Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bias, History, Foucault, Baseball, and Artistry

Five years ago, every "postmodern theorist" I talked to agreed -- and usually cited Foucault as their evidence -- that the observer could never be neutral. Every pundit is an ideologue, every critic speaks from a loaded viewpoint, every person is somehow trapped in historical forces larger than themselves. And I'm not sure that 2008's theorists are any different; it's just that I haven't talked to anyone about this for five years. Because...

Well, frankly, because five years ago it seemed like a really good point to me. Although it somehow "felt wrong," I couldn't figure out how to respond to the argument with an argument that felt better.

However! -- lately I swear that a monkey could see through to the silly assumptions of that claim. Everyone watching coverage of the 2008 election cycle should be able to see who is "in the bag" for which candidate. Partisan outlets like Fox News, Air America, and Rush Limbaugh aside, it's easy to tell that Keith Olbermann is a democrat -- and yet, when Tim Russert died, Olbermann grandstanded with a wrinkle on his earnest-looking brow with Chris Matthews: "It was amazing how Tim gave equal balance to both sides of every argument -- and isn't that what we all aspire to, as journalists?"

Well, no, Olbermann -- obviously not. You don't. Rush Limbaugh doesn't. And so on. But the question for postmodernists does not concern hacks like those. The question is, did someone like Tim Russert manage to approach objectivity in his journalistic persona?

I think he did. I think it's possible. And I'll prove it right now. But first, soften yourself up, reader. I'm not going to be able to make my case unless you admit that you're drawn to hacks like Olbermann and Limbaugh -- you find them exciting, don't you? It's good to hear simple interpretations that spare you the effort of thinking, especially when they're delivered with the tones of earnestness. If you do feel implicated, don't fret -- you're certainly not alone. Olbermann and O'Reilly and Limbaugh are popular. Apparently everybody likes one of them.

But talking politics makes your shoulders tight, doesn't it, Reader? Allow me to use an analogy instead, before returning to the direct question of whether or not it might be possible to report on history (and current events) in a way that would bewilder Foucault's disciples.

The analogy is the umpire. When I played baseball, I hated umpires. And not just when they made bad calls -- which they did all of the time in my opponents' favor. I hated them for their lack of passion. I wondered what it would take to descend to such a lamentable condition as a human being. What kind of childhood abuse would lead someone to become... an umpire.

But as I've stepped away from active participation in baseball, my respect for umpires has grown. I have come to understand that umpires value the game itself above either of the teams competing. They manage to observe without bias.

"Not so quick!" hollers the Foucalt-worshipper. "You've forgotten that the umpire assents to the overarching ideology of 'baseball' itself every time he steps onto the field. If he is an American league umpire, he reveals himself as ideologically in favor of the designated hitter just by agreeing to call a game."

But in corresponding terms, if you will grant that the umpire can call a game without harboring bias against either of the teams, won't you admit that a journalist or historian (or critic) may "call" that game without bias to partisan factions, at least?

Take the rise of Barack Obama and the 2008 election, now. Wouldn't it be possible to report on what is happening without bias? I think it would. I think an artist could do it. And so I come to what this post is really about:

Definition of Art and Artistry: Art opposes partisanship.

Is that true?

I'll start writing shorter posts again soon -- apologies. It takes practice.


Wishydig said...

My memory of umpires was largely influenced by my first time playing catcher. I was afraid of getting too close to the batter and the ump said "scoot up. He won't hit you. I promise."

And I never got hit. His perspective was enough to make an accurate prediction. That's basically what I need from objectivity.

Casey said...

The only time I tried catching I was afraid that the batter would "foul-tip" one so I kept jerking my mitt just as the ball crossed homeplate. It would hit me variously in the chest, the stomach, and the nads... I lasted about three pitches.