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July 25, 2010

Don't Get Angry at the Dung Beetles

So the Atlantic's Megan McArdle has been sliming Elizabeth Warren. Soon afterward Thomas Levenson went through McArdle's various deceptions in detail, and said: this post you find McArdle doing the respectable-society version of the same approach to argument that Andy Breitbart has just showed us can have such potent effect.

The Atlantic?!? Publishing things with the intellectual shabbiness of Andrew Breitbart?!? My god, just wait until David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic, hears about this!

"Andrew’s nexus is that he knows people in Hollywood and he knows people in DC and in each place he’s kind of like a celebrity because people in Hollywood who are kind of like quietly political, meaning they’re on the right, are fascinated with him because he knows all these media pundits that we’ve been reading quietly, and he actually knows them! It’s incredible! And in D.C., he goes there and he’s Mr. Hollywood" [said Breitbart's friend Jude Christodal].

Mr. Breitbart strode up. He had been talking to Republican Congressman Eric Cantor and publisher David Bradley, who had been thrilled to finally put a name to a face. “You’re Andrew Breitbart?” [Bradley] exclaimed when introduced.

That's from a 2008 profile of Breitbart. Bradley got all excited when Breitbart appeared at a party Bradley was throwing in Minneapolis at that summer's Republican convention.

This kind of thing is why you shouldn't get angry at individuals within our hideous media system. Of course, I've succumbed to that temptation myself many times; no one appreciates more than I do that McArdle is one of the world's most excruciating human beings. But it's counterproductive.

After all, why is McArdle so excruciating? It's not because she is Wrong On The Internet. It's because she is Wrong On The Internet while in a position of influence and power.

And why is she in this position? Is it because David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic, wants to employ people who work hard to present an accurate picture of the world, and McArdle has somehow fooled him? Or is it because David Bradley wants to employ people who work hard to dishonestly slime Elizabeth Warren?

Obviously it's the latter. The U.S. media is like an ecosystem, with various evolutionary niches for different creatures. Bradley has created a niche for McArdle to do her thing. But there's no reason to get angry at her, any more than you should get angry at dung beetles for filling their particular evolutionary niche. They're not going to stop rolling their little ball of dung all day long unless that niche disappears. And if all the individual dung beetles were somehow wiped out by an infection of accurate criticism on blugs, something else would soon fill the niche in a similar way.

(And while I may be giving McArdle too much credit, it's possible that if the ecosystem changed, she might be able to evolve into something different.)


I found Thomas Levenson via Atrios.

AND: Glenn Greenwald made the same point here. However, it was in an interview with the Atlantic, so he sadly did not compare Atlantic writers to dung beetles:

GREENWALD: When I began writing about politics, I believed that applying pressure, shame, and the like to our national journalists could help influence behavior in a positive way. I no longer think that. Our national media isn't subservient to political power because of the behavior or personality attributes of any particular journalists — at least not primarily. The real problem is structural and cultural...

That's why I no longer think the goal is to reform the existing establishment media but, rather, to create an alternative to it, a competitor to it, that will perform the functions it refuses to perform.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at July 25, 2010 08:42 PM

Actually, this isn't exactly right. Evolutionary landscapes are complicated, and it's really impossible for life to explore them fully. Things aren't so neatly slotted that someone HAS to do things the way the dung beetle does. Sure, someone will eventually eat that shit, because, evidently, there's good stuff in that shit, but who and how is open to infinite variations. The dung beetle does its thing in a pretty cute and distinctive way; if you wiped them out, that would probably be the last of the shit-rolling you'd see for a long while.

Map this comment back to analogy hyper-space as you see fit.

Posted by: saurabh at July 25, 2010 09:15 PM

I'm sorry, I like this analogy too much to care whether it's accurate or not.

But also, in defense of my shaky understanding of evolutionary forces, I didn't claim something else would show up that would roll little balls of dung—just that something would show up that would "fill the niche in a similar way." Imprecise vagueness FTW!

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 25, 2010 09:36 PM

As excrutiating as McMeghan might be, she pales in comparison to Bradley's most infamous hire.

Posted by: bayville at July 25, 2010 11:04 PM

Interestingly, the McMegan article that was linked in your linked post (the one where she says that 3) I overestimated my ability to interpret Saddam's behavior has vanished from the ethertubes. Somehow that's not surprising: anyone who makes so many egregious mistakes and gets militant about defending them would feel no compulsion about expunging the record. Not very sporting of her, is it? Maybe it's a server error.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 25, 2010 11:27 PM

Compulsion??? I think I meant compunction.

Damn, no edit function to expunge the record of this egregious mistake.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 25, 2010 11:35 PM

the McMegan article that was linked in your linked post (the one where she says that 3) I overestimated my ability to interpret Saddam's behavior has vanished from the ethertubes

Looks like it's over here now. I see some of her commenters jeered at her in a satisfying way.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 25, 2010 11:45 PM

Actually, I find dung beetles admirable. Not so much writers for the Atlantic.

Posted by: MC Squared at July 25, 2010 11:50 PM

Actually, I find dung beetles admirable.

Did you know dung beetles save the US cattle industry an estimated $380 million by burying cow crap? I didn't until minutes ago.

On the other hand, writers for the Atlantic help start $3 trillion wars. So they have that going for them.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 26, 2010 12:15 AM

I'm confused. Is Andrew Breitbart a dung beetle or a cockroach? What about guys that enjoy taking playful swipes at dung beetles and cockroaches--are they cats? And what about lawyers for dung beetles and cockroaches? Help me out with an org chart or something.

Posted by: Pete at July 26, 2010 01:37 AM

Wait, uhm, who is the doodie here?

Posted by: demize! at July 26, 2010 02:59 AM

The South African newspaper the Mail and Guardian has a team of journalists funded by George Soros and co. who call themselves "AmaBhungane", or dung-beetles.

And yes, they are good at collecting shit and burying it with great care.

Posted by: The Creator at July 26, 2010 06:57 AM

Let's see, journalists who might also be liberals are a threat to the viability of truth in journalism and therefore must be eliminated, but the editor of The Atlantic throws a party at the Republican convention--no problem!

Posted by: bill at July 26, 2010 10:33 AM

Jonathon Schwarz,

Thanks for relinking one of the most revealing unintended-expressions-of-monumental-stupidity I've ever read. I can see why you chose it for the subject of a post: it's really shocking, on so many levels, not the least of which is that she so casually admits the baselessness of her prior arguments without a shred of self-conscious reflection. With slightly different wording, her own self-assessment could pass for a piece found in the Onion. Example: McArdle admits over-estimating Iraqi's desire to be liberated by invading army's carpet bombing campaign.

Posted by: scudbucket at July 26, 2010 11:07 AM

Coincidentally, I just finished reading Ecology (DK Eyewitness Books) and so I can tell you that the ecological role of the dung beetle is that of detritivore.

And speaking of coincidences, here's a passage from Wikipedia about a type of dung beetle:

In his book Synchronicity (1952), Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung tells this story, starring a Cetonia aurata, as an example of a synchronistic event: A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt the urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since. [end of Wikipedia quote]

Jonathan, I note your reply to saurabh's first comment, and will not discuss ecological analogies any further at this time. Much could be said about how the sociopolitical noosphere resembles, and does not resemble, the biosphere - but not now.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 26, 2010 11:48 AM

us, we don't eat poop directly. we only breathe it.

Posted by: hapa at July 26, 2010 12:22 PM

Man I gotta say I'm pretty okay with hating dung beetles.

Or I mean I would be if they were rolling dung all over my copy of the Atlantic or whatever.

Dung beetles pretty much stay off whereever dung beetles live so I can't really get a proper hate going for them in practice, but if you were talking about the evolutionary niche of like wasps or ticks or anything I ever have to deal with then I'm pretty comfortable saying fuck them and their evolutionary niche.

Posted by: dan at July 27, 2010 06:41 AM

to distress the metaphor, whose hand is it that disturbs the rest of these detrivore predators?

Posted by: hapa at July 27, 2010 01:02 PM

Dear Jonathan,

I'd be curious to hear where you think Josh Marshall's TPM fits into this picture. He seems to be gaining a fair amount of clout over there (and for good reason), and I now see his reporters on the cable net shows. I think I read that he's one of the only people around that has elevated himself to Publisher for his own content, while eveyrone else has had to do it the other way around (i.e., they're already a Publisher, and then they create content). If you have any thoughts on how the blogs may be changing the game in any way, I'd love to hear them.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: FuzzFinger at July 27, 2010 08:11 PM

Comparing McArdle and her ilk to dung beetles is a vicious slander against the beetles.

Posted by: Stephanie at July 27, 2010 08:31 PM

Megan McCardle'd self-portrait of herself as thinking more profoundly than Elizabeth Warren is actually pretty humorous, in a dungbeetlish sort of way. You have to be impressed by the confidence of someone who comments professionally on a book she admittedly hasn't read for several years without bothering to even take another look at it. But that guy Levenson does such a good job that no more need be said.

That's a fine catch on David Bradley. We've got a lot of people with money like that now who have very effectively insulated themselves from conscience and never had reason to fear revolution. So they hire a lot of dung beetles, along with dung of course.

Posted by: N E at July 27, 2010 09:05 PM

I haven't read the Atlantic in years. Thank you, Jonathan, for reminding me why.

At least dung beetles serve a useful purpose in collecting shit in one place. The US media tend to spread it around contaminating the whole environment.

Posted by: Paul Avery at July 28, 2010 06:50 AM


With regard to the role of dung beetles and other detritivores - actually, although collecting shit in one place is very useful as a stage in society's waste management system, in the long run the process of making nutrients available for new growth requires that they be distributed, not centralized. As the saying goes, "Money is like manure - it does some good when it's spread around some."

On the other hand, I was going to offer as a counterexample of something good published in the Atlantic in the last few years Michael Hudson's May 2006 article “The New Road to Serfdom: An illustrated guide to the coming real estate collapse,” which was the first major national article forecasting - in precise chart form - the bursting of the real estate bubble and its consequences for homeowners and state and local government solvency. However, it turns out that I misremembered where it appeared - it was in Harper's, which is usually found on the same shelf at the newsstand but is a rather different kettle of fish. Never mind.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 29, 2010 09:15 AM

Put Michael Hudson and Dean Baker together in an auditorium and I'd scream for them like a teenage girl at a Beatles concern in 1964. Let Elizabeth Warren on the podium too and OMG, I'd just die.

Posted by: N E at July 29, 2010 10:15 AM