Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ask A Stupid Question

Like most of us, I've been following a great deal of the presidential "coverage," and like most fervent supporters of Barack Obama, I am starting to have that sinking feeling. This has little to do with the candidate, or even his campaign, and a lot to do with what Obama's called "the silliness." Philip Roth once said that when he was in graduate school in the early 50s he assumed that the score would be University of Chicago 22, Popular Culture 6. The most serious reason for queasiness is that I assumed, well, serious reason could squeak out a victory this time.

What's Obama's problem? Bill Maher--whom MSNBC rolled out for the opening of its convention coverage, and then seems to have taken out back and shot--caught the mood (or, at least, mine) when he remarked that, with every election, the talk seems to be getting dumber, and the country will no doubt get the leaders it deserves. Maher then threw a left hook at Mormonism, as he has at all religions (Mitt Romney came up and, lucky for Jews, not Joe Lieberman) which prompted Chris Matthews to reassure his viewers that he--or was it the management of MSNBC?--considered Mormons "a great religion," an endorsement that seemed in tone and trenchancy about right for a Chevy, and was really (Maher no doubt thought) more of the disease that presumes itself the cure.

YOU CAN'T SAY we weren't warned. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1861 that representative government might be a necessary feature of liberal commonwealths, but also that educated people should have disproportionate voting power. He assumed that the franchise was not a right, but a trust; that discriminating choices could only be made by people who understood scientific methods and, hence, valued the rules of evidence and the pursuit of truth. He assumed that uneducated people could not really be trusted to make the most of their liberties. He actually pointed to American presidential elections, and lamented how campaigns were decided by those "most timid, most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class-interest."

Mill failed to see that ordinary voters could now and then outdo themselves (Lincoln had just taken office, for God's sake). But he also failed to see that--if, indeed, educated people assumed that most of the population was "timid," "narrow-minded," etc.--then our conspicuously, inescapably educated people, that is, journalists, would eventually busy themselves with one science only, what business schools lovingly call Marketing.

Journalists would not much question whether leaders were telling the truth (which was, to be sure, the work of an elite and, at best, a provisional thing). Journalists would prove themselves, rather, by showing they were (presumably, like political leaders) successful in anticipating the manipulation of the poor shmucks who looked for, as pursuers of happiness will, "red meat."

What is starting to bug me particularly is that even NPR, which we pay in advance, seems utterly wrapped up in whether Obama can "close the sale." Yesterday, to take just one example, I heard a report on a talk-show I otherwise admire (have appeared on, and will not name, so that I can appear on it again) about why Hillary voters were still "angry" about "the process": One person interviewed told the host that giving Michigan's "undecided" votes to Obama was, in effect, an example of the party bosses cheating Hillary. The host might well have asked why Hillary alone had broken her promise, made along with all the other candidates, not to compete in Michigan, which violated party rules. But that would have implied that the story was whether Obama, or any candidate, was honorable. The story, silly me, was whether Obama is as competent a con as Hillary.

I GUESS MY real fear (and pride) is that Obama cannot compete on these terms. That he will have less trouble refuting McCain than bobbing-and-weaving around a press that sees itself as the arbiter of this disgusting, democratic competence. Can Obama prove to the "white working class" that he is not "an elitist"? Can he be "commander-chief"? Can he prove he is not "just a celebrity" who "speaks well"? Can he get people to stop seeing him as black or male or young or brilliant?

Listen for these stupid questions, or variations on them, especially on NPR, the best of the best, and ask yourself if any decent person will ever get elected again. OK, so the press pre-killed a liar's book this time. And somewhere around October 20, it will start tsk-tsking how the election is not about "issues." But the problem is not really Karl Rove and the Republican attack-machine. It is a press that seriously defines its job as the judge of who lies best, which commercials work, that is, in ways hired consultants like Rove cannot resist.

I HAVE A suggestion. Instead of using the money we've contributed to buy more ads, which nobody who's watched hundreds of thousands over the years believes anyway, perhaps Obama should run against the junk-culture itself, of which this kind of press "coverage" is a part. Why not just buy television time for open town-meetings, and speak also about the way we do politics? If he can speak honestly about race, can he not tap into our buried despair about a political culture run by cons and a press handicapping their performance? Is the long-term damage from warming air really of greater concern to ordinary citizens than the relentless closing of sales on the airwaves? Watch, again, Jon Stewart's (no relation to Mill) grilling of Chris Matthews, and ask yourself if this won't bring change we can believe in.

Anyway, Obama was never so inspiring as when, on Father's Day, he told a crowd in a black church that it was time for parents to shut the televisions. At least it is time to say why.

11 comments:

corey fischer said...

Brilliant, sad and disturbing. I would love to see Obama take up your suggestions of no TV ads, just open talking circles, meetings, and the like. Hope someone on his staff reads your blog. Thanks, also, for the link to the Jon Stewart/Chris M. episode. Stewart is indeed a very smart mensch.

Yasher Koach!

Anonymous said...

If Obama doesn't win this election, how quickly will the media folks how start running process stories about how Obama let the Republicans define him? As if HE or his campaign decides what inane accusation that has no merit gets hashed and rehashed instead of things like voting records, actual McCain quotes and the like?

I'm so disheartened. Is there not one media outlet (other than the Daily show "fake news") who sees this or are they all parroting each other's headlines?

pmb said...

Bernie,
Will we see any amendments to this post after last night? And after what I think may be McCain's bullet-through-both-feet choice of a woman as running mate? The Democrats were evidently almost ready to put a woman in the Oval Office, but it's hard to see the Republicans comfortable with the idea of one, an obscure one and one who is, to borrpw Hillary's mantra, 'untested', poised only a heartbeat away; an aged heartbeat at that.

We can hope that character is in fact destiny. Character was in great, perhaps historic, evidence last night. And the press is only the press, with word-quotas to fill, or in the case of NPR, air-minutes. They've got to say something, and say it they do. I mean, read David Brooks today and laugh. (Not the laugh he intends, either.)

I hope your sinking feeling rose a bit closer to the surface around 11pm Eastern time last night. It was a moment we may all live to see as having been pivotal.

Y. Ben-David said...

You're right PMB-No doubt many voters, because of their discomfort with McCain's choice of a running mate who is inexperienced and unqualified for Vice President will switch and vote for a candidate for President who is inexperienced and unqualified, and who has radical friends and acquantainces like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayres, to boot.

By the way, there is a proven way to prevent "unqualified" people from voting....I say bring back the poll tax and literacy tests. They were used in the old South to prevent the "unqualified" from voting.

corey fischer said...

To Y. Ben David

Since words on a screen lack the non-verbal cues and clues that do so much to fill in the emotional context of any utterance, I'm afraid I need some help decoding your post. The first paragraph could easily be read as "real" un-ironic opinion, but then that second paragraph puts it into the world of Lenny Bruce or Randy Newman ("Let's drop the big one now...")

At the risk of seeming humorless, I gotta ask: your post *was* satire, right?

Y. Ben-David said...

To Corey Fischer-

You are correct.

I am supporting McCain mainly because of the inexperience factor (and Obama's radical friends) and yet I am uncomfortable with his choice for VP, my point however is that I don't see McCain voters switching over to Obama for the reason I stated.

Regarding my comments about the poll tax and literacy tests...I have noticed an unfortunate tendency by so-called "progressives" to insist that "most voters are stupid" because the Republicans have won most of the Presidential elections since 1968. American tradition says that the collective will of the American people as expressed by the election results represent a sort of "divine mandate-vox populi, vox dei" and the losing side says "the people have spoken and if I have lostand most of the people are against me, I must be doing something wrong". The struggle for universal sufferage starting in the 1830's in Europe and the US is viewed as step forward for democracy...to know have people claim that it is a mistake to have universal sufferage, EVEN IN THE NAME OF 'PROGRESSIVE' VALUES, is a regression to authoritarianism.

corey fischer said...

Good point about universal suffrage. As far as Barak's "inexperience," vs McCain's though, I can't agree. For me, Obama's years of public service on the Chicago streets, the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Senate, as well as practicing and teaching the law, writing two very substantial books, and, even as a grad student achieving remarkable things (first black president of the Law Review) all add up to the kind of rich and varied experience I want a President to have.

I am also impressed by the quality of people he has chosen to have around him as advisers and staff and heartened by his management and organization style which seems to rely on listening to and empowering everyone from the "bottom" up.

Wherever there are gaps in his experience, I deeply believe he knows how to fill them. I'm more comfortable with someone who asks the right questions than with someone who claims to have all the answers.

Anyone who can address 80,000 people (not to mention the tens of millions watching electronically) so eloquently, powerfully, passionately and with such presence as he did last night in Denver, has a rare level of mastery. That caliber of "performance" is not an exercise in mere rhetoric or dazzle. Those tricks can only go so far. What I saw Thursday night cut through the "small matters" that the media has been obsessed with. I saw a man who was whole. After reading his memoir, I had been struck by the courage with which he had confronted his own shortcomings, his own demons, if you will, but watching him last night, I could hear the strength and fierce compassion that level of experience has given him.

At the end of the day, I recognize a rare combination of experience, character and values in Barak that I share trust and honor.

While I admire McCain's past courage, and former willingness to cross party lines, these days I can't feel any *presence* when he speaks. The fact that I completely disagree with everything he says and does is almost beside the point. There's simply no one home that I recognize behind that uncomfortable smile.

Robin said...

i suspect you'll like this:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/portrayal_of_obama_as_elitist

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