Media Blog

Okay, Mr. Frum, Maybe I Was a Little Harsh

David Frum thinks I was too hard on Anne Applebaum, and his arguments seem to me entirely fair, though I suspect he’s reading me more harshly than is called for; he notes that I didn’t offer any praise for Applebaum’s famous work on the Gulag, for instance, but I didn’t believe that was relevant to the discussion. Despite the occasional vapor rising from the fever swamps, I believe that support for Senator Obama is not inconsistent with vigorous anti-communism. Applebaum’s work is of course very highly regarded and by all accounts rightly so. It is not unusual, though, for people with gold-plated intellectual credentials to write weak or unconvincing op-ed journalism, cf. Krugman, Paul. But if anybody wants to argue that Anne Applebaum has forgotten more about the history of communism than I will ever know, I won’t argue. I don’t see how that makes the actual arguments presented in her piece in Slate any more convincing.

And my “overt abuse” of Applebaum’s “appallingly elitist biography,” as Frum puts it, was probably a little rough and dismissive, but it wasn’t exactly ex nihilo. It wasn’t so much an ad-hominem attack as a response to the ad-hominem character of Applebaum’s own piece, which contained more emotion than evidence. Applebaum makes a specific charge, i.e. that the Republican party “has been taken over by anti-intellectual extremists.” As evidence, she cites Governor Palin, a Sean Hannity special, and yahoos being yahoos at a McCain rally. This seems to me a pretty thin reed upon which to hang such an accusation. She also dismisses McCain supporters as a dangerous “mob” that must “be kept away—far away—from the White House.”

Applebaum is particularly concerned about foreign policy, but it seems to me that Republican foreign policy has been conducted in the past eight years by people who are not exactly anti-intellectual extremists: Rice, Wolfowitz, Feith, Powell, &c. Ignoring the actual policymakers and going after some nameless loudmouthed yokel at an open public event is a rhetorical cheap shot and deserves to be called out as such. I’m surprised that Frum, having been the target of so many comparable cheap shots over the course of his career, doesn’t agree.

My broader point is that Barack Obama isn’t only a presidential candidate — he’s a class marker, an item of conspicuous consumption. Applebaum is at pains to distinguish herself from the “mob” supporting McCain, and I am amused by how often Obama’s supporters marvel that he was editor of the Harvard law review, as if that were a qualification for the presidency rather than a qualification to sit on the Senate rules committee. I don’t think it diminishes Applebaum’s work, or personal integrity, to note that she has presented in this article a case that is not convincing, therefore, “It’s Hard to Believe Anne Applebaum.” There is no dishonor in preferring a candidate with a background that is similar to one’s own, but to claim that those with contrary opinions must be “anti-intellectual extremists” invites further investigation. I wonder which potential McCain cabinet members are “anti-intellectual extremists” in Applebaum’s estimate? Joe Lieberman? Jack Kemp? Lewis Eisenberg?

Frum is absolutely correct that in these disappointing times some conservatives have become far too ready to “read out” those with whom they disagree; I wouldn’t presume to do so with anybody of Anne Applebaum’s standing, of course, or David Frum’s, though I’m pretty sure that the Big Tent isn’t quite big enough to include Senator Obama, whatever his other virtues.

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