April 22, 2008
The propaganda machine-14: The role of the third-tier pundits
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
This fairly long series on how the propaganda machine was created and operates was necessary in order to understand the original question of how the phenomenon of third-tier pundits arose. The machine provides the soil that nurtures them and allows them to ply their trade. This is why there seems to be almost nothing that the third-tier pundits can say, however idiotic or offensive, that gets them booted off the media, as long as they faithfully advance the values of their sponsors.
The role of third-tier pundits like Goldberg, Coulter, D'Souza, and Malkin is to entertain and create noise and move the boundaries of the discussion to the right by saying the most outlandish things. Their arguments do not even have to make sense as long as they are out there fanning the flames on behalf of their paymasters. The crackpot ideas of the third tier pundits make other right-wing pundits who hold views similar to the third-tier pundits but express them in more sober voices (people like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennett, etc.) seem reasonable.
It is also interesting that nepotism and cronyism run rampant in these circles. Jonah Goldberg's road was paved by his mother Lucianne Goldberg, who rose to fame as a gossip peddler in the Monica Lewinsky case, William Kristol rode the coattails of his famous father, the neoconservative icon Irving Kristol. John Podhoretz benefited from being the son of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and was recently appointed to the editorship of Commentary, the same journal his father edited. In fact, there seems to be a kind of entitlement welfare system at work for these people.
In the right-wing media world, third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D'Souza, Frank Gaffney, and David Horowitz play the role of 'useful idiots'. By that I don't mean that they are stupid. Most of them have considerable formal education and some have advanced degrees. They are usually glib and have at least the intelligence to realize that if they are willing to play a particular role, they can secure well-paid employment. But they are essentially hired guns, disposable cogs in the machine, people who realized at a fairly early age that with their ideological bent, they could make a good living by using their rhetorical talents to sign on as low-level soldiers in the ideological wars.
Another advantage (to the pro-business/pro-war elite) of having a class of third tier pundits is that they are disposable because they are pretty much interchangeable. If any of them should become a liability for whatever reason or cease to be effective, they can be got rid of and easily replaced with fresh faces who have little baggage. There are recent signs that Coulter has outlived her usefulness and is falling out of favor, but she can and will be easily replaced.
As Juan Cole says about Goldberg (although his comments apply to all of the third tier pundits):
Goldberg is just a dime a dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies.
Previously, Goldberg with the arrogance of someone who lacks self-reflection, actually had the temerity to assert that he was a more credible analyst of Middle Eastern politics than Juan Cole, who is a political science professor whose field is the history of that region, who has lived for many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, none of which Goldberg can boast of. This was too much for the usually mild-mannered Juan Cole who then proceeded to slap Goldberg silly, saying:
I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can't read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq's neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg's opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.
Goldberg then tried to backtrack, saying that he did not claim to have more knowledge than Cole, just better judgment. This alone shows just how vapid and disconnected with reality these people are, and how their minds work, as Cole immediately pointed out:
Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. I take it he is saying that his judgment is superior to mine. But how would you tell whose judgment is superior? Of course, all this talk of "judgment" is code for "political agreement." Progressives think that other progressives have good judgment, Conservatives think that other conservatives have good judgment. This is a tautology in reality. Goldberg believes that I am wrong because I disagree with him about X, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and ipso facto lacks good judgment.
An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies that we do not need ever to learn anything in order make mature decisions. We can just proceed off some simple ideological template and apply it to everything. This sort of thinking is part of what is wrong with this country. We wouldn't call a man in to fix our plumbing who knew nothing about plumbing, but we call pundits to address millions of people on subjects about which they know nothing of substance.
Cole is exactly right. The know-nothing pundit class is a menace to society, distorting public policy and advancing truly harmful actions. The sooner they get the ridicule they deserve and are laughed off the stage, the better.
POST SCRIPT: Wall Street gamblers
Recently I ran a series of posts titled The brave new world of finance about the financial mess caused by the subprime housing loan practices and how it exposed the rampant recklessness with which the big Wall Street financial interests were operating. In the following Terry Gross interview with Michael Greenberger, he provides one of the clearest explanations I have heard about the complex transactions that were going on. Essentially, all these people were gambling with other people's money.
I must warn you that the very clarity of Greenberger's explanations makes his prediction that things are even worse than we think somewhat depressing.