changing the channel
January 4, 2003
It seems that the conventional wisdom right now is that liberals need an answer to the rising success of conservative media pundits, in order to get their message out. I thought about it a bit, and all false modesty aside, I'd be perfect for the job. I'm quick with a comeback, an unabashed liberal, and I'm neither white nor christian in one of the few situations where not having those traits might actually help.
But I'd never do it, and it's not one of those "anybody who's qualified wouldn't want the gig" situations. The reality is that liberals don't need an on-air media pundit. Because that sort of punditry is a dying idea, but more importantly, because we're winning.
I suppose you'll need examples. Well, I hate to go to the well one more time, but let's look at Trent Lott's case. Liberals have altered the expectations for politicians to the point where an association with racist ideas is just plain unacceptable for people in public office. This is an achievement that's been accomplished in just the last 30 or 40 years. A common and pervasive evil has been dramatically eviscerated despite having been practiced by many people who were both powerful and wealthy. Liberals won.
The history of the change serves as good background for the many other accomplishments of the past few decades. Liberals were the first group in white America to wake up and see the evils of segregation and racism. At that point, the liberals in charge of the Democratic party had the good sense and moral integrity (in politicians!) to tell members of their party to either behave in a moral way or to leave the party. That schism was the event that pushed pro-racism politicians into a Republican party that did not require them to publicly repudiate their racism.
Sure, there are counterexamples on both sides, but the reality is that it was liberals who took the lead in civil rights for blacks. Just as they did in the issue of equal rights for women. Just as they did in fighting the forces of anti-semitism that went all the way up to the White House. Just as they took the heat for defending civil liberties that conservatives are only beginning to appreciate. Just as they do now in the issue of civil rights for gay people. When it comes to the basic moral issues of how we treat our fellow Americans, liberals have been the ones on the side of right.
Notice I don't say Democrats. Because it's not an intrinsically Democratic thing, it's just something intrinsic to people who aren't conservative. Conservatives think that solutions to today's problems lie in clinging to the status quo, or even in trying to regress to a mythical past. Listen carefully for words like "tradition" and "legacy". They're used in an attempt to evoke continuity with the positive parts of our history, but they're referring to specific period of time in the past. Those time periods they're talking about? Well, those are from before my family came to this country and began contributing all that it has. So hoping to go to a time in the past would preclude me being part of this country. And I'm a good American. So aspiring to live in an Anil-free past is just plain unamerican, ain't it?
But more to the point, look at the flailing that comes from the triumph of liberal ideals, once more. Conservatives can't assail the inarguable moral certainty of racism's evil, so they attack the methods or intentions of those who seek to root out racism. It's a plot! As if good results that come from machiavellian political machinations would somehow cease to be good results. Or better, the Republican leader isn't a Republican, he's a Democrat! It'd be funny if it weren't pathetic.
Our ideas are winning, you see. When Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in 1986, he didn't make sure to urge Americans to have tolerance for people of Libyan descent living among us. But a scant 15 years later, President Bush made repeated calls for tolerance towards muslims in this country, not just out of what I see as his genuine motivation to do what was right, but also because the tenor of public discourse has changed that rapidly due to the tolerant influence of liberal philosophy. Gay marriage is still a big point of debate, but the presence of openly gay characters in mass media has changed in the same decade and a half from being scandalous to being clichéd. It will be the burden of the next generation to hold the today's conservatives to their record of homophobia, but it's only a matter of time until that happens.
George W. Bush put out a message from the White House in honor of Kwanzaa. We're winning.
It's probably that sense of a slow, inexorable loss that makes conservatives terrified, causing them to respond with a desperate clinging to the past that only serves to further doom their cause. The best solutions, of course, lie in the future.
The future is what America's about. This is not a country about Traditions. Slavery was a tradition. Servitude to patrilineal monarchs was a tradition. The closest thing America has to a tradition is the phrase, the philosophy, "Fuck You". And who do we say it to? To our parents. To the cops. To our teachers. To all the voices of conservativism. And don't misunderstand, conservativism isn't just Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, who want to make money pushing their agenda. It's John Ashcroft and Jack Valenti, who truly want to take away your freedoms. Valenti's a Democrat, by the way. Conservative evil pops up everywhere.
The only loss of freedom that conservative people complain about while looking backwards is that they pretend their speech is limited by "political correctness". I'd say we're all a lot freer if it's considered rude or impolite to call a person by an ethnic slur, or to use a demeaning term to refer to a handicapped person. Those who feel restricted by societal demands to be considerate are poor arbiters of what exactly constitutes liberty.
So let the conservatives look to the past. It'll be their undoing. Right now the status quo is to pontificate on basic cable about various issues in sound-bite sized assertions, unburdened by the responsibility of accuracy, with rewards for combatativeness. And they are truly good at it. But I'm not hoping for increased participation in the realm of politics driven by television. I don't see that political talk shows have improved the tenor or content of discourse about policy in this country, nor have they resulted in an improvement in legislation or the execution and enforcement of laws already on the books.
The conservatives, then, will be ceded the media of the past; It's appropriate for their messages, and they own those venues anyway. Bleating in a shrill, strident tone about the same few points every day certainly isn't going to increase their influence. Making pronouncements in an echo chamber tends to have fairly negative effects, and we'll certainly see the audience for these conservative commentators peak soon, and begin their inevitable declines shortly thereafter. In the meantime, we can move to a more nuanced, intelligent form of discussion. Let's assume that we don't know the best answers yet, but that we'll figure them out. Let's use a medium that's not limited by soundbites, and counter the volume of the voices of the past with the resonance and depth of the voices of tomorrow.
Trying to promote a political ideology on television requires making the assumption of a "mass audience". But there's no such thing. There are only individual people. And if you want to remind them of what they already know, what they've already begun to accept, that an open mind and a willingness to move on from the mistakes and ignorance of the past is the only possible path to a solution for the problems we face, then they need to be addressed as the individuals they are.
So those blowhards on TV can try to preach to a million people who are already converted to the cause of moving backwards. I'm gonna just try to talk to a few dozen about what things will be like in the future. I'm betting a few thousand other people will do the same thing as me. And to those who know the beauty and inevitability of a message of tolerance and open-mindedness, who have a focus on the possibilities of the future, I'd ask you not to worry about the ratings on a TV show. Just change the channel.
Update: Michael Sippey has linked to a very similar discussion by Greg Beato, with more of a focus on the economics of it, and with the (incorrect, imo) idea that it be organized by/for the Democratic party.
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