20.7.06

WHY OP-ED PIECES ARE SUSCEPTIBLE TO FISKING. Daniel Drezner links an article that summarizes in one paragraph the difference between an op-ed comment and a refereed article.
We know that use of that ever-loaded term "democracy" in a journal article entails a commitment of four or more pages of literature review in order to dodge the finely honed machetes of peer reviewers. In an op-ed you can explain democracy in a sentence, and readers will get the gist of your definition. Indeed, getting to the gist of things is all you need in editorials.
But it's precisely that getting to the gist that makes an opinion piece, no matter how wittily posed, and no matter how carefully those 1000-3000 words are chosen, important things will be left out for others to nit-pick.

Consider a recent Paul Waldman essay at TomPaine contributing to the continuing efforts of the heirs presumptive to the New Deal to reframe their project.
Ask a conservative what the biggest problem in America is today, and you’ll get answers like overtaxation, a sexualized culture, lack of respect for authority, insufficient church-going or big government running amok. But if you then asked the conservative what the real source of the problem was—the beating heart pumping blood to each and all of these socio-politico-cultural wounds—you’d get the same answer: liberalism.
He goes on to complain,
As everyone knows, conservatives have succeeded in making “liberal” an epithet, something they throw at their opponents—who try desperately to dodge the label. The demonization of “liberal” has been successful in part because conservatives have effectively created what social psychologists call a “schema” with decidedly negative features around the term. A schema is a set of ideas that are connected in people’s minds, such that activating one idea—“liberal”—activates a whole set of related ideas, like lights on a Christmas tree. We assemble schemas as a way of storing and categorizing related information in memory. In this case, the related ideas are things like “soft on crime,” “weak on defense,” “sexually permissive,” and so on. The ideas liberals would like to pop right up in people’s heads when they hear the term liberal—“wants prosperity for everyone,” “supports universal health care” or “stands up to powerful interests”—are farther away from the schema’s center.
But it takes more than the allotted 1,500 words to explain that Franklin D. Roosevelt is different from Hubert Humphrey and both are different from Ralph Nader, and that Herbert Croly is not the same thing as John R. Commons and both are different from Barrington Moore, jr., let alone Ward Churchill. And it likewise takes more words to address the incompletely-resolved tensions between addressing the root causes of crime, including expanded economic opportunities (which brings in its train yet another set of tensions over how best to accomplish that expansion) and ensuring that the most incorrigible criminals are kept away from law-abiding citizens. It's relatively easier to address the tension between providing for a proper defense and avoiding corporate welfare, or public pork in the form of obsolete military facilities in the districts of powerful Representatives or Senators, some of whom are quite vocal about "fighting" for "universal health care" and generally claiming to be on the side of the angels.

Easier to suggest that the opposition is venal or stupid. That fits on a bumper sticker, it can be punched up to work in a 1,500 word column, it preaches to the converted, but it gives people who disagree material to work with.

For example, a commenter to a Virginia Postrel post on a somewhat related topic has parts of such a rebuttal.

[Mickey Kaus] seems to think that anti-gay = ignorant. That's part of it, but a bigger chunk are the people who see a real problem in America with sexuality (teen pregnancy, STD's, idiots who shouldn't have children breeding like feral cats). They lump gays in with all sorts of failed "alternative" families -- so they generally disapprove of "gay rights" as part of a sexual liberation movement they see sending the country down Satan's toilet. The gay rights movement and the left has (generally) helped to fuel this by refusing to suggest any sort of reasonable sexual morality to replace the traditional sexual morality we seek to tear down.

The net result -- Plano -- where parents rationally fear their teenage daughters getting knocked up and irrationally fear their sons wearing dresses.

Post-hoc and all that, but Mr Waldman has left himself open to precisely this kind of rebuttal. His kind of bumper-sticker liberalism has not properly distinguished the desirable from the undesirable consequences of the policies his Establishment, when it was the Establishment and its ideas were the curriculum in the Ivy League and the op-ed pages of the Eastern dailies and its policies were enacted by urban Democrats. And as Ms Postrel's correspondent notes, the failure of what remains of that Establishment to disown some of its loopier allies and to consider the downside of some of their reforms pushes people in what the popular perspective perceives as a conservative direction. (But that, again, requires about four pages of literature review to distinguish the traditionalists from the libertarians from business interests.)

Instead, Mr Waldman waves the bloody shirt.
Liberals need to embrace the culture war, because we’re winning. The story of American history is that of conservative ideas and prejudices falling away as our society grows more progressive and thus more true to our nation’s founding ideals. Conservatives supported slavery, conservatives opposed women’s suffrage, conservatives supported Jim Crow, conservatives opposed the 40-hour work week and the abolishment of child labor, and conservatives supported McCarthyism. In short, all the major advancements of freedom and justice in our history were pushed by liberals and opposed by conservatives, no matter the party they inhabited at the time.
He's right, these policy disputes are about something other than partisan politics. But let's break this out. As the prospectus alerts investors, past performance is no guarantee of future results. (Should the Roman Catholic Church get a free pass on priestly misconduct because its leadership has an intellectual tradition that goes back to the Apostles?) Slavery: good for landed aristocracies, not good for entrepreneurs. Which conservatism is he speaking to? (We'd need another few pages of literature review to address the differing perspectives entrepreneurs seeking to develop local industry and landed aristocrats growing cotton for export would have on tariffs, and the tussle over the proper division of authority between a federal and a local government will persist up to the Big Crunch.) Jim Crow? The classic Establishment rhetorical trump. (Or must I issue an Aging Hippie Alert?) But there is room for serious debate, again, over the proper division of authority between federal and local governments. It's one thing to say that government shall not prohibit people from associating with each other; quite another to use the power of government to compel people to associate with each other. To what extent does residential school choice by moving to an exclusive community reflect well-intentioned school busing policies? Women's suffrage? Prohibition on one hand, safer streets and schools on the other. I'm hard pressed to classify the consequences of campaigning to women voters as what "conservatives" feared or "progressives" hoped for. The forty hour work week? Another few pages of literature review on the consequences of imposing such constraints on the ability of employers to offer a different kind of pay packet to a particularly desirable worker, or on the ability of eager-beavers to put in more time on their task. See also France, sclerotic labor markets in. Child labor? Did the laws codify adaptations that were already in progress. Put another way, did the laws, as written, condemn children to menial agricultural jobs or to delivering papers and mowing lawns, and do they interfere with the ability of precocious children to make money as web designers? McCarthyism? Yes, one point of agreement among libertarians, entrepreneurs, and traditionalists was that Communism was evil. Would Mr Waldman like to disagree? More to my point, might there be some area of agreement between some members of the current conservative coalition and some remnants of the Liberal Establishment that Communism was undesirable and that a Red Scare was not the most effective way of making that point? But again, that uses too many words to fit on a bumper sticker.

To some extent Mr Waldman gets it.
Winning converts isn’t just about convincing people you’re right on the merits of issues, it’s also about showing them that your side is one they want to join, and the other side is one they want to avoid.
But to do so requires logic and content, something that's missing in his column, exactly as it is missing in the visible right-wing punditry he refers to in his allotted words. He hasn't addressed a salient selling point of the Right, which is that the old Liberal Establishment has all too often been willing to demonize and question the motives of its critics, rather than consider the possibility that some of its policy changes have had unanticipated and undesirable consequences. That goes for the current Right Establishment too.

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