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fight for your right to stupidity

Below is another Crikey piece from a few days back, on the media career of a certain ‘Joe the Plumber’ and what it says about contemporary conservatism. It should, however, be updated by the inclusion of Joe’s remarkable statement outlining the role of the media in times of conflict:

To be honest with you, I don’t think journalists should be anywhere allowed war [sic]. … I liked back in World War I and World War II, when you’d go to the theater and you’d see your troops on the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them. Now everyone’s got an opinion and wants to down soldiers — our American soldiers, our Israeli soldiers. I think media should be abolished from reporting. You know, war’s hell, and if you’re gonna sit there and say ‘Well look at this atrocity’ — well you don’t know the full story behind it half the time. So I think the media should have no business in it.

It might seem rare to find reporters so aggressively asserting their right to remain ignorant but it should be remembered that this kind of thing wasn’t unknown, even amongst proper journalists, in the months immediately after 9/11. On September 17, 2001, Dan Rather, an icon of American media, expressed a very ‘Joe the Plumber’ line in these words: ‘George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions and you know, as just one American wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.’ Which kinda supports the argument of the piece below: that Joe the Plumber — the Che Guevara of bald, pissed off white men, as someone memorably described him — represents a certain strand in contemporary conservatism that received a tremendous fillip from 9/11 and is only now reaching a crescendo of stupidity.

Anyway, the Crikey thing follows.

You might not remember Joe the Plumber, a fellow who catapulted into history during the US election after confronting Obama about his mildly progressive taxation policy: it was, he, declared, “one step closer to socialism”.

Well, Joe’s now got a new career for the conservative group Pajamas Media:

Joe the Plumber has set aside his wrenches to become a rookie war correspondent, covering Israel’s side of its two-week-old military offensive in Gaza.

The people of Sderot “can’t do normal things day to day” like get soap in their eyes in the shower, for fear of rockets, said America’s most famous plumber, who’s real name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher.

“I’m sure they’re taking quick showers,” he said. “I know I would.”

Wurzelbacher’s status as a rookie was evident when he stood in front of a pile of spent rockets and said: “I have thousands of questions but I can’t think of the right one.”

“Why hasn’t Israel acted sooner?” Wurzelbacher asked. “I know if I were a citizen here, I’d be damned upset.”

He described himself as a “peaceloving man,” but added, “when someone hits me, I’m going to unload on the boy. And if the rest of the world doesn’t understand that, then I’m sorry.”

Wurzelbacher, who underwent intense media scrutiny during the campaign, said he was enlisted to cover Israel because he’s “an expert on media bias.”

“I was on the short end of the stick,” like Israel is now, he said.

When Wurzelbacher joined Republican Sen. John McCain on the campaign trail, he agreed with a supporter who asked if he thought “a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel.”

Some might complain that Joe the Plumber’s not actually a journalist. But that’s okay: his name’s not Joe (it’s Sam) and he’s not a plumber, either (or, at least, he doesn’t have a licence). Still, he’s milked his fifteen minutes to get out a book (Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream) and explore a country music career, and now he’s (why not?) on location as a reporter.

In part, Joe the journalist represents the ascendancy of infotainment over news, as the traditional model of journalism (exemplified by broadsheet newspapers) enters its prolonged death throes. But he also embodies a growing trend in contemporary conservatism, one strand of which now openly embraces ignorance and backwardness.

As Mark Lilla explains in the Wall Street Journal, the Right’s decade-long Culture War against inner city elitism initially aimed to replace the so-called tenured radicals with a new breed of conservative intellectuals. But along the way, the campaign against pinko professors morphed into something a little different: a crusade against knowledge itself:

Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders’ intellectual virtues — indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes.

They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.

There was some of this in the support for George W. Bush as a man who decided with his gut rather than, like, his brain, and there was a lot more of it in the campaign for Sarah Palin for the vice-presidency because — and not despite — of her evident lack of qualifications. Janet Albrechtsen, for instance, judged Palin the “perfect VP choice” not because she possessed any relevant experience but because she was “entertaining” and “scruffed up the Left”.

Joe the Plumber represents the final destination of that particular journey: a man sent to report on Gaza entirely on the basis that he knows nothing at all about reporting and nothing at all bout Gaza. Doubtless he’ll pop up soon explaining climate change in the Australian.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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