The problem with Neera Tanden is not, as is now widely being asserted by Republicans, that she’s “partisan,” “divisive,” or “mean.” Nor is her great virtue, as a lot of centrist Democrats seem to believe, that she’s some kind of persecuted truth teller. The problem with Neera Tanden is that she’s full of shit–a lying windbag and reckless big mouth who’s mastered the art of invective without being able to argue her way out of a paper bag on any substantive issue.
It was Tanden, among others, who led the charge to defame Tulsi Gabbard as “pro-Assad” back during Gabbard’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Very few of the talking heads now defending Tanden seemed to have had much of a problem with Tanden’s canceling Gabbard, or put more plainly, her defaming Gabbard while generally poisoning the well of discourse on America’s Middle East policy. According to Tanden, opposition to our military presence in Syria is axiomatically support for Syria’s dictator Bashar al Assad–a non-sequitur too childish to need or deserve rebuttal. Now, poor Tanden is being seen as a hapless victim of “cancel culture.” This is like saying that the United States is the hapless victim of Iranian-backed militants in Syria–not just false, but a delusional inversion of the truth.
Tanden’s defamations of Gabbard have now been forgotten by everyone but those of us who nurse old grudges, or, put differently, those of us who have a sense of history that extends to events that happened last year. I regret that I never finished the series I started writing on Gabbard and liberal McCarthyism, but in retrospect, maybe I should have, and maybe I still should.* It’s relevant that the same centrist Democrats who find the task of sanctioning Mohammed bin Salman too “complicated” to pull off find the task of bombing Syria too obvious to question. Tanden is Exhibit A for the relevant tribal mentality. Anything for Team Blue.
As for the present, I would absolutely love to see Tanden’s bid for OMB director canceled. It would be a victory for so-called “cancel culture” if she was. The sad truth is that there is no such thing as “cancel culture.” I hate to burst any bubbles there; I know how invested people have become in the idea that they have a whole straw “culture” to set up and knock down. At any rate, the point of “cancellation” is to give its practitioners a mechanism for giving people what they deserve in non-judicial contexts by non-judicial means. If Tanden doesn’t deserve to be OMB Director (and I don’t think she does), there’s nothing wrong with not giving her the directorship, as justice requires. That kind of thing happens every day–privileged people not getting the cushy jobs they desperately want–while somehow escaping the notice of the sorts of people now wringing their hands and furrowing their brows over the tribulations of the latter-day Socrates that is Neera Tanden.
People who have trouble with cancellation–with organized campaigns designed to bring justice about in the real world–have trouble grasping the meaning or requirements of justice or moral desert as such. But that’s a confession of moral illiteracy, not a bona fide objection to anything. Justice doesn’t happen automatically, by natural law, like the water cycle or the tides; it has to be brought about by organized human effort. To quarrel with the very idea of initiating and sustaining effort on behalf of justice is to quarrel with justice itself. Feel free to try it, but don’t try to take the moral high ground while you do.
If only we lived in a “culture” devoted to moral desert. We don’t. We live in a moral desert from which considerations of moral desert have generally been banned. The suspicions being expressed over Tanden’s candidacy are, alas, a mirage where one might hope for an oasis–the right attitudes based on the wrong reasons. But with any luck, they’ll lead to the right outcome anyway. Every now and then, a mirage coincides with an actual source of water. We can only pray.
The basic ethical point is nicely put by Pantera in their song “Walk“: “you can’t be something you’re not.” Ideally, the director of the OMB is someone dedicated to the truth, not someone at war with it. The problem with Neera Tanden is that she doesn’t know the difference between those two things, and doesn’t care. You can’t treat a lying asshole as a dedicated truth-teller without doing violence to both truth and justice. The Biden Administration should stop trying.
So no one should have any sympathy for Neera Tanden: those who live by the asshole tweet should die by it, professionally speaking. The further lesson is that we should stop attacking the phantom of “cancel culture,” and re-double our efforts instead to craft a form of cancellation as a tactic or tool, morally neutral on its own, that does a better job of tracking the truth and moral desert than so many attempted cancellations do. That a political tactic might track truth or serve moral desert is, I’m sure, a foreign thought to many members of our political establishment. But there’s only one way to teach them the syntax and semantics of the foreign language known as “justice”: immersion.
Note: Edited for clarity after initial posting.