CNN's painfully impartial host of "State of the Union," Candy Crowley, asked her opposing guests last Sunday, Was the "Shirley Sherrod incident" a political lesson or a lesson about race?
This irreducible question seemed a lesson itself. It was far from being one of the worst offenders, but its simple polarity in relation to such a complex issue did strike me at the moment as rather odd: OK, guests, this is television, a medium in which preposterous simplicity thrives, so choose A or B, take left or right, line up according to whatever prejudices my producers carefully prescreened and, if you wouldn't mind terribly much, please just pound away at each other for a while.
Ms. Crowley could have asked, Was the Sherrod incident a political lesson, a race lesson, a socioeconomic lesson, a lesson about gender, as well as lessons deeply rooted in sociopolitical psychology, mass psychosis, technological entertainment (see preceding condition) and the demise of professional journalism? -- for starters?
But, for television's purposes, not to mention talk radio's and the neatly, ideologically divided blogosphere's, better to keep the question on strictly a responsive A or B basis -- answers easily consumed and digested. We wouldn't want to complicate the matter, because that would only serve to de-intensify the emotions swirling around it, and that's bad for ratings and page views.
Emotions, ratings and page views. For the right, these have subsumed its erstwhile goal of achieving some inane sort of Gilded-Age Leave-It-to-Beaver social concoction; for the left they've subsumed the virtuous goal of what once was called social justice.
Nothing, absolutely nothing is now more important than stirring the passions of one's ideological base and thus reaping their financial rewards, if for no other reason, to carry on the ideological fight. Politico's John Harris and Jim VandeHei have called this, quite aptly, "The Age of Rage": "there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s a lot more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior."
It's no mystery why the right is winning the media race; and in a larger context, why political conservatism in general has always tugged with a decided preponderance at the American electorate's heart. For all the left's brooding about proper messaging and clever framing, the right can kick back and smile, because its primal "frame" is profitably centered in human nature's basest instinct: pure self-interest.
It's the ultimate A or B argument, perfect for every political occasion. Shirley Sherrod? Who cares what the subsequently exposed facts are? That typically liberal woman cost you your farm, your home, your job, your future. The story's belated corrections miss the truest mark, since the initial impression of victimization is what lingers in the narrow, emotional, self-interested mind.
And the right knows it. Correct their disinformation with a forceful counterpunch? Be their guest. You'll be politically dead before they hit the floor.
Some on the left will incisively object: But, but, but ... genuine self-interest also entails the greater interests of the larger community. Oh you poor things; that sort of argument demands abundant analysis, and most voters have neither the time nor inclination for vast philosophical seminars. They're complex.
Yet the right awaits, with its easy and simplistic answers to whatever ails us -- and to that let us add, its uncanny artistry of strategic agitprop. As fugitive conservative David Frum wrote: "By the morning of July 21, the Fox & Friends morning show could devote a segment to the Sherrod case without so much as a mention of Breitbart’s role. The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative.... When people talk of the 'closing of the conservative mind' this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people -- everybody can be narrow minded -- but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact."
And why not? Hell, it works. But whoa, David, let's not get too carried away with that "unique capacity" business. Throughout the last 18 months I've been depressingly stunned by the left's transcendent capacity to ignore whole passels of unwelcome facts, namely its relative electoral disadvantages and President Obama's thundering constraints. The "movement" left prefers a triumphalist narrative instead and, it seems, a chief executive of boundless power -- a virtual dictator, as long as he or she has passed the proper ideological tests.
This Friday as you know will hold my last column on BuzzFlash, because of the latter's melding into Truthout.org, but with my last scribbling breath I'll insist -- although likely to no avail -- that the movement left start appreciating the rather simple concept of unwelcome complexities.