Pearl Harbor, Pom-Poms, And Popcorn

Jim Manzi at The Corner:

Jonah notes Ross Douthat’s very interesting post, in which Ross had this to say:

Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.

I thought some about this over the past few days, and took this as a direct challenge.

Here goes.

I started to read Mark Levin’s massive bestseller Liberty and Tyranny a number of months ago as debate swirled around it. I wasn’t expecting a PhD thesis (and in fact had hoped to write a post supporting the book as a well-reasoned case for certain principles that upset academics just because it didn’t employ a bunch of pseudo-intellectual tropes). But when I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that — while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points — it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions. This sounds to me like a pretty good plain English meaning of epistemic closure. The problem with this, of course, is that unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to our own beliefs normally means we fail to learn quickly, and therefore persist in correctable error.

I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying — global warming — in order to see how it treated a controversy in which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail.

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

[…]

But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.There are many reasons to write a book. One view is that a book is just another consumer product, and if people want to buy jalapeno-and-oyster flavored ice cream, then companies will sell it to them. If the point of Liberty and Tyranny was to sell a lot of copies, it was obviously an excellent book. Further, despite what intellectuals will often claim, most people (including me) don’t really want their assumptions challenged most of the time (e.g., the most intense readers of automobile ads are people who have just bought the advertised car, because they want to validate their already-made decision). I get that people often want comfort food when they read. Fair enough. But if you’re someone who read this book in order to help you form an honest opinion about global warming, then you were suckered. Liberty and Tyranny does not present a reasoned overview of the global warming debate; it doesn’t even present a reasoned argument for a specific point of view, other than that of willful ignorance. This section of the book is an almost perfect example of epistemic closure.

Andy McCarthy at The Corner:

There will be more to say about this, and I imagine I won’t be the only one to discuss it when time allows. But for now I would just observe that Jim Manzi’s post on Mark Levin’s widely acclaimed book is beneath him. No one minds a good debate, but Jim’s gratuitously nasty tone — “awful,” “Trilateral Commission,” “wingnuttery,” etc. — is just breathtaking. I’ve read a number of Jim’s articles and posts over the years, including more than a few involving exchanges with other writers. He has always struck me as a model of civility, especially in his disagreements with the Left. Why pick Mark for the Pearl Harbor treatment?

Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner:

I love debate, as people here know, but to treat Mark Levin as a mere “entertainer” who was just looking for a bestseller is to not know Mark Levin or have taken his book seriously. Besides being entertaining, he’s been a laborer on policy, legal, and political battles that have made substantive differences in the battle to preserve liberty from tyranny. There is heart and soul and years of experience in his book — and a heck of a lot more than cut-and-paste Google searching (!). He’s heard a lot worse and can handle his own battles, but as one who has followed Mark’s career, I found Jim’s tone deeply disappointing. Especially at a time when Liberty actually is endangered and Mark Levin is not to blame.

Via Sullivan, Anonymous Liberal:

First, notice that neither Lopez nor McCarthy bother to address any of Manzi’s substantive points. They’re simply taking issue with the fact that he dared to use strong terms in critiquing the work of a member in good standing of the conservative media. McCarthy’s call for “civility” is particularly rich given that McCarthy himself has made a career out of posting totally off-the-wall and unhinged rants against his favorite left of center targets. The reference to Levin’s “widely-acclaimed book” is also unintentionally hilarious. The only acclamation the book received, of course, was from other members of the epistemically-closed community that Manzi’s describing, people who simply accept whatever a clown like Levin says at face value.

Lopez’ response is even more telling. In short, she says that Levin is defending the world against Tyranny and that’s all that matters. At a time when Freedom itself hangs in the balance, it makes no sense to go after one of the good guys. This kind of tribalism epitomizes everything that is wrong with the right wing approach to politics. First, it’s totally crazy. The notion that somehow the current political debate involves a pitched battle between Good and Evil, between Freedom and Tyranny, is something that only someone deeply ensconced in Bubble World could casually work into a paragraph-long post. Second, the clear implication is that the ends justify the rhetorical means, that it doesn’t matter whether an argument is truthful or empirically supportable as long as it has the end result of helping your team “win.” Lopez’ defense of Levin is not that he’s right, but that he’s “making a difference.”

I commend Manzi for his unexpected candor, but I’m not sure he truly realizes what he’s up against. Like Truman Burbank discovered when he started pointing out the various flaws in his artificial world, no one around him cared. They were all invested in the success of the Show. Manzi’s colleagues at The Corner have a similarly vested in interest in the perpetuation of conservative Bubble World. Facts don’t matter. Winning does.

Daniel Larison:

The other day, Ross called for other conservatives to be more critical of Republican politicians and conservative “entertainers,” and Jim Manzi made the mistake of taking up this challenge and applying intellectual rigor and honesty to a prominent conservative radio host’s book on a subject he understands fairly well. The inevitable circling-of-the-wagons that has followed illustrates perfectly the problem Manzi was trying to address in Levin’s work. Not only do Manzi’s colleagues automatically defend Levin’s sub-par arguments, but they regard it as horribly bad form to dare criticize those arguments with the vehemence that their poor quality would seem to merit. Small wonder that there are so few “magazines and conservative columnists…willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”

One need only quickly read Levin’s chapter “On Self-Preservation” to find that the sloppiness Manzi skewers so effectively is not limited to the discussion of climate change. In the early part of the chapter, Levin begins by misrepresenting the content of Washington’s Farewell Address:

The address makes clear he did so not because neutrality was an end in itself, but because he feared that taking sides could split the country apart. (p.177)

This is a good example of a deeply misleading half-truth. Washington was concerned about passionate attachments to other countries partly because of the domestic political effects, but he also explicitly argued that the American interest dictated that we remain free of foreign political attachments for many other reasons:

Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

And again:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible [bold mine-DL]. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

Why, indeed? In other words, President Washington made it quite clear that neutrality provided many goods that Americans would be foolish and unwise to throw away for the sake of taking sides in foreign conflicts in which we had no real stake. Levin badly misinterprets and distorts the meaning of the Farewell Address because Washington’s genuine support for neutrality as the obvious policy that takes advantage of our unique geographical position is deeply at odds with the aggressive interventionism he lauds later in the chapter. Central to Levin’s vision is the maintenance of American superpower status, when this is impossible without the permanent alliances that Washington specifically rejected.

John Cole:

Someone failed to do their audience analysis before trying to argue with, well, facts and data and actual arguments. Manzi should understand by now that all the Corner expects from their contributors are pom poms and the occasional starbursts. And no, you sick bastards, not those pom poms

Will at The League:

There you have it, folks. No arguments, no substantive responses to the original post, nothing more than assurances that Levin’s heart is in the right place and a reminder that we’d best train our fire elsewhere. Maybe I’m over-generalizing from a sample that is too small and too skewed, but the knee-jerk quality of National Review’s response to a challenging and level-headed post on global warming seems pretty damning to me.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I love debate, as all of you here know, but when someone picks on Mark Levin – the most gentlemanly scholar and scholarly gentleman I have ever known, a veritable light in a sea of darkness, the very man whose conservative courage has liberals running for the coasts and whose work has inspired countless millions to the conservative cause – whose calm soothing radio voice has lulled billions of wailing infants to sleep while driving in the car with their parents – well…well…

Well.

It just won’t stand. It won’t stand I say. It will not stand. It might sit or even recline a bit, but it will not freaking stand.

Furthermore, that a man who has a popular radio show and writes pop-conservative bestsellers could be called an “entertainer” is frankly beyond the pale. And not just any pale. Not taupe or off-white. No – it is beyond The Pale. Ivory white. Crest white. Porcelain. Nay, paler than porcelain. Yes, we are entering Michael Jackson territory here. That pale.

I mean, true, Levin is a big boy and he can handle his own battles but really I think he needs us to handle those battles too. It wouldn’t be a pile-on otherwise. I mean, you don’t write at The Corner if you plan on criticizing other conservatives – at least not if those conservatives hate David Frum but still support the Iraq War.

It really is just breathtaking that anyone at The Corner would resort to name-calling or would use such frankly disturbing words as “awful” or – and this might not be safe for work – “wingnuttery”.

I know. Pretty scary stuff. (Bomb Iran!)

He said – in reference to Levin’s opus – the word “wingnuttery” and let me just say that I’m floored. And offended. My preconceived notions about the way the world works have been perhaps irrevocably shaken. That anyone at this fine blog would use words like that to describe a conservative is just – I don’t know. Awful. It’s not nice. It really isn’t. It’s like Pearl Harbor. Or no – no – no it’s like Hiroshima.

I mean, it’s not as though Manzi was attacking a filthy socialist fascist wimpy anti-American atheist liberal or anything. It’s not like he was claiming our president was trying to undermine freedom or was born in Kenya – you know, basic sensible conservative stuff. He was attacking one of his own. And not just one of his own, but Mark Levin. The guy who wrote the best book since Liberal Fascism, hands down.

I don’t know what ‘epistemic closure’ is but I do know Mark Levin, and you sir – you are no Mark Levin. You aren’t even fit to read his book let alone criticize it as some sort of vacuous propagandistic piece of poorly researched garbage.

Wonkette:

Sane Conservative Person Jim Manzi of the National Review, out of nowhere, has gone and stone cold eviscerated the dickens out of his colleague Mark Levin’s stupid bestseller book of lies. “It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.” We think he has been holding this one back for some time. Uh oh, Andy McCarthy is first to spittle back! POPCORN

Let me suggest an alternative theory — namely, that the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker. There’s nothing wrong with politically-inflected entertainment, whether it’s right-wing or left-wing or something much more unclassifiable. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating these entertainers, admiring their success, and enjoying the way they skewer people and causes you dislike. But to insist that they’re also worth taking seriously as political and intellectual actors in their own right, worthy of keynote speeches at CPAC and admiring reviews in highbrow journals, is to make a category error that does no favors to the larger causes that you and they support. It sets up contrasts that redound to the benefit of your opponents (Rush Limbaugh versus Barack Obama, or Glenn Beck versus Obama, are both binaries that favor liberalism), and invites a level of scrutiny that the entertainers’ work simply can’t support. Both politically and intellectually, American conservatism would be better off if Levin’s fans responded to Manzi’s post, not by objecting that he didn’t take “Liberty and Tyranny” seriously enough (he did take Levin’s arguments seriously, and that’s precisely why his criticisms were so scathing), but by saying “relax, it’s only entertainment.”

hogan at Redstate:

Look – reasonable people can disagree about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. And I would, prior to yesterday, have said I was glad a guy like Manzi was out there trying to sift through some of the nonsense out there on global warming to put it all in context, even if I thought him a little squishy for my taste. But, I am sorry there Jim, no matter how much research you’ve done or no matter the extent to which I might even agree with you at times, while you are sitting in your little circle with a bunch of other self-indulgent asses that no one else in the world gives a rip about putting out posts like yesterday’s nonsense, Mark is out on the front lines inspiring a generation of Americans to fight back against statism.

Mark recognizes that when you are at war, while it is important to get facts right (and I think Mark did a darned fine job sourcing his book, giving you the chance to criticize it), it is also important to inspire the troops and to do so by distilling the realities of the fight into useful information. I frankly don’t know if every statistic in Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was correct or not. Nor do I know if every statistic or number in Reagan’s A Time For Choosing speech in 1964 was correct. I DON’T CARE. I know the facts were in the ballpark, and more importantly, the principles were timeless and correct. I have read Mark’s book, and I know a little about the topics in question – and it’s a good book, with good citations and a lot of good facts.

The entire global warming debate is one of hysteria and deserves the mocking it gets from Mark. It’s filled with lies and scare-mongering, resulting in less freedom, higher taxes, more expensive energy, a worse economy and a lower standard of living for tens or even hundreds of millions of people – for absolutely no good reason. Those who want to make nice on this topic – be it Newt Gingrich sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi, be it Lindsey Graham yet again saddling up with democrats to pass a misguided and disastrous cap-and-trade bill, or be it “intellectuals” trying to appear reasonable on the subject – are setting conservatives up for failure cloaked in compromise.

Come 2014, I will continue to use the stockpile of incandescent bulbs I plan to amass in the coming 4 years – and will gladly pay the electric bill so I can have the light I prefer to have. Forgive me for wanting the freedom to have a frigging light bulb of my choosing. I will continue to drive a gas-guzzling Jeep Wrangler if I have to hand-build an engine to replace it, because I freaking like to drive it. I will continue to flush my toilet however many times it takes to get the job done – and I will continue to take a long hot shower.

More McCarthy

Mark Levin responds at The Corner:

I don’t know Jim Manzi, but given his out-of-nowhere rant, you’d think I ran over his dog or something. Feel free to read my book, and the chapter Manzi distorts and cherry-picks, yourself. You don’t need Manzi to interpret it. He’s no true expert on the subject, nor is he logical or coherent in his post. Indeed, he’s a very, very angry advocate of open and well-reasoned debate!

His style of argument here reminds me of that of Andrew Sullivan, for whom Manzi has the highest regard. Which makes me wonder: Since Manzi has appointed himself the umpire around here, will he call out Sullivan for his continuing obsession with Trig Palin in equally harsh terms? Call it the lunacy it is, or even call it “wingnuttery”? At the very least, Manzi is guilty of “epistemic one-sidededness.”

Here are the facts: There is an enormous amount of fraud and politics involved in global-warming science, some of which I mention in the chapter, much of which I didn’t have room to, and none of which Manzi acknowledges. But the research and evidence are available and extensive. I touch on it as best one can in a book that is not focused exclusively on the subject.

I would also encourage you to look at the petition Manzi disparages, having, I’m sure, carefully reviewed the qualifications of each and every expert listed, as he dismisses the entire lot of them. He mentions that 20,000 of the signatories don’t have doctorates. But more than 9,000 do.

Even so, that alone is not the standard. Reading his post, one would think they’re all a bunch of kooks and frauds. He knows this because Scientific American did the hard work of taking a small sample of the group and contacting them. Now, how scientific is that? Global-warming bloggers have unfairly attacked this petition relentlessly. Manzi simply repeats the mantra. He even refers to the phony names on the list, which he hopes will degrade the effort, without realizing that global-warming zealots are responsible for inserting them. How embarrassing.

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene:

Obviously I may have missed some responses elsewhere, but suffice it to say that thus far — and it is yet early, so we may see better responses today — the reaction to Mr. Manzi’s post suggest that Julian Sanchez was right, and ought to persuade Jonah Goldberg that there is indeed an epistemic closure problem on the right, regardless of whether or not the same things exist on the left.

In the aftermath of a serious, substantive post that offers specific criticisms of Mr. Levin’s writing on climate change, Mr. Manzi has been called impolite, a tool of the Obama Administration, a financial opportunist, a “True Believer,” a blathering intellectual, and a self-indulgent ass. It is glaringly evident that no one has even attempted to refute his arguments — and since the folks at National Review know Jim Manzi, his honorableness, and where he stands on climate change, it cannot escape their attention that his critics occupy a closed information loop that has misled them about the truth.

Erick Erickson at Redstate:

Now Mark does not need me or anyone else to defend him from the cocktail conservative brigade of the Trig Palin School of Investigative Journalism, but we all should. He did fine work in his book and it is disappointing to see National Review allow such a hit on their site — particularly when so many who post there have in the past had to get someone to sign off on their posts.

It makes you wonder who was asleep at the switch or, if there was no one asleep at the switch, who let it happen.

In any event, I don’t need to defend Mark though I choose to. But Mark has defended himself whereby defending himself means gutting, dicing, and mincing up this Manzi guy.

Manzi responds at The American Scene:

Kathryn / Andy / Mr. Levin,

I accept that it is fair to characterize my tone in the “Epistemic Closure” post as scathing. I apologize (sincerely) if this was offensive to you. All I can say about it is that I was calling a spade a spade as I see it.

Mr. Levin,

Thank you for the reply. I’m happy to give you the last word, and simply invite readers to review both posts and draw whatever conclusions they feel are appropriate.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Well, I stayed out of the whole brouhaha at first because I had a crazy-busy day. Then, as the argument around here played itself out, it seemed less and less necessary.

Still, since I wrote quite a bit about this “epistemic closure” business, and since Jim’s initial post cited me by name, and since some readers won’t rest until I say something, I guess I’ll say something.

I was a bit miffed at Jim for the way he used what I increasingly believe to be a pretty silly argument about conservative epistemic closure closed-mindedness to break with his well-earned reputation for civility and decorum — and in the Corner no less. If he wanted to argue with Mark about global warming, I don’t see why he needed Ross Douthat’s “challenge” to do so.

Moreover, I remain mystified how he can make this myopic and tendentious case for maintaining a “tactical alliance” with Andrew Sullivan — on the grounds that Sullivan (once?) opposed socialized medicine — but be so enthusiastic for ripping into Mark Levin and a book that came out a year and a half ago. If tactical alliances in the name of beating back bad  policies are the order of the day, Mark Levin is a far more valuable ally in that cause than the Atlantic’s gynecological sleuth.

Regardless, Jim’s apologized for seeming intemperate and I see no reason not to take his apology at face value. Lord knows, I’ve let fly around here far more often than he has. It happens. And in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Jim’s post warranted the all-hands-on deck response from some of my colleagues.

Mark Levin’s a big boy who is certainly not afraid to dish it out. And I think it is perfectly fair to point out that sometimes he dishes it out quite harshly himself, and then hits his victims over the head with the dish and the frying pan, and then dunks the victim’s head in the lobster tank. I don’t blame him for being shocked at the tone and tenor of an attack coming from such a friendly and collegial quarter. But here’s the important thing: at the end of the day he responded with substance, and that’s as it should be.

Andrew Sullivan:

Oh, please. I still oppose socialized medicine – and the healthcare reform was not socialized medicine. I favor reforming the bill to expand its free market potential, but do not believe it was right to oppose the entire bill rather than engage and reform it. And there is no “tactical alliance.” There is an intellectual overlap. That’s all. Manzi persuaded me, for example, to oppose cap and trade and to be more skeptical even of a carbon tax. Because he offered reasoned arguments based on solid evidence.

David Frum at FrumForm:

The episode reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a year ago, shortly after I published my piece on Rush Limbaugh in Newsweek. I won’t embarrass my friend by mentioning his name, but if I did, you’d certainly recognize it.

My friend: “You aren’t really mad at Rush Limbaugh you know.”

Me: “I’m not? I thought I was.”

My friend: “You’re not even mad at Fox News. You want to win elections, you know that the troops have to be mobilized, somebody has to get them fired up, and you don’t fire them up with Milton Friedman and James Q. Wilson. You are mad at the conservative intellectual elites. They’re the ones who are supposed to uphold intellectual standards, to sift actual facts from what you call ‘pretend information’. Rush Limbaugh isn’t any worse than he was 20 years ago. But 20 years ago, conservatism offered something more than Rush Limbaugh. Since then, the conservative elite has collapsed. Blame them, not talk radio.”

What happened to Manzi is a perfect illustration of this elite collapse.

Reading through the comments in the Corner, there’s no mistaking who’s in charge, who’s subservient. Two Corner contributors complained about Manzi’s “tone.” Levin is the most vituperative radio host this side of Mike Savage – but imagine anyone at The Corner complaining about Levin’s tone!

Conservatism has always had both elite and popular wings, and in the past they worked together productively. Fred Schwarz drew tens of thousands to his Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in the early 1960s, at the same time as Milton Friedman was publishing Capitalism and Freedom; F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty; and Edward Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Nobody however demanded that Milton Friedman hail Schwarz’s pamphlets as serious contributions to conservative thought, in the way that the Cornerites demand that Manzi kiss Levin’s ring.

It’s different now, to conservatism’s present shame and future detriment.

Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

UPDATE: Andy McCarthy

Manzi at TAS

More Goldberg

More Douthat

More Larison

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1 Comment

Filed under Books, Conservative Movement, New Media

One response to “Pearl Harbor, Pom-Poms, And Popcorn

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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