September 19, 2019

Egotism and the Abuse of Discourse

NBA stars Lebron James and Kevin Durant did an ESPN podcast. James opined that Trump “doesn’t understand the people and really don’t [sic] give a #X%@# about the people.” Durant wrestled with a hardwood metaphor: “our country is not ran [sic] by a great coach.”

Laura Ingraham responded that a lot of young people look up to James, but they should realize that “this is what happens when you attempt to leave high school early to join the NBA,” and adding that it is unwise to accept political advice from “someone who gets paid a hundred million dollars a year to bounce a ball.” Her advice to James was to “shut up and dribble.”

Media folk and twitterers swooned in outrage and one TV commentator made a particularly muddleheaded remark when he said that athletes are “just as qualified as Ingraham is to comment on politics.” Say what?

Let’s pause for a moment and note how breathtakingly stupid that remark was. The commentator obviously didn’t know these facts about Ingraham—she graduated from Dartmouth; earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, where she was editor of the law review; was a speechwriter for President Reagan; clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals justice and for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; practiced law in NYC; worked for three TV networks and now has both a nationally syndicated radio show and a prime-time TV show; and authored six best-selling books.

In contrast, LeBron James graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary high school, joined the NBA and has become one of the greatest basketball players in history.

James’ athletic qualifications are indisputable. However, the only way to believe that he is as qualified as Ingraham “to comment on POLITICS” is to embrace the relativistic view that any opinion is as good as any other and words like “qualified” mean anything we want them to mean. The United States has been awash with relativists for a long time. Interestingly, though, even the most educated of them never practice what they preach—in other words, they don’t seek medical advice from electricians, financial counseling from Uber drivers, or legal advice from novelists. They instead confine their philosophy to puerile discussions of government, religion, and the meaning of life.

The commentator’s response to the James-Ingraham kerfuffle is, alas, not uncommon in modern culture, especially in social media. Let me offer one more example of the kind of nonsense that occurs almost daily.

I recently published an essay discussing the factors that lead to academic and career success, as detailed in the book Triple Package by Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. I then received an email from “Mike.” His first two sentences were apparently about my essay:

More hippie bashing. It’s amazing how often I hear similar attitudes that denigrate the 60’s.

The rest of the comment was about the book:

The Triple Package is [discussed] on Wikipedia and I offer this critique I found there: “Alicia Stewart who wrote for CNN sums up several controversial issues in the book: namely, the definition of success is not universal; the traits of success are not a pattern; triple package cultures highlight relatively less successful cultural groups; over-generalizing and honing in on groups promote a ‘new racism’; the notion of American dream is undermined.”

I weighed the option of ignoring the email, but the more I thought about the matter, the more I felt I should respond forthrightly. So I wrote as follows:

First, I assume your first line is directed at my essay; it doesn’t say, so I’m left to guess. (Not a hallmark of good communication on your part.) For the record, I have been analyzing the changes in American culture since the 60s, when I began teaching in college, and have discussed my analyses in a number of books and essays.

For you to dismiss my message categorically as “hippie bashing” is an example of picking an insulting term and using it to dismiss a serious essay without ever engaging the author’s points. A more responsible critic would have treated my argument fairly, acknowledging the particular points I made, identifying those he found valid and those he believed were flawed, and explaining his reasons for that belief.

Secondly, your comment about Triple Package makes clear that you didn’t read it, but instead just read “Alicia Stewart’s” comments. Do you even know who she is? I wonder because I looked her up and found almost nothing about her background and accomplishments. Yet you seem to trust her implicitly and approve of what she said. (Otherwise, why quote it?) I can see why her statements resonate for you—she seems as inclined to use denigrating slogans as you are. You used “hippie bashing”; she used “racism.” Judging by the rest of her remarks, I’d guess that she didn’t complete Triple Package either, but just read enough to hang a nasty epithet on.

Whether or not you know it, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld hold endowed chairs at Yale Law School. Both have written widely. Chua was named one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2011. Suffice it to say, they are no intellectual slouches. What is more, the book they wrote addresses the existing body of research (other people’s as well as theirs) about individual and group success over the centuries. That is a large topic, as indicated by their 70+ pages of documentation.

Is it OK for you to challenge their conclusions despite their impressive status and your lack of it? Of course, but not in your hit-and-run juvenile way. They deserved better.

One final note, Mike: You say it’s “amazing how often [you] hear similar assessments of the 60s.” Given that there are so many of them, you might want to ponder whether they deserve more careful consideration. Just a thought.

Both the TV commentator on Ingraham versus James and “Mike” seem to have at least one important characteristic in common—basing their assessments of people and ideas on their personal feelings rather than facts. Both seem to believe that liking a person is sufficient grounds for defending the person’s every statement, and disliking a person is ample justification for attacking his/her intelligence and moral character. Interestingly, this characteristic is more about self than other people. In other words, it translates as, “I am so wonderful that whoever wins my favor partakes of my wonderfulness, but whoever does not is by that very fact beneath contempt.”

That is a sad delusion, and the fact that increasing numbers of Americans seem to suffer from it helps to explain the decline of civility and mutual respect and, as a result, the divisiveness that prevents people from working together for the common good.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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