Sunday, October 31, 2010

Moderation In All Things, Including Moderation

No, I didn't go to Jon Stewart's party in Washington yesterday. For one thing, as I've already mentioned, I had a prior engagement. For another, what "sanity" does Stewart propose we restore? This country has always been batshit crazy. For yet another, Stewart early on called his project a "Million Moderate March," which leaves me out: I'm not a moderate, and that puts me in good company -- better company, I'm afraid, than Stewart.

I realize that Stewart's call for sanity may be as tinged with satire as Colbert's corresponding call for fear. But only tinged. (This morning I heard someone on NPR say piously that Stewart's closing "sincere moment" showed that satire can go beyond entertainment to have a serious meaning. Duh! Satire is supposed to have teeth, and sink them deep. If it doesn't, it's just mockery pretending to be satire.) That was shown by Stewart's early announcement (also quoted in the Times) that
The purpose, he said, is to counter what he called a minority of 15 percent or 20 percent of the country that has dominated the national political discussion with extreme rhetoric. He tarred both parties with that charge, mentioning both the attacks on the right against President Obama for being everything from a socialist to un-American and on the left against former President Bush for being a war criminal.
Numerous people jumped on that last clause. Glenn Greenwald pointed out that Stewart's exemplary extremes were bogus, citing a McClatchy story which reported that
The Army general who led the investigation into prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison accused the Bush administration Wednesday of committing "war crimes" and called for those responsible to be held to account.
(See also this post at the Comedy Central website, and notice the second comment under it, by an Administrator.)

But, well, maybe that Army general is an extremist. But any number can play that game. To wit: Some extremists say that George Bush should be sainted. Other extremists say he should be flayed alive with hot rakes and disembowelled publicly before being drawn and quartered. As a moderate, I say he should merely be hanged, as Saddam Hussein was hanged with his approval. If you disagree with me, you're the kind of extremist who has ruined political discourse in this country.

Actually, that whole paragraph from the Times was bogus, in the Car Talk sense of the word. What is laughingly known as political discourse is dominated by the corporate media, who by dint of owning the media infrastructure and spending large amounts of money get to define and occupy the Center. The extremists would be those who "reflexively" opposed Bush's invasion of Iraq, who want a single-payer health care payment system (or better yet, a National Health Service), who now oppose Obama's war in Afghanistan, who opposed the Bush-Paulson-Obama-McCain bank bailout, who do not (contrary to recurring corporate media claims) worry about the deficit as much as they worry about jobs, and -- do a lot of yelling, but are mostly not heard except by ourselves. True, the corporate media have given disproportionate coverage and support to the Tea Party Extended tantrum, but that's because calls for "smaller" government, lower taxes for the rich, and the demolition of social services and the Commons, are part of the great Center. (Greenwald also showed that "Stewart's examples of right-wing rhetorical excesses (Obama is a socialist who wasn't born in the U.S. and hates America) are pervasive in the GOP", not just in its fringes.)

I get weary when the Tea Party is treated as if it were something new in the US. Surely I'm not the only person old enough to remember the "New Right" that gave us Ronald Reagan in 1980, that considered William F. Buckley Jr. a liberal if not a leftist, that was going to sweep away liberalism like a tsunami, stop abortion absolutely, put prayer back in the schools, make us proud of our Flag again, end welfare, limit government, and roll back Communism?

The hysteria of the Democrats, who warn that a Republican victory in November will usher in a new Dark Age, is more than matched by the hysteria of the Republicans, who gleefully anticipate the new Age of Light that will bless the Fatherland when they supplant the Democrat scalawags and give America back to We the People. Just like they did in 1994!

So my right-wing acquaintance (that's RWA1) keeps linking to prematurely triumphalist articles in USA Today, plus the usual Obama ankle-biters from the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page and National Review Online. (That WSJ article was mildly amusing. It was an attack on some Democratic house scribe who wanted to depict Barack Obama as a philosopher-president. I hope I needn't reiterate my own low opinion of Obama's intellect, but I'm old enough to remember [as is RWA1] when the Journal was trying to present Dan Quayle as a serious intellectual, a reader of Plato and Aristotle, full of gravitas. Or as Richard Nixon told the New York Times, "He's a very different man than the intellectual midget that has been portrayed in much of the media.… I think he's going to make an excellent Vice President, and I believe that he's going to be a popular Vice President just as soon as the people of this country see him as he is." Riiiight.)

RWA1 also linked to this WSJ story on the birth of the Tea Party Movement, "a good account," RWA1 said, "of the movement without the hysterical baggage in the partisan media." It's nice to have a non-hysterical account of a hysterical movement, I suppose, though Fox News is surely "partisan media" and has been highly supportive of the Teabaggers, as have the corporate media generally. (It happens that NPR's This American Life did a show on the Tea Party, very sympathetic and non-hysterical, just today.) RWA1, who also went berserk over the firing of Juan Williams by NPR, considers himself a sober conservative (but don't they all?), but he isn't that different from someone like Jon Stewart in wishing to see himself as the reasonable, rational middle. And truth be told, they are probably not as far apart politically as either would like to think.

Glenn Greenwald also pointed out something important that I've noticed before.
One other point about this fixation on the "tone" of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious -- much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity -- but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas. The same is true for war criminal John Yoo, who also appeared, with great politeness, on The Daily Show. Moreover, some acts are so destructive and wrong that they merit extreme condemnation (such as Bush's war crimes). I don't think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it's usually the ideas themselves -- not the tone used to express them -- that are the culprits.
I wrote about the acrimoniousness of American political discourse here, and about the way that liberals / moderates confuse calm tone with moderate substance here. And the firing of Juan Williams, which led to a lot of caterwauling in our political discourse, reminded me of a piece that the late Ellen Willis wrote for the Village Voice in 1990 when CBS' cracker-barrel philosopher Andy Rooney was suspended for making some stupidly vicious racist remarks -- but not for making stupidly vicious homophobic remarks. I haven't been able to find Willis's article on the Web, but her argument has stayed with me through the twenty years since. She argued that instead of suspending Rooney, CBS should have required him to have an on-air conversation -- debate, even -- with anti-racist and anti-homophobic writers and thinkers, to actually discuss the issues instead of merely suspending him and letting him make a typically empty apology for offending people. Willis recognized, of course, that such an exchange would never happen in the corporate media, who are dedicated to homogenizing, flattening out, and simply ignoring the issues the world faces. To address them would be, like, upsetting. Extreme. Better just to discuss Michelle Obama's shoulders, and complain for the thousandth time that the Democratic Party hasn't moved far enough to the Center.

[The photo at the head of this post comes from Roy Edroso's alicublog. I like the sign, which suggests that someone at the rally might have had irreverent thoughts about the undertaking. But the New York Times article I quoted above mentions that "Mr. Stewart also promised to supply the crowd with signs if they did not bring their own, including as examples, 'I Disagree With You, But I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler,' and 'Take It Down a Notch for America.'" The sign in the photo seems like more of that, but I still like it. Some other signs can be seen at Band of Thebes.]