Unbiased political writing?
November 3, 2004 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Now that the election is over, I'd like to ask a question about preparing for the next one. I'm still struggling with being (or not being) a political person. My problem is that I can't stand us-vs-them mentality. If a political discussion veers into "those insane democrats" or "those horrible republicans," by brain turns off. I know some will disagree, but I think there are very few complex issues that are black & white. So it's hard for me to believe that one party is right and the other is wrong. But most commentators seem to be "liberals" or "conservatives." I know I'm supposed to listen to them both and then make my own informed decision. But I'd love to find some writers (or speakers) who are deeply independent. I want to read columns by someone who regularly says, "the democrats are right about X and wrong about Y, whereas the republicans are right about A but wrong about B." And it would help if this person (people?) is a good writer, smart and knowlegeable about history. Where do you find the writers who are interested in facts -- not sides?
posted by grumblebee to Society & Culture (21 answers total)
For pointing out what everyone's doing wrong, I'm a big fan of the Daily Show. Lately Jon Stewart's open support for Kerry has pushed it a bit left of center, but generally they are very even handed in making fun of everyone. Also, smart, funny, etc. Definitely not the place for complex political theory or anything, but if you are just getting into politics it can give you a good overview of what's going on in the world.
posted by rorycberger at 11:18 AM on November 3, 2004

I kind of think you're screwed, if what you're looking for is some high-quality source respected by all. Everybody gets positioned by somebody else, these days -- if you defy positioning, you're regarded as wishy-washy or something similarly damning.

That said, I think John McLaughlin (Friday nights on many PBS affiliates, forget the time) does a halfway decent job of taming the crossfire. He's ultra-transparent in his leading questions (which are usually Buchananite-conservative in nature) and the show is filled with raised voices and shouting, but it's respectful shouting, if you know what I mean -- the worst thing anybody calls one another is "liberal" or "conservative". On the more polite side, you can catch the Mark Shields / David Brooks segments in the second half of the News Hour (7-8pm on PBS affiliates).
posted by lodurr at 11:43 AM on November 3, 2004

this will probably get me flamed, and might not be what you want anyway, but i admire christopher hitchens. i'm getting his new book when it comes out (amazon said it would be out by now, but last time i checked it wasn't). he's pretty agressive, which you may not like, and he's pretty much loathed by the left (of which he was a member until 9/11), but in my opinion he matches your "independent" criteria. he's clearly demonstrated that he's not afraid to say what he thinks is right, even when it is completely out of step with what others around him feel, and he has - in my opinion - a sixth sense for smelling out the hypocritical (most recently, perhaps, in accusing the left of wanting iraq to be a failure).

oooh! i just checked again and it's now available.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2004

grumblebee, you may want to take/audit a course in political theory. You won't solve the basic issue of division, but you'll be able to discuss things in a much more academic, less personal level, e.g. Rawls says that the underlying principle behind conservatism is property rights.

There are people like Matthew Yglesias [independent-minded Democrat] or the group blog Crooked Timber who are good places to start. They'll point you to other like-minded bloggers as well as, you know, print sources. Um, books.
posted by dhartung at 11:49 AM on November 3, 2004

My issue with Hitchens is that it's damn near impossible to figure out what the hell he actually thinks about something, much of the time. He's much more interested in being rhetorically dazzling and covering his ass than in actually staking a clear stand.

Contrast him with Bill Buckley. I agree with Buckley on very few things, but I always enjoy reading him, and I always understand his arguments when I've done reading him. Plus, if Buckley does make an ad hom, it will be done with superb technique -- something to learn from.

On preview: My own basic political theory starting recommendation would be one of the several short books of Eric Hoffer (Faith of the Fanatic, The True Believer, etc.) which are commonly available in used bookstores. They're out of fashion, but I think particularly apt in the current climate.
posted by lodurr at 11:53 AM on November 3, 2004

Helen Thomas, perhaps the last of the real, probing, questioning journalists left.
posted by amberglow at 12:04 PM on November 3, 2004

You'll often find political columnists will not always keep to the official line of their newspaper - so don't be put off by the political bias of a paper. For example Nick Cohen of The Observer was pro-Iraq war and made about the only decent argument for it (I still think he was wrong though!).

I'd say browse around a few papers online, including the ones you wouldn't usually read and try the columnists out. Stick like glue to the ones that you like - they're gold dust. But it's often good to find a columnist who challenges your assumptions occasionally and makes you question what you believe - and I don't mean some moron who just shouts abuse, I mean real logical, thought out debate.

I'd love to give you some names but I don't know what you're after specifically. I'd agree that Hitchens is often good value for money even though I mostly disgree with him, but he does come with some great observations.
posted by dodgygeezer at 12:06 PM on November 3, 2004

some might find hitchens confusing because he doesn't fit into one box, neatly. i don't know if that includes you, lodurr, but as an act of contrition - in case it does not - i've added "the ordeal of change" to my shopping cart to qualify for free shipping ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2004

Flip through the names under "Columnists" over on Arts & Letters Daily. (The list is on the sidebar to the left; direct link here.) This is a broad sampling of many different political viewpoints, though not all writers listed there are political commentators (Roger Ebert, for example). Should be useful for finding "new" voices of interest.
posted by arco at 12:22 PM on November 3, 2004

hanks for the recommendations so far.

Let me be a bit more specific about what I'm looking for: if there's an election coming up, I'd like to read some points-of-view about the candidates. "So-and-so will probably be good for health-care, because he supports plan A; on the other hand, he will might hurt national
security because he believes in philosophy X. The other candidate has a more reasonable take on security. Unfortunately, his environmental policy is suspect because he always votes against Z."

As soon as someone starts badmouthing a candidate (or praising him to the heavens), I lose trust. I lose trust because I figure, how can a candidate be all bad or all good? If a columnist is acting like the candidate is always wrong or always right, then the columnist is probably oversimplifying the candidate. He's probably doing so because of a deeply help prejudice.

Our culture pushed people towards developing political prejudices. We're brought up to be liberals, conservatices, democrats, republicams, environmentalists, or whatever. Then we're ushered into teams of like-minded people.

And I can understand how TV-shows and magazines would prefer prejudiced people. They cause arguments, which are always good for ratings and sales.

But there must be people out there somewhere who aren't "team players." Who are they?

Oh, and no Crossfire for me, thank you very much. As I said, when people start yelling, I tune out. How does yelling solve anything? My ONLY interest in politics is as a means of solving problems. I want to vote for X because he seems most likely to solve problems and not create them. I have NO interest in politics as a sport.
posted by grumblebee at 3:42 PM on November 3, 2004

I enjoy Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis, he has an intersting take on things as he is generally right-wing, pro-globalization, but highly critical of the Iraq war and is sympathetic to the plight of people in the Middle East in many articles.
posted by bobo123 at 3:58 PM on November 3, 2004

sounds like you might like an old-school conservative of some kind. i wonder who miguel likes?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:13 PM on November 3, 2004

grumblebee: If a columnist is acting like the candidate is always wrong or always right, then the columnist is probably oversimplifying the candidate. He's probably doing so because of a deeply help prejudice.

But how will you distinguish between an opinion which is "balanced" for the sake of appearing balanced and one which is the result of an 'ideal objective' process.

I suggest you pick 2-3 topics on which you reckon you can trust yourself to grasp the nuances and understand the 'real deal'. Then vet the recommendations you get, on those 2-3 topics.
posted by Gyan at 4:17 PM on November 3, 2004

Join the political party that you share the most positions with, then use that as a platform to inform and lobby the population.

Informing the population is the main activity you need to be involved in. There was a comment somewhere that when discussing politics it's a mistake to assume everyone agrees that 2+2=4. Some people think 2+2=5 and make their choice based on that. The first thing you have to do is convince them that 2+2=4. Much of the rest of things fall into place after that.

And anyway, once you're convinced that people are correctly informed, you're not so worried what choice they make and you can feel confident in your democracy again, even if you're not part of the elected party.
posted by krisjohn at 4:34 PM on November 3, 2004

I think the two perspectives of left and right are founded on such different premises, newspaper columnists who aim for "balance" run a strong risk of ending up lukewarm and gutless. I also find it hard to trust any writer who maintains such a lofty, AP-style disassociation from the issues that he doesn't seem like a real flesh-and-blood citizen who feels some passion.

On the other hand, there are types like Hitchens who consider it courageous to act all unpredictable. ("Ooh, I can't believe he's for X but passionately against Y, he must be a fascinating, soulful man!")
posted by inksyndicate at 6:52 PM on November 3, 2004

David Broder is the single best purveyor of inside-the-beltway CW, and comes up with the occasional astonishing insight besides.
posted by Vidiot at 9:15 PM on November 3, 2004

Funnily enough, grumblebee, I think your best bets are two British weeklies, one conservative and the other socialist at heart, which both make a point of annoying their respective sides: The Spectator and The New Statesman.

However, given your brief (which is similar to mine), the best strategy is to read opposing viewpoints. On the left, the New York Review Of Books and The London Review of Books. On the right, The Economist, New Criterion and Commentary.

A good daily exercise is reading The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian side by side.

All these are well written and often contain dissent. The more conservative you feel, the more you should read the liberal media and vice-versa. That's the real meaning of independence, imho - depending on such a wide variety of sources that, after a while, you couldn't really say you depend on any of them - rather all of them. Looking for confirmation of your opinions is the wrong way to go about it and your attitude is ideal for being seriously dilletantish.

P.S. I'm sorry if any of this sounds patronizing, as I'm sure you're familiar with all the suggested sources, but perhaps it might be useful to someone younger who identifies with your problem - a problem to be steadfastly maintained, btw!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:13 PM on November 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your help. I will look into many of the suggestions.

I am concerned by the confusion between balanced and wishy-washy. They are not the same. Deborah Tannon wrote a book called "The Argument Culture" in which she laments the fact that we view every issue as a combat. For instance, our courts are about finding out who is right and who is wrong -- not about reaching the best compromise possible.

I am probably more liberal than conservative. I am pro Gay marriage and pro choice, but I feel for people who are against those issues. Marriage is a HUGELY potent symbol for many people. It seems cruel to say, "well, too bad for you, we're going to pervert that symbol. Get over it." In order for Gay marriage to become a reality, we may have to say something like that, but I deplore the lack of compassion for the people on the other side of the fence. They are not necessarily all homophobic in the broad sense of hating gay people. They are trying to protect something that's very important to them.

As with abortion, if I believed that life begins with conception, then I too would believe abortion is murder. I would, then, be a bad person if I DIDN'T oppose it. How can I hate people who oppose it? I disagree with them, but I don't hate them. I think their point-of-view is really easy to understand.
posted by grumblebee at 5:25 AM on November 4, 2004

An election-related thread worth reading!

I stopped subscribing to The New Republic when the current Intifada broke out, because I found their Middle Eastern reporting and commentary to be so biased so as to be valueless (and god, so many TNR issues have passed, and the fighting and dying continues).

But as a subscriber, I found their pieces on domestic policy, especially the short ones in the front of the book, to be fair guides to understanding policy debates, and why a certain position made sense or didn't, regardless of whether it was being pushed by the GOP or the Dems.

That said, TNR probably has a left-of-center orientation, and the above-mentioned pro-Israel bias. TNR editors probably have a view on abortion, and it's probably not that life begins at conception. But for smaller, marginal issues that really do distinguish parties and politicians from each other, I found TNR useful.

There's probably other wonky, low-circulation, inside the beltway magazines that focus on ideas and issues (maybe the Washington Monthly?), but they, too, have political leanings.
posted by hhc5 at 10:58 AM on November 4, 2004

I am concerned by the confusion between balanced and wishy-washy.

One explanation for the conflation is that for people to whom passion is important and yelling okay, lack of passion can seem lame and spineless (even if it objectively isn't). It's a sense of, "If you believe X is right, then you should pursue X with everything you have." As for finding middle ground, those of us who tend towards argumentative passion figure if we go for what we want, the middle ground will take care of itself. To an extent, I'm interested in pushing the extremes in order to lengthen the spectrum of possible ideas. Does that make sense?

It kind of reminds me of my grandmother's boyfriend who, when we were vociferously going over something or other, said "Please stop yelling." My grandmother replied, "We aren't yelling; we're discussing."
posted by dame at 4:14 PM on November 4, 2004

You might also seek out seemingly contrary supporters for a position -- I'm thinking of Catholics for Choice -- and read their arguments. They're more likely to frame them to people who disagree and therefore will be less likely to say "The other side sucks" or just assume that their audience agrees with them. There were also a number of liberal columnists who supported the war in Iraq that might fit into this category.
posted by occhiblu at 6:39 PM on November 4, 2004

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