When Snark Gets In The Way Of Rational Thought

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 25, 2010

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Dana Milbank is apparently upset–or more likely, just gleeful that he gets to employ what he thinks is his award-winning brand of snark and sarcasm–because White House National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers dared to engage in academic econospeak when talking to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Yeah. You read that right. Milbank can’t believe that Summers, an academic, would speak like an academic to other academics.

I understand that the White House needs to have a comprehensible message on the economy for the American people in general. But one of the things we were told was the hallmark of the Obama Administration was its ability to speak up to people, rather than talk down to them. I am actually willing to give the Administration props for this; one of the President’s most important rhetorical gifts is the ability to speak to people as though they are adults. Of course, the President shows his disdain in other ways–he can be rather arrogant at times–but it is obvious that he has figured out that people like being treated as though they are smart, and he likes to cater to that need, knowing that people will like him more if he does.

So if we expect the President to speak up to people, shouldn’t we expect those in his Administration to follow his example? Particularly if they are academics, talking in a forum that is filled with other academics? To be sure, for all I know, the event was televised by C-Span (I don’t get to watch much television these days, so this is an assumption, but it is a reasonable one), and non-academics sitting in their living rooms got to see it as well as the academics at SAIS, but these non-academics are self-styled government geeks anyway. Why not treat them that way? Yes, I am aware that the subset of C-Span viewers who call into shows and ask questions sound unhinged (in many cases, because they are unhinged), but I think that it is safe to say that not all C-Span viewers are like that.

In any event, I see no reason why academics can’t speak academese when they are around one another. I also see no reason why people like Dana Milbank ought to write columns snarking at the use of multisyllabic words–and thus implicitly giving readers an excuse not to understand, or even try to understand what those words mean–instead of writing columns expecting readers to follow events of consequence (no matter how complicated those events may be), showing what the words used in discussing those events mean, and showing how they impact the lives of Americans. But I guess this is what happens when we have a press corps that seeks to dumb down its consumers, even as it decries the dumbing down process itself.

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