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Don't Play That Pundit's Game



Christopher Hayes's cover piece on conservative pundit-in-training Guy Benson ["Birth of a Pundit," March 4] unwittingly contributes to the very problem it seeks to diagnose: namely the rise of a self-assured cabal of young journalists, primed and poised to make the world safe for today's particular brand of deceptive right-wing-speak. We mustn't delude ourselves any further in thinking that there is anything "new" about jingoism, empty rhetoric, circular logic, the abandonment of ethics in favor of a glib and duplicitous language of morality, and so forth. We can trace a veritable genealogy of Mr. Benson's "rhetorical aptitude" from today's Rove-isms to McCarthyism to witch hunts and beyond (and, of course, I'm leaving out the most obvious historical comparisons here). The point is that there's nothing new about manipulating the public through rhetorical skill. To treat what is happening today as some sort of imminent revival--to devote, in short, a front-page story to it--is to elevate it beyond what it actually is: a small group of wealthy opportunists with the cultural resources and ill will to turn this particularly fear-stricken moment in American history to their advantage (or in young Benson's case, to the advantage of his social class). As a teaching assistant at a prestigious university in the greater Chicago area, and as holder of a journalism degree myself, I encounter people like this daily and have for years. In a discipline that stresses close attention to language (especially deceptive language), I have found myself particularly well-positioned to comprehend and intervene in what Hayes sees as a threatening cultural trend. If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: when forced outside their idiom, people like Benson are minuscule. You'd be surprised at how humble, ordinary, and even powerless they become when alienated from their comfortable frame of reference. This is an important lesson--and not just for me, but for anyone who might be, in Hayes's words, "shaking in their boots" about the state of the American media today. What is at issue here is not winning or losing a black-and-white rhetorical battle, but rather reconfiguring the linguistic and interpretive frames within which that battle is carried out. It is a grave mistake to try to meet someone like Benson according to the rules of his game--by entering into on-air debates or op-ed battles, by condescending to the right's vacuous moral rhetoric simply because it seems to be effective at this particular historical moment. His game, like those of his historical predecessors, is rigged, fixed, dishonest, unethical--you've lost before you've begun. It would be worse, however, to assume that his game is (or will soon be) the only one in town, to inflate it, to make it seem like something more than what it really is. Worst of all would be to fear it.

Jeffrey Knight


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