Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Contrast and Compare

So I finally bought a new monitor for my old Amiga 2000 computer, and so I started updating some files that I'd fallen behind on, and then began playing a couple of old computer games that I hadn't been able to play for about a year. Till past 2:30 a.m., two nights in a row. That's why I not only haven't written much here for a day or two, I'm also cranky and bleary from lack of sleep. Not that that's much of a change, as someone muttered in the back row.

But today I got a couple of interesting messages in the e-mail; I'll write briefly about one of them tonight (no computer games tonight! no, sir!), and the other one tomorrow.

This kind writer liked my previous post on people who show inadequate deference to the only President we've got, and sent me a link to a 2008 article from Harper's that I wish I'd seen before. The writer, Mark Slouka, shares my curmudgeonly disdain for reverence toward the Presidency, including this anecdote:

At a White House reception a couple of years ago, President George Bush asked Senator-elect Jim Webb how things were going for his son, a Marine serving in Iraq. “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb replied. “I didn’t ask you that,” the president shot back. “I asked you how your boy was doing.”

Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had not only risked his own life in the service of his country but now had a child in harm’s way, serving in an ill-conceived and criminally mismanaged war sold to the nation under false pretenses by the man standing in front of him. One might expect this second man to be nice. To show a modicum of respect. Should he fall short of this, one could at least take comfort in the certainty that the American people would hold him accountable for his rudeness and presumption.

Which is precisely what many of them did—they held Jim Webb accountable. “I’m surprised and offended by Jim Webb,” declared Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University, in a New York Times article entitled “A Breach of Manners Sets a Tough Town Atwitter.” Admitting that the president had perhaps been “a little snippy,” Professor Hess went on to extol the democratic virtues of decorum and protocol, interrupting himself only long enough to recall a steel executive named Clarence Randall who, having once addressed Harry S Truman as “Mr. Truman” instead of “Mr. President,” remained haunted by it for decades.

"A little snippy"! The "breach of manners" was all on Dubya's part, and the President, Mr. Bush, Hizzoner, Sir, should've been taken out behind the woodpile and beaten with a razor strop. I noticed that the manner of Bush's retort was very similar to what Bill Hangley claimed Bush had said to him, which seems to me to be evidence in favor of Hangley's account of the encounter.

By the way, I'd recommend also reading the New York Times article Slouka linked to: it's critical of the fuss over Webb's remark, and has some interesting history. And while I share Slouka's distaste for this sort of craven deference, I'm not sure I agree that it's a new problem. Americans like to believe that we are tough, rugged individualists who have left the knee-bending flattery of the Old Europe behind for new frontiers of equality, but we are also fascinated by glittering royalty and its fairy-tale weddings. American Protestantism, especially the evangelical variety, claims to take seriously the inherent sinfulness of Man (unlike secular humanists who think Man can be perfected if he isn't already perfect), but is in practice a hotbed of personality cults that defer to charismatic preachers. I recently noticed that for all our independence and individualism, Americans seem to be less likely to organize and challenge our governments or other authorities than people in "traditional" collectivist societies.

But anyway! Since Slouka's article was published we've had Representative Joe Wilson breaching protocol by calling out "You lie!" during President Obama's address on health care. This produced a similar frenzy of tongue-clucking by manneristas and decorum mavens, especially since Rep. Wilson had the bad luck to accuse Obama of lying on one of the few occasions when he was telling the truth. At least it showed that the corporate media don't require slavish deference only to Republican presidents. As for vice presidents, Dick Cheney recently boasted that telling Senator Pat Leahy to go fuck himself was "sort of the best thing I ever did." That sets the bar pretty low, but as usual, it is all about form, not substance, isn't it? It's bad form to lobby the President to save the whales at a photo-op called to try to defuse opposition to his policies; it's bad form to tell the President that you think he's doing a bad job and you hope he won't be re-elected; it's bad form to tell the President that you'd like to get American troops out of Iraq. This allows media and Presidents alike to dodge the question of whether those criticisms are merited, assuming that they could be expressed in a more suitable place, like an isolation cell at Guantanamo. Because, you know, the trouble is that those criticisms tend to be "animated by principles that may be right, but aren’t really very helpful: the pacifists, the isolationists, the reflexive opponents of Republicans or the US military." So mind your manners, keep in your place, tug your forelock, and vote early and often.