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The Tragedy of The Common Ground

2011 January 25

Howie, they’re speaking for a visceral response. And honestly — I don’t want to overstate this, Howie, and you know from time to time I do — risk that. But it’s really that path lies fascism.

David Zurawik (referring to Keith Olbermann)

They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.

Martin Luther King (referring to Johnson’s  defeat of Goldwater 1964)

I should admit to not being a regular viewer of Countdown. This is due less to an aversion for caustic, abrasive news commentary than to vagaries of my cable package. Notwithstanding, I watch little network or cable news programming anyway; I keep up via clips discovered through the various blogs I visit and the generosity of the people and institutions in my tweet stream. Indeed, the only news programs I view regularly, and not even during their original broadcasts, are from PBS: The Newshour, Frontline and Charlie Rose. My devotion to Bill Moyers NOW however hasn’t carried over to its successor.

(I suspect that I may hardly be the only one of my general disposition with a similar consumption pattern, well apart from my relative indifference to fake news programs. If correct, I may be personally responsible for any of MSNBC’s rating difficulties, not to mention conservative antipathy towards public television.)

I am therefore not in the best position to argue the virtues of Keith Olbermann or to comment on the corporate machination which may or may not have lead to the discontinuation of his program. However, his departure, much like the Tucson shootings, has provoked discussion about the civility and moderation. It is claimed that Olbermann and his counterparts at Fox, are equally responsible for the apparent polarization of American politics.

As a starting premise, I am not sure that American politics are in fact more polarized than they were fifty years ago. There is certainly greater partisan conflict, due to the political fallout of the civil rights movement, but it is not obvious that there is greater ideological conflict now as opposed to then.

On the Charlie Rose Show days after the Tucson shooting, Jon Meacham said: “But I think that, you know, people who say both sides have a point get clobbered out there in the web land, if you will, for somehow being establishmentarian or false equivalences.  There’s a certain stigma to civility…” As there should be. The argumentum ad temperantiam is no less a fallacy than any other and should be treated as such. What makes this position infuriating is that it often serves to excuse or ignore uncivil conduct.

There is a casual assumption that a more civil discourse, which is to say a more conflict-adverse one, should be equated with a more elevated one. The terms ‘even-handed’, ‘fair’ and ‘objective’ are not interchangeable and given the stakes, it is dishonest to treat them as such. This longing for a perpetual era of good feelings where all honorable men can reach common ground on the issues of the day, even when well-intentioned, is nonetheless symptomatic of a sort of middlebrow sensibility which continues to swamp the political classes.

The desire to be considered serious outstrips the desire to be serious; to be responsible is to wield authority, from wherever it is derived. The notion of a liberal media bias is thus shown to be on shaky ground; while many journalists may personally have liberal social values, they as a matter of policy submit to power and the status quo, which by definition, benefits the right.

Even valid critiques of extremism have limited value past a certain point. Despite my many problems with the policy prescriptions of the tea party, my problem is not that they are extreme from mainstream American political thought. The tea party is no more extreme than the wider American right has been for 30 years. Rand Paul’s controversial views on the Civil Rights Amendments were standard on the right and are a logical extension of it. If tea partiers are to be critiqued, it should be on the content of their positions, which are just the uncouth, unfiltered versions of what has long been considered well within mainstream thought. ‘Regime change’ has lead to more destruction than “Don’t retreat, reload.”

To claim that both parties are seeking to be ideologically pure, one must a priori assume that all other developed countries are quasi totalitarian states, since the far left of the Democratic Party, featuring extremists like Dennis Kucinich, see Western European societies as models for America. Modern conservatism assumes that even the UK with its socialized medicine, is far down the road to serfdom.

(In another false equivalence, establishment figures have often spoken of that hate emanating from the ranks of the anti-war movement. Has there been reckless talk? Certainly. But I suspect many Muslims would prefer the “hate” the anti-war movement has for America and Jews than the “love” they receive from neocons.)

In this calculus, analysis of tone and style take precedence over that of substance, the logical conclusion of course being the much-maligned if widely-practiced horse race journalism. One prominent journalist has asserted that political polling now precludes the possibility of true political leadership. I would add that it has damaged the capacity for non-stenographic political insight.

We all remember the controversy that erupted over Rev. Wright’s incendiary “God Damn America” sermon when videos were released during the 2008 Democratic Primary : “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans…” As I have mentioned before, almost no members of the media bothered to explain to Middle America that despite his incendiary tone, all of those incidents Wright referenced were verifiable facts, even if one were to quibble about the strict definition of what counts as state terrorism. Instead, the main concern was how this would play in Middle America.

Even Martin Luther King, who was scheduled to deliver a sermon “Why America Is Going to Hell” before he was murdered, has been recast so as to be more palatable for mass consumption. King in the popular imagination is at best a folk hero but is often cast as a pop icon, an apolitical self-guru who could be co-opted by all persuasions.

Part of the reason false equivalences are able to be established is that ‘both sides’ use language derived from the liberal tradition. However, the consequences of philosophical differences so divergent that it is difficult to argue both sides are seeking the same goals (market-based universal healthcare?). Furthermore, the right has so thoroughly embraced the postmodern relativism they have scorned, and justly so, within the academic left that one could join Garry Wills in concluding that they have rejected the Enlightenment notion of objective truth.

It would be an encouraging step if political commentators and media critics would shift their hierarchy of importance: the most important question shouldn’t be whether it is inflammatory but whether it is true; all other discussion should proceed from there. Even if one doesn’t accept that values are derived from facts, the public is better served. It won’t always be pretty. But in the field of intellectual combat, civility is a morally neutral value.

2 Responses
  1. clinton permalink
    February 1, 2011

    can’t truth be the common ground?

  2. Matthew Hunte permalink
    February 2, 2011

    Not when many on reject the notion of objective truth (“Empires create their own reality.”) As the late Tony Judt told his colleagues on the postmodern/cultural studies left, you can not tell your students that there is no such thing as truth during the day, then claim Bush is lying by night.

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