Alan Jacobs posted a few questions in response to my essay on Matt Walsh that others have also raised on Twitter, Facebook, etc, so I answered them below. I will update this post with any further clarifications that come up. (Alan’s questions in bold italics, my responses beneath.)
1) What exactly is this game that we are all playing?
Mostly I mean writing on the internet, arguing on the internet, but also just engaging in political debate in the hope of creating positive change — a lot of which now happens on the internet.
2) Who are “we”?
Anybody who does the above.
3) Isn’t there a bit of a problem with lamenting the absence of “substantive debate … careful and charitable argument … reasonable and informed debate” in a post in which you describe the people you disagree with in this kind of language: “a moron and a bad writer”; “the Platonic ideal of a douchebag”; “a douchebag”; “a shameless voice”; “echoes the more general prejudices of douchebag politics”; “a gurgling font of reactionary babble”?
Maybe. For most readers, it probably appears hypocritical, but it’s a risk I decided to take. My argument here is not that substantive and reasonable debate excludes strong arguments, rhetorical passion, or even name-calling. Anybody who’s read things I’ve written in the past knows I’ve been an opponent of certain ideological definitions of “civility,” especially the notion that there is something inherently morally elevated about a detached and colorless rhetorical tone. The alternate problem, the problem with the hot take, is that it has no substance beneath its combative rhetoric; it’s pure attitude, id, or cynicism. What I’m trying to demonstrate here is that substantive argument can be combined with an appropriate degree of meanness when the target legitimates it. I wouldn’t argue against all or even most conservatives this way; the only reason I do in Walsh’s case is that he is exceptionally idiotic and horrible. But people are free to conclude that I have not substantively demonstrated enough about Walsh to justify my insults, and thus that they are invalid and inappropriate. That’s fair game.
As for the “douchebag” insult, I don’t mean this as a catch-all epithet. In fact, I chose it carefully and linked to an essay that defines it very specifically (as the insistence on white male prerogative in every social interaction.) This is derogatory, sure, but it’s not unfair; it’s a perfect description of Walsh’s ethos. I favored “douchebag” defined this way over other generalized epithets (“bro” or “asshole”) because those just seem like aimless personal attacks. I have no position on whether Walsh is personally an asshole, but he is objectively a terrible writer and clearly, in virtually every post, demands that the CSWM (conservative straight white male) worldview define reality.
4) Sessions writes of Walsh, “His position is presumed from the start, and he adds nothing beyond scare-quoting and free-association,” and then a few words later he begins a sentence, “The whole ‘analysis’” … so this is intentional self-parody, right? That’s what the whole “game we’re all playing” stuff is about, yes? Please tell me it is.
Sorry, no. I mean what I say.
– – – –
UPDATE: NOV 3, 7:11 PM
Don’t I know Matt Walsh is a Catholic? Why didn’t I mention it?
I confess I did not. I read about 10 posts preparing for this essay, and scanned dozens more over the past couple of years, and never saw anything that indicated MW was a Catholic. You could say the fact someone could read that much of him and get no inkling of a reference to Catholic tradition or philosophy is an illustration of how bad he is at arguing. But good to know! My subject was his reception in evangelical discourse, which doesn’t hinge on which church he belongs to. In my view, if you replaced “evangelicalism” in my essay with “conservative Christianity,” it would include Catholics and change nothing. Others can disagree.
– – – –
UPDATE: NOV 3, 9:22 PM
Alan Jacobs clarifies his criticism here. I think his reading of my essay is fair based on the text, so I should try to clarify what my intent was.
His criticism is that I explicitly state I will not engage with the substance of Walsh’s “ideas,” and proceed to attack him in a fairly mean-spirited way while making a larger complaint about Walsh’s style of refusing to make substantive arguments. At some point I make joke that “we all know” that X—a thing Walsh thinks is deeply disgusting—is actually funny; Jacobs takes this as a preacher’s knowing wink to the choir. Jacobs also notes that I accuse Walsh of scare-quoting the liberal media, and then put scare quotes of my own around the phrase “analysis.”
First, I couldn’t engage with Walsh’s ideas if I wanted to because he has no ideas, or if he does, he makes no arguments for them. There may be respectable arguments for his positions that could be engaged with in debate, but he doesn’t make them. So it’s impossible to “engage” with Walsh; to do so would be to try to impose upon his writing a coherence it does not have.
However, secondly, the other reason I sidestep Walsh’s substance is not so that I can get on to the mockery, but because it’s not relevant to the argument I’m making. I make a genealogical argument that attempts to illuminates how concurrent shifts both in conservative Christian discourse and the broader media landscape made it possible for someone like Walsh to seize the moment. My central contention is that this change has been a more or less deliberate shift away from explicit, “formal” argument toward a kind of impressionistic emoting that can’t be pinned down by argument. I see this is a bigger problem across the board, not just an annoying style that Matt Walsh or any other particular writer has adopted. My problem with it is precisely that it cannot be argued with; I, unsurprisingly for an academic in training, prefer an argument that is clear about its premises and evidence, and thus can be defended or disputed. So, you can say that I am assuming too much that my readers agree with me, but you cannot accuse me of failing to make arguments or offer any evidence for them; the evidence for the type of argument I’m making just happens to have little to do with the ideas or lack thereof in Walsh’s writing.
Third, Jacobs reads way too much into the “We all know” line. That was a deliberate overstatement for comic effect; I don’t think it’s obvious that “we all” finds little kids swearing funny.
Finally, as for the scare quotes, I think this is bad reading on Jacobs’ part; it conflates things that are not the same. I criticize Walsh for using quotations from the liberal media that conservatives will find alarming, but I don’t similarly use selective quotations from Walsh’s writing to make him sound evil. My use of quotation marks when I refer to his “analysis” is to indicate that I’m using a word that is not really appropriate to describe what I’m describing. This latter example just has nothing to do with my analysis of Walsh’s scare quotes.
Despite all the above intent on my part, it’s still possible to conclude that I criticize Walsh and other bloggers for assuming agreement with things they don’t argue, and then do the same thing myself. I hope that someone who disagrees with me politically—perhaps they winced at me calling Walsh sexist and anti-gay in the opening paragraph—could still agree with my conclusion that XYZ kind of shift happened in evangelical discourse and it’s lamentable for XYZ reasons. Or they could mount a counter-argument and show that I’m wrong. In my view, if I made an argument that can be debated or refuted, I’m logically consistent; I’d like to think, additionally, that agreement with some of my political assumptions is not necessary to find something valuable in the essay. But it’s fair enough to say I let my prejudices show pretty clearly, and that what I came up with isn’t much different than a hot take. I mean, I even called it that myself.
TagsAndrew Sullivan Apologetics Arts Atheism Barack Obama Belief Bible Book Review Books Capitalism Catholic Church Catholicism Charles Taylor Christian Christianity Christianity Today Church Conservatives Evangelicalism Evangelicals Facebook Faith God Gospel Coalition History Jesus Journalism Marriage Marvin Olasky Marxism Media Michele Bachmann New Sincerity New York Times Patheos Philosophy Politics Religion Religion and Spirituality Rob Bell Ross Douthat Same-sex marriage Secularism Theology United States
Subscribe to Patrol via Email