The attraction of cynicism by mattsteinglass
May 15, 2010, 10:13 pm
Filed under: Media

Andrew Sullivan thinks I was being “too cynical” when I wrote that

For bloggers, on the other hand, the way to make sure nobody pigeonholes you or dismisses you as somebody’s lackey is to be relentlessly cynical and negative. As long as you’re constantly bemoaning the hypocrisy and stupidity of all political actors (yourself included), you’re golden; you’re nobody’s lickspittle.

Sullivan writes:

It is also possible for a blogger and (to a lesser extent) a politician to have a complicated view of the world and be honest about it. Not to be popular, not to be golden, not to prove you’re “nobody’s lickspittle” – but because it’s what you honestly think and believe.

Of course this is exactly right, and I think it was clear from the tone of my post that I wasn’t advocating that bloggers be flip and sarcastic. I was trying to point out a structural problem of incentives. Bloggers have an incentive to condemn and satirize in all political directions so as to maintain their claim to ideological independence, and what I was trying to say in the post was that this incentive can lead one to be too dismissive towards the behavior of politicians who are often actually doing a pretty good job within the limits established by the political landscape. This isn’t really an issue unique to blogs; it’s a general journalistic problem.

But I think one of the best examples of the risk one avoids through the easy out of constant cynical is the problem Sullivan has in his treatment of Barack Obama. I’m actually with Sullivan on this: Barack Obama is an enormously talented politician and a deeply ethical guy, with a complex and sophisticated view of how politics works and of how to be responsible in trying to strengthen the polity and improve people’s lives through the messy medium of politics. I give him an enormous benefit of the doubt in almost any situation, both in terms of his intentions and in terms of whether his take on an issue is better than mine. This is true of Sullivan as well. But the risk Sullivan has run in his very admiring writing on Obama is that many readers will come to see him as a cheerleader. I don’t think this is fair, and I think that even if it’s true, that’s a problem those readers have, not a problem Sullivan has. But still, this is a risk that exists in the journalistic world. The same thing happened to Hendrik Hertzberg during the administration of another extremely talented and admirable president, Bill Clinton. It would be easy for Sullivan to avoid this risk by simply adopting a world-weary skeptical attitude towards Obama, and it’s to his credit that he’s not doing so.


4 Comments so far
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Well, I think you were being flip and sarcastic when you weren’t advocating flipness and sarcasm, and if I didn’t mention in the comments, I thought that was a great paragraph.

I can share this anecdote which is relevant to what you’re saying this time: I love Sullivan’s blog. His politics are very similar to my own and I enjoy his sense of humor. But I had to stop reading him during the primaries. It wasn’t that I minded his approval of Obama (I voted for Obama in the CA primary) but Sullivan was such a booster of Obama’s and such a gadfly of Clinton’s that Sullivan became temporarily completely predictable. To the degree that any time I saw a news item about either candidate I knew what Sullivan would write before I read what he’d written.

I’m back to reading Sullivan again and back to not minding his support for Obama. But a blog has to be interesting and I do think that when a blogger becomes that narrow in the outcome he wants to promote, the process of his or her thinking shortens until the pattern becomes predictable. That’s not fun to read day after day.

Both you and Sullivan and pretty much every other blogger I bother to read regularly hold my interest to the degree that you articulate well a thought I either haven’t already had or can’t express coherently. So, I agree with you, but maybe for a different reason.

Comment by citifieddoug

I think there’s a connection between this conversation and the epistemimabob mutton-headedness thread. Ideologically I might place myself equidistant from you, Sullivan and Michelle Malkin, but I really don’t care how much I agree with Malkin because I don’t want to read her because she only seems to ever say one thing about any topic (to wit, this proves they hate us) whereas you and Sullivan might say any number of things that change depending on the topic. It isn’t really about tone as much as drone. Gimme a little melody.

Comment by citifieddoug

This is so apt. I agree entirely with your assessment of Obama. I am often on Daily Kos and I get really tired of being one of the Obama defenders only to be accused of drinking the koolaid. Perhaps some of us are realistic about what can be done in Washington, but are also elated (still) that we are beginning the process of digging out of the grave that the previous administration dumped our country into.

Comment by Rini Hara

[…] Steinglass worries about the risks of admiring media […]

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