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Joe the Plumber Goes to Israel

My former employer Pajamas Media has decided to dispatch Joe the Plumber to Israel as a roving correspondent to, as he puts it, let "Average Joes’ share their story."  The inevitable fallout when a PR neutron bomb like this goes off always puts me in mind of the Wolf and Sheepdog cartoon series Warner Bros. used to run. You know the routine, provided your childhood wasn’t stunted and deprived: two permanent adversaries clock in each day and exchange morning pleasantries ("G’day Ralph, G’day Sam") before setting to their predictable work. The so-called "liberal elite" must snigger and snark about a duplicitous, posturing everyman who shilled for John McCain pretending he has any credentials whatsoever to be a war reporter. Conservative populists must then rail against said elite, citing the duplicity and unabashed political bias of the "MSM" (that’s mainstream media to you laymen), while claiming that Joe represents a silent majority of Americans and is thus every bit as entitled to cover the Gaza conflict as are, say, Wolf Blitzer and Ted Koppel.

Lost in the melee is the graver question of whether or not a time of war is a time for cultural point-scoring. There is simply no way that PJM didn’t prefigure the tongue-in-cheek headlines that would follow this announcement, which has unintentionally vitiated the blog network’s stated purpose of standing up for Israel. Joe’s become the story, if not the spectacle.

This is not is not to say that a plumber might not do good work as a war reporter, or that, conversely, opposition to his appointment reflects latent or manifest class antagonism. Thomas Paine was a staymaker before he was a pamphleteer, but he was not taken seriously by publishers–nor did he expect to be–until he had actually produced a pamphlet worth reading. He was also a radical revolutionary on two continents.

But gone, it seems, is the skepticism of classical conservatism, which saw the extolling of boldness and defiance for their own sake as hazardous traits of adolescence, designed to be outgrown–and where they weren’t, out-argued. What would Allan Bloom think about Joe on the frontlines?  Does it even matter anymore?

Fortunately, at least one member of the right intelligentsia, Commentary‘s Eric Trager, is not so enthused about Conservativism 2.0’s descent into tabloid punditry:

[I]t seems as though Joe will only contribute to the very problem that so many in the blogosphere have harped on for so long-namely, that Middle East reporters frequently arrive in the region with no frame of reference and/or obscene biases.  Indeed, will Joe be any more capable than the average MSM correspondent of reading an Israeli newspaper; or interpreting a mosque sermon on Palestinian television; or assessing the strategic significance of a given Israeli operation or Hamas rocket-attack?  It seems highly improbable, to say the least.  And then there’s his prior claim that a vote for Barack Obama is a “vote for the death of Israel” – is this the kind of thing that credible reporters typically say?

And this hints at the paradoxical nature of the blogosophere. It has set itself up as a dynamic and formidable media anti-establishment, unencumbered by corporate prejudices or even standards of style and tone. Though its virtues have been over-sung — blogs haven’t spelled the end of newspapers anymore than television eclipsed radio’s appeal, and there will always be a place, pace Jeff Jarvis, for trained and skilled investigative reporters, without which blogs would have nothing to fisk, praise or seeth against — what has happened has been a kind of mixed-bag synthesis. Corporate financing, wouldn’t you know it, kicked in (see HuffPo’s market-immune windfall) and with it came a host of new prejudices impelling the upkeep of the "brand," if often at the expense of truth or intellectual honesty. Also, the advent of blogging as an extended arm of the dead-tree press now signals that the citizen journo has been coopted by the professional corps he purports to hate, though this has seldom led to the professionalization of the citizen journo. Claims of knowing what the hell one is talking about are at least as grossly exaggerated in cyberspace as they are in the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Trager’s colleague Abe Greenwald, who I should add is a friend as well as a former Jewcy contributor, defends the plumber selection, writing "if there’s anything we can afford less of in discussing the Middle East it’s ‘expertise.’" Greenwald has in mind John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose joint thesis was widely discredited in print publications and by other "experts" (Walter Russell Mead doesn’t blog yet, does he?)  But he might have also mentioned Juan Cole and Marc Lynch, two names previously unknown outside of the Arabist quadrants of the academy who have since attained a measure of celebrity owing exclusively to their personal blogs. This is the new form of "expertise," and guess what?  It’s no less suspect than the old.

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