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Theater Critic Analysis of Politics Is Tautology All the Way Down



David Brooks explains Hillary Clinton’s problem:

Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun? We know what Obama does for fun—golf, basketball, etc. We know, unfortunately, what Trump does for fun.

This idea that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have hobbies is silly, easily disproven nonsense, but that’s not the point. When pundits analyze “character,” it is almost without exception pure tautology that tells the reader nothing. Personal characteristics are cherrypicked (or, in the style of Brooks here, presumably influenced by his colleague Maureen Dowd) outright invented, which amazingly always prove the politically expedient ex ante views of the pundit correct. My favorite example of the genre is Jacob Weisberg’s analysis of iPod playlists. Amazingly enough, George W. Bush’s bog-standard middle-aged-white-person playlist showed that George W. Bush was an Authentic Straight-Shooting Comfortable In His Own Skin You’d Like to Have a Beer With Brush-Clearer and Hillary Clinton’s bog-standard middle-aged-white-person playlist showed that Hillary Clinton was an Inauthentic Politically Calculating Ice Queen Who Doesn’t Know Herself And Would Scold You For Having A Beer. (Theater critic analysis of political figures, among its many other problems, has a strong tendency to be preoccupied above all with the concept of Authenticity, which is even more useless applied to political leaders than it usually is.) To state the obvious, there is no collection of songs that would have caused Wiesberg not to reaffirm the standard pundit wisdom.

Brooks’s column is a case in point. You could make the same point about Clinton by discussing her hobbies, and you could draw pretty much any other conclusion from Clinton’s hobbies, and none of these conclusions will actually be of any value. Elspeth Reeve helpfully demonstrates how Brooks would react to hypothetical new Hillary Clinton hobbies:

Future Hillary hobby: A chatty podcast with her friends.

Future Brooks column: “Another tone-deaf decision by Clinton (or, more likely, her aides). They are seemingly unaware the vast majority of Americans do not listen to vocally fried podcasts on subway rides from their pleasant Park Slope apartments, but plainspoken drive-time radio spoken from the heart. And furthermore this ‘hobby’ brings up uncomfortable associations for Clinton with financial misdeeds, as countless podcasts are kept afloat by unsavory subscription companies that use auto-billing to prey on consumers who can’t be bothered to closely check their statements. No wonder Americans are in so much debt. But they owe Hillary nothing.”

Future Hillary hobby: Improv.

Future Brooks column: “In perhaps the darkest hour in the history of the republic, Hillary Clinton expects us to laugh. It is unsettling to see a presidential candidate giggling like a schoolgirl over some Justin Bieber reference as the entire Middle East burns. Serious times call for serious candidates, Madame Secretary.”

Future Hillary hobby: Adult coloring books.

Future Brooks column: “Yet another example of liberals’ sad infantilization of the American public, ever the Mommy Party forcing us to sign up for health insurance and creating ‘safe spaces.’ Coloring in the lines? Typical Hillary.”

Future Hillary hobby: Home brewing.

Future Brooks column: “While she remains desperate to reach out to the common man, she can’t help but wallow in coastal liberals’ corrosive commodification of the working class. Here’s a tip, Hillary: Want to drink a beer like an authentic white man, one who works with his hands? The kind who has grease stains on his plaid shirt, woven in a rustic fabric? Drink a Lite Coors.”

Future Hillary hobby: Colorguard.

Future Brooks column: “Who could have imagined a year ago we’d be witness to the ludicrous spectacle of Hillary Clinton prancing about a football field and twirling a purple flag? The whole stunt is a disaster. And it’s doubly bad for Clinton, as it recalls uncomfortable associations with Obama’s failed foreign policy. Why not wave a white flag of surrender?”

Future Hillary hobby: 3-D printing.

Future Brooks column: “Americans are tired of distractions. Elections are about ideas. They are hard-fought battles of intellect and ideology—the stuff that actually matters. Blah blah moral seriousness.”

Exactly. This genre of political writing just doesn’t have any added value.

…see also Jia Tolentino.

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