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Late To The Party

Maureen Dowd is strangely behind the curve in taking on the why so few women on the editorial page? question. And, as Ezra Klein says, she near-totally drops the ball with a self-indulgent column. People think her columns are mean because her criticisms, while often witty, are strangely un-substantive like she's just, you know, being mean to people. Since the dawn of Bushery, I suppose many liberals have joined me in finding this to be not-so-bad an approach, but if you recall her coverage of the Clinton years the method was essentially the same and endlessly pissed me off. Just saying cutting things about whoever happens to be in the public eye at the moment is a kind of toxic cynicism, not sharp social criticism.

Worse, though, there's a real issue in this neighborhood that Dowd ends up neglected. Not, primarily, an issue of not-quite-A-list pundits getting discriminated against by the High And Mighty Gods of Opinion Journalism but a dearth of women doing A-list punditry that merely reflects and reproduces a gender imbalance that exists far down the totem poll (it's noticeable even from my ground floor view) and distorts the public debate in various ways. The world works in such a way that the women working in the field at less-prestigious levels don't really have the capacity to address the issues in play in print, since to advance their own careers they need to be on the good side of the responsible parties. Men are unlikely to care deeply about this issue or devote their time and attention to it. So if anyone's going to write about the problems women face as they try to work their way up the ladder, it's people in Dowd's position -- people who aren't risking anything by casting a critical eye on the structure of the profession -- who are going to have to do it.

March 13, 2005 | Permalink


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Just saying cutting things about whoever happens to be in the public eye at the moment is a kind of toxic cynicism, not sharp social criticism.

Speaking truth to power. You go, girl.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 13, 2005 3:10:45 PM

Matt - pretty much OT, but you know you are the Philly Inquirer' Op-Ed page today, right? Specifically the March 2nd "The End of the Op-Ed" and a bunch of comments (arranged really oddly . . .)

Now if only you were a woman . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 13, 2005 3:10:52 PM

Geez, Dowd writes a self-indulgent column? Who'd have expected that?

Wake me when she doesn't.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 13, 2005 3:30:17 PM

Dowd should be delighted that women are not taken seriously. Because if we were the NYT would never have given a column to so poisonious a media harpy.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Mar 13, 2005 3:31:13 PM

I agree with Alice. The only explanation I have for why the Times publishes her is that they get some kind of twisted sexist kick out of having only one woman columnist on the OpEd page -- and having her be some kind of cross between a gossip columnist and Miss Manners.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 13, 2005 3:35:13 PM

Dowd gets no credit for seriousness, because she never discusses serious issues in her columns. I've been reading her for years, and I'll be damned if I can determine a particular political philosophy or policy interest that she holds. When she does bring substantive criticisms against someone, they never cohere into a consistent case. She seems to decide whether she likes or dislikes someone, and only then goes looking for policy points to hold against them. Her only point of view appears to that of a moral scold in high-dudgeon mode. Reflexively raining poison down on people who fail to live up to your high moral standards is a pretty narrow straw to build a reputation as a Serious Public Intellectual upon.

I remember her lacerating Clinton during Monicagate, writing sympathetically about M. Lewinsky being preyed upon by creepy Bill. And then, all of a sudden, she turned around and started lashing Monica as being some sort of Jezebelle-homewrecker. Why the change? Did Monica sport a particularly tacky handbag one day, thus offending Dowd's sense of style and propriety? Who knows. All I remember was thinking that Dowd was a profoundly unserious thinker, and not worthy of my time and consideration.

She's an exemplar of a particular class of modern Washingtonian media type, who doesn't even consider policy issues, or whether a particular policy is beneficial or harmful. They only care about some weird abstract sense of the nation's moral health, and how individual politician's personal behavior reflects and influences that. Dowd doesn't so much write about politics and policy as she dime-store psychoanalyzes policians from a distance. According to Dowd, what was important in 2000 was what Al Gore's changing wardrobe said about him, and not the fact that his opponent was peddling complete bullshit as an economic plan (which her colleague Paul Krugman, with his fusty, old-fashioned concern about facts and numbers, kept pointing out).

I appreciate that she's going after Bush nowadays, but I couldn't tell you why she is. I doubt it has anything to do with Bush's policy, and I suspect that she could completely change direction on Bush in an eyeblink. So who needs her?

Posted by: FMguru | Mar 13, 2005 3:58:27 PM

"Speaking truth to power. You go, girl."

I'm quite sympathetic to abb1 on this one conceptually. But I fear I like the idea of Dowd a bit better than I like Dowd's actual columns. The idea of a commentator who's a combination of Jonathon Swift and Dorothy Parker is a damn good one. But Dowd's work too often strikes flat notes to my ear.

Still, I do like the result enough that Dowd and Krugman are the two NYT columnists I'd definitely keep, with Ehrenrich first on deck.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 13, 2005 4:41:45 PM

I agree about Dowd's general lack of serious. In the months immediately following 9/11, some of her columns struck me as paticularly embarrassing. She reminded me of a bright but callow teenager, sitting at the table with the grownups at a dinner party, in well over her head, and desperately trying to say something smart and witty just to keep up with the others.

Dowd is a light, pop cultural observer, a product of the frivolous, ironic and prosperous nineties, suddenly caught without any gravitas in heavier and more serious times. After things lightened up just a bit in 2002, so that it was possible to go after the President again, she found a niche in dishing out catty anti-Bush barbs to her pseudo-sophisticated urban audience.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 13, 2005 4:45:50 PM

I'm sure I'll say this again, but just because women want to do different things than men do, doesn't mean we have a "problem" that needs "solving".

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 13, 2005 5:19:34 PM

Sorry to lower the level of discourse 'n' all, but for years now the only response I can ever muster to the basic (algorithmically generated) MoDo column is, I wonder whom she's blowing?

Posted by: sglover | Mar 13, 2005 5:31:52 PM

"I'm sure I'll say this again"
Yep. You will. Some folks never learn.

*Sigh* . . . 1. Do women want to do different things than men? That's the first question. In this case, you simply assume it. It's certainly not MY's argument. You could imagine that it's Dowd's argument, but in that case it could be easily argued that women don't want to write witty, barbed op-ed columns, because men will respond waaay out of proportion (and possibly because women often are, whatever else is involved, trained to be quiet, respectful and unargumentative).
2. Can you even speak of "women" and "men" as monolithic entities like that?
and so on. Bo-ring!

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 13, 2005 5:50:07 PM

"Can you even speak of "women" and "men" as monolithic entities like that?"

Obviously, you can, if simple statistics tell you there's a problem, instead of having to look at individual cases. Right?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 13, 2005 5:59:56 PM

"Since to advance their own careers they need to be on the good side of the responsible parties"

Matt, most people in most fields of endeavor have to be on the good side of the responsible parties to advance their own careers. It's not a "gendered problem"; it's life. For example, you probably didn't attack Harvard in your admission essay with quite the same critical insight as you have lately. Generally, if you want to offend the responsible parties, you have to wait until you've accumulated a roughly equal amount of power. Of course by then you've compromised the rebellion right out out of yourself, in all probability. (There are exceptions.) I'd say you're not at risk for this late development.

Posted by: Rachel | Mar 13, 2005 6:49:52 PM

Dowd writes the tightest copy out there. To know it you have to know the issues. She refuses to take a consistent partisan position. She insists on attacking partisans. Her attacks cut because there is substance to them. She takes a distance from her subject associated with a certain tone of a woman who may be to smart, in all sense including chic, for her own good.

What the hell.

There is much to be learned from her, including from her faults. For example, the tight copy. "Substance" can be an excuse for loose copy, slinging shit rather than cutting to the bone.

Posted by: razor | Mar 13, 2005 7:13:07 PM

Dowd writes the tightest copy out there.

Yeah... she's pretty good at prose, but so are Hitchens and Sullivan.

Her attacks cut because there is substance to them.

Sometimes they cut. Sometimes they bore. Sometimes they are full of shit.

Posted by: def | Mar 13, 2005 8:12:00 PM

Sorry, razor--

I find myself in complete agreement with the majority of the posters above. Substance is exactly what Dowd lacks.

By political affiliation (Dem, liberal, blue state, etc.) I *ought* to like Dowd. And I *dislike* many of the people *she* dislikes, so I ought to value her supporting my side.

But instead I find myself *constantly* disappointed at how trivial, superficial, and inconsequential her columns are. Her columns are a greater waste of real estate, viewed from the perspective of the liberal cause, than Wm. Safire's were. He, at least, sometimes made conservatives look bad. She *always* makes liberals look bad.

She really seems to think there is no more to insight than sighting in on a new target. She is so bent on making her sentences pointed that her sentences never make a point.

Yes, I'm attempting to parody her, because that seems to me how she writes. She's always looking for a clever-clever riff. Why not just describe a problem and propose a solution? Or even just describe a problem without calling attention to yourself?

God, the lost opportunities. If she would just turn her column over to people who really knew how to mount a consistent critique, day in and day out, of political issues. E.g. Krugman, Josh Marshall, or our good host MY. Any one of them would have created much more change, and spoken much more truth to power, than Dowd has over the years.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 13, 2005 8:20:59 PM

Tight copy... I won't resist the temptation to say, that's not all that's tight.

More to the point, prose style isn't what I turn to the NY Times for. I'm looking for information, analysis, insight. With Dowd, the only insight you get is into her. And she's not that interesting.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 13, 2005 8:34:56 PM

Just call her a bitch and get to the real issues.

There really isn't much difference of opinion on Dowd here.

Bright, arch, and unable to put her heart into her writing (except for the column on her friend who died in Iraq, from what I've read) isn't fun for everyone. I just say respect writing that grasps what is hard to say. There is much that needs saying she doesn't even try to say. So?

The take off point was women writing. Seems some don't like that tone that is called bitch. Fasten your seatbelts it is going to be a bumpy ride, isn't everyone's idea of fun. I prefer it from a distance in small controlled doses myself.

Her tone alienates many. What the hell. Let the girl do her thing.

Posted by: razor | Mar 13, 2005 9:07:27 PM

Actually, razor, Dowd doesn't seem all that bright.

I have no idea if she's a bitch. I do know she's a prig. Not arch at all.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 13, 2005 9:31:12 PM

As someone who spent 4+ years studying personality theory (with the DSM-IV-TR as a cross-reference), the majority of the women/men comparisons, etc... are off-base.

If you really want to understand why people function the way they do, try breaking away from sociologically oriented research/commentary (as here) and investigating psychology (with an emphasis on personality theory and disorders).

Referencing to Jung (as his system, though incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, is one of the most well known), you're dealing with the difference between extroverted Thinking (Matthew Yglesias, etc...) and extroverted Feeling (Dowd), specifically ENTJ vs ENFJ (MBTI/Socionics derivations).

I can recommend the Riso & Hudson implementation of the enneagram personality theory (Naranjo is thought-provoking too), Lenore Thomson's book on MBTI-oriented Jung (for the difference between ENTJ and ENFJ specifically, though there are errors in some of the other types).

Posted by: rse | Mar 14, 2005 1:04:45 AM

Clarification: You're dealing with differing realms of interest (that's profoundly personality-based). Dowd is hitting the issues that matter, in the ways that matter (to her and those similar in cognitive preference/desire-fulfillment/problem-solution/etc... to her).

Posted by: rse | Mar 14, 2005 1:25:04 AM

Uh - today, in my opinion, was one of Dowd's better columns. She shared some insider POV behind the rise to her rare position.

Substance vs. style - The Times already has Friedman. Y'all were probably the same folks who thought Gore and Kerry would beat Bush, cause they had the facts on their side. (And don't start with the 'Gore really did beat Bush,' he was too much of a pussy to fight for what he legally won. Nice guy, just a little chutzpah-challenged.)

Posted by: AF | Mar 14, 2005 7:00:42 AM

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