It's, uh, a bit less entertaining when I'm the one in the crosshairs. The topic is my two posts (plus one at The Moderate Voice) on whether or not a particular Feministe post is or isn't emblematic of liberal "blame America firstism." It had stirred up quite the hornet's nest already, but even I wasn't expected a Boston Globe columnist to weigh in. But alas, I'll fight the good fight, even when I'm in over my head.
But let's start off with my main target, Jeff Goldstein, who also had some choice words to say on my arguments. Basically, I said this his critique of Feministe followed the following path:
conservatives take a reasonable liberal post, distort it so it "blames America first," proclaim it to be the epitome of liberal thought, and conclude with a lament that all the moderate liberals who don't engage in this type of thinking are gone.
And Jeff cried foul, saying I "completely misread the post" and saying his post did nothing of the sort.
Did it? To the videotape.
1) "Distort it so it 'blames America first'":
Jeff approvingly quotes a comment by Karol which said the following:
Is America perfect? Yes, compared to the land of Saud, we are. You do a disservice to the battle against violence of women by even noting our problems in the same post as Saudi Arabia. America bashing is always fun, I'm sure, but it makes us take the problems of Saudi Arabia much less seriously when you draw a moral equivalence between what happens here and what happens there. It's actually a classic liberal problem, to be unable to criticize anything without first criticizing America. It makes people tune you out and not to take you seriously and whatever point you were trying to make becomes muddled or irrelevant under that equivalence. [emphasis added]
As I pointed out in my own post, this isn't what Feministe was saying at all--far from "first criticizing America" and then, bona fides established, lamenting Saudi Arabian abuse as well, the post spends the first 9/10 bashing Saudi abuse and then as a one paragraph disclaimer asks that we not ignore or minimize abuse at home. So to say, as Jeff approvingly quotes, that this is a case of "America bashing" (much less that the bashing came "first") is simply wrong. So the "distort" claim goes through.
2) "Proclaim it to be the epitome of liberal thought"
Jeff says flat out: "It is typical of the kind of discourse those on the left are treating us to these days." So yes, he's proclaiming this to be "typical" of leftist discourse. He also says that to get rid of it, we'd need to "nuke the base"--implying that this is a common rhetorical move within the mainstream movers and shakers of the Democratic party (I apologize to everyone that I've never seen "Alien"--but I assume this doesn't completely change the meaning of the phrase?). And of course, the second italicized portion of Karol's quote also argues that this is a "classic liberal problem."
3) "Lament that all the moderate liberals who don't engage in this type of thinking are gone"
Jeff references what Democrats would have to do to bring moderates back into the camp:
Rox Populi asked the other day what it might take for moderate Republicans and independents to return to the Democratic Party.
To which I said, quite seriously, that the first thing the Dems would have to do is nuke their base.
A base which, presumably, is rife with this pattern of thinking and where moderates who don't think this way are AWOL.
So, I think Jeff's post follows my pattern relatively closely. I love ya, Jeff, but here I think you're just flat wrong.
Now, on to Cathy. She focuses on the particular claim of mine regarding inconsistency. That is, I argued that insofar as conservatives are claiming that post's like Feministe are part of a pattern of liberal anti-American discourse (even conceding for the moment that the post was part of said pattern, which again I don't think it was), the claim falls flat when conservatives just ignore posts which don't meet the pattern. If they only link to posts that fit the pattern, of course it will exist (and look like a pathology). But that's nothing more than confirmation bias. Cathy flips this point around:
Left-wing feminists don't offer an "it's bad here too" disclaimer every single time they talk about the oppression of women in the Third World? Fine.
Commenters at TMV made similar points, that I wanted the right to give Feministe a cookie every time they didn't attach a requisite America-smack to a post. But it's the right who's forwarding an empirical claim about how liberals talk, that this is a "classic problem," an "inability" to condemn the sins of others without condemning our own. In that respect, they have an obligation to examine the left as a totality, not plucking individual posts out and proclaiming a trend. That's the confirmation bias problem I was talking about--they're drawing a consciously skewed picture and presenting it as fact.
The confirmation bias can also be seen in how Cathy reads the post itself. She writes:
In fact, the placement of the comment about domestic violence in America at the end of Jill's post - in the concluding paragraph, not a footnote - has the effect of shifting the focus from the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia to the "cultural ills" that afflict women in America. If she had wanted merely to acknowledge that we have problems too, why not say, "Yes, America has problems with domestic violence and gender inequality, too, but to even compare them to the abuse and oppression of women in America is delusional to the point of being obscene"? The way her post is written, its main point ends up being: Let's not feel too superior to those Saudis.
To me, the post only comes off that way if you want it to come of that way. To be clear, 85% of the Feministe post (I did a word count) focuses on Saudi Arabia with nary a mention of the US. To interpret the concluding 15% as entirely absorbing the rest strikes me as an act of will. It doesn't strike me as something that would come about absent a pre-conceptualized narrative about how the "left" talks. Cathy's re-write would completely destroy Feministe's real point, which is that we shouldn't minimize our own abuse even while condemning the much worse abuse abroad. Cathy's wording would let us feel all superior about our abuse-response, which isn't a mindset likely to galvanize the masses toward true reform. It encourages political quiescence, the exact opposite of what we want here. So to propose it as a viable alternative only makes sense if the goal is to condemn Saudi Arabia and praise America, as oppose to condemn Saudi Arabia and not let America off the hook. The latter, to me, seems a far more reasonable (and honest) characterization of the way the world is.
The final point Cathy makes is that the presence/absence of America bashing in the Saudi/Columbia posts (respectively) comes from a reflexive leftist opposition to imperialism, which they are currently superimposing on the war on terror:
But actually, the contrast between the two posts is interesting. Maybe the difference in approach is due partly to the fact that the oppression of women in traditional Islamic societies has become a conservative cause lately, with the plight of Muslim women invoked as a justification for U.S. intervention; so, when leftists talk about women's oppression in those countries, they want to be especially careful to avoid even seeming to validate "American imperialism." More broadly, radical/fundamentalist Islam right now is America's "Other," the them in "us vs. them." Maybe that's why talk of the mistreatment of women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes has to be accompanied (no, not always, but often enough) by disclaimers that are supposed to bring America down a peg: Can't allow those ugly Americans to feel culturally superior to the Other!
First of all, I don't think this is true. Any Patriarchy-blamer worth her salt could find a link between Columbia and American imperialism. Plan Columbia anyone? And I can at least speak for myself that I'm pretty gosh-darn hawkish on the War on Terror--I don't see it as imperialist but as a morally obligatory liberation of oppressed. But more importantly, I think that this distinction hurts conservatives as much as it hurts liberals. Recall a point I made in the first post:
I never see conservative blogs rail against domestic abuse in America. I never see conservative blogs argue in favor of difficult sacrifices to make up for our failings to African-Americans, women, and other minorities continually left behind in the America dream. Very occasionally, the subject comes up, but it's only instrumental to other goals ("Many black children live in broken families. We have to ban gay marriage!"), it's never discussed for its own sake.
Conservatives have only made domestic abuse in the Muslim world a "cause" recently because Radical Islam is our enemy d'jour. This is not to say that it isn't a problem, that they aren't our enemy, or that we shouldn't be condemning it. Rather, it is an observation that whereas liberals are opposing bad things because they're bad (regardless of whether it advantages us in the geopolitical realm--I don't think Columbia is going to challenge our hegemony in the near future), conservatives appear to only challenge bad things to the extent that its an effective lever to achieve broader ends (such as winning the war on terror). Now, I want to win the war on terror as much as anyone--but I don't think that opposition to domestic abuse should be tied to that, to be summarily abandoned when we win the battle. Insofar as conservatives are not opposing abuse qua abuse, but abuse qua abuse by our enemies, they're engaging in a form of relativism of their own--every bit as despicable as the straw man rhetoric they claim liberals engagement.