August 18, 2009

Of Pundits and Idiots

The term “idiot” has been a bit over-used of late — especially in book titles, even song titles — although I’m cool with Green Day’s use of it.

But it is a great word with a crisp sound and three flexible syllables that allow you to inflect it multiple ways to achieve the right tone for making someone feel like, well, an idiot. I think it also has a curious, aural enthemematic quality, too, such that when you see it in print you make it sound a particular way in your head.

I try not to use the word on Rhetorica, although I’m sure I have a few times.

I’m reading a book right now — about halfway through it — entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. I’m not intending to write a review of it. It’s just something I happen to be reading. And last night when I reached page 104 I happened into a long section quoting me. Surprise! (I do not recall giving Pierce an interview.) He’d quoted a large portion of my oft-quoted blog post entitled How to Be a Pundit (also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal).

This is a bit of serendipity because on Sunday the Springfield News-Leader ran my letter to the editor decrying the idiocy of mindless partisan contention. I think the News-Leader promotes this kind of idiocy — thus harming our local civic discourse — by encouraging amateur, local columnists to be pundits instead of opinion journalists (which anyone can be). They do this by labeling their columns “From the Right” and “From the Left,” which creates a clear expectation of unthinking partisan contention in the form of demonizing.

Further, it does not appear that the News-Leaders attempts in any way to mitigate the demonizing — thus encouraging it. They don’t even check facts — thus encouraging it. So the only thing missing from these silly pissing matches is the wet stain on the paper.

Television is hopeless, so there’s no point complaining about the role that medium plays in civic idiocy. Civic idiocy is good television. But a newspaper, as a medium of propositional content, should be better. It should provide better and encourage better in its readers and contributors.

But those days are over. Welcome to idiot America.

4 Responses

  1. Hmph. Now I wish I hadn’t given up on the book around fifty pages in. Not that it was bad, mind you, just that I had other things to read that I hadn’t read before, and as entertaining and Charlie Pierce makes it, I felt like I’d read it before.

    As for your actual point… well, I am somewhat ambivalent. There is an actual left and an actual right. No, I know it’s more complicated than that, but I do think it’s useful to make it clear that there are actual policy differences between people, that political differences are not some sort of facade but stem from different world-views and different principles (or at least different priorities of principles). There is no magical middle that will please everybody, nor is displeasing everybody any sign of good policy. So I would not have a problem with a conservative and a liberal column for people to express the ways in which their differing political philosophies come to bear on current policy debates.

    Of course, that’s not what’s happening. And the newspaper does bear responsibility for that. And if they are allowing falsehoods to be printed under the name of ‘opinion’, then that’s utterly reprehensible. And if they are not going to check facts, and they are not going to perform an editorial function to make sure that the thing isn’t a pissing match, then they should can the whole idea.

    But–on health care particularly, it would be wonderful to have essays printed in the local paper laying out how the different instincts and worldviews that lay behind the two parties play out when it comes to writing the legislation, and how they see that as playing out in people’s lives were those policies to be put into place.


  2. acline 

    V.– Agreed. There is a right and a left and the policy differences are real. So let’s talk about them — the policies that is.

    I’m totally with you re: “it would be wonderful…”

  3. max1k 

    Argh, now you made me long for the glory days of the McNeil-Leher Newshour when they used to have real round tables with 5 or so advocates presenting the major sides of an issue and still found time to mention the minor sides. Sure there is a Right and a Left, but the Cato Institute Right is not the same as the American Family Association Right and the Greenpeace Left doesn’t often agree with the SEIU Left. Neither the Left nor the Right is a monolithic institution, both are coalitions and even when (rarely) all the members of one of the coalitions agree on a policy, they do so for a variety of reasons. Left and Right are good for identifying what coalition a person belongs to but by themselves don’t tell you much about a person’s ideology.

  4. acline 

    Max… You’ve touched a major reason why blind partisan contention is so idiotic: It cannot accurately describe, or account for, complex political experiences.