People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say
In a welcome return to blogging, Jay Rosen turns his attention to the recent New York Times article on the Tea Party phenomenon, lauding reporter David Barstow’s fine work, but critiquing one paragraph.
The excerpt at issue:
It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.
Here is Professor Rosen reacting to that passage:
David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story… Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable?
Professor Rosen adds:
In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so — despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.
On reading Professor Rosen’s post, I thought immediately about The GOP Speaks, a Web project where I asked Republican leaders at the local level to share their beliefs about current controversies. Before the replies stopped coming back (for reasons I still can’t entirely figure out), I received 27 replies to my questionnaire. In response to my second question — “What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?” — I received replies including the following:
+ “Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty.”
+ “It appears the president is preparing to become dictator.”
+ “The unbridled horse race to Fabian socialism on the one hand, and the fact that there are avowed and unapologetic Communists in the White House being paid by US Taxpayers who are advising the president on domestic policy issues.”
+ “His swift moves towards socialism. He is moving so fast that we may not be able to counter much of what he has done.”
As it happens, I disagree rather profoundly with President Obama’s approach to domestic policy, and on foreign policy I am increasingly dismayed by his assertion of extraordinary, imprudent powers like the ability to assassinate United States citizens without judicial oversight, or his administration’s contention that the federal government doesn’t need a warrant to track the movements of any American so long as it’s done via their cell phone carrier. Put another way, I myself think that on several important issues President Obama is moving us marginally closer to tyranny, as so many recent presidents have done.
Even so, I find it preposterous that anyone believes the United States is on the cusp of impending tyranny itself, or that President Obama is uniquely bad on this metric, or methodically preparing to seize dictatorial power, or that his actions as president are somehow so radical as to be irreversible. Indeed I couldn’t believe that my more animated GOP correspondents believed these things to be true either, even when they seemed to state as much. So I followed up with some of them, pressing them about what exactly they believed, and did additional reporting among other conservative citizens as well, hoping to understand the gap separating the rhetoric they use from whatever their actual beliefs turn out to be.
I found a few things of interest. Foremost is that extreme words like tyranny are almost always useless if the goal is figuring out what on earth someone actually thinks. Five people might tell you that their biggest worry about Barack Obama is his tendencies toward tyranny. Buzz words like this tend to spread. On further questioning, you’ll find one guy means he’s upset that the president might seek a tax hike, while another is literally worried that he’s building secret prisons to house American patriots. The former invocation of tyranny is by far more common, and it doesn’t strike the people who use it as imprecise because they marinate in a political culture of hyper-adversarial cable news, Barnes and Noble bestsellers with hyperbolic titles, and talk radio hosts who cast the political battles between American conservatives and liberals as an epic battle between liberty and tyranny. As the volume of political rhetoric gets turned up, folks eventually lose perspective, and having listened to their very loud stereo for hours, it doesn’t occur to them that on talking to folks outside the room they seem to be shouting. Pin these folks down on their actual beliefs, concerns or objections, however, and often as not they are basically reasonable people whose opinions are no more or less grounded in fact than anyone else.
In the comments to Professor Rosen’s post, Paul Davis writes:
I don’t need a reporter doing Barstow’s job to tell me that the views of the tea party “movement” are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn’t need to write “Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America” – what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world.
I’d go a step father: Mr. Barstow, who wrote an excellent story as is, could’ve improved upon it by telling us not just why Tea Party advocates believe we’re on the road to tyranny, but what exactly they mean when they say tyranny. In some cases, their answers will betray a factual misunderstanding of the world, at which point it’ll be appropriate to respond as Professor Rosen would like. Other times, however, they’ll explain that by impending tyranny they believe, for example, that the combination of America’s growing debt and its imploding financial sector mean that Wall Street elites and creditors in China are going to wield ever increasing control over the material well being of American citizens. In other words, fear of “impending tyranny” is sometimes going to be less easily dismissed than Professor Rosen imagines.
I do think Professor Rosen’s observations about the desire of journalists to be innocent in reporting on controversial subjects is often accurate, and that it frequently causes them to refrain from offering relevant information to readers who’d benefit from it. All I can conclude at present is that extra reporting on what exactly participants in political debates believe mitigates the problem. The higher the level of abstraction, the harder it is to judge whether something is a matter of fact, interpretation, or opinion. Would you rather disprove that Barack Obama aims to be a tyrant or that he’s coming to take your guns?