Only Joking


Published November 1, 2022

The New Criterion

Writing for the conservative website amac in September, Seamus Brennan predicted that the midterms this year would be known as “the First Post-Media Election.” I suppose he was using the word “media,” as we conservatives so often do, to refer to that portion of the media that used to require some such qualifier as “liberal,” “mainstream,” or, more recently, “legacy” to make it clear that there was some alternative to it. But in the vast universe of today’s popular culture we alternatives may begin to feel almost vanishingly small, especially now that the social-media companies have enlisted in the service of the progressive media’s jihad against what President Biden was pleased to call, in his speech in Philadelphia at the beginning of September, extremist “maga Republicans” and all their works.

Mr. Brennan’s thesis was not supported by much in the way of evidence, beyond some vague references to public-opinion polling, but he contended that “large portions of the public saw right through the narrative manipulations” of the media—not only when these involved Mr. Biden’s tendentious characterizations of Mr. Trump and his supporters but also concerning such supposed election-year triumphs for the Democrats as the “Inflation Reduction Act.” I’d like to think that he and others who have said similar things about people “seeing through” Democrat media’s propaganda are right, but no one really knows just how large are those “portions of the public” who do so. We may not know this even after the election—even if it produces the so-called “red wave” Republicans have long been hoping for.

For I think that Mr. Brennan was right in a way that, perhaps, he did not intend. It may be that this is a “post-media election” in a more comprehensive sense. “The media”—Right, Left, and Center—have become so insular, so devoted to the cultivation of a niche audience with the firm expectation that they will cater to its prejudices exclusively, that they have effectively neutralized themselves as any kind of persuasive mechanism. In other words, it’s not so much that “portions of the public,” however large, are “seeing through” the media: increasingly, they’re not seeing the media at all—not unless they already agree with what they know they will find there.

To be sure, there is a great asymmetry about this assortative reading and watching. The media audiences for Right and Left, both tiny in relation to the whole population, may not be all that dissimilar, but the left-wing media resonate through that larger popular culture mentioned above, through their dominance over education, entertainment, churches, professional sports, corporate culture, and local news sources which would otherwise have no ideological axes to grind. It’s through these cultural appanages that the left-wing media exercise their influence, not the media themselves, which are deadly boring. As Chris Bray writes on his Substack,

If you’ve read the news at some point in the last several years, you’ve read all of tomorrow’s news that isn’t a hurricane. The walls are closing in on Donald Trump, Version 104.0.5255.134. We’ve somehow evolved a set of cultural performers who do not get tired of ritual chanting. They grind at their talking points, and they appear to like it. Journalists type up the story they’ve written daily since 2016, and feel satisfied to have put in a good day at work. Politicians wear a somber mask, and warn in urgent tones that online disinformation is an emerging threat that demands a response. (“We must take steps to protect our democracy.”)

Except that, now, even the hurricane is no more than a pretext for the grinding out of yet another lecture on the threat of climate change. If this proves, indeed, to be a “post-media election,” we can thank the media grinders for making it so, as millions of those more interested in real news than in having their prejudices confirmed simply tune them out.

But that still leaves millions of readers of The New York Times and listeners to NPR whose appetite for grinding must be still undiminished. They may be blinkered, but we should not be too quick to suppose them stupid. They obviously need to have their ideological assumptions repeatedly reaffirmed for a reason. At some level, for example, they must know that the Biden administration’s unprecedented spending spree cannot be unconnected with inflation, whatever the likes of Paul Krugman tell them, just as the combination of anti-police rhetoric, bail reform, and soft-on-crime prosecutors cannot be unconnected with rapidly rising crime rates. That’s why their readers and listeners need to be told again and again by the party commissars why such things cannot be true, or at least why they shouldn’t harbor any doubts on that account that the party is still right about everything.

Here, for instance, is that longtime Democrat operative Donna Brazile on crime: “Here we go again: Republicans are using attack ads to portray Democrats as soft on crime to stoke racial fears ahead of the midterm elections.” To Ms. Brazile, the fact that Democrats actually are soft on crime doesn’t have to be disproved or even denied. To her it is simply irrelevant. What matters is that Republicans are, according to her, only exploiting the fact “to stoke racial fears.” Keep your eye on the ball, Democrats! What the party requires you to be worrying about is not crime but racism.

People who need to be told again and again what they’re supposed to believe are obviously not interested in “seeing through” the media’s manipulations; they are volunteering to be manipulated. The media still have an important role to play for these types in keeping their anger and contempt for those they regard as the enemy on the boil, even if at one remove from themselves. It seems pretty improbable, that is, that the suppressed doubts of at least the more intelligent leftists do not also extend to some of the more extravagant language they routinely use to describe Donald Trump and his “maga Republicans”—who, if they really were “fascists” or “threats to democracy” or “extremists” or “white supremacists” could hardly have kept it a secret from all but those who loudly claim to have found it out. Revolutionary-minded but honest progressives must simply regard such things as Platonic “noble lies”—because they serve the revolution.

If so, however, the lies can only serve the revolution so long as other, stupider people believe them implicitly. Seamus Brennan and others who flatter the common sense of ordinary, decent folk by supposing that, when they come across them on television on talk or entertainment shows or reading the sports pages, they can “see through” these lies are betting that the revolution, through consistently overplaying its anti-Trump hand, has finally run out of dupes. Again, I hope he’s right, though I have my doubts—to which I shall return presently. For the moment let’s continue supposing that he is right and that those “portions of the public” with the power to see through the media smoke screen are large enough to send the Democrats down to ignominious defeat in this month’s election. Does it follow that the media propagandists will go back to the drawing board and decide that honesty is, after all, the best policy—that, as Cicero would have put it, expediency can never be at odds with virtue—and that they should make a bid for the renewal of the public’s sadly diminished trust?

That would appear to be the view of Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of The Wall Street Journal who writes:

Take the simple matter of being honest about the Russia hoax. By acknowledging the truth, do we strengthen Mr. Trump—or do we show his voters that the media and government elite are not irremediably corrupt and perhaps can be trusted at least some of the time? To their credit, a couple of premier columnists in the [Washington] Post and [New York] Times have charted bold new courses recently by recognizing the collusion fraud’s corrosive effect on public trust.

It’s not clear whether or not he believes the still mostly hypothetical acknowledgment of error is at all likely to happen in our present media environment. My own view is that these two papers (among many others) have not simply taken a wrong turn, to which they can now return with good intentions to stay on the straight and narrow path of virtue and honesty henceforth. The abandonment of news for progressive propaganda was no error but a deliberate decision. It is their new business model which, along with the billions of Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim, respectively, has saved them from bankruptcy. It’s also what their readers want, and both papers will fail to give it to them only at their own peril.

Mr. Jenkins wrote his column in reply to one by Carlos Lozada for The New York Times, which accused Mr. Trump in particular and those rascally “maga Republicans” in general of cynicism by continuing to repeat “the Big Lie” of the stolen election, in which they cannot possibly believe. To them the Big Lie, along with many smaller ones, is said to be nothing but a Big Joke at the expense of those they regard as dupes. Writes Mr. Jenkins:

What gives Mr. Lozada’s piece a richness he doesn’t intend is that he himself is engaged in joke telling, in which all this is the work of Republicans, the Democratic election denials of 2000, 2004, 2016 and 2018 don’t exist, the manufactured Russia collusion lie doesn’t exist, Mr. Biden doesn’t play up the white supremacist menace for own benefit, he and his allies don’t flog a climate apocalypse found nowhere in the science.

All true, of course, but this stunning lack of self-awareness is also a kind of stupidity, and one which is most incident to ideologues like Mr. Lozada and the editors of The New York Times. It is also a reason for doubting, perhaps, Mr. Jenkins’s optimistic assertion, echoing Seamus Brennan’s, that “voters have made fast progress in decoding the turn toward absurdity in our politics, as something akin to the inexplicable waves of high fashion.” Oh, how I hope he’s right too. But I can’t get over the nagging suspicion that we mustn’t underestimate the power of the media’s tribalism to keep the status-conscious, who actually care about high fashion, in line.

It used to be said that Mr. Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. If so, he was one up on the servants of the revolution, who take their own leaders neither seriously nor literally. Rather, they take them as giving voice to an “emotional truth”—like the truth spoken by Congresswoman Katie Porter’s nine-year-old daughter, who told her mother (to her mother’s approval) that “the Earth is on fire and we’re all going to die soon”—that may or may not have the effect of frightening stupid people into voting the right way but which is only intended as what the philosopher J. L. Austin called a “performative utterance” and, as such, has no truth value. Truth to them, as to Donna Brazile and many another revolutionary before her, is decided not by factual evidence but by political effect.

Apparently serious and sober politicians, journalists, educators, actors, and media folk are regularly engaging in the same kind of performative language as the nine-year-old, and not always dressing it up a lot. The thought occurred to me as I was reading media accounts of Jennifer “Ginn” Norris, a teacher and director of student activities at the posh Trinity School in Manhattan, who was caught on a Project Veritas video saying that the rich white schoolboys in her care were “awful people” who “feel very entitled to express their opposite opinions and just push back.” It was not the case when I was a teacher, but opposite opinions and pushback are not at all the sorts of things that teachers today, apparently, want to see going on in their classrooms. “There’s a huge contingent of them,” she said, “that are just, like, horrible. And you’re like, ‘Are you always going to be horrible, or are you just going to be horrible right now?’ . . . I think they need to go. I think they’re really awful people. . . . They’re so protected by capitalism. It makes me sad.” And by saying that they “need to go” she didn’t just mean that they should leave the school. Referring to a television show about a high-minded serial killer, she said. “We just need some vigilante Dexter. . . . Like, here’s your community of targets.”

Ms. Norris was put on administrative leave and, shortly afterwards, left the school, which declined to discuss the reasons for or terms of her departure but issued a statement saying that “Our principles are clear: bias of any kind or the threat of violence toward any person or group has no place at Trinity School. Our role as educators and as a school is to nurture children as they become responsible citizens.”

So “bias of any kind” appears to be the first and more important of these exclusionary principles, ahead of “the threat of violence”—perhaps because Ms. Norris didn’t actually threaten violence. It must have been necessary to pretend she had done so, however, since bias of this kind, against rich white schoolboys, didn’t by itself seem serious enough to justify her dismissal. In any case, the school authorities cannot have taken her either seriously or literally but simply felt they had to take action for public-relations purposes.

No doubt they, along with the boys themselves and their parents, got the joke, to use Mr. Lozada’s and Mr. Jenkins’s terminology. Count on the rich to be at least as up-to-date with the rhetorical fashion as that. Elsewhere there are people who don’t get the joke—or even know that it is a joke. Say, in North Dakota. That’s where an eighteen-year-old boy named Cayler Ellingson was deliberately knocked down and killed by an suv belonging to one Shannon Brandt, forty-one, on the grounds that, as the latter (who is now out on bail) explained to a police dispatcher, the boy was a member of one of those now notorious Republican “extremist” groups.

That must have been reason enough, in a mind as befuddled as Mr. Brandt’s, to kill him. It’s also why, when someone tells you she hates you and wishes to see you dead, it would seem to be at least the more prudent course to believe her, rather than to “see through” the threat to the joke underneath.

Of course one feels a bit like Homer Simpson when, having been soberly informed of his being in the presence of a joke, he said, “Oh, I get it. I get jokes.” Nobody wants to be thought so stupid or unhip that he doesn’t realize when someone else—at least when that someone is of the smart set or of higher social status than he—is joking. And the smart set can always take advantage of this insecurity by switching back and forth between joke and earnest as the occasion demands. That’s the only way to explain how Mr. Biden could get away with saying, on the day after his Philadelphia speech, that he wasn’t really talking about those extremists. It was just a bit of performative speech, as might have been expected from the blood-red stage setting.

People who “see through” the media’s pre-election propaganda barrage are thus in essentially the same position as those who don’t see it at all. Their minds are not going to be changed, nor can they expect anybody else’s mind to be changed through all those weary months of campaigning, any more than the Trinity boys are going to start expecting solicitude rather than contempt from their left-wing teachers. (“Bipartisanship is Bulls**t,” says The Nation.)

The trouble with performative speech of this kind is that it burns all our bridges to rational speech and the persuasion that may arise from it. Well, that and the not inconsiderable number of those who only need a bit of performative speech to perform themselves, having been thus confirmed in their already poisonous hatred of those they disagree with—the ones who, like Shannon Brandt of North Dakota, don’t get the joke.

Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.

Rembrandt, Detail from The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, ca. 1635, Oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.


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