Friday, November 19, 2004

Comedy of Errors

I haven’t blogged in a week or so, which is disappointing because I intended this to be a follow up to my discussion of Andrew Sullivan and his rant on Real Time. Not about Chomsky—that horse is way dead—but about the one good point Sullivan made: Bill Maher pokes fun at conservatives.

It’s no surprise that he does so. Maher is a stand up comedian. Sarcasm is his stock in trade. Sullivan lumps Maher in with Michael Moore, which I think is a mistake, because Moore, as a documentary filmmaker, approaches politics from a journalistic perspective (all be it a muck raking one) while Maher is still a comedian.

All this brings up a question for me: why is it that most of the liberal voices in the media, particularly on TV, are comedians? There is no equivalent of a Bill O’Reiley on the left, or a Joe Scarborough. Personally I'm glad there's not another Ann Coulter in the world. One is enough. I suppose Howard Stern or maybe Alex Bennett can be seen as left leaning radio hosts, and Ron Regan and James Carville are on cable, but for the most part the loudest voices on the left—Michael Moore notwithstanding, are comedians: Bill Maher, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Franken, and John Stewart. Not only that, but their commentary, particularly Stewart's, is among the most insightful in politics on either side of the aisle.

But that is just the problem. Stewart is very up front about the fact that his is a comedy show, not a news show. He doesn't want anybody taking it seriously. Being “America’s #1 Fake News Program” is part of the marketing for the Daily Show. This makes his commentary easy to dismiss. He’s just being funny, after all, when he shows President Bush making a gaff or pointing up absurdities in the Iraq war. Nobody needs to take him seriously. Maher is a little bit harder to dismiss, not because he’s more insightful (he isn’t) but because he’s more vicious in his attacks. He’s more angry. He also actually believed that he was making some kind of difference in persuading people to vote for John Kerry. He takes himself seriously (too seriously) as a pundit. But he’s still just a comedian, and it is all showbiz after all.

As far as I know nobody listens to Al Franken.

Nobody can take the left seriously as long as their main spokespeople are comedians. One reason the Republicans won the last election is because they have a firm handle on media manipulation, and a lot of help from the conservative media, especially at Fox Network News. Until the Democrats can find a way to be heard over the roar of misinformation and anger in that format, they will suffer the fate of John Kerry over and over again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Lefty Whining and Righty Gloating

So! You thought the left had the market cornered on anger! Last night I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher (on in demand, I was too busy crying in my beer Friday) and I saw an amazing sight. Two of Maher's guests, former senator Alan Simpson and gay conservative Andrew Sullivan took it to Maher, attacking him on all sides. It was an intense show and it exposed a few things about both the left and the right. It was as though now that they had won (or that Simpson had won, since Sullivan ended up endorsing Kerry) all the pent up rage on the right about how they felt they had been slighted by the left was exploded forth. The republicans are not only emboldened in their agenda, they are emboldened to stand up and give the left a black eye for all the pummeling they feel they've endured from Maher and Michael Moore et al. Maher while sticking to his act, was mostly contrite, saying "congratulations, you guys won." But he went on to ask the question that got him in trouble: "What's wrong with the left? What aren't we getting?" And boy! Did they let him know. They attacked him for being pretentious, demeaning, elitist, unfair, and insulting to average Americans. They let him have it.

Now, my own lefty leanings aside, they're beef with Maher is legit. He is terribly demeaning to people of faith. He goes so far as to call them "stupid" for their belief in God. He insists that faith is not rational, and that as a "rational" person he is better qualified to vote then Christians. When he says things like that it gets a roar of approval from the audience, so Maher is obviously playing to his crowd. But he acts surprised when people call him on it, as Sullivan and Simpson did. They made it clear that they were tired of being picked on, and their attitude (though they didn't say it out loud) was "you lefties lost and now you can finally shut up."

Susan Sarandon was on as well. She was in denial. She said all sorts of things about voter fraud in Ohio, which, whether it's true or not, shows she's having trouble accepting that the majority was against her this time.

The most amusing moment to me was when Sullivan said "the answer to all this is federalism. Let California have stem cell research, let Massachusetts have gay marriage and let Mississippi do what it wants to do." To which guest D.L. Hughly replied that if Mississippi could do what they wanted, he'd still be a slave.

But the real high point came when Maher showed his interview with Noam Chomsky. Sullivan lit into Maher for having Chomsky, whom he referred to as evil and a liar, on his program (exactly the same language Richard Belzer used to describe Ann Coulter the week before). Chomsky, long a target of the right, said on the air that the invasion of Iraq was a war crime, and sited as precedent the Nuremberg principles, which establish invasion and wars of agression as crininals a crime. It is the "first to strike is guilty" precedent. According to Sullivan, Chomsky must be lying, because as Sullivan put it "I assume he's smart enough to know he's wrong."

That is just the kind of rhetorical baiting and bashing Sullivan had decried in the previous breath. Chomsky, a well known linguist and liberal, is the preeminent philosopher of the United States and, since the recent death of Jacques Derida this year, probably the world. In my own field of media studies Chomsky is the most considered to be by far the most important scholar, and his work on language and power forms the foundation of much of the analysis and critizue of media on both the left and the right. That doesn't mean he's right all the time, but it does mean he's smart and Sullivan knows it. His insult was petty.

Chomsky cited a precedent to back up his position that the invasion of Iraq was a crime and his precedent was correct. The invasion of Iraq seems to be a violation of international law. That doesn't matter: we ignore international law all the time. As the world's only superpower we get to do that. We are not part of the international tribunal on war crimes for this very reason. Sullivan is correct in saying that Chomsky's and other liberals critical view of the United States is one reason people think the left is out of touch. You can't tell people they are evil and expect them to vote for you. Chomsky's position isn't that the US is evil, btw, only that it often commits evil acts. He's not alone in this. Most of the world right now seems to agree with him. Certainly most of the people in Iraq do. Sullivan screamed that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator, and in my opinion he was, and the Iraqi people are better off without him it's true, but those same Iraqi people now see us as an evil occupier, and if Sullivan denies it then he's the one who's lying. It is nothing new. A majority of people in Latin America saw us as evil in the 50s and 60s and 70s when we were enforcing the Monroe Doctorine. A clear majority of people in Iran saw us as evil when we were propping up the Shah. Most people in Russia prior to 1989 grew up believing we were the evil empire, not themselves.

When you extrapolate Chmosky back to the roots of his arguments you get a basic set of principles based on the Nuremberg trials in which Nazi leaders were tried and condemned. In fact the crime he cites was not a war crime but a "crime against peace" that crime being aggression. His argument regarding Iraq is actually quite simple when you look at it as a syllogism:

Invasion is a crime against peace (Nuremburg Principal)

The United States invaded Iraq

ergo the United States is guilty of a crime against peace.

Chomsky's minor premise is clearly true. The problem lies in his major premise. Sullivan clearly doesn't agree that the invasion of Iraq was a crime, so he has to be arguing that invasion itself is not a crime. But to do that he has to reject one of the most important of the Nuremberg principles. It will raise the possibility that the invasions of Poland and Norway were *not* crimes (the case in which the precedent was set was primarily the case against Herman Goering). That is slippery ground for anyone to stand upon.

The actual wording of the section on crimes against peace, which was adopted into international law by the UN in 1946, defines a crime against peas as "Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances." Chomsky's position is that the invasion of Iraq was both a war of aggression and a war in violation of international treaties agreements or assurances--the latter was the position of France and Germany, who stated that the war was illegal because it was never sanctioned by the UN security council. We all know how well that played in Ohio.

Simply saying "The situation is different. Saddam Hussein was a war criminal and had to be taken out," has problems too. First it is arguing that the end justifies the means. Second it ignores the fact that a growing number of people believe that George Bush is a war criminal, and that the United States is a criminal state. Would they be justified in invading us to bring George Bush to justice? Let's be clear here. If they do I will be out there on the beaches with whatever weapon I can dig up to defend my country. I'm just pointing out a fallacy in Sullivan's argument. Whether or not something is evil is a question of value--that is, it is based on the values and opinions of the person making the statement. I assume Sullivan is smart enough to know that.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Shock and Awe

New York is a city under siege. It is a blue island in a sea of red, and many New Yorkers are experiencing true shock and awe. New Yorkers are so out of touch with the rest of America that most of them do not know anybody who voted for George Bush. I got in an argument with a colleague of mine on Monday night over this issue. I told him I was going to Pennsylvania to walk precincts for John Kerry because I thought he was in trouble and Bush was likely to win. The guy looked at me like I had three heads.

“No way,” he said, “nobody will vote for George Bush. Nobody is that stupid.” I replied that he only thought that because he lived in New York, and then I used a line on him I feed my students all the time: “New York is not America.”

He was deeply offended, because he thought I was saying that he was not an American and, while many in the South and Midwest might argue this to be the case, I was not. I simply meant that most of America operates under a different paradigm then New York does, and Tuesday proved me right.

George Bush won just 24% of the vote in New York City, and that’s when you factor in Staten Island, the only republican borough. In Manhattan, where I teach and where the Republican convention sparked a week of street protests in August, John Kerry captured 82% of the vote, Ralph Nader 1%. George Bush not a measly 17%.

George Bush is not simply disliked here he is reviled. He is hated. He is the anti-Christ. And people in New York just don’t understand how so much of the rest of the country can be so wrong. New Yorkers, the cockiest breed of human being on the planet, are so sure of their rightness in everything that they know in their hearts it all must be some terrible mistake. They can’t possibly be out of step with the rest of the country so they assume that the rest of the country is out of step with reality. New Yorkers just can’t be so far off base, can they? I mean, isn’t this the capital of the world, the city where all American culture begins and ends? Well, yes and no. The money begins here but God lives in Dixie.

New Yorkers are expressing their disbelief in terms of anger. Everybody has been talking about the election. Walking around the city I have heard the same conversation over and over again, and everyone agrees on whose fault it is “Those idiot rednecks shouldn’t be allowed to vote,” some of them say. “The fly over zone is full of stupid people.” Obviously anyone with a brain could see what an idiot George Bush was, how dangerous, how evil. East coast liberal elite? You bet, and damn proud of it. New Yorkers are just smarter then everybody else, and the election proved it.

Others, a bit less damning, say that Midwesterners just don’t understand the world because they are so isolated. Again and again my students have said “these people know nothing of the world. What about Europe? What about Japan? When I go over there for spring break I’m going to get attacked!” That idea may not be too far off base. New York, home to the United Nations, “crossroads of the world,” a city of immigrants since it was founded, has a much stronger connection to the rest of the world any other US City. They care that America is reviled in the rest of the world and, obviously, a lot of other places don’t.

Joseph Berger in an article in the New York Times on Thursday quoted New Yorkers who complained that the people in the Midwest obviously don’t care about New York. They believe that President Bush makes their city more dangerous, that his unilateral foreign policy will lead to more terrorist attacks not fewer, and New Yorkers know they are the main target. My students echoed these sentiments yesterday. Here, in the city where the 9/11 attacks took place, where 3,000 fellow New Yorkers were murdered by terrorists, George Bush’s appeal to patriotism and fighting terror didn’t just fall on deaf ears, it was openly mocked.

But it was the idea that so much of the country is willing to support a conservative Christian agenda that shocked New Yorkers most of all. It’s not that there are not people of faith in New York City, but they are certainly in the minority here and they often temper their faith with a worldly acceptance of diversity. “They’re morons,” my best friend Charlie screamed, “Every one of these Christian idiots should be shot!”

Of course, they aren’t really morons. The Midwest, where the land grant college was invented, has always been the most highly educated part of the country, and one of the most worldly. They know what is going on in the world and they have well thought out opinions as to why they voted for Bush. In spite of it being the big news story, and in spite of the fact that gay-marriage bans obviously helped Bush at the polls, especially in Ohio, it wasn’t just a Christian vote that won Bush the election. 22% of the electorate listed moral values as their biggest issue, and of those 80% voted for Bush, but that only means that 16.16% of the electorate voted for Bush based on his moral positions. While that’s bigger then the percentage who voted on jobs, terrorism or Iraq, it’s not a whole lot in a supposedly Christian nation. But still this is the issue that worries people here most. A friend of mine said that gays must feel like he Goldsteins of Munich in 1938. One lesbian I know agreed, “I now have no rights under the law. Civil liberties will continue to erode for every body. I’m appalled.” She insists it is only a matter of time before the government begins taking children away from gay couples. New Yorkers equate George Bush with George Orwell and Christian conservatives with Nazis, and not without some justification. Richard Burr who was voted into the seat John Edwards vacated to run for Vice President, voted to ban adoption by gay couples in the District of Columbia while a member of the House of Representatives, and has said that gays should not be allowed to be teachers. The conservatives, high on a victory they see as theirs, are pushing an agenda that could easily lead to the re-criminalization of homosexuality. The Supreme Court only recently struck down the anti-sodomy laws in Texas, and if Bush has his way on Supreme Court appointments that will be quickly reversed. Both justices Scalia and Thomas, Bush’s ideal jurists, voted to uphold the law. They also voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, to allow school prayer and to allow states the establishment of religion (they hold that the bill of rights applies only to federal law). A lot of my gay friends are beginning to fear the midnight knock.

Oh, you think they’re being melodramatic. This quote just came over the internet. I have no idea if it’s accurate, but it is interesting:

"The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation.It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundationof our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life ... "---Adolph Hitler

None of this may seem to matter in the suburbs of Ohio and Missouri—though I have gay friends in committed gay marriages in both places--but in a city that thrives on diversity, where you are sure to have gay neighbors and friends, some of whom are married to one another, a city where Jews, Muslims, protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, Rastafarians, atheists, witches and even the occasional Zoroastrian mingle every day, the idea of a bible thumping elite telling people how to live their lives is seen as frighteningly fascist.

People usually think in geographic terms. They like to visualize relationships based on physical space. But a graphic representation of the voting makes New Yorkers feel even worse. All that red! Just three little patches of blue in a sea of red. It looks like the stands at a NASCAR race—all Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in red and just a few Jeff Gordon fans in blue. New Yorkers usually don’t admit that there is anything of value west of the Hudson, and this will only strengthen their provincialism. The New York times on their website had an interesting graphic that they published in the special elections section on Thursday. It allowed you to compare two electoral maps, one in which the red states take up about 90% of the US, and another where the states are represented on a graph in which each square represents one electoral vote. In other words, they are sized by population. In this graphic the red and blue are much closer. You can switch back and forth from one to another. It is fascinating. Check it out at

I also received another interesting graphic today, a map showing “The United States of Canada,” a country in blue which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, New York Pennsylvania and New England. Drawn this way the US of C would have a continuous border, save for Hawaii floating off there in the pacific. Below this is a red country called “Jesusland.” This is the new world order.

New Yorker’s have to face facts: the people living between I-5 and I-95, with a few exceptions around the lake Michigan, live in a totally different world. They operate on a different paradigm. And they just totally kicked New York’s ass.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Karl Rove is a genius

Tomorrow is Election Day, and before it all goes down, before a victor is declared (which probably won't happen tomorrow), before we get the final spin from the final spin doctor, I want to say that Karl Rove is a genius. Through a carefully crafted media image, a brilliant spin strategy and a campaign of solid disinformation he has managed to turn a failed executive into an economic guru, a son of privilege into a populist folk hero, the scion of a wealthy New England blue blood family with deep ancestral roots into a symbol of resistance to the East Coast elite (according to Tom Wolfe in the most recent guardian), a draft dodger into a war hero, a crony of the rich and powerful into "one of the guys." It has been a masterful job of image creation.

Using the raw materials he was given which, let's face it, were pretty good to begin with--Bush, no matter how the liberals like to paint him is smart, committed, resolute and folksy--and molded it into a president. Rove's strategy has had several parts.

1) Limit media access to the president. He is not very good when faced with a probing question, so let his press people handle interviews, building a mystique around the president.

2) Baseball: it is America's game, and Bush's baseball credentials are unimpeachable. Ok, so the Rangers didn't win when he owned them, but he is a true fan of the game. Throw out a few first pitches, be interviewed by baseball people (who won't ask him about the deficit), and make him known to the fans as one of them. Do the same with NASCAR. He doesn't really have any stock car credentials, but he does have a southern accent. Nearly all the drivers are going to vote for him, as are many of the fans, play this connection for all it is worth. There is nothing more folksy then a good old boy turning left all day long.

3) Put the president in a flight suit and make him look butch.

4) Attack: always be on the offensive. This Bush's professed strategy for the war on terror but it is also the Karl Rove strategy for dealing with dissent. Bush's attacks on Kerry make him look like a fighter, which is the whole point.

5) Obfuscate: negative stories will arise from time to time. It is hard to completely control the news cycle. When a negative or critical story does come out, dispatch your minions with disinformation talking points which will muddy the issues, half truths that will make people question the veracity of the negative story. Employ red herrings to distract people from negative news.

5) Attacks Ad Hominem: whenever a person presents a serious challenge, have someone attack their credibility, their patriotism, their character or their wife.

6) Warn of the slippery slope. "If John Kerry wins the Whitehouse it will embolden the terrorists." Make people believe in a ridiculous string of events that will spell disaster if one step is taken.

7) Use the Band Wagon: report how many people love the president, how popular he is, how folksy. Pound the media again and again with the idea that Bush is the most beloved president in the history of the union.

8.) Play to people's fear. Make them feel threatened by the world, by the terrorists, by John Kerry.

9.) Good Cop/Bad Cop: while the president (who, let's not forget, was a cheer leader in prep school) sticks to a mostly positive message of hope for a bright new future, send the vice president out to warn of imminent nuclear attack from terrorists.

10.) Read 1984 y George Orwell. Read it again. Read it a third time. Now use it as a manual for the administration. Build the terrorists into a shadowy undefeatable enemy who must be stopped at all costs. Scare the public into giving up their civil rights. Encourage them to spy on one another. Outlaw all forms of sex save hetero sex with the man on top. A picture of a smiling president bush over the words "Big Brother is Watching You" might be a bit much--but only a bit.

It has worked like a charm. Listen carefully to the Sunday morning talk shows and you will here Condi Rice, Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, and all sorts of low level foot soldiers in the Karl Rove army repeating exactly the same phrases over and over again. Their talking points are catchy, well thought out and they alls tick tot he script: "Flip-Flopper," "Global Test," "Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time." It filters down through the news media and into the public conversation and, even though it doesn't mean anything, influences voters.

The democrats are, currently at least, terrible at this sort of thing. Aside from James Carville (perhaps), they have no one of Karl Rove's stature as a spin doctor. He is the current master, the most astounding political mind since Lee Atwater. And if Bush wins tomorrow, it won't be because he is the better candidate or because Kerry was the worse one, it will be because Karl Rove is a genius.

And if he loses, I hope nobody remembers that I wrote this. :)