Monday, November 2, 2009

On Snake Oil

For as little as I blog, I absolutely love reading other people’s ideas and blogs. Given that the work I do with my research is so solitary, and that I have almost 4 hours of commuting every day, I have the liberty of listening to much more media than at any time in my life. I try and get a balanced dose of many different opinions and viewpoints and think that I have a decently broad view of what is being said at any given time on the most important issues. I’ve noticed a growing trend among many news outlets, blogs, and even facebook notes I read. Simply put, I’ve been noticing a lot of hypocrisy.

I should probably start off by mentioning that I’m not intrinsically opposed to any particular viewpoint or idea. I realize that there are great arguments to be made on almost any given argument, from veganism on the left to the benefits of torture on the far right. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with interpreting the world through one’s own beliefs and opinions, even when I disagree with that worldview or those opinions.

Truly, the real danger in democracies, and the trend that I have been noticing more and more, is that people are completely reversing their opinions now that a new political party is in power. Pundits who were opposed to rendition when President Bush was allowing it are suddenly actively for it now that President Obama makes the same decision. My conservative friends who wanted tax cuts and increasing deficits between the years of 2000 and 2008 are coming down hard with a convenient case of newfound fiscal conservatism since January.

Hypocrisy carries with it the exact same dangers as any other form of dishonesty. People who indulge enough in wanton paradigm shifts and partisan flip-flops are bound to either be given their own show on FOX /MSNBC or the people around them will realize that their allegiances are not to any ideals or truths, but to their own warped sense of what their political party expects them to tout.

Many people, especially the youth (and Jesus, I would point out), have a special hatred in their hearts for those they see as hypocrites and traitors; every American knows who Benedict Arnold is, but very few probably know the British generals who openly fought against the American Revolution.

Hypocrisy fundamentally comes from dishonesty about one’s actual motivations. In one of my favorite examples, John Stewart points out when Bill O’Reilly criticized Jamie Lynn Spears for having a baby out of wedlock, yet defended Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, claiming that it was nobody’s business but the family’s, since the society wouldn’t have to pay for Bristol’s baby. Now even ignoring that Jamie Lynn Spears and her family could buy and sell 100 Bristol Palins, and that that Mr. O’Reilly’s stated concerns are verifiably untrue, the important part of the coverage is that Mr. O’Reilly accomplished his goals during both shows: he raised the hackles of his largely conservative, religious audience against a safe punching bag with Ms. Spears, and stroked that same audience’s sense of forgiveness with Ms. Palin. In both cases, O’Reilly sold his audience something easy that they already wanted to feel, giving them something pleasant and boosting his own ratings in the bargain. It’s not that Bill O’Reilly is the king of the hypocrites, he’s just an entertainer and a snake-oil salesman masquerading as an intelligent person and a good citizen. Back when I considered myself a conservative (during high school) I used to watch The No Spin Zone every night. It wasn’t until I knew how to debate well that I was able to clearly see how and when Bill O’Reilly is selling what he actually believes, and when he’s simply saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear.

In the age of the internet, where archival footage and fact checking is the new standard, and where fewer and fewer people in America are willing to accept things simply because they’ve always been done that way, I’m frankly a little shocked and disgusted to see so many pundits (and even people I know) trying to pass themselves off as something they were the opposite of only 18 months ago. People can still change their minds, repenting of previous, youthful indiscretions and ignorant opinions. They are also more than welcome to see a fine distinction between the profligate spending (as I saw it) that went on during Bush’s tenure as being qualitatively different or more justified than the spending that President Obama isdoing (I think it’s a foolish proposition to lump all spending together in one category, criticizing spending on the FDA with the same brush that one would criticize spending on a bridge to nowhere). Please tell me if I’m just over-reacting or missing all of these complexities, but from where I’m sitting, the criticisms I have been hearing and reading from the poles seem rather half-baked and hypocritical. I hope that all of us can leave the asinine drivel that’s spewed on MSNBC and FOX and simply stop watching/listening to people who are not interested in building our society. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck are not racists or demons, as they’re often portrayed in the mainstream media, they’re simply entertainers who make their money by selling uncritical people outmoded and obsolete ideologies. The same could be said of Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann.

Those who criticize Obama for the same things that they lauded Bush for doing (and vice versa) are the suicide bombers of the marketplace of ideas. Such inconsistency and partisan wrangling is always harmful and should not be tolerated by thinking people anywhere. I, of all people, see the value in having two sides to any debate. When so many voices in our media sell out their ideologies, simply to play the profitable role of devil’s advocate, however, the national debate is debased and all of us are made less capable of engaging with our democracy. Building a society, much like a building, requires a lot of energy and shared consensus. From my perspective, all that pundits like Mr. Limbaugh give us, however, is a hatred of gravity.


direfloyd said...

Great post!!! I always accused GW of spending like a drunken sailor... I should know unfortunately =) Hence my picture!

ke said...

I've been meaning to comment on this forever so: I'm not going to pretend like people aren't silly hypocrites, but I think there's more to this trend. People (particularly of the pundit variety) aren't as concerned with putting forth arguments as they are with making sure they have something interesting (read: inflammatory) to say. Most people spend their time in reaction, and aren't so interested in consistency. Lame, but human maybe?

Also: have you seen/heard about "Resolved"? I saw clips--interesting stuff.

Rosiecat said...

Oh, if only they'd put the scientists in charge of everything... ;-)