Wednesday, June 17, 2009

From there to here: Cast adrift

I said previously that my conversion from a (mostly) liberal to a (mostly) conservative state of mind began with the realization that the sources I trusted to tell me the straight story - Huffington Post, MSNBC, and most of all Andrew Sullivan - were so biased that no hint of evenhandedness existed. In my last post, I talked specifically about my disenchantment with the Huffington Post as I realized it committed the very sins it regularly accused the Republicans of: silencing dissent and believing dishonesty was justified as long as HuffPo was “right”.

At the same time I was reading - and becoming disenchanted with - the Huffington Post, I was also watching a little MSNBC and reading a lot of Andrew Sullivan. My gradual awareness that they also were not entirely straightforward completed my alienation from the liberal side of the political process.

I never spent as much time with MSNBC as I did with HuffPo. I was terribly upset about the telecomm immunity in FISA (you remember - that immunity Obama swore he’d filibuster) and I found Keith Olbermann’s views about that right up my alley. Still, though, he always yelled too much and Chris Matthews always seemed awfully sure about topics I felt were more a matter of opinion than fact. In these aspects Olbermann and Matthews also exhibited that unwillingness to believe there could possibly be any “virtue or truth” on the other side I found so distressing in Jean Rohe’s HuffPo post.

At the same time, there was the whole Bush thing. MSNBC loathed Bush and considered him stupid and evil or - in their more sophisticated moments - merely stupid and thus a pawn of the evil Cheney. As I’ve said, I was not - and am not - happy with Bush’s attitude toward the Constitution. Nonetheless, he was the President and some part of me - perhaps those same long-buried attitudes that made me unable to see police officers as the enemy - wasn’t entirely comfortable with the level of vitriol being heaped on him. In particular I cringed every time Olbermann insisted Bush was a fascist. Still all my friends were convinced Bush was a cross between the village idiot and the ultimate evil so my discomfort never really surfaced; it just pricked me a little when the guys at MSNBC would start frothing at the mouth about the President. Between MSNBC’s certainty that all virtue rested on their side and their viciousness toward the President, I could never become a big MSNBC fan but I still thought myself enough in sympathy with many of their positions to feel both horrified and betrayed when they jumped on Obama’s misogyny bandwagon.

Once I’d left HuffPo behind and realized I was not entirely comfortable with MSNBC, my primary blog read was Andrew Sullivan. I suppose this fit with the shifts taking place below the surface of my world view: when I began reading him he presented himself - with some justification - as a conservative. Plus he was already anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War when I first encountered him and I agreed with him there. His admission that he had supported both Bush and the War before realizing his error helped me believe he was someone who would honestly present both sides of an issue regardless of how he felt about it. Stupid of me I know.

It’s not like the signs weren’t there. I figure I agreed with Sullivan about 60% of the time but even when I didn’t agree with him, I found his arguments rational and I could understand why he believed what he did even though I believed differently. Or at least that was the case most of the time. There was always that 10% of his arguments that made no sense. Then it was as if he had a huge blind spot and simply, literally could not see something directly in front of him. The clearest example of this was his attitude toward the Catholic Church’s decision that homosexuals were not to be priests, period. I could certainly understand Sullivan’s distress over this decision but his writing never so much as hinted at the fact that there was an even larger group of people who were banned from the priesthood by inborn characteristics: women. His blindness reached its apex when he posted a letter from a reader whose partner was losing his Church because of its decision that homosexuals could not be priests (emphasis mine):

And so Benedict, supposedly a man of God, pushes away good people from this church. I have no doubt in my mind that what Benedict is doing now is a crime, a crime against God. If this were discrimination against Jews or blacks or any other group, it would be classed as fascist bigotry, and eventually the perpetrator would be brought to task by society in an appropriate way and exiled from their institution. Pope Benedict cannot get away from this crime against humanity. Whatever his or others' personal views against homosexuality, to discriminate against a group in an institutional form is apartheid, is Nazism, is fascism, and nothing less.

Unless, of course, the group being discriminated against is women. So long as we were the group banned from the priesthood this reader’s partner’s “love for his religion [was] great.” And so, apparently, was Sullivan’s.

Still, as maddening as I found Sullivan’s ten percent worth of blind spots I didn’t stop to consider that the rest of his writing, which I believed to be thoughtful and even-handed, might also suffer from blind spots, in those cases blind spots to which I myself was subject. Then came Barack Obama.

I don’t remember becoming suddenly aware that Sullivan was heaping a lot of praise on Obama. Through most of 2007 everyone thought Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and I was unhappy enough about that so any slaps Sullivan took at Clinton in favor of Obama would have seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Two things happened at the beginning of 2008 to change my perceptions. First, I was without access to a computer from early January until about mid-March. That meant I was getting my news primarily from a daily newspaper in the South. While the news was much the same, the editorials tended conservative. So I was both removed from Sullivan’s filtering of events and exposed to a slightly different filter. I wasn’t aware of it as it happened but those different filters meant I was getting not just different viewpoints but somewhat different facts.

Second, I began to feel more supportive of Clinton and thus became more sensitized to the way so much of the media was out of line in their depiction of her. And when I returned to my computer and started reading what I’d missed while I was away it became clear that no one was more out of line than Andrew Sullivan. The contrast between my reaction to Clinton crying and his floored me. I knew there were those who claimed her tears were fraudulent but Sullivan’s sheer ugliness was breath-taking.

From that point on, Sullivan became literally unbalanced: everything Clinton did was at least wrong and probably pathological; everything Obama did was right - and if Sullivan couldn’t make it right, he just ignored it. Most distressing to me was Sullivan’s willingness - eagerness - to misrepresent the views of others to further his agenda. This wasn’t just a blind spot; it was deliberate data drop-out.

Some examples of this were small. Sullivan quoted Dave Barry in a way that made it sound like Barry was making fun of Clinton crying. Read Barry’s full article and the picture looks different. Sullivan quoted a snippet of a John Derbyshire article but only as far as the line that reads:

By this standard, this campaign has offered us two inspirational political futures: Barack Obama’s, and Ron Paul’s.

Read Derbyshire himself and you find the next line is:

Obama has nothing for a conservative to like, and the passions he has aroused are inexplicable to me.

On the other hand, some of Sullivan’s judicious editing was not small at all. The most egregious example involves Clinton’s RFK/June comment. On May 25, 2008, Karl Rove appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. When Stephanopoulos referred to Rove as an informal adviser to the McCain campaign, Rove denied that level of involvement but Stephanopoulos insisted “informal adviser” was in fact the correct label. Andrew Sullivan created a post called, “Keeping Them Honest” which thanked Stephanopoulos for making sure Rove was correctly identified. Sullivan’s post contained a brief clip from This Week containing the relevant exchange.

What Sullivan’s post did not mention was that immediately preceding the introduction of Rove, Stephanopoulos was interviewing David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager. In that segment, Stephanopoulos hammered Axelrod over the Obama campaign circulating Keith Olbermann’s contemptible Special Comment about Clinton’s RFK/June comment to the press corps at the same time Obama was “forgiving” Clinton for the remark.

It wasn’t just Clinton about whom Sullivan was unbalanced. There was also the way he wrote about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism versus the way he wrote about Obama’s ties to the Reverend Wright. As Ed Morrissey put it:

Let’s make this clear. [According to Sullivan] Romney had a responsibility to explain the racism of the Mormons, which they themselves repudiated in 1978, including “self-criticism” for being a Mormon during that period. However, with Obama belonging to and supporting a church in which his self-described “moral compass” preaches that the US created the HIV virus to commit genocide and calling the nation the “the US of KKK-A”, Obama gets a pass because … he writes so beautifully of the faith he found through Jeremiah Wright?

Uh, sure.

I wasn’t the only person who was beginning to wonder about Sullivan. During a liveblog of the April 16, 2008, debate, Commentary’s John Podhoretz referred to him as “Andrew ‘Someone Give Me Barack Obama’s Shoe So I Can Lick It’ Sullivan. By August 31 (as the Palin wars began) a reader at The Corner expressed what I had been thinking for quite a while:

at this point I can't see him [Sullivan] as anything other than a total Obama partisan. His blog's purpose has gone from discussing politics from a conservative perspective to simply trying to get Obama elected. I can't see any other explanation for his recent contradictory posts. Conspicuously absent from his blog have been any posts devoted to analyzing Obama's policy proposals - e.g. can we really pay for everything that Obama is promising in domestic entitlements by simply taxing "the rich" a bit more? It's simple questions like this one - and the answers may even be in Obama's favor - that have no place in his posts anymore. Instead, we get vacuous posts praising Obama's rhetoric and oratory skills. It's been sad, actually, because he is a really intelligent guy. I'm amazed he has allowed himself to lose all his credibility as a conservative writer simply to get Obama elected.

I had stopped reading Sullivan before that fateful weekend so I didn’t see firsthand his eagerness to spread the truly hideous rumors about Governor Palin, Bristol, and Trig. For that I am profoundly grateful.

Still, I had hung in there for quite a while. It’s difficult and more than a little embarrassing for me to admit just how very much I wanted Sullivan to come to his senses, start treating Clinton decently, and stop worshipping at the feet of Obama. I don’t think I consciously acknowledged to myself that if Sullivan was as biased and unbalanced as he now appeared then I would have to re-evaluate a lot of what I believed but I’m pretty sure my subconscious was well aware of that. I can remember feeling almost ill when I read Sullivan, hoping each time that he would finally do a post admitting he’d been blind and biased and would now play fair with Clinton and with anyone else who had the misfortune not to be Barack Obama. After one particularly egregious post about Clinton - I think it was one of the ones where he quoted from Animal Farm - he suddenly announced he was taking a vacation, he needed a break. Thank goodness, I thought. His editor or his spouse or his friends have managed to make him see that he’s gone off the deep end. He’ll chill out for a while and come back sane. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.

The last straw for me with regard to Sullivan came in June of 2008. It was a small matter, perhaps hardly worth noting, but it did two things. First, it finally convinced me there was no hope Sullivan would return to his senses. The Andrew Sullivan I had been reading either was gone for good or - more likely - had never really existed. Second, it made me face the fact that the vitriol Sullivan heaped on Clinton was the same vitriol he had heaped on Bush. And if I knew he wasn’t playing fair with Clinton, how could I now believe he had ever played fair with Bush?

Sullivan was talking about Obama’s proposal to jack up Social Security taxes on those making more than $250,000 and concluded:

There's no point in disguising this: Obama will punish those who succeed in order to funnel benefits to those who haven't. Yes: he's a liberal. But Bush never dealt with the fiscal reality - preferring to borrow the money from the Chinese. In that sense, these hikes are Bush's hikes as well.

In other words, the Devil made Obama do it.

I had hit my limit.: Sullivan was now clearly, undeniably, irredeemably irrational. I was going to have to accept that everything I thought I knew about the politics of the last seven years was - if I had learned it from him or MSNBC or HuffPo or anyone who agreed with them (and that’s a lot of anyones) - open to question.

I was adrift on the sea of world views without so much as a compass. I started paddling.

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