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Katha Pollitt on Edwards-Blogger Flap

Over at TPM, Katha Pollitt gets it mostly right (IMHO) regarding the Edwards blogger flap. The key point:

[Edwards] wants -- he needs -- the votes of people who have never looked at a blog in their lives, who are deeply religious, culturally staid, and easily offended in about a thousand ways. Would those unemployed mill workers Edwards likes to talk about see Amanda's "vulgarity" as populist and fun? or as smartypants elitism? How many Catholic undecideds think that joke about the Virgin Mary was funny and/or a sly critique of sexism in the church versus how many see it as rude and insulting, or would think so, after they'd heard it a thousand times thanks to William Donohue? It's all very well to dismiss as outmoded people who respond poorly to obscenities and dirty jokes about religion. Fact is, there are a lot of them. A candidate would be out of his mind to alienate them over a staffing matter.

UPDATE:  I didn't read the "easily offended" line as referring to all religious people, but I suppose it might have been meant that way.  For that reason, I've downgraded my assessment from "exactly right" to "mostly right."


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Actually, the important question about liberals is: What do they really believe? There is a theory going around in right wing circles that goes something like this: Liberals cannot honestly and openly reveal to the American populace what they really believe, not because they are sneaky but because they increasingly perceive that there is a yawning abyss between themselves and a rapidly growing segment of that populace. That segment sees liberals as:1) Sexual libertines, or as apologists for sexual libertinism2) Apologists for people violating our immigration laws3) Caring more for the rights of enemy combatants than for American citizens4) Having contempt for our military (see Murtha, Durbin, Kerry, et al)5) As being hostile to traditional religious values6) As being more concerned for the rights of vicious murderers than for the rights of those who obey the law.The list goes on, but you get the general idea. They may be wrong, but every time they hear, for example, that the ACLU has done pro bono work on behalf of NAMBLA, that perception is reinforced.

How did NAMBLA come into this? Or, for that matter, Rush Limbaugh's talking points? Eduardo, while I was pleasantly surprised by Pollitt's commentary, I thought that it, too, was plenty sly. "...the votes of people who have never looked at a blog in their lives, who are deeply religious, culturally staid, and easily offended in about a thousand ways." Are these people all one? Or is it just the set of easily offended people who should have been offended--only by reason of their own tender sensibilities? Are those the same voters who are outmoded? And are those who find Marcotte's joke neither sly nor amusing, but rather crass and juvenile, also outmoded? I smell a rigged argument.

Good point, Grant. I didn't read that first list as referring to the same people, but maybe you're right. Could be read as a dig at religious people as easily offended.

I think Grant is right. I think she's awfully condescending. But I think her remarks also highligth the key ambiguity in this entire debate on the blog: the ambiguity between descriptive and normative assessments of the bloggers' remarks.Descriptively, Catholics were offended by them. So, as Eduardo points out, along with Katha Pollitt, it was strategically important to remove the bloggers.The normative question is raised by the undertone of Pollitt's remarks: Were those offended right to be offended, or were they (as she intimates) oversensitve, to be humored, but not respected in their complaints?So the underlying question is really what counts as proper respect for the beliefs of others (and proper self respect) in the public square? We need to move beyond abstractions and provide a thick description of ettiquette in the pluralistic public squre.

Perhaps she is condescending because she has contempt for these outmoded people. In this, is she any different from most other secular liberals? I am confused Eduardo, it seems to me that this woman is saying that liberal politicians should humor the yokels who aren't sophisticated enough to get the jokes. You think that's right?

Pollitt appears to be echoing Talleyrand (an excommunicated Bishop) when he observed:This is worse than a crime, it's a blunder.

Yeah, Sean, that's what I think. Sheesh.I don't think she addresses the question whether the jokes were (actually) funny or unfunny, to anyone, no matter what their level of sophistication. (Kathy is right about that; her comments are ambiguous on the normativity of this.) She's talking about different perspectives and wondering about the tension between folks like the bloggers who claim to care about the working class while not really having much respect for the religious values and worldview of the working class.I don't read the comments as quite as condescending as you all do (except for that easily offended line). I think she's using the word outmoded to parody the point of view of the bloggers in question, who just didn't get what the fuss was all about while at the same time holding themselves up as champions of the little guys.I think she's sympathetic to the "unemployed mill workers" and is tweaking Edwards and the bloggers for their implicit double-standard. She's calling them elitists. Now, maybe she's so much of an elitist herself that she can't help but condescend to us poor chumps who believe this stuff and this is what you are all picking up on. I don't know her and am not familiar with her other writing. So I really can't speak to that.But after reading so many liberal bloggers just refuse to see what could possibly be wrong with what Marcotte wrote and the political miscalculation in Edwards' kow-towing to the bloggers, it's refreshing to me to see someone who seems to understand the dynamics of the situation.(I agree with Patrick's paraphrase. I don't think she's engaging with this on a moral level at all, just explaining to how this plays out politically.)

Eduardo,I agree with you that Pollitt is focused on what is important to her, the political and social issues. I think she is also somewhat contemptuous of anyone, at least anyone who in her view ought to know better, who cannot stay focused on what is important, again important in her judgment She seemed also a litle condescending toward the people who were offended by Marcotte. But she is not about to write them off as voters.

On Katha Pollitt:As an example of liberals' contempt for America, (and to shed some light on what her attitudes represent) and which the more uncompromising of them will sometimes flash for their own mutual titillation, Ms. Pollitt once wrote in The Nation that after 9/11 she refused to fly an American flag at her residence. I believe the article was entitled, "Put Out No Flags".I do not want to be governed by people like Pollitt, or by people who secretly agree with that kind of attitude, and I'm quite sure that tens of millions of Americans concur with me.

Excerpt from Put Out No Flags by Katha PollittThere are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs--equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence. The red flag is too bloodied by history; the peace sign is a retro fashion accessory. In much of the world, including parts of this country, the cross and crescent and Star of David are logos for nationalistic and sectarian hatred. Ann Coulter, fulminating in her syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing of any country where people "smiled" at news of the disaster: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." What is this, the Crusades? The Rev. Jerry Falwell issued a belated mealy-mouthed apology for his astonishing remarks immediately after the attacks, but does anyone doubt that he meant them? The disaster was God's judgment on secular America, he observed, as famously secular New Yorkers were rushing to volunteer to dig out survivors, to give blood, food, money, anything--it was all the fault of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...the ACLU, People for the American Way." That's what the Taliban think too.Complete text at, I have had a little flag up in my apartment since 9/11, so I dont wholeheartedly agree with her. It really boils down, I think, to whether you think of the flag as a symbol of everything having to do with America, or as a symbol of whats best about America.

Well at least Pollitt had the wit to make an allusion to one of Evelyn Waugh's best novels. Or was that an accident?

Kathy, You say:"So the underlying question is really what counts as proper respect for the beliefs of others (and proper self respect) in the public square? We need to move beyond abstractions and provide a thick description of ettiquette in the pluralistic public square." This is a tall order and I doubt I can fill it. For one thing, while I think that as Christians we must respect others, I am not sure we must always respect their opinions. Otherwise perfectly good people, as people go, may have very odd opinions. It might be nearly impossible not to regard the opinions, qua opinions, as ridiculousAvoiding offense is a problem. Offense occurs in the one offended and one may take offense for no good reason. I think we should refrain from doing anything whose sole or main purpose is to offend. The concept of demeaning might be useful here. We should certainly do nothing that demeans another. I think demeaning is largely objective. Unfortunately their is not a convenient noun that comes to mind. Insult, maybe.

Good question. Thanks for pressing me. 1) I want to distinguish between basic human respect owed to all, and earned respect, owed to people we think deserve it in some way. We owe basic human respect to everyone; we owe earned respect to those who have achieved it, according to some criteria. 2) I don't think there's a sharp line between earned respect of a person and respect for their belieffs. We generally find it hard to give earned respect to people we think have ridiculous views.3) What counts as ridiculous is in the eye of the beholder. It's perfectly conceivable that Marcotte thinks belief in the Virgin birth is so ridiculous that it disqualifies the believer from earned respect in her book. (If Christians get upset at this, think of how they think about Scientology).3. Whatever she thinks (or we think about Scientologists), I think we need to think about how we phrase our opinions in the public square. We need a shared, pluralistic ettiquette about how to talk about opinions, including opinions about the faith of others, in the public square.

Cathleen,I wonder if you might be suggesting, or hoping for, too monolithic an understanding of the public square. I guess I am not sure what you mean by "pluralistic."What would be wrong with thinking that "where" one is in the public square should influence how one behaves? Much like a house, the public square seems to me a place with lots of different rooms, and there are different (often unspoken) expectations for how one speaks/behaves in the different rooms of a house. If the analogy is appropriate, then is there one "room" in the public square in which you are particularly interested?

I like the idea of "rooms" in the public square. The defense has been made before that Marcotte and McEwan's remarks on their blogs should be judged differently than if they had been writing, say, op ed pieces in the New York Times. There was an article awhile back (,2933,251009,00.html) that quoted Patrick Hynes, a conservative blogger and campaign consultant to John McCain, whom some liberals targeted in an attempt to retaliate for the Marcotte/McEwan affair: "Generally speaking, when someone is a consultant to a campaign, things that they say out of the context of the campaign are not fair game for the critics," he [Hynes] said. He said bloggers like himself and his peers "do not operate within the same set of rules that the mainstream media does." The jargon, pace and style of communication are different and "you need to have an understanding of that level of conversation that's going on on the 'Net."That's actually two defenses of Marcotte and McEwan. First, blogs are different, and second, when you get a job with a campaign, you ought to be judged by what you do on the job. I have been thinking about Paul saying, "But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Is that to be taken as a purely historical statement? That is, was it only the early Christians who expected to be scoffed at, and later Christians have a right to demand to be respected and demand that anyone who offends them should lose their jobs?My own opinion is very similar to Pollitt's. It was unwise to risk offending a large number of voters to hire and stand by the two bloggers. Of course, I wonder if Edwards, in making the decision he did, didn't suspect they would be gone shortly after he announced he was keeping them on. He got to stand by them and get rid of them also. (And Donohue said he was happy with the outcome, although some Catholics are apparently still angry with Edwards.) So I guess the lesson is that certain things may be okay in certain "rooms" in the public square, but you can't always move from one room to another.

Cathy,I agree with your distinction between earned and unearned respect. I would say that we should, as Christians, respect everyone, but we may not need to take everyone seriously. much less everyone's opinions. Incidentally I think the "as Christians" part is not otiose. Would it be logical to say something like to say "I as an atheist respect everyone". In talking to others, whether we take their opinions seriously or not, it seems to me a good idea not to set out to ridicule their opinions or to use characterizations like idiotic and the like. We should look for common ground, since we are part of the same society. Where there is conflict, we should try to appeal to reason, which we all share. If a Scientologist insist on advancing the doctrines of Scientology as reasons for pursuing some course in society, one might offer a critique of the case and insofar forth one of Scientology, The same goes for a Catholic and Catholicism. An Etiquette of public discourse would seem to frown on appeals to what goes beyond reason.Now this does look a little like "Enlightenmentalism", a reduction of religion to the subjective sphere. There should be room for public religious advocacy, and I suppose anti-religious advocacy. Can this be done politely?

Joseph G. wrote: In talking to others, whether we take their opinions seriously or not, it seems to me a good idea not to set out to ridicule their opinions or to use characterizations like idiotic and the like. We should look for common ground, since we are part of the same society. Where there is conflict, we should try to appeal to reason, which we all share. Jean says: OK, now that I've stopped laughing, may I ask whether anybody suggesting such decorous and reasonable discourse has relatives of different faiths--or no faith?My family secular humanist family hates my Catholicism---superstitious, crusading, Inquisitorial, pedophiles. My father was appalled that I let my son go into the confessional alone with the priest for his first Reconciliation.My fundie in-laws see us as saint-worshipping, flesh-eating, heretics who have not been born again and have very little chance of true salvation.How do you argue reasonably with this? Why would you even want to?I just don't get the flap over what Edwards' bloggers wrote. They clearly don't know anything about Catholics or what Catholics think. Most people don't. And whether I vote for Edwards has nothing to do with these two silly girls and their mistaken notions, but whether Edwards policies reflect my own social values and whether I think he's got a hope in hell of getting them passed.Which I don't, much as I enjoyed reading excerpts from Mrs. Edwards' book.

You mean John Edwards (aka :"The Breck Girl"), who just moved into a 28,000 square foot, 4.3 million dollar house? And who lectures us about the "two Americas" (rich and poor)? That John Edwards?

Jean,I laughed out loud when I read your post. My mother's family was R.C. My father' was one of eight from a mixed marriage Catholic + Episcopalian. My Episcopalian grandmother, as one of my aunts told me, tried to bring up her children as Catholics but was not wholly successful and several of them married nonCatholics with varied results. My policy is to leave religious matters in decent obscurity as far as family conversations go, and they rarely occur because my relatives live some distance away. One of my cousins married a very Catholic woman and she managed to convert him as well as my uncle and my aunt. Good work, I say, I spotted her as sweet but determined a long time ago.I agree with you about the bloggers and Edwards. I do believe that, if you are going to discuss issues or try to persuade anyone, you ought to appeal to reason. One of my colleagues long ago said he wished he could be as rational as I was. He was not trying to be complimentary, but I took as a compliment all the same. That said, in many instances a golden silence is the best course. Blogging, as with many thngs, does not alway bring out the best in people.

Joseph, the Church allows that people can be martyred by blood, by being missionaries, by becoming hermits.If we could be martyred by keeping quiet in the face of other people's snide comments and stupidity, then my chances of circumventing Purgatory might be pretty good.However, it's not so much forbearance that keeps me quiet but the inability to get a word in. So that blows that idea.

Jean,That you cannot get a word in, I find difficult to believe. Those of whom you speak must be formidable indeed! Good luck!


About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.