This morning started with my traditional ring around the media sites I typically start my days with. 30 minutes on Facebook over my morning coffee, followed by a trip into the pundit analyses of the preceding evening’s debates on The Atlantic and CNN. There were a few interesting themes I noticed when I stitched the two experiences together. According to what seemed to be a majority of the professional punditry, Romney had “won” the debate (whatever that means). Intriguingly, though, the way this victory was framed was fascinating. For many pundits, this debate performance (and Obama’s seeming lethargy simultaneously) seemed to suggest some sort of watershed moment in the campaign, as though the debate performance was a sign of things to come. This frame, of course, was amazingly provocative for many supporters of the incumbent president, and so the activity in the message boards was ferocious.
One page on The Atlantic argued that Obama’s lethargic performance evidenced a “lack-of-heart,” as though the president weren’t interested in winning the re-election. I wasn’t particularly interested in the debate outcome, I couldn’t help but post a comment on the piece. A comment I thought was relatively moderate. (If you’re curious, the comment can be found here). Interestingly, although intended to be moderate, the feedback on the comment was amazingly inflammatory. For Democrats, I was an idiot because I was totally wrong in believing that Obama might be exhausted from four-year stint in literally the hardest job on the planet earth. For Republicans, I was an idiot because Obama can’t just be tired, the problem was clearly his staggering incompetence and inability to do said job. Thus began the flame-war on The Atlantic message boards…
While at first I was tempted to dismiss these reactions as simply symptomatic of the polarizing nature of political debate, particularly in a charged, public forum such as that on The Atlantic, I had to update my assessment when a similar dynamic began to unfold on my Facebook wall. For my friends whose “profile pictures” are now pro-Obama campaign messages, the day was one of forwarding links claiming that Romney won the debate because he lied and because Jim Lehrer (the debate moderator) is an idiot. For my friends whose “profile pictures” are now pro-Romney campaign posters, the day was one of forwarding links claiming that the debate was the campaign watershed, and that now that the Romney camp has found its “center” the election is an assured Republican victory. Fascinatingly, for both groups of friends, the claim was invariably that they “weren’t looking for a fight” and just wanted to “share information.” Both groups were absolutely convinced that the information they were spreading was some sort of public service announcement, rather than an extension of the campaigning. Both were also convinced that sharing polarizing information in a public forum isn’t controversial because they “weren’t looking for a fight.”
It felt vaguely like when a guest at a dinner party starts an observation by saying, “I don’t mean to sound racist, but…” The second somebody says those words, “racist” is exactly what they’re about to sound. Similarly, if somebody isn’t “looking for a fight” then why are they posting politically polarized information among a massive group of friends, many of whom may not share a political ideology with themselves? Just saying the words doesn’t make it true, anymore than not wanting to sound racist will make an individual actually not sound racist…
Throughout the day, I couldn’t help but keep an eye on the evolution of debate about the debate, and I noticed a few other emergent themes as well. In particular, I noticed how ridiculous political commentary is these days. Later in the day, the new story became one of President Obama’s “George Costanza” moment. Essentially, at a rally yesterday, the president delivered all of the pithy one-liners that supporters were hoping to hear at the debate. The “George Costanza” moment is a reference to the sit-com “Seinfeld” (which has been off air for about a million years), it refers to an episode where one character (the eponymous “George Costanza”) is insulted by another character, but fails to come up with a “comeback” on time. The rest of the episode is the story of how Costanza desperately tries to artificially inspire the insulting character to use the same insult again, so that he can finally retaliate.
While I love Seinfeld, I can’t help but point out that we actually already have a word to describe that moment: l’esprit de l’escalier. From the French for “staircase wit,” the term refers to when an individual comes up with an appropriate counter-insult a moment too late, when they are already “on the stairs” or leaving the scene of the insult. While Seinfeld is (was?) a great show, have we really reached a point in public discourse where our only frame of reference for situations such as that faced by President Obama is a reference to a singular episode about an ancillary character which aired 14 years ago? Is this what we have become?
I couldn’t help but notice, as well, that as the day wore on, the news stories became the publication of polls revealing that most Americans felt “Romney” had “won the debate.” You know, a story about how most Americans were coming to believe the headlines that news agencies had been running for the last 24 hours… Have news groups really become so self-congratulatory? Run the same headline for an entire news cycle, and then publish a story about how shocking it is that people believe the conclusions you’ve been broadcasting for hours? Really!? Is this what passes for journalism today?