Friday, March 10, 2006


The Straight Story

As some of you may know, earlier this week I had the pleasant experience of serving as a personal pinata for an obscure liberal blogger named Howie Klein and some of the people who read his commentaries on Huffington Post and Daily Kos. My offense? I challenged Klein's defamatory characterization of my former boss, Joe Lieberman, as a racist and homophobe.

I initially resisted the temptation to respond to the ugly personal attacks that Klein and his fans threw around after I complained, in large part because, as several wise friends of mine have reminded me, it's a waste of time to try to reason with fundamentally unreasonable people. No countervaling facts or arguments, no matter how convincing, were going to penetrate the closed minds of people like the author of this piece of hate mail I received:

You are the perfect moral argument for abortion. If you were black,
you'd be the perfect moral argument for lynching, and if you were
Jewish, you'd be the perfect moral argument for Auschwitz.

But after taking some time to get some perspective, I realized there a few misunderstandings that I want to clear up, just for the sake of the public record, and a few reflections on the incident that I want to share.

First, a bit of context. When I launched my blog at the beginning of the year, I made a point of staying away from the angry assault on Senator Lieberman taking place in some quarters of the Democratic blogoshere. Much as I still have great admiration and affection for the man, and a strong sense of loyalty, I wanted to carve out an independent space to comment on matters important to me.

But when I saw Klein's hate-fueled post on the Huffington website, which is one of the most widely-read blogs on the left, I just couldn't let it go unchallenged. It's one thing to attack people's positions, even in the venomous languague that can flare up in the blog world, on some obscure website. It's quite another to make personal slurs that are demonstrably untrue about a deeply honorable man in a large and influential public forum.

So I asked my progressive friend and blogging guru Micah Sifry if he knew how to reach the editors of the HuffPost. Micah, who had not seen Klein's post, gave me Roy Sekoff's email and told me to use his name. I then sent a short note to Sekoff calling his attention to Klein's libelous statements, and asked him to either delete those unjustifiable references or to take down Klein's post. (NOTE: I made the mistake of casually misuing the word "slanderous" in my original email, which, as one of the few thoughtful responders to Klein's posts pointed out, technically applies to oral defamatory comments; "libelous" applies to written expressions. I stand corrected.)

I also sent along two detailed documents listing Lieberman's record on civil rights and gay rights issues, which to an intellectually honest reader should just about eliminate any suspicion of racism or homophobia, and encouraged the editor to pass them along to Klein. I thought he might actually care about the evidence -- shows what a naive fool I can be.

Now, in fairness to Klein, he is technically correct when he says that he did not explicitly come out and say Lieberman was a "racist" in his initial post, as he did in calling the Senator an "unrelenting homophobe." But his import in writing that Lieberman's stance on affirmative action in the 1990s made racism "quasi-acceptable" was clear. And if there was any doubt about that, Klein removed it with his next post, where he stitches together a bunch of political complaints and policy distortions to repeatedly insinuate that Lieberman is racist. I'm sorry, Howie, but you can't have it both ways.

Next, I want to make clear that, contrary to Klein's disingenous follow-up post, I did not lodge my protest "secretly" or "anonymously." I identified who I was and gave all my contact information in the email I sent. And I never asked to hide my identity. Klein knows this because my email was directly forwarded to him by the Huffington Post's editors. If you want to see for yourself, here it is verbatim [NOTE: I removed my cell phone number for privacy reasons]:

Hi Roy. My friend Micah Sifry suggested I get in touch with you about Howie Klein’s vicious rant against my old boss, Joe Lieberman, that’s up on your site now.

I am less concerned with Klein’s absurb mischaracterizations of Lieberman’s position on free speech issues — which I would be happy to debate him on -- than with his slanderous statements about Lieberman being a racist and a homophobe.

Those accusations are not open to debate — they are demonstrably untrue. Lieberman went to Mississippi to register voters in 1963 and then marched with MLK, hardly the work of a racist. In addition, he has long been a leading cosponsor of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], and he introduced a domestic partnership benefits bill for federal employees — hardly the work of a homophobe. (If necessary I can send you a much longer exposition on Lieberman’s record on civil rights.)

As such, I would ask you to remove those references from Klein’s post or take it down. These kind of wild, unsubstantiated, sleazy attacks have no place on a blog that is trying to promote a serious, substantive political debate. Indeed, I have great respect for your site precisely because unlike much of the liberal blogosphere, your commentators have refrained from this kind of ugly vituperation and written on a far higher plane. Please don’t let people like Howie Klein drag you down into that gutter.

I would be happy to discuss any of this in more detail if that would be helpful.

Otherwise, thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.

-- Dan Gerstein

Dan Gerstein Consulting
260 Fifth Avenue, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10001
212-584-5000 (O)
212-584-5045 (F)

In making this complaint, I was not acting on anyone's behalf, contrary to the conspiracy theories that Klein and others have tried to spin. I don't work for Senator Lieberman any more in any capacity, no one who does directed me to do anything, and Lieberman had no idea about it. I was simply defending a friend who deserves far better, hard as that may be for some to believe.

Nor was I engaging in censorship, as Klein speciously charged. I respect Klein's right to vent his disdain for Lieberman, no matter how ill-informed some of it may be, and I did nothing to deny or infringe on his ability to speak his mind. All I did was to exercise my free speech rights, by challenging the veracity of Klein's unfounded attacks and urging the HuffPost editors to think about whether they want to give a platform and legitimacy to such a big, hurtful lie. In the process, I didn't make any threats or bring any pressure to bear -- I just asked.

Let me make an analogy to drive home this point. If Klein or another feautured commentator had called Lieberman a dirty Jew and traitor to his country, and I had asked the editors to remove those indefensible words, would I be censoring Klein's speech? Would it have been right to make me explain in a counter post why he was NOT a dirty Jew and a traitor to his country? (If you think this analogy is too far afield, I would urge you to read some of the thinly-veiled anti-Semitic digs that run through the responses to Klein's post on Kos and Huffington.)

While I was disappointed with the ultimate outcome, the editors at least demanded that Klein substantiate his defamatory charges, which in turn exposed to the world just how ridiculous his arguments are. Case in point: Klein's inexplicable contention that the Media Marketing Accountability Act, which I helped write while working in Lieberman's office, was homophobic. There is not one mention of homosexuality or anything close to it in the bill, which was meant to stop big media companies from deceptively marketing entertainment products rated for adults to minors, or nothing remotely implying concern aboout homosexuality.

In contrast, there were plenty of hostile implications about my own sexuality in several of the responses to Klein's posts, which generally suggested I was a self-loathing gay man, a la Roy Cohn. I had to chuckle over that. If these folks had actually done any homework about me, which I doubt they did, I could see how they could make that leap -- I am single, 38, and live in Chelsea. But much as I hate to burst their belligerent bubbles, I am comfortably heterosexual.

Something else that my critics might have discovered, though, is that I have a gay mother and a gay sister. They may have also learned that I atended my sister's wedding in Massachusetts last May, in which I gave a toast praising her and her partner for their courage.

I mention this piece of personal information not because I feel any need to prove that I am not a homophobe, but to make a larger point about the dangers of jumping to political conclusions and particularly the "indict first, ask questions later" mentality that is threatening to drag down the Democratic blogosphere's credibility.

Reading Klein's rants and those of his readers, I saw a bizarro-world caricature of myself that has no basis in fact. Purely based on my connection with Lieberman -- and in some cases, on their misguided interpretation of the commentaries I have written in the Wall Street Journal that have been critical of the Democratic Party's strategy -- these folks asserted with certainty that, in addition to being a self-loathing gay man, that I am a closet right-winger, a moral zealot, a Bush apologist, and a war-monger.

I wish these commenters had taken the time to read my blog -- at least one of them did, and concluded I was not nearly the devil I was being made out to be -- and, god forbid, talk to me. They might have surprised to find out that not only am I pro-gay marriage and pro-choice, but that I disagree with Lieberman about the conduct of the war in Iraq, that I think the defense budget is bloated and should be cut, that we should at least double salaries for public school teachers, that I view Bush as one of the worst leaders in American history, and that I consider Paul Wellstone a hero.

Which is to say, I hardly fit into the simplistic ideological box that some want to put me in. The reality is I am an iconoclastic independent-thinking progressive, who believes that government not only can but must be an agent for economic opportunity and social justice. Indeed, what disagreements I have with the leading commentators on Kos, Huffington, and MyDD (among others) are much less about ends or values, though we part ways on a few key issues, but of means and tactics.

Yet this untidy, presumption-busting reality is mostly moot. Like Lieberman, I have already been tried and convicted as an apostate, and the only just punishment it seems is banishment from the party. Think I am exaggerating? I would encourage you to read the comments on Kos and Huffington for yourself.

What you will find on these select sites is more evidence of the Mao-meets-McCarthy mindset that is increasingly common in the Democratic blogosphere and to some extent the party's activist base. According to this way of thinking, if you do not adhere to our positions with absolute purity and fealty, and/or if you ever say something nice about a Republican, you are a betrayer, and must be purged from the party. Even worse, deviate from some arbitrary orthodoxy one iota, and you are presumed to be a bigot.

I want to be careful not to overstate the extent of this problem or treat the Democratic blogosphere as a monolith, an error that I and others have made in the past. I am relative new to the blogging community, and I have come to appreciate that most of the conversation happening on the left side of the Net is vital in a happy warrior-ish way and value-adding on the whole. I may not always agree with the positions or propositions articulated, but they are typically thoughtful and thought-provoking. More important, they are part of a vibrant, empowering conversation online that is largely enriching the whole of our democracy.

But it is just as clear that the viciousness expressed in Klein's and his acolytes' comments is not just a neglibible or easily-isolated element. This strain of angry absolutism is spreading and infecting more and more of the political discourse in the progressive online community. If it continues unchecked, I fear that we may over time become what Democrats supposedly despise most about the hard right wingnuts -- a bunch of ignorant, intolerant dogmatists.

That unfortunately is how many outsiders, particularly thought-leaders in the national political class, already view the progressive blogosphere. Case in point: I recently relayed my experience with Howie Klein to a friend who is a very smart, unconventional, and nationally-recognized political consultant, and his advice was to just ignore what he referred to as "the crazies." It's an unfair caricature, much like the one that is being presented of Joe Lieberman. But it is already widely-held, and I suspect that this stigma and its consequences will only get worse -- and the progressive blogosphere will become increasingly marginalized -- if Klein's paranoid style gets more traction.

I am also very concerned about the broader, bricks-and-mortar ramifications of this trend for the Party, which appears to be taking at least some of its cues from the more aggressive Netroots factions. Most immediately, we are at risk of driving out more and more moderate and/or unconventional-thinking Democrats and cannibalizing our support base. And leading up to the critical 2008 elections, we are at risk of diverting attention away from our ideals and ideas (not to mention the Republicans' catastrophic failures), repelling the voters we need most to win back, and giving the corrupt cynical forces of the right an opening to maintain their grip on power.

This could be especially poisonous at this particular moment, as a friend of mine pointed out, given the obvious Republican strategy of trying to define the party by its angriest and ugliest voices. If we continue to conform to their caricature, we might as well put the electoral equivalent of a "kick me" sign on our backs.

Now, the very act of holding up this moral mirror, and raising these alarms, will be seen by many as yet another display of disloyalty and expose me to be a self-hating Democrat. To me, the logic of that is incomprehensible. If I hated the Democratic Party, I would not bother engaging in this debate and subjecting myself to Klein's kind of vilification. I would have become an independent long ago -- and trust me, the thought has crossed my mind.

But like a lot of my ostensible critics, I believe some things are too important to not fight for. The difference, it seems, is that I don't treat those in the Democratic blogosphere who may disagree with me as the enemy.

I may skirmish with some of them about strategy, and suggest, as I have and will continue to do so, that their anger, while justified, is often blinding them to some hard realities and impeding our ability to win. To me, that's what small-d democracy is all about, the vigorous competition of ideas and arguments. But I am not going to arbitarily attack their character or say they have no place in my party.

Make no mistake, I don't pull punches when analyzing the party's problems -- we're in such deep denial I believe there is no choice but to provide a few shocks to the system. But I don't make it personal or gratuitously insult the people on the other side of the debate. And as I hope I have demonstrated with this post, I am not reluctant to own up to my missteps.

So let me close with an appeal to my friends in the Democratic blogging world. If you really want to grow this conversation in numbers and in influence, and have your voices carry beyond the limited world of the Web, let's put a stop to the nasty lashouts and leave the litmus tests to the Pat Robertsons of the world.

I am all for loudly and clearly standing up for the core ideals that unite us. But the fact is we have to grow the party if we hope to regain majority status and control of our country, which means we can't really afford to be mocking or excluding large numbers of people from our ranks just because they disagree with the party orthodoxy on a small number of issues.

As for Howie Klein and his fans, all I can say is this: If you really care about free speech, then please stop punishing people for practicing it.

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