Who taught Chris Hayes how to talk: On Sunday, the New York Times did a profile of Chris Hayes, who hosts an MSNBC show on weekend mornings.
Hayes strikes us as a smart, sincere person. We look forward to reading his new book. But in our reaction to the following news, we differed from Kevin Drum, who normally serves as our lodestar:
WILLIAMS (6/24/12): At a table of wonks, Mr. Hayes, who studied the philosophy of mathematics at Brown, came off as the wonkiest as he deconstructed the budgetary implications of tax arbitrage.Drum thought that was a cool field of study, perhaps even the coolest. Here at THE HOWLER, our reaction differed. Incomparably, we focused on what surrounded that news:
WILLIAMS: Mr. Hayes, who studied the philosophy of mathematics at Brown, came off as the wonkiest as he deconstructed the budgetary implications of tax arbitrage. Opinions were varied and passionate, but there was no sniping, no partisan grandstanding.Is “dialogic” even a word? Yes it is, but just barely. In the Times, the word has appeared only one other time in the past twelve months; it hasn’t appeared in the Washington Post during that time at all. Meanwhile, what about Hayes’ crack about modeling Habermasian communicative action?
“I like the fact that it’s dialogic, small-d ‘democratic,’ ” Mr. Hayes said of his show. “We’re all sitting at the same table, we’re creating the public sphere in miniature. I was going to say, ‘We’re going to model Habermasian communicative action,’ but that’s excessively pretentious.”
Hayes said the thought was pretentious; rolling our eyes, we quickly agreed. And sure enough! Things only got worse when we clicked the Times link, which whisked us to this destination.
Before long, we were observing Habermasian communication in action! This is the opening paragraph of the book to which the Times linked:
HABERMAS (1981): The rationality of beliefs and actions is a theme usually dealt with in philosophy. One could even say that philosophical thought originates in reflections on the reason embodied in cognition, speech and action; and reason remains its basic theme. From the beginning, philosophy has endeavored to explain the world as a whole, the unity in the multiplicity of appearances, with principles to be discovered in reason, and not in communication with a divinity beyond the world nor, strictly speaking, even in returning to the ground of a cosmos encompassing nature and society. Greek thought did not aim at a theology nor at an ethical cosmology, as the great religions did, but at an ontology. If there is anything common to philosophical theories, it is the intention of thinking being or the unity of the world by way of explicating reason’s experience of itself.Habermas is right. You could say that, and others things like it. But you probably shouldn’t.
(You may think we’ve mistranscribed some of that passage—for example, the final sentence. We haven’t. In fairness, we’re dealing with a translation.)
Is philosophy of any kind a cool field of study? It can be, but there is a downfall to reading a text like this—you may end up talking like that! This is an occasional problem for Hayes, although some of us liberals mistake this sort of thing for the big major smarts we insist that our tribe possesses. When Hayes got in trouble on Memorial Day, it wasn’t simply because he chose a strange time to have an extremely narrow discussion with a very poorly-selected panel. It was partly due to the Habermasian way he chose to be dialogic:
HAYES (5/27/12): Thinking today and observing Memorial Day. That will be happening tomorrow. Just talked with Lieutenant Colonel Steve Burke, an officer with the Marines. Had to tell people— “Beck,” sorry.For ourselves, we don’t think he was wrong in his basic reaction. But that was a poorly selected time to have this very narrow discussion. And good God! The way he expressed himself!
I think it’s interesting, because it is, I think very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word “heroes.” And why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word “hero?”
I feel uncomfortable about the world “hero” because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I don`t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that's fallen and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine tremendous heroism, you know, in a hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that.
But it seems to me we marshal this word in a way that’s problematic. Maybe I’m wrong.
Given the way our culture works, that probably wasn’t the best time for this discussion. But people! When Hayes said that calling the fallen “heroes” was “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war,” he absolutely guaranteed that people were going to land on his ass.
Translation: He guaranteed that he’d seem like an elitist.
You may think that isn’t fair. But that is basic reality in the real world of actual people.
People don’t talk like Habermas, nor would we recommend that they start. Sometimes, Hayes tends to talk that way when he goes dialogic.
As for the philosophy of mathematics, Drum’s comment and those of his readers caused us to pull out the most recent such work we have perused—Mario Livio’s 2010 page-turner, Is God a Mathematician?
By all accounts, Livio is a superb mathematician—but he simply isn’t a competent “philosopher.” That said, a great deal of the philosophy of mathematics comes remarkably close to recalling the debate about that tree which falls in the forest when you have your ear plugs in. As Wittgenstein basically said, the reason to study such disciplines is to learn how to make them stop.
Chris Hayes seems like a good decent smart sincere person. Aside from all those professors at Brown, who taught Chris Hayes how to talk?
This isn’t the way to win: We don’t agree with the following judgment. But again, this is what a (favorable) Times reporter thought about a recent Hayes program, apparently the one of May 26:
WILLIAMS: An hour later, as the cameras rolled, Mr. Hayes and his guests waded thigh-deep into an analysis of private equity and whether it is bad for the economy. At a table of wonks, Mr. Hayes, who studied the philosophy of mathematics at Brown, came off as the wonkiest as he deconstructed the budgetary implications of tax arbitrage. Opinions were varied and passionate, but there was no sniping, no partisan grandstanding.After reviewing the transcript, we don’t necessarily agree with that judgment. But however much we liberals like to flatter ourselves about our brilliance, coming off as the wonkiest wonk in the tank is not the way to win.