Us and Them and Decline Porn

In “Decline Porn,” Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman argues that “[i]n the nation’s elite political media, an initially well-meaning effort to understand the voters who handed the president the keys to the White House has morphed into something closely resembling exploitation.”

I hadn’t planned on writing about this, as I tend to think there is a large measure of truth in it.  But I found myself asking why I agreed with it.

At the outset, I probably agreed because I had written previously about why such coverage was likely doomed to fail.  The New York Times already had tried what Jonah Goldberg called “gorillas in the mist” coverage of conservatives in 2003-04, only to find themselves blindsided by 2016 (though stereotypical Trump voters are less conservative than many Republicans).  Iowahawk’s hilarious “Heart of Redness” skewers similar coverage from the Washington Post after Pres. Bush’s re-election.

Ironically, it’s the WaPo’s Alexandra Petri who provides the comedic version of Rothman’s argument in 2017, jabbing both the journalists sojourning into the Trumpian hinterlands and the people interviewed by them (whether she meant to jab her colleagues is debatable, but the effect is the same).

It’s not entirely fair, however, to portray the media as having become fascinated with the decline of rural American towns only after the election.  There were similar anthropological pieces before the election, because the media knew the path to any Trump victory would run through the Rust Belt.  This was discussed frequently.

Moreover, related stories, like the opioid epidemic that seems concentrated in Trump-friendly regions, received extensive coverage during the 2016 cycle.  This coverage was mostly sparked by Gov. Chris Christie’s moving speech on the issue — one that inspired candidates as far apart as Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton to weigh in.

That the media did not start this coverage recently, however, does not mean that it is not on some level exploitative.  Rothman posits that such coverage isn’t particularly useful absent statistical or empirical context, absent debate over how to fix the problems of such people.  Again, my impulse is to largely agree.

OTOH, when I read coverage of the problems of Chicago’s West and South sides so lavishly produced by elite outlets like the New York Times, I find I could offer a similar critique.  The media’s coverage of police shootings tends to be similarly lacking in context or solutions.  The media’s reliance on this arguably exploitative genre is more equal opportunity than it might seem at first blush.

The reason people — and conservatives in particular — may not immediately pick up on this may be that we subconsciously expect the left-leaning establishment media to be more exploitative of the problems of the non-white underclass, given their usual orientation toward Democrat-centric identity politics.

Conversely, there would be a tendency to reflexively impute suspect motives when left-leaning outlets turn to address the problems of the white underclass, particularly given how late they have been to this party (and often hostile to authors like Charles Murray who were earlier to the party).

So while I tend to agree with Rothman, I find myself doing so from the perspective that perhaps he’s drawing back the curtain a bit on some larger issues.

The unstated premise of this mode of coverage (regardless of sympathetic or exploitative intent) is that the mission of the so-called elite media inherently focuses on “national” political coverage.

An essentially progressive media will tend to assume that it has the expertise and skill necessary to provide the breadth of coverage necessary for a nation as vast as the United States.  Yet for all of the progressive fetishization of diversity, so-called elite journalists have a distinct knowledge problem here.  They generally aren’t well-equipped to understand Englewood or Fishtown.

As a result, these scribes generally can do little beyond bear witness, however imperfectly.  This is endemic to most journalism, tbqh.  We just notice it more when the subjects are sensitive and controversial.  And we tend to notice it through whatever personal and political lenses we bring to the viewing.

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Andrew Sullivan, Intersectionality, and Donald Trump

While considering the violent mob of students that attacked author Charles Murray and Prof. Allison Stanger at Middlebury College, Andrew Sullivan asks “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”  His answer is “almost,” noting that the New New Left essentially demands conversion, puritanically controls controls language and the terms of discourse, and seeks to ban heresy.  For this, he got a lot of positive comment across the political spectrum, and I’m not sure why.

I mean, he’s correct, but the theory isn’t new to Sullivan.  As Frank Bruni notes, both John McWhorter and Jonathan Haidt have made much the same argument.

Nor is this sort of thinking new for Sullivan.  He previously referred to dismissed Mozilla exec Brendan Eich as a heretic while condemning his persecutors.  And he has in theory been good on religious liberty legislation.  I suppose Sullivan holding the same position for this long a time is notable, but c’mon.

What interests me about the piece is how it fits into his latest return to writing, which was occasioned by the ascent of then-candidate Donald Trump.

Sullivan’s initial longform piece for New York magazine begins by analyzing a passage in Plato’s Republic.  Sullivan writes that “the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become.  Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread.  Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like ‘a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues’.”

He continues: “As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones… when elites are despised and full license is established to do ‘whatever one wants,’ you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy.”  And it is at this point, Plato and Sullivan claim, that a tyrant can seize the moment.  You know who Sullivan casts in that role.

The problem with Sullivan’s thesis is that the erosion of authority and promotion of license in America is not entirely due to too much democracy, is it?

The erosion of authority can occur, for example, when elite colleges decide to stop requiring students to learn about the virtues of Western civilization.  It can occur when Pres. Obama decides to simply stop enforcing the law for broad classes of people on subjects including immigration and healthcare.  And it can occur when people come to believe we are ruled by judicial fiat, symbolized in the cases of Roe v. Wade (which made abortion a constitutional right) and Obergefell v. Hodges (which did the same for same-sex marriage).

Sullivan is of course best-known as one of America’s foremost advocates for same-sex marriage.  As such, he reveled in the Obergefell decision, much as he had earlier when other courts reached the same result.

The dissenting opinions in Obergefell highlight how undemocratic the decision is — and how short it is on legal authority.  The subsequent death of one of those dissenters — Justice Antonin Scalia — made the composition and activism of the Supreme Court a chief selling point for traditional Republicans and conservatives (especially evangelicals and Catholics) to hold their noses and vote for Trump, a man whose picture appears nowhere near the dictionary definition of “pious.”

In the run-up to this decision, people like Rod Dreher warned of the McCarthyism that would follow in the wake of a decision like Obergefell.  Sullivan dismissed these warnings as whining — “the hysteria and self-pity among those who, for centuries, enjoyed widespread endorsement for the horrible mistreatment of gay people.”

And yet for all his years of demonizing social conservatives as “Christianists,” who’s the one looking naive when leftist social media mobs and fanatical bureaucrats put Christians out of business for not wanting to participate in same-sex marriages?  Or when President Obama tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for birth control?  Or when academics are battered in parking lots?

It turns out the real religious threat comes from the New New Left — as Sullivan seems to be the last to discover.

While Sullivan will note that he has deplored the oppression and violence of the New New Left, also note that he finds the GOP and conservatives “loony” for holding the same position on same-sex marriage Barack Obama held less than a decade prior.  He apparently doesn’t realize how short a drive it is from that dismissal to the home of “check your privilege.”  Or from blaming the current generation of social conservatives for centuries of mistreatment to the idea of original sin.  Having missed the last slippery slope, I expect him to miss this one also.

By his own Platonic argument, Sullivan was a significant actor in creating the kind of country in which Donald Trump can become President.  Indeed, by Sullivan’s standards for causation — under which Sarah Palin could be blamed for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — he deserves a portrait in the Hall of How We Got Trump.  No wonder he started writing again: it’s penance.

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