power in it is even remotely in that space?

Posted by: akaison | May 10, 2007 2:51:08 PM

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