The critic Chuck Klosterman writes very smart things about some seemingly dumb cultural phenomena. But there’s one kind of writing he tries to avoid: “Picking out something obviously stupid and reiterating how stupid it obviously is. This is the lowest form of criticism, easily accomplished by anyone.”
Of course, that rules out about 90 percent of the things written by bloggers, including me, who live for the “fisk,” the point-by-point takedown of another blogger’s argument.
That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the practice, especially reading people who do this not just to show off or score cheap ideological points, but who actually are dedicated to something approximating the truth. Three takedowns caught my attention this week; I don’t necessarily agree with the authors on all things, but in each instance I admired their rigor.
Lies, damned lies…
Glenn Greenwald, a blogger for Salon, can be unrelenting in pinning all our foreign policy woes on neoconservatives. But he did an effective job last week in dismantling a column by Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who now writes for the Washington Post.
In a July 13 column titled “The fading embers of Obama’s coalition,” Thiessen made the rather startling claim that the president had suffered a “36 percent” drop in support among Jewish Democrats, from the 78 percent who voted for him. No doubt some Jewish Obama voters are suffering “buyer’s remorse,” but 36 percent?
“To call this assertion factually false is to put it politely,” responds Greenwald. He notes that the figure is taken from “an April 2010 memo from the obscure GOP polling firm McLaughlin & Associates that provides no support for his claim.” The survey question itself is suspect, asking, “Would you vote to re-elect Barack Obama as President or would you consider voting for someone else”? You’d have to be a pretty starry-eyed fan, or perhaps an Obama family member, if you wouldn’t even “consider” an alternative in the future.
Greenwald points to other polls, including one by the American Jewish Committee, that suggest that while Obama’s popularity has suffered among the Jews (as it has among the general population, for a host of reasons), he still holds a solid majority among them — to the chagrin of conservative bloggers like Jennifer Rubin, who don’t understand this “near-Pavlovian response” of Jews to Democrats.
Greenwald goes on to apply this to his pet theory — that neocons distort the public discourse on Mideast policy — but his post is otherwise a useful reality check. The Post should have challenged Thiessen.
Presence of malice
Ron Kampeas of JTA does an even more comprehensive takedown of Philip Weiss, an obsessive critic of Israel who makes Greenwald sound like William Kristol. Weiss makes a hobby of “exposing” reporters who have ties to Israel, by birth, family, or religion (in other words, Jews). The implication, of course, is that no Jew could report fairly or accurately on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But as Kampeas points out at JTA’s “Capital J” blog, a reporter’s ethnicity or cultural connections are rarely useful in judging his or her reporting — the work is. And often, reporters’ ties to a country enhance the work: They speak the language, know the people, absorb the culture. Somehow this becomes a problem only when the country is Israel.
Kampeas takes this a step further, however, by suggesting the ways Weiss’ views actually endanger journalists. Kampeas, an Israeli, remembers reporting from Taliban enclaves in Afghanistan, where his religion and nationality were rarely an issue. That was before Daniel Pearl was “murdered in Pakistan because he was Jewish.” What changed? Pearl’s murderers, Kampeas suggests, were exposed to the “toxic narratives about Jews” that emanate from the West — and irresponsible bloggers like Weiss.
Time magazine humorist Joel Stein apologized to the Indian-American community this month after an icky column about how the East Asian influx has transformed his hometown — our own Edison, NJ. “[S]ometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments,” complains Stein. “Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.”
Stein’s point was something about airing the “discomfort” that could better help him understand the immigration debate, but a lot of readers, including me, couldn’t get past his “dot-head” jokes and quips about India’s poverty.
A Jewish story? I didn’t see how, until I read a piece by Slate blogger Tom Scocca, who’s new to me. Scocca proposes that the Jewish Stein presumed, as a member of a once-downtrodden minority, that his Indian readers would assume that he was in on the joke — that their shared status as immigrants would allow him to be seen as an FOI, a Friend of the Indians.
“This is the plight of secure, young upper-middle-class Jewish funnypeople, who have inherited the sharp humor traditions of an oppressed minority without inheriting very much of the oppression,” writes Scocca.
Scocca’s point is that Jews are no longer the underdogs, writing from weakness and sharing a sensibility with those similarly weak. Scocca calls it “testimony to the power of the melting pot”: Stein is “just another white dude.”