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December 02, 2007

Heartache: Mary Katharine Ham sides with the "deciders".

Mary Katharine is a friend of mine. I take no pleasure in publicly disagreeing with her. But, I think her take on the CNN/YouTube debate is wrong. So at the risk of being grumpy old Lou Grant to her "turn the world on with her smile" Mary Richards, I'm going to tell you why.

Now, MKH titles her latest blog entry "Should We Republicans, Young and Old, Pretty Much Confirm the Old Fogey Republican Stereotype for all time by Torpedoing New Technology Experiments and Debates in Light of the Problems with this one?" She admits that she is intentionally tweaking folks with the title. And it is a rhetorically funny question.

Except that I'm here to answer "Yes."

UPDATE:If any of you are interested, MKH just responded to me over at her place.

She gave as good as she got. It's fair. Read her piece, and if you disagree please be polite.

She's a friend, and in this instance if I see a familiar name from here crossing the line in her comments, I'll bring out the AoS ban hammer.

MKH raises three points in her piece. I'll address them in order.

I've never bought into the idea that YouTube debates were a revolutionary format-- different but not revolutionary--mostly because moderators still pick the questions, and technology's transformative only to an extent. I'm not a tech triumphalist.

Quite simply, they aren't a revolutionary format. There really isn't anything to buy into here. They make for more engaging TV, perhaps, than watching folks stand up in the audience to ask their questions. And, they are more compelling than watching a spit-flecked Chris Matthews bark out 20 questions from a blue index card. But the notion of citizens directly addressing questions to candidates is nothing new. Go to a town hall meeting sometime to see it done the "old fashioned way."

But there is something happening here, and, unlike Dylan's "Mr. Jones" I think Mary Katharine's title reveals that she knows what it is. It's the elevation of style over substance. Of the hip and the trendy over the old and routine. And, sadly, it seems that's the core of her support for it: the desire to be seen as "cool".

For her next point is this, notice the "hipper than thou" snark contained within:

I've also never bought into the idea that YouTube debates debase politics, partly because they're already plenty debased, and partly because political YouTubers are-- to a great extent-- regular Americans who want to be engaged and get a chance to ask their own questions of a candidate that they wouldn't necessarily otherwise get. That's not debasement, that's democracy.

Did you see it? Sure, a little cynicism about politics never hurt anyone. It's part and parcel of the Conservative skepticism about government that most of us at this site share.

But to basically state "hey, politics is so low, nothing that pops up on YouTube can hurt it anymore" is hardly a ringing endorsement. In fact, it's a rather destructive, dare I say, libertine view of the world. If politics is so debased, MKH, shouldn't we be more concerned about elevating discourse rather than rationalizing or justifying its descent to the lowest common denominator?

What you've done is set a standard that now justifies pretty much any negative ad anyone could ever desire to run. Who cares if Candidate A runs an ad falsely accusing Candidate B of necrophilia 3 days prior to the election? Politics are debased, and that commercial can't possibly make people more disgusted with the system, could it? Would you condemn that ad? If so, on what grounds? That's it's false? Well, so were the phonies pretending to be people that they are not, pushing issues that really don't concern them on YouTube. That it debases politics? Too bad, you don't apparently care. Which is a shame: such an ad should be condemned. We should not hesitate to call demeaning things demeaning for fear of risking street cred.

Of course YouTube debates debase politics. Their entire premise is based on bringing politics to the level of a carnival freakshow. Talking snowmen don't belong on a stage addressing questions to men and women seeking elected office. It belittles the process. And yet, the talking snowman was picked. Why?

Exactly because he WASN'T one of "the regular Americans" you seem to believe they are. Are there regular Americans who read blogs and create videos for YouTube? Of course there are (present company excluded, of course). But YouTube places a different emphasis on the matter: it becomes not "I want my question to be heard" as much as it becomes "I want my question to be aired/seen."

And why is this an important distinction? Because it allows the "deciders" to set the framing of the issue. Do I care about 2nd Amendment rights? You bet I do.

But someone who would have presented an regular (albeit, incredibly handsome) image like me wasn't picked to ask a question. A guy who looked like he ran a "compound" in Idaho, complete with a 'do rag, pump action shotgun and crossed bandoliers was.

So what image comes across to the people watching? A guy in a suit and tie, sitting at a desk, calmly asking a thoughtful question or a guy who looked like he was a bad hairday away from shooting up Columbine? Still think it doesn't matter?

It isn't "democracy" in action, MKH. Unless the votes of the CNN staff in selecting the clips are the democracy you are referring to in your sentence.

Now you sort of acknowledge this point of concern. But, again, you default to a position I can only describe as "Hipness uber alles."

But ultimately, I don’t think there was any good political way to decline to do the YouTube debate. I was talking to some of the YouTubers at the debate, and asking what they thought about the idea that we’re debasing the political process or that the talking snowman distracts from real issues, etc. She said:

“It’s up to the candidate to outshine the question. If he can’t outshine the snowman, maybe he shouldn’t be on stage.”

It’s true. If you turn the debate down, you look not as if you’re lifting up the level of debate in American politics. You look like you’re afraid to face down an animated snowman, and you cement an unhelpful image of Republicans as irretrievably unhip and the right-wing web as irretrievably mired in its inferiority.

There was a fine political way to decline the YouTube debate, MKH. Romney (to his credit) should have stuck to his guns when he initially declined to appear. He was right then. You think GOP voters would punish Republicans for telling CNN to shove it? No more than Dem voters hold their FOX boycott against their candidates.

And, I'm sorry, but I don't think that protecting the "image of the right wing web" is particularly relevant to much of anything. Tell me, how "hip" was Ronald Reagan? How "hip" was Margaret Thatcher? How "hip" was Barry Goldwater?

If you ask me, "hipness" is a vastly overrated quality in a political candidate. But then again, I wasn't much impressed with Bill Clinton playing saxophone on Arsenio either. Or when he "hiply" answered the question about "boxers or briefs." I thought that was debasing, actually.

Oh, right.

Look...I know you have a lot vested in this internet video thing. And you do a great job. You know I hold you in nothing but the highest regard, both personally and professionally.

But it's disappointing to see Conservatives worshipping at the altar of "cool", as you appear to be doing here. To treasure style and appearance over substance.

For, if college teaches us anything, it is that the Conservatives who do this are the Conservatives who end up on the path that leads to Libertarianism.

And you can do so much better. You usually do.

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posted by Jack M. at 10:00 PM

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