Fabulists and Cognitive Illiberalism

hillary%20clinton%20rudy%20giuliani.jpgPoliticos are talking about National Review blogger Thomas Smith’s admission of having misreported from Lebanon. In one post, Smith claimed that “a few days ago, between 4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling ‘show of force.'” In the face of some severe doubts, Smith has now written:

In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then — and still consider to be — reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus . . . I have not been able to independently verify that “thousands” of armed Hezbollah fighters deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in late September, but my sources continue to insist that it happened.

Glenn Greenwald has labeled Smith a “fabulist,” noting that NRO had led the attack on The New Republic’s Scott Thomas Beauchamp, but has now downplayed similar charges of motivated reporting. (NR’s response here.) He fumes:

And now, here is the leading conservative magazine, outright inventing facts about Hezbollah’s military conduct in Lebanon. And — in stark contrast to the transparent efforts of Franklin Foer to investigate and disclose what he learned — National Review’s editors do everything possible to obscure what happened and to justify the falsehoods, praising the reporter who did it and keeping him on. Will attention be paid to this obviously serious — and quite representative — episode of journalistic fabrication by National Review?

As Greenwald noted, not all conservative bloggers have held their powder. Michelle Malkin is tough here. And Glenn Reynolds . . . well, he provided a pretty classic passive-aggressive link. (I say that with all possible love, Glenn, and I’m grateful for the recent reference.)

Hypocrisy is a common charge in political debates. But, as I commented a while back, we should be careful to distinguish the vice of hypocrisy from the venal sin of not having principles at all. And, to the extent possible, it is useful to separate what Kevin Heller, commenting on my previous post, called intentional “covert hypocrisy” and less culpable states of mind.

That is, in this Smith-dispute, liberals like Greenwald assume that any attempts to downplay wrongdoing result from an intentional monologue by wingnut conservatives that probably sounds a little like this: “Yes, our actions were the same as those we previously castigated. But we never actually were outraged before: it was all just politics. In politics, you use the tools that come to hand. And, when we’re done here, we’re thinking about a nice nap and then spending the afternoon clear-cutting a rainforest. Go pound sand.” Similarly, when conservatives catch liberals in seeming inconsistencies – the perjury charges against Scooter Libby v. the perjury charges against President Clinton, or the proper role of the Senate’s procedural delay mechanisms come to mind – they believe that liberals are unprincipled moonbats who are advancing their secular, immoral, pro-drugs and anti-police agenda.

For a way out of this dispiriting swamp, be sure to check out Dan Kahan’s new piece from the Stanford Law Review, The Cognitively Illiberal State. In the article, Kahan lays out a theory explaining the persistence of distrust in political debate, and offers some suggestions for policymakers who might want a more pragmatic and constructive discourse. Interestingly, in the same issue of the SLR, Cass Sunstein offers a different account of the relationship between public reaction and deliberation, here in the context of judicial decision making. His If People Would Be Outraged by Their Rulings, Should Judges Care? suggests some (largely consequential and accuracy promoting) reasons that Courts of Appeal ought to consider public reaction as an aspect of rulemaking. (In response, Andrew Coan questions whether Sunstein has engaged in “minimalism in legal scholarship.”)

(Photo Credit: The Washington Note.)

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