I’m going to have to side with (my friend) Ezra Klein against (our mutual friend) Conor Friedersdorf on the question of whether D.C. is somehow toxic for journalists and thinkers. Here’s the nub of his concern:
But inside the world of many ideological magazines, think tanks, foundations, and other intellectual movement operations, a different dynamic takes hold. The overlap between colleagues and friends, already more pronounced in Washington, D.C. than any other city I’ve observed, is intensified by the fact that standards of loyalty are complicated. It is expected, if lamentable, that ideological movements label fellow travelers to be betrayers of the cause, or useful idiots, on certain occasions when they engage in honestly held disagreement. Even more insidious, however, is the notion that by criticizing someone’s book, or questioning the findings of their research, or calling out their employer, one is betraying a friend, or even an entire circle of friends.
So, two things. First, to the extent he’s describing a real problem, I think it’s a problem with ideological movements and the discipline they impose, not really with mere social relations. People get attacked for betraying the team regardless of whether any of the parties to some particular disagreement also happen to know each other personally. Second, if the problem is these social ties, then I’d think it would be a problem whether or not folks are physically concentrated. Conor and I did not, I hope, stop being friends when he moved out of DC. To really avoid the putative problem, you’d have to cut your social ties with other political writery types wherever they might be. As for myself, I think it’s a tremendous benefit that, on top of our more formal written exchanges, Conor and I used to be able to hash out our ideas on the porch over a couple beers now and again. I’m sure my thinking and writing would be far worse if I were to cut myself off from that kind of conversation.
Now, maybe Conor’s not so much worried about actual friends, but rather these loose acquaintances. And I just don’t think it’s that big a deal. Like Conor, I’ve written some sharp and snarky things about Michael Goldfarb. Like Conor, I occasionally bump into him through mutual acquaintances at a bar or whatnot. And you know what? It’s just not an issue. I lose exactly no sleep over the prospect of having to make small talk with some friend-of-a-friend I called a moron last week. It is, as they say, all in the game.
When we’re talking about actual friends, as opposed to folks you might see around now and again, I think there’s probably an effect, but I think it’s almost entirely limited to tone. I disagree in print with real-life friends (and, for that matter, coworkers) pretty much constantly. It’s honestly never occurred to me that it would be a problem to take a hammer to a friend’s argument because, hell that’s what we do. Now, it’s true I’ll probably refrain from really tearing into a good friend. (And I hope that, by the same token, I’d never find myself on the wrong end of the tone Matt Yglesias reserves for Jonah Goldberg, even if I’d written something incredibly dumb.) But is that really a problem? Is our political discourse really plagued by a stultifying reluctance to be vicious and snarky to folks you disagree with? If, as I think, the effect of social ties is mostly to make us a little more charitable in interpretation and a little more respectful in disagreement, well, that’s a feature, not a bug.