Friday, February 27, 2009

Politics, The Airwaves, and the English Language

I found this American Conservative piece interesting, in its reflections on political TV and radio, and in its slippery use of language and labels:

Liberal attempts to duplicate the successes of Limbaugh and his imitators have fallen flat. Alan Colmes’s late-evening radio show can be heard in most cities, and Air America is still alive somewhere—the Aleutians, perhaps—but colorful, populist, political talk radio seems to be a thing that liberals can’t do.

Populism here seems like a major euphemism. Demagogue, it seems to me, would be a much better term for someone like Limbaugh.

There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.

Gentility? Here are Webster's definitions of that term:

1 a: the condition of belonging to the gentry 2 a(1): decorum of conduct (2): attitudes or activity marked by false delicacy, prudery, or affectation b: superior social status or prestige evidenced by manners, possessions, or mode of life

So the term is really a jab, another version of the charge of elitism that was leveled at Obama and Kerry and probably every Democrat since Kennedy. And, in its suggestion of prudery and false delicacy, I think the term is really off the mark. Does any mainstream news outlet look more unflinchingly and thoroughly at the world than NPR?

Liberals are getting rather good at talk TV, too. The key to this medium, they have discovered, is irony. I don’t take this political stuff seriously, I assure you, but really, these damn fool Republicans... Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert offer different styles of irony, but none leaves any shadow of doubt where his political sympathies lie. Liberals have done well to master this trick, but it depends too much on facial expressions and body language—the double-take, the arched eyebrow, the knowing smirk—to transfer to radio. It is, in any case, not quite populism, the target audience being mainly the ironic cohort—college-educated Stuff White People Like types.

There's a certain amount of truth in the above, along with the broad-brush stereotyping.

If liberals can’t do populism, the converse is also true: conservatives are not much good at gentility. We don’t do affectless voices, it seems. There are genteel conservative events—I’ve been to about a million of them and have the NoDoz pharmacy receipts to prove it—but they preach to the converted. If anything, they reinforce the ghettoization of conservatism, of which talk radio’s echo chamber is the major symptom. We don’t know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly—indeed, conservatively—wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions. This untapped constituency might be receptive to interesting radio programs with a conservative slant.

Conservatives aren't much good at gentility? Ever hear Dick Cheney describe waterboarding?

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