In the United States, we’re now accustom to professional talking heads beamed into our living rooms due to their on camera polish rather than the substance of their views or the experience they bring to bear. Intelligent young magazine editors are sent to pundit school. Barack Obama, an enjoyable man to hear speak, is regarded as a historically great orator, though his speeches are intellectually thinner than recent masterpieces, and so obviously inferior to history’s greatest orations that one is tempted to despair at the modern era. A sizable number of Americans regard this as the best speech of 2008.
This facade sometimes slips, like a mistake in the Matrix that hints at the underlying reality. Thus Hillary Clinton reacts in a perfectly human, understandable way to a mistranslated question before a foreign audience, displaying frustration far less dramatic than what you’ll see at rush hour on any freeway, and the anchors freak out, dedicating the lead story at 11 0’clock to her “angry outburst.”
All this is brought to mind by a couple of items I’ve seen an appearance by Ross and Reihan on an N+1 panel. One impressive thing about both of them is their uncanny ability to come across as quite polished public speakers even as they’re articulating very complicated thoughts. I’ve seen them speak in person, watched them on television, heard them on the radio, conversed with them across a table, and seen them on Bloggingheads. They’re invariably so impressive on style and substance — whether complementing one another or speaking on their own — that I’d gladly trade their oratorical ability at this moment for my ability at whatever point in my life I’m best at it.
Okay, cue the New York Observer story that prompted this blog post:
Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnist for The New York Times, was made visibly uncomfortable for a moment while onstage last night at the New School’s Tishman auditorium.
I mean, really? That’s your lead? A guy on a panel was “uncomfortable” for “a moment”? Call Drudge and cue the siren! What kind of weird place have we reached when it’s news that a guy, being peppered with the most difficult questions a roomful of smart people can muster, once during a session displays a moment of discomfort? I’ll tell you what kind. We’ve reached a place where a stunning number of folks you see commenting on television or other public venues care so little about the substance of what they’re saying that even when they and everyone else knows their words are utter idiocy, they still refrain from displaying actual discomfort, because to them it’s all a game, unconnected to any sense that words have consequences, or that integrity is partly a matter of challenging one’s own own ideas out of a lingering sense that commenting on public affairs confers some responsibility, and that it is shameful to frivolously and lightly proffer arguments that one isn’t able to defend.
Only a society that long ago reached that place has gossip sheets writing excited leads about a polished speaker feeling a moment of discomfort when challenged with a difficult question, one that is causing him intellectual ferment. Why look, honey, that man is grappling with his thoughts! Let’s all laugh at his quaint display of intellectual honesty! This is particularly noteworthy because, as The Observer makes clear, after that shocking moment of discomfort, Mr. Douthat gathered his thoughts and cogently addressed the subject at hand.
Elsewhere in New York this week, hundreds of makeup slathered pundits spewed forth transparently idiotic talking points on all manner of subjects, without betraying any sign of thought or shame. As yet, the New York Observer hasn’t found that worth remarking upon.