Following the extended media coverage of a rude crowd booing and otherwise demonstrating against incoming Vice President Mike Pence during a performance of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman was among those opining that frivolous “dumb news” stories like this are as bad as or worse than “fake news” stories that circulate on the internet. At the risk of offering a “hot take,” I propose that “dumb news” is a lot less trivial than many believe.
Rothman’s column suggests a working definition of “dumb news” as coverage that appeals to the emotions of the audience and do not require much effort to understand:
This kind of entry-level politics is not a new phenomenon, and its victims are bipartisan. Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter movement, college-age adults devolving into their childlike selves, or pretentious celebrities politicizing otherwise apolitical events; for the right, these and other similar stories masquerade as and suffice for intellectual stimulation and political engagement. The left is similarly plagued by mock controversies. The faces printed on American currency notes, minority representation in film adaptations of comic books, and astrophysicists insensitive enough to announce feats of human engineering while wearing shirts with cartoon depictions of scantily clad women on them. This isn’t politics but, for many, it’s close enough.
Such stories, Rothman argues, merely appeal to tribalism and crowd out more important and complicated news. He was far from alone in these suggestions, if journalists’ Twitter feeds are any indicator.
This Is More than Tribalism
The stories catalogued, however, have more in common than a tribal, emotional component. Another name for “dumb news” might be “dispatches from the latest, nastiest iteration of the culture war.” Virtually all of the stories in this genre revolve around two features of the rising New New Left: identity politics and the impulse to enforce them in a totalitarian manner.
The identity politics stories often nominally involve characteristics like race and sex, but taken as a whole are directed toward how America ultimately sees itself. Is America still a nation that believes in the universalist ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence and secured by our Constitution? Or will America contemptuously dismiss the Founders and their descendants for their failures to meet those ideals in order to spend our time endlessly adjudicating the claims of competing, balkanized identity groups in a society of seemingly endless intersectionality?
The New New Left seeks the latter vision of America by means that are often totalitarian in outlook. Preemptive disqualification of opponents by invoking the concept of “privilege,” attempts to suppress debate through creating “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro-aggressions,” and persecuting opponents through boycotts and social media mobs are largely creations of the New New Left, and are typically employed to push toward an America shaped by identity politics.
So-called “dumb news” stories generally chronicle the degree to which the New New Left is taking the Old New Left slogan that “the personal is political” to its thoroughly illiberal conclusion that everything is political. The conversion of our colleges and universities from venues of free inquiry into temples of ideological conformity—and the moral and intellectual cowardice of those administrators appeasing the totalitarian impulses of near-children—are threats to the continuation of an enlightened society that do not deserve to be dismissed as “dumb news.”
These Events Aren’t Trivial to the Victims
Although academia is the most ironic example of the New New Left’s march through our institutions and culture, seemingly more trivial examples demonstrate its pervasiveness. The compulsion to promote progressivism in general and identity politics in particular already extends to theater performances, football and basketball games, sports media, late-night “comedy” television, awards ceremonies, Hollywood casting and location choices, employment by tech companies and food delivery services, historic statuary, and naming buildings after various dead white males, to name but a few examples.
If you fear losing a job for crossing whatever the bleeding edge of political correctness is at any given moment, these stories are not dumb. If you may be run out of business due to your religious beliefs in a country founded by people who were often fleeing religious persecution, these stories are not dumb.
If you are a high-school girl whose locker room may be required by the federal government to admit a boy (or vice versa) to promote a transgender agenda, these stories are not dumb. If you are concerned that statist propaganda is encroaching upon every corner of civil society at the same time the sphere of personal privacy is shrinking everywhere outside of abortion clinics, these stories are not dumb.
If you believe whitewashing American history in the interest of allowing the hyper-sensitive to be intellectually lazy (from a Left or Right perspective) is a bad idea, these stories are not dumb. If you believe our civically illiterate society might benefit from a public discussion of the relative merits of Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and Harriet Tubman as Americans worthy of being honored on our currency, it is not a dumb story. (For the record, Jackson would be my odd person out.)
Some of our most wealthy, famous citizens find police shootings not only an important issue (as it is), but one that makes it impossible for them to honor the country during the performance of the National Anthem. If you believe in the American project, this should not be a dumb story. This is true regarding not only the merits of the cultural clash, but also the insistence that it be fought during the telecast of a sporting event.
Confusing Wrong With Evil
The fact that the individual stories themselves are simple does not necessarily mean that they are dumb, but that they are relatable. The fact that such stories stir people’s emotions does not mean that they are trivial, but that we should not allow them to become only emotional.
Indeed, it is arguably an insult to both sides of such conflicts to dismiss them. After all, the New New Left’s totalitarian bent comes from the firm conviction that they are right. Their mistake—and one to which the culture warriors of the Right are similarly prone—is confusing the conviction that their opponents are wrong with the conviction that they are evil.
The subtext of these stories is whether America will maintain the small-r republican spirit we have at least attempted to nourish throughout our history. From President Jefferson’s inaugural address to future President Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech, Americans have responded to the idea that not every difference of politics is one of principle and that we are ultimately not a liberal America and a conservative America, but the United States of America.
The notion that the increasingly unbounded culture war distracts us from more important issues is an argument for addressing it rather than downplaying it. A nation that lacks any consensus of what the general welfare is will have great difficulty promoting it. A nation that lacks any sense of itself will be unable to exercise effective leadership in the world.
An administration that attempts to govern without any consensus, but within a system that often deliberately checks the popular will, is likely to fail. Only the ugly, Manichean politics of recent years will continue.
While it is fashionable in some quarters to suggest that the 2016 election was largely not about issues, it can be said fairly that it was in part about these issues. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represented different sides of the cultural schism undermining our polity, and often not to the credit of the sides they represented.
Rothman is correct that these stories of the New New Left (and the reaction against it) are in some sense about tribalism. But to the extent that they address whether America will become ever more tribal—or the nature of Americans as a tribe—they address foundational questions that affect most of the rest of our politics. Whether one views culture as upstream from politics, or politics as one expression of culture, the issue of whether America wants politics to consume the culture is now very much on our table.