Reflections on a left turn

The latest blogospheric food fight is between Patterico and noted food-warrior Charles Johnson, proprietor of the once-interesting Little Green Footballs. Johnson claimed that he never used the term “St. Pancake” to refer to Rachel Corrie (the anti-Israel protester who was killed when she lay down in the path of an oncoming bulldozer). That turned out not to be true.

Patterico claims to have caught Johnson in a lie, but I think it’s more likely that he believed it was true. Johnson’s real dishonesty lay in his effort to craft a narrowly true statement to mislead people: implying that he did not take a sarcastic and insensitive tone in response to Corrie’s lamentable death, which he certainly did. (ASIDE: I thought that the sarcasm was entirely appropriate as applied to the bizarre web of lies that was built around Corrie’s death, but a little sensitivity in regards to the death itself would have been appropriate.)

The fracas got me thinking about Charles Johnson’s turn to the left. Little Green Footballs was one of the first blogs that I read when I became aware of the blogosphere in the early days of the war on terror. Although very often shrill, it was the go-to site for stories on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and on media dishonesty. The other three bloggers I read at that time were Andrew Sullivan, Steven Den Beste, and Glenn Reynolds. Reynolds is the only one of the four worth reading now: Den Beste discontinued his blog, and Johnson and Sullivan both turned left.

What leads someone to change their political outlook completely? When someone moves right, their explanation usually sounds something like “I realized that competitive markets provide the best economic outcomes, and market controls inevitably result in tyranny” or “I realized that we need to defend our civilization against the barbarians.” On the other hand, when someone moves left, their explanation usually sounds something like “I realized that the right is full of assholes.”

That is, those moving right tend to talk about ideas and ideology, while those moving left tend to talk about personalities.

It’s pretty easy to pinpoint the point at which Sullivan turned left. He got angry at George W Bush (whom he had previously lauded excessively) for opposing gay marriage. That one issue turned him against President Bush, and that hatred served as a lever to turn the rest of this political views.

It was harder to see what happened to Johnson, but some time after I stopped reading him, he explained it himself. (ASIDE: Although many of Johnson’s characterizations are astonishingly unfair, I’m sure they are a fair account of Johnson’s opinions.) In short, he got disgusted with the right for being full of people he disliked.

When someone you used to like turns to the other side and at the same time becomes shamelessly dishonest, there are a couple of things you can’t help wondering. First, were they really dishonest all along? And second, should you have seen it coming?

As to the first, I think the answer is no for Charles Johnson, and maybe for Andrew Sullivan. Johnson’s material was primarily fact, and was easily checked. I often checked it myself. Sullivan’s material, on the other hand, was more argument than fact. It would have been much easier for him to deceive.

Should we have seen it coming? Yes, in retrospect. Johnson and Sullivan shared one trait: of the prominent bloggers on the right, they were easily the two most shrill. I conjecture that shrillness is often an indicator that one is focusing on people rather than ideas.

For example, Andrew Sullivan had a practice of naming various anti-awards after the person he thinks best exemplifies some negative trait (e.g., the John Derbyshire award for extreme right-wing hyperbole, or something like that). Returning to my original inspiration, Johnson’s fixation on Rachel Corrie is another good example. The problem was never Corrie herself; the problem was how other people exploited her tragedy to slander Israel. Nevertheless, Johnson relentlessly focused on the person of Rachel Corrie herself.

If you’re wondering who the next commentator to turn left might be, look for someone who is focusing on people rather than ideas. Someone who believes that government must be small so people can be free is probably not going to turn around and embrace big government. But, someone whose politics is based on their personal dislike for Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama might turn around and decide that they dislike some Republican even worse.

I won’t name any names; I don’t want to start a food fight of my own. But you might be able to spot a few candidates.

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