Hacks Vs. Wonks, and Authenticity Vs. Propoganda

As you have probably already seen by now, Jontahan Chait has a lengthy article on the "netroots" in The New Republic. It actually isn't nearly as bad as one would expect such a piece to be, but none the less I still have to take issue with a couple of its central assertions. First, the article is discussing what I have previously termed the activist progressive blogosphere, not the progressive netroots in general:
The netroots are a subset of the liberal blogs, constituting those blogs that are directly involved in political activism, often urging their readers to volunteer for, or donate money to, Democratic candidates
Actually, the progressive blogosphere is a subset of the progressive netroots, as our polling has previously shown. For example, the article never mentions MoveOn.org, which is undeniably the largest progressive netroots organization of all. However, only 36% of MoveOn.org members read progressive blogs "regularly" or "sometimes."

Secondly, I think Chait fundamentally misunderstands both the way many prominent progressive bloggers approach the world of "political ideas," and the means by which we are held accountable for our writing. From a point late in the piece:
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.(...)

Conservatives have crowed for years that they have "won the war of ideas." More often than not, such boasts include a citation of Richard Weaver's famous dictum, "Ideas have consequences." A war of ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, "[I]f you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas." The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.
First, as the blogger who reported that Salon was wrong in reporting that Marcotte and McEwan were fired, I was not being untruthful. As I told the Salon reporter the next week, I simply had different information. Just like many journalists, I have contacts inside the Edwards campaign too, and when I reported that Marcotte and McEwan has not been fired I was reporting what I heard from those contacts. It turned out the next morning that I was right, because they were not fired. There appears simply to have been disagreement in the Edwards camp at the time, and Salon and MyDD were apparently drawing our information from different sources. I wasn't hiding anything. I wasn't being being untruthful. I was simply reporting, and it turned out that I got the story right. It is pretty damn irritating that Chait would accuse oe me of lying about the story without even asking me, or even considering the possibility that I have reliable contacts inside the Edwards campaign.

Secondly, 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. That isn't propaganda--it is simply a difference between hacks and wonks.

Third, by referring to our efforts as "propaganda," Chait also implies that progressive bloggers often intentionally write false misinformation in order to achieve a political end. This is simply hogwash. Bloggers, including political bloggers, live and die on the perceived authenticity, transparency, and credibility of their voices. Certainly, progressive bloggers are incorrect at times, just as everyone is incorrect at times, but I don't know any progressive bloggers who intentionally spread false information. If anyone was thought to be doing so on a wide scale s/he would suffer massive hits to their traffic and incoming links. Honesty and authenticity are crucial to the success of progressives bloggers. Just because we are wrong sometimes does not mean we are engaging in propaganda--it just means we are wrong.

Overall, 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. It makes me wonder how Chait would classify his 2003-2004 Dean-O-Phobe series. Was that propaganda, or was it the pursuit of ideas?

Tags: Blogosphere, Media (all tags)



Re: Hacks Vs. Wonks, and Authenticity Vs. Propogan

Regarding your second choice, I think you're slightly misinterpreting Chait.  What he means is that the verbal tactics used by prominent netroots activists--for example, the use of "chickenhawk"--are (in his opinion) not internally consistent or legitimate; he sees them as not being "fair play" in the intellectual debate.  The netroots response, meanwhile, would be "Who cares? The goal isn't fair intellectual debate, the goal is to win."  That's what Chait means when he says propaganda--using arguments not for their own sake, but rather for the pursuit of political power.

I don't agree with this perspective, just wanted to shed a little light on it.

by meelar 2007-05-01 12:23PM | 0 recs
Of Ideas and Consequences

Whatever Leon Wieseltier might say, ideas and consequences are essentially and enduringly linked.  As William James might have said, ideas are different only if they produce different consequences.  A distinction between ideas and consequences is untenable.  To be interested in one is to be interested in the other.  

by Reece 2007-05-01 12:23PM | 0 recs
Chait Does Not Get It (Mostly)

Chait's contention that the blogosphere is involved in the "propaganda" misses the most important thing about the blogosphere - the interactive nature.  The most useful/entertaining parts of mydd and dailykos are the comments sections, where I ordinarily find information and links that deepen and change my understanding of the issue.  (Of course, sometimes I find trolls, hijackers and random double posters).  The whole point of propaganda was the centralization of the message, which was then to be drummed into the masses.  

Chait's idea that all blogs on the progressive side march to a called tune simply is wrong.  As much as Mickey Kaus would like people to think that there is a secret e-mail of the day which is spread to the progressive blogs, the stories that get pushed are the stories that engage the readers/commenters.

The only thing that I think Chait got right is that there is a difference between electoral blogs and wonk blogs.  Outside of election season (post-Labor Day plus four weeks into local primaries and four months into Presidential Primaries), I am more partial to talkingpointsmemo and washingtonmonthly, because I am very happy to read progressive substantive articles/threads.  On the other hand, mydd does a much better job of covering labor/union issues then anyone else.

by Ephus 2007-05-01 12:29PM | 0 recs
It's a strange piece

His main point is that the netroots is interested in political victories first and ideas second. Well, yes, I'll plead guilty on behalf of the sphere. You know why the netroots is interested primarily in political victory? Because it's a political movement, not a political science debating club or a magazine. Chait wants this political movement to be something that, by definition, it is not. As political movements go, however, it cares a great deal about the truth, especially compared to counterparts on the right.

A second gripe: At times he shows a strange ignorance. For example, he blasts the netroots for using the term "chickenhawk," saying it's hypocritical because most liberal bloggers support some wars, like Afgahnistan, and most never served, so they are, by their own terms, chickenhawks. But the term isn't applied to people who merely support wars: it's applied to people who demean the patriotism, decency, and courage of those who don't. While it's true that some liberal bloggers support some wars, none would demean those who oppose a military adventure. That's because we're not hawks, or chickenhawks.

But he makes a couple good points. For example, liberal bloggers are loath to criticize each other--a chuminess that could lead to intellectual laziness. And on a related note, the main way that liberal blogger become known and gain a following is to be linked by a well-known blogger; thus it's in the interest of up and coming bloggers not to, say, blast Atrios. I'm not saying that liberal bloggers would be kind to bloggers who kissed their ass-they're more likely to be swayed by good writing--but the gateway role played by the biggies leads to a gentleness toward Kos et al that doesn't lead to a vibrant debate. The sphere is too incestuous and clubby, but we all knew that, right?

by david mizner 2007-05-01 12:43PM | 0 recs
Re: It's a strange piece

For example, liberal bloggers are loath to criticize each other

Maybe, maybe not.  It's a generalization...

Surely here at MyDD I wouldn't make that comment without saying "present company excluded".  The MyDD frontpagers mince no words; at times they attack each other quite ferociously.

by Rob in Vermont 2007-05-01 07:13PM | 0 recs
For what it's worth

I'm a hack AND a wonk.

(and a dessert topping).

by privatewl 2007-05-01 01:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Hacks Vs. Wonks, and Authenticity Vs. Propogan
Ah, irony. Was there a chance that a piece favoring the netroots' intellectual inquiry over TNR's might run?
 If no, then this piece starts itself to look a lot institutional propaganda. Hmm...
by sb 2007-05-01 01:40PM | 0 recs
Re: Hacks Vs. Wonks, and Authenticity Vs. Propogan

I don't know about the netroots in general, but Daily Kos is certainly a progaganda outlet, proudly so in fact. Ironically, Talking Points Memo is somewhat the opposite.

by Korha 2007-05-01 03:55PM | 0 recs
Authenticity Vs. Propoganda

Propaganda is a strange word to choose.  Technically, he is correct as the word does not actually mean anything untruthful is being promoted.  However, since WWI the word has been used primarily in the pejorative sense and Chait darn well knows it.

Overall I thought the article was pretty good, though I don't agree with it all.  What is missing (moveon, interactive and inclusiveness, etc.) is more glaring than what is incorrect, imo.

by Mark Matson 2007-05-01 04:03PM | 0 recs


Advertise Blogads