Ten years ago, then-Boston Phoenix columnist Dan Kennedy profiled ultraconservative pundit Mark Steyn in a piece labeling him “the most toxic right-wing pundit you’ve never heard of.” Kennedy noted that Steyn “may possess more depth and range than Limbaugh or Coulter, but he shares much in common with them. To wit: a shrill, mocking tone of moral certainty that consigns those who disagree with him to the status of appeasers or even terrorists; and a willingness to distort, misrepresent, and omit facts in order to advance his argument. And if you think he couldn’t possibly be as bad as, say, Coulter, whose shtick is to pop up on television and denounce liberals as ‘traitors,’ consider this: in perhaps his sleaziest column of 2004, a condescending dismissal of triple-amputee war hero Max Cleland, Steyn’s principal source was Coulter.”
A decade later, everyone’s heard of Steyn, who is perhaps best known for his obsession with climate scientist Michael E. Mann, long the target of over-the-top assaults from those who find climate science too pesky for their ideological interests (as Mann noted in his brilliant book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.) Steyn’s fixation on Mann resulted in what can quite charitably be described as a “WTF?” blog post on National Review Online that led Mann to file a defamation lawsuit against Steyn, National Review and the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute. (Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch and Barry Bickmore of Climate Asylum have written expertly on the case.) Mann may find justice in the courts, but in the court of public opinion, he has been subjected to the usual attacks from those who worship Steyn as a Jesus figure–including one who said something recently that might make Steyn a little cross.
Now, [right-wing pundit] Jay Ambrose is jumping into the fray with a syndicated McClatchy oped in which he defends Steyn and attacks Mann. Ambrose points out that the case hinges on whether Steyn acted with “actual malice,” meaning that he knew his claim was false before publishing it. So the case is contingent upon whether Steyn actually believed Mann was a fraud when he said it. If Steyn had any doubts about the veracity of his claim that Mann’s hockey stick was created fraudulently, then he may be guilty of libel.
Ultimately, though, Ambrose damns Steyn while defending him by pointing out that “a significant number of researchers have agreed with [Mann’s] results.” So even someone defending the right to claim that the hockey stick graph is fraudulent admits to scientific consensus on the issue. That can’t bode well for Steyn.
Steyn and National Review have had their issues–or should we say, subscriptions–over the past few months. Yet they are connected by legal and social fate…which brings us to a fellow by the name of Yuval Levin.
Levin is also a longtime National Review contributor and one of the folks involved with “Room to Grow,” the “reform conservative” publication that was all the rage a few weeks back. “Room to Grow” notoriously avoided any serious discussion of the issue of human-caused climate change. (National Review film critic and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attempted to defend the “Room to Grow” climate silence, but nobody bought what he was trying to sell.)
You can’t help wondering if Levin and his fellow “Room to Grow” contributors avoided the climate issue because they didn’t want to be rhetorically whipped by the likes of Steyn. (Look at the thrashing Henry Paulson has taken from crackpot climate deniers for endorsing a federal carbon tax.) Unfortunately, by refusing to confront the irrational voices on the right regarding this issue, the “Room to Grow” folks expose themselves as little more than timid talkers.
When the “Room to Grow” contributors are truly willing to challenge the Mark Steyns of the world and defend courageous scientists like Michael Mann, then we’ll know that they can be taken seriously. Until then, if anyone has a printout of their manifesto, please make sure to recycle it.