News & Politics

The Pundit Moralists

The pundit class, especially the collection of 20 or 30 mouthpieces who dominate Sunday morning TV and cable shows, as well as the editorial pages of many newspapers, has evolved into a chattering class version of fundamentalist ministers -- the media Ayatollahs. It's but a tiny click on the metaphorical remote from Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson to the McLaughlin Report.
The public just refuses to be bullied into clamoring for Bill Clinton's scalp. This despite the almost unanimous verdict from the pundits that Clinton must resign. In the struggle between the corporate media spinmeisters and the majority of Americans, the people are winning. In the long run this is a good for democracy.Clinton's pundit attackers now stretch in near unanimity across the corporate ideological framework, as Eric Alterman points out in the September 21st edition of the Nation. From the right's George Will and the Murdoch funded Kristol and Co, to the Catholic moralists led by Chris Mathews of MSNBC and Michael Kelly of The National Journal, through centrists like Primary Color's Joe Klien and Sam Donaldson and including even an old-time liberal, Lars Erik Nelson -- these guys all want Clinton out. But the influence on the population of these self-important, overpaid blowhards appears to be negligible.The pundit class, especially the collection of 20 or 30 mouthpieces who dominate Sunday morning TV and cable shows, as well as the editorial pages of many newspapers, has evolved into a chattering class version of fundamentalist ministers -- the media Ayatollahs. It's but a tiny click on the metaphorical remote from Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson to the McLaughlin Report.Today's pundits shake with indignation over the flaws and failures of President Bill and they tremble over the fact that he may get away with something. Context doesn't matter. Human weakness becomes venality. Manly character is all. Alterman adds that "while the media are certainly no more moral than the rest of the country, they are certainly more moralistic." This self righteous tone has spread to several corporate chain newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury and the Atlanta Constitution, which have also called for Clinton's resignation.For some, this situation must appear confusing. These wise pundits (and a few rare women) have noisily staked out the high moral ground. The president committed perjury. He lied to us. He has to go. This straightforward black-and-white view can be attractive to some in a world where violence and mayhem dominate much of the electronic media, and people's fear of crime is on the rise, while the actual commission of crime plummets.Yet, strikingly, the bulk of the population, and a majority of women to be sure, turn out to be more understanding and tolerant of their pathetic President. Sure the economy is still good and that helps. But in their wisdom, large numbers of people practice what could be called relational or situational morality. It may be maturity, or the capacity to forgive, but they recognize that President Clinton didn't jeopardize national secrets or compromise important policies in Zippergate. He simply lied about a clumsy, sophomoric affair.While Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky may be stupid and tacky, his lying about it is understandable. And certainly his telling his friends and colleagues the same lie he told the whole population on TV is part and parcel of the same forgivable collection of events. What should he have done -- tell them the truth and leave them with the choice between perjury and betrayal? For many it's the "end of story." Let's move on to the people's business.But the linear male pundit thinkers are appalled. The feminists are hypocrites. How could they be against Clarence Thomas and tolerate Bill Clinton, that intern-exploiting swine. Katha Pollit writes that for the pundits: "By failing to call for Clinton's head on a platter Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi and Patricia Ireland wrecked the noble cause of women's equality." But this caricatured, desexed view of feminism is once again primarily the pundit's view of women's equality. In contrast, say some feminists, Bill, Hillary, Monica -- are all consenting adults. Let them work it out. Is there really a victim here, where basically everyone got what they bargained for. Yes, of course Clinton lied. But as Pollitt reminds us, "he's lied everyday he's been in office, like Bush and Reagan before him."Interestingly, these two starkly contrasting moral views of Clinton's behavior are related to a powerful debate about moral development underway in the country for almost two decades. Carol Gilligan's path-breaking book "In A Different Voice" provoked a profound reassessment of moral decision making. Gilligan, building on the work of Nancy Chodorow and others, challenged the firmly entrenched view of moral development, based in Freud and established by Lawrence Kohlberg, a moral theory that privileged an implacable sense of justice, and stripped emotion from moral judgments.Gilligan's view is based in part on the fact that many women experience moral development differently than the predominant male paradigm as advanced by Kohlberg. Kohlberg's widely recognized work was based solely on studying boys. In Kohlberg's staged sequence, most women were found wanting, stuck in Kohlberg's third stage where morality is conceived in interpersonal terms and goodness is equated with helping and pleasing others. As Gilligan writes: "Only when women became part of traditional male activity could they evolve toward higher stages of moral development where relationships are subordinated to rules (stage four) and rules to universal principle of justice (stages five and six ) While Gilligan's work still provokes controversy in feminist circles focused on the debate about "difference feminism," there appears little doubt that huge conflicts in opinion in the country about Clinton's behavior are affected by dramatically different moral values -- which are often the result of contrasting social development experiences.Many have argued, for various reasons, that the corporate-sponsored pundit class is a bad influence on public life. Pundits reinforce the elite-dominated, consumer-oriented society corporate America prefers. But perhaps it's time to grasp the punditry as an even more destructive force, undermining the fundamental values of tolerance and understanding that allows people to get along and find emotional satisfaction in their lives.The media culture has evolved to a spectacle of extremes. The wisdom of complexity and the tolerance of ambiguity has long been replaced by provocation and outrage, posturing and pandering. Perhaps this trend of pundit extremis is best represented by a new pundit archetype getting lots of air time, typified by the long-legged blonde right winger Ann Coulter - the uber pundit who proffers, as Alterman points out, such insights as labeling the enormously intelligent and well educated Clintons white trash and pond scum.Yes, a very short distance separates the rabid fulminations of a Christopher Mathews and the fakery of Jerry Springer. Who knew that the ballistic Mort Downey of the 80's was really a stalking horse for the 90s media circus, a cesspool where Howard Stern whiles away his network hours asking Cindy Crawford, over and over again, if her ex-hubby Richard Gere's penis is too small.Fortunately the real lives of enormous numbers of people have little use for the rigid views being forced on them by the media establishment. In today's America, lesbians and gays, new agers, single parents, single people, pot smokers, dreamers, divorcees, unhappily marrieds, swingers, cheaters, prostitutes and their johns, consumers of pornography, and finally, everyday couples of all kinds who love their partners, all think of themselves as pretty normal. In other words, people who appreciate the complexities of desire have little taste for the hypocrisy that underscores the attitudes of elected officials and media figures.What we need is a campaign to rid us of pundits, or perhaps a new class of anti-pundits, wise and witty folk who are thrilled by looking at things in complex ways, and by helping us grow in our wisdom. We need people who embrace ambiguity, point out the contradictions, and who actually accept that things are almost never as they at first appear to be.
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