Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tony Blankley, Civility and the State of Political Discourse

English-born conservative political commentator, former Newt Gingrich press secretary and former child actor Tony Blankley died of stomach cancer on January 7th, 2010, at the age of 63.

I'll modify what I wrote elsewhere. I was sorry to hear this. Blankley was a regular on Left, Right and Center (produced by one of my local NPR stations, KCRW) and I heard him often. He was more moderate there than in his columns, which could be fire-breathing screeds against the supposedly encroaching socialism of centrist Democrats. He marketed himself as a "reasonable conservative" for the NPR/PBS set just as Davids Brooks and Frum do, and was similarly a champion of the aristocracy and apologist for the crimes of the Republican Party. He was a despicable hack most of the time, but he put more craft into his propaganda than many of his fellows. Additionally, Blankley was much more paid shill than true believer, and would have been a bearable dinner companion. (I'd prefer dinner with friends and/or well-informed liberals, but I'd certainly pick Blankley over Rick Santorum or Mary Matalin.) Most importantly, every now and then Blankley would be honest or gracious, at least on a personal level. Regardless of Blankley's political work, stomach cancer reportedly can be a painful way to go, and I hope Blankley and his loved ones were spared the worst. Dying, and losing someone, are never easy.

The Left, Right and Center thread for the most recent show when the news broke filled with messages of condolence, most from people who disagreed with Tony's politics. The following show (1/13/12) started with an appreciation of Blankley, and its thread also full of comments on Blankley.

It may seem I'm damning Blankley with faint praise, and I can't object strongly to that characterization. However, it's possible to express human compassion for Blankley and those who cared for him, yet also critique what he did in his public life. (I felt similarly about Tony Snow, who dissembled for a living, but also left behind a wife and two young children.) Obviously, there's a time and place for this; the admonition against speaking ill of the dead makes sense at a funeral. However, honest accountings should have their place as well. Blue Gal both expressed her condolences and also quoted one of Blankley's scurrilous attacks on the Occupy movement. Blankley made many such attacks – on several occasions, he said he liked that America was not as class-conscious as Britain. His loyalty was firmly with the aristocracy, who he wanted to stay in power. Basically, he was a Tory (like fellow Brit Andrew Sullivan; David Brooks is essentially the American version). Jimmy Dore, near the end of his show on 1/12/12, denounced Blankley accurately as someone who lied for money. I have to agree, and dissected Blankley in some previous pieces. Politically, he caused far more harm than he did good.

Perhaps most of this post would be better suited for a separate piece, but Blankley's death and the discussions about him have had me pondering ideas I've been kicking around for a long time. I've found myself wondering whether a Blankley is preferable to other breeds of conservative pundit, all of which ties into the general notion of "civility." I'm firmly in the "honesty over civility" and "accuracy over politeness" camps. Civility has its place, but it is of secondary value to truth. The Civility of Aristocratic Propriety and Privilege is a way to insulate the ruling class and their courtiers from legitimate and essential criticism. As explored in Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" – although the notion is radical to many in the chattering class – actual policies affect real people and do matter. When one policy is significantly better or worse than another, especially when increased human suffering is a consequence of one of those choices, policy debates and pundit blather is not just a game. The notion that two pundits clock in to do battle "civilly" and then are chummy afterwards works decently between pundits who agree on a general social contract and the notion of responsible governance. However, anyone who's seriously followed politics at any point in the past thirty or so years knows that the conservative movement (almost all Republican political figures, and some Democrats) reject those two precepts (often utterly, sometime viciously). The "ideal" rules of discourse break down in the face of this, and the happy centrist illusion cannot hold. Honest discussion will necessarily be harsher because one side's policies are themselves harsh, or even... "uncivil," toward the basic dignity and value of their fellow Americans and humans (who they view as lesser beings).

Hey, I'm going to call you a socialist after the break. Where do you want to drink after the show?

Remember, Alan, you're the Washington Generals here. You're supposed to lose.

It's the Yuppie Nuremberg defense: I've got a mortgage to pay.

There's an argument to be made that the hacks who market themselves as "reasonable conservatives" to the NPR/PBS set do more harm than their more rabid fellow travelers. I agree that this is generally the case when it comes to low-information voters and (what shall we call them?) those "middle information" voters so desperate to believe in a mythical moderate or centrist salvation they will deny how insane the Republican Party and American conservatism have become. However, if you read the comments about Tony Blankley at the KCRW site, most of the liberals leaving condolences were able to disagree with Blankley politically or essentially call bullshit while still expressing human compassion for him as a person. It comes with the bleeding hearts, I guess (although Blankley, to his credit, had enough personal class he would have shown similar consideration to his more liberal colleagues).

The counterargument to the "reasonable conservatives" doing-more-harm position ties into an "Overton window" view of politics, where the contours of acceptable discourse are pushed in various directions (especially to the left and the right). In this view, letting Mary Matalin engage in McCarthyist attacks on liberals as traitors on Left, Right and Center (and she did something close to that in one appearance) is much worse than having Blankley on. I tend towards this view, despite my concerns about, and commitment to, challenging "reasonable conservatives" as well. Matalin might be so extreme that she turns off even those middle information voters (an inadvertent good), but I believe (and many other listeners agreed) she was so extreme and vicious she hijacked and effectively destroyed the show altogether. Perhaps this is more a matter of overall editorial judgment, and where one draws the line on acceptable guests, but regardless, featuring (and thus validating) a belligerent extremist undermines the whole enterprise of engaging in discussion in the first place.

This highlights a far deeper problem: it's nearly impossible (on the pundit level) to find an honest conservative in the first place – certainly one who still identifies as Republican and advocates for them – someone who will honestly state his or her views and acknowledge the probable consequences of enacting Republican policies. Most of the "honest conservatives" one could point to (Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Bacevich, Susan Eisenhower) have left the Republican Party. As we've explored many times before, large numbers of self-identified conservatives believe things that are simply not factually true, and they believe these things because their leaders lie to them. (As we’ve noted before, while the Democrats sure ain't perfect, the parties are not remotely equivalent in this respect.) Conservative guests lie in large part out of necessity, because their policies are often awful and favor a select few (normally those who are already the most privileged). They lie so frequently and deeply because they cannot possibly win an argument on the merits.

This is a serious issue for any program that purports to hear from "both sides," especially when those "sides" are defined by political party (and realistically, the political movements driving them). For instance, you could get a good discussion on economics with Bruce Bartlett representing the more conservative (but still reality-based) view and Paul Krugman representing the more liberal view. However, while Bartlett may be a fine guest on economic matters, movement conservatives and Republican officials have moved so far to the right that they view Bartlett as an apostate, and really, none of them share any of his views – to any degree. He may have fine ideas – and he does – but no one in his home party will heed them. Consequently, if the political discussion is centered on the political parties, their power, positions and likely actions versus the merits of various policy positions, it's not likely Bartlett will be booked (certainly not as the only "conservative"). The same goes for most issues. Take global warming – a merit-based discussion will focus on facts and invite experts and knowledgeable, honest lay people to participate, who will discuss various solutions. However, a politically-determined guest roster will undoubtedly include someone who denies that global warming is occurring at all (or denies its extent, or that it's man-made, etc.), and the only real mystery is whether they hold those positions out of proud, hard-won ignorance or due to a fat paycheck (or some mix).

Furthermore, how do we define "conservative" anyway? As Corey Robin points out, "conservatism" has always been reactionary in nature, and thus mutable in terms of actual positions or details. At some point, "conservatism" represents not some older, less destructive manifestation of the term, but what the overwhelming majority of self-described conservatives say it does. That's not to mention that that supposedly less destructive, more pure strain of conservatism was almost always much nastier than its champions would have you believe (basically, see Driftglass' entire archive on Andrew Sullivan and Davids Brooks and Frum). In this sense (and to use an old model) debating whether it's preferable to have a hack or a zealot representing the conservative side in a discussion merely points out that there are almost no honorable conservative wonks (substitute "movement conservative" or "Republican" if you really prefer).

Hacks marketing themselves as "reasonable conservatives" can definitely do a great deal of harm (David Brooks certainly does), but there is an ironic sense in which their presence is a positive sign. Blankley was almost always fighting a rearguard action against progress, trying to 'stand athwart history yelling stop.' That he had to do this meant his movement was losing (on at least some issues; some they've pretty much won). Blankley, like Brooks (and Matalin), was fond of falsely claiming that America was a center-right nation, and both Brooks and Blankley pleaded that something essential would be lost in the American spirit and congressional comity if the Affordable Care Act passed. Once they'd gotten to that stage, reduced to desperate and farcically illogical emotional appeals, it was clear they had nuthin'. None of this means that "reasonable conservatives" shouldn't be challenged; they should, and the slicker hacks can be harder to fight than the zealots. The major battle on "reasonable conservatives" is making those staying-in-my happy-place middle information voters acknowledge what scumbags these pundits really are (or at the very least, that they are wrong). Put another way, to paraphrase a line from Michael Clayton, Blankley and the other "reasonable conservatives (tm)" are 'the guys you buy.' Some are more personally and/or philosophically vile than others, but if you achieve progress despite their dissembling, they will set up a new redoubt. In one sense this dynamic is infuriating, but it also reflects that positive change can indeed be achieved despite these scoundrels. (History bears this out.) Blankley and Brooks fall in the hired-gun, hack category, while Karl Rove and Mary Matalin are hacks but also zealots. Zealots will fight to the death, but hacks try to avoid this; they are survivors and opportunists. (They are Thénardier versus Javert, knaves versus true believers or upfront villains.)

When it comes to Left, Right and Center specifically, I preferred Blankley to Matthew Continetti and definitely to the vile Mary Matalin. He was also less slimy than occasional guest David Frum, who has gotten more honest and accurate since being canned from his wingnut welfare gig at a conservative think tank, but has never fully abandoned his hackish ways (and remains a Tory, no surprise). Host Matt Miller, who describes himself as the "radical center," is very much a Beltway Establishment pundit, something of a centrism fetishist with a thing for fashionable contrarianism, often a dolt, but has his moments and is not irredeemable (for instance, he supports universal health care and more aid to the poor). Canadian Chrystia Freeland is normally pretty sensible (and the way she say "about" is charming). Besides checking out the spin and the bullshit of the week, I mainly listen for Robert Scheer. I don't always agree with Scheer, particularly on details, but he is doggedly honest and willing to criticize the Democratic Party far more sharply than Blankley or any conservative guest has ever dared to do with the Republicans (see Scheer's book The Great American Stickup, among other pieces). Scheer can be overly prickly (his colleagues sometimes goad him), but I admire his seemingly endless capacity for outrage at injustice.

On that point – bloggers, commentators and political activists who value the whole "conscientious citizen" thing come in many styles. Some excel at calm advocacy, detailed analysis and sober debunks. Some are wired for earnest outrage, while others are wired for snark and humor (at its best, true wit). Personally, sometimes I struggle with outrage fatigue; similarly, I can't always muster the detachment necessary for a satirical take, because the reality is just too appalling. That said, I think a sense of humor when dealing with assholes and Team Evil can be essential for one's mental health, and also more effective.

"Appreciating" the craft of someone's hack work while dissecting it might seem callous towards those the hack work hurts ("Cut food stamps for the poor!"), and certainly such analysis can be amoral if insightful. ("Amoral insight" is what little shits like Mark Halperin aspire to, but they only achieve the first part.) However, in the liberal blogosphere, I find that humor and wit tend to come with compassion and a moral compass (just as with serious analysis). Humor is often a coping mechanism. We may be fucked (have you noticed how insane and mean the American ruling class is?), but at least as the world burns, we can be in the company of some people we like and swap a few funny and kind words (plus pet photos). And while humor is sometimes mere consolation for the screwed and relatively powerless, it can also be an extremely effective political tool. When the problem is routine bullshit from Team Evil (which pays well), serious debunks have great value, but mockery plays better than outrage with low and middle information voters. The key reason that conservative and Establishment scolds attack The Daily Show, Colbert, and the wittier bloggers (Chuck Todd is the latest) is precisely because humor can be so effective and insightful. As Michael Palin points out:

…It is a brilliant form of subversion. And it's something I think modern revolutionaries should remember. If you can make fun of somebody, it's often very much better and far more effective than shooting them or making a martyr of them… And there's nothing [those in power] can do against it, really.

Good comedy depends on calling bullshit, while the modern political media machine depends on generating it. Even the most skilled hack or conscienceless scumbag can fall before a skilled exposé or on-target comedy.

Related to all this, I'd rather debunk the Tony Blankleys and Charles Krauthammers of the world, hired guns who at least take pride of craft in their propaganda, than tangle with the weak, incoherent flailings of Megan McArdle, the embarrassingly bad, whiny arguments of Ross Douthat, the slick disingenuousness of the significantly more malevolent Karl Rove, the cruel War-on-Compassion-Itself by Michelle Malkin and the fire-breathing right-wing base, or the gaping abyss of pure, unrelenting, nihilistic evil from the entire Cheney family and their ilk. (Your mileage may vary.) The passionate balderdash of Antonin Scalia at least shows some personality. The panache of select merry hacks at least shows a zest for life (think Nick Naylor versus the pre-conversion Scrooge). The foibles of certain hacks betray their suppressed humanity, which can, in the right circumstances, undermine their darker impulses and lead them to do good, despite of their own supposed nature and hefty paychecks. Most conservative political operatives are bought and paid for, and irredeemable, but historically, some have eventually changed their ways. Expose them, make them laugh at themselves, and make the audience laugh at their bullshit, and some of them will give up the game... or at least be forced to invent a new one. (I demand a better quality of bullshit from you, sir.) Their ultimate redemption is not something to count on at all, but playing the game that way can keep us sane, amused and effective in the meantime, and pushing the Overton window to include more humanity certainly can't hurt.


driftglass said...

Excellent as usual.
I await this being released as a major motion picture :-)

I also tend to think of the Right's Zealots and Reasonables less as two camps in 30 degree opposition to each other and more as two parts of a reciprocating engine: it is someone like Mary Matalin's job to be vile and to push the envelope as far as it will go; it is someone like David Brooks' job to sit at the Grownups Table being genteelly appalled at her, but to always conclude that maybe she had a point. And even if she does smell sulphur, I'm sure we can all agree that those Liberals are worse.

Batocchio said...

Great point, DG; they work together.

Matt Taibbi pointed out last year that Paul Ryan is the latest in a series of conservatives the Republicans trot out to see just how much crazy shit they can get away with. If it gets rejected, they distance themselves from the guy. If it plays, well then...

Then there's Bill O'Reilly. He loves two types of guests in particular – Faux News liberals who will agree with him and make him seem reasonable, and rabid far-right guests he can gently chide for going too far – and thus make him seem reasonable.

Plus, let's not forget one of your favorite chatterers and Cokie's Law: "It doesn't matter if it's true or not. It's out there."

On that note, here's Digby in 2006(!):

I've told this story before, but those of you who've heard it will just have to bear up. In the 1992 election when I was making volunteer calls for Clinton, Mary Matalin made a major gaffe she had to apologize for quite publicly. (Doesn't matter what it was.) I was riding down in the elevator with a high level political consultant (who didn't know me from Adam, of course) and I smugly mentioned that Matalin had really stepped in it. He looked at me like I was a moron and said, "she got it out there, didn't she?"