Thursday, October 29, 2015

Still waiting for a better answer on 'How to Be Right'

“The idea for this book has been inside me for years, growing, grumbling, developing horns, like a gestational twin with a vestigial tail,” says Greg Gutfeld. His newly released book, How to Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct, an instructional manual for “conservatives” to feel that they can demolish “liberals” in fifteen-second sound bites, is — like his metaphor for writing it — horrifying.

Closeup photo of a horned goat
Horned goat from "winterseitler" on Pixabay

While he laments a shift from “fact-based debate” to “fact-free rhetoric,” he also thinks it’s important “to confirm normal, commonsense assumptions” (note that assumptions are not facts, and what counts as normal and commonsense lies in the eye of the beholder), and his book is entirely about rhetorical flourishes, not facts. As he puts it: “The whole point of arguing is to defeat your opponent by looking great, without hurting your knuckles or spilling your mojito.”

He advocates misattributing and twisting people’s beliefs – for example, if someone supports abortion rights in general, you should inform them that they really also specifically support abortion for gender selection in China. (“Replace ‘pro-choice’ with ‘pro-boy’....The next time someone says they’re pro-choice, say, ‘Congrats, you’re also ‘pro-boy.’”) In case it is not obvious, let me chime in to say that you can support someone's legal right to make their own choices without agreeing with any and all choices they may make and without endorsing every one of their motives and objectives.

He says that the subject of using aborted fetal tissue for medical research should be used rhetorically as moral equivalents to using tissue from executed criminals or concentration camp inmates or using an uncle’s skull for a paperweight. On the contrary, these are not exact moral equivalents; anyone with a little philosophical skill or training could quickly enumerate the relevant differences in these scenarios.

One of his nicer rules: “Concede”. He explains: “Demonizing an opponent on all points makes our opinion unrealistic, histrionic, and boring.” He does, nonetheless, refer to “the innate desire of the left to embrace any cause that undermines the foundations of the country. They are termites.” He says that there aren’t any “left-wingers in charge of anything that requires results” while, to their eternal credit, no “right-winger” has ever used the c-word “to describe any liberal woman”.

He perceives liberalism as acts of emoting, wishing, blaming, throwing money at problems and then resorting to putting on bandaids and lipstick, while conservatism raises standards and solves specific problems on the ground with targeted actions. Conservatives fight the wars and maintain the police presence that allow liberals to philosophize. (No word from him on what [liberal] philosophy might be good for – for example, its influence on foreign policy and domestic law that in turn govern the [conservative] military and police.)

Male feminists are dismissed in this fashion: “Women love a man who fights for her rights, even if the fight suggests she can’t fight for herself. And men dig the fight because impressionable undergrads find it cool that he’s so into the war on patriarchy, while leeching off his parents for tuition.” He says that “Women love sexists” based on some information in or interpretation of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

One of his favorite approaches is to shut down an area of concern by raising a subject of concern that is several orders of magnitude larger. “If you feel strongly about Hobby Lobby denying two kinds of birth control out of dozens,” he says, “how do you feel about sharia law? How do you feel about burkas, or flogging?” (No acknowledgment from him about how he feels or would react when this trick is played on him. For example: If he feels strongly about not wanting to pay for someone else's birth control, how does he expect others to feel about not wanting to fund a war that they believe is damaging and unwinnable?) Another example of this occurs in response to a woman who videotaped herself having “been catcalled more than a hundred times in twelve hours”; he says that, “in the same month, Boko Haram had kidnapped and enslaved dozens of women. So, yeah, catcalls suck. But they don’t rate, compared to true evil.” He also blames that particular woman for walking “where minority men were standing around. She didn’t go to Saks or Equinox.” He thereby reveals his prejudiced expectation that men of color are more likely to make sexist comments that “suck” while he simultaneously implies that the road to civility is paved with luxury department stores and fitness clubs and that the feelings of people who cannot afford these places are not worthy of concern.

He complains that it’s perceived as OK to mock “Republicans, religious types, old farts, white men” but not “liberals, Obama, women, gays, trans”. Trans is not a plural noun, a slip that calls into question his qualifications to opine on anything having to do with transgender people. There are repeated digs against transgender people in the book, including against “the infamous pregnant man” whose existence is notable only because Gutfeld admits to having made a public comment about him for which he was annoyed at being called to task by Barbara Walters and which he does not repeat in the book.

He advocates slamming people who are “consumed by [the subject of] sexual reproductive rights” by simply suggesting to their faces that they aren’t getting laid. His particular complaint is against public funding for birth control pills. He believes that women should be “free to make decisions about their health choices” but that they should have to fund it themselves, because otherwise “the implication is that you cannot be depended on to take care of it yourself,” and he thinks this implication conveys the “sexist” and “paternalistic” idea that you [women] cannot “handle your life...because you’re female” and that “women...need us [men]” to subsidize a range of female health needs. The multi-part rebuttal is, hopefully, obvious. For Gutfeld’s hypothetical woman who is unable to afford birth control, the link between her poverty and her gender is obscure. She has already been defined as asking for help not because of her gender, but because of her finances. Gutfeld manages to find a gender imbalance that offends him only by falsely presuming that male workers contribute all the funding to public health programs for indigent women, as if women do not also work and pay taxes and as if women’s healthcare (including their ability to control when they get pregnant) is not also a benefit to men (in the true sense of the term "public health" in which each person's health contributes to everyone's well being). Later in the book, he undercuts his own argument by complaining about men who want public funding for condoms; there, he doesn’t say that such men are admitting that they cannot handle their own lives as men nor that the cost of their condoms would have to be paid by women. Instead, his argument takes a different tack: “If condoms are a human right that must be paid for by someone else,” he says, “why not your food or clothing?” But I’m pretty sure that any thoughtful person who maintains that sexual health and reproductive control is a human right would also maintain that food and clothing is a human right. Lastly, a person’s poverty doesn’t mean that they cannot take care of themselves. People care for themselves and each other in different ways, and much productive work (such as caring for the young, old, and sick) is financially uncompensated. If there is public or communal funding for birth control and one chooses to avail oneself of that program, that is a way of taking care of oneself and one’s family. Choices like these appear in the context of larger life choices and situations that may also involve taking care of oneself and one’s family and not having large amounts of money because of it, and these larger situations make it necessary or convenient to use whatever health insurance programs have been set up to fill a prescription. If Gutfeld is irritated that specific prescriptions have their cost shared by a large group of people, he really ought to look at different health insurance models and decide if some are more annoying than others, and, from there, he could look at the entire economic system that generates demand for anything like health insurance. Without a fuller context of all the costs that we share as a society, it is hard to seriously consider his moral objection about sharing the cost of one pill through a health insurance model that isn't even defined.

As the purest illustration of tokenization I have seen in a long time, he says that the Republican Party should strategize its growth by doing “the most shallow (but perhaps most important) thing: look like the left. That’s all. Look like them.” By which he means, Republicans should recruit a few people with brown skin. The next time “you’re” – presumably he is addressing the white Republican reader – “trying to make a point at a bar: quote people who look like Democrats.” He must be unaware that he is fighting against his own goal of diversifying the Republican Party by writing in a way that is probably especially irritating to people of color (and their white allies) who might happen to be reading his book. He sings the praises of Mia Love, not because of anything specific she has said or done, but because she is “black, female, Haitian, Mormon. And Republican. All that’s missing is a dorsal fin and an antenna.” I suppose he means that in the spirit of inclusivity and acceptance, but it is hard to feel it. To him, Mia Love’s existence as a “demographic of one” somehow proves that “demographics means nothing.” Not super convincing on his facility with statistics there, adding to his more general failure on how to respectfully acknowledge someone’s race.

He sees some people as being “focused only on their sexual identity, their gender, their race,” and that they should come to “realize that you played no constructive role in this identity you are proud of” since it was not an “accomplishment” but was arrived at merely “by luck or biology.” Not sure how he manages to remain so unaware that people do construct their identities (in part because, all too frequently, they have to labor through their reactions to books like his). His definition of the term “white privilege” is the idea that “every Caucasian is evil,” “any achievement by a white person is based on racism” (whatever that means), and the world itself is “gigantic racist plot”. I could suggest this modification: Privilege includes not having to think about how you construct your identity because the process isn’t painful or challenging. It leads to the false assumption that there isn’t even any such thing as an accomplishment within the realm of identity and that neither you nor anyone else does or can do anything to affect your own self-understanding or presentation.

A very small handful of statements would have been potentially agreeable, if they had been, well, rephrased and reinterpreted.

The motto “Play to win, not for retweets” appears suddenly. I am not entirely sure what it or its context means. Generally, being retweeted should not be one's primary life goal. But then, neither is "winning" the best interpretation of life.

“One can love Muslims but hate tenets of Islam that are shitty to women, gays, and nonbelievers" — well, broadly, this is true of any religion or ideology. It is useful to identify harmful parts of religious ideology without demonizing people who belong to that religion. This sentence by Gutfeld is not the most elegant or sensitive expression of that idea.

Of course, not all offenses are morally equivalent, and a sense of proportion is key. Of course we ought to avoid “falling into the trap of manufactured stridency, where the condemnation of a pop star over a song is on par with the emotion you might normally reserve for ISIS." However. However. Gutfeld fails to achieve that very goal in this very book.

January 2022 update: See this Washington Post article about his rise to the top of Fox News. The article explains that his old show, "Red Eye," was “a subversive, periodically hilarious, reliably sophomoric program he hosted from 2007 until 2015, airing variously at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Saturdays, on a most unlikely venue: Fox News Channel at its most self-righteous." Now:

After years on “The Five,” an ensemble show he co-hosts, he’s become even a bigger part of the dominant news network’s success as the host of a late-night comedy program that debuted in April — “Gutfeld!” Defying predictions, “Gutfeld!” is regularly generating higher ratings than more established late-night fare, such as “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon,” and has at times even topped “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

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