Labels Are For Soup Cans

by Conor Friedersdorf

Apropos yesterday's post about E.D. Kain's break with conservatism, I want to add something: ideological conversions are often interesting to discuss, as evidenced by Daniel Larison's post here and Mr. Kain's response. And it's always refreshing to read someone who is forthrightly working through their beliefs in public, especially when that includes grappling with critics in an earnest attempt to arrive at the right answer.

But it's worth remembering that what a writer ends up calling himself shouldn't ultimately matter nearly as much as it does. An insightful mind remains so regardless of ideological affiliations. Arguments should be evaluated on their merits, as opposed to whether the idea therein or the proponent advancing it is authentically liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Heretic hunters on the right and the left very much resent it when dissidents lay claim to an ideological label. Almost always it is irrational when they do so.

So long as Mr. Kain persists in offering intellectually honest writing that advances conversations, I'll follow his stuff wherever it's published, regardless of whether he calls himself a liberal, an independent, a socialist, a centrist, a neocon, a neo-liberal, a conservative, an atheist, an Islamic bridge builder, or a centaur advocate. The thoughts he expresses on any given issue are themselves a lot more important and informative than whatever label he finds most accurate, and I don't see why I'd ever rely on a vague proxy to judge one of his pieces when I could just read it and agree or disagree as appropriate.

In the left blogosphere, you'll find people who resent the fact that Mickey Kaus calls himself a liberal. On the right a whole cadre of bloggers is apoplectic about the fact that someone like Andrew Sullivan dares to invoke the c word. An astonishing number of people have had long arguments about whether or not Mr. Sullivan is truly a conservative. I don't begrudge them those debates, inconsequential though they may be. The point is that whatever label fits him best, it is insanity to imagine that anyone is going to come away from his writing unaware of the fact that he's a gay, British born fan of President Obama who persists in a complicated relationship with Catholicism, loathes torture, harbors a profound distrust of Sarah Palin, has a soft spot for Margaret Thatcher, passionately wants to see gay marriage legalized... and the list goes on.

I use Mr. Sullivan as an example because Dish readers are familiar with his work, but the same can be said for any commentator who has spent enough time writing for public consumption to provide an infinitely better idea of where he or she is coming from than even the most accurate ideological label could possibly offer. (This even applies to ideological hacks, who couldn't hide their affiliations if they tried.)

The success some have had elevating ideological labels and boxing complicated writers into them is a shame, a disservice to the audience, a failure for which readers share responsibility, and a trend that ought to be resisted.