How Cynical Inside-Dopesterism Masquerades as Political Journalism

How Cynical Inside-Dopesterism Masquerades as Political Journalism

Jeff Weintraub: The Cynicism of Politico

This is an appreciative follow-up to a March 20 Gawker piece by Alex Pareene. The provocation for his piece was an article in Politico that the Gawker headline describes as “The Most Cynical Political Story Ever Written“. Of course, that headline (which may well be an editor’s, not Pareene’s) is a wild exaggeration. Even the competition for “most cynical political story written in Washington this week” is fierce enough that this story might get lost in the pack.

But once we get past the headline, this is a great piece—not least because the kinds of journalistic pathology it identifies are not exceptional but typical. It does a great job of bringing out the ways in which too many political “journalists” in the United States confuse cynicism with sophistication.

More than a half-century ago, in The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman and his co-authors nailed this perspective as that of the cynical inside-dopester, the guy whose pride lies in not getting fooled like the rubes because he knows that everyone’s “real” motives are always sordid, selfish, manipulative, and deceptively camouflaged. That’s often part of the story, even a significant part; the illusion lies in believing that it’s always the whole story—or that it’s the most important part of the story. Understanding social and political reality requires more than just debunking people’s motives, real or imagined.

It’s true that a touch of cynicism can often be useful for making sense of politics. But there is a difference between a critical perspective and a merely cynical one. When cynicism drives out everything else, the results are not really that insightful and illuminating. Instead, cynical inside-dopesterism easily becomes superficial and misleadingly reductive, and when it’s pervasive it tends to corrupt and poison public discourse.

ALL THAT may be a slightly abstract introduction to a nicely concrete outburst. Pareene’s piece is worth reading in full (it’s not that long), but here are some highlights:

When the Future Robot Death Panels ask you to show them one article that explains exactly how narrow-minded, cynical, amoral, and borderline sociopathic the Washington press was in the time of Freedom, you may want to consider this Politico story. [“The Drama Queen Caucus”]

[….] It is ostensibly “about” Democratic members of congress who have announced that they are undecided about voting for health care reform legislation. As Politico stories go, it’s not bad and destructive and evil in the way that their Dick Cheney interviews are. It’s just a piece of writing that only a man who doesn’t have any sense of morality or principle could possibly understand. It’s proof that the Politico model is to take everything bad and off-putting about Washington journalism, amplify the worst qualities, and strip out anything edifying, instructive, or redeeming.

The thesis is that everyone who announced that they had any problem, substantive or not, with the health care bill, did so purely and solely for the purpose of boosting their status or name recognition among the sort of people who write and edit Politico. It posits a world where everyone thinks “a Sunday talk show invitation” is a goal worth taking a stand on. [….]

For Representative Luis Gutierrez, for example, “immigration” is a “pet issue.” In the Politico mindset, Gutierrez harping on this “pet issue” is purely a way to get himself some attention. The idea that “immigration” is an “issue” that he actually cares about because it is actually about real-life people facing real-life problems that require government intervention, and that he may have trouble supporting this bill because while it is probably a net positive it also fails to address the problems facing those people he may theoretically actually care about, does not occur to anyone. [….]

But this article comes from an insider mindset so corroded by cynicism that it cannot fathom a world where any political actor does anything for any reason other than naked self-promotion. Is it really so naive of me to believe that Dick Cheney keeps arguing for an all-powerful executive unencumbered by the Constitution, the courts, or congress because he misguidedly believes that would keep us safe, and not simply because he wants to be on TV? It’s a repulsive mindset, and one that shouldn’t be treated as sensible and mainstream by the press, but I think it’s heartfelt!

Alas, too true. And here is a point worth pondering:

There is also an important […] difference between these hypothetical members jockeying for bowling trips with the president and those holding out until the legislation is altered in some fashion—the ones who want the legislation altered actually seem to grasp that legislation does stuff. To Politico, the purpose of legislating seems to be to go on Meet the Press, or get yourself elected governor.

Yes, legislation does stuff (even if it’s not always, or not precisely, what it’s intended to do). But to understand what it might or might not do requires something more than political gossip and drama criticism.

WE MIGHT also extend this point further than Pareene does, while applying it to a wider range of targets. The carefully cultivated moral and intellectual frivolousness of a lot of “post-modern” writing, along with its characteristically obscurantist mode of expression, is often suffused with its own version of cynical inside-dopesterism. And another way that critical thinking can slide into merely cynical thinking (captured nicely by Michael Berubé in his recent “Arguing the World” post on Torture: Business as Usual and at greater length elsewhere) is through the type of America-is-and-always-was-monochromatically-and-uniquely-evil perspective, which flattens out all important distinctions and complications, exemplified by Chomskyites among others. Chomskyites, like Politico writers and postmodernists, tend to think of themselves as sophisticated people with privileged access to the inside dope; the way they do that is different, but the results can be just as misleading, superficial, and pernicious. This approach may think of itself as radical, but in practice it is more likely to encourage purely negative futilitarianism along with political self-marginalization (or worse).

Pursuing a more serious and genuinely critical politics requires, instead, a combination of earnestness, openness to constructive engagement, and commitment to an ethic of responsibility that have always been hallmarks of, say, Dissent.