Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bob Somerby--Sometimes Still a Dick

A friend of mine recently championed Bob Somerby's criticisms of Rachel Maddow, who is, in my not-fully-educated opinion, the most careful, articulate and reasonable person on television news, so I took up the Somerby challenge to see whether he was onto something in his criticisms.

Hence: my review of Somerby's comments today. The column had nothing to do with Rachel Maddow but, assuming this column was a random sample of Somerby's work, I might draw some general conclusions.

Somerby's discussion has two parts. In the first part, he criticizes Greta Van Susteren's misleading presentation of Michelle Obama's trip and her implication that the taxpayers pick up unnecessarily large amounts of the bill for the trip. I have no intention of criticizing Somerby for this. She does use some misleading language that does produce the effect he implies.

The second, much longer part, criticizes certain liberals for their use of the term "Racism". Somerby's point is that using that term to describe even fairly reprehensible thinking is too easy, "the simplest move a liberal can make", and falsely satisfying since it only makes liberals feel better about themselves while anyone who feels sympathy for the other side will see the recipient of the insult as a victim and be turned off to the rest of the liberal critique. So far, so good. No one should "drop the R-bomb" lightly. But what about the specifics of Somerby's critique?

Somerby singles out Howard Dean for three basic criticisms in recent appearances, in particular, on Keith Olbermann's show. First, he quibbles about Dean's language and generally criticizes his lack of preparation. Second, he reads Dean's mind and concludes that Dean applies a double standard in his use of the term "Racist", using it for his social lessers but not to his social equals. Third, he suggests that Dean should not have brought up the charged issue of racism at all. The first critique is basically justified but trivial; the second critique is not justified; the third point may be correct, but it is not obvious that Dean has done this in an offensive manner.

Here's the problematic clip from Dean on Countdown:

DEAN: It probably is a good idea because I’m sure they’ve polled for it. Here’s the problem with the Tea Party: There are really two Tea Parties. There are a bunch of people in the Tea Party that are reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits.

There are also a lot of people in the Tea Parties who carry signs and saying Obama is a Nazi. And [chuckling] it was somebody today said the marriage thing out in California was Soviet-style takeover of marriage. I mean, these people—you know, this is exactly what middle-of-the-road people, this is why they abandoned the Republican Party to elect President Obama.

Somerby's critique follows immediately:
Are there “a bunch of people in the Tea Party that are reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits?” Presumably yes, though it all depends on what the meaning of “a bunch” is. On the other hand: Are there really “a lot of people” carrying signs saying Obama is a Nazi? That’s a very strong bit of denigration, rather casually tossed on the pile by a very casual player. From there, a chuckling Dean moved to an anecdote—an anecdote in which “somebody today said the marriage thing out in California was Soviet-style takeover of marriage.” For the record, he was apparently referring to Maggie Gallagher, a long-time conservative columnist/activist, past president of the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group which opposes same-sex marriage. (You know? Like Obama? And Hillary Clinton?) That morning, Gallagher’s newest column had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It included a passage which Dean overstated, giving us rubes a good laugh.

So, Somerby appears to think that Dean should be more precise in his terms. "A bunch" and "a lot of people" are imprecise. Is a bunch more than a lot? Or is a lot more than a bunch? I don't know, and it doesn't matter to Dean's point.

Somerby thinks that Dean is too quick to paint the Tea Party movement as racist based on an indeterminate number of offensive (racist?) signs. Dean's point is that the Tea Party movement, and the conservative movement more generally (the Tea Party did not exist during Obama's run for the Presidency, so Dean must have been referring to something more general), include extremists whose rhetoric offends middle America. Does any of Somerby's quibbling about "a bunch" and "a lot" affect this point? Does Somerby even deny that such antics turn off most Americans?

Perhaps the reference to the "passage which Dean overstated" will be the smoking gun that will show Dean's errors. Dean characterizes this as the claim that the judge's ruling on Proposition 8 is a "Soviet-style takeover of marriage".

Well, here's what Maggie Gallagher actually wrote:

Parents will find that, almost Soviet-style, their own children will be re-educated using their own tax dollars to disrespect their parents' views and values.

I see. Gallagher doesn't call it a Soviet-style takeover of marriage, but an "almost" Soviet-style "re-educat[ion]" of our children to reject their parents' "views and values" (presumably their religious views). Dean's understanding is a bit inaccurate here, but, if anything, his understanding is less extreme and more relevant. The judge didn't rule anything about people's values (see this Glenn Greenwald column for the explanation) and taking over marriage seems a lot less extreme than re-educating all our children to reject our world-views. It's hard to see Dean's comment as overstatement, and the extremism of this view and rhetoric may well turn people off.

So, was Dean unprepared? Somerby's criticisms are largely quibbles, but Dean was also quite vague, so, probably, he was. Talking heads on TV are repeatedly called upon to opine about things about which they are not truly expert. And probably Dean was not the person to go to for an analysis of race relations in America. But, if you recall, he used to have something of an interest in electoral politics, and that was clearly the point of Dean's commentary. I would agree in general terms that TV talkers are often unprepared and speaking outside their area of expertise, but Dean doesn't deserve any special criticism here.

Somerby's second point (in two parts) is more substantive, but not adequately supported.

Dean is quick to let us know that these high-ranking people aren’t racists, even when they play race cards in the most egregious fashion, as George H. W. Bush did in 1988. . . .
You see, Dean is from old money, and he’s from Yale—and so are both the Bushes. Dean is a famous political celebrity—and so is Gingrich, who plays every race card “Fox News” deals, except he plays them harder.

Darlings! Dean is from Yale, and so are the Bushes—and so, by law, they can’t be racist! But he drops implied R-bombs on everyone else, in a very casual manner.

This is very bad on the merits. Beyond that, it’s the dumbest possible way to do politics—to seek the votes of all those “reasonable, thoughtful people who are really worried about the deficits.” It’s also an ugly, unintelligent way to pimp yourself out about race.

I don't know how Somerby knows what is going on in Dean's mind. Dean deliberately refuses to call four people--Bush I, Bush II, Newt Gingrich and Chris Wallace--racist. Of course, Dean doesn't actually call anyone a racist. Dean singles out these individuals as non-racist but then contrasts them with "extremist" and "fringe elements" who turned many people against the Republican party and into the arms of the Democrats. Perhaps Dean means to imply that these other people are racists, but since he does not actually call them racists, it's not obvious that this was his intention. More problematically, there's no way to say why Dean singles out these non-racists.

It's unclear what Somerby wants. Does Somerby want Dean to call Bush I and Gingrich racists? Wasn't the point that this turns people off?

My point, though, is about Dean's refusal to drop the R-bomb. Is this based on shared social class? There's no way to know. Dean might just be squeamish about calling any individual, no matter their class, racist. He might also think that calling any particular person a racist would result in a media firestorm. (After all, he was pilloried just for rallying his troops after an electoral loss.) Maybe he didn't even really intend to imply that anyone was a racist; he may just have wanted to clarify for these individuals. Somerby simply has no basis for imputing any class-based discrimination; he's not entitled to read Dean's mind in this way.

On the third point, Somerby may be right that Dean should not even mention racism or race, and in this case it may not have been justified. I do, however, think people who makes signs of Barack Obama as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose merit the appellation.

Somerby's criticism of Dean comes down to quibbling about language, imputing class-based reasoning to Dean without justification, and bringing up racism when it wasn't necessary. Only on the third point does Somerby have much of a case, but it's not so obvious that Dean even intended to drop "R-bombs".

It seems odd to single out Dean for a relatively minor offense when many others merit much more criticism. It appears that Somerby has bought into the "pox on both their houses" high-Broderism that blights our political discourse. And that's why I don't read the Daily Howler any more.

1 comment:

  1. Though his work is still valuable, The Daily Howler has grown more sloppy in recent years, he carries grudges and will go over the top against people he doesn't like. There is less a sense of setting the record straight, to the embarrassment of hank journalists, than a tendency to try and settle scores. Still, on a good day, he's the best.