I just happened upon a clip from Chris Matthews coverage of the supporter gatherings prior to the Vice Presidential debate. It is not enormously significant, but it is a delicious bit of video, which I have an irresistible urge to comment upon. The roughly one-minute clip begins with Matthews interviewing a random Obama supporter. Just as he asks her about her health care situation, an old woman interjects from off camera by shrieking the word “communist!” in a voice that would have made it notably fitting if she had followed up with, “burn him!”
Everyone in frame reacts to the shout, but the woman being interviewed shakes it off and takes a few seconds to explain that she and her husband had recently lost health insurance for the first time in their lives. Chris Matthews lets her finish her answer, but the speed with which he departs when she reaches the end of her sentence suggests an almost Pavlovian response to the shrill voice at the edge of the crowd. He lowers the microphone immediately and says, “Okay let’s go over to this lady,” whereupon he seeks out the person who yelled communist, in order to ask her what she meant by it.
What follows is a stunningly awkward exchange in which Matthews asks the woman exceptionally unchallenging questions, essentially just repetitions of “what do you mean?” and she repeatedly fails to answer them, instead chiding the professional journalist and commentator to “study it out, just study it out,” derisively referring to him as “buddy,” and asserting that she knows what she means. It would be painful to watch if I had any inkling that the woman had sufficient self-awareness to be embarrassed by it. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t such a tragic commentary on the state of political discourse. Watch it if you like:
Obviously, our culture and systems of information need to be reformed enough to precipitate a breaking point whereby nobody can remain so self-satisfied in their own ignorance as this woman showed herself to be. Her willingness to gather at a political rally and shout her views on national television suggests that she is firmly committed to them, but even in the space of a minute, her complete inability to explain or defend those views paints the image of someone who has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about, but also doesn’t care that she’s not informed and doesn’t think she has to be.
I watch this woman wag her head at Chris Matthews and pause at length before shooting back, “You don’t know?” when asked what she means by “communist,” and I see someone who believes that in the face of any challenge to their worldview, a self-righteous attitude eliminates the need for facts and rationality, every time. It is indicative of a sociopathic mindset that takes confidence and strength to trump all else, and that mindset seems like it is breeding extensively in the modern population. That in turn is indicative of a serious cultural failure in America, though unfortunately one that is near impossible to overturn.
Far less difficult to attain is the personal breaking point that this clip seems to point to, though I must admit that I don’t know which side of it I ought to come down on. I must admit that in watching the clip, the thought almost immediately crossed my mind that maybe this woman was some sort of amateur satirist aiming to portray the Republican opposition as deluded and irrational, and even that maybe she had been planted there by some group on the left. I entertain those thoughts because, as with most conspiracy theories, it’s simply easier to believe than the frightful reality, which in this case would be that America is long on individuals who form firm, aggressive opinions on the basis of the extracts of ether and bullshit.
I know that my skepticism about public ignorance is unsustainable. Indeed, I know that it can be harmful, because it’s a sort of ignorance in itself. Fundamental to my personal philosophy is the idea that you can’t hope to effectively solve a problem if you deliberately avoid recognizing the reality and extent of that problem. Public ignorance is the problem at the root of all other problems, because it is that which allows people to avoid reality, and thus deny solutions.
The problem here is that I don’t know whether I should be pushing myself towards the breaking point of taking public ignorance for granted, or if instead I should find a way to keep from assuming that conspiracies are afoot while still giving individuals the benefit of the doubt as regards their level of information. In other words, one might say that witnessing ignorance of the proportions on display in this clip challenges me to avoid two negative breaking points, which threaten to make me either overly cynical about either human stupidity or overly cynical about political manipulations.
I’d venture to guess that not a lot of people have carefully-reasoned assessments of their fellow men, so this is a personal breaking point that others may have to contend with as well, but being personal, it’s of secondary importance. What this video clip has brought to mind that could be addressed on a large scale right now is a question for the media about how to handle firm opinions voiced by the public.
I honestly can’t decide whether to praise or criticize Chris Matthews’ response to the political heckler. Part of me wants to criticize just because I used to get a lot of enjoyment out of focusing my ire for the news media against Matthews, who, despite being a bright guy, was terrible at his job back when I considered MSNBC a news organization. Now that his job is “partisan” rather than “journalist,” he doesn’t seem so bad. Okay, it also helps that I don’t have a TV. But in any event, even if Matthews remains professionally an idiot, the woman he had his brief exchange with is an idiot in much larger terms, and to an unquantifiably greater extent.
The relevant question, then, is, “Did Matthews have good enough reason to focus the attentions of the microphone and camera on this woman’s dimwittedly vociferous views?” On the one hand, by giving her a voice once she’d asked for it, and contributing no commentary of his own, Matthews allowed the woman to provide her own refutation of her talking points. The exchange conveyed the impression that extremist views are based on no information, which of course they often are. That’s a good fact to put on display when the opportunity arises.
On the other hand, we have to remember the shamelessness with which the old woman held her ideas in absence of evidence or personal understanding. Such shamelessness probably isn’t much affected by having a mirror held up to its own ignorance, and that fact threatens to let this incident stand as encouragement for other people like her. As I said, the greatest breaking point involved here is also all but unattainable: the creation of a culture that prevents the embrace of ignorance. For the foreseeable future, lack of information and presence of strong opinions will continue to go hand-in-hand among a sizable portion of the American public. It will take generations of concerted effort to change that fact. But that doesn’t mean that opinionated idiots will always be activists.
I estimate that much less comprehensive cultural changes could prevent people who hold uninformed opinions from being so vocal and so public with those opinions. And one thing that probably doesn’t help is giving voice to those opinions, in all their self-righteous vacuity, on national television. Viewers at home whose perspective on American politics don’t go much farther than “he’s a communist!” won’t be shamed or enlightened by their impromptu spokesperson’s self-defeated, just as she wasn’t shamed or enlightened by it. To the contrary, the presence on the airwaves of uninformed declarations and accusations provides more fodder for lazy people to find something to parrot as they make the leap from uninformed citizen to armchair activist.
The opinions that are screeched from the sidelines are the ones that most need to be debunked once they’re present, but they’re also the ones that most need to be disallowed from taking the field. Overall political discourse is cheapened not only by their ignorance but also by their lack of decorum. As regards ethics, I think I am so committed a deontologist that I have internalized Kant’s categorical imperative. When I see things like this video clip and start wondering what ought to have been done in the situation I find myself universalizing the act I witnessed and looking for its effect on the moral system.
In this case, what would the effect be if journalists always turned their attention to the loudest and most abrasive commenter on the scene as Matthews seems to have done? He even turned his attention away from the woman who was contributing relevant anecdotes to the public understanding, in order to give the shrill, ancient cold warrior a chance to explain her unexplainable views. I fear that the current state of journalism is not far from embracing the loudest participant in any debate, because the hypothetical result is that all of American politics becomes a shouting match, and that is seemingly not far from the situation that we already face.
In light of that threat of a still more corrupted political and journalistic landscape, I’m tempted to say that although the woman’s response was rather satisfying, the better thing to do in that situation and all similar situations is to keep the person who’s shouting epithets off of our television screens. But I’d be interested to know what readers think of the effects of either encouraging or discouraging uninformed speech.