Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Monday evening (see previous post for video), Rachel Maddow asked David Frum to address his criticism of the McCain campaign. She quoted him saying that by focussing on the Ayers connection the campaign (and others) are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that's going to be very hard to calm after November.

Frum's response:
Well I think you were talking…um…through much of the show about the matter of tone in our politics…um…and yet I think we are seeing an intensification of some of the ugliness of tone…um…that has been a feature of American politics in the past eight years. I mean, this show unfortunately is itself an example of&hellipof that problem [ ] with it's heavy sarcasm and…and sneering and its disregard for a lot of the substantive issues that…that really are important. um…And I would hate to see Republicans go probably into opposition sustaining this terrible cycle of unseriousness about politics: about turning it into a spectator sport. The party's going to have some important rebuilding to do. It's gonna have to do that in an intelligent way and we're all gonna have to do better than we've been doing, including in the past forty minutes.

Do you think that my tone on this show is equivalent to people calling Barack Obama uh somebody who pals around with terrorists people yelling from the s— people yelling from the audience at McCain/Palin rallies bomb Obama kill him off with his head traitor……do you…are you accusing me of…of…of…of an equivalence in tone?

I don't think that's an important question. I think the question is, given the small por— plate of responsibility that you personally have how do you manage that responsibility. The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way.

It is an important question because she's trying to get at the crux of his disapproval. If in fact he is trying to defend the point of his original criticism, and to make it clear that Maddow too is whipping people into a fury then he needs to make a better argument that she has contributed something. How has she? What in the last 40 minutes does he connect to a mob mentality? Show us the loosed blood-dimmed tide.

For Frum to chastise Maddow for excusing herself by other people's failure takes a tiny pair of conservative balls. And I disagree with Casey, who in his comment praises Frum's dismissal of the question's importance. It's not an awesome response. It's not a 'yes.' It's a 'no.' First he says that her question about the Republican rhetoric isn't worth addressing because she has the same mud on her. She holds up the grime from each and asks if they are the same type of muck and he's not willing to answer. She asks about the specific effects of rhetoric and he rests on an accusation that her rhetoric is just as guilty of contributing to hateful passion. He can only make this claim if he believes that differences in tone aren't important.

More on Casey's comment

Comparing Maddow/Olbermann et al to Limbaugh/O'Reilly et al is fair. Each side says of the other 'they're wrong.' Both sides start hurling accusations of Nazi-like values at the other. It's easy to say 'We need to have more intelligent conversations. We need to be civil.' But then what is an intelligent conversation? And we have to define civility in order to say it's the solution. Is it about making a disrespectful but calm argument? Is it a civil or intelligent argument that reshapes and disregards the direction of a question? That purposeful misstates an opposing argument? Is it simply being calm and self-assured?

And Casey's analogy doesn't work. Maddow is speaking specifically about attacks that accuse Obama of terrorist sympathizing. She is questioning the content and the manner with which the McCain campaign has recklessly encouraged fear in order to continue some of the most horrible legacies of this country: the accusations that continue to work in hand with cries for violence and indifference to oppression.

In Casey's analogy the two parties walk past the same burning house and talk about the action they believe is warranted. That's not what's happening in the current political discussions. The parties here are talking about acceptable action towards different groups and using what they believe are valid arguments in support of their proposals. Yes Maddow chuckles and shrugs glibly. Her content goes so far as to say that Republicans should not win an election. Such disrespect.

Of course every voice contributes to a debate. That's a banal observation. But is her contribution really the same? Is her sarcasm a problem? A part of the problem?

To reshape the analogy as I see it:

Citizen1 stands in front of a group and points at a house. 'That blackfamily might sympathize with those witches and communists that we all agreed to hate.' Should we elect them? The crowd yells Kill them! Or at least burn down the house!

Citizen2 stands there and says 'Citizen1 is a clown and he's inciting hate. Don't believe him. Don't elect him. Unless you liked It.'

Frum and Casey say "Both are doing the same thing."

Bullshit. That claim holds that an irreverent and satirical style is part of the same problem of unseriousness that leads to pleas for violence and cries of hatred. That they are different only by their respective level of ugliness. Just how do we measure that ugliness? The argument fails in part because it is attempting an aesthetic judgment where Maddow is attempting a moral an practical one.

Political discourse has always been the most fertile field for satire and ridicule. And presenting only the egregious inconsistencies or the ridiculous simplicity of an any argument has a long tradition outside politics. Farther back than Shakespeare's sonnet 130. Farther back than the Preacher who turns against everything as vanity vanity. What? Is he serious? Well he better be or else he's being irresponsibly irreverent. Such matters must never be addressed with unseriousness! How about the G-d character in the parable of Job: the big guy himself asks (with just a skosh of ironic sarcasm) And exactly where were you when I made all this? How exactly have you shown that your opinions matter? That you're even able to understand a tiny part of what I'm doing. (I paraphrase of course.)

So too we have to say Shut up sometimes. We have to glare angrily and say Your form and your content are stiflingly familiar. They're the same arguments that have rationalized a systems of oppression and a philosophies of genocide. I yell shut up and think on identifying simple arguments effectively emboldening racist fervor. And you're going to tell me that shut up is part of the problem. That's the same argument that attacks Liberation Theology, claiming it's as racist as white supremacy. It's a misunderstanding of an entire philosophy. It's a surrender to immediate confusion and explaining it by crying ill-intent.

Arguments are not harmful simply because of bias. They're not false because of bias. They're not even necessarily weak because of bias. And the best response to a biased argument is examination. The best response to hatred is disagreement. When liberal blowhards don't agree with a conservative pigs I expect them to speak up. And when conservative windbags disagree with liberal pinkos I expect the same.

I roll my eyes at at least half of Olbermann's rants. And I get a little tired of Maddow grimacing and saying what? while she shakes her head in disbelief. Both of them present skewed analyses of facts. They're good for entertainment. Right before The Daily Show. I glean my news from the Reuters and AP wire, from the Wall Street Journal, from The New York Times, from the Washington Post, from FOXNews, from the Boston Globe, from C-SPAN. When I quote a politician I check it against any video that gives me enough context. But those entertaining shows can be good for a focus through exaggeration. For an expression of judgement that doesn't compete with the task of representing a constituency. Plumbing all these sources, we can still defended Palin against misleading accusations and use sarcasm to ridicule her. Is one more important or more helpful than the other?

For generations people have been lamenting that the discussion is in the gutter. Recently, remember when Jon Stewart made such a great point arguing with Tucker Carlson? He really schooled him didn't he? Except that I disagreed with Stewart then and I still disagree. He was doing exactly what he was saying Carlson was doing. And he held Carlson to a artificial standard of a pundit's responsibility. Stewart defended his satire saying that he was on the same channel as crank-calling puppets. That's true. And the pundits shouting at each other are on a channel flanked by Comedy Central just above, and E! just below. Arguments take all forms. The inflammatory and boisterous spitfests are not new, nor are they the only game in town.

We're big kids now. We're not learning from the talking heads. They're giving us some arguments to use as a barrel, but we've already chosen the values we want to use as ammunition. Frum's argument was not annoying because he said anything harmful. He just used a poor attack to avoid answering a question. Maddow didn't have to go after his hook but she did. And he wasted an opportunity to make a better case for the factors he believes are leading to the mere anarchy among some voters. He can of course just say that her sarcasm contributes. Then he can change course and say that her jokes betray her shallow intentions. And he can hope we simply believe him. Casey might buy it. I don't.


Casey said...

Now that's some serious dialogue!

All in response to a drug (caffeine)-induced manic complaint. I'm about 75% convinced I was wrong yesterday... depending on which voices in my head you poll.

I certainly agree that humor is a very valid kind of political speech -- and that picture with Frum talking about Twain is a gem. But we all appreciate Twain now regardless of our political parties... (though I'm not exactly sure how true that was in his day).

But -- and I know you're not -- nobody would compare Rachel Maddow to Mark Twain. Maddow often mixes in sarcasm, but I think that what she and so many of the pundits on the fundamentalist left and right do is obscure the line between humor and political discussion so that you think you're watching humor, but you're actually nodding in agreement with a questionable political point simply because it was delivered so well.

Take the case of Ann Coulter. I can't predict your reaction, Michael, but I've heard people on the left balk at this point and say things like, "Hey wait. That's totally different. She's not funny."

But of course, she's very funny and quite witty if you sympathize with her political views.

I suppose it comes to this: if you shake your head at people for spending all of their time listening to Rush Limbaugh, reading Ann Coulter's columns, watching Fox News, and voting Republican -- and if you ever get frustrated with these people, with how difficult they are to "save" -- if any of that, then pull the log out of your eye...

But, if you don't feel frustrated by those people, then no worries. Laugh it up. I can understand that attitude -- it's like responding to my maxim about never being in the choir, no matter who's preaching, but saying, "Hey man -- everybody's already in some choir. Enjoy it."

So okay. But (for me) the point where you ask, "But then what is an intelligent conversation?" seems a little disingenuous precisely because you know what I'm talking about:

"Reuters and AP wire, from the Wall Street Journal, from The New York Times, from the Washington Post, from FOXNews, from the Boston Globe, from C-SPAN."

In short, I totally agree with you... but I had too much caffeine yesterday morning and it made me grumpy in the afternoon.

fenhopper said...

Maddow is not Twain.

Coulter is a performance artist. And a brilliant one at times.

I don't shake my head at people who listen only to O'Limbaugh unless they defend non-political values that I find reprehensible (said with a Daffy Duck liththp)

I'm not sure we agree on what's intelligent. Do we even agree on it's importance?

Specifically on the exchange with Frum I defend Maddow because she was speaking quite obviously about the intensification of racial anxiety. He gave a cheap response. Not a dangerous one. Not one that was more partisan than hers. But a deflection. He pulled a Palin.

Anonymous said...

You don't agree with Stewart's attack on Carlson! Heretic!!! I call your liberal (at least not neo-con) credentials into question!

I don't understand your critique of Stewart. Are you saying that today's political pundits should not be held to a higher standard of argumentation than fake newsmen? The reason Crossfire-esque pundits are disingenuous is that CNN and Crossfire claim to be serious. Stewart isn’t guilty of the same sin because he explicitly states that he is a fake newsman.

Anyway, before you tell me my argument is bullshit, let me say you have a great blog. You give Michael Bérubé a run for his money.

fenhopper said...

Your argument isn't bullshit. In fact I can probably share in the accusation of hypocrisy. I just don't go so far as accusations of harm.

Partisan punditry is easily seen for what it is. And while Stewart spends a lot of time crafting jokes that are obviously farcical, satire always asks to be taken seriously on some level. He doesn't have to define that level for us. And neither do the more explicit prattlers.

Over at Casey's blog I suggested in a comment that I don't see humor as an end being likely. Everything is a statement of values and the method is sometimes more clearly ironic or ridiculous in intention -- but the significance is always up to the intelligent consumer to negotiate.

The context of television is the eternal market. Shows are the filler between the commercials. We can hope for conversations that present a carefully measured and honest debate. But I'm willing to look past comedy even when I don't think it's funny, and I'm also willing to look past analysis when I think it's neither a necessary nor sufficient description of a system.

In fact cheap humor can piss me off pretty easily. I probably get just as upset about Samantha Bee and Lewis Black as I get about Robert Novack and Joe Scarborough.

Maybe not all of Bee's segments. But a lot of them.

fenhopper said...

Oh -- and thanks for the kind estimation. I hope you'll keep challenging me to reconsider my simple claims.