I feel Jonathan Chait’s pain.
Oh, not the flesh-searing agony he clearly feels every time he reads the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. I sometimes wonder whether the poor New Republic scribe has a “pain chip” in his head that goes off every time he hears the words “supply side” or “a rising tide lifts all boats” (think of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or maybe the pain collars from “The Gamesters Of Triskelion” episode of Star Trek).
No, the reason Chait’s in pain is that he’s been pegged with the label of irrational Bush hater. David Brooks told Howard Kurtz “After you say you hate the way Bush walks and talks, you can never again ask readers to trust your judgment on anything involving Bush.” Our own Ramesh Ponnuru told Kurtz that Chait should be complimented. After all, “not everyone would be brave enough to recount their harrowing descent into madness so vividly.”
Chait responds that he’s frustrated that people are ignoring his substantive analysis for why he hates Bush and are instead focusing on the irrational, emotional aspect of his argument. In a nutshell, Chait’s position is: Just because I hate George Bush doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And even if I’m wrong, it’s not necessarily because I hate him. And, just because some Bush haters are complete frick’n whack-jobs doesn’t mean all Bush haters are. And if someone–please–would just remove this thing from inside my skull I could read Milton Friedman again!
Okay, I made up the last one. But on the other points, Chait is absolutely right.
Of course, I’m compromised. I myself am an “irrational Clinton hater,” diagnosed, but not treated. I hate Bill Clinton–or at least I did when he mattered. And have written at great length (Here and here are just two examples) about why I hated the guy. I’m not sure what my feelings are for him now–and since I am not Bill Clinton I don’t feel some huge urge to plumb the depths of my soul to discover what those feelings are and then share them with the world with misty eyes, bitten lips, and oddly curled thumbs.
But let’s take Bush and Clinton out of the equation for a second. Since when does hating make someone wrong?
I hate Stalin. I hate Hitler. I hate Kim Jong Il, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Mumia Abu Jamal, and people who feel the need to be cruel to dogs. Working from the other end of the spectrum, I also hate blue cheese, cotton candy, and most dried fruits (with the notable exception of raisins). I hate breaking up into discussion groups, feel-good movies about the mentally disabled, and the entire oeuvre of Barbra Streisand.
I could go on. But the point is that just because I hate these people and things doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Nor does it mean that my reasons for hating them are irrational or illegitimate. Indeed, we generally consider people who say they don’t hate Hitler to have an incomplete or warped grasp of the facts. Conservatives believe that not hating Stalin just as much is a sign of world-historical bias for mass murderers of the Left. We don’t treat people who think dried figs and blue cheese make a nice lunch as if they’re crazy, but hopefully if Bush can get a few justices on the Supreme Court we’ll be able to change that.
The fact is–contrary to people who think with their bumper stickers and other nether regions–hate is a family value. What matters is the What and Why of your hatred. If you hate bigotry or cruelty we generally think you’ve got your priorities right.
If you hate Colonel Sanders because of his wee beady eyes and the chemical in his chicken which makes you crave it fortnightly–well, then, you’ve got problems. But if you hate Col. Sanders because he shot your dog, your position would certainly be understandable. The test as to whether or not you should be taken seriously–as, say, a food critic–would be if you could keep your hatred of the man from clouding your judgment of his chicken. That is, if you thought the Colonel made a damn fine bird before he shot your dog, but now you claim that his chicken tastes like Michael Moore’s socks, then your judgment may be in doubt. But even then, if you’re honest about your conflicts of interest and you explain your opinions with facts and logic–maybe they changed the secret ingredients?–then perhaps your hatred will give you a certain clarity and style lacking in others. After all, many of the greatest writers and journalists of the 20th-century hated the things they wrote about. But their hatred directed them to work harder at making their case.
The challenge for Jonathan Chait is whether or not he can be clear that his hatred of Bush isn’t coloring his analysis of Bush’s policies. That doesn’t mean that even if he succeeds in being honest that he’ll be right in his conclusions. He is, after all, a very liberal guy. But unlike the countless journalists who hate George Bush just as much as Chait does but who keep their true feelings secret, we’ll at least know where Chait is coming from. This has long been one of the reasons I believe opinion journalism is often–but certainly not always–more honest than “objective” journalism. Both have biases, but the former reveals them to the reader while the latter conceals them. I would much rather know that a reporter hates low taxes on moralistic egalitarian grounds then have a reporter who pretends everyone “knows” low taxes are an objective, scientifically proven evil.
BACK TO MY OWN PROBLEMS
For about three years, barely a day went by when I wasn’t told that I was an “irrational Clinton hater.” I would try to make it clear that I was a rational Clinton hater. I gave my reasons, my facts, my values and I said: Here’s my case. But it was the Left which said that to hate Bill Clinton automatically discredited your arguments.
Of course, there were people on the Right who went more than a little bonkers in their Clinton hatred. But, as I tried to argue at the time, that didn’t mean everyone who hated Clinton was an obsessed nut job. And, again, let’s remember obsession doesn’t make you wrong. If it does, let’s stop hearing from people “obsessed” with racial justice, for example. One of the key differences today is that the mainstream media–which Chait insists is not particularly liberal–adamantly refused to see any of these distinctions during the Clinton years but is eager to respect them today.
Just for the record, I always thought Clinton lovers were, on the whole, by far the more irrational ones. For every fact that came out, for every revelation of Clinton tawdriness and cheapness–intellectually, morally and politically–they seemed to love him more. Like a battered wife they translated their disappointments into devotion, their dismay into denial. I’m not saying all rational people should have hated the man, but surely a rational person would have liked him less after the drumbeat of scandals and screw-ups. Wouldn’t an intellectually honest liberal say “Well, not everything’s been great?” But no such intellectually honest reappraisal was forthcoming, which was proof to me that the Clinton lovers were the ones to ignore facts.
After all, the Clinton haters–at least many of us–supported Clinton on a host of issues including his war of choice in Kosovo, even though it didn’t have the support of the U.N.
Look, I still think Bill Clinton will spend eternity in hell sandwiched between the cast of Cats and Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. I still think he got away with more than what he was “unfairly punished” for. I still think that it’s absurd–morally and intellectually–to claim that he was a good president deserving of so many free passes simply because the economy was good. I mean, if that’s the case why doesn’t Marian Wright Edelman have a portrait of Calvin Coolidge in her office? Does this mean that if the California economy starts to pick up Gary Trudeau will stop insinuating that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a rapist?
But strong feelings do not in and of themselves transmute, transform, or transmogrify facts. I’ve never heard that psychics bend spoons by hating them. By far, the best proof I can think of in this respect is a new book by my friend, boss, and colleague, Rich Lowry. It’s called Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
Oh come on. You knew this was coming.
Rich has written the first definitive and fair-minded critique of the entire Clinton legacy. Most books until now have either focused on apologetics or score settling or both (Conason and Blumenthal call your offices). Rich has cast a cold–perhaps even coldhearted–eye on all of the grandiose claims of the Clinton administration (from proclaiming he put “100,000 cops on the street” to his lament that he’d “inherited the worst economy in 50 years” to his oath that he was “doing everything he could to catch Osama bin Laden” to his constant pestering in the White House cafeteria “Are you gonna eat your fat?”).
Maybe Rich is a Clinton hater, maybe he’s not; you’ll have to decide for yourself. But he is most certainly rational, thoughtful, and in full command of the facts–like all Clinton haters and Clinton lovers, for that matter, should be. So, buy the book.