Monday, January 11, 2010

Ross Douthat, Professional Yutz

Ah, the New York Times Editorial Page. Though I am not certain, I suspect that the Times readership is overwhelmingly socially liberal--not just by a modest amount but a huge one (say, 70/30 or 75/25, and note that I'm only talking here about views on social rather than financial policy). Nevertheless the Times seems to try mightily to avoid the accusation that it has a "liberal bias," and so retains among its staff a few house conservatives, the ideological descendants of William Safire, just to prove otherwise. Recently this included Bill Kristol contributing op-eds, although mercifully that experiment came to an end. Some centristy readers (among them my mother) find David Brooks intermittently enlightening; for my part I regard him as a harmless ninny. But Kristol's spiritual replacement--that representing the nutter wing of conservatism--was Ross Douthat, and ironically, Douthat's column yesterday centered around a situation in which Kristol The Younger found himself: Brit Hume's indefensible comments about Buddhism. And Douthat, consistent with being a nutter, tried to defend those very comments.

If you weren't glued to Fox a week ago Sunday, what Hume said, in an offhand remark at the end of a panel discussion, was this: "The extent to which [Woods] can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that kind of faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger is, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'" [my emphasis]

(The comments--clip below--are followed after a cut by Kristol, a Jew, shifting in his seat just a touch uncomfortably, for a split second, as he tries to finesse Hume's remark. Makes for amusing theater.)

Hume's statement caused the usual mini-media tempest--and I even made my own brief contribution to it at the end of a recent entry. Douthat's editorial yesterday took on that tempest with the goal of lecturing "liberals" on "liberalism." Said Douthat: "In practice, the admirable theory that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one's own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of the church, synagogue, or home."

(Um...are the words "mosque" and "temple" deliberately missing there?)

Ever since college I have regularly encountered this hide-behind-free-speech argument and I remain unimpressed by it. Those who advance it, like Douthat, appear to willfully confuse criticism of some person for their ideas with persecution of that same person, and then try to bask in a little feelgood (and consequence-free!) martyrdom. Did anyone suggest Brit be imprisoned for his ideas, or be punished by some legal means? No. All Jon Stewart did was laugh at him because of Hume's perfect arrogance that Douthat seems to be incapable of understanding. (It's instructive to watch the clip particularly because it reveals Fox News's hypocrisy with respect to their own obviously obnoxious pronouncements on Islam.)

Douthat notes that "the debate [about the value of religion in peoples' lives] kicked off by Brit Hume a week ago is still worth having." That may be so. But the outrage, which Douthat condescendingly describes as "knee-jerk," centers around how poorly Hume chose to frame the debate--not necessarily the debate itself, and Douthat has missed this point entirely. For instance, did Brit Hume make this conclusion based off of his expansive knowledge of Buddhism? Did he, for instance, do a survey of Buddhist teachings and conclude that there would be no chance that Woods would find redemption through that faith? I'm thinking, um, not. So if he knows little about Buddhism, what's he doing singling out Woods when he seems to have not made a peep about current Christians with issues astonishingly similar to Woods, such as Mark Sanford (R-SC), John Ensign (R-Nev), David Vitter (R-LA), and that great miscegenist in the sky, Jesse Helms (R-NC)? No, it's something much more simple than all of this, and is the reason why so many thoughtful people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers alike, were outraged: Hume was talking smack.

Honest public discussions about religion, race, sex and sexuality should not be mere free-for-alls where anything goes, and Douthat knows this. He blathers on about how America should be a marketplace of ideas where open competition between different perspectives is welcome. I agree with him--but that doesn't mean that major TV networks have a responsibility to allow airtime to racists and bigots! We give Nazis and their ilk the right to say what they want as a matter of law, but that's not the same as giving them a platform. There is such a notion as "polite" discourse where some kinds of talk (that is, racist and/or bigoted dialogue) are deemed out-of-bounds, and where there are consequences to violating that etiquette. And Hume (who has only appeared to gain status on Fox, getting a cushy interview from Bill O'Reilly, allowing him to defend himself without having to actually face a critic), clearly violated that etiquette. In discussions about race we've grown sensitive enough as a culture to punish people who step out of line, as in the case of Jimmy The Greek's racial theories on the origin of the black athlete or Rush Limbaugh's goofy thoughts on Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb. But because Hume took a shot at Buddhism and not, say, black people, he has only had to suffer minor ridicule at most.

What might a thoughtful Christian have said? Not being Christian I cannot fully presume, but I have some ideas about a reasonable way to inject religion into such a conversation. Hume might have said, "I have been following the Tiger Woods saga. For me, Christianity has provided the possibility for redemption and forgiveness." That way it's really a discussion about Hume's own experience and is not a judgement on the inadequacy of some other faith. Hume has had his share of tragedy, as his son commited suicide in 1998, which triggered his religious awakening (he is described in Wikipedia as being Episcopalian), and has given interviews to which I have no objection, where he describes the role his renewed faith has played in his life.

But even with this possible more gentle comment that could have been hypothetically posed by Hume, I still have to hold my nose a bit because it's really not a piece of advice to an actual person but rather a bland pronouncement. Tiger Woods isn't some guy that Brit Hume is on intimate terms with, I am nearly certain. Instead Woods is just really just a concept in Hume's diatribe rather than an actual person to whom he is giving genuine advice. Is that what Hume has learned from his faith--to use people as props in an attempt to evangelize? And is that what Douthat considers worth defending?

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