The Agenda

Mickey Kaus on Reihan Salam on JournoList

When do you go from being a nice guy to being a careerist? As some of you may have noticed, I make an effort not to attack people. Even when I am harsh in my criticisms, I prefer framing my criticisms as a series of questions designed to resolve a misunderstanding. I really believe that what we — the writers and readers who regularly engage with these big policy questions — are part of an ongoing conversations about getting things right, not a struggle for dominance or survival, or anything like that.

And I also think it’s a good thing to not get too overheated. That’s one of the reasons why I defend Tea Party activists against outlandish characterizations made by their critics on the left, and it’s a reason why I wrote this decidedly imperfect piece on JournoList. What I tried to convey in the piece is that the core JListers were essentially a clique — a mutual aid society — that mirrored similiar cliques that exist in the offline world. I didn’t intend to suggest that I thought JList was a good thing. Indeed, my instinct is to be very critical. As I explained to Mike Konczal and Steve Teles, I saw it as a kind of resource-hoarding. Yet it wasn’t exactly selfish resource-hoarding in the classic sense. As I understand it, Ezra Klein, the founder of the listserv, wanted to broaden access as much as he could consonant with keeping the list off-the-record and quasi-democratic — that is, he deferred to the wishes of the listerv’s membership.

I didn’t emphasize my criticisms because, frankly, I found them uninteresting. Others, including Andrew Sullivan, had made the same criticisms more effectively than I could, and I wanted to add a different perspective.

Mickey Kaus — someone I’ve been reading since I was a high school student — took strong exception to my piece. He was particularly exercised by the following passage, and understandably so:

But JournoList hardly invented journalistic cliquishness. It just made it more vivid. The conversations that Jonathan Strong has highlighted in The Daily Caller—including charges that the JList crowd coordinated attacks against Sarah Palin—were very much the conversations that recent grads have been having at house parties for thousands of years, since the days when house parties were cave parties. A distinguished art critic told a friend of mine that the twenties are the age when you form your team. For the rest of your professional life, your team will be doing battle with other teams, whether you know it or not. The smart thing is to stay close to your friends, and build them up when you can. The building of teams can happen on the web, sort of. But the real building of teams happens in more intimate settings, where there is no email trail. Consider the networks of women and evangelical Christians and gay men that have emerged in countless industries to provide mutual support while climbing professional ladders. These networks are many things, including a safe space for venting. We can condemn the cliquishness of JournoList. But are we going to condemn the fact that like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out? If not, the time may have come to shut up about JournoList and move on. [Emphasis added.]

Mickey highlights that last sentence because — I assume — it is the most inflammatory. What I meant to say, and evidently didn’t say very effectively, is that JList is inevitable. So the best we can do is criticize pernicious groupthink, which is where the tendency of “like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out” goes badly wrong.

What I take strong exception to is the notion that I wrote my JList column out of careerist motivation rather than a nice guy motivation. Granted, both careerism and nice-guyism can be pernicious. But they are different in important ways. I don’t think the careerist motivation fits the facts. I do indeed have a team. It is not, however, the JList team, as anyone who knows me will tell you. My mentors are an idiosyncratic and diverse group, all of whom are either on the political right or apolitical. My friendship circle is centered on friends I made in high school, college, and in New York, which is a big reason why I moved to New York. I have far more friends working in film, television, the arts, literary criticism, and theater than in opinion journalism, as I spent most of my undergraduate years acting in plays (strangely enough). The number of conversations I have about politics when I’m not on the clock is very, very, very small, and I like it that way.

Among opinion journalists, my closest friends are my erstwhile co-author, two staffers at The Weekly Standard, a D.C.-based sports writer, and a Pashto-speaking writer and reporter I’ve known since I was sixteen with completely inscrutable politics. And my “media connections,” such as they are, reflect friendships and working relationships I formed at a selective university in the late 1990s, not in D.C. My friends on the left are writers, editors, and researchers at New York-based newspapers and magazines — n + 1, not The American Prospect. I did work at The New Republic as an intern in 2001, and I spent most of my time there, and as a freelancer the year after, beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq.

So then why on earth would I suggest that the JListers were guilty of nothing worse than a universal human foible? It’s because I believe it to be true, and I would rather argue with the JListers about why a high-tax, high-spending vision for the U.S. is misguided than about whether or not they are sinister. Rest assured, JList members will never be convinced that they are sinister. And their fans won’t abandon them because Mickey Kaus believes JList to be a noxious conspiracy. But if those of us on the right do a good and careful job of identifying the sources of our public policy woes and finding solutions, I really believe that we can persuade the wider American public.

I readily acknowledge that I could be wrong about all of this. I am saddened, however, by Mickey’s claims regarding my motivations. I will nevertheless remain an enthusiastic reader. Few bloggers understands organized labor as well as Mickey, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of someone more entertaining.

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