Grilli: Kimmel as America’s conscience?

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CNN has recently called the late night host/political commentator Jimmy Kimmel “America’s conscience.” This may very well be true, but it is not a compliment. The late night host has inserted himself squarely into the national discussion first on healthcare, then on gun control in the wake of the horrific slaying at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. He has every right to speak his mind on his show. He may even be right on policy, despite the preponderance of legal falsehoods he put forth. But if he is to be America’s conscience, woe unto us, because in all of his monologues thus far, he has displayed the all too common, perhaps the cardinal, sin in American political discussion: challenging the motives of one’s political adversaries.

Kimmel first made a name for himself on the political scene when his newborn son, Billy, needed heart surgery. He used the event to illustrate to his audience that, although Kimmel and his family have health insurance, many do not and would therefore find themselves in a bind if their child was born with a congenital heart defect. Kimmel only went wrong when he later claimed that republicans were in some way in league with the insurance companies for proposing various changes to the Affordable Care Act. He made the same mistake when, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, Kimmel claimed, if the reader will excuse the coarse language, that the NRA has the republicans’, “Balls in a money clip.” Twice now we can see Jimmy Kimmel, the conscience of America, implying that there are no arguments on the other side, only blind monetary self-interest. Now, when reviewing the list of the top fifty organizations that donate to political campaigns, one will not find the NRA; they will also not find it in the top one hundred, or the top one hundred and fifty. They will, however, find seven of the top ten organization donors contribute almost exclusively to democrats. Why can this argument not go the other way?

Arguing in this conspiratorial fashion in either direction is ultimately in vain. Politicians have their own personal views, which are tempered by the views of their constituencies. This is true if the elected official has an R or a D next to their name. Kimmel, in both of his monologues, shows a blithe dismissal of the opposing viewpoint, which, if he is to be the conscience of America, must immediately change. To imply that there simply are no good arguments on the other side, while intellectually lazy, also leaves one open to defection. If one implies that the other side is simply self interested while one’s own side are bastions of moral fortitude, the curious viewer or reader might easily look up various arguments on the other side and, knowing that someone like Kimmel has not done any serious argumentation, be immediately persuaded by any sort of analysis on the other side. In this way, Kimmel’s sins are twofold. They do no justice to points of view other than his own, and they leave his own view with a serious dearth of credible arguments. If one wants to truly win people over and not just vent, one must do the hard work of actual substantive argument.

Jimmy Kimmel is, of course, well meaning and quite a funny man. But his monologues are symptomatic of a greater problem in political discussion. Talking past one’s opponent further solidifies the divides that we have in this country, leaving those who already agree nodding their heads and those who disagree simply changing the channel. Maybe that is enough to boost Mr. Kimmel’s ratings, but it is not enough to sustain a healthy political debate in a liberal democracy like our own. Gathering the facts and making philosophical arguments is hard. It’s a lot harder than standing in front of a camera with no one to correct or disagree with you, hearing nothing but claps and laughs at your every word. But the hard work of substantive argument must be and is being done by journalists and commentators in newspapers and magazines all across the country. These institutions should instead be looked at, as a whole, as the conscience of America, even as they battle it out with one another.

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