There’s been a lot of talk recently in the blogosphere about Pat Buchanan running amok with seemingly no restrictions at MSNBC. Buchanan’s been a regular there for several years, so it might seem surprising that the lefty blogosphere is only now, all of a sudden, fixating on Buchanan’s admittedly retrograde views as a problem at MSNBC. But if you’ve been watching Rachel Maddow’s show over the last week, you’d know why all the fuss is happening now. In short, Maddow did a segment on how the GOP seemed to be focusing almost exclusively on racial issues during the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor
I’ve not seen any serious commentator on either side (certainly none on the right, but not even any on the left) deny the fact that Sotomayor’s selection had to do at least in part with the demographics she represents, namely female and Hispanic, though not necessarily in that order. There have been 110 SCOTUS judges since the inception of the USA, and all but two of them have been male, and NONE of them have been Hispanic so far. That’s in a country where women are (obviously) approximately 50% of the population, and Hispanics are….well, we’ve got a census coming up, so we’ll have a better idea in a few months, I suppose – but no one doubts that it’s a significant chunk of the population, not to mention the fastest-growing ethnic group for several years now. Maddow’s point was that those figures were out-of-whack, and that the imbalance virtually demanded a qualified Hispanic justice (providing he or she was qualified). Maddow observed that since the Hispanic community is a) underrepresented on the Supreme Court and b) the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, that for the GOP to focus more on Sotomayor’s ethnicity and (to a lesser degree) gender was a tactic that was simply unwise from a strategic perspective, regardless of the ethical or philosophical issues involved. She said that the GOP had alienated not only the Hispanic vote, but also likely good-sized chunks of the female vote as well, by engaging in such tactics. But Maddow also went further than the purely tactical argument, and said that in a society which has been stacked for so long in favor of one particular demographic – namely, straight white men – programs like affirmative action were often necessary just to level the playing field.
Maddow’s guest that night was Pat Buchanan. Yes, that Pat Buchanan, LOL. The two of them used to get paired up by the programmers at MSNBC rather regularly on a now-defunct show called Race For The White House back during the ’08 campaign when Maddow was just beginning to get her feet wet in the TV world. I guess some network honcho figured they made a good set of ideological bookends, the young, hip lesbian liberal and the old, conservative, Irish-Catholic ex-Nixon aide/speechwriter. Rachel used to jokingly refer to Buchanan as her “Uncle Pat.” They would usually spar good-naturedly (although always with a serious edge to it), every show.
But this was something altogether different. After introducing her segment – and her topic idea of anti-Hispanic bias not being a good strategy for the GOP – she introduced Buchanan, saying it had “been too long” since Buchanan had been on her show. But I don’t think what followed almost immediately afterward was expected by anyone – perhaps not even Buchanan. I won’t color or introduce it further; just watch this and then I’ve got a bit more afterward (fast-forward to about five minutes in if you don’t want to hear Maddow’s set-up. She introduces Buchanan at about 5 minutes).
OK, got it? Pretty contentious, eh? Well, you ain’t seen NOTHIN‘ yet. That appearance was late last week, and over the weekend, the liberal blogosphere got its undies in a bunch over the notion that a neanderthal like Buchanan is allowed to run free over the airwaves as a paid commentator for virtually every MSNBC show, on an on-call basis. I agree that Buchanan is quite the fossil – not referring to his chronological age, but rather to the late Cretaceous period in which his social philosophies seem to have sunk into the tarpits of history. He’s got a decades-long, on-record history of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and various other “-isms.” No doubt. I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the levers of power ever again, like he was during the Nixon administration. And I have no doubt whatsoever that during his time close enough to the levers of power to have real influence over them, he did unmeasurable – but significant – harm to the forward progress of liberty for all.
But I gotta say, after reading post after post (many, after a while, linking to an online petition which asks MSNBC to fire Buchanan) about how awful it was for MSNBC to allow Buchanan to even air such retrograde and despicable views on their air, how Buchanan should have been fired long ago, etc, I began to get a bad taste in my mouth. Why? Not because I disagreed with most of the sensible posts which catalogued (some of them devastatingly) and refuted Buchanan’s errors, biases, factually incorrect statements and general tone, but because of my long-held feeling that the cure for bad speech and/or bad ideas isn’t censorship or avoidance, but better speech and better ideas. It’s not even so much that I’m a first amendment supporter – although I most emphatically am. You would be correct in this case to point out that the first amendment protects the right of individuals to speak freely, especially about public or political matters, but it does NOT guarantee (nor should it) the right of any specific individual to a public megaphone such as the one offered by a TV or radio show, or a column in the local newspaper. I believe that boycott campaigns against a media conglomerate which are designed to force it to fire a given employee are perfectly legitimate. That’s how the market is supposed to work: apply enough economic pressure to the “manufacturers” (in this case, of news), and they may listen to your demands.
I’ve just never felt that such methods were the best way to handle reprehensible views expressed by paid commentators on the air, because they don’t refute or even address the substance of the offending commentator’s remarks, but instead rely upon utilizing an entirely separate lever – money – to dislodge the target from his or her post by convincing the owners of the media outlet he or she works for that it would be in their own economic interest to fire that person. Not only doesn’t this get at what’s wrong about the commentator’s views, it also – dealt with correctly by a skilled operator – allows him or her to “play the martyr” by claiming that the big, bad left (or whomever) used their unfair muscle or insider influence to silence his or her little voice of truth. It allows him or her to claim that the reason the big bad left caused the firing was because “they” knew that he or she was right, and “they” didn’t want others to find that out, too. You can actually wind up losing ground in the overall battle with such a tactic, believe it or not, in the hands of a media-savvy commentator who knows how to play the victim card properly.
Thankfully, Rachel Maddow apparently agrees with my take on it. Or at least that’s how I interpreted what happened on her show Monday night. This was the first real chance Maddow had to do anything about the abruptly cut-off and very contentious argument between herself and Pat Buchanan since the night it aired, live. And she didn’t miss a beat. Talk about the cure for bad ideas and bad speech being better ideas and speech?
O.U.C.H. – If I were Pat Buchanan, I don’t think I’d be eager to go back onto Maddow’s show. But I think it’d be more because I was livid that I’d just had my (ideological) butt kicked all over national cable TV than because I was irritated on principle that she’d chosen to disagree with me. The next time someone asks you to define “stinging refutation,” just show them that clip. I think it’d also work for “game, set, match” and probably for “ouch, my butt,” too. 😉 In all seriousness, though, I think Maddow’s even-handed but devastating takedown of Buchanan’s stale, racist and ill-thought-through ideas serves as a permanent (in the age of YouTube) and much more effective weapon not against Buchanan himself, per se, but against the paleo-conservative ideas he represents…and does so without legitimizing the power or validity of Buchanan’s words and ideas by admitting they’re fearsome enough to warrant a campaign to get him fired.