Updates I & II below:
I’m having difficulty seeing what others on Twitter have called the ‘mean-spiritedness’ and ‘antagonism’ of Ohtarzie’s latest post, “The Cable News Heroism of Chris Hayes.” His piece emerged after a prolonged exchange on Twitter with journalist Jeremy Scahill. Ohtarzie gave a fair analysis of the significance of ‘left’ figures like Hayes within the context of corporate “liberal” media: Chris Hayes’ role (like those of Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.), is largely symbolic and limited to the degree that MSNBC finds him useful. Hayes’ status as the host of a progressive forum on TV may have been true once, and he might even believe that he is an effective progressive journalist–but self-deception is a rather dependable refuge for the best of us.
There is little worthy in defending someone — Hayes, Chomsky, Obama, Maddow — by insisting that “their intentions are good/sincere/honest/liberal/left.” As Hannah Arendt points out, bureaucrats and functionaries don’t wake up in the morning believing that they have insincere intentions. Ditto mass murderers, presidential candidates, and your husband. Adolf Eichmann thought he was abiding by Kant’s universal moral law. That shows you how vacuous the categorical imperative can be. This is, as she points out, how the extreme ordinariness—the banality—of evil reveals itself: by seeking shelter in “sincere beliefs.”
Insincere intentions are the stuff of fairy tales. They are the simplest way to turn the banality of evil into the thrill of spotting a villain. This is why Hollywood directors are filthy rich. The “sincere” beliefs view is helpfully reinforced by seeking confirmation from other like-minded folks—and friends. It is not convincing to critics. Rightfully. I am neither suggesting that Chris Hayes is evil nor that Jeremy Scahill, an excellent journalist, is at fault for pointing to Hayes’ sincerity. The former is too pat a description. The latter is a natural impulse of friendship, but still a weak defense of Hayes’ shift toward Democratic apologia. There is something corrupt about the argument that one’s sincerity makes one a “good” anything—person, journalist, teacher, parent.
[this is] why I consider most establishment lefts fundamentally toxic: their principled, analytical moments are inseparable from the ways in which they more frequently and potently subvert them…
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of presidential elections…to mass indoctrination, mass distraction, and movement killing, where they accomplish a great deal.
I would add that the toxicity of subverted principles is even more all-encompassing: it is a constant undertow that threatens to subsume you. It emanates from everyone you work with. Unless you are forceful in resisting, there is a tide that’s flows over you unceasingly. It becomes something you find—want–yourself to be part of. It is a damn sight more pleasurable to be a part of a crowd that has sincere intentions, gets paid well, believes in liberal principles, and looks the other way collectively, than to find oneself eating brunch alone in one’s tiny kitchen, or awkwardly greeted by upwardly ascending colleagues. The natural response, then, becomes the willingness to acquiesce to the coercion imposed by that tide, that undertow, and of course, to the source of one’s bread—in this case, the defense contractor/corporate employer—and one’s social “network”: those with whom one aspires to be on friendly, intimate terms: other well-known corporate reporters, high visibility newsmakers, and of course, the POTUS himself and his functionaries.
It is at some level natural and to be expected that one will be less critical of the failings of those whom one knows personally or is friends with: one can see those failings in a more holistic aura of other “positive” characteristics. This is also part of why politicians curry favor with journalists and lobbyists curry favor with politicians: the line between business and pleasure becomes happily blurred. It is much more difficult to criticize or challenge someone whose sense of humor, holiday gatherings, or box seats you share.
It is not strange—nor wrong–for Scahill to locate Hayes within the context of his more positive lights. Nor might it be strange for Hayes and Maddow to do the same with Obama. Except that part of Hayes’ and Maddow’s jobs are to keep the President and the Democrats accountable. Which means that “listening to the President’s thoughts on economic messaging” is a dubious project—given that it is a journalist’s job to assess the message, not to help shape it.
This may be why “ethics”—along with physical and social distance from the subject of one’s writings–are useful: because they guide us during those confusing moments when our lust to be counted in another’s intimate circle conflicts with doing our jobs: being on intimate friendly terms with the boss, one’s dissertation advisor, the subject of one’s dissertation or biography, the enemy, or an important news source.
But the denial of that conflict of interest is all-too-rewarding. As Ohtarzie says,
…the price all widely known public lefts from Rachel Maddow to Chomsky must pay to sit at the grownups’ table is agreement that a quadrennial, unconditional allegiance to whomever happens to be the Democratic presidential candidate is both tactically sound and socially responsible.
It is one thing to capitulate to the aspiration to success reluctantly, perhaps with a divided heart and mind. It is quite another to engage in the exhortatory jubilation that Hayes evidenced here (this was on my mind before I read Arthur Silber’s post, but he appears also to have found it vomitorious):
[I can’t successfully embed the clip, so here’s the link to the clip with transcript.]
This was perhaps one of the most noxious displays of Hayes’s turn to Democratic partisanship. It wasn’t just a quiet “ode” to the labor of democracy, but an exhortation of the triumph of Obama’s victory. What made it especially troubling was not the description of his brother’s “the countless hours on the road,” although by the calculus of “hard work,” this victory could also have been Romney’s and his staff, no?
Sixty to ninety hours a week, 52 weeks a year for five years, my brother worked to get Barack Obama elected president, and then from his perch as the Nevada state director this time around, to get him re-elected. I’m biased of course, but to me, Tuesday’s victory was Luke’s victory as much it was anyone else’s.
It was not the exultation in the face of a year of arguments–among progressives and liberals about the miniscule differences that could be used to distinguish the “right” candidate from the “left” candidate–that was disturbing.
No. What made it especially sickening was the craven excitement exhibited by Hayes, given the months of shows on race, drones, the faltering economy, the mortgage foreclosures, constitutional violations, etc. As I watched, I wondered how to reconcile his joy with his factual awareness of the violations and punitive treatment of vulnerable and poor populations, people of color—citizens and foreign nationals. Was it
A deep self-deception? Perhaps if we were to believe Hayes’ defenders that he “means well.”
Amnesia? Somehow he forgot the years of outrages that he himself discusses?
Indifference? To interpret Hayes’ “Dashle-like” response that Freddie DeBoer diagnoses, and invoked by Ohtarzie?
To watch Hayes toasting his brother’s victory in the aftermath of yet more drones sent into Yemen (on the day of the election)–while being acutely aware that more people had died in the intervening 4 days between the re-election of Barack Obama and Hayes’ show—made my blood run cold. This man is supposed to hold politicians accountable.
That brings me back to the point with which I began: Several Twitter followers described the stark tone of Ohtarzie’s post as “mean-spirited” and “antagonistic.” They seemed to imply that Ohtarzie was guilty of a breach of etiquette—that one must be “polite” in one’s criticisms. I did not see the “impoliteness.” But I am all too aware that the purpose of “etiquette” is to smooth the frictions of social life, of social interaction. One is polite so as to avoid conflict–as we see in the traditional advice to avoid discussing “religion, politics, and sex” at family gatherings–with one’s fellow journalists or Democrats, or to avoid being dismissed as irrational or crazy—especially when brown or Black. I don’t think rudeness and spite are always political acts. But being openly, unflinchingly disagreeable is an important step towards the political.
The criticism of Ohtarzie’s “antagonism” belies one answer to the very question that is under dispute: Apparently there are those who believe that etiquette should be used to smooth out the criticisms of progressive journalism. But in fact, the answer has been much more deadly to the 4th estate. Etiquette and social intimacy are inevitably successful tactics to induce “progressive journalists” to exploit their radical credentials while accepting the invitation into the corporate fold. At extreme political cost.
Liberal sincere intentions. Doing well by doing good.
Update I: It’s as if the NYT and I coordinated today. Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: Art of Power has an Op-Ed in which he endorses “Socializing as a Political Tool.” Obama, he says, should invite his opponents to dinner; it “ameliorates” differences. Bien sur!
Update II: Anonymous posted this link in the comments section below, but I wanted to highlight it here. It is another excellent post by Barry Eisler on a similar topic, “You Will Be Assimilated.” Gut-clenchingly candid in its assessment of the signs of journalists selling out. Must read.