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Sometimes the substance is irrelevant

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The recent semi-retirement of DougJ bummed me out. In addition to writing the funniest line ever posted on the Internet (“Apparently, Qatari humor is a little too edgy for American audiences”), he regularly made astute observations about politics. In May, for instance:

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Most politics is about turf wars. For example no one cares about the budget deficit per se, it’s just a concept that Galtians and neo-Confederates latch onto to promote policies keep the blahs and poors in their place. And establishment media latches onto it to keep the hippies in their place.

Anyway, this is why I generally recommend ignoring the so-called substance of human beings’ arguments and focusing instead on the psychology that motivates their positions.

Now, the pitfall to that is understanding what really motivates someone – presuming to know another’s thoughts is dicey. Doing so frequently, and with no more support than “knowing” it’s true, makes one susceptible to conspiratorial thinking, wild accusations of bad faith, and tribalism.

On the other hand, some kinds of behaviors and patterns are pretty hard to miss. Take Doug’s example with the deficit. When Republicans are president, conservatives might carp about the deficit but don’t do anything about it. Ronald Reagan joked the deficit was big enough to take care of itself and everyone had a hearty laugh. Dick Cheney famously sneered “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” and who on the right challenged him? Yet when a Democrat is president the GOP shuts down the government over it. That’s pretty much a case study in ignoring the substance and focusing on the psychology.

There are lots of other instances. Glenn Greenwald’s concern over David Sirota’s ouster at Pando Daily looks a little different in light of the unsparing criticism Pando’s Mark Ames has had for Greenwald’s boss Pierre Omidyar. Seems like there was at least a little turf war mixed in with any sincere interest on that one. Situations like these are not conflicts of interest, but they should function in a similar way: readers who know about them should take them into account when evaluating a piece. Or in DougJ’s formulation, consider the motivation before the content.

Jonathan Chait supplied a splendid example this week. It began when Diane Ravitch made a mildly sexist comment about Campbell Brown:

“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”

As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters…I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”

That last line is kind of dumb and Ravitch even acknowledged its sexism as she said it, so ding her for that. Chait had a much more dramatic reading though: “Genuinely curious to see if left ideological solidarity protects @DianeRavitch from backlash for this blatant sexism.” Chait has a nice perch at New York magazine for sounding off on whatever strikes his fancy, yet sexism – blatant or otherwise – has largely managed to escape his notice (though to be fair, he has certified the bangability of withered hags like Cameron Diaz).

He’s written about Ravitch before, though, and about the charter school movement she opposes. He makes no secret of his visceral revulsion towards teacher unions. Both he and his wife have sung the praises of KIPP charter schools, and she works at a charter school where multiple board members have KIPP ties. It would have been nice for Chait to let his readers know about that. It certainly would explain how he somehow misses the disreputable whiff of Campbell Brown’s new pro-charter operation, and also how he misses the legitimate concerns Ravitch has expressed about KIPP.

In fact, that is a characteristic of his analysis when he digs in on a wrongheaded position. I first noticed it when Ta-Nehisi Coates was methodically dismantling him back in April: he zooms out to a high level view – and we’re talking International Space Station altitude – which prevents him from cluttering up his beautiful mind with troublesome details.

One would think, for example, that given his interest in Ohio he might know about the charter school scandals here. Shouldn’t these developments cause him to revisit his bland, unsupported assertion that “charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones”? I am, to borrow a phrase, genuinely curious to see if new information is capable of changing his opinion.

Of course, I’m not actually curious about that – no more so than Chait was about the response to Ravitch’s comments. His family has a direct financial interest in charter schools; as long as that’s the case it’s hard to imagine him being anything less than an enthusiastic cheerleader. He’s got his cause to sell.

What this week showed, though, is that he’s willing to grab any handy issue to try and discredit an opponent. He may have thought he was scoring some clever points, but to anyone who’s followed his work he was doing something else: Identifying as someone to be evaluated by DougJ’s guideline. Ignore the substance of his arguments, and look at the motivation.

Picture from Tim licensed under Creative Commons

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