McArdle hatred

by Rob Horning

31 July 2009


Brad DeLong linked to this blog post by “Mr. Awesome” that takes apart a recent Megan McArdle post about health care. I agree with Mr. Awesome on every point he raises regarding the health-care debate but was left more in fearful awe of the comprehensiveness of his ad hominem attack on McArdle.

She belongs to an exceptionally stupid set of youngish libertarian Economist-esque pseudo-thinkers. Her “columns” mix the very best shallow diarist introspection of yuppie navel-gazing with the arrogant dead thought theatrics of a fake intellectual who operates with no standards of proofreading or fact-finding. She is a small fish in the great pond of bullshit punditry, but she’s like a clownfish, really bright and attention-grabbing — because she’s just so damn terrible. She lives in a dense tangle of white privilege anemone, which will cause a nasty rash if you touch it. There is perhaps a moray eel of intellectual accountability staring at that shiny overgrowth all bug-eyed like, “What the fuck is that?”

Though I’m usually unpersuaded by McArdle’s posts, I keep her blog in my RSS feed because she is an interesting, lively writer and because she strikes me as oddly courageous in, for lack of a less grad-schoolish way of putting it, owning up to her subject position without a kabuki show of apologetics and disclaimers. So I struggle to understand why she inspires the kind of vituperation cited above, which would be better reserved for the Sarah Palins and Thomas L. Friedmans of the world. McArdle’s writing typically reflects an agile mind moving quickly and unguardedly, something that her enemies seem to regard as the blight of privilege, prompting a burning urge to make her face consequences for some of the opinions she holds and chooses to express with a confidence that they seem to think is unearned. But by what means can one earn or deserve to be confident? Why is her intellect “fake”? It’s tempting to attribute some of the scorn to her being a woman, because really, she is not so “terrible” and disingenuous a pundit as to deserve this kind of character assassination. Anyway, whatever the cause, the disproportionate hatred she inspires ends up having the perverse effect of shielding her ideas from the critique they often deserve. Or rather, it tends to discredit the otherwise compelling critique, as with Mr. Awesome’s post.

But then again, I may be inordinately sympathetic; when I am feeling discouraged about the writing I do here, the criticism I level at myself tends to echo this:

The McArdles of the world believ[e] their own sheltered lives are a viable facsimile for anyone’s troubles or experience. They are so smart that they don’t have to conduct research before reaching conclusions; they are so wise that they require no experience to understand other people’s lives. They are so damn great and important that the petty problems and limited movement of their tiny orbits around unaccountable safety are the total motion of the world. Theirs is a nation of 300 some million, the vast majority of whom are extras and objects in their boring, whitebread existence.

That was salt in the wound of my self-pity. Often when I am writing I venture dubiously into terrain about which I am underinformed and throw out speculative ideas without compiling data to back them up or even coming up with a plan for determining what such data that would be. Am I the “spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge” that Nietzsche condemns?

If I had more academic training in the methods of social science, I’d perhaps know better then to write as I do, and would probably be even more wary and ashamed of “irresponsible” speculating, and stay quiet. But I keep blundering along anyway, partly out of the faith that there is something useful in the provocations of nonempirical speculation, in thoughts that would be otherwise lost if one hewed always to positivistic hypothesis testing. That’s to say that I think it’s worthwhile for writers to make impressionistic lunges at truth, as filtered through the consciousness of a particular, always pathetically limited person who is nonetheless trying to synthesize as much as possible that seems relevant at any given spontaneous moment of writing. It’s not merely frivolous when we try to see and point out constellations where there are only countless stars.

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