Bret Stephens points it out. Michael Gerson declares its inadequacy. Jim Geraghty says its old hat with this president. They are all talking about Obama’s tendency to trash talk his opposition, particularly in the absence of a solid solution on his own part. I am with Geraghty in the sense that it is not really news. It requires response because of the bully pulpit, but it is not news. What concerns me, gravely, is that it sells. This guy got elected – twice. His approval rating is near 50% and on the rise in recent weeks.
Clearly the nation has an appetite for trash talk. It is ubiquitous in sports any more, and the more martial the sport, the more prevalent it is. The pretend martial sport of pro wrestling is an entire entertainment industry unto itself built on trash talk. As Gerson points out it is the stock-and-trade of MSNBC. Much of reality TV, tracing its roots to Jerry Springer and his ilk, thrives on it. It is par-for-the-course in social media. People seem to like it. It is entertaining, but it should not be the stuff of serious politics – of presidential statements after mass killings and foreign policy debates.
But increasingly it seems like the nation cannot tell the difference between its entertainments and its serious politics. This has a lot to do with the coin of media. On the one side of the coin there is an entire media/entertainment industry built around politics – starting with talk radio and moving into some of the news channels. There are, of course, exceptions to this (Hugh being prime example #1) but largely political media is far more entertaining than it is informative. On the other side of the coin is the fact that politicians must use media to communicate. Since people expect entertainment from their media, it forces the politician to be more entertaining in their media presentation. The lines start to get really blurry.
Entertainment is fine, but we can ill afford to have this become the standard for our political debate, or even our elections. We live in a place where the serious things of life are not so serious. But the world generally is not such a place – it is full of serious, serious things. The only thing that reducing our political discussion to the level of “Housewives of Town X” will accomplish is to have those serious things return to our shores.
When I examined Obama’s tantrum-like trash-talking response to the Oregon shootings, I noted that the problems in such situations are largely cultural and not really solvable through politics or governance. The same applies to the problem here. Politics is moving in this direction because the public demands it. You want it to change, you have to change the public – somehow. Not an easy task with a public that readily confuses fame and celebrity with genuine success.
No example speaks louder about the relationship between fame and celebrity and productivity than the example of Jesus. He eschewed fame and sought a small circle of close associates that he could work with deeply. The peak of his “career” was his execution. And yet He changed history more than any other man.
Yes, the answer to this problem, like so many that face our nation lies not with our politics, but our churches. And I think we have to start with ourselves. The internet is brimful with trash talk about one church from another, one denomination to another. We quibble to the point of insult about minor theological issues while around us a culture rots. The church world is full of consultants whose advice to churches that want to “succeed” is to find the latest social/cultural trend and ride it. But the church was never intended to follow culture, the church was intended to make culture.
The tendency for the church to follow culture is as old as the church itself. In the first century of the church’s existence, Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus and urged them in Ephesians 4:17, “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” He then goes on to list a number of attributes of the prevailing culture and in the next paragraph he offers some advice for what the Christian culture should look like. Among that advice is this tidbit, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (v. 29)
Ephesus today lies in beautiful ruin. But Christianity is still here, Paul’s words to Christians in Ephesus are still available to us today. Clearly those words must have been pretty good advice for them to still be hanging around.