August 16, 2002

There's another kerfuffle going on about MediaWhores Online, thanks to this article in SpinSanity. Patrick doesn't much care for MWO, while Atrios and his merry band of commenters are fans.

I wrote about my ambivalence with MWO back in my Blogspot days. I'm not an attack-dog site. I have a fairly limited appetite for that kind of red meat. I've come to realize, though, that whatever one feels about sites like MWO, there's not only a place for them, they actually serve a vital role in the public opinion environment.

What helped me in this discovery was this David Brooks article in The Atlantic about my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Brooks writes about Niebuhr's unrelenting moral realism:

Niebuhr soon tired of what he saw as the self-righteous naiveté of the Social Gospel activists. He wrote a series of essays exposing their idealistic pieties and became a spokesman for moral realism, arguing that reform had to be conducted by people who were acutely aware of the limits of human capabilities and the intractability of sin. Niebuhr believed that "man is a sinner in his deepest nature," as the humanities professor Wilfred M. McClay wrote this past February in First Things. "But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God's image ... still able to advance the cause of social improvement."

The classic Niebuhr pose was to argue the middle against both ends—to argue for reform but against the pride of idealists, who hope to achieve too much, and against the cowardice of standpatters, who are afraid to get their hands dirty. Niebuhr could be bloody-minded in his realism: every action causes some collateral damage, he acknowledged, but people must act nonetheless, begging forgiveness for the evils they commit in the service of good.

Niebuhr's heyday was the era of World War II and its Cold War aftermath. Brooks, who believes that we'd be better off in our geopolitical debates today if we had someone like Reinhold Niebuhr around, nonetheless recognizes Niebuhr's main flaw:

I disagree with two thirds of what Niebuhr wrote. To begin with, he was naive. Just as the problem with pragmatists is that their plans never work, the problem with realists is that they are unrealistic. In the real world people do not undertake great tasks in the mood of cold, ironic realism that so delighted Niebuhr. People need to have their hopes fired and their passions engaged. The American Revolution could not have succeeded or even gotten off the ground without firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine. Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists.

Niebuhr overlearned the lessons of his age. Because communism and fascism were fomented by zealous idealists, he came to suspect all displays of passion, all righteous indignation, and all poetic elements in public life. But idealism in defense of democracy is no vice, at least not on balance.

Our problem today is not, as Niebuhr might have predicted, excessive zealotry or an overpoliticized life. Our problem is that most people are entirely disengaged from great public matters. Consumed by private pleasures, they almost never invest their passions in dreams of a better world. We could use a little more idealistic zeal, a little more hope and confidence.

These words struck a chord with me. I don't want all political discourse to be like what's on MWO, but without MWO or something like it I don't believe that liberal and progressive ideas would be as widely heard. There's a lot of shouting out there, and for better or worse you're going to have a hard time being heard unless you do a little shouting yourself. Asking others to hush so you don't have to raise your voice accomplishes little.

I believe, therefore, that it's silly to ask MWO to be more like Jack Germond or EJ Dionne, and it's silly to denigrate MWO for not being like that. It's like asking Shaquille O'Neill to play point guard - their talents are best used on other things. But just as five Shaqs would make a lousy basketball team, a lineup of all MWOs or all EJ Dionnes would be a poor way of making the case for liberalism.

Does this mean that I therefore approve of Rush Limbaugh? Well, no, I firmly believe the world would be a better place without him. My reason for that belief isn't just because I think Limbaugh is an overheated blowhard. It's because I know damn well how much effect Limbaugh has on the public debate. Whether or not you agree with his methods and veracity, he gets the word out to a lot of people. I'd much rather people saw things my way because of appeals to logic and reason, but on Election Day it doesn't matter why they're punching a chad for a particular candidate. If a little MWO frothing helps to elect the people who will implement policies I approve of, I say bring it on.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 16, 2002 to Websurfing

If you think my dislike of MWO has to do with some pious aversion to "zeal" or strong words, I can only conclude that I'm the worst writer in the blogosphere.

I appreciate the virtues of the MWO you describe. I wish that site existed.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on August 16, 2002 6:40 PM

Charles, have you ever seen The Last Supper (with Carmen Diaz, Courtney Vance, and a ton of cameos)? If not, I hardily recommend it. This post reminds me of it.


Posted by: R. Alex on August 16, 2002 6:49 PM

Patrick - What can I say? We're looking at the same thing but we're not seeing the same thing. I don't want everyone to be like MWO - hell, I don't read MWO all that often myself - but I'm OK with having them around.

I'm more in agreement with you than you think. I agree that unintelligent mean-spirited invective (i.e., like Limbaugh) is a disservice and a turnoff. I just happen to think that MWO is smart enough to be worthwhile. My threshhold and yours aren't the same, obviously.

Alex - I haven't seen that movie. I'll check it out. Thanks!

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 16, 2002 8:01 PM

When was the last time you listened to Rush Limbaugh?

Just asking...

Posted by: J Bowen on August 19, 2002 11:47 PM