Chait vs. Sullivan: The case for rants.
The current dogfight between New Republic's Jonathan Chait and veteran political blogger Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic (and former editor of New Republic, as luck would have it), is worth a boo for the ostenible topic at hand - the assessment that each has of Middle East geopolitics.
I find it even more worthwhile as a debate between highly evolved intellects, regardless of the topic. I'm interested in the tools they use - logic, genuine compliments, backhanded compliments, sophistry, both cool and impassioned rhetoric. These two combatants are pretty close to emptying the toolbox.
The current entertaining spectacle brings to mind a similar fight between Sullivan and Eric Alterman early in the previous decade. That was an extended take-no-prisoners war of words between a then pro-Iraq-war Sullivan (now a relapsed progressive who considers the Iraq misadventure the height of folly) and an anti-war Alterman whose greatest gift in his young career has been his detailed exposure of the dangerous banality and intellectual laziness of the MSM "punditocracy," a term I believe Eric coined, in two important books, Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1999), and What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003).
For me, the assertions made by Chait and Sullivan that the other party doesn't understand Mideast political sensibilities is a sideshow. (No one does, or soon will - so much of it is underpinned by pride, anger and irrationality.) What does interest me is the weapons of choice in this as in any debate, when each debater is at the top of his or her considerable form.
Chait has struck a patronizing tone in this current argument, and Sullivan one of personal hurt and remorse if it should be that he has misrepresented any expert whose works he has cited in his writing on the Mideast over the years. (Having been exactly wrong on Iraq, Sullivan has learned first-hand the virtues of humility. Which for me, at least, gives his arguments that much more authority.)
I use this post to highlight just one of the debate weapons, the pointing out of inconsistency and possibly hypocrisy. It was a mistake for Chait to find Sullivan lacking in restrained commentary in their current set-to. Sullivan, a blogger non-stop since 1990, has a keen memory. He promptly unearthed this gem of unrestrained commentary written by one Jonathan Chait in New Republic back on March 15, 2004, under the headline "The Case For Bush Hatred: Mad About You":
I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history. And, while I'm tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too. I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility (disguised behind transparently false modesty) at having done so. His favorite answer to the question of nepotism--"I inherited half my father's friends and all his enemies"--conveys the laughable implication that his birth bestowed more disadvantage than advantage. He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school--the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks--shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo. I hate the way he talks--blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him. I hate his lame nickname-bestowing-- a way to establish one's social superiority beneath a veneer of chumminess (does anybody give their boss a nickname without his consent?). And, while most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.
Chait ends this essay candidly describing it as a "rant." Occasions sometimes call for rants, and this was one such, about which Chait need offer no apology. Bush had just committed the biggest American foreign-policy blunder in modern history. But accusing Andy of having a weakness for rants without disclosing one's own indulgence in that most satisfying of exercises obviously backfired.
If you take Duyba whole, we're compelled to acknowledge the unprecedented $5 billion in African HIV/AIDS relief that Bush got through a reluctant G.O.P.-controlled Congress; a No Child Left Behind initiative which, if underfunded and simplistic in many particulars, was an overdue intervention to arrest declining U.S. educational standards (and found its Senate champion in Edward M. Kennedy); a Katrina disaster in which the then-Democrat governor of Louisana and Democratic mayor of New Orleans were actually more culpable than Bush, for all the agreed-upon federal failings; and a remarkably seamless transition between Bush and Obama that was insisted upon by Bush, and initiated by Dubya even before Election Day in 2008.
Still, Bush was a terrible president, on balance, and pussyfooting around that, as the MSM did (and still do), has not served the Republic well. And so the lesson: Sometimes, nothing less than a rant will do. And if an engaged and enraged Sullivan has expressed himself in that rhetorical form - as he occasionally does now in fighting the good fight to bring Bush-era war criminals to justice - more power to him. Sullivan is not to be mistaken for a one-note ranter; if such were the case he wouldn't merit your attention, as I believe he does.
So does the estimable Chait. But Chait too often is the voice of irony, a hallmark of the New Yorker in its supposed golden era under editor William Shawn. At least one brave soul during that time aptly described the New Yorker's softly-softly ironic tone as the voice of "people who care, but not enough to do anything about it." On some issues, the stakes are too high to indulge in irony.
America currently has a president with an acute appreciation of irony. Progressives, especially, would appreciate at least one full-bodied rant from Obama before 2012.