Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Maureen Dowd as Rorschach Test

This post is written in response to a post by Jay Rosen over at PressThink

I will gladly confess to my share of culture war exchanges in your comments section (most of them a year or two ago by my calculation), but from my perspective (self-analysis of course always being potentially distorted) this was not a very classic case. I thought of it much more as an incidental pretext for debate than a "weigh in on this topic because the opposition has jumped in" situation. It was a comment that said, "I think there may be another side to this that maps it more clearly in relation to the culture wars," but I believe I did so in a relatively conversational and unthreatening tone.

I do agree with your premise that Dowd was a pretext of sorts, ultimately of only incidental concern, but I certainly didn't see her remarks as taking place on a stage cast with characters that demanded any sort of reflex response on my part because they are agents of an opposed party.

I had mentioned in the previous thread that I have no use for Dowd and at the head of comment #1 that I generally have contempt for her. In the comment itself I described her as "mumbling" and characterized her remarks as suggesting the interpretation I was laying out "to the degree they were intelligible at all." So I probably was not very accurate when I described myself as "defending Dowd."

In a way, our discussion of Dowd's Meet the Press appearance, was very much like a debate over the meaning of a blob on a Rorschach test. I was responding to a combination of the Dowd blob and your very brief remark about it.

I think of myself as agreeing with you about as often as I disagree with you, so I hardly jumped in to defend Dowd's remarks because of "the identity of her attackers." Since I have so little emotional investment in Dowd, I actually didn't even see you as attacking her. My characterization of her as mumbling and nearly unintelligible demonstrates basic agreement with you on that point.

I saw myself as simply disagreeing with your reading of the Dowd Rorschach test. You shook your head at her general incoherence and incompetence and how sad it was that she seemed to imagine this might be some kind of critique in terms of economic class.

In essence, in my frustration with the continual failure to seriously address class in major US media I tried to interpret Dowd's gesture toward Bush's compulsive denial of privilege and inherited economic class (we all know he's pretty good at cultural class) as expressing my own personal view which I proceeded to lay out in post #1. I overinterpreted Maureen Dowd's rambling in such a way that I could find my own voice expressed there (at the time I thought I actually found a hint of it there), as a pretext to have an exchange with you over the point.

I read your remark as suggesting that absent sociological or economic analysis, serious discussions or class-based critiques can't happen, therefore what Dowd was spouting was bankrupt.

I was approaching it from the perspective of someone like Thomas Frank. From this perspective, a cardinal principle of the conservative culture war is to refuse economic categories and replace them with talk of personality, morality, and religion. I don't have you pegged as necessarily on one side of this issue as opposed to the other, so I did not respond to you as a marked opponent "on the other side" that I must reflexively oppose.

I understood myself to be saying, "Your remark here suggests you were not registering awareness of a culture war trap that seriously concerns me. Doesn't an alternative reading of Dowd's remarks raise this issue?"

Rather than attacking you, I saw myself presenting an alternative direction to go with it. I was thinking of it as a conversation rather than a smack down.

The second post didn't actually involve any further examination of what Dowd said or seeing footage of the debacle. It resulted from my gradually registering the obvious fact that Maureen Dowd would be constitutionally incapable of making the argument I was making and that even to imagine she suggested such a thing was wishful thinking.

The wishful thinking part of the post then, was to so desperately want to hear a voice in the MSM desert express a point I would like to hear expressed that I was temporarily willing to imagine that EVEN MAUREEN DOWD might accidently have suggested something along those lines.

I think it was pretty clear from my first post alone that I believed it could only have been accident or chance that Maureen Dowd happened to suggest something worth defending. I meant to defend the idea she suggested to me at the time, not Maureen Dowd.

I'm willing to wager my desperation to hear my own voice reflected in the MSM debate even if it required turning Maureen Dowd into a ventriloquist 's dummy IS related to how the culture wars play out at some level.

My willingness to jump to conclusions about what your brief comment about Dowd may have implied is probably also part of the picture, but seizing on moments like that is really part of how conversation works in any context. If my response misinterpreted you so badly as to be mistaken or simply irrelevant, my jumping to a conclusion should clarify that pretty quickly. I do think comment threads make this unremarkable part of the average conversation sound much more antagonistic than the very same words would in person.

I don't see my post as being particularly connected to your assumption that I was jumping in to oppose a marked opposition. I meant to be debating an idea rather than a person and I didn't register anyone else commenting on the thread at the time as particularly or actively promoting an opposed idea.

I suppose the other deep way in which this experience intersects with the culture wars is simply the sheer range of ways publicly posted remarks can be taken up and responded to, often times without the remotest connection to the intention with which they were originally offered. Hopefully this post maintains at least a remote connection to your intention of thinking through contemporary press culture and our rapidly evolving interface with it.