This is journalism?
I'm disgusted by Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece on Tea Party politician and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and not because I like Michele Bachmann any more than Matt Taibbi does. I think she'd be a disastrous President, as bad as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Rick Perry and maybe even worse, and I think there will be a lot at stake in the 2012 Presidential election.
A debate is raging in the United States of America about the nature of government itself, and significant intellectual challenges are arising from all sides. At times of heightened controversy like these, good journalism becomes absolutely essential. Here's what Taibbi, a supposedly serious and reputable liberal political critic, has to say about the latest rigid conservative to make waves as a Presidential contender:
Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government.
Then, a little further on:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.
Funny that Taibbi should compare ultra-rightist Michele Bachmann to ultra-leftist Kim John-Il of Korea, because I've already expressed my disgust with lazy journalists whose analysis of this North Korean stops dead at the observation that "Kim Jong-Il is crazy". In fact, Kim Jong-Il is a lot of terrible things, but crazy isn't one of them. Here's what I wrote last November:
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
The more I think about this, the more this kind of empty commentary irks me. By telling us that Michele Bachmann, who appeals strongly to many Americans, is simply "crazy", Matt Taibbi is actually telling us a few different things at once, none of them reflecting the message he wants to transmit.
First, he's letting us know that he doesn't have an even basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular, and why some smart people in this country take her seriously.
Second, he's letting us know that he doesn't think it's important to have a basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular. She's beyond discussion. To any Rolling Stone reader who might have ever found Michele Bachmann appealing in any way, Matt Taibbi has nothing to say but "talk to the hand". These readers, presumably, are beyond discussion as well.
This is journalism?
Any loudmouth balook on a city bus can proclaim that a politician they don't understand is "crazy". It's a journalist's job to do better than this. I expect a serious political writer to show a grasp of both sides of a story and then come down on the better side. That's the kind of political writing that can have the power to change people's minds.
Taibbi-style hyperbole has only one possible goal: to hit an opponent so hard that the opponent crumbles. This is journalism aiming not to explain or illuminate, but to embarrass, exclude and vanquish. Both sides practice this type of journalism, of course. I'm more critical when I see my fellow liberals do it than when I see Fox News do it (Fox News, of course, does it 24 hours a day) because I think we liberals should do better than our opposition.
At least I'm not all alone here. Just as I was stewing over Matt Taibbi's useless piece (which, ironically, got a lot of positive attention among my tweeps and friends), I read an unusual, perceptive Huffington Post piece by the great hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons.
Simmons, apparently, is as sick of the low-quality liberal response to conservative challenges as I am. Pondering his passionate disagreements with Fox News figurehead Sean Hannity about foreign policy, he comes to a surprising realization:
[Hannity] lives by his book and for that I have to respect him... but I don't believe that everyone else has to be made to live by HIS book. People really believe in a strike-first foreign policy... it protects our country, so they say. They bully us and push us around, so we bomb the shit out of them and wipe their country off the map. They really believe that.
And while they believe all of this, they stomp on us. And while they are stomping, they smile as we just get angrier, with them and with ourselves. So, we turn them off, tune them out and call them evil. That is where they win and we lose. We play on their battlefields, in their costumes and in their language.
"We turn them off and call them evil". Right, and there are two other variations: we call them stupid, or we call them crazy. Three different ways of telling people we disagree with that we don't think their opinions are even worth talking about: call them evil, call them stupid, call them crazy.
Here's Russell Simmons's closing paragraph, which I agree with completely. Simmons was a smart guy in the 70s and 80s when he put Queens hip-hop on the map, and he's apparently a smart guy still today:
As progressives, one of the things it means is that we are open-minded. One of the things we stand for is a lack of rigidness. We have always led with compassion, while conservatives lead with values and safety. But if we don't listen then we are no better than they are. We will end up walking out of meetings with the vice president just like them. Cause at the end of the day Sean Hannity and his boys think they are right. And we think we are right too. All patriots want this country to be more perfect. We all believe in our hearts that our way is right. I didn't say turn on Fox News, as you know my politics are to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but when it's on and you walk by and you hear their rhetoric, don't assume they're wrong. A great yogic teacher said, "You have two ears and one mouth for a reason." You don't have to agree with them, you just have to listen.