PUNTING THE PUNDITS - Being in the main an example of how to diffuse demagoguery at its prime source
by: J. Edward Tremlett
One of the most interesting aspects of American politics is its tendency to favor style over substance. It used to be that those in the know would attend lengthy debates and read pages of information in order to make sense of the issues at hand." These days, thanks in part to the invention of TV, our attention span is much shorter. Having become a fast food nation, we expect everyone else to follow suit: fast money, fast pleasure, fast solutions to complex problems, and, of course, fast news.
Still, even in the era of the sound bite and slogan, anyone who can take a bit of information and create a lucid commentary about it is prized. People like Clarence Page and William Safire and David Broder keep themselves in food by telling us what they think, and why. We know what the news is, but these writers, to borrow a line from Paul Harvey, give us "the rest of the story." The human angle.
Unfortunately, as is the case with our daily diet of McNews, the consumers tend to stick to one particular source for their nourishment. Anne Quindlin's readers almost never partake in Thomas Sowell and vice versa. There is an almost religious aspect to it: a self-induced blindness to other avenues that we inflict on ourselves in order to stay "pure," to "keep the faith" as it were. And, as with religion, there is no arguing with the faithful.
So if Mona Charen, for example, wants to tell her readers that Jews are indeed the cause for all of America's problems (not that she would), the faithful will nod their heads and say, "DITTO," and proclaim the truth unto others. And when commentary goes a few steps over the line and turns into demagoguery, the faithful become the hands and mouthpieces of the hateful, and spread the gospel "truth" far and wide, doing untold damage. It's dittoing like that which has created the so-called "gay agenda", to name but one example.
In an earlier article (Dispelling the Demons, THE ROC #14), I said that, were we to overcome some of the "truth" assailing progressive and anti-censorship causes, we had to be ready to defuse demagoguery. We can't afford to let pundits-on either side of the political fence make blanket statements that will be accepted as truth without first running through a fact check. Not that they don't have the right to say things we consider to be philosophically wrong, but we have to be ready to use our rights to counter false and silly statements whenever they might be uttered.
So, I thought I would provide an example of how this might be done. If you have never read Cal Thomas before, check him out. He's the closest thing to a real-life Nazi on the op-ed page: a Hitler Youth with a bowl-cut, mustache, and what appears to be a condescending sneer on his lips, that's Cal. Ho ho ho, he seems to say, I will destroy your liberal idols and drag you into my camp sooner or later, so just submit now and get it the hell over with.
Well, old Cal--who seems to have lost his bowl cut with time and hair loss--has a new book out entitled THE THINGS THAT MATTER MOST, where we are told he "debunks fuzzy-headed liberalism." It also claims that he is America's most controversial columnist. According to who, you might ask? Well, presumably his agent.
I would love sit here and rebut every line, but I think a dissection of the section that interests us the most--free speech--would be more helpful. What you have to do is simple:
1. FIGURE OUT WHERE THEY'RE COMING FROM: No one lives in a vacuum, and, when Cal puts his thoughts down, he is drawing them from a pool of ideas, beliefs, and influences that he has accumulated during his lifetime. This creates prevailing attitude, one that, once understood, can be utilized to cut through the rhetoric.
For example, in the dedication of the book written to his Grandchildren--he tells them that "to you falls the task of reclaiming the landscape which two generations have let spoil. Your task won't be easy, but the effort must be made." Okay, so right from the start Cal would have us believe that our American landscape has been 'spoiled' presumably by those "fuzzy-headed" liberals spoken about on the cover. Get ready for a big indictment followed by a reactionary call for a "return" to the morals and values of his generation.
The chapter in question, which, like the others, is taken off a song title, is called "The Sea of Madness" (no doubt taken from the song by Crosby Stills & Nash). The chapter deals with the promise of unrestrained expression. Already we can see where he's going with this; setting us up for the idea that a libertine interpretation of the First Amendment is bad. Read with this in mind.
2. QUESTION EVERYTHING THEY SAY: Questioning authority is a wonderful thing, regardless of what the powers that be might say, since only through questioning authority do you discover that things are either, true or false. Those who advocate total and unquestioning obedience to any one view are doing their flock no favors.
In the subchapter "The Band from Hell," he says that "there are those who contend that violence in music and on film does not influence people to emulate what they see and hear. If that is true, why do advertisers pay so much money (nearly one million a minute during the Super Bowl broadcast) in an effort to influence behavior in favor of beer, ties, automobiles, and shaving cream." (pg.53)
On the surface, this sounds like a convincing argument, but let's dig a little deeper. I've seen, heard and read just about every ad for Pepsi, but to this day I still drink Coke. Why? I like the taste, and Pepsi is too sweet. I'll drink it if I have to, but I'd prefer a Coke. So all these ads, and their attempts to influence my behavior, fall by the wayside. It comes down to a matter of INFLUENCE against CAUSE. Everything in life can INFLUENCE you in one way or another, but only you can CAUSE your actions, and the consequences rest on your shoulders.
3. DEBUNK MYTHS: Part of questioning authority is undermining the mythologies created by underquestioning obedience. As in the last example, Cal helps spread the myth that art and expression can actually CAUSE action. He says that "anyone who seriously believes that people can regularly listen to swill like (2 Live Crew) and not be affected by it--indeed, that a few already warped minds would not be prompted to act out the suggestions contained in it--must be deluded." (pg. 42)
However, there has never been a single, credible study that proves the casual link between expression and action. Even the Meese Commission on Pornography, which "found" a causal link between rape and pornography, admitted that they couldn't prove it, but were still convinced that it existed. Sure, and if the Pope comes out and says the world is shaped like a burrito...
Besides, a "warped mind" can and will be set off by just about anything. The red shoes you're wearing could prompt me to kill if I'm a psychopath with a Kate Bush fixation. Only by destroying the world could we protect ourselves from things that could influence a psycho-killer. Is Cal in favor of armageddon?
4. DISPEL FALSE FACTS: Part and parcel of the myth making is a reliance on exaggeration, generalization and outright lies. Cal does not fib--if he does, I've never caught it--but he does tend to over simplify issues to prove his points.
For example, in "The Band from Hell," he claims that, in reference to popular culture's "harmful" effects, "Bobby-soxers in the '40's did not become serial killers after watching Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theater in NY or listening and dancing to a Glenn Miller tune." Well, of course they didn't. Serial killers are made into what they are after years of abuse and neglect--usually by their parental units. Popular culture has nothing to do with their creation.
Further, trying to paint the '40's as some kind of "innocent" time is fraudulent. Is he forgetting the bloody gangster era of the '20's and '30's? There were not any heavy metal groups in existence then. Of course, there was jazz, which was reviled as "nigger music" when it first came out--but that's okay now, so you won't hear Cal bad-mouthing it. And what kind of music did Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time listen to in Victorian London? Gangsta Rap? Acid? House?
It's also amusing to see him codify Guns 'N' Roses as the "Band from Hell," based on all their silly excesses and occasional faux pas. G 'N' R are, for all intensive purposes, a typical rock 'n' roll band (though a damned good one). If Cal wants to talk about Hell, he should go see Deicide, The Genitorturers or My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. Or maybe someone should send him to a GWAR concert! Then again...
5. UNCOVER HYPOCRISY: The first subchapter, which deals with Marge Schott's racist comments, is interesting in that he correlates the outrage over the Cincinnati Reds' owner's statements and 2 Live Crew's obscenity trial. He seems to come to the rescue of Marge since she made her statements in private--a good point--but he comes down on 2 Live Crew: "If As Nasty...with it's grotesque sexual and violent content, isn't obscene, then what is." (pg. 42) In other words, it's okay for Marge to be a bigot, but the Crew should be silenced.
Personally, I think neither expression should be silenced, but let's consider the ramifications of the speech. Who is 2 Live Crew hurting through their party music? No one but themselves. Who is Marge Schott hurting with her racist beliefs? She is the owner of a baseball team, and her views could make it harder for non-white players to get hired. Plus, that kind of negative publicity makes the Reds, and baseball, look bad. That's why she was disciplined.
Cal further shows his true colors by coming out and asking the big, forbidden question in the chapter aptly named, "What's Wrong with a Little Censorship?" It's rare that someone actually comes out and says that: Tipper Gore can dance around it but never openly advocate it. It's even more rare for a journalist, who should really know better, to ask it seriously.
He--quite rightfully--slams unconstitutional campus speech codes, yet calls for censorship of things he finds obscene. "What's worse," he asks, "a little censorship or a lot of social breakdown?" In other words, if you offend minorities or gays, that's okay, but god forbid you offend Cal and his Christian sensibilities! Maybe he should check out what his "good friend" (?!) Nat Hentoff has to say about free speech for me, but not for thee.
6. SPREAD THE WORD: Now that we've done the easy work--refuting--we have to think about the next, necessary step; reporting. The best example of this is what the wonderful people at the "Flush Bush Quarterly" do: put out a quarterly newsletter debunking Rush Limbaugh's daily spew. While this might be adequate for someone as (un) popular as Rush, relatively obscure people like Cal don't need such effort. What you might want to do is write letters to the editor smacking him over the head--brief at best--or try to get a guest column in your local paper to refute him. Guest columns can be hell to get set up unless you know an editor, but it's well worth the work if it gets printed. And if he ever goes on a speaking tour, be sure to drop in and ask a few pointed questions.
Punting the pundits is not only necessary for your mental health and furthering your cause, it's also a lot of fun. So keep it up and who knows? Maybe someday you'll be one of those people who get paid to spout off their opinions too.