How Fox News Created a New Culture of Idiots
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If we ask why Ailes fought so long and so hard for all this, however, the answer is not simply the ample rewards. His victory lap comment also suggests fundamental contempt. It suggests contempt not just for his competitors but for a society of people who have always counted on news with a lot of information shaped by a good-faith attempt at impartial presentation. Our fundamental need in a democratic society, for each of us to make up our own mind, now goes unmet by the whole media environment. It reflects not the minds of equals deliberating together about what together to do but the tenor and voice of a single asshole’s mind.
Cable news assholes are distinctive for their knowing awareness but willful disregard of how they are perceived by others. They are flush with Frankfurtian “bullshit,” where bullshitting (speaking without regard for the truth) is something that can be done with a tacit understanding among speaker and audience that truth is not being told. A quite different class of asshole, by contrast, is marked by his utter failure to appreciate how he is seen.
Such was the display in Paris at the fashion show debacle wrought by Kanye West’s rough transition from pop music performer and producer to clothes designer. West had promised, with his fashion debut, to “change the course of fashion.” When ill-fitting dresses, pants, and jackets, styled with bits of fur, were not well received, West complained bitterly, but not simply out of rudeness. As one reviewer explains:
What was most confounding about Mr. West’s behavior, after years of obsessive study of the industry, was that he demonstrated very little understanding of how he might actually be perceived by retailers and editors who have a vast amount of experience at detecting utter nonsense.
West is not exactly shameless, which would require his having a clear sense of how others regard him. He is interesting more because he seems unable to piece that regard together, even from readily available material. Nor is it that he lacks a basic human capacity of self-observation, caused by some cognitive malfunction. His album Graduation begins “Mr. Fresh, Mr. . . . by his self he’s so impressed,” and the track “Barry Bonds” shows some grasp of how this must look to others: “I’m high up on the line you can get behind me / But my head so big you can’t sit behind me.” But beyond general impressions, and his awareness of obvious sneers (he complained in Paris that the fashionistas keep looking at him “like I’m Hitler”), West seems unable to pick up his reflection in the eyes of others, from what is evident to all. Would fur in the summertime really be the Second Coming in the fashion world? Was it unthinkable that people would question that as a design idea?
West is also awfully rude (he constantly swears, and famously crashed Taylor Swift’s MTV award acceptance speech, insulting Swift to boot). And of course many a self-styled, self-described genius has lived in massive error about his greatness. West is of special interest because he seems almost unable to move from huge self-absorption to a rudimentary grasp of the public world. He probably is able, and so we recoil from his failure to treat others decently. But the sense of inability is enough to turn pure revulsion into mixed sympathy. For all we really know, we, too, could be a brain in a vat, or subsisting on an experience machine, or living inside the Matrix. (How would you know otherwise?) It is hard to watch someone who is in effect living that out, someone who is trapped in a giant delusion.