Anyone who watched The Daily Show several years back might remember that Jon Stewart held a half-hour pay-per-view debate with longtime adversary Bill O’Reilly. It was the debate where Jon Stewart coined the term “bullshit mountain” as a takedown of the way O’Reilly constructs narratives to justify his points of view.
I watched the debate between Stewart and O’Reilly and by the time I got to the end, I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of it was. I didn’t feel like anything of substance came from the debate besides a couple of funny lines from Stewart (like “bullshit mountain”). It was just a longer form of the same old debates Stewart and O’Reilly have on each other shows all the time, except now they were asking for money to watch it (I thankfully found an upload on YouTube to watch for free). The debate wasn’t about enlightening the audience in understanding differing perspectives of points of view. All the audience was there for was to rally behind whatever side they already supported. The whole spectacle was more comparable to watching a Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles game than a robust, intellectually stimulating debate.
That debate made me question all the other debates Stewart and O’Reilly had on each other’s shows. I grew to believe that Stewart and O’Reilly saw these debates as nothing more than friendly sparring matches with each other and large helping of red meat thrown to their respective audiences to reinforce beliefs they already had. If either man was really interested in posing a legitimate challenge to the other’s and their audience’s points of view, their relationship wouldn’t have been as cordial and they wouldn’t keep inviting each other on their shows (especially O’Reilly).
One thing I will give Jon Stewart credit for is his appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, where he tore into the hosts and how shows like Crossfire dumb down debate and present reductive “Crips vs. Bloods” points of views on issues. Crossfire got cancelled soon after Stewart’s appearance on the show, but to use Stewart’s words, the “theater” of debate that defined the show has permeated everywhere to the detriment of us all (too bad Stewart fell into this trap himself with his debates with Bill O’Reilly).
I like the idea of The View. I like the idea of various women with different points of view discussing issues of the day and attempting to understand the other’s point of view. The keyword in those last two sentences is “idea”. That’s a very different thing from “execution”. In execution, The View revels much more in puerile sensationalism than robust debate. The most attention The View got was sometime last decade during Rosie O’Donnell’s controversial tenure as a host. The new attention brought to O’Donnell and The View only focused on the pissing matches she had with Donald Trump at that time, her racist “ching chong” portrayal of Chinese language, and most of all the “mean girl” backstage drama she had with co-hosts Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Barbara Walters. The ratings for The View have never been as high since Rosie O’Donnell left the show, but that hasn’t kept the show from scraping the bottom of the barrel since then. Raven-Symone’s short-lived tenure as a host on The View attracted a lot of attention due to the incredibly tone-deaf statements she would make regarding the black community, be it tacitly defending racist comparisons of Fmr. First Lady Michelle Obama to monkeys, defending a South Carolina cop who brutalized a small, teenage black girl at her school by making a bigger deal about the fact that the girl didn’t get off her phone, or defending discriminatory hiring practices towards black people with “ghetto” names and comparing such names (many of which actually originate from Arabic or various languages across Africa) to the racist, fake name “Watermelondrea”. None of this is robust, intellectual conversation. It’s just inflammatory right-wing “dog whistle” talking points disguised as “contrarian” or “free thinking” since it’s being recited by a black person. Raven-Symone is no longer on The View, but Stacey Dash played this same role Raven did during her tenure as a Fox News host, and Stephen A. Smith and Charles Barkley play the same role on ESPN and TNT respectively.
Like I said before, I think the idea of The View is a great one, but the execution is ultimately counterproductive. Lately, the issue of allowing or disallowing certain points of view on college campuses has flared up once again in light of protests towards invitations given to polemic figures like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannapoulos for lectures. The idea of young minds intellectually discussing differing points of view, some of which may even be controversial, and leaving the conversation with a new found growth in perspective is a romantic one, but people who get so angry with college students protesting figures like this (especially people who call themselves liberal) need to get it through their heads that this is not at all what is happening.
Get past your lofty ideas of what you think debate should be and take a look at what is actually happening. Figures like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannapoulos are not intellectuals interested in any rousing debates around issues. They are cults of personality who are more interested in using the discord they sow to sell their brand. They don’t debate any issues in good faith. Their conservative politics aren’t even in good faith; they just adopt whatever views they think will piss off liberals. This also applies to figures that may legitimately believe on the abhorrent ideas they spread, like Richard Spencer, whom the liberal rag Mother Jones once referred to as, “the dapper Nazi”.
With that said, I’m not interested in rehashing dead-end arguments about the First Amendment or whenever or not universities are or are not allowed to invite figures like these as speakers. People who only discuss this issue around their romantic idea about what debate should be have already argued around this point into the ground. I’m more interested in asking why universities are inviting figures like these, and I ask why based on how I know these debates actually go. Knowing that the Coulters and the Yiannapouloses of the world are just intellectually bereft fire-starters, what educational value does inviting figures like these have? Why not invite an actual principled conservative to discuss or debate their theories of laissez-faire economics instead of carnival barkers who would rather rant about how they think transgender people are weirdo perverts or Syrian refugees are just going to rape white Western women?
Do the heads of these universities actually have a problem with what figures like these say? If so, why would they pay these figures to give lectures or commencement speeches? They’re hiding behind the First Amendment in their defense is bullshit to me by the way. You can’t tell me that the buck does not stop with the head of the university on whether or not a speaker gets invited on campus, or else anybody off the street could be invited to give lectures or presentations. This defense is also bullshit because these universities have no problem uninviting or refusing to invite potential speakers that may have controversial views on other things. These aren’t only right-wing speakers either; plenty of anti-war activists and feminists that speak against the sex industry have been protested and uninvited from universities across the country too, except those particular speakers don’t spin it into some false narrative of First Amendment martyrdom.
So what does this say about these universities that invite bigoted firebrands for speaking engagements? Do the heads of these universities think that whether or not trans people are perverts or whether or not Syrian refugees are more inclined to sexually assault Western women are worthwhile debates to have? Do they think Richard Spencer’s idea of, as he calls it, “peaceful ethnic cleansing” should be up for debate? Are the heads of these universities so disengaged from the potential ramifications of these ideas to care, are they trying to seize on some sort of market value these figures have in this current political landscape, or are they just stupid? I honestly don’t have the answer to that.
I’m not wholesale against figures like the ones I’m been referring to being debated, but as long as they’re adept in how those figures manipulate the parameters of this debate and don’t buy into it. Otherwise, this debate isn’t going to be any different than it has been; the figures in question further polarize their already polarized audience by spinning the narrative into their being constitutionally persecuted by this great big liberal, politically-correct gestapo, plenty of other high-profile liberals come to their defense and serve as useful idiots for the narrative the polemic figures are crafting around this issue, and everybody blames college students for everything, who have the least power in this equation.
And the big, dumb, culture war train chugs on….
I have more to say on this subject, but I’ll get into that on my next post. Here’s a preview of what’s to come next.