Thursday, February 02, 2006


For pure fun, I recommend you read an article by conservative foreign policy pundit Robert Kagan on the Weekly Standard site entitled "I Am Not A Straussian." Pleading that he could not be a disciple of Leo Strauss because "I have never understood a word the political philospher wrote," Kagan notes that's not what you'd think from reading his clips:

I feel the need to set the record straight because I am routinely called a Straussian by students of what is known as neoconservatism, and at the very least this is an insult to true Straussians, who presumably do understand what they're talking about. There isn't room here to list all the places where I have been called a Straussian--a Google search for "Robert Kagan" and "Leo Strauss" turns up 16,500 hits. Suffice to say that the immensely erudite Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has referred to me as a "student" of Strauss and Bloom, as has the columnist William Pfaff, and a half dozen other equally learned folk. A professor somewhere named Anne Norton has written a whole book assuming that I am a Straussian. You may ask why didn't she call me, just to confirm. But that would have been journalism, not scholarship.

The whole piece, which gets into all sorts of anecdotes involving Kagan's father and Allan Bloom, is hilarious, but it raises a serious point about the tendency of an awful lot of people to think they intimately know the inner motivations and backgrounds of complete strangers they've read or read about, or typecasted for some reason.

I first encountered this phenomenon personally back in the days when I used to occasionally agree to be the Token Democrat on conservative talk radio shows. Invariably, I'd have to deal with callers who, instead of responding to my cogent and witty representation of the Progressive Cause, would authoritatively announce and denounce my true intentions of imposing socialism, atheism, baby-killing, and general mayhem on an unsuspecting populace. Their general perspective, reinforced by the power of semi- and selective education, was: I'm on to you, bucko.

You get the same weird and self-confident omniscience pretty often in the blogosphere. For example, there's one particular twisted dude (I won't dignify his ravings by naming him) who pops up in comment threads all over the left and center-left who is certain that the DLC basically exists in order to serve as a front for the American Israel Public Affairs Committte (AIPAC). As it happens, the DLC comments on Israeli-Palestinian issues about once a year, and I'm almost always the guy who writes these comments. I don't know anybody at AIPAC and have never once read their talking points, so it's really kind of odd that somebody out there knows that I go to work everyday determined to serve AIPAC's will.

Along the same lines, I cannot tell you how often I get emails and even phone calls from people earnestly informing me of the nefarious activities and actual motives of Al From, Bruce Reed, Will Marshall, and Marshall Wittmann, all of whom work right down the hall from me. I mean, thanks for the tips and all, but I'm not stupid, and probably have pretty good sources of my own for what my colleagues are up to, right?

Lest I be accused of elitism, let me make it clear that this kind of I'm on to you, bucko stuff is not confined to comment threads or emails from regular folks; it's often retailed by bloggers running sites that get a lot more traffic than this one; by diarists on those same sites; and sometimes even by Mainstream Media types who can't be bothered with real research. They're all opinion leaders, in their own communities.

For example, everybody at the DLC gets a big laugh out of the regular assertions by bloggers, occasionally reflected by print or online journalists, that we spend our evenings at Washington cocktail parties conspiring with the DC Democratic Establishment to maintain control of the Party and keep the outside-the-beltway rabble out. Aside from the fact that the DLC's political base is largely outside-the-beltway, we ain't exactly A-list society people here, and are about as likely to frequent Georgetown Salons as Michael Moore. Actually, a lot less likely, and vastly less likely than presumed anti-Establishment figures such as Arianna Huffington or George Lackoff.

To be clear, and fair, the tendency to think we know people and institutions we don't really know is universal. I did a post a while back that in passing mentioned the reputation of The New Republic as a preserve for Ivy League grads, and was immediately informed by someone there that I didn't know what I was talking about. I posted a correction, but still felt bad for promoting a stereotype of an institution that I thought I knew pretty well.

More recently, I entered the moral hazard zone by getting into a colloquoy over at TPMCafe wherein I criticized a trend among some progressives focused on the NSA surveillance story to speak fondly of people like Grover Norquist and Paul Weyrich. In responding to Matt Yglesias' suggestion that Norquist's position against the NSA program indicated that Grover wasn't all bad, I said: "Matt, Grover Norquist is all bad; if you look up 'bad' in the dictionary, you see his photo."

Now I'm perfectly willing to stand by the argument that Norquist's politics are all bad, and indeed, that his opposition to NSA surveillance is based on well-articulated Norquistian positions that are bad as well. But I probably implied that I knew Norquist was an evil person, and that's a judgment that should be consigned to his actual friends and associates, and to the Almighty. I've met the guy exactly once, when I debated him on CSPAN after writing a very hostile profile of him in Blueprint magazine, which now seems more accurate than ever. Up close, I did observe that he looked remarkably average physically, given his self-identification as a macho guy who likes gunplay, uses violent language in attacking his enemies, and once spent a lot of time hanging out with guerillas in Angola and Mozambique. But I didn't smell the brimstone, see the horns, or hear anything that made me certain I knew the dark depths of his soul.

Some bloggers, if they bothered to read this long post, would probably think I'm exhibiting weakness here--an unwillingness to smite the foe, whoever it is, with every weapon of abuse at hand, reflecting a Moderate Milquetoast reasonableness that invites contempt from The Enemy, and that leads down the road to the moral equivalency and "both sides are wrong" perspective of the David Broders of the political world. I plead innocent to the charge. My allegiances are clear; my conviction of the moral superiority of progressivism and the Democratic Party is unequivocal. But if we are, to use the overworn but useful phrase, the "reality-based community," it's important that we stick to what we actually know, and let the other side become the party of know-it-alls who really are know-nothings.
-- Posted at 5:13 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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