Conservative Wet-Paper-Towel Commentary and the So-Called “Liberal” Media

Robert Pondiscio and Frederick Hess, both from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, are about as credible as a paper towel, a wet paper towel.

Not Bounty, of course, but those other paper towels.

Yet, here is an interesting fact.

The so-called “liberal” mainstream media love to provide inordinate space to Pondiscio and Hess, particularly when the topic is even remotely about education.

For example, The New York Times allows them to hold forth on book censorship in Texas. Hess offers a flippant comment that captures the veneer of being reasonable at the core of conservative wet-paper-towel commentary:

“It’s just enormously problematic to rule out particular works,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who has written favorably of the battles against critical race theory. “I happen to think ‘1619’ is a shoddy work, but so what? Let kids read critiques and wrestle with it.”

In Texas, a Battle Over What Can Be Taught, and What Books Can Be Read

Gosh, that’s mighty kind of Hess to allow “kids” to read some “shoddy” history!

But Pondiscio is granted the last word, and again, he takes the pose of moderation, although like Hess, it is couched in a nasty little swipe: “He sees antiracist education, such as grouping students in racial affinity groups, as lapsing into parody.”

Ah, yes, what a joke antiracist education is!

From Pondiscio to Hess and the entire array of high-profile know-nothing conservative pundits, like David Brooks, mainstream media is awash in wet-paper-towel commentary from conservative (mostly male, mostly white) pundits who benefit from presenting as harmless “experts” who remind us of Ward Clever or Ronald Reagan (actor, not politician).

When Ward Cleaver Caused Social Anxiety - JSTOR Daily
It's Golden Again in America: Ronald Reagan and Hollywood | Film and  Digital Media

But don’t let the reasonable pose fool you. These wet paper towels not only don’t hold water very well, but also don’t place a coffee cup on them or you’re going to have a mess on your hands.

Behind the smiles and the hair cuts, however, is something insidious, and the only real way to identify that is to admit conservative commentary is mostly built on lies.

Consider the process in a full Op-Ed by Pondiscio, Drawing the line between censorship and age-appropriateness.

First, note that his commentary is allowed a very reasonable headline, as if the censorship movement across the U.S.—and even calls for book burnings—are merely about misunderstanding a very reasonable issue facing our schools, age appropriateness (glossing over, of course, the implication that teachers and administrators don’t already consider age appropriateness).

Next, as the comments above in the NYT show, Pondiscio proceeds to weave a puppet show of reasonableness that isn’t reasonable at all [1].

Early in his commentary, Pondiscio assures us he is bored with the canon war (apparently itself a bit of a joke like antiracism education!). Where does his concern lie?:

The more challenging front in the censorship wars is over new and comparatively obscure works targeted at readers, from small children to young adults, which cannot claim canonical status. These new works are being published, promoted and defended on grounds of “authenticity and inclusivity.” To question them — to draw a line — is to risk a charge of ignorance, bigotry or worse.

Drawing the line between censorship and age-appropriateness

“Obscure works”? “Targeted at readers”? (Side question: Are there books not targeted at readers? Those readerless books?)

It gets even more fun:

Publishers of young adult novels have been falling over one another in recent years to bring out controversial texts on themes of sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings and other “realistic” subjects, in widely read books such “The Hate U Give,” “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Picture books for little kids are even more discomfiting. I’m old enough to remember the controversies that attended “Heather Has Two Mommies” (1989) “And Tango Makes Three” (2005), which sought to normalize gay and lesbian family structures.

Drawing the line between censorship and age-appropriateness

“Falling over one another”? “Discomforting”? “Normalize gay and lesbian family structures”?

Pondiscio seems to think he is Ward Clever surrounded by his doting and clueless family.

And, boy, things suddenly stopped being a joke, right? To Pondiscio, antiracism education is “parody,” but the real problem (not racism!) is “[t]hat normalizing impulse now goes to lengths that give pause on grounds of age appropriateness even to parents who think of themselves as progressive.”

Jesus, how did the U.S. fall under the spell of “normalizing”? And why are these “progressive”parents confiding in a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute?

You see, Pondiscio is playing a slightly softer version of the conservative Red Herring strategy behind attacks on Critical Race Theory: Make an outlandish and unsubstantiated claim, and then quickly shift to attacking that claim with more outlandish extremism:

Instead, we must reaffirm that you’re not a homophobe if you don’t want your child exposed to an explicit illustration of oral sex as in the graphic novel “Gender Queer.” Neither are you a closet white supremacist if you question the wisdom of exposing young children to the racially charged picture book “Not My Idea. A Book About Whiteness,” which concludes, “Whiteness is a bad deal. It always was.”

Drawing the line between censorship and age-appropriateness

The Big Reveal is that Pondiscio isn’t Ward Clever; he is Eddie Haskell.

Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell) 1943-2020 – PowerPop… An Eclectic Collection of  Pop Culture

Here is the essential problem with both the conservative/Republican attack on books and curriculum, and conservative wet-paper-towel commentary trying to justify erasing free speech and academic freedom.

Including Texas, but all across mostly red states, books are being banned (not checked for age appropriateness), removed from classrooms and libraries so that no one has access to them. These attacks are not about assigning books, but about deciding for parents and students what books can be read.

These attacks are not concerns about age appropriateness (legitimate) or parental rights (debatable). This is fear-mongering around “normalizing” (remember, that thing more dangerous than racism!).

Access to books in children’s homes, classrooms, and schools is one the most important aspects of developing literacy, and limiting access to books in classrooms and schools will disproportionately and negatively impact children living in poverty.

The real parodies—ones so dark they aren’t funny—are Pondiscio, Hess, Brooks, et al., who, like Eddie Haskell, are allowed to offer their veneer of reasonableness in mainstream “liberal” media to promote their wet-paper-towel commentary.

There isn’t enough Bounty in the world to clean up that mess.

[1] As a frame of reference, here is an actual reasonable claim in my own commentary on book censorship (published in The Greenville News, SC):

While there is certainly a place for examinations of age-appropriate texts being taught in public schools, and parents have the right to offer input about the books their own children read, book banning is an act of removing everyone’s opportunity to choose what they read and what they learn.

The current purge happening across the U.S. is not limited to individual student and parent choice, but banning books from school libraries, while targeting the most vulnerable students and authors.

Banning books is “purposeful erasing of history”