Tag Archives: the Atlantic Mafia

Worthy Adversaries

So Katha Politt unleashed a broadside last week, taking the New York Times to task for daring to replace Kristol with another conservative columnist. She also criticized Ross Douthat’s liberal admirers, many of whom had the temerity to publicly applaud his selection. A few quick thoughts:

  1. It’s a bit dishonest of Politt to not only not provide links to the articles/blog posts she’s criticizing, but to include one excerpt from an old college op-ed.
  2. Several of the blog posts Politt criticizes – on female orgasms, masturbation, gay sheep etc. – strike me as examples of the sort of unformed meandering that makes the blogosphere so interesting. Some of this stuff is stupid; some provocative; some completely pointless, but I don’t think the same rigorous standards of appraisal one might apply to, say, widely-published op-eds should be used to assess old blog entries.
  3. I was a bit disappointed by the reaction of two liberal commentators I respect and admire – Matt Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates – to Politt’s criticism. Aside from the value of sparring with a sharp adversary or filling the Times’ mandatory “conservative columnist” slot with a halfway decent writer, isn’t there something to be said for elevating a thoughtful, persuasive advocate of the other side because he might be right? One of the things that really irked me about the Politt column – and, to a lesser extent, other liberal responses – was her absolute certainty that she has nothing to learn from intelligent conservatism. Maybe this is a product of my own intellectual insecurities, but one of the reasons I enjoy reading intelligent liberal outlets is because they may be right, and moreover I’m willing to be persuaded. I wish Politt was similarly inclined.

Note: I’d comment on more weighty matters (the bank stabilization plan), but right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by the scale of the economic crisis. Arguing over the merits of the New York Times’ latest columnist seems trivial in comparison, but at least it’s something I can discuss competently.

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One of them

I was a bit perplexed by this Brad DeLong entry, which purports to criticize Ross Douthat for expressing reservations about hooking up with a girl in college:

From Ross Douthat, Privilege, bottom of p. 184:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend’s parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–“Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?” she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–“You know, I’m on the pill…”

What squicks me out is (a) that the real turnoff for Ross Douthat is that she has taken responsibility for her own fertility and gone on the pill, and (b) that Ross Douthat does not take this to be a learning moment–is not self-reflective enough to say “Hmmm… If there are other men like me who are turned off by women who take responsibility for fertility control, isn’t that likely to be a cause of more abortions?”

Combine that with what Ross Douthat’s dismissal of Belle Sawhill’s point that free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-no-hassle) birth control appears to prevent 1/5 of abortions–and there is an awful lot here not to like, and an awfully good reason to think that Tyler Cowen or Kerry Howley or Virginia Postrel or any of a large number of other candidates would be an infinitely better choice for the job.

And, of course, there is the other point: here is a Reese Witherspoon look-alike who has offered Ross Douthat the extremely precious gift of wanting to make love to him, and he writes her into his book in this way with what look to be sufficient identifying details.

Perhaps I’m misreading the excerpt DeLong highlights (I haven’t read Privilege), but it seems to me that Douthat is giving voice to a fairly common sentiment on college campuses across the country – that is, the regret and disillusionment that inevitably follow any ill-conceived hook-up. Given the context, I don’t think this is an attack on female contraception as much as it is an attempt to grapple with the problems of devaluing sexual relationships. It’s particularly ironic that DeLong refers to the encounter as a “precious gift” – I’m quite sure there’s nothing special about drunkenly fooling around in an absent parent’s bedroom.

Now, I’m not sure how I feel about all this, but I’m glad that someone out there is at least trying to grapple with these issues in an intelligent and sensitive manner. I should also mention that discussions like this one were noticeably absent from my (recent) college experience, and I don’t think any of DeLong’s proposed replacements at the Times – all writers I admire, by the way – offer a comparable cultural perspective.  A lot of people have suggested that Douthat’s brand of reformist conservatism is a bit too close to Brooks’ big government tendencies, but one of the reasons I look forward to reading his column is that it provides a platform for a brand of cultural conservatism that rarely gets mentioned in the major metropolitan dailies (much less discussed respectfully).

Over the past few years, many of the most interesting and challenging writers I’ve encountered have all shared certain socially conservative tendencies (or at least attempt to engage cultural traditionalists with some regularity). I’m not particularly religious and I don’t share a lot of their core assumptions, but I’m consistently challenged by their writing and now regret that it’s taken me so long to discover such a rich vein of argumentation. Many people, I think, would benefit from at least being exposed to this intellectual tradition, and giving a New York Times column to a smart young social conservative is a strong first step in that direction.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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The Old College Try

I’m not sure if Campus Progress dredged up Ross Douthat’s old Harvard articles as part of some misguided attempt to derail his move to the Times, but they’re fascinating reading nonetheless (via). Three quick thoughts:

1.) I shudder to think what I would have done with a newspaper column in college. My only contribution to Mary Washington’s abysmal Bullet was “Three Years of Living Dangerously,” an embarrassingly crude (if   occasionally funny) satire of sharing a room with a lacrosse jock for several semesters.

2.) Douthat matured as a writer before he matured as a thinker. That said, many of his worst rhetorical excesses – “It goes without saying that [Saddam Hussein], too, is busy trying to acquire a nuclear bomb” – wouldn’t have felt out of place in any number of mainstream conservative publications circa 2002.

3.) I liked this passage:

“[A]bsent a remarkable change in human nature, it seems unlikely the American multitudes, more concerned with ‘Survivor’ and stock options than with the details of Al Gore’s prescription drug plan, will suddenly bestir themselves, flip on CNN, and catch up on all the politics they have missed during our comfortable, decade-long Gilded Age. More likely, a sudden and artificially induced increase in voter turnout would only mean an increase in the number of ill-informed, poorly thought out and just plain stupid votes. To be blunt, most of the people who don’t vote, shouldn’t vote.”

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Cause and Effect

Jeffrey Goldberg has been going after Chas Freeman, Obama’s pick to run the National Intelligence Council, for his alleged foreign policy biases. Although I enthusiastically endorse the idea of appointing more people named “Chas” to influential positions within the Administration, I don’t know much about Freeman’s politics. I did find this criticism peculiar, however (emphasis mine):

In this dialogue, Freeman also stated that “I accept that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden almost certainly perpetrated the September 11 attacks,” but never mind this off-putting hesitancy; what’s particularly interesting is his desire to see an exploration of 9/11 cause and effect. Let’s posit as true that al Qaeda acted against America out of specific grievances (I think it’s also true that al Qaeda acted out of Muslim supremacist ideology, but let’s put that aside as well). What was the principal political grievance of al Qaeda before 9/11? The stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at the request of the Saudi government, in order to  protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein.

Now, is it really odd for a political analyst to examine the causal factors behind the 9/11 attacks? Goldberg is a smart guy and a good writer,  so I’m fairly confident he understands the distinction between justifying something and analytically exploring a specific chain of events. Arguing that the punitive nature of the Versailles Treaty helped bring Hitler to power, for example, wouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of Nazi foreign policy. Certain historians might question your methodology, but no one is going around academic conferences hurling epithets like “appeasement.” And yet when it comes to September 11, exploring “cause and effect” is still seen as akin to giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda.

UPDATE: Scott McConnell has more on Freeman’s credentials.

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“I was chased all over the place and rather enjoyed it”

Inspired by this Andrew Sullivan post, the group blog Plumb Lines launched into an interesting discussion on gay culture and the fluidity of sexual identity:

While the idea of the homosexual dates at least to the 19th century, I suspect that the contemporary American understanding of “homosexual” as a kind of people rather than a kind of sex act is much newer. Same-sex attraction was first widely medicalized in the 1940s and 50s, and cataloging and extirpating deviancy by rational-technical means was an important element of American post-war culture. Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a deviant element in society.

I was immediately reminded of this fascinating passage from Troublesome Young Men, a good but otherwise unremarkable history of interwar Britain’s anti-appeasement parliamentarians:

Boothby (a Scottish MP – my edit) loved Germany and had visited it many times. Fluent in German, he came to see friends, talk politics and economics, and listen to opera (he was a regular at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth). He also sampled the decadent night life of Berlin, where “along the Kurfurstendamm,” in the words of Stefan Zweig, “powdered and rouged young men sauntered and in the dimly lit bars on might see men of the world of finance courting drunken sailors.” Although Boothby’s sexual relationships were primarily with women, he was known to engage in homosexual escapades. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, he recalled in his memoris, “homosexuality was rampant; and, as I was very good looking [then], I was chased all over the place and rather enjoyed it.”

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You set yourself up for that one

Andrew Sullivan lands a clean blow.

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Neutral Zones

Here’s an intemperate comment from Peter Hitchens:

“If I never again had to read or write a word about homosexuals, I would be very happy. I really don’t want to know what other people do in their bedrooms. But these days they really, really want us all to know. And, more important, they insist that we approve. No longer are we allowed to keep our thoughts to ourselves, while being polite and kind . . .”

Which brings to mind Chris Dierkes’  interesting post on religion and metaphysical neutrality. To Hitchens, letting gays be and never speaking another word on the matter is a perfectly neutral position. To Andrew Sullivan, real neutrality demands gay couples’ inclusion in heterosexual institutions (ie marriage). Who’s right? I’m not really sure, but I think this spat says something about the elusiveness of a truly neutral political arrangement. People who don’t share Andrew Sullivan’s assumptions about governance aren’t going to be convinced to support gay marriage because it’s “fair.” They’re going to be convinced when you make a case for gay marriage that emphasizes positive social goods.

I think this is why conservative critics of gay marriage are more concerned with social breakdown than social equality. If you’re convinced that the other side’s definition of fairness is not – despite all their protestations to the contrary – value-neutral, procedural appeals are always going to fall upon deaf ears.

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