on being mean

140617_POL_TNRCover.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2Six and a half years of writing online and I still really have no idea how people come up with the notions of decorum and civility they do.

There lots of argumentative behaviors that I don’t do. I don’t use racial, ethnic, or similar slurs. I don’t make insults about people’s identities or value independent of their ideas and their expression of those ideas. I don’t go after people’s families or friends when I have a beef with them. I don’t try to get people fired. I’ve never doxxed anybody, although I’ve on occasion had the means and been tempted to. I don’t sic my readers on people to harass them. What I do, sometimes, is express anger at people who have power and audience when I think their ideas are destructive and wrong. That’s how it goes; politics ain’t beanbag and when you’re a professional with a platform and influence you better be ready to be criticized, harshly, when you deserve it. When people are eulogizing TNR by talking about how important it once was, calling it the in-flight magazine of Air Force One, and yet some people get mad at me for publishing my distaste for the publication on my little WordPress blog here, something has gone very wrong in our conception of civility.

Since I’ve been old enough to read and understand it, The New Republic has been nothing but wrong on the level of ideas, on the level of “policy,” which is a term that elites use to define the kinds of opinions they view as legitimate. But it’s also been a mean, nasty thing. I mean every issue is stuffed with such ugly, personal, vicious business, endless smears of the antiwar, the left-wing. If you see that image above, you’ll see genuine human cruelty — ignorant, proud, racist, grubby, petty cruelty. And unlike this little blog, it’s influential cruelty, tied to a worthless, reactionary policy that played on this country’s absolute worst instincts. That image begs you to hate that woman, depicted there, to hate her black poverty, to hate her black baby, to see both of them as this terrible drain on the pocketbooks of all decent hardworking folk. Look at her, sucking that cigarette! Why, I bet she never worked a day in her life! Generations of poverty, a lifetime of racism, forgotten. Time for a “day of reckoning,” a pretentious, overstuffed, shit-eating sentiment, dreamed up by guys who put on $3,000 suits to go grab martinis with the movers and the shakers in DC clubs that wouldn’t let that woman come within a mile of their entrance.

The only rationale for thinking there’s something wrong about my being mean towards the people responsible for that image is the bogus, bankrupt vision of civility, where if you have a fancy masthead and you code your cruelty in the right kind of language — in the right kind of “policy” — that makes it all OK. If you’re inclined to get upset about the meanness against the magazine but not the cruelty of that image or the worldview that produced it, reexamine your life. Start from scratch.

For me, it’s not just all of the bad, failed, disastrous ideas that the magazine promulgated in my lifetime. It’s not just the single most influential endorsement of racist pseudoscience in history. It’s not just the gleeful embrace of welfare “reform” that was intended to cut government assistance to millions of poor people and succeeded in doing so. It’s not just the endless, loud support for every war, Peter Beinart calling for a cull of the antiwar left, urging “us” to go to war in Iraq with the understanding that none of them could ever be part of the actual us that got sent to die on the street in Fallujah. It’s not just the platform for Marty Peretz, maybe the most explicit and unapologetic racist to enjoy such a high-profile position in mainstream media in the last quarter century. It’s not even teaching a generation of progressives to distrust every one of their left-wing impulses, treating hippie punching as some sort of principled activity rather than gifting victory to the worst forms of  conservatism. No, what I hate most about The New Republic is its sustained, willful, deliberate assassination of compassion as a political virtue. More than anything else, that’s what TNR has stood for: the idea that compassion, the desire to help other human beings, to want the best for them and be willing to use the government to get it, was an immature, anachronistic attitude. TNR taught a generation of liberals that their urge to help those who need it most was something to feel ashamed about. That’s what welfare reform was for, to deride and reject the elementary, humane, human virtue of compassion. That’s TNR’s biggest legacy. That’s what TNR has been, since I’ve been an adult.

So yeah, I’ll risk being mean about. Yeah. I’ll take mean. For that, I’ll give you mean. I guess I just have a bad attitude.