Monday, 15 November 2010

Maddow Vs. Stewart

I absolutely love Rachel Maddow, mind like a steel trap; and I consider John Stewart one of the best commentators on US politics. So it was great to see this interview where Maddow really pushes Stewart to get at what he's trying to do and his precise role. The interview felt a bit awkward in parts, however. I think this was down to the fact that he was making his points about 24-hour cable news to the person whose show is one of the least representative of the problems Stewart critiques. I do take issue with what I see as a false equivalence in his analysis of political dialogue in the US, which I've written about elsewhere, I've been doing some more thinking, and I'm mulling over his points in the Bush WMD and waterboarding discussion.

I think that Stewart had an astute point to make on this kind of discourse: is the passion there (on the left/left-leaning media) because of a belief that the policy was bad for the country, or because of a belief -being confirmed- that the architects of the policy are simply bad men? For Stewart the latter is not at all useful.

It's a fair point, and I agree. How can you discuss what's best for the country with your political adversaries if your people expect you to treat them as the monsters you've made them out to be? I remember the people who thought that if Bush were doing something, it must be something wrong. The chaumurky that ended with Bush as president-elect will do that I guess -  Bush Derangement Syndrome, they called it.

I think, however there are a few issues with the critique. The first thing that comes to mind is that the people who have Bush Derangement syndrome are not driving the rhetoric of the Democratic party.

Secondly, Americans do have plenty in common with each other socially. The political realm, however is where you find that bifurcation. The cable news networks inhabit the political realm, and so it is hard to see how they can avoid feeding into it, regardless of whether or not they did a better job evaluating arguments and weeding out corruption.

Thirdly, if Stewart's point about starting from the assumption that Bush is a bad man is a response to MSNBC's waterboarding coverage in particular, then one could easily respond that there has been evidence available before the waterboarding issue arose for opinionators to make a judgement call about the sort of man Bush is. I've been trained to withhold judgement, and doing so is good practice for facilitating dialogue, and indeed for life, if I do say so myself.

I don't think that George W. Bush is evil, nor do I know whether or not he is a bad man.  His claim that one of the worst moments of his presidency was getting dissed by Kanye West, and his braggadocio about waterboarding certainly did not make him look good. Perhaps the upshot of Stewart's argument is that the media should concentrate on what people do, and not be in the business of making calls on people's character at all.  I do think that if the media did the job that Stewart wants it to do, evidence will be uncovered that inevitably leads to people looking like real pieces of work.

Stewart made a great point when he talked about putting the actions of presidents into context. For example, I've complained about Obama claiming the authority to order assassinations of US citizens without trial. Did Abraham Lincoln do something similar during the US Civil War? Obama is responsible for extraordinary rendition, and is holding terrorism suspects without trial. Franklin Delano Roosevelt interned US citizens of Japanese descent, and was responsible for the firebombing of Tokyo. His successor, Truman, was responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did these men break their oaths to defend the constitution, are they responsible for war crimes, and if so are they evil men?

My thinking so far is that the latter question is not really useful. A more useful question is, I think: ultimately, were/are these policies good for the country? I'm also thinking that any critical assessment of the political calculations that led to these decisions needs to examine not just what the they believed, but what the American people believed. Waterboarding, and bragging about waterboarding can only have little cost to the perpetrators in a society that largely doesn't care about or actually supports the torture of terrorism suspects.

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