Why Katrina vanden Heuvel Declines to Acknowledge a Mistake

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>Why is it so hard for some people to admit mistakes? In my last post, I criticized Katrina vanden Heuvel for her oddly misleading Washington Post column on the Citizens United ruling. As I noted, in her column, she claimed that Russ Feingold was a "victim of Citizens United spending," and to substantiate that claim, she linked to a Nation interview with Feingold in which he explicitly stated that he was not a victim of Citizens United spending, explaining that an additional $100 million dollars would not have "changed the outcome" of his race.

Perhaps because there is no plausible defense to this surprising gaffe (there is only a plausible acknowledgment of error,) vanden Heuvel avoids actually explaining it in her reply to me. First, she offers the mistaken and irrelevant accusation that I have failed to "come up" with my own arguments supporting the Citizens United decision (read this Katrina and maybe hire a careful research assistant.) Then she offers an irrelevant analysis of Feingold's Senate race, citing his campaign ads and his well-known, general concerns about campaign finance practices. She neglects to reference his explicit assertion (in the Nation interview she cited) that he was not "underfunded" in 2010; she neglects to mention his belief that his defeat reflected voters' desire to send a message and his doubt that even another $100 million "would have mattered."

Enough. Anyone interested in this little dispute can read vanden Heuvel's original column and my critique of it and make up her own mind about it. I am, however, grateful to vanden Heuvel for her non-responsive response because it illustrates a problem much more important than any squabble between the two of us  -- the problem of pervasive intellectual dishonesty spawned by political dogmatism, blind partisanship, ego, and practically compulsive score-keeping.

A critique of Citizens United need not depend on the stubborn defense of misstatements; you can acknowledge that Russ Feingold was not defeated because of Citizens United and still make a case for reform. Reasonable people can agree on the facts and still disagree about the complex and difficult challenge of devising a campaign finance system that diminishes the advantages of great wealth while respecting free speech. Politics, tribal loyalties, and thin blue lines are what require the defense of misstatements and sometime misconduct: If you're committed to demonstrating that you and your allies are always right -- about everything -- if you assume that the success of your agenda depends on never acknowledging that, on occasion, your opponents are right and you are wrong, then you launch an offensive when you're caught making a mistake.

I am not generally objecting to partisanship; it has its uses and virtues, of course. Politics requires teamwork as well as compromise. But (as I observed in Worst Instincts, my book about misconduct at the ACLU,) extreme partisanship and the demand for solidarity can be stupefying, encouraging people to support actions or ideas they would otherwise oppose, requiring the suppression of dissent or the cynical resort to a "j'accuse" when a simple mea culpa would suffice.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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