I Really Don't Care About the Correspondents' Dinner
On the list of things about which I care, The White House Correspondent's Dinner ranks somewhere between Edward vs Jacob and off-season NFL news. Others may find one or more of those things to be fascinating or important, but, at the risk of landing too squarely on the head, I do not. The dinner is silly and outdated and I seriously doubt anyone other than those in attendance and a very small circle in its close orbit have ever cared about it.
This year, however, the broken and useless institutional relic was snapped in half and consigned to the junk heap behind the rusted-out car mounted on cinder blocks in our collective backyard. There it will decay with the grill we never use, a pile of moldy firewood, and the dry-rotting deck chair with the broken seat. And there it likely belongs.
Michelle Wolf and a tidal wave of self-righteous indignation worked in concert to do the breaking. The organization dedicated to free speech invited for her "truth spoken to power" a well-know comedian who went too far in her mockery. They apologized for the vulgar way in which she freely spoke truth to power, and thus completed a bizarre circle of self-denial.
Perhaps the most representative reaction was that of Mika Brzezenski of MSNBC who insisted that the dinner gave Trump "a win" because people would be turned off by its vulgarity. Putting aside for the moment that no one who could seriously consider supporting Donald Trump's presidency could credibly claim to be offended by the vulgarity of a comedian in a venue of little consequence, my reaction was similar to that of my wife and I as characters on Gossip Girl freak out about a massive scandal in their midst:
Wait a second. Who exactly do they imagine actually gives a shit?
But this particular dust-up intersects with something about which I care a great deal (and which, of course, most people care rather little): words. Perhaps the best criticism I read of the event came from conservative Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson.
Gerson wastes no sympathy on Michelle Wolf but regards her shtick as the inevitable reaction to a gutter-bound political discourse and he has no reservations about where to place the primary blame. He writes:
But the problem is deeper, for one main reason: because good rhetoric is the carrier of serious thought. “Eloquence,” said theologian Lyman Beecher, “is logic on fire.” A great and memorable phrase encapsulates an argument. “The world must be made safe for democracy” expressed Woodrow Wilson’s vision of America’s role in the world. Kennedy’s “Let them come to Berlin” summarized America’s commitment to containing the Soviet Union. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech grew out of a compelling conception of fairness and justice.
Trump’s signature phrase — “fake news” — is an attack on the free press and a comfort to authoritarians everywhere. The memorable rallying cry of his campaign — “lock her up” — was a call to jail his political opponent. His degraded language results from a degraded politics. And the repair of our public life will eventually require a restoration of rhetoric.
I have a hard time mustering sympathy for any of the offended in this particular case, but that's not what Gerson is asking. He doesn't mourn decency for its own sake (though he certainly has). He argues for better, more attentive language for a practical reason too. Language is a direct reflection of thought. George Orwell, Joan Didion, and numerous others in addition to those Gerson cites have argued something similar.
Maybe the only way to fight this absurdity is in the mud but I think the high road is worth a shot, not for principle's sake, but because better ideas and truer compassion require better language. We need not avoid confrontation; in fact, the more destructive and demeaning Trump becomes, the more willing we should be to confront. We should just give our ideas and our arguments the benefit and power that words can bring to bear. We should be eloquent in our militancy.
(Says the guy who used the phrase "give a shit" only moments ago.)