Joel Stein, Bete Noire

Today, Joel Stein threw a fresh chunk of red meat into the blogosphere, doing more to deliver eyeballs to the Web than anyone since Paris Hilton. Is this what the circulation-starved Times wants right now?

I’m referring to Stein’s truly silly column, “Warriors and Wusses,” in which he tries to make you believe that, unlike other Iraq war critics, he does not support the troops.

(W)hen you volunteer for the U.S. military, you pretty much know you’re not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you’re willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it’s Vietnam.

And sometimes, for reasons I don’t understand, you get to just hang out in Germany.

I know this is all easy to say for a guy who grew up with money, did well in school and hasn’t so much as served on jury duty for his country. But it’s really not that easy to say because anyone remotely affiliated with the military could easily beat me up, and I’m listed in the phone book.

I’m not advocating that we spit on returning veterans like they did after the Vietnam War, but we shouldn’t be celebrating people for doing something we don’t think was a good idea. All I’m asking is that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return. But, please, no parades.

Seriously, the traffic is insufferable.

It is famously hard to write a fresh opinion column twice a week, and when writers resort to such naked attention-mongering, you know they’ve run out of ideas. Stein calls other pacifists “wusses,” but, c’mon, he does not not support the troops. He is full of nice things to say about them. (“They seem gutsy, young and up for anything.”)

Despite Stein’s rejection of imperialism, he doesn’t really step up to the plate and advocate that the troops engage in mass disobedience and desertion in order to win his support.

Stein’s main offense, to me, is that he insults the soldiers by calling their intelligence into question. He presumes that “people who joined up to protect our country, especially after 9/11,…were tricked into fighting in Iraq.” It’s pretty clear from news reports that such is not the case. Soldiers say they are proud of what they’re doing in Iraq. Domestically, enlistment numbers are up.

Stein is perhaps too young to understand the historical context. The liberals who repeat, “I support the troops” might be fork-scratching-the-plate annoying in their message discipline. But they are trying to make an important distinction between their positions and the noxious, anti-military, “baby-killer” rhetoric that too many anti-Vietnam War opponents indulged in. It’s a respectable position, not “wussy” in any way.

Also, most liberals are keeping the option open to support a subsequent military action. As exemplified by Hilary Clinton’s recent hawkish comments about the nuclear threat posed by Iran, this only makes sense. War in Iraq has divided the country. War in Iran to keep them from nuclear blackmail over Israel and Europe? Maybe not so divisive.

Be all that as it may. Stein’s real accomplishment was to get mentioned in almost every right-wing blog. He is now the conservatives’ bete noire, which can be like yeast for any pundit’s career. His op-ed is featured on Drudge. He will soon have the thrill of seeing his name writ large in the blogosphere if he hasn’t already. Here’s a sampling of those who swallowed Stein’s bait.

Hugh Hewitt:

Mr. Stein really doesn’t know anyone on active duty, hasn’t been to any bases or any of the service academies, hasn’t met with wounded or returning troops, and generally admits to being blissfully ignorant of the military. He could not recount a single book he has read about the military, and doesn’t even know how big it is. He thinks the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have died in the GWOT have died in vain. He does not feel grateful for their service.

These are not illegal opinions, of course, but they are deeply repulsive ones, and I don’t believe the Los Angeles Times ought to have run this column. At a minimum, Stein’s editor, Andres Martinez, who worked with Stein on the piece last night should have expressed some demands for reporting or distinction or at a minimum cautions about what Stein wrote. I questioned Stein closely on this point, and Martinez expressed no substantive views on the column at all.

Ed Driscoll, complete with relevant hyperlinks:

(I)t’s a new year. Plenty of time to make a fresh start. So how do you (editors of the Times) jump-start things in 2006? By running an op-ed smearing American soldiers, that’s how! (“I think it’s probably ok to question Joel Stein’s patriotism”, the Professor writes. And how.)

As one of Roger Simon’s commenters notes, every day Karl Rove must wake up and thank God at how deranged his opponents are–it makes his life so much easier.

Irishpennants:

I don’t support Joel Stein. He wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times today saying what most upscale liberals believe, but haven’t got the guts or honesty to acknowledge…. Joel Stein is slime. But at least he is straightforward slime.

Oddly, thus far, Stein has gone undefended by the authors of the most popular liberal blogs, Atrios, DailyKOS, Huffington Post, Crooks and Liars, or Think Progress. These blogs tend to have lengthy comment threads where the authors and readers chat. I haven’t dug into those.

No matter. The backlash to the backlash is coming soon. First place to look? The Times‘ Letters to the Editor in tomorrow’s edition.

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