clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, August 25, 2003
Atrios writes:

A few people rightfully took me to task for not mentioning the critical role that Bob Herbert played in helping get some belated justice for the Tulia defendants. Kudos to Mr. Herbert.

More generally, I don't understand why we don't see more of this kind of thing. We have numerous columnists with twice weekly soapboxes in national newspapers. Once upon a time there was, I believe, a greater tendency for our media to focus on the "little guy" versus "the powerful." Maybe this was the much exaggerated "liberal media." I'm not sure why that's such a liberal thing to do - comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable seems to cut across political spectrum.

...which is funny, because I was just reading Bob's column and thinking that he always seems to go after fairly safe causes--the unjustly accused, preparation for a terrorist attack, etc.--and wondering why the only black columnist the Times has plays it so close to the chest. Well, that's the Times for you, I guess.

But regardless, there's no denying that the causes Herbert does champion are good ones, and Atrios makes a good point. To expand on it, though, I think the tradition of columnists trying to Help Out The Little Guy has not disappeared, but shifted. Newspaper columnists at outfits big and small are still very much interested in focusing attention on small-scale or individual events in local communities, in bringing the overlooked story to light--in other words, writing critical human-interest stories--but the impetus and the desired outcome have now changed. Whereas before the HOTLG story was written out of a sense of injustice and the desired outcome was a fair resolution to the situation, righting the power imbalance one case at a time, what you see now take the form of "outrages of the week!" and don't seem designed to actually, well, do anything besides further deepen people's faith in institutions. I think you know the kind of story I'm talking about. Conservative bloggers are real fond of these. The woman sues McDonald's because their coffee caused horrible burns all over her lower body; the campus conservative gets hauled before the judicial board for barging into a women's studies meeting; etc., etc. It's no accident that these stories often revolve around tort or liability cases and campus speech codes, while more often than not venturing into racial issues, etc.

The problem is, of course, that they don't seem to actually care what happens to The Little Guys in these cases. (It's also problematic that they're getting "outraged" about things that should, at best, provoke mild annoyance--you'd think they'd be used to the fact that there are unintelligent people out there--but that's a whole other issue.) Partially this is because they're often siding with the big institutions in the court cases, which directly contravenes the principles of the genre of HOTLG stories, but even in the case of the campus speech codes, where they're ostensibly siding on behalf of the individuals, it seems weird that free-market conservatives would try and force an independent institution which the individual has voluntarily placed himself under the care of to change its self-created rules. So it seems less like they want resolution in these independent cases and more that they want the bigger issues resolved--but even here, I don't think that's the case. The continued existence of campus speech codes, for instance, galvanizes recruitment efforts and provides a way to demonize anyone coming out of academia. The ability of individuals to sue institutions is a key weapon in the conservative arsenal, and without it, these sort of issues might be resolved in the legislature instead, which would be horrible, of course. They don't want change, they just want to score points, to work up more "outrage," to build a cause qua cause by deligitimizing institutions. In other words, they're performing that signature conservative slight-of-hand of appearing apolitical but doing so in a deeply political and partisan way--attempting to bring down the government for their own personal gain.

These stories are examples of what I like to call "Andrea Yates stories." They're widely reported and widely debated but they don't actually mean anything; no one's going to argue that killing your kids is OK. It's just news-as-entertainment, something to debate about to make ourselves feel like we're participating. And that's OK--I don't want to trash news-as-entertainment, which I think is peachy keen. But I do think that in reporting these stories, our commentators could have a bit better political perspective. And I don't just mean a liberal one.

This is all tied up in the state of political humor today--and, indeed, a lot of these "outrage of the week" stories end up being grist for the late-night-show-monologue mill. Because a lot of comedians take shots at political issues and would probably describe various jokes as "political," but they would also loudly claim to hate both parties and politicians in general. And that's stupid. But moreover, that's not political humor--that's just bitching. Political humor would take a stance, act as argument, present something to be attacked or defended. It would not simply put everything down like the stereotype of a cynical Gen-X slacker while purporting not to care about the whole business. Denis Miller, for instance, is the political version of an insult comedian. "Your policy sucks--aaaah, I'm just kiddin' guy, hey he's a good sport, give the guy a round of applause." It may be funny sometimes, but it ain't political.

Speaking of good HOTLG columnists, here is a fucking awesome Jimmy Breslin column.