Punditry: Performance art with a paycheck

As America moves past the first few weeks of the new year, it feels like everyone is taking stock, considering options, and generally making plans for surviving 2009. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are rolling out lists of the best companies that are hiring, the best jobs that are open, and the best places to live if you're unemployed. However, before you bolt out and grab a job as a website administrator in Poughkeepsie (or suicide hotline staffer in lower Manhattan), I would like to offer my own suggestion for a career in a growing industry that pays well, features a great deal of exposure, and will enable you to explore your potential for loud, creative douchebaggery.

Punditry has a long and proud history. Although the term originated in India, where pundits (or pandits) were wise or highly educated scholars, it has come to refer to almost any self-proclaimed expert, particularly in the social sciences. In this context, one could argue that punditry is almost as old as human culture, dating back to Roman social satirists like Juvenal and snarky Greek playwrights like Aeschalus. One coulde even argue that Homer was among their number; as soon as he moved from straight reportage about "rosy-fingered dawn" to critical analysis of "endlessly bloviating Odysseus," he entered the punditocracy.

In today's golden age of punditry, however, the term has gained a much broader definition. No longer are pundits necessarily experts. In fact, one could argue that, in the context of today's slash-and-burn television circus, real knowledge and integrity are actually deficits, as they get in the way of cheap theatrics and blistering oratory. While a Ph.D in government might still fly on CNN or PBS, today's strongest pundits are just as likely to have a BA in broadcasting or modern dance.

There are basically three types of pundits: professional thinkers, repurposed white collar professionals, and performance artists. The first, professional thinkers, includes people like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, or William Safire. Often, they have advanced degrees, experience in the executive branch of government, and rich, impressive vocabularies. On television, they tend to be calm, authoritative, and somewhat boring. They are likely to show up on programs that are trying to build a strong reputation or desperately striving for a touch of class.

The second group, repurposed white collar professionals, includes people like Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, and Ann Coulter. They generally have BAs in government, history, or business, often paired with a law degree or MBA. In many cases, they are on their second career, following a jaunt in politics or the business world. While their education gives them a certain level of general knowledge, their ability to convincingly sling invective means that they are often able to sound authoritative about a wide range of topics. Thus, it's not uncommon to hear former lawyers or MBAs prattling on about the Middle East conflict as if they were present at the Camp David Accords.

Occasionally, as in the case of the famed Brzezinski/Scarborough dustup, a traditionally educated pundit will go to town on a repurposed white collar pundit. The results can be extremely amusing, particularly for those of us who like to see blowhards impaled on the swords of their own ignorance.

At any rate, if you are a former financial-sector employee, an ex-lawyer, or a recently deposed public servant, the repurposed white collar punditry might be right for you. All it requires is an ability to sound condescending when discussing topics that you barely understand and a willingness to disregard the basic standards of civilized conduct.

Speaking of which, the final level of punditry, performance artists, includes such luminaries as Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, and Alan Colmes. While the other two classes of the punditry can lay claim to some level of education in the topics that they discuss, these pundits are chosen based on their skills in the performing arts. Whether communications majors like Olbermann, former stand up comedians like Colmes, or college drop-outs like Hannity, they cash in on their ability to emote. Rather than actually accumulating knowledge, their focus is on acting like someone who is knowledgeable. The more convincingly they can do so, the more popular they become.

Although the entrance requirements for performance artist punditry generally involve some level of dramatic training, it is also possible to break into the field simply by being a skilled actor. For example, Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," seems well on his way to establishing himself as a firmly entrenched member of the punditocracy. In the end, a catchy gimmick, an ability to display rabid emotion at the drop of a hat, or a catchy name might be enough to get you a lucrative job arguing on news programs, lecturing to college students, or even writing articles for the Weekly Standard!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He wants to be a pundit, but isn't sure if he can overcome his basic urge to play nice. In kindergarten, he always got As in good citizenship.
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