Send out the clowns

There’s a meme making the rounds this week, making the case for the superiority of liberal media pundits over their conservative counterparts, based on their relative levels of education. It’s the worst kind of “like”-baiting, uncritical, ad hominem bullshit that passes for political engagement these days.

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The truth is that all of the most successful political pundits are clowns. They exist to rile up their respective bases with sensationalist rhetoric and empty invective. They’re very good at what they do, and I think most of them know exactly what they’re doing. To me, the real message in this particular meme is circular: Liberals value education, therefore they require of their clowns a certain level of collegiate achievement. The credential has become an important shorthand for progressive credibility. Liberals might want to tell themselves that a degree symbolizes an increased aptitude for critical thinking, but I would argue that it actually represents a different flavor of conformity. It shows how able a person is to afford higher education, and how willing they are to follow the college catalogue’s prescriptions to participate in their chosen career field.

A large number of conservative political pundits in this country hold very advanced academic credentials. The person who made this meme just cherry-picked the only three they could find who lack them. College degrees nowadays are a dime a dozen. Despite the fact that they cost more and more every year and most people go deep into debt in their pursuit, getting a college degree of some sort has become part of the status quo. It is becoming more and more difficult for people to enter most career fields without one. All three of the conservative “dropouts” pictured above are primarily media guys. None of them set out to enter a field of study. All were interested in becoming radio and television personalities, and all three succeeded in turning their respective brands of apopleptic charisma into lucrative careers. They’re very good at appealing to a certain segment of the common people in the United States, and the audience they talk to doesn’t care that they lack credentials.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He's got degrees from both.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He’s got degrees from both.

The really odd thing, to me, is the fact that there are no liberal pundits without a degree of some kind. Even Ed Schultz, who went to school on a football scholarship and is not exactly an intellectual, has one. It would seem that a college degree is the price of admission for being taken seriously in liberal company. As a “college dropout” who leans left, I find this rather disturbing.

It is tempting for liberals with degrees to feel like they belong to some sort of enlightened class and assume that the very act of becoming credentialed imbues them with an objective kind of knowledge that leads naturally to a certain political bias. While I think it is true that the bent of today’s liberal arts education tends to attract and foster a particular kind of postmodernist thinking which predisposes people toward liberal thought, I don’t think that higher education necessarily leads individuals to more progressive thinking. I also think it is deeply fallacious to regard conservative thought as somehow philosophically inferior and unable to stand up to factual critique. Political views are, at their core, about values, and values are deeply subjective.

Take, for example, the abortion debate. The meat in the middle of this particular shit sandwich is the fundamental philosophical dispute over when an embryo or fetus should be considered “fully human” in the sense that its right to life overrides the concerns of the woman who carries it. There is no objective answer to this question. I am pro-choice, because I value a pragmatic approach which accepts that humans tend to screw up, regardless of attempts at reigning them in, and the best solution is to reduce the harm that results from those screw-ups. To me, keeping abortion legal while making birth control widely available to make it less necessary is the right balance. But I can make those arguments until I’m blue in the face and no amount of evidence will change the mind of the pro-lifer who sincerely believes that the moment sperm and egg meet, a new human life is formed, and that interfering in that process in any way amounts to murder. We’re playing in different ballparks, screaming past each other into the void.

It’s difficult not to succumb to the desire to keep screaming, even when it is so clearly not productive. It’s frustrating to try and argue a point when your debate partner seems to be speaking an entirely different language than the one you know. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a relativist, philosophically speaking. But I think it is important to grasp the fact that when it comes to political discourse, the only way to really make progress without resorting to fascist dictatorship is to acknowledge the humanity of the other side, understand that your differences grow out of divergent values, and then try to find a compromise. At this point in our history, it seems that both sides would prefer fascist dictatorship to democratic cooperation.

Popular media have further muddied the pool in this regard. Rather than arguing facts and fostering respectful discourse in order to try and bridge real gaps in core values held on each side and emphasize compromise, pundits across the spectrum settle for cheap point-scoring and ad hominem attacks. It’s easier to sway public opinion by placating people’s emotional biases than to challenge people to actually consider issues on a rational basis and think of their political rivals as human beings with legitimately-held views. Take this meme as a case in point: Instead of saying anything substantial or crafting an argument based on facts, the creator is essentially blowing raspberries at his or her presumed opponents and saying, “Nyah-Nyah. You guys are stupid,” and ignoring the wider implications of such a statement.

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Liberals often wonder why so many working-class folks “vote against their own self-interest” and fail to make what they see as the obvious choice to support Democratic candidates. Most of the left-wing establishment is so far removed from the everyday existence of the people they’re trying to reach that they can’t effectively communicate their message to those people – their attempts come off as condescension. Dispensing with this kind of “if you don’t agree with me you must be stupid” bullshit might go a long way. Also, I think that letting a few “uneducated” liberals rise to the top could only help their cause. But it seems they would rather maintain an in-crowd of academic hoop-jumpers and keep preaching to the same choir.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine any substantive change actually happening when the screaming clowns continue to rake in profits for media outlets. Networks might argue that they are in the business of giving the people what they want, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. But sometimes what the people want is exactly the opposite of what the people need. The trick, in a for-profit media marketplace, would seem to be convincing the people that they want what they need. I’m still trying to work out how to do that.

3 thoughts on “Send out the clowns

  1. Dropping out of college when I did has got to be the stupidest decision I have ever made, especially since it was so fucking cheap, comparatively for tuition and room and board.

    But, yes, tone trolling notwithstanding, it is difficult to have a discussion on issues by leading with “You’re stupid.” or worse “Your stupid.”

  2. I appreciate that you apply standards of intellectual integrity to both sides. My bent is liberal, but my loyalty is to evidence based reality. Progressives should be called out for deceit, deception and propogandizing. An example is excusing the millions made by Bill Clinton giving speeches for the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Foundation does admirable work, but Bill Clinton paid speeches to procure funding for the Foundation were a conflict of interest. Demonizing opponents, their opinions and their values is guaranteed to breed resentment and calcify retrenchment.

    • Thanks for that.

      And here we are, almost three years later, and now “you must be stupid” has mutated into “you must be a nazi”.

      Oh, what interesting times we live in.

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