The Other Side of Bothsidesism

Or, something to make everyone angry

One of the hazards of writing in public, as opposed to writing privately in my Feelings Journal,  is that you get criticized in public as well.  This doesn’t happen in most jobs.  If you’re a bus driver or a florist, and you make an overly wide-right turn or put together a flower arrangement with an unpleasing color palette, chances are you’re not going to get raked on the internet by ill-tempered misanthropes with itchy  iThumbs lusting for virtual violence.  (Unless, that is, you run into a surly, entitled Yelpster. Or, in the interest of eliminating redundancy, a Yelpster.)

But it’s all fair enough, I suppose. If you’re allowed to pronounce on topics that affect people’s lives, they should be allowed to pronounce on you.   It’s the Circle of Life. Or the Circle Jerk, if that’s how you view social media, which I largely do.  Any conscientious media type has to recognize two things about social media:

1. Now that print and blogs are largely dead (even though we’re now calling blogs “newsletters,” to breathe new life into old cadavers), social media is basically the only way your stuff gets genuine pass-around, unless you belong to a particularly robust knitting circle.  Therefore, most journalists are like inhabitants of 1950s-era Pittsburgh when it was still thick with steel mills belching pollutants into the air.  You might not like sucking the only available oxygen out of the smog, but you still need it to survive.

2. That said, we can also recognize that social media is often (though not always) an insidious force that allows our naturally loudest and dumbest to grow even louder and dumber, with the benefit of a microphone that amplifies both attributes. Not for nothing have I written lengthy, reported hit-pieces on social media’s evils.  (Here’s one from 2013, subtly titled  “The Twidiocracy.”)

Since I’m not personally on it – at least not yet - I’d prefer not to pay any attention to it at all, other than to monitor my own mentions, consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds. Though of course, one feels as though they have a professional obligation.  When Jane Goodall became a primatologist, studying chimpanzees, she didn’t stay in posh Hampstead, the place of her birth. No, she went to Tanzania where the chimps lived and bred and flung monkey-dung at each other when agitated.  Similarly, if you’re in the a-hole observation business, you have to go where they live and breed and fling dung at each other. Meaning, you have to at least occasionally read Twitter.

If it sounds like I’m nursing a grudge, it’s because I am.  Just last week, I wrote a piece about Republican apostate congressman Adam Kinzinger, bemoaning his announced retirement, as I took his party to the woodshed even though I’m a lifelong Republican.  A lamestream media friend of mine (in current Republican parlance) Tweeted it out in approving fashion, and was largely met with catcalls from his left-leaning followers. 

Why? Because of the 24 lengthy paragraphs I dedicated to the subject  (if you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of windy),  the piece contained one – and only one – paragraph criticizing the left for the usual offenses:  for being thought-policing, arsonist-enabling, police-defunding ideologues who elected their great grandfather president. Though a perfectly true criticism, it was a boilerplate one.  My heart wasn’t even really in it.  It was a cavalier elbow-to-the-teeth while passing in the hallway. Instead, I had mainly come out to slash the tires of the clown-car death cult that has become the modern Republican party under the spell of the tangelo-flavored real estate developer.

And yet, the hate poured in.  Nothing severe, mind you.   In my Top 100 list of personal Twitter obloquies directed my way, none of them would’ve even ranked.  Nobody suggested, for instance, that I have congress with my mother, or that I perform anatomically impossible acts on myself. But one guy especially got on my nerves when he pronounced: “Bothsiderisim at its finest…..What nonsense.”

Why did such a mild slander so irritate me?  Because what this notion lacks in originality, it makes up for in ubiquity, and cuts to the very heart of what’s wrong with our politics today, like its language, for starters. “Bothsidesism” is, of course, one of those annoyingly smug internet creations that pretends as though it’s making an honest argument when it’s actually foreclosing all possibility of having one.

This happens a lot, these days. The eager-to-please folks at the Merriam-Webster dictionary are constantly admitting new words  - or, as I like to think of them, crimes against the English language -  in order to appear relevant to the kind of people who likely don’t consult dictionaries anyway.  One of the hazards of internetese  (that irksome patois of acronyms and copycat verbiage that passes itself off as thought),  is that it allows people who are too dim or lazy to make arguments to feel as though they’ve won one simply by waving their social-media cliché wands.

Hence,  Merriam-Webster has recently inducted  “TL;DR,” an abbreviation used by those who don’t have the attention spans to spell out “too long, didn’t read” – itself a handy tool for dismissing all discussion that might require more concentration or candlepower than the typical 280 characters allow. Likewise, they’ve also admitted “tbh,” for people who don’t have the time to spell out “to be honest,” but who want to telegraph that they’re not cutting any corners when it comes to telling the truth.

TBH, those last two are small gripes.  And Merriam-Webster hasn’t yet inducted “bothsidesing” or its related noun, “bothsidesism.” But they have put them on their watch list, a sort of dictionary on-deck circle that nearly makes it a shoo-in for future induction. They’ve already bothered to define it as: “a critique leveled at the media and public personas referring to the practice of finding a second angle on a story in an attempt at appearing ‘fair’ to each side, which can often be seen as lending credibility to a side or objectionable idea that has none.”

Just imagine the media attempting to be fair or telling both sides of a story. Or to contemplate more than one idea at any given time.  The horror.

But when the term is invoked by hard political partisans – and it’s always invoked by hard partisans -  it carries the accusation that people who see both sides of an argument, or who believe that there is plenty of blame to go around, or who think that life is grey more often than it is black or white, are blinkered, or naive, or morally inferior.  Charges of bothsidesism virtually never take into account that life is complicated.  Rarely are our heroes pure or our villains pure evil. It is helpful to remember that the world rarely sits still long enough for us to make complete sense of it.  Even that committed evangelist of simplicity, E.B. White (he of The Elements of Style fame) admitted that, “There’s no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.”

Just because, for instance, you think Donald Trump craps the bed nearly every time he opens his mouth, as I do, that doesn’t mean you can’t admit when Joe Biden does the same, perhaps literally.  In breaking-wind news over the weekend, the always reliable Daily Mail reported that Biden nearly gassed out the poor Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, at a climate summit in Glasgow last week.  “It was long and loud and impossible to ignore,” said a source. “Camilla hasn’t stopped talking about it.”

Neither did my email circle.  For the first time in months, Trumpster friends and I were laughing with each other, instead of at each other: worrying that Uncle Joe had stunk up The Special Relationship, wondering if he’d bought carbon-emissions offsets, theorizing that he was laying down a  (skid)-marker to OPEC:  “Either raise oil production or we’ll turn to natural gas.”  Yes, my email-circle reads and writes on a fifth-grade level.  But the point is, if you don’t think the President of the United States tooting on the Duchess of Cornwall is a gas, you might be taking yourself and your politics way too seriously.

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Make no mistake, I don’t mean to diminish the crimes of Donald J. Trump. Who I’m on record as calling a narcissistic, pyromaniac seditionist. Who instead of sitting in exile at his golf club, should probably be sitting in prison, worried that his Nuestra Familia cellie might ask him out on a non-consensual date. January 6 will forever remain a low point of any presidency, a stain on Trump’s reputation, much, much worse than the potential Hershey-squirt stain on Joe Biden’s Jockeys during the climate summit. 

My larger point being that just because Donald Trump is often indefensible, does not make Joe Biden infallible, and saying so is not bothsideism, it’s just acknowledging reality, which hard partisans are always loath to do.  The latter’s young presidency – from its runaway inflation to its Afghanistan goat rodeo - has often come to resemble a plane crashing into a 17-car-interstate pileup.  Not for nothing does a  just-released USA Today/Suffolk poll reveal that Biden’s approval rating has reached a new low of 38 percent ( which is Trump country, approval-rating wise), with nearly half of those surveyed saying Biden has done a worse job as president than they expected, and with Independents saying so by a 7-to-1 margin.  While Trump still remains rightly reviled in the same poll, even 4 in 10 of those who voted for Biden last year say they hope he doesn’t run for another term.

It is hard work, of course, maintaining equilibrium and composure in this Era of Over-excitement.  It is, in many ways, a revolutionary era – stoked, at least, by faux revolutionaries - and moderates make for bad revolutionaries.  As a Hill staffer of my acquaintance and I were recently talking, me telling him that some of my readers were hoping his moderate, reasonable boss would run for president, he scoffed a little, breaking into a mock-chant:

What do we want? 
Prudent change! 
When do we want it? 
The appropriate time!

“Hmmm,” he added, “Not sure the chant works at a rally…”

He’s probably right. And yet, the very best minds tend to maintain their cool, and even their bothsidesism.  George Orwell – who more hard partisans have taken out of context to twist his words into balloon-animals to decorate their own Houses of Distortions than perhaps any other writer – nailed it in his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language.”  In it, he said, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Likewise, the noted political scientist, J.H. Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount (which was kind of like the Aspen Ideas Festival, without all the pretentious speakers and Tory Burch swag bags), said: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? …….Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

I have written this before, and I will likely write it again, since if I don’t repeat myself, who will?: If you believe your side is better, that’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.  But the only way to be better, is to be better. Not as bad or worse than the other side, which is the race to the bottom our politics currently resemble.  At some point, someone is going to have to be the bigger man or woman. And bothsidesism is not a moral cop-out, but rather, a way of acknowledging that neither side is living up to their ideals.

Just because we might feel morally superior, doesn’t always mean we are.  And even if we are, such superiority is often short-lived.  If you think the other side has committed unspeakable war crimes, just wait until your side is back in power. It’s only a matter of time. The only way to be clear-eyed, judicious, and fair, is not merely seeing the faults of the people you dislike – which is easy and satisfying – but the people you have a natural affinity for, which is harder and more uncomfortable. And as a pure matter of political advantage, keeping your own side as honest as possible is the best remedy for throwing the dishonesty of the other side into sharp relief.  If you’re not finding disagreement with all sides on occasion, then you’re probably not the fearless teller of truths you congratulate yourself for being.

I realize this piece probably contains something to offend every partisan.  But so what? Toughen up. Broaden your worldview. Distrust your political enemies if you care to, but distrust your political friends even more. Because the latter are often the ones telling you the sweet little lies you’re using to delude yourself. And if there is any ultimate and objective truth to seize upon, you’re probably missing it by whining about bothsidesism.

To that end, just out of spite, I’m going to let Joni Mitchell play us out with “Both Sides Now.”  And not the fresh, young, pixie-of-Laurel-Canyon Joni Mitchell, either.  But the smoky-voiced, middle-aged Joni Mitchell, when she’d seen things and life had beaten her down a little.  The one who sounds like she woke up with a head-cold and a lot of regrets. I just want you to hurt like Joni does. So suck on it, onesiders (a word I might have just invented – quick, someone call Merriam-Webster.)

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