A Small Good Thing

A little words-collide moment: Conor Friedersdorf, whose substitute blogging for Andrew Sullivan I’ve become a little obsessed with the past few weeks, points approvingly to a post about “Ulysses” by Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College professor who co-advised my senior independent study about irony in presidential rhetoric. (Got all that?)

Friedersdorf is exactly the kind of moderate conservative I’m a total sucker for. This should be a surprise to no one who knows about my David Brooks superfandom. (DAVID, IF YOU’RE READING THIS, I WAS IN THE 6TH ROW OF YOUR TALK AT THE 92ND STREET Y LAST YEAR! EXACTLY 50 FEET AWAY, JUST LIKE YOU REQUESTED!!!)

Anyway, here’s a recent post on Friedersdorf’s unexpectedly positive exchange with a fan of the far-right-wing talk-radio host Mark Levin, whose abrasive style he’s taken issue with in the past. Friedersdorf’s take is both tough-minded and charitable:

In Defense of Talk Radio Listeners,” August 18

UPDATE: And here are three more great posts I can get behind. Impressively, they were all posted today.
Two Mobs, A Stabbing, and An Arson
Stating the Obvious
The Folly of Needless Alcohol Laws

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3 responses to “A Small Good Thing

  1. I found that Friedersdorf piece tough to get through.

    It feels like so much discourse about discourse about discourse. And I hate the word “discourse,” but that’s what the Friedersdorf piece is about: statements about statements. About statements.

    And I’m not sure I understand what his point is. Those (who? he says it’s liberals and conservatives, but it really sounds like just liberals) who chalk up all brash web commenters and talk-radio-listeners to knuckle-draggers (is that what we’re saying?) need to understand that there are people behind those comments too (who doesn’t think that? and isn’t that exactly the problem?). And those people have more nuanced opinions (which – about discourse?) than they normally let on. And even though they perpetuate a certain form of public discourse that’s corrosive, they’re not unaware of the problem of corrosiveness (isn’t that worse??). About discourse (oh). Content of positions aside.

    While I know Friedersdorf isn’t trying to make some slam-dunk case here, I still find this to be a weird, rather vacuous notion of moderation and even-handedness that, increasingly, conservatives seem to want to embrace.

    Exhibit A: Ross Douthat on gays and Muslims. In his two latest pieces in the Times, Douthat sallies forth as the modern-day Erasmus with his David Brooks hat on, prepared to tell us how the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who think the gay-marriage/mosque debate is all about x (charitable articulation of progressive position) and those who think it’s about y (remarkably critical articulation of conservative position). And just as you’re excited to see the positions so evenly, so carefully weighed en utrumque partem – expecting a third term to be introduced that rounds out the conversation – Douthat’s argument is: yes, but there is something fundamentally essential about y, no matter how corrosive it may seem. Traditional heterosexual marriage is a great Western idea that just works! Anglo-Protestant xenophobes built America by speeding up the assimilation of dirty immigrants! Yes, but position “y” just does it so _well_.

    That’s not moderation. It’s a vacuous appeal to even-handedness, masking conservative claims to essentialism that brook no disagreement (because they are, of course, always, fundamentally true) while holding out the liberal palm of discourse: see, look how well I talk.

    I guess I just don’t see how Friedersdorf gives us anything more than that, even if he rejects the corrosiveness itself.

  2. Hmm, maybe that post wasn’t the best one to link to, since there are so many embedded links that branch out to other wings of this ongoing feud he has with Mark Levin. It IS discourse about discourse, I suppose, but I don’t really have much of a problem with that in this case, since it’s not his whole project. It’s just an example.

    The thing I liked about this particular post was that Friedersdorf: A) publicly took on a popular pundit who’s nominally on the same side of the fence, B) did so with an uncommonly deep level of sympathy for Levin’s followers. Maybe you see that as simple kowtowing, and it may not be the most profound conclusion in the world, but it’s not something the world needs *less* of right now. I’m not as dismissive of the project of rejecting corrosiveness as you are. And his analysis of how otherwise civil, intelligent people get drawn into ugly rhetoric was sensitive and smart.

    Another point: You write of the “rather vacuous notion of moderation and even-handedness that, increasingly, conservatives seem to want to embrace.” Which conservatives? The right doesn’t get accused of being overly even-handed too often these days. Are you just talking about the moderate right? And anyway, couldn’t Obama’s campaign rhetoric be described the exact same way? Could it possibly just be that moderates on the left and the right both want to embrace, well, moderation?

    Finally: I HATED those two Douthat columns with the fire of a thousand suns. I don’t think Friedersdorf is making the same mistakes.

  3. Ruth,

    I totally knew you hated those Douthat columns with the fire of a thousand suns. I imagined you stabbing the New York Times with a bottle of Cholula sauce, and then eating scrambled eggs off it.

    Re. the Obama campaign: absolutely. Those were the complaints of Clinton’s supporters, and I guess I’d just say they had a point. I wonder if the political climate would be less corrosive if we had a more clearly ideologically driven president.

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