The sad state of pundit culture: We were struck this morning by the sad state of pundit culture.
In the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker’s column takes us back to an earlier, more innocent era. Parker falls back on two favorite old tales, one concerning Michael Dukakis, the other concerning Richard Nixon.
Did Dukakis really lose the election because of his ride in that tank? As a candidate, was Nixon really “sweat-soaked?” Actually no. But for decades, treasured old stories like these have driven the work of our pundits.
These treasured old stories are very dumb—but they help pundits get through the night.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat pulls us forward into a more tribal era. This was a deeply unfortunate way to start a column:
DOUTHAT (12/23/12): Bloomberg, LaPierre and the VoidBut did Bloomberg ever say or imply that everyone who doubts his proposals “has the blood of children on his hands?” If so, Douthat didn’t bother supplying the relevant statement.
For a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: the only possible response to Adam Lanza’s rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.
The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite.
In fact, someone did employ that ugly image this week—but it was a man of the pro-gun hard right. Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, literally said this in response to Newtown: “Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands.”
Larry Pratt actually made that statement! Somehow, Douthat transported those unfortunate words to the mouths of the whole “American center-left.”
Tribalized culture will do that to folk. The too, it will produce work like that in this post by Gene Robinson. Robinson’s post appears today on the op-ed page of the hard-copy Washington Post.
In tribalized culture, pundits will overstate their degree of shock at the depredations of the other tribe. They will look for ways to call the other side obscene, insane.
The complaints don’t have to make sense. They don’t necessarily have to be made in good faith:
ROBINSON (12/23/12): The NRA’s insane idea about more guns in schoolsLike almost everyone else in his tribe, Robinson says he is shocked, shocked by LaPierre’s proposal. We’re not entirely sure why that is—whatever one thinks of this proposal, the NRA made similar proposals after two previous mass shootings.
Absurd, unbelievable, tragic, obscene—I grope for words to describe the National Rifle Association’s proposal for how the nation should respond to last week’s slaughter in Newtown: More guns in the schools.
The idea is so insane that as far as I’m concerned—and, I hope, as far as a still-grieving nation is concerned—the NRA has forfeited the right to be taken seriously on matters of public policy. Newtown is still burying six-year-olds and Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s chief, wants more freaking guns in the schools. Wow.
LaPierre’s rationale, that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” led to his suggestion that there be “armed police officers in every school in this nation.”
Where to begin?
The NRA has always made this type of proposal. But Robinson voices his utter shock, then pretends to expose the lunacy found in the other tribe.
Having called this proposal insane, Robinson proceeds to display some disordered reasoning of his own:
ROBINSON (continuing directly): Where to begin? Let’s assume, for the moment, that we decide to pay the multi-billion-dollar cost of placing one gun-toting officer in every school. What would the officer’s orders be? Shoot anyone who looks suspicious? If not, the officer would wait until an assailant—someone like Adam Lanza—displayed a gun or started firing. What sort of arsenal, and itchy trigger finger, would the officer need to be certain of shooting the assailant before the assailant shot the officer? How many twitchy, furtive, suspicious-looking UPS deliverymen would be tragically cut down in error?Under the circumstances, we almost find that passage “obscene”—and the next paragraph only gets worse, as you can see below.
What’s wrong with what Robinson says in that passage? Basically, Robinson borrows a familiar approach from the crackpot right. He starts imagining things which could go wrong if LaPierre’s proposal is followed.
This can always be done, in the case of any proposal. It’s a mindless way to proceed, unless you’re totally tribal.
Might a school security guard—sorry, a “gun-toting officer”—end up shooting a UPS deliveryman? Of course he might! But policemen sometimes shoot people in error, and we don’t disband the police.
In fact, many schools already have armed security guards; Columbine High was one such school. Obviously, this practice can’t stop all armed slaughters. For all we know, it has never stopped one.
But it isn’t an “insane” thing to do, as Robinson keeps saying and suggesting. And by the way: Unless you’re bowing to tribal passion, would you describe the hiring of a security guard as an example of “putting more guns in the schools,” as Robinson repeatedly does?
That feels good, but it's very dumb. What follows is utterly mindless:
ROBINSON (continuing directly): So I guess there could be multiple officers in each school. For a glimpse of that dystopian future, recall the shooting a few months ago outside the Empire State Building. A gunman began firing, uniformed NYPD officers responded, they tried to take the gunman down—and nine innocent bystanders were wounded, all by police gunfire. Now imagine that sort of thing happening in a school, and think how many children would be killed by errant shots from police officers’ weapons.“Now imagine that sort of thing happening in a school,” Robinson says—and of course, we can always imagine! We can also imagine a security guard stopping Adam Lanza last week.
In its wild tribal overstatement, Robinson’s column is almost obscene, given the stakes and given his influence on emerging liberal intellectual culture. But we live in highly tribal times, and the tribal mind won’t see that.
Reading Robinson’s very loud column, the tribal mind will see theatrics and hear name-calling—and the tribal mind will be pleased. In our view, it’s very bad for progressive interests when we liberals head down this path.
Fox and Rush have been like this for years. Is our tribe catching up?
Tomorrow: More sad punditry: Who was the late Nancy Lanza?