Photo credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock.com
Josh Barro is a columnist for Business Insider. He’s a member of what I’ll call the Very Serious Debate Club. The VSDC constitutes, and I’m guessing here, probably half of the pundit corps in this country. These are men, and they are usually men but not always, who don’t have anything original to contribute to our national discourse but thanks to the accidents of their birth have managed to convince others they do.
Barro’s name might ring a bell. He’s the author of a column posted before the July 4 weekend about grilling. Yes, not only do members of the Very Serious Debate Club believe what they have to say is so important the rest of us must hear it. They believe they have the authority to adjudicate pretty much anything. For Barro, who typically writes at the intersection of business, economics and politics, that includes grilling.
“Grills run at high heat, and food burns onto the grates,” Barro said confidently. “Like with pots and pans, burned-on food is tough to remove from grill grates. But admit it: You don’t even really try. … Every time you grill, you’re putting your new food right on top of the burned old food from last time, so it crusts onto your new food.”
Now, I’m of the opinion that the worse a grill looks the better the food is going to be. But my opinion here isn’t relevant. Neither are the opinions of those who responded to Barro’s column, from the bougies who agree to the righteous majority that disagrees to those who question his citizenship in these here United States. The irrelevance of all these opinions is my point. For the Very Serious Debate Club, the subject of debate isn’t as important as the debate itself, and the debate itself isn’t as important as the point of it, which is the glorification of the members of the Very Serious Debate Club.
I have no doubt Josh Barro would deny this, but it’s worth asserting that for him and the VSDC, debating grilling is the same, morally speaking, as debating democratic policy. It’s the same as debating anything. The point is glorification, after all, not service to the greater public good. So backyard grilling is the same as health care. Health care is the same as foreign policy. This subject is as good or as bad as that subject, and nothing really matters except the extent to which the debate glorifies the VSDC.
Most normal people can’t afford such nihilism. For most of them, there are real stakes in this real life. There are consequences. They live in the same political community everyone else lives in. Normal people have problems needing solutions. They turn to people in authority to solve them. Nihilism, however, is one of the great exquisite luxuries that comes with the privilege of being a member of the Very Serious Debate Club. It’s baked in, because the only two problems facing members of the VSDC are 1) how to appear as if they have beaten their opponents, whoever they might be, and 2) preventing normal people from knowing they don’t care about anything they say.
Importantly, the VSDC isn’t conservative or liberal or of any ideological stripe. Members come from all quarters. Consider Bret Stephens, for instance. The Times columnist is a boot-licking propagandist for America’s very obscenely rich. He’s not part of the VSDC, though. He cares about convincing normal people that his betters are just like them. Stephens is a boil on the republic’s ass, but we know he always stands on the wrong side. The Very Serious Debate Club cannot be similarly pinned down. They might rail against climate change. They might cast doubt on it. They just don’t care. They will be slaking their heat-domed thirst with brunch-time mimosas.
The Very Serious Debate Club is, for this reason, more dangerous even than the fascism currently coursing through the body of the Republican Party. To be sure, the VSDC does not stand with the fascists. But they do not stand with the anti-fascists either. Extremes are taboo to these super-serious thinkers, though the extremes are currently between fascism and democracy, white supremacy and equality, and the truth and a bald-faced lie. That members don’t stand with traitors to the republic isn’t an indicator of moral-political principle any more than the fact that they don’t stand with anti-racists. To pick a side is to risk being held accountable, and what’s the point of that when the entire point of being a pundit is reassuring yourself that you matter?
That’s the dirty secret of the Very Serious Debate Club. Members like Josh Barro were born successful. His parents are Harvard professors. He went to Harvard himself. He worked briefly on Wall Street. He’s moved from BI to the Times back to BI, to New York then back to BI again. He never worked his way up. He was already up. Like the rest of the club, he seems terrified of being exposed by people who earned their authority, by people who did the work and respect others who did too, by people who would never pretend to be something they are not, even over trivial things, like backyard grilling, because pretending to be something you are not disrespects the people who are.
Members of the Very Serious Debate Club want us to believe they have something to contribute to the national discourse in the interest of the greater public good. They don’t, though. What they have they did not earn. What they say they believe they don’t really believe. And they don’t believe it, because there’s no point in believing anything when you did not earn it. Everything is as good or bad as everything else, and nothing really matters. Not even themselves. It’s a paradox that normal people can live without.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.