Rubin, a “recovering lawyer” and former Washington editor of Pajamas Media before moving to the flagship neoconservative magazine, will fill an admitted void at the paper as a blogging conservative, said Post editorial board editor Fred Hiatt in an e-mail interview. “Right now I have Greg Sargent’s the Plum Line blogging from the left, and no one doing the equivalent thing from the right,” he wrote.
Rubin has her strengths. Her work can be thought provoking and she’s capable of doubling Sargent’s output. “Jen has labored daily never missing a news story, never missing an op-ed column, reading everything and digesting everything and commenting on everything,” wrote Commentary editor John Podhoretz in a farewell note. But her style is what most differentiates her work from the wonkish, reportorial tone of Sargent’s blog.
Rubin just started at the Post last week, and judgment on her output there should be reserved until she’s had a chance to establish herself. But the body of work that got her the job too often delighted in fanning the flames of an already overheated and polarized political debate.
When I asked Rubin by e-mail if the Post had asked her to tone down her rhetoric or suggested other changes to her style, she replied: “The only direction I received was to keep doing what I’ve always been doing.”
Rubin has a penchant for relentlessly sticking political opponents with negative labels. While overblown rhetoric is certainly a feature of most opinionated blogging, the Post considers its blogging part of its entire opinion operation, and applies the same standards aimed at civil discourse.
That’s why a popular liberal blogger like Glenn Greenwald—who regularly uses monikers like “warmonger”—isn’t in line for a gig at the Post. Nor do liberal Post bloggers like Sargent or Ezra Klein employ terms like “warmonger” or “war criminal” (a search on their pre-Post homes didn’t produce anything like that, either).
But people or ideas that drew Rubin’s ire at Commentary got saddled with an extreme position—or, in the case of President Barack Obama, several.
“Obama isn’t moderate, doesn’t like the free market, and isn’t interested in waging a robust war on Islamic fundamentalists,” Rubin wrote in the fall of 2009. During the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, Rubin claimed that Obama’s “sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens.” Last year, Rubin derided Obama as “the most anti-Israel U.S. president (ever),” a judgment unequivocally repudiated by even the hawkish Israel lobby group AIPAC. Undeterred, this summer Rubin lamented, in a typically overblown overstatement, that the Israel “must figure out how (quite literally) the Jewish state is to survive the Obama presidency,” insisting the following day that Israel will have to go it alone against Iran.
“When appropriate I will still label parties, groups and politicians as I see them,” Rubin told me by e-mail.
“To me,” Hiatt wrote in our exchange, “calling Obama an anti-Israel president, or even the most anti-Israel president ever, suggests strong views, but not necessarily inflammatory name-calling; the question is whether she backs up her charge with arguments and evidence. Whether you or I find the evidence compelling is a separate question from whether it is a legitimate position to take.”
But Rubin uses her name-calling tactic exactly to declare other people’s positions as illegitimate, refusing to back down or even acknowledge that her black-and-white rendering may omit mitigating details. Take the time she block-quoted Middle East analyst Daniel Levy—citing a blog called Mere Rhetoric—to attack the liberal Israeli former negotiator and veteran as an “all-star Israel-hater.” (Like she often does with the phrase “peace process,” Rubin also puts “liberal Zionist” in skeptical quotes, once even calling the term an “oxymoron.”)
Soon thereafter, several other outlets all published a more full transcript of the quote that showed context. The blog from which Rubin drew the quote (also hostile to Levy) reprinted and addressed the fuller transcript, though the author disagreed that it changed the meaning of Levy’s quote. Rubin never updated her post, but she did mention in passing that Levy’s allies had responded, and dismissed it as “throw(ing) in the towel” and “conceding.” Rubin cited an even more truncated passage. (One of the ironies of the contextualized quote was that Levy was defending the existence of “progressive Zionism,” leaving me doubtful that Rubin even examined the context - surely she would have pounced.)
Over the past year, Rubin has—at least four times—quoted, linked to, and endorsed Rachel Abrams’s notion that Jews in America have a “sick addiction” (in Rubin and Abrams’s words) to the Democratic Party. When I asked Rubin about the phrase “sick addiction,” she said her arguments against Jewish support for Democrats were clear from her writings, and cited a book by Norman Podhoretz (Abrams’s stepfather) called Why Are Jews Liberal? In his book, Podhoretz repeatedly laments the “stubborn attachment” of Jews to the Democratic Party, but there is no mention of this being a sickness. There’s a difference there with regard to discourse: one approach aims to explain a lamentable phenomenon, the other seeks to deride it.
The Post’s Hiatt gave a frank answer when asked about Rubin harping on the “sick addiction” theme: “As a general matter, I agree with you about the demonization of opponents by means of using terms of mental illness,” he wrote, noting that such language had appeared on comments in the Post both about Obama and the Tea Party movement. “I haven’t attempted to censor columnists who use such terminology, but I don’t like it much.”
Hiatt’s points are well taken: Opinion writers should be free to express their opinions, and balance in opinion pages is certainly a commendable goal. But there are plenty of talented conservative bloggers who can make their points without resorting to conversation-ending rhetoric. Kathryn Jean Lopez and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review are two that spring to mind, as does Daniel Larison at the American Conservative. The latter is, of course, a paleoconservative, but if Hiatt was seeking to bolster neoconservatives in the Post’s opinion section (because Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer apparently don’t suffice), David Frum has proven an able blogger and committed himself to civil criticisms of his own party as well as his political adversaries.
Instead, the Post seems to have picked someone who, while capable of some political introspection on the right, characterizes opponents by derision; by delegitimizing them rather than engaging them on the substance of their policy preferences. Such stridency does nothing to further discourse, instead cementing the polarized cable news-like atmosphere—increasingly pervading Washington over the last two decades—in the pages of the city’s great newspaper.