On Twitter last night, lefty blogger Matt Bruenig got into a thing with Joan Walsh of The Nation, accusing her of intentionally misrepresenting the demographics of Bernie Sanders’ voter support. In the course of that attack (on the substance of which I mostly agree with Bruenig), he referred to her as both “geriatric” and ageist, and to her expressed views as “disgusting” and “pathetic.”
While Bruenig was working himself into that lather, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress @-ed Walsh in sympathy, at which point Bruenig turned his sights on her. Calling her “Scumbag Neera,” he said that Tanden had “worked to starve my mother of cash assistance,” that she “uses welfare when she needs it then takes away from others when they need it,” and that she “tried to starve me and my mother because she wanted to be in Democratic politics.” When challenged on this, he said he was referring to Tanden’s welfare reform advocacy in the 1990s.
As far as I can tell, Bruenig has no evidence to support this charge.
Tanden said on Twitter last night that she’d never done welfare policy work, to which Bruenig replied that he was talking about her public statements in support of it. That’s a real stretch, since he’d previously claimed she’d “worked to starve [his] mother,” and that she’d “take[n welfare] away from others” — those are allegations that she had been involved in welfare reform directly, not just cheering from the sidelines.
But even this lesser claim appears to be without basis. The one bit of evidence he’s offered for it is a quote from a podcast in which Tanden told Ezra Klein that “welfare reform is really about ensuring every child has opportunity.” But here’s the context for that quote — Tanden had just finished (at 7:26) telling Klein how important public assistance had been to her and her mother when she was growing up, and that led to this exchange:
Klein: Do you think the welfare system as it exists now in its post-reform era would have played the same role for your family?
Tanden: Well, you know, my mother was on welfare three years. My own view of welfare is that welfare reform is really about ensuring that every child has opportunity. It’s not really about the parents. So I worry about a system that puts kids in worse positions because of the decisions that their parents make. I mean, there are a lot of people who have parents who are not fully functional, and we have a system that decides to in some ways disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It strikes me as absolutely clear that Tanden is here using the term “welfare reform” to refer to the principles that should guide welfare policy, not in reference to welfare as it exists, and that the rest of her remarks are an explicit criticism of the ways in which welfare policy has changed since she was a child. Welfare, she says, should be a mechanism for helping kids, not punishing parents for bad choices, and to “disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make … doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
One can criticise elements of Tanden’s argument here. But to suggest that these comments represent support for “starv[ing]” mothers on welfare, for “tak[ing] away” public support from women in need? That’s just false. It’s imputing a meaning to her words that’s the direct opposite of what they say. (If Bruenig has other evidence to support his claims, he should present it. I’ve gone looking on his timeline and on Google and this is all I’ve found.)
This isn’t the first time that Matt Bruenig has been criticized for his attacks on prominent people, and when such criticism has come in the past he’s often framed it — and rejected it — as a mealy-mouthed, hypocritical call for “civility.” But civility is not what’s at stake here. We can debate when snark turns into abuse and when vitriol becomes harassment (and whether Bruenig tends to aim his flamethrower disproportionately at women). But we don’t have to reach any of those questions here, because here all the evidence indicates that Bruenig’s attacks on Tanden are, again, simply false.
To call someone “geriatric” in the same breath in which you accuse them of ageism is obtuse and unhelpful. But to accuse someone of enacting policies they had no involvement with, and to do so on the basis of a statement that explicitly repudiates the position you accuse them of holding?
That’s just lying. And it’s fundamentally incompatible with either serious political debate or good-faith movement building.
Update | Demos has announced that Bruenig will no longer be blogging for them, saying that “Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees” — controversies that Demos was largely unaware of until today. It appears that they asked him to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter, he declined, and they’ve let him go.
I may have some more thoughts on all this over the weekend.