What to read in 2013

Ross Douthat must live in the eye of the hurricane. While the rest of us feel battered by months of bitter negotiation over the fiscal cliff and are bracing for more punishment as the debt ceiling fight brews, the New York Times columnist sees the new year as a sea of tranquility.

In his recent column “How to Read in 2013,” he observes that this is “a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race.” Given the vicious, Manichean tone of contemporary politics, this is tantamount to saying, “Hey, we’re only facing a Category 4 storm this year.” Yet, Douthat casts it as a rare opportunity for political junkies to engage in quiet reflection. Is this Hemingway-esque grace under pressure or brazen denial of reality? Who can say? But you have to admire his moxie.

He says readers should take this opportunity to decamp from their partisan echo chambers and explore alternative sources of news and opinion. “If you love National Review’s political coverage,” he writes, “add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell.”

This recommendation is sensible to the point of cliché. Open our minds, yes! But his list has so many usual suspects that it could have been cobbled together by Captain Louis from “Casablanca.” This might be wise if the prestigious publications and writers he cites had the cure for what ails us. But, truth be told, they — and, more accurately, the much larger mainstream in which they swim — are part of the problem he is addressing. Their reports may be more insightful than the average story on MSNBC or Fox News, but they rarely surprise us. For the most part, they are partisan, predictable voices that provide neat summaries of how people like themselves should think. If you’re liberal, you won’t find much in The New Yorker to challenge your views; same goes for conservative devotees of The Weekly Standard.

Hence, Douthat does not portray his recommendations as broad and generous sources able to weigh the competing claims of complex evidence to help us draw honest conclusions about how things are. Instead, he presents them as counterweights that might help us achieve some balance. None is perfectly proportioned — they are oil and vinegar; it’s up to us to shake them.

This also ignores a central premise of his column: that we readers like our echo chambers, which is why he must prod us to leave them. It’s not enough to reach out to new sources, we must also be able to give them a fair hearing, instead of sifting them for points of contention that we can use to confirm our existing views.

A more balanced diet of unbalanced mainstream voices is not the cure for what ails us. I wish I could suggest my own list of political writers with such scope (though they may be out there). I wish I could recommend some under-the-radar publications that look at politics with fresh and generous perspectives.

Unfortunately, even in the best of times political writing is geared toward making strong arguments and taking sides — a confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach that has been exacerbated in these not-so-great times. Nowadays, it is a blood sport marked by a poisonous tone which focuses on dismissing and delegitimizing opposing views — hence the cries of “racist,” “moron” and “communist.”