Ten minutes into “Hardball” on Monday, April 22, Clint van Zandt, former director of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (and alumnus of Gateway Journalism Review’s home, Southern Illinois University) told host Chris Matthews: “The pieces we don’t have, Chris, are where was their (the two alleged bombers’) inspiration?”
That’s when Matthews issued his now deservedly jeered praise of ignorance: “Why is that important? I mean, what difference does it make why they did it if they did it? … I’m being tough here.”
Wrong word, Chris. You were being deliberately dense and disingenuous. It matters, as van Zandt pointed out, in giving law enforcement agencies insight to detect similar “inspiration” and prevent it from turning alienated young people into assassins. Such knowledge matters also as liberal education does by granting us a better “understanding of the human condition,” and truly lets journalism become the first draft of history.
By comparison, Matthews makes the issues raised by our understanding small and mean. Americans know that Muslims in America come in all shades of good and bad, and their behavior after a case of Islamic “badness” affirms that knowledge.
For Matthews, on the other hand, Muslims primarily remain victims of white oppression and prejudice, explaining any hatred or violence they direct at America or Europe as responses to past and current wrongs inflicted on them and their societies. That’s why he and other “forward-leaning” commentators don’t want to dig into the motives for the Boston bombers, or at least only into the “how” but not the “what” of those motives. Historians have demonstrated the often conflicting forces that shaped much of Islam’s religious, cultural and political landscape. For Matthews, a simplistic formula must work, even if the facts in one story to give it credence are missing or suggest otherwise.
What Matthews and several, but certainly not all, TV hosts on cable remind me of is a guy you could, years ago, spot in your neighborhood tavern. He’d be sitting at one end of the bar, holding forth about “them,” why “they” are destroying “his” America, and what we ought to do to stop them or get rid of them. And then you’d notice that the two stools next to him were almost always empty.
Maybe that’s one reason why viewership for Matthews’ network for the week of April 15 was down to 639,000 (compared to 1.9 million for Fox and 1.4 million for CNN). I endorse much of the so-called “progressive” agenda when it applies to social and economic policies. But a journalist must not slather his political philosophy over every story, especially when the story is far from complete. No wonder the number of empty stools is growing.
But then, we should not consider Matthews a journalist but a “commentator” – a terrible word, but right for him. Commentators possess little knowledge but many opinions on most topics and most of the time. They are, as we used to say, full of themselves. As a result, they are unable to heed the advice of an American humorist (I think it was Robert Benchley), who suggested: “People who have nothing to say should at least have the courtesy of shutting up.” Amen.
George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.