Pragmatism v Petulance

Call me a pragmatic, liberal Democrat. I never saw the need to repackage myself as a “Progressive” — even at the height of Conservative sneering at the older appellation.

For me, it went further than pride in Old School posturing. Because being a “Progressive” mostly obligates those who embrace the label to accept a fully formed ideology. And if there are two things I don’t do, they’re ideology and religion (probably for interrelated reasons). I don’t buy into unquestionable poltical/social assumptions and purity tests any more than I believe in a Big Sky Mommy or Daddy.

From my perspective, the political Left and the Right are mirror images of each other: identical structures upon which are hung opposing conceptual assumptions, obligations and demands. Put another way, they’re identically configured plumbing systems dispensing two different kinds of Kool Aid.

I thus observe both the Left and the Right with almost anthropological interest — I’m fascinated by their tribal rituals and, more importantly, the kinds of sacrifices they choose to make to their ideological gods.

During last night’s Democratic debate, I kept one eye on Twitter, monitoring real-time reactions to the broadcast. What most intrigued me was the amount of vitriol toward Clinton from the Left, driven in most part by Clinton’s perceived ideological impurity. I was prepared for their boosterism of Bernie Sanders, but the Left-Wing accusations were bitter enough to suggest that they won’t be voting for Clinton in fairly certain Bernie-less post-primary circumstances.

(The reason Sanders won’t win the primary was on ample display in last night’s debate — much like Joe Biden’s classic put-down of Rudy Giuliani, all Bernie needs to make a sentence is a noun, a verb and “Criminal Wall Street.” It’s not that I disagree with him about either Wall Street or the top one percent of wealth holders — it’s his reduction of complex, nuanced governing to this single injustice that convinces me he’s not Presidental material. If I wanted a one-hit wonder as POTUS, I’d vote for Thomas Dolby.)

This is my question to the Left: What happens post-primary, when Bernie Sanders isn’t the Democratic candidate and Hillary Clinton is? What precisely is your next step in the wake of all the vitriol, garment-rending and accusations that Clinton isn’t ideologially pure enough?

Are you voting for Trump or Carson? Or even Bush? I’m thinking no, and feeling confident in this assumption. Which leaves us with you staying home on Election Day 2016. Because ideology. Because purity. Because grand gesture. Which, of course, will simply be a passive/aggressive way of de facto voting for Trump/Carson/Bush because it will ensure that one of them wins. This isn’t a rhetorical question — I only wish it was. No, really — what precisely are you going to do if Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee?

I’m asking because I’ll stay drunk in a Guyanese rainforest before living in One Nation Under Trump or Carson, and I’d like a heads-up to more effectively plan my US exit.

And should Sanders somehow win the Democratic primary, it seems only fair to lay my own cards on the table: I’ll be voting for him in the general election. Voting for him although he’s not my first choice; voting for him even although I had imagined better; voting for him because I’m a pragmatic, liberal Democrat and that’s how pragmatism rolls. Pragmatism in this case is the exact opposite of electorial petulance

It’s called compromise, and sometimes it does business as cost/benefit assessment or half-a-loaf-better-than-none. And yeah, this makes me a sell-out, ideologically impure and certainly not a progressive. But it’s also my way of helping ensure that there’s a Democrat in the White House for — fingers crossed — the next eight years. And someone on the Left needs to explain to me why this would not be better — however nominally in their opinion — than all three branches of government being in the hands of the TeaOP.

My friends on the Left, you have a little over a year to ponder what you’ll be doing in a general election not featuring Bernie Sanders. I’m hoping that you’ll show up; that you’ll hold your ideological noses and pull the Democratic lever — mainly because I’m not looking forward to Guyana; I’m just not a rainforest kind of guy.

When Everything is Louder Than Everything Else: First-Draft Thoughts On The Strategic Abdication Of Television News Divisions

When not being function, form can also be indictment: The coverage of the Louisiana theater shootings as pounced upon by CNN and MSNBC in the manner of a terrier shaking a rat to death is more about the state of cable journalism than the awful incident being reported on.

Let me stress that the theater shootings were tragic and irrefutably an important local / regional event in Louisiana. But scaled-up to a national story with little or no connection or context, with each detail as important as every detail and suffused with equal parts of apophenia and conjecture, it is a microcosm of much of what’s wrong with television news.

The problem starts with the nationalizing of a local / regional story. In Louisiana, this story is of critical informational value to the local citizens — it’s happening in their backyards and possibly involves people they know or perhaps even them. Did their daughters go to that movie? Should they lock the doors and shelter-in-place? What streets are affected by the police investigation? Will events scheduled for tomorrow take place? Real concerns.

But now scale-up that local / regional story to national proportions. Most actionable aspects of the news instantly disappear. What remains is the possibility that the viewer might know someone in the region. But statistically this is slim reason to take the story national in a non-stop fashion. The sane call would be to break into scheduled programming and let us know something is happening. And then on the half hour give us, say, a three-minute update. Repeat as necessary. But this never happens.

So without direct viewer connection to the event being covered and the absence of actionability in the news being reported, what accounts for the non-stop nationalization of this type of story? Or perhaps a better way to ask this is why doesn’t this happen to to all local / regional news? What are the parameters for nationalization? And, just as importantly, why, after all this time, do we the viewers have to ask? Had one person been shot in the theater, would non-stop coverage have ensued? What if no one had been injured? Or what if it had been a fatal, armed robbery in front of the theater — same drifter, same gun, same theater? Are we in non-stop coverage mode now? Is the Breaking News banner scrolling across the bottom of our screens? In this last hypothetical, I’m inclined to say no, probably we’re not nationalizing a fatal, armed robbery in a theater parking lot in Louisiana. At least not in second-by-second, non-stop fashion. So what accounts for the difference?

My theory, be it ever so ugly, is that the Media likes — for lack of a better term — bad news with “good bones,” bad news that offers the most potential for dramatic “narrative,” the kind of drama that attracts and holds more viewers which, in turn, increases ratings, which translates into more advertisers and higher ad rates. Because news divisions haven’t been in the news business for a very long time — they’re blatant corporate revenue streams. This, of course, could be an essay in itself, but for now let’s take it as a given.

So the Media, chasing market share, nationalizes what it hopes is high-drama news — strong emphasis on hope. Because what if a story has the scale, but not the drama–or at least the preferred level of drama? As noted above, a nationalized local / regional story inherently has direct connection and actionability stripped from it. And this is a problem, because connection and actual affect on viewers are what imbue news with genuine impact.

Faced with this dilemma, the Media reaches for the equivalent of journalistic steroids to bulk-up the story. First and foremost, they frame it as Important: every aspect is Breaking News, and as near as I can determine, Breaking News has a half-life that rivals plutonium. I’ve seen news stories 12 hours old — stories that happened in the early evening of the night before still being called Breaking News in the late morning of the next day. And you have too — we all have. I wonder why we don’t talk about this? I wonder why the alarm bells inside our heads don’t go off? Because after all, “suspension of disbelief” is not the best mindset for being informed of possibly important stuff by strangers.

I have a theory about this too: We engage in suspension of disbelief regarding Breaking News status because at some level we understand that what we’re watching is narrative, not reporting. Hell, cable news people have even taken to calling it that within their reports. The Narrative. Yes, it means “account,” but just as often it means “literary story.” And isn’t this what’s happening? The smudging of nationalized local / regional story with dramaturgy?

What else explains that soundtrack music in news reports which cues the audience how to feel–those terrible synthesized loops of mournful strings in stories about death, and the major-key orchestral riffs on Aaron Copland in reports on heroism–they’re imposed, dramatic flourishes pure and simple. The smudging of news reporting with dramaturgy also accounts for the fact that individual news stories now have logos. Think about that–we’re not talking about helpful info-graphics that offer viewers insight, but the literal branding of news reports. A town is leveled by a tornado and someone in the art department works out what typeface best suits the catastrophe and which color palette best conveys desolation and lost lives. The result is that if you regularly watch, say, CNN, you recognize the news-logo for that missing Malaysian plane as instantly as a Nabisco box in the cracker aisle at the store. So yeah–CNN mission presumably accomplished, but to what end? How is this consumer recognition of a news story beneficial in terms of viewer understanding? How is it even helpful? To make it easier for you to realize you’re watching the “wrong” missing plane coverage on another network? Logo-fication of the news doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because it’s also just theatrical flourish overlaid on the news.

News-As-Dramaturgy can also be seen in all those needless remotes by photogenic anchors who are essentially news presenters even if they do persist in calling themselves “managing editors.” Stop and ask yourself–why did Brian Williams need to stand in front of the tornado-desolated town? In what way did Williams being there enhance your understanding of the disaster? Certainly no more than if Williams had tossed to a field reporter from his studio desk. Remotes by anchors are for the anchors, not the viewers. They are Edward R Murrow Fantasy Camps for the pretty-faced, desk-bound and bored. It allows the anchors to pull out the trench coats / bush jackets / parkas / tight black tee shirts and pretend they have in-the-field street cred that’s no longer there (if, indeed, it ever was). In an age of slashed news division budgets, on-location destruction and war are used more as low-cost sets and found special effects than as a way to genuinely deepen viewer knowledge of the event being reported on. Be honest–is your take-away from the report that featured the reverse tracking shot of tee-shirt clad Anderson Cooper confidently striding through that bazaar with the difficult name (that he pronounced perfectly) deeper than had it not been done? Neither is mine.

Also be assured of this: If News-As-Dramaturgy somehow doesn’t occur, it’s never from the Media’s lack of trying: Stripped of genuine drama, cable news must somehow inject it–in the case of breaking news, with no time to find a soundtrack or a logo or a safe, on-site place for the anchor to stand, this happens frequently.

One way it’s done is through fetishizing detail. For the Media, this feels right because it still labors under the delusion that, in best cases, journalists can be empiricists — which, of course, they never can be in any circumstance. Empiric journalism is J-School aspirational bullshit that groundlessly teaches reporters can rise above all personal agendas and focus solely on the inherent truth of their stories. This too is an essay in itself — and once again, for the purposes of this piece, let’s accept it as a given. It’s easy (and, drama-wise, beneficial) to fetishize detail. It’s no surprise, then, that the Media always seems to engage in micro-granularity regarding nationalized local / regional stories. In the absence of meaningful context for a national audience, high-def detail is substituted.

And thus, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, I’m told with particular urgency that the Louisiana theater in which the shootings took place was showing Trainwreck, that the shooting took place during the film’s credit sequence, that the theater was a multiplex and that one of the other films being shown was Minions. And then, for even greater accuracy, they correctthe previously reported number of screens in the theater. All of these hi-def details are reported to a national audience as if they comprise some sort of coded insight that would Explain Everything if only we could decrypt it. But here’s the thing: all facts aren’t equal. Some facts mean nothing at all — some mean jack shit, pure and simple.(This theater shooting makes me recall the one in Aurora, Colorado. The meaningless details there were Batman film and midnight showing, which also didn’t enhance — much less explain — well, anything.)

But then something else happens: The details the Media fetishize weirdly trigger the next substitute for genuinely impactful news: it allows for on-air apophenia. In the absence of context and early-stage meaning, the Media sees patterns in everything. (In the reporting of the Aurora shootings, I remember a long on-air discussion about the shooter’s red henna not accurately mirroring The Joker’s hair color. Which neatly led us to . . . what exactly? Certainly not insight or meaning.)

With regard to the Louisiana story, I heard a CNN anchor solemnly opine that 59-year-old white guys simply don’t go to movies like Trainwreck. (Confession: I’m an older white guy who went to Trainwreck because I have this thing for Tilda Swinton–sue me.) And having crossed over into the realm of walls covered in photos connected to each other by crisscrossing colored yarn, that same CNN anchor added that, of course, Trainwreck was a comedy. You know: a comedy. Come on, a comedy! I had to switch the coverage off before CNN’s journalistic integrity demanded that they correct themselves and depict it as more accurately the credit sequence of a comedy that old white guys don’t see that was one theater over from Minions because, damn it all, this is really, really, really important and may Explain Everything. Plus Amy Schumer, because why not? It’s the narrative-enhancing celebrity of Amy Schumer!

Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, a retired FBI profiler who was asked about the Louisiana shootings immediately segued into his previous talking points about the military recruiting station attacks — because, presumably, gunsand one-size-fits-all insightSo much granularity, so many patterns, so little meaning — for hours on end, and sometimes for days . . .

This, friends, is cable news running at cruising speed — it’s a fair representation of what it does 24 / 7 regardless of what’s being covered, from Balloon Boy (awkward one, that) to the second-by-second coverage of Ted Cruz reading Green Eggs And Ham between his Darth Vader impressions. Non-stop coverage of everything, where everything is louder than everything else.

This is how we become desensitized to genuinely important things — like the policy positions of people who would be President of the United States. When you see the same grave, lean-into-the-camera urgency used to detail Cruz’s fondness for Doctor Seuss, NASA discoveries about Pluto, the possible importance of Rom-Com credit sequences to homicidal drifters, the finer points of the Iran nuclear weapons deal, Trump saying he’d get a new haircut if elected and the impact of the Greek economy collapsing — the verysame urgency — chaff and grain forever remain unseparated.

Do you know what’s just as important in journalism as getting the story right? Its implied mission to curate the news for us. The importance of what used to appear above the front-page fold is even more important now that we can be literally washed away by ceaseless events from everywhere. But that’s a responsibility that cable news — and maybe all news reporting — has abdicated. Everything is louder than everything else. There is no longer a reasoned approach regarding what appears above the metaphoric fold.

The knee-jerk critique has been to blame the never-ending news cycle. But I think that’s only part of it. Look at the abject curation failure of broadcast evening news — there the problem of endless space to fill doesn’t exist. They’re 30-minute shows, 12 minutes of which is advertising. So yeah, 18 minutes of national and world news once a day — at least that’s the theory, however antiquated. But the network news divisions suck at it. I don’t miss Brian Williams because he sucked as a curator of news and now it’s Lester Holt’s turn to equally suck. The broadcast news divisions are incapable of properly curating 18 minutes of daily events. Let that sink in.

“Person Of The Week” feel-good moments, tips — I kid you not — about using a zip line, “Making A Difference” heart-tugging, celebrity divorces, et al. Everything louder than everything else — and endless space to fill has nothing to do with it.

But news-as-revenue-stream sure does. Which means attracting more of the senior demo for all those medication ads targeting the Silver Set. And so within that 18 minutes a happy senior-friendly “Making A Difference” displaces yet another hard and possibly grim news story.

I wish I had a big ending here — some sort of Perry Mason moment or Property Brothers reno reveal — but I don’t. The solution is obvious: journalism should not be a revenue stream, and most certainly not a profit center. Which is another way of saying that journalism should be excused from seeking advertising-friendly ratings (because remember — it’s not just viewers, it demographically correct viewers). But this isn’t going to happen. At least, I can’t see a way that it will: The News Purist Revolution will not be occurring, much less televised.

But perversely that won’t stop me from calling out the news divisions on their many abdications. Because even as reporting becomes increasingly ephemeral and the viewers increasingly ignorant of important, meaningful events, I take a grim pleasure in seeing and identifying this slo-mo slide into The New Dumb. And, yes, in doing this, I understand that I’m effectively Kevin McCarthy in the director’s intended conclusion to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers: Running into traffic screaming that the New Dumb of corporate-run news divisions is here, but knowing, along with you, that, for all my arm-waving, it’s not going to end well.

The Monster Is Loose–And So Are The Villagers

For the TeaOP right now it’s a case of the art of two James Whale films imitating life: Simply put, they’re Dr Frankenstein and Donald Trump is the monster they’ve stitched together from disparate dead parts—ideologies, so-called “social values,” racial biases, Gilded Age beliefs, conspiracy theories, pre-Internet politicking, gerrymandering, political grifting and good old-fashioned carney barking.

We’re currently at the juncture where the Monster has turned on its creator, but there’s a third-act twist—the villagers in this case are both enabling and encouraging the lumbering brute to continue terrorizing the countryside. This is because Donald Trump is also the TeaOP’s Political Singularity; a nexus of the ill-informed, the addled, the out-of-touch, the echo-chamber zealots and those deeply suspicious of anything beyond their neighborhood boundaries. He is the TeaOP political base incarnate. And the increasing political stridency and radicalism that this base has made possible since 9/11 is the lightning that’s brought Trumpenstein to life.

The massive irony is that almost everything Donald Trump has done that has shocked and dismayed the TeaOP leadership is stuff they’ve quite happily trafficked in earlier:

His public doubting of McCain’s heroism maps perfectly to the TeaOP’s swiftboating of John Kerry in 2004.

Trump’s dodgy belief that business wealth equals political competence is the cornerstone of both Americans For Prosperity and ALEC.

Trump’s attacks on his fellow TeaOP candidates traces back to the attempted and groundless delegitimization of Obama via Birtherism.

His characterization of Hispanic illegal immigrants as drug traffickers and rapists has roots in the racism of Steve King and Joe Arpaio—and, by extension, to the mostly TeaOP defense of the Confederate flag.

Thrice-married Trump’s self-proclaimed expertise on heterosexual marriage and his blatant lying with regard to the GNP, ISIS as a hotelier, the unemployment rate, nuclear capability, et al honors the long history of TeaOP political grifting, which includes Paul Ryan’s fake national budgets, the ginning-up of voter fraud statistics, using Obama’s “you didn’t build that” without its context, Rubio’s hastily revised family history, McCain suspension of his presidential campaign for a weekend so he could “solve” the economic meltdown and, most notably, the making up of literally any negative concerning ObamaCare.

Trump’s loutish, loudmouth behavior—his exaggeration of, well, everything—has its precedent in all manner of TeaOP bullshitters—Sarah Palin, Louis Gohmert, Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and, most recently, Marco “The-President-Has-No-Class” Rubio. The TeaOP has a proud tradition of arm-waving spew—they have become a party of carney barkers with the sole mission of getting the electoral rubes inside the tent by any means necessary and this has found its most concentrated expression in Trump

And finally, The Donald’s increasing popularity in the polls has to be taken seriously because of the potentially validating affect of the overlay of TeaOP voter disenfranchisement, its massive red-state gerrymandering and the 24/7 cocktail of talking points, propaganda and fear from Fox News, its communications arm. Having built the Monster, the TeaOP has also constructed and radicalized the villagers and given them out-of-proportion influence. It’s a triple play that’s coming back to bite them.

The TeaOP is understandably horrified because Trump’s every action and pronouncement, cheered on by the base, effectively holds up a mirror to the party, and those hideously distorted reflections are occurring in public and the daylight, and can’t be blamed on the inaccuracies of the political fun house. For the national electorate beyond the base, Trump is a shambling, spewing collection of the TeaOP’s very dubious greatest hits, and they realize it.

Donald Trump isn’t a fluke, an eccentric amateur of Herman Cain caliber. Rather, he is the breathtaking, awful high-water mark of the TeaOP’s duplicitous statements, dumb beliefs and deeply bad actions—the destination the party has been rushing toward with collective open arms for more than a decade.

I find all this as deeply satisfying as Wile E Coyote’s Acme products inevitably pulverizing him. And so my fingers are crossed that having come this far, the TeaOP and its monster will strive to have an appropriately James Whale ending . . .

No Debate At All

Why those primary and presidential-candidate onstage gatherings are the farthest thing possible from Oxford Union debating

Reince Priebus has once again opened his mouth and another wave of badly thought out talking-point drivel is flooding the place. (I can’t be the only one who imagines that Caution: TeaOP Contents Under Extreme Pressure! has been tattooed on the back of his head.) The good news is that he’s moved on from saying women who demand rights to their own bodies are the equivalent of caterpillar invasions. This time he’s attempting something half-clever designed to fool “low-information” voters (ie, the ignorant) and the Media (ie, the corporately craven)–something that’s pretty much on the level of pretending to throw a tennis ball and then standing back to watch a fox terrier dash after nothing at all.

The invisible tennis ball in this instance is Priebus’ insistence that he has TeaOP primary debates to offer for appropriately cowed behavior from NBC and CNN. And, as with that fox terrier, he has both networks in a frenzy over nothing at all. He doesn’t have anything remotely like debates to trade for TeaOP censorship–the primary and presidential-candidate match-ups call themselves “debates” in the same way that Hunter Thompson claimed he was a “doctor.” But at least Thompson reveled in the duplicitous manipulation of the self-labeling.

Much is being made of Priebus’ slip on Morning Joe–that moment where reality slipped through the bullshit: “I have to chose moderators who are interested in the Republican party and its nominees.” This, of course, is completely true–he does help choose moderators and also helps to ensure that they will cause no trouble for the candidates (ie, that they will in no way be practicing journalism or even be legitimate debate referees). So yes, what he says is true–but certainly not shocking. Because primary and presidential-candidate onstage gatherings simply aren’t debates, and haven’t been for decades (if even then).

On a continuum with the Oxford Union debate society at one end and the World Wrestling Federation at the other, primary and presidential-candidate “debates” are only lacking Lurex trunks and literal body slams. They are cartoon stagecraft designed for not-smart people who want to see some overt aggression and maybe even a little violence. Primary and presidential-candidate “debates” center around carefully designed narratives for personas that have been cold-bloodedly designed for the widest public consumption. Ultimately, there’s not a lot of  difference between Herman Cain and Hulk Hogan except, of course, that Hogan is smarter.

And even if this purposely crippled, mutant thing fires on the few cylinders at its disposal, even if it tries to rise above the status of professional political wrestling, it’s still in no way a “debate.” The best it can ever be is a less-good product-list page on Amazon: visuals of competing goods, each with manufacturer-submitted and possibly dodgy specs. It’s less-good because Amazon takes pains to add customer reviews to balance out those carefully burnished self-descriptions. In primary and presidential-candidate “debates,” any sense of real-world efficacy (or even applicability) has been carefully left out.

These so-called “debates” are the result of multi-page, contractually binding and non-negotiable agreements between all parties: yes, the moderators are chosen; yes, the stage design is agreed upon; yes, the caliber of the audience in attendance has been approved in advance; and yes, very often follow-up questions from the moderator are explicitly forbidden. All of this is the result of secret, closed-door discussions between candidates, sponsors and networks that are never disclosed to the public. (In October of 2012, Mark Halperin leaked the 21-page secret document that outlined how the then upcoming presidential-candidate “debates” would proceed. It makes for a sobering read.)

Presidential-candidate gatherings have so patently become not debates that the League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring them in 1984–it walked away rather than be forced to sign a contract about what would happen and how it would happen (back then, it was a mere 12 pages compared to 2012’s 21-page outline of demands). The League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring presidential-candidate debates because it was afraid that what was being agreed to behind closed doors would damage its reputation. Pause and think about that.

In the wake of the LWV, the Democratic and Republican parties formed the bipartisan, “independent” Commission on Presidential Debates, which seemingly has had no problem with secret agreements that will never be disclosed to the electorate. The quotations marks around independent are there for a reason: if the Commission on Presidential Debates fails to abide by the secret agreements, it will lose its sponsorship rights. In other words, the ongoing existence of the Commission is based upon remaining an obedient lapdog to the two parties determining how much of a debate the “debates” will be. So yeah, “independent.”

Now back to Reince Priebus (whose name minus the vowels reads RNC PR BS): His embarrassingly thin excuse for not giving NBC the invisible tennis ball is fake outrage based on fake confusion about the relationship of NBC’s entertainment division to its news operation. My reaction is that, exactly like the World Wrestling Federation, primary and presidential-candidate “debates” as currently hobbled are nothing but entertainment–just another manipulated reality show that garners ratings for the network and launches ancillary careers for supporting cast members.

But the reason Priebus has both NBC and CNN chasing their twitching, terrier tails goes beyond simple ratings lust. The networks are privy to the secret “debate” agreements–they’re part of them. (And frankly, have much to gain by the way those agreements abet the narrative-reporting so loved by their news divisions.) The networks could easily shut down Priebus by exposing the behind-the-scenes distortion of “debates” and demand something better and more honest–if only they weren’t complicit, if only it wouldn’t be proof that their own moderators had previously phoned it in due to secret contractual obligations.

Here’s the take-away: This isn’t about the integrity of network news or the silo’ed nature of entertainment and news operations. This isn’t about a new low for TeaOP apparatchiks (they’ve already so low that the next stop is the Earth’s molten core). No–what we’re watching is essentially that Mexican stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs; a double-cross among thieves. The best outcome for the American electorate is for this to end badly for the TeaOP, the networks and those things they keep insisting are “debates.”

For Today’s TeaOP, It’s Always 2:00 AM

Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it, so your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything is less than zero
Hey, oo hey-ey
Hey, oo hey-ey

–Elvis Costello

First, the obvious: the Republican Party is profoundly out-of-step with 21st Century America. William F Buckley once described conservatism as an attempt to ‘stand athwart history yelling Stop!’–which, of course, is impossible. Years later, Chuck Palahniuk more reasonably observed that “on a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” And, bang, there’s the problem–the TeaOP has reached the end of its particular history-thwarting time line. The party is past its expiration date and in deep denial about that fact.

For the TeaOP, what started out as gradually increasing cultural dissonance has become an unstoppable crumbling of the ideological ledge the party is standing on. Understandably, they’re bewildered, angry and–most of all–disbelieving.

This is why Reince Preibus’ RNC plan is eyes-screwed-shut delusional, and equally, why all of the TeaOP factions–the Tea Partiers, the Christian Right and the Libertarians–are as misguided in their outraged responses to the plan as the report itself. All of the stakeholders are rending their garments in the belief that theirs is the best way to save TeoOP. Except that there is no saving it–none at all. If the RNC plan were flawlessly executed, the best possible result would be the purchase of a little more time before it ceases to exist.

Here’s the harsh topography at the end of the TeaOP time line: The old and oldest generations are literally dying; the country is becoming significantly less white (think minority status); the country is becoming distinctly less religious (at least in an organized sense), the only sane question about immigration reform is when, not if; gays are increasingly being accepted as the first-class citizens they’ve always been and women have proven there is no way in hell they’ll be sent back to the first season of Mad Men.

On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero . . . There’s very little room for interpretation in that grimness. Two years from now there will be even fewer of today’s seniors, even less conventionally religious people, fewer white people, more demand for a rethought immigration policy, more gay families across the nation and women will be an even more potent force to be reckoned with. Now think about four years out, six years down the line or eight years from now.

And so, the TeaOP isn’t in the saving-itself business by any stretch of the imagination, rather it’s engaged in buying itself time–and desperately so. They’re hapless passengers after a shipwreck, swimming between flotsam as the each piece becomes too waterlogged to keep them afloat. Or, less dramatically, the TeaOP can be seen as a single guy at a bar at last call–at 2:00 AM, with hook-up possibilities greatly diminished, all manner of improbable partners are suddenly worth considering. Desperate times, desperate measures . . . Thus in the morning, the TeaOP wakes up alongside the Christian Right or seniors frightened by healthcare reform or Unreconstructed Randians or even Libertarians. And in the cold light of morning, after the deed has been done, all the TeaOP hopes for is that they don’t want to stay for breakfast–except that they always do.

The TeaOP in its current ideological form is fatally and incurably ill even as it persists in planning for birthdays into the next decade. It’s Kubler-Ross time, and depending on which party player you talk to, they’re either at Denial or Anger, with a few of the clearer heads just now arriving at Bargaining. Of course the end of this psychological journey is Acceptance–which, yes, means the end of this version of the Republican Party, and not a moment too soon.

However, whether or not there is a next version depends on how fervently and how long they mistake rebranding for reimagining or rebirth. Because the RNC plan and the factional critiques of it (and most certainly the CPAC clown car) are guaranteed tickets to extinction. End of the time line, everybody off.

So call me when the fabric of TeaOP reality is picked apart and actually rewoven–but until then, I have no patience for the delusional sturm und drang roiling the party and with its seeming validation by the breathless, blow-by-blow media coverage. After all, on a long enough time line, one’s ability to care about political posturing drops to zero . . .

Reince In Realityland

Chapter 5

Advice From A Caterpillar


The Caterpillar and Reince looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of her mouth, and addressed him in a languid, sleepy voice.

Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Reince replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, just at present — at least I know what the GOP was when I got up this morning, but I think it must have been changed several times since then.’ Sounding slightly desperate, Reince added, ‘Will . . . will you be voting for Mitt Romney in November?’

With narrowed eyes, the Caterpillar stared at Reince for such a very long time, he shifted about uncomfortably. And then at last she slowly said, ‘Who . . . is . . . Mitt Romney?’

This caused Reince to fidget even more agitatedly because it sounded somehow threatening. Cautiously he asked, ‘Well, will you be voting for any Republicans?’ and then nervously straightened his tie.

The Caterpillar put the hookah back in her mouth and seemed lost in contemplation. At last she put it aside and fixed Reince with the most forbidding glare he had ever experienced. ‘Who . . . are . . . the Republicans?’ the Caterpillar asked so harshly that Reince suddenly wanted to cry.

V Is For Vengeance, Vacillation & Value Judgement

Up on Twitter, an ongoing set of reactions to Bin Laden’s death has begun to niggle at me–and, as always, fence-straddling is involved. There’s a too-sensitive-by-half crowd that’s focused almost exclusively on, well, post-mortem etiquette. You know who I’m talking about–the It-Had-To-Be-Done-But-Let’s-Not-Be-Jubilant-About-It camp. As if jubilation was the worst part of the equation.

Let’s be clear here: Bin Laden’s death is a near-perfect example of vengeance. Personally, I’m more than okay with this because it was Deeply Justified–but nevertheless, it remains vengeance, pure and simple. However, while the value-judgement crowd weirdly seems okay with the two professional shots into the left eye, the dancing in the streets afterwards is causing them all manner of knit-brow concern.

If we must have soul-searching about Bin Laden’s death, shouldn’t we move the discussion upstream to, you know, the assassination itself, rather than leaving it at what constitutes decorum afterwards?

Just as one can’t be kind-of-pregnant or pull the plug of a life-support unit half-way out of the electrical outlet, you either buy into the concept of vengeance or you don’t. You have to decide. You can’t be sort of in favor of justifiably killing someone. No matter what the Too-Sensitive Crowd wants to believe, Grim Vengeance is no way superior to Happy Vengeance: Once you decide to endorse taking a person’s life, adjectives simply don’t matter (except, of course, as retro-fitted, moral wiggle room).

But the hand-wringing crowd I keep stumbling over on Twitter are faux-nuanced; they don’t (or won’t) see this. While they fretfully twist their shirttails over any sort of celebration about Bin Laden’s well-deserved demise, not one has posited that he shouldn’t have been killed. And intriguingly, I’m sensing the absence of the queasiness that usually accompanies cognitive dissonance. Their argument, I’m Good With Killing Him But For God’s Sake No One Smile, doesn’t seem to be problematic.

You can be for justified vengeance or be appalled by it–I equally respect either stance. But this Post-Mortem Miss Manners thing is exactly the kind of cocktail-liberalism that gives Lefties a bad name. And worse, it allows for a Not-Me situational sanctimony after one of the darkest and dodgiest of moral buy-ins . . .

The Disengagement Of "Teaching Moments"

Most smart people tend to feel queasy when the conversation turns to things like ‘certain death’ and ‘total failure’ and the idea of a ‘doomed generation,’ But not me. I am comfortable with these themes . .  . Any conversation that can make smart people confront a mix of Death, Doom and Failure with a straight face is probably worth listening in on.
–Hunter S Thompson

Earlier today the talking heads on MSNBC’s Morning Joe signaled that the Tucson shootings had–right on schedule–entered the uniquely American next stage that always follows a national panic attack: They sagely looked at each other and agreed, god willing, the tragedy would become a Teaching Moment. And, as always, that pissed me off.

Because in America, Teaching Moments are encoded shrugs; the equivalent of a national “Our bad.” Teaching Moments are about broadcasting, not receiving. Think back: In wake of a gut-wrenching national experience, no one ever talks about a Learning Moment–and for good reason. Because then the onus would be on all of us to actually do something about the gut-wrench du jour. Learning Moments, not Teaching Moments, are what lead to Change Pivots–and none of the contributing parties to the Tucson shootings want to (or will) go there.

I’m pretty much an unreconstructed cynic–for me, the glass is almost always half-filled–and, both sadly and tellingly, I’m rarely disappointed. Gloomy topics? Ha! Like Thompson, I’m comfortable with these themes. So allow me to make a grim inventory of those aspects of the Tucson shootings that will definitely not be Learning Moments:

Right-wing, violent rhetoric: After a short, muted period, it will ramp up again. Even as I write this, the status of the right-wing attack machine is obviously Battle Stations. And when the blame-deflecting talking points are not being spewed, people are either revising history (that sound is Sarah Palin scrubbing her website) or in hiding (Palin and the NRA). Squint at the broadcast horizon with me–do you really see a Kinder, Gentler Limbaugh? A Sadder-But-Wiser Beck? Sign-less and gun-less Tea Party gatherings? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

Gun laws: Arizona has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation. Guns in bars. Guns at school. Expanded assault-clips at Walmart. While Federal law enforcement agents have standard-issue 12-bullet clips, psychotic college kids are allowed to pack three times the ammo before they need to reload. What are the bets that Arizona’s deeply fucked-up self-image as 21st century frontiersmen is going to change? Do you really think that Jan Brewer–who further loosened many of the gun laws–is going to reverse herself? Calculating, empty-pant-suit Jan Brewer? Do you have any hope that the NRA (currently in hiding from the media) is going to have a lobbying change of heart? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

GOP obstructionism: When the federal ban on assault weapons ran out in 2004, the Senate passed a bill extending it, but the Republican-held House–wait for-it–never voted on it. Fast-foward six years to a period of Republican obstructionism that makes 2004 look like Haight Asbury in the late ’60s. Are Republicans going to take away from the Tea Party even a single class of guns? Do you any hope at all this will happen? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

Safety nets for the mentally ill: Look deeply into Jan Brewer’s callous eyes–she’s letting sane people who need heart transplants die, so what are the odds that there will be funding for the improved care of the emotionally disturbed? Over the next months, when state budgets across the country are slashed–when there is significantly less funding for everything from education to infrastructure–do you hold out hope that improved care for the mentally ill will occur? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

None of these things will be Learning Moments, much less Change Pivots. And privately, all of us realize this–politicians, voters and media talking heads. Thus, publicly hoping that the Tucson shootings will be a Teaching Moment isn’t just ineffective, it’s knee-jerk, with all the disengaged, pantomime caring found in “Have A Good Day.” 

Characterizing the Tucson shootings as a Teaching Moment gives all of us permission not to do anything more about it. It’s a way to feel concerned in the moment but in no way bothered with follow-through. In 12 months time, will MSNBC bump an hour of Lock-Up Raw for a special on whether Arizona’s gun laws have tightened up in wake of the shootings? Or for a look at the changes, if any, in the care of the emotionally unstable? And–damningly–would we watch these things a year from now? Nothing learned; nothing changed . . .

The last time I gave in to a full-blown political rant can be found here:

Elevator Pitch: Christine O’Donnell Ad Proposal

Hellooo, voters. Look at your candidate. Now back to me. Now back to your candidate. Now back to me.

Sadly, he isn’t me. And if he stopped being an elitist, socialist liberal with Yale values, he still wouldn’t be anything like me because I’m you. Look down. Back up.

Where are you? You’re on the campus of Oxford University. With the candidate your candidate could only hope to be. What’s in your hand? Back at me.

I have it. It’s tourist bureau photos of Claremont Graduate University and Princeton. Look again. The campus photos are now diplomas. Anything is possible when your candidate is like you, or at least slower and more desperate. I’m on a broomstick.

(Look down. Back at me. I’m Christine O’Donnell and I authorized this ad.)

The Real Third Rail Of American Politics

It never seems to fail–I go into snarky-commentary hiatus in Maine, and disturbing things transpire: this time around, one in five Americans believe that Obama is Muslim , while 61 percent of Americans oppose a second mosque blocks away from Ground Zero . And those pundits–both right and left–who aren’t attempting to spin these lies to their advantage have been trying to explain How/Why It All Happened

But no one is grabbing the real third rail of American politics. The reason is, of course, that this truth is both inconvenient and electorally dangerous: pointing it out will take away one of the clubs being used to beat Republicans around the genitals and at the same time insult voters Democrats hope to attract in a few months. But inconvenience and danger don’t make this insight any less true . . .

Of course Republicans, NeoCons and Assorted Wingnuts are the sources of the misinformation about Obama’s religion and the fake outrage over the proposed mosque down the street from Ground Zero. (Did I mention it would be the second one within blocks of the World Trade Center site?) It’s absolutely them: they did it, case closed, book ’em Danno. 

But here’s the thing–I’m not particularly angry at them. This is simply what they do. Were I to stand in front of the tiger enclosure at the zoo and stick my hand between the bars, where, precisely, are my grounds for shock, surprise and anger as I’m being fitted for my new prosthesis? It was a tiger–and, given a chance, chewing off my hand is just what tigers do. This is how I feel about Republicans, NeoCons and Assorted Wingnuts–they are the quintessence of that old punch-line: “Lady, you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.” Put another way, you can’t blame a man for trying–even if that man is Hannibal Lecter . . .

Which brings us to the dangerous aspect–the third rail itself. All 10,000 crackling volts. The genuinely appalling aspect of this twin tempest of Obama’s “real” religion and the fake mosque outrage is not the lying, figurative priests or their respective devout, politically blinded congregations–it’s what it says about the American public-at-large. 

When one out of five citizens believes that Obama is a Muslim, what’s easier: (1) solemnly stating that survey respondents are saying it to obliquely register their displeasure with the Federal government and its policymaking or (2) taking a deep breath and suggesting that the American public-at-large is crazy-stupid/peasant-ignorant with almost non-existent intellectual curiosity and an inability/disinclination to use The Google for anything more than Lindsay Lohan news and porn?

This is not elitism–I’m not referring to the benefits of college or upper-graduate degrees. We’re talking native intelligence here, the kind that’s not about schooling and all about what was once known as common sense. Confession: when I’m standing in a grocery store line, I happily pick up a tabloid and read about how the Alien Bat Babies Found In A Satanic Nursery will quite possibly Fulfill The Prophesy In The Just-Discovered, Newly Expanded Book Of Revelation. As does the person in line behind me–who, quite often, is utterly unlike me in background and education. Sometimes this person is far more sophisticated than I’ll ever be, and at other times, he/she is rougher around the edges. But always–as in every fucking time–we both look up from our tabloids and smile knowingly at each other, shorthanding Who exactly believes this shit? The rocket scientist and I do this; the single mom from the trailer park and I do this. Calling out blatant bullshit cuts across education, status, class, religion and race. Calling out bullshit is the great leveler. Or rather, it used to be . . .

But now, seemingly not so much. With regard to politics, people are reading about Alien Bat Babies and rushing out of line to stock up on toilet paper, milk and eggs because, you know–oh-my-god, something nebulously awful that’s never sourced or questioned is happening! And when I see this occur, I sneer and mutter asshats under my breath. Because this isn’t about Republicans, NeoCons and Assorted Wingnuts–who, after all, are the equivalent of the writers and editors over at National Investigative News of The World: like the tabloid publishers, they’ve always been obvious sleaze-balls who can never be shamed. But the fools rushing up and down the paper products aisle? Well, they really, really should know better. Because they were once better and smarter and more discerning than this.

So until someone of significant pundit-y clout puts the responsibility for both the Obama-is-a-Muslim tempest and the faux outrage over the proposed mosque squarely on the shoulders of an uninformed mainstream America that’s behaving like addled meth-heads with ADD, I’m rapidly losing interest.  

Call me when the gong you want to beat is, say, the real one . . .

She Blind-Sided Me With Search Strings

I have a first-cup-of-coffee tradition that I try to observe every morning: The search for a delaying tactic to keep me from entering Writing Mode; something that prevents me from wading waist-deep back into The Book while my caffeine level is optimized. Today I decided it was of utmost importance that iGoogle, Popurls and Inquisitor for Safari match each other–as in each service being the same shade of gray. Before any further manuscript revisions were possible, it suddenly seemed somehow reasonable that a cross-service, monochromatic harmony had to be established. I figured this would buy me at least 30 minutes before I had to start channelling The Author–and I was right. (Since I’ve been writing the book, I’ve discovered in myself a hitherto unrealized-but-inspired talent for delaying tactics. Who knew? And so yes, matching my Google home page to both my news aggregator and expanded function search pop-up seemed whacked even to me–thrilling so, in fact; the sort of behavior that would cause friends to cross to the other side of the street on mere suspicion of the project.)

Anyway, after some geeky dicking about with the appearance preferences of Popurls, chromatic parity was established with Inquisitor. Which meant that I’d only need to find a complementary gray theme for Google and my sad little plan for temporary desktop domination would be realized.Mwah-ha-ha. Or something like that–whatever a procrastinating, bush-league Dr. Evil might say in similar circumstances. Thus I zipped up to the Google theme directories where I eventually settled on Chroma Pencil Lead as the gray that would make writing once again possible.

But that’s not what this post is about; it’s just writerly backstory. I already know I’m eccentric, so there’s no need to solicit your feedback concerning my various tics. Rather, I want to share what I stumbled across during my latest instance of Putting Off Writing: A Sarah Palin theme for Google, the major portal to the world’s assembled knowledge and opinion. Here, have a look:

(If I were you, I’d want more proof this isn’t some kind of joke, so please take a moment and visit the theme in virtual situ.)

My cat has become impressively adept at miming WTF? and in this case, I second that emotion. The massive cognitive dissonance of linking Palin (a) to knowledge of, well, any kind, and (b) to inherently divergent opinions is best conveyed by this simple thought experiment: Imagine Fred Flintstone and Dino as mascots for Cincinnati University’s School of Paleontology. Like Gloria Foster said in The Matrix, ‘it bakes your noodle . . .’

Full disclosure: I just took down my Obama lawn sign; I’d left it up for a full post-election week as a sort of motionless victory dance. However, my horror at the Palin Google theme has little to do with politics or partisanship. Palin, the the Far Right’s Mean-Girl Chauncey Gardner, has declared war on The Smart–here carefully defined not as the opposite of Dumb, but, rather, as the rejection of Willful Ignorance. (Or, in the manner of “Low Information,” that appalling, politically correct description of those who won’t pull themselves away from television reality shows, let’s simply say that Smart can seen as the state of being “Informed.”) And so it follows that Smartness transcends political party. Which explains why Christopher Hitchens, Colin Powell, Andrew Sullivan, Chris Buckley,et al fled in horror from Rick Davis’ Eliza Doolittle. She might as well have farted at a dinner party–which, come to think of it, she metaphorically did. Repeatedly and at all sorts of gatherings. This is also why, even though she’s been sent packing back to Alaska (interesting expression, that, in the context of the  $200,000 worth of costuming), the Smart continue to bang on her as if she were Chuck Barris’ gong. Which explains why I’m here in the front of the line, happily clutching my
mallet . . .

But back to the point: The Palin Google theme. After I spot-treated the stains on my shirt from the coffee that shot out of my nose when I first came upon it, I admit I was confused. Truth is, I still am. How exactly is one to understand this theme? Is it meant to be taken literally? Is the user of iGoogle supposed to acknowledge Palin’s oddly blank smile even as he or she searches for quantum mechanics or atheism or–ulp–evolution? Is a user of Google (which also delivers a constant stream of complex “mainstream media” news) really expected to accept that the Magic Eight Ball of politicians (Unclear, Ask Again Later–when I have new index cards) has somehow morphed into the Cassandra of Search (Here are the top two monographs on the Constitutional definition of the vice presidency)?

“Ironic” is my default setting, it’s nothing I can help. So I’m always thrown by its potential absence. However, the only way I can make sense of the Palin Google theme is to see it as a web designer’s ongoing joke. As what the first art director of Wired once called a “mind grenade.” But in this instance, the brilliance is that the conceptual grenade keeps exploding with each new search–be it smart or stupid. The coffee-out-the-nose thing happens whether I ask Sarah about the latest advances in astrophysics or speaking in tongues, albeit for different reasons. In other words, pretty much like my reactions to her answers during the
campaign . . .