Monday, May 29, 2006

Punditocracy Discussed

I haven't had much to say recently, or more specifically just haven't said much, with a combination of factors (mostly busyness at work combined with nice...VERY NICE weather and the massive level of golfing activity which that entails) to blame, I thought I'd pass along three perspectives on a topic which 'm finding increasingly interesting: dealing with a 'opinion makers' who don't seem to be doing a great job.

I mean, I enjoy a good fisking (you're welcome, Ron, BTW) as much as the next guy (having indulged myself from time to time), and batshit crazy ideas deserve to get called out as such. But what purpose does such righteous indignation serve? I mean, aside from the personal satisfaction of bashing someone upside the head with your rhetorical boomstick? Of course, some people specialize in slicing and dicing low-hanging fruit, and there's nothing wrong with that - SN and Jesus' General and The Poorman aim to be more humorous than serious. But what of those whose goal is rather more 'substantial?'

By way of explanation, see the comments to this Ezra Klein pointer post to a 'flamethrower' fisking. Specifically:
What is the goal of the blogosphere? We need to provide an attractive alternative to the MSM. Reviews, critiques, and reviews of Broder and Fineman and Bumiller ain't gonna do it, tho it is entertaining for the hardcore blog audience. We need to expand our audience to the crowd that doesn't get excited about beltway competition.

Substance, please.

Indeed. This is not to say that "reviews, critiques and reviews" lack utility - some of the best written argumenation out there takes the form of articles ostensibly termed "reviews." Additionally, a casual reader might not have internalized the POV's of various commentators - David Broder is obsessed with 'balance'; Krauthammer has a pretty strong neocon agenda; Krugman hates, hates W, etc. For these reasons, it's important to challenge both the assumptions and conclusions of mainstream opinion makers - if they go uncontested they quickly become "conventional wisdom" internalized by the public without any realization of all of the implicit preconceptions they are accepting.

But if these criticisms take the form (if not substance) of a tantrum, what good is served? It should be clear that such intemperance is counterproductive (see, e.g. "Left, Angry" for illustration.) It's not enough to say that "pundits are crap." And the talent to do better is clearly out there - for a perfect example see this discussion of Gregg Easterbrook by Laura at Liberalism Without Cynicism (check her out BTW, she doesn't write often, maybe 3 times a week, but it is generally thoughfully argued and well written. But she is Canadian, we can't all be perfect...)

Like the man said, "substance please."

Update 5/30/06: Digby let's loose on the theme as well:
Here on the blogs we have some masterful voices of ridicule and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are liberal heroes for the same reason. Wr [sic] have tons of biting, dizzyingly precise take-down artists on our side. But none of these themes seem to capture the mainstream media as do the wingnut themes and I have concluded that it is because they are too sophisticated. Just like Goldberg and his frappucino sipping sycophants, we too entertain ourselves with this stuff. But unlike them, we only entertain ourselves. They entertain the press.
Triumphalism (and ad hominems) aside, Digby is basically right - we lefties can have our little giggle, but it doesn't go much beyond there. I honestly wonder why this is - I can speculate by saying that from a philosophical perspective those on the left tend to care less about such things as the Clinton's sex life and Nancy Pelosi's hair (or whatever the comparable GOP related narratives would be) so those stories just don't get written, but I really have nothing more than a gut feeling on which to base that.


cakreiz said...

I happened across Laura's blog by accident over the weekend- saw the neolib article and noticed your comment. She writes well (for a Canadian, aye). Still not sure what a neo-lib is but my sense is that it's a liberal who isn't righteously angry and dwells on substance. Is that correct? And if so, is it such a bad thing? Or is politics just raw emotion- like being a fan(atic) of a sports team?

Pooh said...

It's not so much the lack of anger as the rejection of 'ideology' in favor of a sort of a platonic truth of 'what works' - to that degree I think I'd probably self-identify as such.

The problem, which I think Laura identifies well, is that this approach is vulnerable to subversion if one side or the other does not play by the rules of rationality - much like an 'adversarial' legal system, where the 'truth' is best exposed by opposing sides making the best arguments possible. It is recognized that some arguments and facts are anthithetical to the process - hence the rules of evidence, which have no real parrallel in policy discourse.

This leads to a problem wherein I have to evaluate the propriety of an argument on my own, which puts me in a bind, as I will probably be far more skeptical of arguments that contradict my a priori policy preferences. However, I think Easterbrook is so afraid of this tendancy that he isn't skeptical enough of certain arguments.

So to answer your question, it's not simply the focus on substance, but an appeal to pragmatism over idealism - the Right and Left both tend to think in terms of "it would be great IF?" whereas the neolib has fully internalized the saw about politics being "the art of the possible".

Of course, I could be completely full of it...

cakreiz said...

Appreciate it, Pooh. I had misinterpreted some of what Laura had written- you put some 'meat on the bones' with your expanded explanation. Part of my handicap is that I'm only familiar with Klein, not Easterbrook. The pragmatism over ideology reference makes sense- although I don't know if that makes Bill Clinton a neo-lib, for example.

Your allusion to the adversary system makes sense, particularly as to an opponent's plunge into intellectual dishonesty. At that point, all bets are off. Remaining true to that system merely handicaps the honest adherent.

I'm a big pragmatist (that explains my affinity toward Colin Powell's pre-war cautiousness as embodied in the "Pottery Barn" doctrine.) What I like about your explanation is that it's unmired in defitional correctness. Give me Justice Stewart's definition of porn anytime- "you know it when you see it". While there are obvious pitfalls with this approach, it makes sense on some gut level. I'll keep reading and working with it.