I was pleasantly surprised by the interest people took in my post on GE/Comcast liberal Chris Hayes and the overwhelmingly positive response. I suppose it’s natural that, as the ostensible leftiest left on television, with fans that include Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, he would be compelling as a topic both to people who find any ‘real’ liberalism in the mainstream media an unalloyed good and those, like me, who are a good deal more skeptical about it.
My post naturally had its detractors, and I am particularly grateful to the one that wrote this –
what think you of a genre devoted to complaints that cable television doesn’t provide adequate revolutionary leadership?
– as it efficiently typifies the winning combo of knowingness, straw men and ridicule that characterized most of the objections. I noticed a paradox right away in Hayes’ defenders: on one hand, a great deal of credulous enthusiasm for what this ‘real’ lefty, who’d somehow slipped in the back door on an unsuspecting corporate media, could accomplish for the unspecified cause; on the other, an above-it-all resignation to how very constrained Hayes is to be anything more than the dissident-cum-hack I had described and why didn’t I just grow up instead of taking ‘cheap shots’ at someone who is very obviously on the ‘right side’?
Now where have we have heard this before?
It is, at first, disquieting to hear intelligent people reflexively applying the logic of duopoly to a media landscape where there are more than just two really deplorable choices, since it suggests the left’s Stockholm Syndrome is even worse than I’d feared. But then you learn that, it’s not about them, you see – they’re savvy people, who rarely watch TV — it’s about their neighbors, whose viewing and reading habits leave as much to be desired as their childish affinity for big, corn-syrupy drinks. These neighbors are going to watch TV whether we want them to or not, and perhaps Hayes is a bit of a shill; but isn’t it better that the philistines get the grain or two of truth with the shilling rather than none at all? And, really, isn’t it better that he shills for Team Blue if the schmucks on Fox are going to shill for Team Red?
Well, as one who wishes the establishment left would collectively die in its sleep this very night, I may not be the best person to put these questions to. But even allowing the dubious premise that corporate news could actually serve the left well without taking something in return, doesn’t it make sense to approach it as one should approach politics, as a matter of leverage? MSNBC is responding to market demand for leftier lefts in mainstream media. This demand presents a dilemma for corporate media that the demand for rightier rights did not, simply because left interests do not neatly intersect with corporate interests the way right interests do. It should therefore be obvious that MSNBC is only going to be as left as it needs to be to keep a profitable market share and credibly sell its audience on shitty Democratic Party politics.
In this light, isn’t it a good thing to take ‘cheap shots’ at Hayes and his ilk when they fuck up, if we are going to pay any attention to them at all? Militarists were able to make Hayes grovel for the most cautious misgivings about heroism. When his groveling amounts to disgusting right-wing propaganda, why shouldn’t we boo just as loudly rather than reflexively feeling his careerist pain? From where comes this habitual insistence on the part of so many ostensible lefts, to reconcile their more critical comrades to the immutably wicked ways of the world, to react with sometimes venomous hostility to higher expectations and the resulting bullshit call on some alleged ‘friend’ — usually some well-paid person with power ? Why do so many people on the left keep insisting that capitulation and brownnosing will produce something new and desirable?
It’s also worth considering that the dialogue between MSNBC and the left goes both ways. It would be premature to assume that the sudden emergence of leftier lefts in corporate media will raise the bar for cable television, without recognizing its potential for lowering the bar for left discourse as a whole. I have ventured a bit into the Hayes archive and been struck by how he decorates his better segments with more ostensibly radical personalities like Alexis Goldstein of Occupy Wall Street and Bhuskar Sankara of Jacobin Magazine and then induces them to find their dull inner reformist for the sake of whatever middle brow, inevitably partisan axe he happens to be grinding.
Despite how meticulously he controls what they say and when, clearly they appreciate the exposure and happily continue to lend him their credibility via social networks and other media they control. This, in turn, induces other ambitious lefts, eager for a turn on MSNBC of their own, to brownnose just as shamelessly. What we’re left with is a system where harder lefts confer legitimacy on a powerful, much softer left and his employers, which in turn, empowers the softer left to confer legitimacy on some hard lefts and not others. It’s not hard to imagine young ambitious lefts tailoring their message and persona in accordance with the demands of this system — including the immunizing of Hayes and Co from the normal complement of media criticism — despite the unlikelihood that they will ever enjoy the dangled fruit for having done so.
All this potential for corporate discipline would be troublesome enough if Hayes – in his alleged good moments – were one-half as good as all the legitimacy conferrers keep insisting he is, but, sorry, he just isn’t. I was very grateful that a number of people who read my piece decided to take a closer look at his allegedly good moments, like the recent Gaza discussion that was the object of so much happy hyperventilating. In comments, activist and New Inquiry blogger Maryam Monalisa Gharavi wrote:
Hayes’ opening monologue was astonishing in its predictability. His optics of equivalence is very familiar: he does not use the word blockade (even though it has crippled every sector of Gazan society for at least five years), occupation (never mind settler-colonialism), or even mention that upwards of 70% of Gazans are refugees. Instead, he frames Operation Pillar of Cloud as a ‘back and forth.’
What is the difference between Hayes and the pervasive ‘endless cycle of violence’ discourse? The only time he points to structural power at all is pointing out an ‘asymmetry in death toll’—the same day the episode had aired, by the way, an Israeli air strike had already eviscerated the apartment building housing three generations of the same family, al-Dallou.
Elsewhere, anarchist blogger Arthur Silber had a run at the hero comments that got Hayes into so much hot water but were so admired on the left:
This is the bland voice of institutional “dissent.” Hayes feels “uncomfortable.” He doesn’t want to “desecrate or disrespect” anyone who was killed. But maybe the word “hero” is “problematic.”
And “maybe” he’s “wrong about that.” That is, the argument he’s just made may be totally, completely off-base.
This is “dangerous”? Fuck me.
Silber also took a look at Hayes’ cringe-worthy “A Toast to the Organizers” in which Hayes commends his brother Luke for all the hard work he has done for 64 months as an Obama campaign organizer:
for Luke and the thousands like him: organizers of every hue and background and creed, in states across the union working preposterously long hours doing the grueling, sometimes comically mundane labor of making democracy work: calling people, knocking on doors, sending emails, sitting through endless meetings and conference calls…
Thank you for what you did, thank you for what you do.
Especially you, Luke. I’m proud of you.
Aw, that is sweet. The entire commentary is sweet — so sweet that it would make Walt Disney throw up.
But c’mon. The work of these thousands of people is great, just like Hayes’ commentary about it is great: “making democracy work,” so that we can elect as president a murderer with a Kill List.
With this, Silber hits the nail on the head and points to a rift that will, and must, get wider on the left: between those who are willing to make common cause with tyranny and those who are not. That there are institutional constraints forcing Hayes to equate campaigning for a Kill List President with ‘making democracy work’ is not my problem. Nor am I even a little interested in whatever professional or tactical concerns inspire members of the Occupy/Jacobin/New Inquiry set and others to make vastly more of Hayes’ banal, deeply compromised liberalism than is actually there. By all means, everyone, do what it takes to find your cozy place inside the margins. But don’t be surprised when those of us on the outside shoot you a middle finger instead of applauding.