[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/5/12]
[Updated below, Sept 8.]
Chris Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation is quickly becoming one of my favorite political commentators. (I defended him in an earlier post after he was criticized for discussing his misgivings with the use of the word “hero” as a blanket descriptor for any American soldier who dies in combat.) Recently, I learned that Hayes made almost the exact same commentary on his show Up With Chris as the one I made in my last post (and on the same day, August 18), where I decried the use of the word “hypocrisy” to describe certain stances and behaviors of advocates of small government.
I think a better title for my previous post would have been “Let’s be more careful about how we use the term ‘hypocrite’” instead of “Let’s cool it with calling small-government advocates ‘hypocrites’”, because, well, sometimes it is appropriate. We (critics of Paul Ryan and other small government proponents) shouldn’t entirely “cool it” with using that term unless it doesn’t apply. We just need to be more judicious with it. That is to say, I think that calling Paul Ryan a hypocrite is actually perfectly accurate, but some of the evidence being marshaled to support this claim rests on naive assumptions about the philosophy behind small government proponents in general. For example, commentators (including Glenn Greenwald) have pointed to the fact that Paul Ryan has received a government paycheck for his legislative duties as evidence that he secretly likes government spending and is therefore a hypocrite for supporting less of it. Greenwald also points to the fact that Ryan benefitted from social security payments he received after his father’s death as evidence that he likes that form of government spending as well. Both of these arguments seem to rest on the assumption that Ryan would turn down such assistance if he truly believed the government should not be providing them.
In this clip from Up With Chris, Chris Hayes perfectly summed up the criticism of this assumption, complete with a perfect analogy to the critics of Occupy Wall Street protesters who used Apple products, which are “a product of the same system of global capitalism they distrust.” Playing a sort of Devil’s Advocate for both libertarians and occupiers, Hayes said:
We are all imbedded in the world as it is: a capitalist economy with a system of social insurance, inadequate as it may be, and few of us can individually withdraw fully from either.
Exactly. There is no hypocrisy in doing the best we can in an imperfect system while working to make it better unless we also profess a belief that we shouldn’t. Hayes goes on to criticize the “ridiculously self-serving” vision put forth by Ryan, a fair criticism that avoids the misuse of the charge of hypocrisy.
The clip from Up With Chris was sorely needed to offset some of the feckless “hypocrite” charges that were on full display in a recent episode the Best of the Left podcast (a prime target of criticism in my last post) focusing on Paul Ryan. This episode was released shortly after my post criticising many of the clips from an earlier BotL episode. The funny thing is that the first half of the episode had no such problems. In fact, the first several clips played, especially one featuring an expose of Ayn Rand by Cenk Uygar, were so deliciously devastating that I was already starting to write a post in my head about how fantastic the episode was. The improvement in the level of discourse was so marked that I began to wonder if Jay Tomlinson may have even read my previous post (after all, he did take the time to correct my post about Our Blue Media) and taken my arguments to heart. Nope. Forty minutes in, we are treated to an accusation of hypocrisy on The Jimmy Dore show (“hypocrisy” at 1:35). Clearly, Jay was not swayed by reading my post after all. The episode went down hill from there. To my great dismay, a clip featuring Uygar that was played at the very end of the episode was just awful — the exact same misguided arguments I talked about in my last post. Making things worse, this clip has been shared over 1200 through the BotL website, compared to only 30 for the second most shared clip from that episode. Obviously, this isn’t Jay’s fault, but it is a disturbing reflection of the type of demagoguery that resonates with many of his listeners.
I think it’s clear that Jimmy Dore and Cenk Uygar are not meeting a reasonable standard of discourse in these clips. A trickier question is whether Jay Tomlinson is similarly guilty for having included such clips in his podcast. The clips do contain some good parts, and so their inclusion could be viewed as worthwhile. My opinion is that including the clips without any mitigating comment from Jay makes him an accessory to the “crime” of sophistry here. Jay uses about 15 minutes at the end of his episodes for editorializing; if that space had been used to address the problematic aspects of these clips, I think that would have helped. Better would have been to preface the clips with a few seconds of commentary within the episode, but that would interfere with the aesthetic of the podcast. Ideally, the problematic parts of the clips would have been omitted entirely from the podcast. If Jay really wanted to address the issue, he could have included the clips in the editorial segment and discussed the problems as I do here. Perhaps he could have even used the Chris Hayes clips for to help describe the problem.
I’m not sure how compelling it is for my readers to read technical criticisms of discourse, especially when the targets of criticism are ideological allies. However, I think this is a valuable and appropriate exercise for several reasons. First, criticisms from within a community tend to carry more weight. Second, thinking critically about arguments made by one’s ideological allies is essential to being a skeptic. Third, criticism and debate that is internal to a group or a movement is a signal to those outside the group that the group is ideologically respectable; that is, it is a sign of a healthy movement.
With that in mind, let me quickly relate a troubling interaction I’ve had with Michael DeDora, with regards to an email he sent on May 3 to supporters of the Center for Inquiry in his capacity as that organization’s Director of Government Affairs. In the email, he made the faulty claim “that Obama pledged to issue an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors while on the campaign trail in 2008.” After a few emails with De Dora, I convinced him that Obama had not in fact made such a pledge. In my view, this should have prompted an immediate correction on the part of De Dora and CFI. On May 16th, he told me he had changed the wording in the news release on the website. Later that day, I wrote De Dora an email that included the following:
I appreciate that you’ve put effort into fixing this, but to do it right I think you need to go a bit further. The emails that you send to your mailing list are by far the most prominent communication I receive from the CFI and the most likely to be read. I imagine this is true for many supporters of CFI. Anyone who read your original email and did not research it as I did will be left with an incorrect impression of the situation, and that is your fault. It would seem to me that the appropriate action would be to make note of the error in a future email to the same mailing list. If I know skeptics, they appreciate full acknowledgement of errors, however minor. If you want to really impress us, send out a dedicated email about it. I don’t think that’s necessary (tacking it onto your next announcement should suffice), but it would show you take accuracy seriously and impress a lot of your members. It’s a sign of a healthy and trustworthy organization.
In addition, regardless of whether you decide to make note of the error in an email, I think you should give some indication on your news update (dated May 3) that the update was altered later altered – perhaps an asterisk at the appropriate point with an explanation at the bottom.
De Dora agreed. He added an asterisk to the wording on the CFI website and acknowledged the error there. However, despite email reminders I sent him on June 12, June 25, and August 19, he still has not sent out any email acknowledgement of the misleading statement that was sent to CFI supports on May 3. On August 22, he responded to tell me that he would address this in the next email from CFI and that he would forward me a copy. I am still waiting. Meanwhile, readers of the CFI emails are left neglected and misinformed.
The Center for Inquiry is one of my favorite organizations (in fact, I am a financial supporter), and I enjoy De Dora’s contributions to the Rationally Speaking blog. I wish I could say I can trust the information they give me and my fellow CFI supporters.
UPDATE 9/8: After posting this three days ago, I tweeted the link to those who were mentioned, including Michael De Dora. Yesterday, I got a tweet from Mr. De Dora saying he sent out an email correction, and it included this link. The link shows exactly the text of the email that I received a few minutes later. The statement looks good, and I am pleased that the correction got its own email for this specific purpose. (I assume that it was sent to the whole mailing list and not just to me!) As I told Mr. De Dora, this looks like an ideal correction: exactly what I was hoping for five months ago. I guess my blog post was the motivation he needed! (137)