Monday, June 11, 2012
The Smell of
Don't know him. Is deriding his writing ad-hominem? You tell me.
ODOR OF DEATH. When I first read this Sunday New York Times essay over the weekend, I thought I would fisk it. But it's not worth a full fisking. Key quotes and some attendant comments are all that's required. The piece is introduced and repeatedly emphasized as a mea culpa. The author, Steve Almond, is a former adjunct professor of creative writing at Boston College. He rose briefly to media prominence when he resigned from Boston College in protest of the school's invitation to Condoleeza Rice to speak at commencement. He accepted an invitation to appear on Hannity's show (whom he did and does despise), which didn't go as he expected though he felt pumped at the time, and he has since come to recognize that he, like many others, has been enabling the right-wing propaganda machine. We're supposed to read his essay as a kind of liberal "coming to Jesus" moment (irony intended) and a call to action for other liberal enablers like himself. For example, he admits that he has long enjoyed listening compulsively to conservative talk radio for the easy moral indignation such shows aroused in him. He now feels the imperative to recommit himself to reason and responsible moral thought and discussion even with non-liberals. Except not really. In fact, he's committed to the same old lefty poison dressed up in the camouflage of false humility. The following quotes are as long as they are to convey his nuances of tone and the slow tightening of his rhetorical vise. Boldfaced sections are my own highlighting, not his.
Of course, not all right-wing pundits spew hate. But the ones who do are the ones we liberals dependably aggrandize. Consider the recent debate over whether employers must cover contraception in their health plans. The underlying question — should American women receive help in protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancies? — is part of a serious and necessary national conversation.
Any hope of that
conversation happening was dashed the moment Rush Limbaugh began his
attacks on Sandra Fluke, the young contraceptive advocate. The left
took enormous pleasure in seeing Limbaugh pilloried. To what end,
though? Industry experts noted that his ratings actually went up during
the flap. In effect, the firestorm helped Limbaugh do his job, at least
in the short term.
His statement of the "underlying question" is fraudulent, unquestioningly in line with lefty spin. The question was not contraception per se, which is both relatively cheap and covered by a great many group and corporate health plans with no objections from the right wing. The question in the Fluke case was that as a student at an historically Jesuit Catholic university she was demanding free contraception via the force of government, which is a violation of the constitutional right to free religious expression. (As a law student she clearly had no idea what she was doing, being just a dumb victim woman of the male hierarchy... in a law school whose first job after graduation would net her $100K a year. Poor baby. Or, as Bill Maher would have it, idiot twat.) For Almond to state otherwise is dishonest, politically opportunistic, and simplistic to a degree that belies his ostentatious new commitment to rational discussion.
But the real problem isn’t Limbaugh. He’s just a businessman who is paid to reduce complex cultural issues to ad hominem assaults. The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right.
Media outlets like MSNBC and The Huffington Post often justify their coverage of these voices by claiming to serve as watchdogs. It would be more accurate to think of them as de facto loudspeakers for conservative agitprop. The demagogues of the world, after all, derive power solely from their ability to provoke reaction. Those liberals (like me) who take the bait, are to blame for their outsize influence.
Even programs that seek to inject some levity into our rancorous political theater run on the same noxious fuel. What would “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” be without the fulminations of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing hysterics?
Let's see. Limbaugh is just a businessman? I guess that would explain the lefty pose that Bill Maher is just a comedian? So how come Limbaugh is culpable for calling Fluke a slut while Maher is blameless for calling Palin a dumb twat and a cunt? Whence the out of the blue assertion that "we (meaning liberals) just react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right"? Probably because creative writer Almond has also contradictorily defined Limbaugh as "the alpha male of conservatism." uh, What's Maher again? Maybe the alpha misogynist of the tolerant, feminist left?
I'm tempted to suggest that the legion of conservative viewers who patronize Fox News, which Almond characterizes as "the reliable conduit by which paranoid hogwash infects our mainstream media," would nominate Charles Krauthammer over Limbaugh as the alpha male of conservativism. But I won't point that out because tolerant liberals would immediately fill the airwaves and intertubes with disgusting jokes about cripples in wheelchairs. And worse.
Which brings me to the disgraceful lie that liberals are just reacting to voices on the right. If we confine the comparison just to Fox News and MSNBC, which is not so much simplistic as scientifically and appropriately reducible to an apples to apples comparison, the notion that MSNBC is merely reacting to Fox is self-evidently absurd. As a student of both (and a strong long-term critic of Fox), I can assert with confidence that the most right-wing hosts on Fox News are Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy, and Gretchen Carlson. (O'Reilly is more old-fashioned FDR/New Deal Democrat than crazed wingnut. Lots of us wingnuts despise him as much as libs do.) Hannity is an unabashed conservative partisan. Doocy is the plastic-faced Stan Laurel of obviously half-informed conservatism. Carlson is a former Miss America and outraged mom who has outrun her education. Hardly provocative in sum of the death wishes and various equally malevolent wishes of MSNBC stars. Other Fox hosts such as Shepard Smith, Greg Jarrett, and Allisyn Camerota are probably Democrats, just as Bret Baer and Greta van Susteren are probably Republicans. Others -- notably Chris Wallace and most of the mid-day hosts -- are harder to pin down, though I'd bet a sawbuck Chris Wallace voted for Obama the first time even if he won't again.
MSNBC, on the other hand, is stocked with unabashedly left-wing hosts -- Mika Breszinski, Chris Matthews, Ed Schulz, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell (and the new nonperson of MSNBC Keith Olbermann) -- who have collectively said absolutely despicable things about Republicans across the spectrum, particularly women, and particularly Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, Nikki Haley, S.E. Cupp, and on and on. (All cunts who deserve to be hate-fucked to death. Unless that was just a "liberal-leaning publication" of some sort. Or was it just-businessman Maher?) The media rings like a gong with liberal disavowals of such remarks (including their discreet tut-tutting of death wishes for Cheney and their quiet tsk-tsking of Moveon.org types cheering for cancer diagnoses to conclude in horrific deaths for Laura Ingraham and Tony Snow, who was notoriously less than idolatrous about the sheer machinegun genius of Chris Matthews. I won't speak of the worse fate idealists had in mind for Malkin with their highly educated anatomical knowledge of the sideways orientation of Asian female genitals and what their diversity-committed souls would like to do with it.)
[Well, maybe not like a gong. More like a Simon-Garfunkel song about how silent silence can be. You know. Because everyone knows liberals love all people equally. Unless some of us are old or white or male or heterosexual or Catholic or Protestant or conservative. In those cases it's more like a "Hmm.." Which can be roughly translated as "Do you to death up the ass with a Bible written in acid on a corncob." You could look it up. Hmmm. What am I thinking now?]
Excuse me. If this kind of venom is mere reaction, it's exactly the kind of reaction the left imagines about the right: wholesale nuclear annihilation launched in response to emotional provocations they're hard put to define. Lamebrain that he can sometimes be, Hannity has never referred to a female Democrat politician as "a bag of meat." Ad-hominem is not the invention of the right. As Almond's own denunciatory prose confirms. Even as he basks in his own newfound humility, he proves himself an adept at the art of transmuting named political opponents to figures of contemptible derision. The benefits of a Wesleyan University education.
So who's the provocateur here? And who's the restrained reaction arguing for simple civility? Don't ask the left to think about it. They have their answer, already sealed in Glad Wrap.
But Steve Almond has another axe to grind with the right wing he can't forgive them for. Not ever. What's that? He finds right wing talk radio addictively entertaining. Left wing talk just ain't. His whole call for political conversations that deal more in ideas, initiatives, and pro-active programs for planning the future is in fact a confession of profound failure of his own ideological comrades across the board. While he treads water waiting for a new revealed Word of the Left, he finds himself listening to the constellation of radio hosts who are incredibly pissed off at the status quo.
So why do I do this?
The first and most damning reason is that some part of me truly enjoys resenting conservatives. I know I shouldn’t, that I should strive for equanimity. But secretly I feel the same helplessness and rage that animates the extreme right wing of this country. I see a world dangerously out of balance — morally, economically, ecologically — and my natural impulse is to blame those figures who, in my view, embody the decadent ignorance of the age. They become convenient scapegoats.
Rather than taking up the banner and the burden of the causes I believe in, or questioning my own consumptive habits, I’ve come to rely on private moments of indignation for moral vindication. I fume at the iniquity of Pundit A and laugh at the hypocrisy of Candidate B and feel absolved — without ever having left my couch. It’s a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation.He's drawn like a moth to a flame by people who are talking about real stuff. His rationale for listening is different, though. They're all just dumber than he is. How he can hear bone simple truths and frustrations again and again and again without realizing that his own complicating impotencies are not superior but debilitating and silencing. He has no real rebuttals but his own conviction of superiority.
My fixation on conservative demagogues also includes a share of covert envy. The truth is that I feel overrun by moral uncertainty, bewildered by the complexity of our planetary crises. Wouldn’t it be nice, I ask myself, to feel entirely sure of my beliefs? To shout down anyone who disagrees with me? To dismiss peak oil and global warming as fairy tales? To accept capitalism as a catechism?
But what’s really happening when I scoff at Sarah Palin’s latest tweet amounts to a mimetic indulgence: I’m bleeding the world of nuance, surrendering to the seduction of binary thinking.
This pattern of defensive grievance, writ large, has derailed the liberal agenda and crippled the nation’s moral progress.
Moth meet flame. Flame meet moth. One of you is in mortal peril. Guess which one. The verities are the verities, rarely complex. A few I'll share with you. You, the one who is "overrun by moral uncertainty, bewildered by the complexity of our planetary crises," and who is not "entirely sure of my beliefs" nevertheless believes that a benevolent technocratic dictatorship which subordinates the proletariat to your superior intellect is the only way out of the planetary crises you agonize over. You feel that you are "bleeding the world of nuance, surrendering to the seduction of binary thinking," and at the exact same moment you maintain a childlike belief that ever-expanding bureaucracies of rules and regulations and domination of common error in lesser people's lives will somehow restore and revitalize the "nuance" of your perception? If you, in all your uncertainty, can have the comfort of authority over what they drive, what they eat, what they MUST believe, how they are processed as organic entities by an omnipotent government whose moral certainties you cannot positively lay claim to, then you will will feel morally authenticated. And anyone who views this as hubris, totalitarian, a projection of your own doubts and fears upon a world that doesn't actually need another creative writing instructor, must be folly and a priori proof of insanity. Which makes the nation, and perhaps the whole world, the intended foil for your own desperate need for a self esteem you confessedly cannot bring yourself to accord yourself.
Cushioned by the cosseted life you have lived (did you ever take a course in Economics at Wesleyan?), you have never entertained the possibility that binary thinking is sometimes right thinking. Life and death. Good and bad. Right and wrong. Go this way and die, go that way and live for another day. Probably how the human race survived one of those great bottleneck moments anthropologists are so fond of. You talk about nuance. But you don't even know what nuance is. It's not about the priests in their sanctuary debating fine points of orthodoxy. Nuance is about seemingly simple concepts like the straw that broke the camel's back. Nuance is about perceiving that straw's imminent descent. It's a nuance of perception, not of hairsplitting intellectual distinctions. Proof that I know you don't understand this point?
[C]onsider the popular response to the Great Recession. The Tea Party — inflamed and partly financed by well-funded lobbying groups — took to the streets to blame government for a crisis caused primarily by Wall Street. Liberals did little aside from condemning the Tea Party. It wasn’t until the Occupy Wall Street movement began, nearly four years later (at the instigation of the Canadian magazine Adbusters), that those on the American left began to protest economic inequality, and even then the movement could articulate no specific policy goals. The same general passivity marked our reaction to the perceived moral atrocities of the Bush era, from the war in Iraq to domestic surveillance to our torture program. The most insidious effect of our addiction to right-wing misanthropy has been the erosion of our more generous instincts. At least for me. I’ve come to regard all conservatives as extremists, a mob of useful idiots plied by profiteers, rather than a diverse spectrum of citizens, many of whom share my values, anxieties and goals.
The Tea Party perceived the nuance you don't and never will. Government can get too big. It operates exclusively by force: we tax you and if you don't obey we punish you. Which has nothing to do with liberty and everything to do with force -- and parasites. It wasn't just Wall Street that led to the Great Recession. Another falsehood in your disingenuous fiction of an essay. It was the age-old assumption by parasites in all times and places that something can be had for nothing. The Ultimate Parasites, the U.S. Congress, decided that Wall Street should finance homes for people who were unable to earn them. Your benign idealists made it the law of the land and destroyed the U.S. economy. Not capitalists maddened by greed, but government conjoined with corrupted capitalists in a triumph of influence and giant bureaucracies over common sense. Result? Bubble bursts. Then the Tea Party. For once, in my entire lifetime, the people in the streets were not sheep bleating for a new species of handout but a rarely roused and incomprehensibly tolerant electorate who had willingly paid for a generation of "generosity" you have done little or nothing to fund. When you side with government against them you are saying, binarily and again without nuance, that you don't like or trust or believe in the native goodness of people or the inherent virtues that carried us from near extinction in the past to the unparalleled and astonishing prosperity of the current day.
And when I say prosperity, I am not referring to Exxon or Goldman Sachs. I am referring to a human capital so vast no list can encompass it or even hint at its extraordinary, incredible, transforming wealth. Sneferu, Akhenaton, Moses, Homer, Socrates, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Plautus, Catullus, Caesar, Octavian, Jesus, and on and on and on, until there was Galileo and Kepler and da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Newton and Shakespeare and Milton, and Locke and Rousseau, and still on and on and on, until the thing that is you was finally made and you turned on it with bilious contempt and decided, in defiance of Voltaire and Mencken and Lincoln, that people of the right sort of educational background should just take over the whole human enterprise. Otherwise it would collapse in ruin. Anyone who disagreed with your self-appraisal of transcendent human brilliance was probably a wingnut. Anyone who thought that five thousand years of human history had stumbled across some verities of its own were demonstrably nuts. Which, thanks to Freud, we can now term "pathologies."
I’m not trying to soft-pedal the very real pathologies of the modern conservative movement. The rich and powerful have clearly found in the Republican Party a willing collaborator. They’ve spent billions peddling Americans a failed theology of deregulation and lower taxes that is designed to foster and protect obscene wealth, not to serve the vast majority of our citizens. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the coming election will mark an unprecedented infusion of corporate propaganda into the political bloodstream.
Never thought you were. Capitalism is obviously inimical to the new understanding of the world that is owned by the very few who should be taken care of without risk of any kind. We need them to steer us the rest of the way. It's obviously pathology to doubt the certainty of your moral uncertainty and just let the human experiment continue. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton obviously knew nothing, no matter how often the wingnuts cite them. Their vision is far inferior to your own.
Imagine if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved. They would be marginalized in the same way as activists who rant about racial purity or anarchy.
Kind of hard not to see this as an appeal for the end of free speech. What you really do want.
Very liberal. Very humble. You want a good conversation with people who mostly agree with you so that we can soft pedal our way into the neolithic past. Cool.
Dare I say Kewl.
This last measure, I realize, hasn’t worked for President Obama. But he’s up against a cohort of politicians underwritten by special interests. We citizens can’t use that excuse. We all have the same basic interests: to provide for our families, to worship as we see fit, to pursue happiness. We live in a country of unimaginable abundance. It shouldn’t be so hard to find common ground.
I’m as heartbroken as the next liberal at the cynicism of the Republican Party and the inability of Democrats to confront them in blunt moral terms.
My, my my. You can't see that a president who gets more money from Wall Street than his Republican challenger and spends all his time in office hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities -- five times the fundraisers, already, of the past five presidents' reelection efforts put together -- isn't eschewing special interests, even though most of his staff are lobbyists from, uh, Wall Street, is not a "liberal" as you define it but an American Chavez? Really? (And question for extra credit: why all the religious/liturgical references? Your usual condescension? Are you struggling desperately to believe in something beyond yourself? We can only hope.)
A country of unimaginable abundance? Really? Where did that abundance come from? It didn't come from Boston College. It didn't come from the government. It came from people -- like the first farmers who created economics in the first place -- who created wealth by working hard and producing things that didn't exist before. Things people wanted. But everything YOU have ever been and come from is NOT a source of American wealth. You are a luxury produced by a country you have never understood or appreciated. So who exactly are you to speak to the rest of us about "blunt moral terms?"
And we're the ones who are dumb? Really?
Let me know if you ever figure it out. I'm pretty sure you won't.
What I'm absolutely sure of? I smell bitter almonds whenever liberal 'idealists' open their mouths. Poison has pretty much the same aroma whether it's on a dagger or in a pie. Coward's tools both.