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The Manzi Soap Bar Beating

There are a few writers who contribute to National Review's blog who understand that many other writers for National Review are poorly-informed propagandists. Generally, this minority of intelligent conservatives have tended to avoid criticizing their more rabid colleagues, or have couched their criticisms in the most gentle terms. But last week, in the midst of a wide-ranging blogospheric debate about the epistemic closure of the conservative movement, Jim Manzi, one of the right's more interesting and original intellectual figures, decided to unload on somebody, and he picked Mark Levin, a Limbaugh-esque talk radio host.

Manzi picked out one chapter in Levin's book, which concerned global warming, and demonstrated that it consisted largely of discredited denialist hocum. The response from the more orthodox NR writers was predictable. Kathryn Jean Lopez chastised Manzi for criticizing an ally in the war for liberty. Raging maniac Andrew McCarthy raged maniacally. Basically, the response to Manzi was the blog equivalent of this:

Apostate conservatives, based on their familiarity with Manzi's position, have produced some interesting commentary on the affair here. Conor Friedersdorf writes:

This kind of exchange causes everyone who writes for The Corner to wonder what exactly they’re “allowed” to say without certain of their colleagues scolding them, focusing on their tone while utterly ignoring the substance of what they say, and otherwise making it appear as though untouchable status at National Review is granted via some formula: it considers size of radio audience, quantity of additional books one expects to sell on being invited on their show, and potential career damage should the conservative entertainer in question turn against you in private, or else instruct the least thoughtful sycophants in his audience to wage ideological jihad against you. As I know from experience, Mr. Levin has lackey bloggers who’ll willingly launch character attacks against anyone at his slightest urging.

David Frum waxes sardonic:

Manzi could have safely disputed Levin’s claims on global warming if he had observed a couple of conditions. First, acknowledge Liberty and Tyranny as a good and important book. Second, acknowledge Levin’s “service” (i.e., leadership) of the conservative cause. Third, isolate criticisms to one particular finite point – avoid drawing any larger conclusions – and be sure to wrap any criticisms in a blanket of compliments. Just because one particular chapter happens to be slovenly, ignorant, and hysterical should not lead you to question the intellectual merit of the book as a whole. ...
Reading through the comments in the Corner, there’s no mistaking who’s in charge, who’s subservient. Two Corner contributors complained about Manzi’s “tone.” Levin is the most vituperative radio host this side of Mike Savage – but imagine anyone at The Corner complaining about Levin’s tone.

On the narrow point, I actually side with Manzi's critics here. It's true that the complaints about his"tone" are wildly hypocritical, especially from McCarthy, and indicate a double-standard. On the other hand, these kinds of double-standards are hardly unique to the Corner. Almost any online publication maintains a double-standard between internal and external criticism. Writers at the American Scene or the Frum Forum might disagree with each other, but they're not going to call each other wingnuts, as Manzi did to Levin. You can admire Manzi's courage in speaking truth to power while acknowledging that NR's denizens weren't totally out of bounds in taking offense at his manner.

Of course, this points to an inherent problem with maintaining a blog that functions as a bulletin board for the conservative movement. The standards of entry are extremely low, and the number of contributors is vast. The practical effect of this is to force a huge number of conservatives to grant each other collegial deference. This makes it harder for a conservative like Manzi -- who, for all his flaws, does craft arguments with data gleaned from outside the hermetic universe of conservative talking points -- to actually call a spade a spade.