We are running out of umpires

I first ran into what Rush Limbaugh calls “trans-partisan authorities” in the form of “trans-racial authorities.” In was in the late 1960s and a very angry black man was telling me how things really were. He said that segregation was perfectly legal. I said it was not and cited a decision by the U. S. Supreme Court. Who says?” he asked. “The Supreme Court,” I answered. “Your Supreme Court,” he replied.

Hm.. MY Supreme Court. I had never heard that before and had no idea at all how to respond to it.

Recently, David Roberts wrote a piece in Vox called “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology.” [1] He says this:

In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to transpose the conversation I had with the alienated black man in the 1960s into charges that go like this. “How do you know.” he says. “I read it in the New York Times or the Houston Chronicle or the St. Louis Post Dispatch,” I say. “Hah!” he says, “YOUR press.”

umpire 2

It doesn’t take much imagination, either, to see what a delightful state of affairs this is for Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is the one of the major instigators of one of the cheering sections. He knows when an infraction has occurred on the field of play because he knows then something has happened that is an unfortunate for his team. When the good guys have the ball and the wide receiver and the safety are running stride for stride downfield and there is contact, it is obviously defensive pass interference. When the bad guys have the ball and the exact same event occurs, it is offensive pass interference.

And there are no umpires to establish what actually happened. Perfect!

That is where Limbaugh’s vision—there are no “trans-partisan” authorities—leaves us. Limbaugh will argue, certainly, that on “the other side,” there is someone doing exactly the same things he is doing, but on behalf of “the bad guys.” So it’s him, Limbaugh, against the other guy and all the decisions are zero-sum decisions; there is a winner and a loser every time. There are no “good calls,” calls that penalize a player for a foul that was actually committed; just favorable or unfavorable calls.

And what is an umpire? [2] Here, as if often the case, etymology paints a picture for us. In the middle of the 15th Century, the Old French “an oumpere”—not an equal—was divided as “a noumpere.” [3] This third person is not a peer of the other two; he is the peer of the other referees and judges. And because he is not a peer—not “on par;” not an equal—of the players, he can make unbiased and accurate judgments.

Limbaugh says that there is no such unbiased entity. Everybody is shilling for his teamumpire and there are only two teams the left and the right. The people who have been calling themselves umpires, are actually members of the left—they have been “irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy.”

This view is, as I say, a great boon for people like Limbaugh. If nothing is really true, then my version is as good as yours and there is only the battle between one agitator and another.

Steve Bannon’s Version

Steve Bannon, whom David Roberts calls Trump’s consigliere [3] says that the mainstream press is “the opposition party.” This uses the same notion that Limbaugh uses, but in a considerably more virulent form.

If the mainstream press is “a party,” it is by definition, “partisan.” [4] That means that whatever the mainstream press says is not only partisan—watch the logic here—but “merely partisan.” That means that it has no other claim to our attention. The bulletins issued by the Democratic National Committee (or, in the Trump Era, also by the Republican National Committee) and news articles in the New York Times have the same persuasive value in Bannon’s scheme. What the mainstream parties say (Republican and Democratic) and what the mainstream press says (Seattle Times, Cincinnati Inquirer, Wall Street Journal) are equivalent. They are propaganda efforts by—remember Limbaugh’s phrase—“an alien enemy.”

What that means in practical terms is that no one can be trusted to tell you what the Trump administration is really doing. Time one: Trump embezzles money. Time two: The Times reports that Trump has embezzled money. Time three: Trump lashes out against a political attack by “the other party,” meaning, in this instance, the press.  Now we have a new story and, guess what, it isn’t about embezzlement.

This is much worse that the old default accusation that a charge was politically motivated. As I write this, lots of very ugly things are being said about Judge Roy Moore of Alabama. Moore says, in the November 12 New York Times, that the charges are politically motivated. He doesn’t say they aren’t true; he just shifts the public’s attention to the motives of the people who are reporting the stories. My own reaction to politicians who do that is that they have not only admitted the truth of the accusation, but have also revealed that they think we are stupid.

Bannon’s scenario is much worse. In Bannon’s world, we know that the reports—whatever their ultimate source—are false because they are reported by the press. So a umpire 3woman could have been raped and her account of what happened to her could be true—UNTIL IT WAS REPORTED IN THE PRESS. Then it isn’t true anymore. When it is reported, it is an act of political aggression and the truth claim is buried in politics.

We now have a principal actor (the Trump administration) which is completely unaccountable. How completely delightful!  By the way, if all this sounds familiar, you may be remembering Watergate, but the present situation is what Nixon could only have dreamed of; he never got anywhere near it himself.

I think everything I have said about this situation is correct as far as it goes. It’s truly objectionable. It is self-serving in the extreme. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s as dire as I have made it sound. Despite Bannon’s formulations, a solid majority of the electorate—the whole electorate minus the 30% or so who are inalienable Trump fans—still believes in the truth of well-substantiated accounts published in the mainstream press. [6]

The logic of public action that supports the existence and reliability of “an umpire” is, of course, under attack and those of us who value it will need to defend it. I don’t think that is a bad thing. It is just the work we will need to do if we want candidates to compete for our votes, i.e., if we want to live in a republic.

[1] It’s a little hard to get to, but here is the step-by-step version. Go to https://www.vox.com/authors/david-roberts. That will give you a list of his recent articles. On the second page of that list, you will find an article classed “America is facing an epistemological crisis.” If you click on that article, you will find a hyper text link to “tribal epistemology.” If you click on that, you will be at the site of the article I am responding to.
[2]The umpire (U) stands behind the defensive line and linebackers… observing the blocks by the offensive line and defenders trying to ward off those blocks, looking for holding or illegal blocks. Prior to the snap, he counts all offensive players.  During passing plays, he moves forward towards the line of scrimmage as the play develops to  penalize any offensive linemen who move illegally downfield before the pass is thrown or [to] penalize the quarterback for throwing the ball when beyond the original line of scrimmage. He also assists in ruling incomplete passes when the ball is thrown short.
[3] This is a common way to get new words. I once had “a napple” but it became “an apple.” My napron became “an apron.”
[4] A consigliere is an advisor, by dictionary says, “especially to a crime boss.”
[5] In contemporary usage, the word “partisan” has taken on a host of negative connotations. That is unfortunate, in my view, because it eliminates an otherwise very usable adjective form of the noun, “party.”
[6] It is true that these allegations may have reached them through social media, but even so, there is a public account that can be referred to.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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