A consumer's guide to snark

  • Article by: CASS R. SUNSTEIN , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: January 21, 2014 - 6:14 PM

Here’s how to recognize the seven varieties, from sophisticated satire to name-calling.

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Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” is a practitioner of high political snark.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

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Whenever public figures speak, a lot of people respond with snark. They try to cast ridicule or contempt on such figures, and to demonstrate that they are mere cartoons or perhaps even demons.

There is high political snark, which can be quite sophisticated. (Maureen Dowd and Jon Stewart are able practitioners, as is Charles Krauthammer, though his version is darker.) There is low political snark, which consists of little more than name-calling.

Whether high or low, political snark comes in just a few basic flavors — seven, to be precise — that can be wheeled out on almost every occasion. For readers of political snark and for those seeking to produce it, here is a consumer’s guide. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

 

Hypocrisy

Sen. Smith objects that President Obama has taken an unduly expansive view of presidential power. You might ask: Did Sen. Smith say the same thing about President George W. Bush? If not, she’s a hypocrite, and she needs to be exposed.

Here’s a variation on the same theme: Sen. Jones believes in the importance of public education and strongly opposes voucher systems, but he sends his own children to private schools. Isn’t he a hypocrite?

Consumer advisory: Maybe Smith did say the same thing about Bush, and if she didn’t, maybe it’s because she wasn’t focused on politics at the time. Whether she’s right today doesn’t depend on whether she spoke out a few years ago. As for Jones, it isn’t hypocritical to believe in the importance of the public school system while also sending your kids to private school. In any case, his views deserve to be evaluated on their merits.

 

Conflict of interest

Mary Johnson, head of a large corporation, argues against campaign-finance regulation, contending that it violates the right to free speech. You might object: Would Johnson say the same thing if she didn’t have a ton of money to spend on campaigns?

Consumer advisory: It’s easy to charge people with conflicts of interest, but the charges often turn out to be speculative, false or unhelpful. When people complain about conflicts of interest, they are avoiding discussion of the substantive questions.

 

Hidden agenda

Rep. Smith argues in favor of restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions. The restrictions would impose big costs on the coal industry. You might object: Smith has a hidden agenda; he wants to kill the coal industry.

Consumer advisory: Most people’s agendas aren’t hidden. It’s perfectly possible to support greenhouse-gas regulations without wanting to kill the coal industry (so long as the regulations are reasonable rather than draconian).

 

Absurdity

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