| My former colleague Ezra Klein has been tearing it up back-and-forth with former The New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan over Hillary Clinton's botched mid-90's health care effort.
Sullivan at the time was the editor of TNR where he oversaw the publication of "No Exit" a piece long on misreporting written by a right-wing hack that helped doom the Clinton plan.
Sullivan responded by
- attacking Ezra's age;
- saying Ezra lacks intellectual integrity and risks becoming an "activist;" and
- states flatly that he is "proud" that he helped kill Hillary Clinton's health care plan.
Now, the first argument is an ad hominem, but possibly a fair one -- if experience is any argument at all. Still, on its own, it could also be a simple dodge; invoke the experience card because you can't demonstrate better judgment.
So the second argument, the one accusing Ezra of becoming an activist and of stifling discussion is far more interesting. It, too, is basically an argument by ad hominem -- that Ezra's attacks on Andrew should not be believed because Ezra is a modern-day brownshirt who would shout down all foes.
But what's the dividing line between Sullivan's ideal -- the independent writer -- and his foe -- the activist? By Sullivan's own standard, it appears to be that the independent writer pursues truth first, while the activist pursues results and their team's own success.
Strange, then, that Sullivan, in defending his own publication of a lying piece, ultimately falls back on the results of the piece, rather than its merits regarding truth.
Look -- long story short, it doesn't matter whether Sullivan's other attacks on the Clintons are fair or not. Did Hillary Clinton botch the effort by being too secretive, too anti-private sector, too this or too that? Who knows? I certainly don't (although James Fallows, a writer whose integrity I trust greatly, certainly made a strong case against much of that line of attack).
The simple truth is that it is possible to both believe that Hillary Clinton's efforts in 1994 were tragically flawed and that people like Andrew Sullivan clearly acted more as activists, whatever the faults of that stance, and less as independent writers.
I long ago chose to cast my lot with the activists who work to change the world and think it is possible to do so without sacrificing intellectual integrity (similarly, it is possible to be malicious while hiding behind the journalistic pen).
That's fundamentally because Ezra was correct in this post, where he pointed out that all the pretty thoughts of all of us pretty people with our pretty little minds who are pretty much out of power matter for pretty much nothing when the ugly people in charge refuse to listen.
In other words, so much of writing is intellectual masturbation that, handled incorrectly, can prop up regimes that even the author would agree are failing. The choices are so rarely what we wish them to be -- and so few writers have learned the first lesson of Alinsky: that we must live in the world as it is, not as we want it to be.