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When Tapper's panel discussed that new law, an unhelpful pattern emerged
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THE CULTURE OF FURY AND INSULT! When Tapper’s panel discussed that new law, an unhelpful pattern emerged: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 3, 2010

This just in on the weather: We’re a bit under the weather today. For that reason, we will postpone our comments about Obama’s weekend speech concerning open minds and civility. Later today, though, we will be posting a large chunk of Chapter 5 at How he got there, our incomparable companion site. Comments on that tomorrow.

THE CULTURE OF FURY AND INSULT (permalink): For the moment, put aside your views about Arizona’s new immigration law—your views about the original law, your views about the law as it now stands amended. Instead, consider the way Ross Douthat opens his column in today’s New York Times.

For the record, Douthat says this about the new law: “On the specifics of the law, Arizona’s critics have legitimate concerns.” But first, he offers this assessment of the debate which has blown up around the law:

DOUTHAT (5/2/10): Critics of Arizona’s new immigration law have not been shy about impugning the motives of its supporters. The measure, which requires police to check the immigration status of people they question or detain, has been denounced as a “Nazi” or “near-fascist” law, a “police state” intervention, an imitation of “apartheid,” a “Juan Crow” regime that only a bigot could possibly support.

Faced with this kind of hyperbole, the supposed bigots have understandably returned the favor, dismissing opponents of the Arizona measure as limousine liberals who don’t understand the grim realities of life along an often-lawless border. And so the debate has become a storm of insults rather than an argument.

Douthat isn’t totally even-handed here—correctly or otherwise, he says that liberals started it!—but he makes a reasonably good attempt. Critics of the law went right after motive, he says—and they tossed the standard assessments around. Defenders of the law then “returned the favor.”

But whatever one thinks of his digest of insults, we think Douthat’s larger assessment is hard to dispute. The debate about the Arizona law “has become a storm of insults,” he says, “rather than an argument.”

For our money, that’s a fairly good description of yesterday’s panel discussion on This Week —a 16-minute segment about the new law which shed amazingly little light, but created a good deal of heat. As we watched the segment, we thought of the way Pundit Culture has often worked over the past twenty years. Let’s reduce a familiar pattern to three basic steps:

First step: Pundit Culture often starts with some Widely Accepted Group Judgment. In this case, mainstream and liberal pundits have generally agreed: Arizona’s new law is no good.

Second step: Once that Group Judgment is widely accepted, all attempts at analysis, clarification or explanation come to a halt. This is true when the Widely Accepted Group Judgment is basically sound, and when the Group Judgment is not.

Third step: Replacing attempts at explanation or clarification, we are handed a solid dose of the pundit corps’ “Top This” culture. Once pundits have agreed that they’ll all voice The Same Standard Judgment, a pundit can only distinguish himself by voicing that Standard Group Judgment in increasingly colorful ways. Again—this pattern obtains where the Group Judgment is sound, and where the Group Judgment is not.

Yesterday’s 16-minute panel discussion made us this think of culture, which obtained quite strongly during the Clinton/Gore years. You can watch most of the discussion at ABC’s web site. (For the first chunk, click here. For most of the rest, click this.) You can read the full transcript of the discussion (just click here). If you watch, you will see a profoundly unenlightening discussion in which a five-member panel splits largely four-to-one against the law. Pundits express their grandiose moral objections to the law, while shedding absolutely no light of any aspect of this debate.

Alas! Our old pal Bill Maher, whose work we greatly admire, was the worst offender. (Bill got in some fiery but incoherent race talk, showcasing his own moral grandeur.) But Al Sharpton, someone else we generally admire, wasn’t far behind. Consider this trio of comments, two of which were directed to George Will, the new law’s lone (apparent) defender on the five-member panel. Guest host Jake Tapper was supervising ABC’s unwieldy quintet:

WILL (5/2/10): The Arizona law does not say that there should be racial profiling. And let me tell you what the—

SHARPTON: Well then, why did they just reform it over the weekend?

WILL: Let me tell you what the federal law says.


SHARPTON: With all due respect, Mr. Will, that is not what that federal law says. And the recognition of that is the state of Arizona's legislature just refined what they said over the weekend. They conceded that we were right and they had to refine it.


TAPPER: To be fair to Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, she signed an executive order the same day that she signed a law that said that a person's race alone cannot be enough to be reasonable suspicion. There needs to be more than—

SHARPTON: And now she's come back this weekend with something else. So are we going to keep redoing it? I think you'd have to concede that had this not been raised and these protests had not—they would not themselves be now doing the moonwalk against their own bill.

Three times, Sharpton noted that the bill had been amended over the weekend. But he could only interpret this to mean that the law had thereby been shown to be wrong. Could this action also mean that some flaws with the original bill had thereby been fixed? In sixteen minutes, the question was never raised. No one ever described the ways in which the original bill has been amended, nor did Tapper ask anyone to do so. But this is how Pundit Culture typically works once a Standard Group Judgment has been reached.

Whatever one thinks of Arizona’s law, Tapper presided over a long, uninformative and basically unintelligent discussion. Whatever one thinks of this new law, this long discussion shed a lot of heat—and very little light. Pundits got to showcase their fiery moral greatness. But whatever one thinks of this new state law, most viewers left this discussion knowing nothing about this new law that they didn’t know coming in.

Do you know how the law has been amended? Sharpton referred to this matter three times. But at no point was anyone asked to explain what has been changed in the original law—how the law has been “refined.”

In the case of this state law, liberal and mainstream pundits stand opposed to many (not all) conservatives. But as we perused the press corps this weekend, we were struck by the lazy, uninformative ways some Big Liberal Pundits performed their work.

If liberals want to persuade the public, something more durable than insult and assessment of motive will typically be required. Did Frank Rich provide it? Michel Martin? Charles Blow? We were struck by their groaning factual errors—by the lazy intellectual work with which they tried to support their Standard Moral Postures.

Tomorrow: Is Frank Rich keeping current?