*Hot Take (pr. n.) -- a short, timely opinion that's controversial and inflammatory, but never in any way that matters
The remedy for this Hot Takes disease is clear: Takes are short, unreflective, and insincere, so we obviously need more longform, self-reflection, and authenticity. "If only we stopped, stated our basic assumptions, and had an honest discussion about what we believe, we might actually have some Good Takes once in awhile!"
Maybe the best way to see this is in sports:
"You can't give up 115 points and expect to have a chance against this team."This is a Pretty Good Take, as far as Mark Jackson is concerned. It's built on his experience as a coach, it's an empirical claim that probably holds up, and, while not longform, I have no doubt that he could be called upon to expand his opinion.
-Mark Jackson, commentating on the NBA Finals, as the Warriors reached 115 against the Cavs
But it tells us nothing: If we take Jackson's point seriously, should the Cavaliers have played only their 5 best defensive players for 48 minutes, focusing monomaniacally on defense? Possibly. Jeff Van Gundy notes the Cavs making a careless turnover. So, on this logic, should the Cavaliers focus their entire offense on making sure they get a shot up on every possession, so they don't ever have a recorded turnover? Possibly. But probably not.
Now, obviously, I'm picking on Jackson and Van Gundy: Two TV commentators (both former coaches) extemporized and asked for slightly better execution. But their comments remind me of a ubiquitous fan refrain that pines always for an Ideal Basketball Team filled with Ideal Basketball Players. Even among smarter fans, there's this imaginary place where everyone plays within their limits, no one makes dumb mistakes, everyone fouls when they should, and the better players step up whenever called upon, and deliver. Everyone is simultaneously perfectly aware of the stats and perfectly aware of the skills called upon in an individual possession. And afterwards everyone takes a cold bath, drinks their recommended protein shakes, and goes back to the hotel room to meditate and watch film footage (never forgetting to call their moms, as necessary). No one sulks or celebrates. Everyone gets up early.
But it's precisely that teams and players don't do the perfect thing every time that we have a sport worth watching at all (San Antonio excluded): If every decision-maker and coach in basketball demanded that their players avoid mistakes as the Prime Directive, then most of our most stellar players would be weeded out as unreliable from the age of 13. On the other hand, mediocre players, stellar only in consistency and deference, would be elevated to the pros. Basketball would become a moral, stubborn, didactic sport, with physical differences still dominating, but only after all the interesting mental wrinkles were ironed out. From the modern NBA, Players like Tim Duncan and Chris Paul would survive, but even they'd have to play in a tighter style. LeBron James would, eventually, be tolerated. Stephen Curry would be treated just as he would've been 30 years ago--talented, and a good kid, but a little unpredictable and turnover-prone. And he loves the 3 too much.
In fact, this is how the prevailing opinion-makers in sports commentary have actually thought about these players before being forcibly converted by the jaw-dropping team successes of LeBron and Curry in recent years. Which is to say, the only thing they prefer to a narrative of moral adherence is a narrative of meritocratic success.
Mark Jackson above is making a sincere point about defensive efficiency. His colleague Jeff Van Gundy sincerely condemns careless turnovers. There's a point here. Ideally, we should all strive to be our best at all times. But, factually, we're not at our best at all times, and most human beings are not cut out for the pure moral, physical, or intellectual integrity needed to always be our best, nor would this monomaniacal focus on consistency even be ideal.
A world where consistency alone is valued and mistakes alone condemned, is a world stripped of art, meaning, and even value. If you only see mistakes, you are forever going to strain to see progress, not to mention creative approaches that overturn established notions of what plays are mistakes and which plays are good. In practice, Good Opinions are typically launched by perfectionists, commentators who see the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
See, Hot Takes are the fish in the proverbial barrel. They're the careless turnover everyone can spot, the nonsensical foul everyone can see makes no sense. Everyone who's smart enough to critique them is smart enough to understand why they exist: They're fun, they generate attention, and on social media, they're a good way to create content without, you know, actually going to the trouble of having an original thought.
But our Good Opinions are more pernicious. Good Opinions usually reflect background assumptions, conscientious editorial choices, and the undeniable appeal of a rational, authentic, intentional universe. Good Opinions come from received common sense, and, as a result, they tend to make quite a bit of sense and they tend to function as actual, enjoyable content. Most Hot Takes are superficially appealing precisely because they're reverse-engineered from Good Opinions, using the same rational schema and the same metrics (but deliberating eschewing Truth and Authenticity, to the irritation of Good Opinionators).
The kind of writing that challenges fundamental assumptions is much harder than the kind that puts those assumptions together into the most sensible, coherent framework. It's painting a landscape vs. color-by-numbers. The most that Good Opinions can ever do is make us say, "Wow. This belief, whether I agree with it or not, has been perfectly well-expressed, and I now understand better the implications of my beliefs!". There's a function to the very best Good Opinions, but it's a function most akin to digestion. At best, we're better for having read it because we can get to work superseding it.
Good Opinions can form the foundation of Great Writing, but Great Writing is never reducible to Good Opinions. As soon as it is so reducible, the Great Writing immediately becomes an Adequate Catalog of Some Possibly-Related Good Opinions.
In American political culture, the militant intellectual ideal of our often-well-educated, often-rational, often-self-reflective elites is to surround yourself with others who have Good Opinions and don't have Bad Opinions (and keep the worst Hot Takes to a minimum). Even ignoring the elitism, self-interest, and class prejudice we might ascribe to this goal, these elites will always select for Good Opinions over Great Writing, and thus will always be stuck in the mud of received common opinion. So long as our decision-makers live up to their stated ideals (and when they don't, the result is usually even worse), they will select for the status quo. Which, if you see things as I do, is untenable.
American political elites love the Singularity, and love to hate Climate Change. But in their minds, the solution that gets us to one before the other can never be an actual revolution--only a faster model of the current blender, a more convenient driving experience, a smarter open-plan office design. The future, to them, looks like an asymptotically-infinite superposition of paint-by-numbers drawings of the current world -- the hyperrational limit of a template in which so many still needlessly suffer. They would disagree with "needlessly" in that previous sentence, because perhaps the predominant Good Opinion of our time is that everything good has to have a trade-off. And so their success and freedom must come at the expense of someone else's failure and suffering.
The revolution that will impose itself on these elites (before the Singularity, but after Climate Change) will come either from painters on the left or from book-burners on the right. As yet, it's not clear what they prefer--after all, they don't need paper as much as artists do.