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RETURN OF A FAMOUS OLD CULT! As pundits failed to explain an offense, we thought of that famous old cult: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 12, 2010

History starts today: Well, not exactly. But at this link, we’re launching a new site, How he got there. The new site will be devoted to a deeply important episode in our recent history.

You’ll have to read the material to learn who “he” is. And to learn where he “got.”

Most of the basic work for that site is done. (The site will present a book.) But completing the story-telling will take us the better part of the year. Appendices and chapter-length footnotes will surely take us into the next. At present, we expect to add a new chapter every two or three weeks. Today, we’ve posted the Introduction and Chapter 1 of this new site’s book.

We’ve continued to bang and hammer, constructing this new site’s sprawling campus. That in mind, we will ask you, each day this week, to consider contributing to these efforts. We promise to be better this year, over here at THE DAILY HOWLER. And we’ll continue developing the historical material at that other site.

We’ve never asked for contributions before. After 11.8 years, we do so now. See the helpful button over there on the left. It lets you contribute electronically, or by check.

Our suggestion, if you’re inclined to help: Just decide what you think is fair. Then multiply by 11.8—unless you just round off to 12.

Where do sacred days come from: In this morning’s New York Times, Richard Goldstein remembers Miep Gies, headlined as “The Last of Those Who Hid Anne Frank and Her Family.” In our view, every part of this obituary is packed with meaning. But we’ll single out this:

GOLDSTEIN (1/12/10): Every Aug. 4, the anniversary of the raid on the annex, Miep and Jan Gies remained at their Amsterdam home. They withdrew from the world and reflected on the lost.

Where do sacred days come from? Goldstein gives us another chance to reflect on the life of Miep Gies.

Krugman, bis: For a second day, we’ll strongly recommend Paul Krugman’s new column, in which he shoots down a much-bruited claim about the woes of Old Europe.

Old Europe’s an economic basket case! It has long been a standard sound-bite, pumped to unsuspecting ears by cable and radio talkers. But it just isn’t true, Krugman says in his piece. And alas! In this way, this talking-point aligns with so many others!

If we lower our tax rates, we get extra revenue! National health care has failed everywhere it’s been tried! Social Security goes bankrupt in the year [fill in blank]! Over and over, citizens are exposed to such bogus talking-points—and they rarely hear rebuttals, or warnings about the dissemblers behind them. Over time, these talking-points come to rule our world. As in last year’s health care debate, they limit what can be achieved in our political battles.

Yesterday, an e-mailer made a request for an important discussion:

E-MAIL (1/11/10): You said on your site today: "When will liberals develop the frameworks and institutions through which such dominant sound-bites get debunked, then dragged to the ground? When will liberals decide to tell average people (Ewww! We know!) that they’re being systematically played by the very capable hustlers who hand them this poll-tested blarney?"

Do you have any ideas on how Democrats should do this? If so, could you share them on your site? If you already have, could you point us to the particular day?

We think those are very good requests. How can liberals work, in organized ways, to undercut these potent bits of deception? We expect to return to this topic.

But that column is tres important. We recommend it again.

Return of a famous old cult: Last night, pundits continued to tear their hair about Harry Reid’s years-old comment. Almost everyone seemed to know that Reid’s comment was wrong, very wrong. But we were struck once again by a curious fact: Very few pundits felt the need to explain why Reid’s comment was wrong.

What exactly was wrong with Reid’s comments? Pundits didn’t seem to agree, to the extent that they bothered to say (see below).

What exactly was Reid’s offense? In this morning’s hard-copy New York Times, Jeff Zeleny characterizes Reid’s comments this way, at the start of a “White House Memo” (link below):

ZELENY (1/12/10): Long before Senator Harry Reid offered a view about what it takes to be a successful black political figure in America, Barack Obama did too.

It was no surprise that Mr. Obama promptly accepted Mr. Reid’s apology over the weekend for a racially insensitive remark, considering that health care and the rest of the president’s legislative priorities are likely to rise or fall on the back of Mr. Reid, the Senate Democratic leader.

In Zeleny’s account, Reid made “a racially insensitive remark.” But what about his remark was insensitive? Which part of Reid’s comment did Zeleny mean? Zeleny never makes this clear—but as he continues, he does say the following. In the process, he almost seems to suggest that Candidate Obama made “racially insensitive remarks” too, much like Reid’s remark:

ZELENY (continuing directly): But that is not the only reason Mr. Obama came to Reid’s defense and is heading to Nevada next month to campaign for him.

Mr. Reid’s comment—that Mr. Obama was “light-skinned” and did not speak with “a Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”—is not so different from comments the president made himself while navigating the complicated path of race and politics during his rapid rise top the White House.

Say what? According to Zeleny, Reid’s “racially insensitive remark” is not so different from things Obama said on his way to the White House! We would tend to agree with that statement; Zeleny goes on to offer a sensible review of certain aspects of Obama’s pre-White House career. But in the passage quoted above, the vagueness of the charge against Reid takes on a slightly comical aspect. In Zeleny’s treatment, it almost seems that Obama made “racially insensitive remarks” about himself during his rise to the White House!

Or something. But then, this has been a fascinating debate, in which few complainants get around to defining the offense which has them so upset. Indeed, different pundits seem to be offended by different parts of what Reid said. Everyone agrees to be upset. There just seems to be little joint idea of what they’re upset about.

Consider the analysis by Tricia Rose, chair of the Africana Studies Department at Brown University. Rose discussed Reid’s comments last night on the Maddow Show.

Rose gave a perfectly sensible analysis of the situation, to the extent that she escaped a tendency toward the dialect known as “academese.” Example: In this, the opening Q-and-A, Rose became the first person in the history of the Nexis files to use the word “situatedness:”

MADDOW (1/11/10): Let me ask you about the president’s remarks on TV One. He said—he started by saying, "This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history," putting the issue of Harry Reid’s recent comments in the context of Reid’s overall history on race relations and public policy. Is that the most substantive way to approach this?

ROSE: Well, I think it’s appropriate for Obama to contextualize him—which is to say, language is complicated and intent matters and your history and relationship to a set of issues matters a great deal. I mean, there are many African-Americans in this country, right now, particularly over a certain age, who still call themselves Negro. So, it’s not inappropriate entirely. It’s very much about context, intent, situatedness. So, it makes sense for him to have made that choice.

According to Rose, Obama had (appropriately) contextualized Reid by considering the situatedness! But please note: Fairly clearly, Rose seemed to feel the issue concerned Reid’s use of the term “Negro.” By way of contrast, other pundits have seemed to feel that Reid’s use of the term “dialect” is the real problem here. (Norah O’Donnell shrieked and wailed at considerable length about that term on today’s Morning Joe.) Rose didn’t seem to see it that way. Later on, she herself seemed to use the term “dialect” in the same way Reid had done:

MADDOW: It is interesting, too, to talk about even—just the distance between the words being used to describe, to make an observation, and the content of the observation itself. Of course, when Trent Lott made those comments in 2002, he didn’t use any racially charged language at all.

ROSE: Right.

MADDOW: Harry Reid is making a completely opposite point by using language that sets us off and that we assume means offense when it does—as you say—sort of reflect a much more complicated relationship with language and race. I think reflecting our overall discomfort in talking about it at all.

ROSE: Right. It’s not only discomfort but a certain level of illiteracy. And that’s why the consequences are so vast and weird and uneven, because we don’t have a real exposure and confrontation with the reality of structural racism and how it operates at so many levels. At this point, we seem content with proper language but structural inequality.

So the question is: Where is the outrage for the extraordinary range of unequal circumstances for African-Americans? I mean, the literature is filled with it. Not only for the specific support for Reid’s point—which is that color matters and that there’s a color hierarchy and that the blacker someone is somehow considered to be, whether it’s dialect, whether it’s style, whether it’s clothing, no matter—you know, dance, whatever it is—that those associations serve to reduce one’s viability no matter their gifts. Those facts are all over the literature.

So, where are we in our conversation about that matter?

Rose seemed to use the term “dialect” in much the same way Reid had done. Ten hours later, O’Donnell was weeping and moaning and describing her shock at having been forced to hear such a term, a term she had never heard in her life, a vile term which now has her reeling.

(By our count, five of six on the Morning Joe panel agreed they were shocked by what Reid said. They also agreed there’s a “double standard” on this in the media—even as they, big media mavens all, took turns slamming Reid for his comment.)

But so it can go in such pseudo-discussions: Everyone agrees there’s been an offense; in this case, Reid has used “racially charged language,” “language that sets us off.” (Has made “a racially insensitive remark.”) But various observers can’t seem to agree which part of his language is troubling.

Why is that? We’ll continue discussing the topic all week, since the topic will surely drive ratings on our cable pseudo-discussions, thus distracting the nation’s attention away from other topics. And by the way—some of those abandoned topics may be more serious than this Pundit Topic of Choice. Throughout her segment, Rose made an excellent point: We tend to talk about “proper language” more than about the real offenses which may characterize the real role of race in our real society. In this extended passage, we revisit part of what we quoted above:

ROSE: I mean, I have one other thing I think is really important to focus on. You know, there’s a lot of suffering that structural discrimination has caused and I think a lot of the anger from many African-Americans who have been frustrated by the comments is the pain associated with that history, which is much more important, it seems to me, than is getting credit now. And we should be talking about the reality of this injury, pain, and discrimination, and not just be angry at the fact of someone pointing it out.

MADDOW: It is interesting, too, to talk about even just the distance between the words being used to describe, to make an observation, and the content of the observation itself. Of course, when Trent Lott made those comments in 2002, he didn’t use any racially charged language at all.

ROSE: Right.

MADDOW: Harry Reid is making a completely opposite point by using language that sets us off and that we assume means offense when it does—as you say—sort of reflect a much more complicated relationship with language and race. I think reflecting our overall discomfort in talking about it at all.

ROSE: Right. It’s not only discomfort but a certain level of illiteracy. And that’s why the consequences are so vast and weird and uneven, because we don’t have a real exposure and confrontation with the reality of structural racism and how it operates at so many levels. At this point, we seem content with proper language but structural inequality.

Rose makes a perfectly good point here. Our current Shrieking Pundit Discussion seems to be focused on “proper language.” But it’s very hard to get these pundits to talk about “structural inequality”—the real issues, affecting real people, which may define race in America.

Our pundit discussions are like that, of course, as we’ve observed here for years. But that curious problem continues apace in this new Discussion of Choice. Maddow and Rose seem to agree that Reid has used “racially charged language,” “language that sets us off”—though Rose made clear, all through this segment, that she agrees with the things Reid said or implied. (She agrees that lighter-skinned blacks tend to be societally advantaged. She agrees that blacks can be reduced in the wider society’s estimation because of their “dialect.”) What then was wrong with what Reid said—with, apparently, his use of “Negro?” Maddow and Rose never quite said, this extending a curious trait seen all over cable.

Should people be troubled by Reid’s remarks? For ourselves, we’d suggest that the answer is no—that other things are much more important, that the joyful cadging of a single remark is not a good window into the soul. But our current public discourse tends to be driven by episodes like this. Pundits grasp at tiny matters, and proceed to shriek and wail and moan. As they do, they tend to ignore the larger issues in the society.

What was wrong with what Reid said? Very few pundits have tried to explain; we’d have to include Maddow and Rose in their number. In this curious ongoing discussion, have we seen the re-emergence of a famous old cult—The Cult of the Offhand Comment?

What Zeleny said: Zeleny’s piece doesn’t appear on-line as it appears in the hard-copy Times. For a version of Zeleny’s piece, go ahead: Just click this.

Tomorrow: That famous old cult