Things that used to be OK
Tucker Carlson, Walter Hudson, and falling off a cliff of "common good" ...
I find myself getting a frequent disquieting feeling lately. Maybe my kids would call it “cringey.”
I find myself looking back at things I did in the past, usually like 5-10 years ago, no longer, and feeling overwhelmed by a sickening sense of naïveté and regret.
I walked into so many situations with a naive and, I guess you could call it sweet, hopefulness and kindness. I thought maybe if we just listened to each other we’d work it out. I took what people said at face value. I didn’t want to believe that the darkest or more sinister or cynical interpretations of what they were doing and their motivations were the truth. I liked things like “common ground” and “common sense.” I told people about how in 2012 I voted for Obama and also for the Republican candidate for Illinois governor.
Some recollections are more painful than others. I remember attending the January 2018 March for Life and being seduced by the (mostly) benign rhetoric I heard from the anti-abortion crowd, including well-coiffed and polished former Minnesota Viking Matt Birk. I wrote that the movement had at its heart good intentions. That it was against violence of all kinds.
Fast forward five years later and Birk has previously run for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota on a ticket that, among other things, was anti-vaccine and COVID-denying. His most recent tweet shows him “interviewing” Minnesotans on some kind of weird anti-trans premise about Floyd Mayweather “identifying as female” and being allowed to box. Underneath that is a GIF featuring Black men - which - coupled with the rest of Birk’s feed, smacks of digital blackface. Then, there’s the requisite photo of Birk with a bunch of white guys in suits in Naples, Fla., also known as rich Minnesotans’ winter playground.
I don’t know what happened to the affable, calm, “Christian,” Harvard grad, well-spoken and “acceptable” Birk who I listened to at the March for Life; who bamboozled me so easily that now I wonder if it was really me who had the problem, and he was always this guy …
But this article isn’t about Matt Birk. After all, his ticket lost the gubernatorial race by almost 8 points. Apparently, Minnesotans weren’t fooled anymore and preferred him hiking at center in a purple jersey.
This article is about the trend that Matt Birk makes me think about. It’s about my own evolution, and maybe yours, and all the things that used to be OK and just aren’t anymore.
I was inspired to write this article in the wake of Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox News last week. Now, there’s plenty of disdain to go around for cable TV news hosts, especially the men, and ironically Don Lemon was fired from CNN the same day as Carlson was fired by Fox.
But while Lemon was apparently a garden-variety misogynist, Carlson represented in my mind the worst sort of smarmy, smug, privileged “journalist” who in reality made things so much worse for the average person trying to write and report on the news in America.
Photo by Seth Wenig, Associated Press
Carlson never mentioned my work on his show, but I know plenty of academics and writers who did suffer that misfortune, and the online bullying and harassment they experienced as a result was almost unfathomable.
Carlson challenged my naïveté in a very specific way. Because so much of my worldview had previously been based on this idea that at root we all shared a certain common humanity, a sense of love and shamefulness at the idea that we would harm our fellow human for the sake of bettering ourselves.
Carlson didn’t care about any of that. And it wasn’t because he lived in chaos. Or suffered trauma (at least that I know of) or any other excuse I could come up with. This was the guy who’d had all the privilege in the world. Went to the schools where I was rejected. Ran in the elite circles of journalism and media for many years; circles where I could never fully break in no matter how hard I worked.
He certainly was advertised as smart enough to get it. He couldn’t claim lack of education, information, time and energy to process.
If you want to rely on a politics of the common good and hope for the future of America - a future that cannot be defined by the demarcation of red states and blue states, as Barack Obama once dreamed in 2008 - then you have to treat everyone as though they have a conscience. If only they knew what they were doing to hurt others, then they’d stop.
He privately texted his colleagues about his disdain for Donald Trump, and then he fawned all over Trump on national television. He knew Trump lost the election, but he told his viewers otherwise instead. And as much as Carlson detested liberals, it seems there was no one he had more disrespect for than his viewers themselves. He saw it as nothing to lie to them night after night after night, as long as he won the ratings and cashed his paychecks and endorsements and royalties.
My longtime Christian faith was based on forgiveness, a shared culpability for sin, and a hope for grace and reconciliation. How do you reconcile with someone who has no conscience?
I appeal in this moment not to the shimmering promises of the Apostle Paul’s saved by grace, but instead to the cynical admittances of the writer of the Hebrew Bible book, Ecclesiastes:
“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
Almost 20 years ago, during my sophomore year in college, the Missouri School of Journalism screened a documentary they deemed important for us budding national journalists.
It was called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, and you can actually watch it here in full on YouTube.
Two decades ago! And they were screaming about it then. About all of this coming. About the destruction of trust in the news media writ large. About the commodification of news and partisanship on the airwaves.
Twenty years! Seventeen years after the documentary was made, Americans all hopped up on Fox propaganda rush the doors of the U.S. Capitol building, only to realize that their leader was cowering alone at the White House, watching them on TV with a Machiavellian laugh, drinking a Diet Coke.
I remember watching the documentary way back in 2004 and thinking: Wow, this is really bad. No way this lasts.
Today, Fox is still America’s most-watched news network. CNN is currently attempting to shift its own content rightward to compete. My own local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has published back-to-back section cover stories glorifying guns, one documenting a small-town fundraiser that auctions off weapons, and the other a supposedly humorous piece on adults who play with NERF guns, in the wake of mass shootings and a spate of “accidental” gun violence involving neighbors firing on one another and shooting children who knock at their doors or chase a basketball down the street.
Toy guns weren’t so amusing in the 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, killed by police in Cleveland while playing with a replica toy gun.
I’m sure the Star Tribune didn’t intend to glorify guns in its reporting. But I’m sure they also thought. Hey … this will get the clicks! This will get the shares! And we sure need the money. So they disregarded the more nefarious consequences of their work. They shut their eyes to their common humanity, willfully, for the sake of profit.
I guess that’s where I’m wrapping up here, as I reflect back on my lost sense of naïveté and belief in a shared civility, at least one that is uniformly shared across this great and damaged nation.
So a final story.
In the summer of 2019, leading up to publication of my first book, a friend of mine invited me to join him on a local radio show. It was sort a Crossfire-esque segment, featuring my friend, who has always been to the left of me politically and sometimes delighted in taking dramatic leftist stances, and conservative radio host and then-Albertville, Minn., City Council member, Walter Hudson.
Hudson is a tall, handsome, biracial man who enjoys Minnesota sports. I remember meeting him at the radio studio and thinking he seemed nice. He served a city not far from where I grew up, and I actually remember thinking I’d find more common ground with him than I would with my friend, the ultra-leftist who always challenged our seminary professors on orthodox Lutheran theology.
We did a few shows together, and I remember I kept like appealing to find the common, middle ground. And my friend would go there with me. But Hudson never really would. He struck me as surprisingly intransigent, despite his broad smile.
I remember one night getting really frustrated by that. I felt he wasn’t listening to me. That in his initial demeanor I’d expected underneath to find a shared willingness to search for agreement and compromise. But instead under the initial demeanor there was a deep anger and discontent, and a mistrust of me that could not be broken either by kindness or overtures to our common experiences.
I’m sure Hudson had his reasons for that.
But I’ve watched with dismay as Hudson’s political star has risen in Minnesota, and with it his anger and extreme positions. Last year he called for women who traveled out-of-state for abortions to be arrested. He compared medical professionals recommending COVID vaccines to slave owners. For these comments, he was earlier this year rewarded with election to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Where do I go with all of this?
I guess as I write this and think about it, as much as it pains me to read about what Hudson has said and done in the years since we were briefly on the radio together, I don’t really think my point in this article is outright condemnation of Hudson, or Carlson, or Birk, or others of their ilk, for that matter.
Because ultimately if I’ve learned anything over these years of work in this space, it’s that I can’t change what anyone else says or does.
For me I guess the change is a smaller, more internal shift. As a young white woman working in both journalism and ministry spaces, I focused so much of what I did on outward perceptions and relationships. I altered how I spoke and behaved to make others feel comfortable. I thought by doing this I would create space for understanding, growth, and reconciliation.
There are still times where this can be a helpful strategy.
Now, though, I am focusing more on knowing - deeply and confidently - who I am and what I believe. I am no longer willing to stay silent for the sake of another’s comfort. I am no longer willing to set aside my own humanity for someone who will not honor mine. I am no longer willing to listen to outright dehumanization. I am no longer willing to excuse lies.
Things that used to be OK are not OK with me anymore.
For another important read on Tucker Carlson, I recommend this 2018 profile by the indomitable
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I feel for you, having to go through so much disillusionment! My experience is related to yours in disappointment, but also very different. After years of happily attending church with good Christian people, I couldn't believe how easily they allowed themselves to be deceived by Trumpism. I struggled with feeling I had no place where I belonged. After the Lord helped me to accept their faith without judgmentalism, he moved us out through my husband (a long story, but it was totally unexpected!). Now we fellowship in an independent Evangelical church with few people who would ever vote for Trump. It's wonderful! There actually are some Evangelical Christians in this country who are not deceived by the lies of these very extreme conservatives!