Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rachel Maddow Takes the High Road

So, does anyone here watch The Rachel Maddow Show? What I appreciate about Maddow is that she's smart, articulate, and funny. She is a welcome contrast from the angry, screaming pundits who tend to dominate political discourse. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have proven for quite a few years now that humor, snark, and sarcasm can be effective tools in rendering political critique and in pointing out our oftentimes absurd politics. The use of humor gives us a critique that is more genuine than anything the "objective" and unquestioning media offers us.

While watching her show the other night, however, I was amazed to see someone attempt to knock Maddow down a notch. The topic at hand (and you can watch it all here, it's the segment entitled "Grand Old Panic") was supposed to be about the negativity of the McCain campaign and how, during rallies, threats of violence toward Obama were going unchallenged by the McCain camp. Conservative David Frum, however, had other ideas. In his mind, the problem with our political discourse is The Rachel Maddow Show.

Frum began by stating that the show "itself is an example of this problem [regarding negativity]." With a healthy dose of patronizing self-righteousness and the creation of false equivalencies, Frum urged Maddow "to do better" than the "heavy sarcasm" and "sneering" that her show currently uses. His lecture officially went over the top when he, incredibly, advised Rachel to be the change she wished to see in the world. Now, Maddow handled this impromptu scolding with grace. She answered that the tone of her show is simply not equivalent to the tone of those who go to McCain rallies and yell "kill him" about Obama. Those of us who watch the show know that she uses light-hearted sarcasm that comes nowhere near threats of violence against politicians or, for that matter, the mouth-foaming platters of rage and negativity served up by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Pat Robertson.

Frum, however, did not back down and continued scolding Maddow for a good 8 minutes. His message was quite clear, in fact. To render a critique, in anything other than a completely serious manner, of negative and absurd politics is morally equivalent to being a negative and absurd politician. To criticize a campaign for condoning threats of violence toward Obama is morally equivalent to actually making threats of violence toward Obama. How warped.

Frum's lecture reminds me of how, in the minds of extreme anti-gays, calling someone a bigot is worse than actually being one. Absurdly, some anti-gays see nothing morally wrong with vilifying gay men and lesbians, yet strongly object to the fact that some people label them bigots. Calling people a bigot is "mean," you see, unlike spreading propaganda about how the Homosexual Agenda is Threatening Civilization!

It reminds of how, in the minds of the ex-gay movement, criticizing the movement is worse than using fraudulent psycho-babble to advance an intolerant agenda. Yes, seriously. One leader of the ex-gay movement has actually publicly declared that "ex-gays" are the "most bullied and maligned group in America." Why? Not because ex-gays are victims of hate crimes and violence, but because people dare to question and criticize the movement.

It reminds of how, in the minds of fundamentalist Christians, criticizing fundamentalist Christians for wanting to Christianize the public sphere is worse than wanting an intolerant religion to completely dominate that public sphere. (Google, for reference, Christian Persecution Complex).

These false equivalencies have one thing in common. They change the topic in the middle of the conversation. The criticism conveniently moves away from what genuinely needs to be criticized, and it's then projected onto some other target. It's a Weapon of Mass Projection, really. It's not McCain who needs to clean up his act, it's Rachel Maddow who needs to clean up her act. It's not fundamentalist Christians who are intolerant, it's other people who are intolerant of them.

What is notable, despite Frum's criticism of Maddow's tone, is the class she displayed during Frum's moral lecture on civility. Frum came onto her show and almost immediately began personally attacking her, belittling her show, and accusing her of contributing negativity to the world. Even though a great many host would have shouted over this man and not let him finish a sentence, Maddow remained calm and civil. She pointed out the absurdity of the false equivalency and, at the end of the clip she simply says "I couldn't disagree more" and let it end at that.

Personally, I do wonder how much Maddow's gender and sexual orientation anger some conservatives. Would David Frum have gone onto Chris Matthews', Rush Limbaugh's, or Sean Hannity's show and patronized these male screamers in this way? I doubt it. Maddow's mere existence on television and, especially, her confidence, offends many I am sure. Her intelligence and success is just even more salt in the wound. Frum, for instance, writing on his online "diary" yesterday attempted to justify his behavior. What is notable is that this proponent of civil discourse saw fit to mock Maddow's expertise saying that he's received masses of emails complaining about his "rudeness to Ms Maddow (sorry - her fans call her 'Dr Maddow')."

It's odd that Frum takes issue with the "Dr. Maddow" thing. It's pretty common knowledge, actually, that Maddow was a Rhodes Scholar and has a PhD in political science which, you know, makes the "Dr." title accurate. But wow, it sounds like somebody has issues with intelligent women if they have to resort to mocking the fact that some of her fans call her "Dr. Maddow." Just as an aside, I regularly listen to Maddow's podcast and the "Dr. Maddow" bit is a tongue-in-cheek jokey segment of her show. Listeners call in with random questions about any topic imaginable and "Dr. Maddow" (who has screened the call and already looked up the answer) answers as though she knew the answer off the top of her head just because she has a PhD. It's called humor, Frum, she's not trying to be arrogant. That's okay. We get it. Many intelligent women know that the mere fact of our gender combined with our educational credentials is "arrogant" to some.

Personally, this sort of ridicule reminds me of how my status as an attorney has been mocked or questioned by various men on the internet more times than I can count. And I do mean to say men here. A woman has never taken cheap shots in the way that men have against me. More often than not, the men who try to cut me down in this way are the ones who are less educated than I am. Some men still just can't handle the fact that many women are more intelligent and better educated than they are.

It really puts women bloggers in a Catch-22. For, I've had the experience of a male commenter asking me what made me even qualified to talk about legal principles only to have him turn around and accuse me of "lording" my law degree over him when I told him that I was an attorney and that made me qualified to, um, talk about legal principles. If you don't have credentials, these types don't take you seriously as a woman. If you do have the credentials, you are being "arrogant" and "self-aggrandizing" if you let these people know that you have the credentials. This sort of taunting tells me that the guys who ridicule me must be really threatened by me, my existence, and/or intelligent women if they have to resort to that sort of immaturity. It tells me that usually they are attacking me because they don't want people to notice that they are the ones who are actually unqualified to opine competently on an issue.

To conclude, I think that most of us understand the valuable role that sarcasm, humor, and parody play in political discourse and that it is profoundly hypocritical for David Frum to level cheap shots at Maddow's qualifications and her show while, at the same time, claiming to be a proponent of civility.

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