Politics

Theater Critic Punditry and the “Authenticity” Shell Game

Erik has already discussed the latest Arbitrary Food Authenticity Policing bullshit to make the rounds. I don’t think this one will be a big deal, because Gillibrand is a longshot and if she does start getting traction presumably her invented the internet/cheeseteak/EMAILS! would be the time she personally ordered the murder of Al Franken’s entire family without the due process of law.

But it’s an instructive illustration of why theater critic punditry is abjectly useless, which given that reporters pretending to believe Republicans who pretend to care how Elizabeth Warren filled out some bureaucratic paperwork to zero professional benefit — on a day when their President made a Trail of Tears joke! — is already a thing should be pointed out. If you liked Gillibrand or she was a Republican, exactly the same story could be used to build a narrative about how she was a gracious host who really listens and would be an empathetic president etc. etc. It’s tautology and confirmation bias all the way down. When you’ve reached the ex ante conclusion that a candidate is “contrived and opportunistic” literally any set of facts can be used to justify the assumption and nothing can dislodge it. “Authenticity” is always an empty shell game.

And nobody plays it like Rich, America’s self-appointed Authenticity Cop. Rich was one of the countless pundits who evaluated the 2000 election in pure theater critic terms, reaching the conclusion that Bush and Gore were the same except that Gore was a phony. This worked out great for pundits who could discover that Bush was a terrible president in 2005, for many less privileged people far less well. But my favorite example is Rich repeatedly asserting throughout 2002 that Al Gore’s courageous stance against the Iraq War was contrived and opportunistic, based solely on the absolute certainty that he was running for president:

Does the second column, which conspicuously failed to come out against the Iraq War, compare Gore and Nancy Pelosi unfavorably to Tony Blair and Colin Powell? Three guesses and the first two don’t count! And when it comes to Rich and Gore there’s plenty more where that came from.

But, again, this is why this mode of punditry has less than no value. It’s not just that Rich makes confident pronouncements about Gore’s intentions he had no way of knowing, and that his assertions turned out to be completely wrong, and that he also has no basis for his claims that Gore’s opposition to the war was based solely on political expediency. (Which is…not very plausible, but then neither is the idea that Gillibrand spoke out against Franken because of the immense political benefits that always accrue to women who stand up for victims of sexual misconduct committed by powerful men.) The most important thing is that Gore’s motives are beside the point. The Emancipation Proclamation and Civil Rights Act were motivated in part by political interests — and that’s not a bad thing. What matters is whether he was right about the war, a question Rich consistently evaded under a fog of gibberish about Al Gore’s beard and his wedding ring. But it’s probably unrealistic to expect pundits whose very nice salaries depend on not learning anything to learn anything.

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