Why They’re Wrong and I’m Right
From The New Criterion.
April 30, 2010.
Indulge me, please, for just a moment in the expression of a pet peeve. How I dislike the affectation of the journalistic explainers or their editors who with increasing frequency offer in their headlines to tell me why this or that is the case or how that or this came to be. There is a charmless, school-masterish self-importance about the formula that would be annoying even if the promised explanations were all accurate and demonstrable, but it is almost always the case that the more insistent the whys and hows the less likely they are to explain anything but some thinly-disguised opinion or conjecture of the author. Moreover, many of them fall into the category of what James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal’s "Best of the Web Today" column calls "Answers to Questions Nobody is Asking." Such, for instance, is the Journal’s own headline: "Why Obama Is No LBJ." That one could also be said to fall into the category of things we could probably have worked out for ourselves — in the unlikely event we had thought that something worth doing.
The same could be said for many others of the genre, such as the New York Times headline, "Why it makes sense to pay pilots a decent salary" or the Times of London’s offer to explain "Why car-scratching will never be a proper vehicle for artistic expression." And what about the headline I noticed on the cover of O[prah] magazine a few years ago: "Confessions of a Former Sex Kitten: Why she’d rather sleep alone than wake up with a stranger." Any ideas come to mind? By the way, wouldn’t a former sex kitten be a sex cat? And is it possible that the The New Republic’s editors really think their readers need to be told "Why ancient art still has a claim on our attention" or "Why Alexis de Tocqueville matters today"?
Particularly annoying are those purporting to apply the explainer’s art to what are patently matters of taste or opinion, as when The New York Review of Books tells us "Why the Ground Zero Design is so Bad" or The New Republic "Why critics love the erotic novel Afterburn, and why they're wrong." The New Republic is one of the most prolific and most offensive offenders in the production of patronizing why/how headlines purporting to explain as if they were facts things that turn out to be just somebody’s point of view. Thus I confess to a small frisson of pleasure at reading on the following Monday Christopher Orr’s offer on the cusp of Oscar Weekend to explain "Why Avatar Will Win Best Picture (Though Heavens Knows It Shouldn’t)." Again and again the formula "why x is wrong" or "why y is bad" make a claim on the author’s behalf to a definitiveness of opinion that could not possibly be justified.
I know it is futile to protest against such intellectual bumptiousness. It’s just one sub-variety of a form of journalistic hyperbole which has now become as much the default mode of discourse for the traditional media as it has long been in the blogosphere. On The Daily Beast, Paul Begala lays into "Karl Rove’s Book of Lies" — meaning by "lies" opinions with which he disagrees — but this is no worse than Frank Rich’s "The New Rove-Cheney Assault on Reality" in The New York Times or Thomas Frank’s "The Rise of the Reactionary Right: Conservatism as a revolt against civilization itself" in The Wall Street Journal. As Gerard Alexander pointed out in a fascinating article in The Washington Post and in a subsequent Bradley lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, writers like these — his example was Paul Krugman — are so quick to accuse their opponents of mendacity because they believe that the truth of their own, contrary point of view is self-evident. Therefore, conservatives must secretly know the truth and only pretend to believe in equally self-evident falsehoods. That certainty is also why so much of what now passes for debate in America boils down to the cover line of this month’s Atlantic, in 64-point type next to a photograph of President Obama in shirtsleeves looking resolute, which reads, simply, "Why He’s Right."
I remember once hearing on the BBC’s "Today" program’s "Thought for the Day" a speaker who began his spiel by saying: "As usual, Rousseau got it wrong. . ." Now I have no great love for Rousseau myself, and I think he probably got lots and lots of things wrong, but I would also think it presumptive and arrogant in the extreme for a journalist to pretend so to dismiss a thinker of world-historical importance in the space of a two-minute radio squib or a 1500-word article.
Nor is this kind of misplaced intellectual certainty confined to high-brow and moralizing journalism. It is now becoming a common mannerism in all kinds of print media and especially in the intellectual wannabes like Time or Newsweek. Of course, it’s all the better if your explanation is of something that nobody else even knew was the case. Thus Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek writes of "How bin Laden Lost the Clash of Civilizations"? What? Did I miss something? No. All he means is that the voices of Islamic "moderates" are occasionally being heard and that this means the bin Ladenites and other terrorists, if not defeated already, are as good as. So he thinks.
That piece reminded me of a thoughtful item in the Spectator last September that was flagged on the magazine’s cover as: "The surge in Iraq has been a total failure." Well, I’ve got to admit it made me open the magazine, though I can’t say I was surprised to find that the author, John C. Hulsman, was doing nothing more than expressing his pessimism about the long-term prospects for democracy in that country. It wasn’t clear whether he, or the headline writer, or both didn’t know the difference between a positive statement of fact and an opinion. There are plenty more besides them in the shark tank of opinion journalism who either don’t know or no longer care about that difference. And they seem like models of judicious understatement next to those who don’t know the difference between fact and mere hype.
As I write, the current number of Time features a cover photo of the actor Tom Hanks looking frightened or anxious — I gather that he is attempting to express pity and compassion — next to a featured headline reading: "History Maker: How Tom Hanks is redefining America’s past." Really? That would seem to be rather a tall order for an actor, even one with two Best Actor Oscars. The author, Douglas Brinkley, is a historian of some reputation himself, so we look inside to find that he believes "Hanks has become American history’s highest-profile professor" — even though he is not, unlike Professor Brinkley himself, actually a professor. But, he gets his honorary chair by "bringing a nuanced view of the past into the homes and lives of countless millions" — most recently in the HBO series about our war against Japan, "The Pacific." In parenthesis the (real) professor adds: "HBO is owned by Time’s parent company, Time Warner."
So the promised explanation of an astonishing and hitherto unknown fact turns out to be nothing but a bit of professorial puffery for a TV show which Mr Hanks has co-produced with Steven Spielberg. Insofar as there is any "redefining" going on it will be instantly recognizable, if you are familiar with the vocabulary of the media culture, as having to do with that word "nuanced." The media treat it as an automatic assumption that the popular, non-professorial idea of, say, the war in "The Pacific," is lacking in this magical quality and that it is the job of the explainer, whether an actual professor or only an honorary one, to supply the deficiency. Hence Mr Hanks’s look of alarm on the magazine’s cover. His immense compassion for the fallen of the Pacific war — and, judging by the series’s first installment, it is positively stiff with compassion for Japanese and American soldiers alike — is intended as a silent rebuke to those who might otherwise regard America’s victory in the Pacific war as something to be pleased and proud about and not just something to be sad or ostentatiously compassionate about.
Professor Brinkley proves a dab hand as a celebrity interviewer, noting in awed tones that Mr Hanks’s "branding on a non-fiction title carries something like the power of Oprah," but this doesn’t mean he has forgotten about that guarantor of historical bona fides, "nuance." He quotes Mr Hanks as saying, "Certainly we wanted to honor U.S. bravery in The Pacific. . . But we also wanted to have people say, ‘We didn’t know our troops did that to the Japanese people.’" Or, as the professor paraphrases, "He wants Americans to understand the glories — and the iniquities — of American history." Even publications without any connection to the Time-Warner empire have been happy to trumpet this Hanksian nuance. In the climactic position of the (rave) reviews of The Pacific that ran in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal we find the following quotation by the late Eugene B. Sledge, one of the dramatization’s three main characters: "Something in me died at Peleliu. . . Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it."
There’s nuance for you! Does it matter, I wonder, if it is also a propaganda commonplace of the interwar period when it was retailed ad nauseum by a popular intellectual front of pacifists and communists in thrall to the view that the First World War was all a matter of blundering politicians and soldier-victims? This version of that war was repeated so often — you can even find a version of it in a short story written by the young Ronald Reagan in 1931 — in order (as its popularizers supposed) to preclude the possibility of a Second World War. We all know how that turned out. Yet their version of the Great War has held sway in popular histories down to the present day, and its influence is apparent in the Hanks-Spielberg Pacific War as it is in other artistic treatments of "the good war" of 1939-1945, not to mention every one of the less good or positively bad wars we have found ourselves fighting since.
You’d think that the professorial nuance-merchants would at least have to acknowledge that it is by now a familiar trope, this of the bungling, out of touch politicians, the soldier victims, the utter disillusionment of those expecting to find honor or glory in "real" conflict ("There is nothing noble about this desperate, take-no-prisoners warfare," wrote Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times) — and its corollary, which is the view that mere savagery and brutality in war are the touchstones of the "real." Yet blow me down if they don’t invariably treat such propositions as hidden truths only just discovered by themselves — or someone like Tom Hanks whom they admire — as correctives to the merely na ve and triumphalist views that everybody else is supposed (by mere assumption) to hold. Even making a parade of one’s compassion must take a back seat to making a parade of one’s superior intelligence and knowledge of the world.
The journalistic affectation of explanation is another form of this intellectual vanity. By explaining things, we naturally set ourselves up as being smarter and better informed than those to whom we are explaining them. This creates an aura of authority about our words which may be completely unjustified by any wisdom or insight greater than the next man’s but which lingers about them because of that professorial mode in which they are expressed. It is a mode in which our president, who was an actual professor before he went into politics, is well-practised and whose use of it is just one of the many things he has in common with an adoring media. "Republicans had been hesitant to accept President Obama's invitation to participate in Thursday's White House health-care summit," wrote Dana Milbank in The Washington Post on the morning after that curious conference took place.
Their hesitance turned out to be justified. An equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers assembled around a table at Blair House, and each had a chance to speak during the seven-hour televised talkathon. But members of the opposition party may not have fully understood that they were stepping into Prof. Obama’s classroom, and that they were to be treated like his undisciplined pupils. Obama controlled the microphone and the clock, and he used both skillfully to limit the Republicans’ time, to rebut their arguments and to always have the last word. . .It’s a safe bet that no minds were changed in that room Thursday, and it’s not entirely clear that Obama was even trying to forge a compromise. Though advertised as a consensus-building opportunity, the summit served more as a moment for the president to tell Republicans, with the cameras rolling, why they’re wrong and he’s right.
Amazingly — well, it’s amazing to me, anyway — this seems to be intended by Mr Milbank as a compliment to the President, rather in the spirit of Jonathan Chait of the ever-explanatory New Republic who wrote of the same event that
President Obama is so much smarter and a better communicator than members of Congress in either party. The contrast, side by side, is almost ridiculous. . . Most the time [sic], this is like watching Lebron James play basketball with a bunch of kids who got cut from the 7th grade basketball team. He’s treating them really nice, letting his teammates take shots and allowing the other team to try to score. Nice try on that layup, Timmy, you almost got it on. But after a couple minutes I want him to just grab the ball and dunk on these clowns already.
Now say that such admirers as the Messrs Milbank and Chait are fully justified in their admiration; say that the President is indeed as much smarter than everybody else as they say he is — by the way complimenting their own intelligence for also being smart enough to see this while taking in the stupidity of the other side; say that he is right, right, right about the health-care bill and the Republicans are wrong, wrong, wrong. How smart is it of him to tell them so, and to treat them as educationally sub-normal children incapable of grasping what his own superior intelligence enables him to grasp so swiftly and surely? Not very, I should say. Even if the President’s health care bill were to become the law of the land — its fate is still not clear at this writing — he and it will ultimately pay a high price for his having made no serious effort to be bipartisan about instituting such a major change. Democratic politics is not the art of being always right but of conciliating enough of the people who disagree with you, whether they are right or wrong, to get something done. You don’t do this by treating them as morons.
But the media take a different view. Perhaps it is a result of their eight years’ in opposition during the Bush era, but they now appear to suppose that politics is all a matter of intellectual and moral posturing. In this, of course, they can plead that Mr Obama himself has set them the example. The Democratic electoral strategy at least since the Kerry campaign of 2004 and its failure to denounce the caricature of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 has been founded upon a portrayal of the Republican alternative as either morally corrupt and tyrannical or positively cretinous in its stupidity — most often, as in Mr Moore’s case, both. The President kicked off his general election campaign by trumpeting his own intelligence and denouncing Senator McCain as someone who didn’t "get it." He never quite got around to saying what it was that his senatorial rival was supposed not to "get," but the media, as much in love with braininess and its tokens in Ivy League degrees as they were with Mr Obama himself, were always prepared to stipulate that, when it came to getting it or anything like it, their darling was bound to be superior to any Republican.
What wonder, then, if at the "health care summit" there was not, as Mr Milbank correctly noted, any attempt at compromise by the President. Of course, if there had been, it would not have been public. It was only a media event — even though the media remained modestly unwilling to acknowledge as much — and the occasion for still more of the sort of moralizing and posturing and showing off that has replaced politics in the media’s view. Their moral approach to the political world makes them post-political themselves, and they are the reason for the existence of our post-political politics and our post-political President, of whom George Will has written that "his progressivism is an attitude of genteel regret about the persistence of politics" — just like that of our other professor-president, Woodrow Wilson.
It is said that President Kennedy single-headedly destroyed the American market for adult male headgear by preferring to go hatless himself — perhaps to advertise his own youthfulness and full head of hair — and that this is what has ever subsequently consigned the ubiquitous fedora in the Hollywood films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to another, now-vanished era. I have often wondered if there could be any connection between this abandonment of grown-up haberdashery and the end of our cinematic Golden Age at about the same time. Certainly, what has succeeded it, both in the movies and in male fashion, has been a form of crass juvenility that shows no signs of abating half a century on. I think this may be giving too much credit — or blame — to one man, but the power of the president as trend-setter should not be in doubt, especially if he is as charismatic a figure as both the Presidents Kennedy and Obama are said to be. Instead of hatlessness, President Obama’s legacy to his country may turn out to be this affectation of professorial omnicompetence which now infects our media and public discourse. It’s hard to see any end to that either.