Monday, May 19, 2008

Why I Think Kevin James Should be Rated TV-MA

I stumbled upon this entertaining Chris Matthews "interview" at Amanda's site. It illustrated something that I was already thinking a lot about in the last few days (especially after venturing in to watch some pundits and "talk shows" on the Democratic primary), namely, that the point of shows like Hardball or roundtable discussions on the Sunday News Programs is to provide a mouthpiece for committed, unwavering, ideologues to get their message out in the airwaves. When Chris Matthews invites both Kevin James (a typical wingnut shock jock) and Mark Green (a "liberal" talk radio person from Air America) to discuss or debate whether Bush's comments to the Knesset were a diss of Obama, he is not really creating the conditions for a give and take, civilized debate where the discussants may come to some agreement. No. Matthews and his ilk (even the Lehrer News Hour is guilty of this) are just giving equal time to opposing ideologues who want to talk louder or more offensively than the other guest in order to get their message heard. Sure. I am not saying anything really new here.

But, I was really thinking through this as I listened to a Tom Ashbrook show wherein he was discussing a book about internet security issues and brought on a policy dude from some think tank. I gave the policy dude the benefit of the doubt at first--thinking that he would offer some nice counterarguments or provide better context for the position. Essentially, what I expected from the policy dude was an analysis that I am used to hearing in Academia--wherein there is greater thoughtfulness about the issue (i.e. the history of the problem, why a single view of the issue misrepresents the phenomenon, what the effects of a policy are, what are the unintended consequences, what are alternative views, or how might we make friendly amendments to X view). This is the world I inhabit and I am grateful. I want to believe that the policy folks at most think tanks operate in the same paradigm as academics do. Some do.

But, by large, with the proliferation of right-of-center think tanks to counteract "academia," the news programs that should be a mode for helping the average informed citizen think better about a particular policy are really just winner-take-all-shout-down-the-opposition forums for commited ideologues. I know I keep using the word ideologue in this post, but that is really what is paraded in front of us these days on the boob tube. Hell, even in blogoland. Just once I would like to see a policy dude deviate from his or her talking points and actually dialogue.

Kevin James represents the worst of the ideologues out there: stupid and loud. But, there are far more nuanced and wonkier analysts at places like the Cato Institute or AEI. They sound utterly reasonable, subtle, intellectually honest--but if you listen to them long enough and watch how they function in debates, they never deviate from the core, founding principles of their Think Tank. Their only job is to get their particular ideological message out.

I watched this happen numerous times when I made the bad bad choice to date an analyst from the Cato Institute. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad since I learned a great deal about how this all works. But, what really freaked me out was that my policy dude boyfriend never turned off. Even in private conversations he would refuse to entertain a view that might threaten the core message of Cato: less government, free markets, maximal individualism. I spent months offering up counter arguments to his positions--some quite powerful--and never once did he say "you have a point there." Some of my positions he just dismissed outright. Others he would be a bit threatened by and then go to his boss who would find him some obscure article that would restore his worldview to him. My experience of arguing with policy dude was akin to arguing with the disciple maker dude on our campus turning our lost, smart, socially awkward undergraduates into mouthpieces for Intelligent Design: there is no counterargument that will lead him or his followers to revise their view. Rather, they marshal a bunch of arguments to either muddy the debate or obfuscate the counterargument.

I guess I don't see the point of this kind of public debate or discussion. I think it teaches really bad and uncivilized habits to our children: never consider revising your position when you encounter a powerful counterargument, never consider the possibility that your view or hypothesis is flawed, and, finally, never admit to what you don't know.