Revisiting the snark

Doug H. put together a response to my post about politics, language, and snark (and an anonymous passer-by offered some thoughtful comment, too). Although I’m still groggy from the long, late-night drive home, I have a few more thoughts.

There are a number of points on which Doug and I just disagree, like how his “essentially” qualifies his description of Gitlin’s review, for example. Doug’s initial post reflected none of the reluctance with which Gitlin praises Fahrenheit 9/11, only, well, the praise. I also think that Doug’s assault on academic types was more direct and broad than he allows in his follow-up (on that score, maybe he just caught me on a bad day: most of us are nice people who really do our level best not to work out our bile on unsuspecting bystanders).

But I think (and here I think that Doug and I have some common ground) it’s the broader argument about why Gitlin praises Moore that’s more important, and I think Doug’s points (and those of passer-by) are valuable. Doug writes:

But I was writing about the standard that top academics are held to (rightly, I think) in exchange for their authoritative voices, their book sales, their pundit’s chairs on NPR. Yet it seems to me Gitlin has descended into journalism and polemics with his piece on Moore (which is painted more in praise than in criticism, if you ask me). Moore’s propaganda, which falls far short of rigorous argument, seems to pass muster with Schussman and Gitlin. Then perhaps they will smile upon my polemics, which, simplistic though they be, at least are not wrapped in the deceits of propaganda.

If I, as a mere journalist, can disown certain polemicists who happen to agree with me on certain issues because I find their tactics unworthy of discourse—Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh—is it too much to ask academics to stand up for the truth for its own sake?

No, of course it’s not too much for academics to “stand up for the truth for its own sake.” I think, after all, that that’s what we’re supposed to do. To some extent I think that Doug’s right to suggest that Gitlin has abused the mantle of scholarship; Gitlin for a long time has been a straightforward pundit and critic, such that he’s not really a scholar—not because of his politics but because he’s not really producing scholarly work any longer. So Moore’s film doesn’t pass muster with me; like not only propoganda but most mass journalism, it’s sloppy, incomplete, and gets its charge from emotion rather than truth. As an account of the war and the Bush administration, it’s charging, but unsatisfying, and Gitlin says as much.

On one hand, finally, Doug is right to call pundits, journalists, filmmakers, and academics—any of them—to task for tactics that undermine discourse. On the other hand, and this is where we continue to disagree and where the complexity that I originally discussed originates, Fahrenheit 9/11 wanders along into a media landscape that is mostly defined by the pundits and journalists whose political orientation is diametrically opposite that of Moore (while their tactics are similarly inflammatory), or whose channels of distribution allow for little real counter-argumentation. So is it a “useful” film? Well, it suggests an alternative landscape in which criticism of the President and the war is okay, after all. On one level, for sentiment like that to get wide play is okay with me.

On another level, I wish that the messenger wasn’t Michael Moore. I wouldn’t choose him as my torch-bearer because as much as I want a public discourse that really, truly, allows for dissent (not simply debate), I know that because Moore incites such venemous hostility and operates with his own crass dishonesty, he can’t foster such an environment any more capably than the other guys.

All these hands and levels leave me of rather mixed mind. Intellectually, I have no trouble disowning Moore, but politically, he represents a voice that I perceive to have been missing. It’s a toxic voice, however, and I’m certain that its effects on discourse are not positive. But was there any hope for discourse, anyway?