The Rules of the Game

Someone asked me in email last week what I thought of James O’Keefe’s video expose of ACORN, specifically whether I thought it was unfair or distorted because O’Keefe wasn’t showing all of the videos where ACORN staff didn’t rise to the bait.

Sure, yes, that’s not fair. But don’t come complaining about cherrypicking attacks of this kind unless you’re fairly consistently against them, unless you’re first concerned with the ethics of how you use evidence. You can’t say that it’s ok for Michael Moore to do it and then complain when someone imitates his tactics. The reverse, of course, is also true: if you thought O’Keefe raised very serious questions about ACORN as a whole organization blah blah blah, then you must be very impressed with Michael Moore’s thorough and careful indictment of the health care system or of contemporary capitalism.

I would be the first to say that Moore can do some pretty funny and clever agitprop, mind you. But if we’re just talking about the aesthetics of being a provocateur, O’Keefe is no slouch. As entertainment, it all falls under the same broad heading that Jackass and Punk’d and similar sorts of latter-day Candid Camera programming, and there’s some appeal to that genre of schadenfreude. I wouldn’t want documentary or polemic to have to skew to the completely opposite end of the scale and be nothing but Ken Burns-style snoozefests, safe for the NPR pledge drive and soccer moms but of no use otherwise.

Still, if you want to treat any cherrypicked playing-to-the-peanut-galleries work as actually persuasive, though, congratulations on paving the road to Idiocracy. What bugs me more is trying to raise a selective stink about this kind of work just when it comes from political opponents.

There’s really only two ways for me to read someone who comes knocking around trying to raise the alarm at that kind of moment.

Either the only thing that really matters to the person complaining is that it’s their opponents that are doing it. In which case, complaining about rhetorical or evidentiary standards is just an attempt to mobilize people who care more about those standards than which faction is doing it. As soon as the controversy dies down, the partisan is likely to go right back to complaining about the centrist or independent or non-aligned person who is worried first about standards of argument or about the basis for collective action and second about the content of a given political argument. So don’t come knocking on the door and pretending to be concerned if you’re just trying to concern-troll some people onto some “me-too” bandwagon.

If, on the other hand, how we argue matters, the standards for evidence matter, if the point is to maintain some kind of rigor when we’re considering collective action or making public decisions, then it needs to matter even when you’re hearing a message that’s otherwise appealing to you. You can’t get away with privately supplying the serious evidence that you personally know about if that’s wholly lacking from the polemic in question, or taking out odious manipulations in favor of imagined probity.

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7 Responses to The Rules of the Game

  1. emschwar says:

    I don’t think their actions (or results) are equivalent. On the one hand, Moore goes in to his subjects under mostly fair pretenses (at least, they know he’s there to interview them for a film); on the other, O’Keefe didn’t. Then again, Moore frequently edits his interviews in ways that are misleading; O’Keefe’s full video is available and provides plenty of context that makes it even more clear that what the excerpts show is a fair representation of the whole thing.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, but the point some people are making is that he’s not showing how many other ACORN employees told him to shove off or whatever. Which isn’t something Moore mostly shows you, any more than Sacha Cohen shows you who reacted reasonably or knowingly to Borat or Bruno.

  3. dkane says:

    What is the connection to Idiocracy? If you complain about O???eefe then you are “paving the road” toward more movies like Idiocracy being made or our society moving in the direction of the society portrayed in Idiocracy or what?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Moving in the direction of the society portrayed in Idiocracy. But not it’s complaining about O’Keefe–it’s that treating capricious, cherrypicked bits of agitprop as if they’re substantive and persuasive is the way we walk down that road.

  5. jfruh says:

    But who exactly do you expect to be consistent here? The “left” or the “right” as a whole? Or does everyone who complains about the ACORN video need to have a cited example of a time they complain about Michael Moore in order to be taken seriously?

    I think it’s human nature for you to see the flaws in your opponent’s gameplay more clearly than you see those of your allies. But the loud complainers on each side of the debate actually represent a fairly small slice of the population, one that’s both ideologically committed and really engaged in the grind of day-to-day news-cycle-winning politics. The large middle can decide whether their arguments make sense, or not, but adding another layer of distraction and making the debate about whether people have a right to make certain arguments, based on previous ideological or tactical positions, seems not useful.

  6. jfruh says:

    And actually, Sasha Cohen shows you people reacting reasonably to his characters all the time. Most of his funniest bits involve his victims desperately clinging to reasonable standards of behavior and acting as if they were participating in a wholly normal social interaction in the face howling lunacy.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. What I mean is that he doesn’t show you the people who just look at him and say either, “Oh, go away” (cause where’s the fun in that) or who say, “You’re just putting me on”. (ditto). Not that he has to, it’s just that you’re not seeing the totality of how people react to him.

    I just get tired, I guess, of a certain kind of concern trolling. Say, for example, that I genuinely agree that there’s a certain kind of concern for evidence or rigor that should be important in making any kind of intellectual or academic argument. If someone rolls up to my door and say, “Hey, look, aren’t you concerned by this academic who is making very strong claims in a public dispute but whose command of evidence is very slipshod”, I might take a look and say, hm, why yes. But if the person rolling up to my door is someone with a record that’s equally slipshod, my major irritation at that point is with the guy who approached me.

    Partisans hope to win the news cycle by mobilizing an engaged public who hope for something else from the news cycle besides winning that day’s spin contest. Partisans hope to win today’s blog bickering in the same way. But once the day’s contest is over, partisans in both group go right back to bitching first and foremost not about their opposite numbers but about that engaged middle that looks to the public sphere as something other than a prize to be won.

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