Monday, November 14, 2005

Condescension Junction, What's Your Function?

To paraphrase Jonah Goldberg's November 9th column, "Patriotism Is Not All That," let us now sing against the questionable practice of making specious claims about vaguely-defined entities.

In his column, Goldberg talks about the "patriotism" of the media in ways confusing, roundabout, and to my mind, objectionable. I read Goldberg for the same reason that I read Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin and other conservative commentators: to get a sense of the territory, the arguments, and the philosophy. This is, perhaps, not wise. What I've discovered is that, with the possible exception of Sullivan, most of these commentators seem far more interested in stirring up controversy or in illustrating their own education than they are in making themselves heard outside the sphere of those who already agree with them.

Reading what I've written, it's possible that someone could make the same argument about me. After all, this blog is basically my public journal, and it's no secret that I have strong opinions. But at Codemorse, I try to give credence to all sides of an argument. If I'm wrong about something, or if someone presents to me a credible alternative viewpoint, I'm willing to hear them. You'll see Malkin douse herself in syrup and roll on an ant-hill before you'll hear her make an admission that she may have been wrong.

In that spirit, let's take a look at Goldberg's thoughts, and why they frustrate me.

Quoting Mike Wallace:
“Look, you know as well as I, reporters are in the business because they want to be — first of all, they’re patriots just as much as any conservative. Even a liberal reporter is a patriot, wants the best for this country. And people — you know, your fair and balanced friends at Fox — don’t fully understand that.”

Well, not only is that more than a little condescending. It’s highly concentrated damn foolishness. What Wallace doesn’t fully understand is that lots of people have good reason to suspect that media Brahmans like him are less patriotic than the average Joe.

Now, I'm not sure about you, but answering percieved condescension with your own brand of same seems a mighty peculiar way to be taken seriously on a topic. Unless Goldberg is referring to the media as the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and trancesdent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, he's most likely referring to the "media Brahmans" in a more pejorative sense. Perhaps he's implying that the media is like unto "a group of aristocratic families in the New England area of the United States. Since that's spelt "Brahmin," though, I assume he does not.

So, maybe he just means "media Brahmans" in the sense of cattle. That's pretty damn condescending in its own right. It's especially so if Goldberg is being all subtle on us and using Brahmans as a way of implying that the media is a "Sacred cow," unreasonably immune from criticism. Which is ironic, because the unspoken subject of his column is whether America's government should be criticized by the media, and how much criticism is "patriotic," apparently on some sort of metaphorical sliding scale.

Goldberg's overall point, at least, from what I'm able to suss out, seems to be that just because you claim to be patriotic doesn't mean that you possess the same level of patriotism that other people (presumably Goldberg, amongst other unnamed parties) do.

While Goldberg is correct in the literal sense, I don't really see the point of the argument save to further savage the patriotism credentials of the mainstream media through the implication that they are too "cosmopolitan" to possess the same loyalty to country that others hold.

Goldberg undermines himself in his use of Walter Cronkite as an example. He cherry-picks his Cronkite anecdote while avoiding an enormous logistical pitfall. Yes, Cronkite wore an American military uniform during World War II, but he was also the journalist responsible for bringing the reality of the Vietnam War in all its horrific splendor into the living rooms of previously ill-informed citizens. Cronkite would seem to be a less-extreme example of exactly the sort of Dispassionate Observer that Goldberg questions, more outwardly opinionated in his reportage of the two, but no less willing than Wallace would be to report upon the government in actions both admirable and less-than.

In today's commentator climate, Cronkite would be savaged for his impertinence and his lack of "patriotism," decried by supporters of the war as a leftist communist. By logical default, in the eyes of those watchdogs, you must report loyally and in favor of America. To do otherwise is to render yourself a) A tool of the liberal, opinion-saturated media establishment, b) to give succor to our enemies, or, as Goldberg puts it, c) be a detached "citizen of the world" with less patriotism than other, still unnamed parties. What other option is a reporter left with?

Goldberg either dismisses or willfully ignores the value of reporter as Dispassionate Observer, a mistake which reduces the persuasiveness of his argument greatly. One of Journalism's mandates is to report the facts, and those facts may not always be favorable to one's country. The value inherent in a free press comes from the ability of our reporters to deny "the party line" (whether left or right of it) and report what has happened, not their "take" on events.

It's up to columnists like Goldberg to then give opinions on the news they read, not to give opinion on opinion. That's why we have separate sections for "News" and "Editorials." That many news outlets have blurred the lines between the two is a cause for enormous concern. If anything, I'd argue that impartiality and detachment are qualities needed in much greater amounts than what we currently recieve. I'd argue that getting the facts out to the people, especially in the face of possible falsehoods (or, put more plainly, lies) is patriotism defined.

As for the implication-as-question that American journalism does too much in revealing our nation's problems to the world: it is, at heart, an argument for censorship. Were Goldberg speaking of revealing national secrets, the locations of our troops, our plan of attack and/or defense, I would agree that journalistic revelation is an ill, and one that said-journalists would do well not to engage in.

But he is not, I think, referring to these things at all. He is referring to journalism that questions the decisions and motivations of our government, things made public to the American people and open to the public debate. It is a strength of democracy to have a press which reports unsparingly upon its own government in this manner.


At 1:20 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

I think you're being a little unfair to Mr. Goldberg, and simultaneously take part in the same "cherry-pick[ing]" that you decry.

For example, you say: "Were Goldberg speaking of revealing national secrets, the locations of our troops, our plan of attack and/or defense, I would agree that journalistic revelation is an ill, and one that said-journalists would do well not to engage in.

But he is not, I think, referring to these things at all. He is referring to journalism that questions the decisions and motivations of our government, things made public to the American people and open to the public debate."

Yet, this is what he says:

"Now, before everybody gets their knickers in a twist, let me be clear. I’m not saying that journalists are unpatriotic. Nor am I discrediting the argument that it is the hallmark of the true patriot to tell unpleasant or inconvenient truths. Chesterton was right when he declared: “My country right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ ”

Fairness is as fairness does.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

I for one find the idea that this man is the final arbiter of what is or is not patriotic to be "highly concentrated damn foolishness". Patriotism, like love (since it is a form of love) can take many different forms and can be healthy or unhealthy. What it cannot be is quantified. I can't say that A is more patriotic than B because he does (or doesn't do) something. You can burn a flag and be patriotic as hell. You can be a Reagan Republican and end up selling military secrets.

If I'm a reporter and I decide that my highest calling is to simply record events and not comment on them (something that would be both dull and refreshing) then I could see me deciding not to warn a soldier about an impending attack. Of course since I personally have a strict code of morals (even though I'm a liberal) I would warn the man, not out of any sense of patriotism, but because I want no one wounded. It's like saying that BJ Pierce is unAmerican for operating on enemy soldiers. Frank Burns tried to stick him with that but failed.

In regards to reporters being "citizens of the world" and the use of the word "foreigner"., considering the fact that major league US reporters are seen and heard worldwide (something not as true in Cronkite's day) I think that only makes sense. I personally consider myself a citizen of the world to a degree. It is my responsibility as a Christian to love the world and reach out to it as I am able. I am also an American citizen. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.

Also the last two sentences in his piece are a mess, since this "And some of this has to do with tendency to define good reporting as revealing or exaggerating America’s problems to the world." is neither a sentence, nor a trait.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

And your proper use of the word suss makes me want to bear your children.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

Respectfully, I am going to have to initially disagree. If patriotism is defined as "love of, or devotion for, one's country," then of course it can be quantified. To suggest otherwise would be akin to suggesting that one's courage cannot be quantified or one's intelligence cannot be quantified.

Now, in fairness, we can debate the relative merits of patriotism, and there are certainly many ways of showing patriotism (and courage, intelligence, etc.), but to suggest that "[we] can't say that A is more patriotic than B because he does (or doesn't do) something" seems to be taking relativity too far.

This is shown by taking the most extreme example, Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. No one doubts that he considers himself patriotic, but I certainly hope that no one could reasonably interpret his actions (bombing the federal building) as evidencing a real patriotism or "love of, or devotion to, one's country." One would therefore hope that we could consider him to be less patriotic than the ordinary citizen, as his actions evidence a certain hostility towards country, not love of, country.

The only way we can honestly say that all actions are equally patriotic is if we have no real sense of country. For example, what does it mean to have love of, or devotion for, country?

Let's take the U.S. for example.

What is it? Is it our ideals? Our constitution? Us? And by us, I mean, our citizens? Our leaders? Our dissenting citizens? Our democratic process? Our freedom? Our faith? Our union? Our federalism? Our women? Our wings?

When we say, love of country, what are we talking about?

I ask because it has to mean something. And I hope we can agree that it should not mean whatever Tim McVeigh thinks it means. That one's patriotism is not shown by blowing up innocent children. The fact that he considers himself patriotic does not make it so. So, let's at least start with the idea that it can be quantified. At least insofar as defining what it is not.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

I suppose you could call it cherry-picking, but while Goldberg says that he's not discrediting that particular argument, that seems to be in part what he's doing here.

Goldberg isn't saying their unpatriotic, he's saying that, if you're Mike Wallace, someone who subscribes to Wallace's journalistic beliefs, or someone who reports "too much" on the ills of our Nation, you are less patriotic.

What's the point of that? And if there's a point (one that isn't utterly subjective to the point of ridiculousness), is there one outside of the hoary trope that the "liberal" media is the problem?

At 2:59 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Cap, nicely put.

I am deeply touched by your offer to be my Baby-Mama.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

To answer your McVeigh hypothetical with somethign slightly less drastic, I'd back Cap's point up by positing the following:

Person A - Wears a flag on his lapel. Drives a car with a flag decal. Is a journalist. Supports the war in Iraq and the President's position.

Person B - Has a flag pin. Believes that governmental accountability is essential to effective democracy. Is a journalist. Criticizes the war in Iraq and the President's position.

Which one is "more" Patriotic? In the absence of a McVeigh-like figure, I think it's entirely dependent on, as you point out, factors that matter more or less depending on your personal beliefs.

We agree completely that McVeigh's actions don't qualify as patriotism. But in the spirit of advocating for el diablo, I'll ask this question:

Is it "patriotic" to rebel against politicians currently in power? John Adams certainly thought so.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

Perhaps I used the word quantified where I should have used measured. You can't measure love or courage (you can measure intelligence) except in the most subjective way.

I think you could say that McVeigh had an unhealthy love for his country (he was a fruitcake no doubt). You could of course also say that he had no love for his country. That's the maddening thing about any sort of love.

I'm not saying that all actions are equally patriotic, far from it. Why not stick to my examples? Is burning a flag patriotic? What about blowing up a mosque (here or in the ME) of a particularly extreme sect of Islam?

What does love of country mean? Well I can only say what it means to me. It comes down to loving the ideals for which this country stands. *cue music*

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

So it isn't about politics, people, borders, flags, how people report and what they report. It's about freedom, equality, and kicking despots in the nards. You know despots, those guys who decide that they want things their way. They want to decide who the good guys and bad guys are and use their big stick to do away with the baddies no matter what anyone else thinks. ;-)

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

One could have a field day with attempting to define patriotism.

Let's start with the basics in a sort of logic exercise.

One is not unpatriotic because one criticizes the government. Or, in other words, criticism of government does not preclude one from being patriotic.

Then again, merely criticizing government does not make one patriotic. McVeigh is a good example of this: He was critical of the government and his actions were (he believed) a reflection of that patriotism. I personally view that as nonsense. Let's then stipulate that criticism does not necessarily equal patriotism.

Ok. Now, let's also stipulate that we're getting somewhere.

Which gets at your question a little bit, I think. Do I think it is "patriotic" to rebel against politicians currently in power?

No. By which I mean, there's nothing necessarily "patriotic" about it. Can it be an exercise of patriotism? Sure. It can also be an exercise in blind rage (a la McVeigh).

Or take a less extreme example (or in some views, more extreme):
Were the Southerners (in the 1850's and 60's) "patriotic" for standing up to the government for what they believed were the necessary functions of government (i.e., states rights and/or slavery)? I can see how some may argue that.

One could likewise counter that there is something seemingly unpatriotic about abandoning the union.

Adams views of patriotism were certainly colored by the varying nature of the nation known as the United States of America.

Which brings me back to my original point, which was: what you consider patriotism depends, necessarily, on what you consider the essential part of our union. And it seems to turn on a lot more than just differentiating between those who wear an American flag pin, and those who criticize the government.

I think insofar as we are interested in looking at patriotism, we have to look closer than merely acknowledging one's right to criticize. Even though we will agree with those criticisms from time to time.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

Then you and I are in total agreement. Perhaps, given that you feel the way you do, you understand my bewilderment over Goldberg's column.

There's no way to measure patriotism in any sort of "less v. more" fashion.

So, my question is the same. What's the point of trying to do so? In this instance, the point appears to be that the Detached Observer as Journalist is questionable, and less patriotic than others.

That's all I'm trying to say in my post. He's making a point that has no basis in fact, and which calls into question the character and patriotism of journalists who approach their work like Wallace does without seriously considering or even acknowledging the benefits of such an approach.

That's-a no good, Paisano!

At 2:31 AM, Blogger codemorse said...

Re-reading this, I'm struck by just how many good points nizzle (now Jabawacefti) makes.

And I'm struck by the way I've made a mountain out of a molehill.

Ah, perspective.


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