Why I Fight

by digby

I have not had time to really get into Jonathan Chait's cover story in this weeks New Republic but I will write something more about it soon. In the meantime, I did find these paragraphs intriguing in light of something else I read this morning:

...because they convey facts and opinions about the news to their readers, bloggers associated with the netroots are often mistaken for journalists. That is, as reporter Garance Franke-Ruta (who covers the blogs) has put it, a "category error." This was thrown into stark relief earlier this year, when John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two bloggers who were prominent in the netroots. The pair quickly came under enough fire for past controversial blog posts--Marcotte, for example, had speculated, "What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?"--that the Edwards campaign decided to cut them loose. Before it announced the decision, however, Marcotte and McEwan's allies lobbied heavily on their behalf. The liberal online magazine Salon reported the firings, but the Edwards camp hunkered down and refused to release a public statement while it decided on a course of action, then denied the firings to Salon the following day. Liberal bloggers in close contact with the campaign remained resolutely cryptic about what they knew. "The bloggers closed ranks around the Edwards campaign, some even claiming that Salon had gotten the story wrong," Salon's Joan Walsh later reported. To Walsh and other journalists, the relevant metric is true versus untrue. To an activist, the relevant metric is politically helpful versus politically unhelpful.

There is a term for this sort of political discourse: propaganda. The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II). Still, propaganda should not be confused with intellectual inquiry. Propagandists do not follow their logic wherever it may lead them; they are not interested in originality. Propaganda is an attempt to marshal arguments in order to create a specific real-world result--to win a political war.

The word propaganda is a loaded term in modern American parlance and he must know that. I don't actually think that advocacy journalism (or activist blogging) is dishonest, which is what Chait is suggesting, however vaguely. Lying or making up facts is unacceptable for people of integrity just as it is for a defense lawyer arguing for her client in a court of law, or a great political debate --- which is a much less provocative way to discuss blogging and netroots activism. I wish that Chait had provided at least one example of propaganda among the netroots besides the very vague story of Marcotte and McEwen. That is such an inside baseball process story that even if it were true, it wouldn't actually illustrate the propagandistic nature of blogging.

Liberal bloggers advocate for their political causes, people, party, ideas, etc and they make the best argument they can. The people who read us, the politicians, the electorate (to the extent that any of these arguments flow out of the sphere into the mainstream) are the judges. That is not propaganda as we understand it in 2007. I would say it's not even PR or advertising, both of which suggest some sort of message coordination of which I have also seen little evidence. The blogosphere/netroots is more of an organism that thrives on an extended 24/7 conversation and nobody knows yet how ideas are actually honed and disseminated. But the ones that come out of this seem to me to be mostly in the finest traditions of democratic and parliamentary debate, satire and humor and plain old political strategy, even if we are "vituperative" and "foul-mouthed" about it. There is very little, if any, "messaging" as we think of it in political terms. I'm not sure what Chait thinks he knows about the way we operate, but it's very, very ad hoc and viral. It's the internets not the Comintern.

Which brings me to the other thing I read today, just after glancing at the Chait article:

Hugh Hewitt: [Lawrence Wright] said absolutely, it is not the case it’s a strategic disaster. While there may be more jihadis in Iraq than there were before, it’s not like our intervention in Iraq created them, and he went on to characterize their camps in Mali, their camps in Gaza…

Michael Isikoff: Right.

HH: Their Waziristan…that they are manufacturing…they were manufactured for a decade in Afghanistan.

MI: Right.

HH: And now, they’re coming to al Anbar Province, because that’s where they can kill the great Satan. And so we’re not manufacturing them, we’re gathering them in one place…

MI: Right.

HH: And they’re surging against us. That’s a different spin. I’m not saying it’s the facts on the ground, either.

HH: ...And Michael Isikoff, what do you see, if the Democrats have their way, what do you see happening there in five years?

MI: I mean, look. If any of us could foresee the future, and knew what Iraq was going to look like down the road, we’d be better off than anybody else in Washington.

HH: But we have to guess, right? We always have to guess.

MI: We have to guess. We have to guess. I mean, we know that a lot of bad guesses were made by this administration in the invasion.

HH: Again, that’s spin.

MI: No, no, no, no, no, no. We know that.

HH: Give me a specific.

MI: They did not…a specific?

HH: Of a bad guess.

MI: Did they anticipate the sectarian warfare that was going to take place?

HH: No. Okay…

MI: Did they tell the country that there’s a high risk that we’re going to be enmeshed in a civil war in Iraq, in which thousands of Americans…

HH: Civil war is itself a spin, though.

MI: Well, what do you call it?

HH: That is a characterization…I call it an insurrection, I call it an al Qaeda surge, I call it bad militias in Baghdad.

MI: Well…

HH: But a civil war, where you’ve got Sunni and Shia…actually, the one thing Petraeus has also said…

MI: Fighting each other. Fighting each other. That’s…

HH: There are lots of definitions. It’s spin.

MI: The central argument [for war in Iraq] was weapons of mass destruction.

HH: That was Colin Powell. Again, that’s spin. Michael Isikoff, that’s spin.

I would challenge anyone to find a prominent liberal blogger as disingenuous or as bizarrely unresponsive as Hugh Hewitt is in that conversation. We joke about being the "reality based community" on the left, but it's literally true, certainly by comparison to that nonsense. The right wing denial of objective reality and the willingness to simply assert their own view that facts are liberal spin and conservative spin is factual is one of the biggest challenges the progressive movement (and the nation) faces. It has bred a cynicism and confusion that is going to be very difficult to turn around.

I didn't start blogging to deny reality or create another narrative out of whole cloth. (The bloggy jargon about "framing" and "narratives and "memes" are btw, contra Chait, just shorthand for "making a good argument", "telling our side of the story" and "ideas." They are not nefarious revolutionary propaganda terms designed to mislead.) I started blogging for the opposite reason. What I saw was a political establishment enmeshed in an extremely disorienting up-is-downism, perpetuated by a right wing machine that had used sophisticated marketing techniques, propaganda and plain old lies to completely distort our common perceptions of reality --- as Hewitt so perfectly demonstrates. Right about the time that Republicans started impeaching presidents for minor sexual indiscretions and dishonestly manipulating every lever of power they had to attain the presidency I knew politics had gone insane, not me. (And I think my judgment has been pretty well vindicated if I do say so myself.)

I try to see the world as clearly as I can because to do otherwise is to lose one's mind. I'm sure I succumb to group think from time to time and avoid writing about things I find difficult to discuss or about which I feel I have no particular insight. (You'll notice that I rarely engage in arcane economics.) I don't pretend to be entirely objective but I try to be a clear eyed person who calls it as I see it. I honestly can't understand how we can survive as a culture if we can't find a way to get past this "everything is spin" idea that Hewitt is promoting. It's the right that pushed that into the discourse and it's the netroots that are trying to unravel it and get back to some sort of common understanding of what constitutes reality.

More than anything I am interested in combating this epistemological relativism that has entered the body politic; things like the irrational dismissal of science or the insistence that cutting taxes produces more revenue or any of a thousand other assaults on reality. I can't help but be slightly insulted that my participation in the netroots movement is even being compared to such demagoguery and deviousness. I do not think we are the same animals and if the netroots become that I will no longer be a part of it.

I'm a liberal and proud of it and I think the world will be a better place if liberal policies have a greater voice and influence in the discourse. I want Democrats to win and will do what I can to help them since they are the vehicle for progressive and liberal politics in our system. But more than that I want to have a culture where liberal ideas are honestly represented and rightwing lies and manipulation are seriously challenged. I do not believe that you can leave that up to some disinterested, objective seekers of truth because they proved over the course of a couple of decades that they were much too weak and gullible to challenge the conservative onslaught. So I and many others stepped up. Waiting for everyone to "see the truth" just wasn't working out (which Chait admits in his article.)

Overall, the piece is insightful in some respects and I don't mean to pick it apart. But none of this happened in a vacuum, and Chait rather scrupulously avoids delving too deeply into the rightwing's strategic mendacity. And without that you can't really understand what brought us to this place and what motivates us to move ahead. Rather than wanting to become a competing propaganda organ, I think most of us actually want to reintroduce the idea of honest political debate because we believe we will win on the merits. (Why else have the Republicans found it necessary to lie, cheat and steal to the degree they have?) The first step in doing that is to dismantle their propaganda, which is what we are doing. No one that I know of has ever suggested that we create our own.

Update: What Atrios said.