Rashomon And The Netroots

The varied reactions to Jon Chait's Netroots piece brings to mind "Rashomon." My initial reaction is here. Other reactions I would group as reacting to Chait's take on the political activism component, see Bowers, the Right/Left blogwars component, Atrios, the New Left purity reaction, see Booman, and the semi-pundit reactions, featured here by TNR, of Matt Yglesias and Eric Alterman.

Of the folks who were or might be defined as Netroots, Bowers for instance, I think he took personal affront to the idea that he was a propagandist and not someone who is more married to the truth than to his desired political outcome. I understand his reaction but he doth protest too much. There can be no doubt that the Netroots, Bowers, included, pay attention to the stories that are favorable for his desired outcomes while overlooking those that are not. We ALL do that. Certainly propagandist is not right, but the idea that he is not engaged in at the least, advocacy journalism that is not truly interested in telling the whole objective story, is rather silly. Chris admits as much in his wrapup sentence on the subject:

Chait's standard for what counts as propaganda is absurdly broad. Basically, he seems to imply that anyone who is interested in making any impact on politics is engaging in propaganda, because that person is no longer engaging in a purely disinterested pursuit of ideas.


We are not propagandists, but we are advocacy bloggers. And advocates argue a side. And that means NOT being fair. The judge is fair. The lawyer is not. But the lawyer follows rules. No false testimony. And if that is Chris' point then he is absolutely right. We can argue strongly, but we stick to facts. Of course advocates ingore inconvenient facts or try to minimize them. And we do that too.

Once off that hobby horse, I think Chris makes some great points. For example, he writes:

while Chait is correct that the activist blogosphere is generally focused on achieving politically positive results, he seems to miss the fact that that in order to achieve politically positive results, it is necessary to engage in political strategy that is based on solid ideas. In other words, the activist blogosphere has long been concerned with improving the political tactics and strategies of Democrats and progressives, and we won't be very effective at that if we intentionally float misinformed ideas on political tactics and strategy. Misinformed, poorly researched, and ill-conceived strategy is not helpful in creating positive political outcomes. We need solid tactics based on solid research and analysis in order to succeed in politics. In that sense, we in the activist blogosphere are very concerned with ideas, logic and truth, but we are more focused on ideas, logical conclusions, and truth as they relate to improving political strategy rather than with debating policy specifics. . .

Totally agree.

His running partner, Matt Stoller, writes a very good piece that is marred with his lashing out at Chait at the end. But I liked this part especially:

Basically, we're a group of people who feel very betrayed by the leadership of our country, our media, and our party. We care about ideas because bad ideas implemented tend to kill lots of innocent people, and we don't like that. We are liberal because we believe in liberal ideas, and by and large, we've been proven correct. The Iraq war was a terrible idea. Bush has been a horrible President. Running on Iraq in 2006 was a good idea. Stopping Social Security privatization was possible and necessary. A 50 state strategy made sense because a wave election was foreseeable. Don't trust the telecom companies with the internet. Let's figure out this global warming thing. We don't necessarily distinguish between politics and policy, or activism and journalism, and we don't pretend that there is an above the fray and an 'in the muck'. Most of all, we respect ideas because ideas, when implemented, have immense power. Ideas matter. Conservative ideas have affected us personally, whether it was growing up in a suburb or having no health care insurance. And to the extent that you create ideas or appropriate ideas and organize around them, you can build a new society. That's what the right did, which is why we respect the right.

I adopt that as the best description of the Netroots I have read.

Atrios, who really is not classically a Netrootser, but really the best editor of the Left blogs one could have, he picks put the best and most interesting stuff, as well as being one of the sharpest "dozens player" you will ever find (and very smart of course), ignores imo, his critical Netroots role, Media watchdog. Atrios writes instead, in funny fashion as always:

As for the term chickenhawk, it isn't propaganda, it's what we call an "insult." There's no requirement for war supporters to enlist, any more than those who support tax increases needed to mail extra money to the federal government. Iraq chickenhawks are those who support the war, speak of the conflict in existential terms and describe support or opposition of that war in terms of "bravery" or "cowardice" while obsessing about 300/Lord of the Rings War porn even though there isn't the slightest chance in hell they'd sign up. Jonah Goldberg isn't a chickenhawk because he didn't sign up, he's a chickenhawk because there was never any chance that he would. It's an insult, and it's an effective one, because they know it's true.

Atrios also objects to Chait's use of the term propaganda and pithily explains why:

[Chait] doesn't quite seem to understand what the word "propaganda" means. Honest but persuasive speech which employees legitimate rhetorical tools not meant to deceive doesn't qualify as "propaganda." Hyperbole, exaggeration, anecdote, metaphor, humor, can all be employed without intent deceive, even if hyperliteralists might find that the statements are not literally true.

Very true. But Atrios' important role regarding the Media is not addressed by him. He leaves it, I guess, for Eric Alterman, very capable hands indeed:

[A]s the netroots have demonstrated time and again--and as Chait demonstrates on the one hand, but sometimes appears to forget on the other--in the face of a 40 year political onslaught by a well-funded, well-disciplined, and ultimately insatiable right-wing assault on reason, the Washington establishment in general and the Democratic elite in particular have often caved in. As the great enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill asked: "Without publicity, how could [democratic citizens] either check or encourage what they were not permitted to see?" Thanks in large measure to the netroots "movement" Chait describes, Americans can see a great deal more clearly today than yesterday, and, as far as I can tell, we're a hell of a better country for it.

And hooray for that.

Booman, as the sort of NEw Left representative of the Netroots, decries Chait's definition of the Netroots:

Jonathan Chait's opus on the blogosphere is behind a subscription firewall at The New Republic. That's a shame because he put a lot of effort into it and it has some interesting points. Unfortunately, he mistakes the personality and political thinking of Markos Moulitsas for the entire blogosphere. How so? Well...he paints us all with the same brush.

No offense Booman, but your exclusion from the discussion is not a grave sin. Like it or not, and I do not particualrly like Daily Kos these days, it is the 800 pound gorilla and is certainly more representative of what Chait is writing about than he or I. Moreover, Booman clings to the conceit, Bowers and Stoller do too, that they do not engage in rah rah-ism. I';ve been clear on my belief that in fact the entire Netroots, from Move On on down, have done exactly that on Iraq this year. Indeed on most issues. Booman picked a bad day to proclaim how different he is from daily kos when he has been cheering on the Congress' contortions on the Iraq Supplemental.

Finally, Yglesias touches upon the perennial wonks vs. activists dichotomy:

Which brings things back to me. Chait recognizes the existence of a "wonkosphere" of more journalism-oriented bloggers who coexist happily with the activist netroots without being identical too them. Or, as Chait puts it in his conspiracy-minded phrasing, "the two groups generally regard one another as allies and criticize one another tepidly if at all." A less conspiratorial way of putting it would be that we in the wonkosphere don't criticize netroots activists all that frequently or vehemently because we tend not to disagree with them on the merits all that frequently about matters of fundamental importance. And, after all, why should it be otherwise? I'm a liberal journalist, liberal activists are liberal activists, and the reason the adjective "liberal" fits in both cases is that we subscribe to similar worldviews. When we disagree, we disagree--but it's not extremely frequent, tends to be on matters of subsidiary importance, and is conducted respectfully. Nothing nefarious is happening here. Chait might have done well to consider that there is what you might call a "wonkosphere expanded universe" of progressive pundits who aren't primarily identified with the Internet and who aren't viewed as hostile by the netroots. Paul Krugman and Harold Meyerson (on the op-ed pages) come to mind, as do TNR's more liberal current and former staffers like Jonathan Cohn and Spencer Ackerman, the less wildly left-wing Nation writers, et cetera. Chait's notion seems to be that the netroots despises intellectual honesty and celebrates only shallow propaganda; but the fact is that the liberal netroots' favorite pundits are the ones who express liberal views: Who should liberals prefer? An institution like The New Republic, whose main institutional and emotional commitment is to right-wing Israeli nationalism (a commitment, I might add, frequently expressed through the sort of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty Chait professes to find distasteful), infuriates the netroots even though individual TNR writers and articles garner praise. Similarly, it would be odd for liberal activists to like the DLC given that the DLC's central mission is to curb the influence of liberal activists over Democratic Party politicians. Other pundits the netroots love to hate include Joe Klein, whose work Chait also disapproves of; Thomas Friedman, a buffoon; and Maureen Dowd, who I'd hardly propose putting forward as the great apostle of seriousness about ideas.

Very nice. In any event, I still recommend Chait's piece and all the discussion that spilled forth. At least for me, and I think I was pretty involved in it, it was fascinating reading.

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    What's the Dif (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by kaleidescope on Wed May 02, 2007 at 10:56:04 PM EST
    I read an interesting book by New Scientist writer Gabrielle Walker recently.  It's called Snowball Earth, and obstensibly it's about how 600 million years ago the earth froze over, even at the equator.  What the book is really about is scientific method up close and personal.  Walker tracks the scientific debate, from the first idea that a frozen earth occurred, to those scientists who were determined -- often for personal reasons -- to disprove the theory, to the final confirmation of the hypothesis, which was accomplished by those who really wanted to disprove it.

    This is relevant to Chait's article and the netroots reaction to it.  Propaganda?  A better word would be rhetoric.  And as science historians from Thomas Kuhn to Gabrielle Walker have noted, science is not all that different from other truth seeking processes that depend on debate and consensus.  Scientist often have intense personal agendas, but this serves the quest for truth; it doesn't hinder it.  Left wing bloggers, in my experience, speak the truth as they see it, with the saliency they see.  In this sense they are no different from carrerist, grant-seeking, department power-seeking academic scientists in how they present themselves and what they choose to research.

    What is different between academic science and the political realm is cultural standards by which truth is recognized and demonstrated.  On that issue, political rhetoric in our society -- not just by comparison to science, but in comparison to its former self -- has degenerated terribly.

    But that isn't the fault of left wing bloggers.  Rather, blame should be laid at the feet of those keepers of the discourse -- at this point still the corporate media which are, in effect, the political equivalent of scientific journals.  The corporate media have abandoned Enlightenment values, substituting instead, when politically convenient, post-modernism.

    And even in academic science, Republicans have attempted to substitute tobacco science and the post-modern standards of truth-by-political-power, for traditional standards of scientific truth-seeking.  

    There is no way left-wing bloggers have that kind of power.  At least not yet.

    Truth (none / 0) (#11)
    by Alien Abductee on Wed May 02, 2007 at 11:16:22 PM EST
    Scientists just don't yet sufficiently recognize their own subjectivity.

    I'm optimistic in thinking that this postmodern administration will push people's recognition that "reality" is a public and cultural consensus as to what we choose to call reality. But I think we have a way to go yet into the darkness before we can use that insight to create something more in the light.


    I read your work daily because you do (none / 0) (#1)
    by Militarytracy on Wed May 02, 2007 at 10:04:51 AM EST
    zero rah rah-ing and cheering on the Congress' contortions on the Iraq Supplemental.  Because of the position I am in I can plainly make out who is skirting the hard stuff and who isn't.  The only way out of Iraq is out of Iraq, playing games will turn this fully into this generations Vietnam and I see no reason for us to ever sink that low again or keep making the same mistakes over and over again.  We have gotten ourselves into this now let's get ourselves out of this and it won't be easy!  We can take the long way which will be more painful and damaging to all or we can take the hard work way which is only hard work and much less painful and damaging to all.  I choose the later and I make no apologies for it.

    I am, (none / 0) (#2)
    by andgarden on Wed May 02, 2007 at 10:51:57 AM EST
    in the way that the folks at MYDD put it, very much a child of 2000.

    Any belief which is promoted to a larger group is (none / 0) (#3)
    by gollo on Wed May 02, 2007 at 11:24:40 AM EST

    I am aware that the word "propaganda" carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.

    In itself, the word "propaganda" has certain technical meanings which, like most things in this world, are "neither good nor bad but custom makes them so." I find the word defined in Funk and Wagnalls' Dictionary in four ways:

    1. A society of cardinals, the overseers of foreign missions; also the College of the Propaganda at Rome founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1627 for the education of missionary priests; Sacred College de Propaganda Fide.

    2. Hence, any institution or scheme for Propagating a doctrine or system.

    3. Effort directed systematically toward the gaining of public support for an opinion or a course of action.

    4. The principles advanced by a propaganda.

          The Scientific American, in a recent issue, pleads for the restoration to respectable usage of that "fine old word 'propaganda.'"

    "There is no word in the English language," it says, "whose meaning has been so sadly distorted as the word 'propaganda.' The change took place mainly during the late war when the term took on a decidedly sinister complexion.

    "If you turn to the Standard Dictionary, you will find that the word was applied to a congregation or society of cardinals for the care and oversight of foreign missions which was instituted at Rome in the year 1627. It was applied also to the College of the Propaganda at Rome that was founded by Pope Urban VIII, for the education of the missionary priests. Hence, in later years the word came to be applied to any institution or scheme for propagating a doctrine or system.
    (Propaganda by Edward Bernays 1928)

    This post is propaganda, and it would be intellectually dishonest not to admit it.

    I agree (none / 0) (#4)
    by squeaky on Wed May 02, 2007 at 11:43:41 AM EST
    The Catholic Church set the standard usage of the term propaganda. And it has been the same ever since.

    Actually (none / 0) (#5)
    by Alien Abductee on Wed May 02, 2007 at 02:52:22 PM EST
    you distort Booman's argument. He's not complaining about not being personally included. What he's saying - and which I think is very true and in fact key to the discussion - is that the netroots isn't Markos, Atrios, Bowers, Stoller, etc.:

    The real story of the blogosphere is much bigger than the personality of its most famous blogger. The blogosphere is only a small part of a much bigger movement. It's one leg in a stool along with Moveon.org, the DFA, and other blooming citizen activist groups.

    It's the mass mobilization that's the important thing.

    The netroots isn't the big name bloggers, it's the people, the online grassroots.

    That quibble aside, I love this piece and this multiblog discussion. Rashomon indeed.

    He did complain he was not included (none / 0) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed May 02, 2007 at 03:31:27 PM EST
    Expressly. He said he and Bowers and stoller are "different" which is a crock btw.

    Read it again (none / 0) (#7)
    by Alien Abductee on Wed May 02, 2007 at 04:07:42 PM EST
    He's differentiating himself, Bowers, and Stoller specifically on the point of "ideological confusion" and "just being about winning." He's answering Chait saying that Markos's personal lack of philosophical depth is emblematic of the rest of the movement, and pointing out that he himself (like Bowers and Stoller) is unabashedly ideological:

    but 'this ideological confusion' should rightfully apply only to Moulitsas, and certainly not to Chris Bowers or Matt Stoller, or to me.

    The main point he makes in his piece as a whole is what I said above. Your reading of it is totally unfair and dismissive.


    Come now (none / 0) (#8)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed May 02, 2007 at 09:38:38 PM EST
    Did you read the comments?

    I hadn't (none / 0) (#10)
    by Alien Abductee on Wed May 02, 2007 at 11:07:17 PM EST
    Only MSOC would qualify as actually huffy over it. lol

    If that's your point.


    Well (none / 0) (#12)
    by kaleidescope on Wed May 02, 2007 at 11:29:32 PM EST
    So what if he did?  Even if true, a minor quibble.  The piece itself was solid.