February 14, 2005
The Unbearable Lightness of Third-Tier Pundits
In the educational system that existed in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, students had to decide in the eighth grade what direction their future education would take, Since I knew I wanted to do physics, I chose to go in that direction and the rest of my education consisted of heavy doses of physics and mathematics with absolutely nothing in history, geography, literature, and social studies.
Naturally, this created huge gaps in my own knowledge base that later in life I have had to fill in as best as I can on my own.
This is not entirely a bad thing. One benefit is that I have not developed a hatred for the omitted subjects that those who have had heavy doses of formal education sometimes get. I actually like history and read about historical events for fun. And as I get older, I find that I know a lot of recent history by default, as I have actually lived through events that my children must learn about from history texts.
But the benefit that I value most is that this awareness of my gaps in knowledge has made me cautious about cavalierly challenging those people who have devoted their lives to studying these subjects. It is not that I accept their knowledge and conclusions unquestioningly. It is that I realize that the burden of responsibility is on me to study the issue carefully and be reasonably sure of my facts before I challenge these authorities.
But no such concerns seem to exist in the mind of Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ in the media who think that they can voice any opinion on the flimsiest of knowledge and escape unchallenged. But they do not always get away with this. We saw in a previous posting how Jonah Goldberg went a little too far is asserting his superior knowledge and judgment about the middle east and got slapped silly by University of Michigan professor of history Juan Cole, someone who has devoted his life to studying that region.
But unfortunately Goldberg is far from alone in over-reaching in this way. Ann Coulter, another distinguished member of the Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ Hall of Fame, recently made some typically inane comment on an American talk show about how Canada is an ungrateful neighbor and should be very careful about annoying the US by not always siding with the US in its foreign policy, since the US could squash it like a bug, or words to that effect.
Coulterâ€™s comments were noted in Canada where, needless to say, they did not go over well. She was interviewed by Bob McKeown of the Canadian Broadcasting Companyâ€™s news show The Fifth Estate, in the course of which she condescendingly scolded Canada for not sending troops to Iraq.
And it was at this point that Coulter, like Goldberg, got stopped cold because she had come up against an interviewer who knew the facts of the case and was not going to let her escape unchallenged, the way she gets away in the US media. The transcript below of the exchange comes from Direland. The actual video clip is well worth seeing, especially the part where Coulter looks desperate and flails around trying to salvage her point. (Thanks to commenter Cathi for the tip.)
Coulter: "Canada used to be one of our most loyal friends and vice-versa. I mean Canada sent troops to Vietnam - was Vietnam less containable and more of a threat than Saddam Hussein?"
McKeown interrupts: "Canada didn't send troops to Vietnam."
Coulter: "I don't think that's right."
McKeown: "Canada did not send troops to Vietnam."
Coulter (looking desperate): "Indochina?"
McKeown: "Uh no. Canada ...second World War of course. Korea. Yes. Vietnam No."
Coulter: "I think you're wrong."
McKeown: "No, took a pass on Vietnam."
Coulter: "I think you're wrong."
McKeown: "No, Australia was there, not Canada."
Coulter: "I think Canada sent troops."
Coulter: "Well. I'll get back to you on that."
McKeown tags out in script:
"Coulter never got back to us -- but for the record, like Iraq, Canada sent no troops to Vietnam."
Being wrong on the facts is sometimes excusable. We all make mistakes from time to time. What is interesting is that people like Coulter and Goldberg are brazen in their utterances, take extreme positions, are unapologetic about their ignorance (note that Coulter does not have the grace to later apologize to McKeown for wrongly challenging him repeatedly on the facts), and seem to have no internal sense that warns them that they are dealing with someone who might know more than them.
I saw the interview clip. McKeown is a Canadian. He is a man in late middle age. He would have been in the exact age range to be eligible to be sent to Vietnam, if Canada had sent troops. He would have been acutely aware if fellow Canadians his age, including his friends and relatives, were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Surely warning bells should have rung in Coulterâ€™s mind that this man might know more than her about this particular topic?
But clearly she had no sense of caution and it is interesting to speculate as to why. I think it is because her kind of vacuous hit-and-run punditry has become commonplace in the US. People say absurd things on TV or in print, are not challenged by the interviewers in the conventional media, and then go on to make some new charge the next day. After doing this for years, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one is untouchable.
Should we be concerned about this phenomenon? After all, who cares what Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ like Coulter and Goldberg and Michelle Malkin think, since there is no evidence to suggest that they have anything useful to contribute on any important topic? How do they get such access to the airways anyway?
In a later posting I will discuss why we should care.
Yesterday I saw a fine production by the MFA ensemble of Case Western Reserve University of Tom Stoppardâ€™s play The Real Thing and directed by Jerrold Scott the Cleveland Play House. The way Stoppard uses words is enviable. The play runs until February 19. Details here.
If you have a Case ID, tickets are only $5 and parking is only $2, both real bargains.