Politics is “Amusing” to the Press

January 25, 2007

In a chat at washingtonpost.com today, Michael Fletcher makes an unwitting but very revealing comment sprining from President Bush’s (latest) use of “Democrat Party” to refer to the Democratic Party:

Toronto, Canada: Is using “Democrat Party” instead of “Democratic Party” dog-whistle language aimed at the Republic, I mean Republican base?

Michael Fletcher: Funny. I find that whole controversy amusing. But it really does get some people riled up.

The controversy is “amusing” to Fletcher, the observer from on high, though it does get “some people” (people, presumably, not as mannered as Fletcher – dirty fucking hippies perhaps) riled up. Haha, a great laugh.

As Hendrik Hertzberg detailed last year,

“Democrat Party” is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but “Democrat Party” is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams “rat.”

Luntz, who road-tested the adjectival use of “Democrat” with a focus group in 2001, has concluded that the only people who really dislike it are highly partisan adherents of the—how you say?—Democratic Party. “Those two letters actually do matter,” Luntz said the other day. He added that he recently finished writing a book—it’s entitled “Words That Work”—and has been diligently going through the galley proofs taking out the hundreds of “ic”s that his copy editor, one of those partisan Dems, had stuck in.”

This is no mystery. “Democrat Party” is, as Hertzberg says, a slur intended to inflame Democrats. And it does. These are the facts, the facts of modern American political discourse: Republicans do many things intended primarily to annoy Democrats. Fletcher, a political reporter at one of the United States’ most prominent and influential newspapers (one that conservatives still assail as part of the “liberal media“), finds this personally “amusing”, the corrollary to which is that it is inconsequential – nothing to truly be concerned with – blown out of all proportion – by “some people.” Those people being Democrats, whose proper role in Fletcher’s universe is, presumably, to sit by and be insulted by Republicans while the news media laughs.



January 19, 2007

Mark Schmitt, on Newt Gingrich:

…the right has never seemed to care who you sleep with as long as you say the right things about who other people should sleep with.

MySpace Panopticon Plugin and Police State Powers

January 17, 2007

Fred asks,

“Do we really need to track our children, monitoring their logins on computers around the world? And what does it really get us?”

I’ll let Digby handle exactly what this (and things like this) gets us:

“…the most dangerous thing we have done to ourselves domestically since 9/11 is to hugely expand our policing powers and throw unlimited funds at the agencies who will find a reason and a way to flex their new, expensive muscle. It is a law of nature. If you build it they will use it.

We are building a well funded national police state apparatus at the same time that we are giving unlimited money and power to our military and foreign intelligence agencies to operate in the United States. This is incredibly dangerous…”

The only really “good” thing about this particular situation is that, while MySpace has pretty wide adoption, it is ultimately an “opt-in” system in a way that being Joe Citizen isn’t. Nonetheless, the central fact that Digby hammers home again and again applies: if you build a police state, it will get used. It’s not even a question of “abuse” – these sorts of monitoring powers are by their very nature abused; it’s almost more difficult to imagine a situation where these powers aren’t used for bad purposes.

To play devil’s advocate for a second: if “internet child predators” are such a huge problem, why create a system that allows discrete tracking of individual children in physical space? And don’t tell me that it’ll be “secure”…

Appearances and Their Effects

January 15, 2007

Erving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” defines “front” as an important element of the self – that is, the (often physical and context-specific) appearance that individuals give off and expect to have received by others in an expected context. He also notes,

“…appearance and manner may tend  to contradict each other, as when a performer who appears to be of higher estate than his audience acts in a manner that is unexpectedly equalitarian, or intimate, or apologeti, or when a performer dressed in the garments of a high position presents himself to an individual of even higher status.”

Once again, I couldn’t help but think of the current occupants of the United States’ executive branch, and the ways in which they repeatedly have violated the expected norms of status and manner. Perhaps the most egregious and direct example was Dick Cheney’s appearance at Auschwitz, but George W. Bush – a man whose image has been perhaps more aggressively managed than any otherPresident – is guilty of his own mismatches between presentation and appropriateness. I speak, of course, of Bush’s penchant for receiving/having designed for him innumerable jackets, hats, shirts, etc. emblazoned with his name and, most especially, “Commander-in-Chief.”

There has been in many conservative defenses of Bush a particular emphasis on how critics must respect (or are not respecting) the “office of the Presidency” or “the Commander-in-Chief.” Many draw on this as a particularly authoritarian line of defense, and while there is some of that, what’s more striking is the yawning disconnect between  these demands for “respect” and Bush’s own conduct. To be blunt: in some regards, he seems to treat the Presidency as an opportunity for souveniers. One could hardly ask for a behavior more demystifying of the United States’ highest office (and more indicting and affirming of the culture’s basest tendencies) than this sort of display of pure materialism. Wearing article of clothing after article of clothing that announces – in the same manner one might announce with a t-shirt from a midway tourist trap – the identity of the wearer is, by any standards: tacky. It’s not a reach to conclude that beneath this particular behavior lies a terrible insecurity – an insecurity over Bush’s deserving-ness of the office, and of the respect that his defenders demand be accorded him by virtue of the office – expressed in the most basic way possible: repeated written reminders that Bush is, indeed, the Commander-in-Chief.

Helplessness and War

January 13, 2007

In her book “Self-Therories,” Carol Dweck describes two broad categories of students – those who display helpless responses in the face of difficulty, and those who display mastery-oriented responses. They are roughly equal in their prevalence and overall intelligence and performance, and together account for 85% of students – these are, it seems, the two basic typologies of self among students and learners. She writes,

“…the helpless response is not just an accurate appraisal of the situation. It is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self and that impairs students’ ability to use their minds effectively.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels to contemporary political discourse in this statement. On any range of issues – and on either and both side of many debates – we see the helplessness response pop up, time and again. Many committed environmentalists regard global warming as “too big” a problem to possibly even address; many Democratic activists before last November’s elections invented scenarios grand and small for why they would never be able to regain power; many social conservatives regard American culture as “too sick” to possibly survive; etc., ad infinitum.

But the blade cuts both ways, and the helpless response can also result in tremendous obstinancy, as Dweck demonstrates with an historical example:

“Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate hearings, was facing almost certain impeachment and conviction. Yet for a long time he refused to give up his presidency, saying, “You’re never a failure until you give up. He was equating giving up not simply with failure but with being a failure.”

The parallels from this particular obstinancy to the present day are also obvious – as Atrios has been saying for a long time (at least a year):

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they’ve decided that leaving is losing.

Is all politics really this simple – is it possible to explain the most important, life-and-death, war-and-peace issues based on a simple typology of childhood learning styles? I’m coming around to the belief that perhaps this is the case.

Culture and Culpability

January 10, 2007

These next few months, I’m going to be focusing especially on culture and identity…because the raw bits of the several thousand pages of reading I do on that stuff is gonna have to go somewhere.

Atrios yesterday pointed out something that’ll probably be getting a lot of play in coming weeks:

Not going to place bets either way, but it will be interesting to see how wingnuttia responds to Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book. From the back cover blurb of the book which showed up in my mail today;

The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.

There you go.

This didn’t come from nowhere, either. It’s a meme that emerged as early as…well, as early as two days after 9/11, when Jerry Falwell said,

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

He apologized, but the die was cast – and it didn’t come from nowhere. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a case of crazy people being crazy, but that in a very important way, this claim – this kind of claim – is true to some people. It’s the same way of thinking that ascribes blame for the United States’ defeat in Viet Nam to the forces of the cultural left, who “undermined the will” of the country to fight, and is already doing the same regarding the debacle in Iraq.

This way of thinking is thrives both on triumphalism – the belief in the inherent rightness of the views and actions of its preferred parties and actors – and martyrdom – the belief that any episodes of failure can only be attibutable to insidious undermining forces from within. Given such a mindset, it is a short step to the next logical rhetorical strategy – eliminationist rhetoric. For if it is only insidious internal forces that stand in the way of eternal success, what option is there but to do away with those dissenters?

This is, needless to say, a dangerous and inherently anti-democratic outlook, superstitious in the extreme and not even acknowledging things like reason and empiricism (indeed, these are often the tools of the undermining forces). But it is nonetheless a major trope in contemporary American discourse, and ought to be acknowledged and addressed as such. That it is also the rantings of the vaguely mad does nothing to change the fact that it holds a powerful sway over our national conversation.