The Degradation of Discourse and the Politicized Life

America's Most Foremost Public Intellectual

America's Most Foremost Public Intellectual

I couldn’t help but feel a bit of solidarity with Frank Luntz while reading this profile. Luntz is really depressed about the state of political discourse in this country. And he doesn’t have any idea what to do about it. The relevant paragraphs:

His side had lost. Mitt Romney had, in his view, squandered a good chance at victory with a strategically idiotic campaign. (“I didn’t work on the campaign. It just sucked, as a professional. And it killed me because I realized on Election Day that there’s nothing I can do about it.”) But Luntz’s side had lost elections before. His dejection was deeper: It was, he says, about why the election was lost. “I spend more time with voters than anybody else,” Luntz says. “I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don’t know shit about anything, with the exception of what the American people think.”

It was what Luntz heard from the American people that scared him. They were contentious and argumentative. They didn’t listen to each other as they once had. They weren’t interested in hearing other points of view. They were divided one against the other, black vs. white, men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor. “They want to impose their opinions rather than express them,” is the way he describes what he saw. “And they’re picking up their leads from here in Washington.” Haven’t political disagreements always been contentious, I ask? “Not like this,” he says. “Not like this.”

As you may have guessed if you’re a reader of this blog, I sympathize quite a bit with Luntz. It’s one of the things I’ve been hitting at in my posts on the politicized life. Teams are chosen, lines are drawn, and enemies pronounced. Working through our differences is no longer the point: destroying those who are different is. The ways in which the different are destroyed vary. Sometimes the heretic is boycotted. Sometimes she is called upon to denounce her friends who have chosen a different lifestyle. The evil one is to be shunned by right-thinking people. The mob is to crush her, feast on her blood, impoverish her for her thought crimes.

I couldn’t help but think of all this yesterday when the mob settled on a new object for a Two Minutes Hate. Dylan Byers, Politico‘s media reporter, pointed out (rather innocuously, I thought) that strenuously arguing in favor of Melissa Harris-Perry—she of the lightly watched MSNBC program on which panelists are encouraged to mock transracial adoption and on which she sometimes dons tampon earrings—being crowned America’s “most foremost” public intellectual damages one’s credibility a bit. Note: Byers didn’t suggest that MHP, as her friends and well-wishers call her, isn’t a public intellectual. Just that Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting she was the preeminent public thinker on the American scene was, well, foolish. And obviously so. Byers then rattled off his list* of “most foremost” public intellectuals and was roundly mocked by the Twitterati because, gasp, his list wasn’t diverse enough. Mon dieu!

There were a number of #SmartTakes from the delightful corner of Twitter that has taken it upon themselves to viciously shout down and castigate those who disagree with them. For instance:

Like I said: A whole bunch of #SmartTakes here. Ta-Nehisi himself weighed in this morning. Unfortunately, he unloads a series of #SmartTakes all his own, first by celebrating the salivating mob’s rejoinders on Twitter, then by mischaracterizing what Byers actually said, and finally by kind of waving his hands in the air and saying, well, what can we expect, because racism.

What transpired yesterday and today is what Luntz finds really depressing in a nutshell. Divide and conquer. White vs. Black. Men vs. Women. Don’t bother having a real discussion, just shout down the opposition. Disingenuously accuse your opponents of bigotry and assert moral superiority for no real reason. Embrace the politicized life and degrade the discourse and lay waste to your enemies. You’re better than them. They’re scum. They deserve it. Crush. Kill. Destroy.

2014 is off to a great start.

*In the interest of fairness, here’s my comprehensive and unquestionably correct list of America’s “most foremost” public intellectuals:

1. Michael Goldfarb (and if you disagree, you’re probably an anti-Semite);
2. Andrew O’Hehir;
3. Whoever comes up with those terrifying Old Spice ads;
4. Dennis Rodman;
5. Trolly McTrollerson;

5,392. Biff Diddle. That guy sucks.