Frank Rich's Petty Ignorance

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:08 am June 20, 2010

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I was informed recently that Frank Rich, longtime expert in the glorification of the banal from his perch as a New York Times theater critic, began writing about politics. I was surprised to learn of this transition — why would one want to stop talking about dance routines and vocalists or consulting for HBO, where his water-carrying biases might actually be relevant, to pen irrelevant and ignored opinions about politics? Surely there are other people at the NYT capable of writing “everyone who opposes Obama’s health care policy is a racist” columns, or the far more entertaining “you’re all a bunch of Stalinists” columns.

In this week’s column, Rich chose to engage in exactly the kind of muddled attack which plagues anyone paid to opine on matters about which they know little or nothing — an ill-advised assault on David Blankenhorn, the centrist Democrat who heads the Institute of American Values. Rich levels two criticisms against Blankenhorn in response to his court testimony regarding California’s Proposition 8, which was approved by 7 million Californians (52% of the vote) in 2008: that Blankenhorn is an unqualified commentator on social policy, and that Blankenhorn is a well-paid (Rich quotes his salary) tool of the right-wing.

Rich would’ve been better served searching the archives of his own paper before teeing off on Blankenhorn, a magna cum laude Harvard grad, Vista volunteer and center-left community organizer. In 1998, no less a source than the New York Times published a glowing profile of Blankenhorn, describing him as a “consensus builder for a moral base in society.”

[Blankenhorn's] quest for the moral basis of society came after graduating from Harvard and working several years as a community volunteer in the Boston area, railing against high utility rates and organizing low-income residents to fight City Hall. After seeing firsthand the effect of single-mother families on children, he began writing articles on the importance of traditional fatherhood, and spent three years fruitlessly knocking on doors, trying to get centrist and liberal academics interested in families. Finally, in 1989, he put together the first of several conferences on the subject, beginning to popularize a notion of a more civil society that was not necessarily based on divine revelation.

Had Rich bothered to ask anyone who works in social policy, he would’ve learned that Blankenhorn is a southern-born acolyte of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not some fire-breathing right-winger. An Obama supporter unafraid to make this case to an evangelical audience, Blankenhorn has been at the leading edge of the fatherhood movement, promoting the efforts to reduce the number of broken homes (particularly in the inner city) as a positive aim of public policy and as a social good. What’s more, as a supporter of a compromise solution on same sex marriage with Jonathan Rauch, Blankenhorn has been more than willing to take stands that put him at odds with both the right and the left.

Rich’s accusations are not just inaccurate — they are jarringly so, at odds with the facts known by anyone more than passingly familiar with Blankenhorn’s work, and petty: unable to find any crazy remarks (because there are none), Rich instead stoops to printing David’s salary (well in line with the heads of similarly sized thinktanks) in a kind of cheap insult more appropriate for backstage whispers than the pages of a once-respected newspaper.

Thankfully, Rauch himself is on the case — his letter to the NYT is worth quoting in full:

Frank Rich, for the third time since February, unfairly criticizes David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and a witness in the trial over Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The implication of these columns has been that Mr. Blankenhorn is antigay.

But Mr. Blankenhorn, with whom I’ve debated gay marriage for years, is the sort of decent, moderate opponent we could use more of. He favors civil unions for same-sex couples. He supports gay adoption. And he has publicly and repeatedly stood up for “the equal dignity of homosexual love.”

Those are not the words of an antigay bigot — and believe me, I’ve heard my share.

Mr. Blankenhorn’s desire to help gay couples while stopping short of marriage may be the wrong answer, as I believe. But it reflects the thinking of millions of centrist and unbigoted Americans who will ultimately determine the fate of gay rights and gay marriage. Treating those moderates as if they were haters only drives them away.

Exactly right, and more proof why Rich should go back to being petty and ignorant about theater, instead.

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