There are many, many things I don’t understand.

One thing I’ve never gotten a good grip on is what makes something pedantic or patronizing. I honestly have no filter, alarm, or other detection device for the pedantic or the patronizing.

Dictionary.com defines pedantic as ostentatious. OK, that’s a big help. Ostentatious, they say, is: characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others. OK then.

Patronizing, they say, is displaying or indicative of an offensively condescending manner. 

Condescending, just for good measure, is showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority.

OK, none of that helps me a bit.

All of this musing comes from a recent episode of The West Wing. Well, recent for me. I never watched the show in its original run, but with the current monstrosity occupying the White House (was that pedantic or patronizing?), my wife Julie and I have decided, on the suggestion of a friend, to watch The West Wing and pretend it is real life.

Last night we reached the first episode of Season Three, titled “Isaac and Ishmael.” It was written and filmed in three weeks, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The program was a little rough, the dialog could have used some polish, and it completely stepped out of the show’s story line. Even so, I found it to be so important, and to speak directly to what’s going on in our country right now.

Yet when I read reviews of that episode, written immediately after it aired and even many years later, I saw the words “pedantic” and “patronizing,” even “preachy” come up again and again. I don’t get it.

The episode made incredibly important points, including the fact that terrorism never works, that Islamic extremism is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity, and that our pluralistic society – our commitment to live with people we disagree with – is itself our greatest accomplishment. For a television program to make these points in the aftermath of September 11 – eschewing the far easier points about patriotism and public service – seems to me incredibly brave. To call it pedantic is to ignore that fact that these conclusions are still anathema to far too many people.*

Oops, was that last sentence pedantic? I really need to find that filter.

*For instance, in the August 2017 poll linked above, 30% of Democrats and a whopping 65% of Republicans believe there is a “natural conflict between Islam and democracy.” This despite the fact that 92% of US Muslims agree with the statement, “I am proud to be an American.”

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