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Print view: The Palin-bashing won't get us that far, Michael Lind sagely says
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WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH BASHING! The Palin-bashing won’t get us that far, Michael Lind sagely says: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2011

Dismay from Hollywood: It’s Oscar weekend! That said, we agree with TNR’s David Thomson (click here)—you should see “Just Go With It” because it’s so gruesomely bad. (Thomson: “This is so bad you need to see it.”)

We were so intrigued by the film’s bad reviews, we went to see it two weekends ago. We didn’t find it as tasteless as some reviews said, but we found it instructively awful. The absolute, total, complete lack of effort will absolutely drain your soul, as some reviewers have said, Thomson included. But the lack of effort may teach you a lesson: A culture in which people earn giant, humongous dollar awards is a culture that’s bound for the dumpster.

That’s true about cable hosts, of course, along with Hollywood “writers” and actors. At some point, the more you pay, the less you get. The squalor isn’t restricted to Wall Street. Doubt it? Go see this movie!

David Brooks, to the right of O’Reilly: Paul Krugman’s new column is very important. But first:

Consider two letters about his colleague, the fading David Brooks.

For unknown reasons, Brooks’ work has seemed weaker and weaker of late, even as his pique with Krugman’s work has seemed to grow. This morning, two letter-writers flag a groaner from his most recent column.

On Tuesday, Brooks wrote about Scott Walker; he called the governor’s critics “amusingly Orwellian.” According to Brooks, “Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do.”

Governor Walker is doing exactly what he said! Today, two letters correct that claim. If anything, the letters are a tad too kind to Brooks:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (2/25/11): David Brooks repeats a claim that Gov. Scott Walker makes: As governor, he is simply doing what he said he would do.

In fact, while he said repeatedly that he would ask public employees to pay a bigger share of pensions and health care costs, Mr. Walker did not during his long campaign make clear that he would move to take away bargaining rights, essentially putting public employee unions out of business.

Given the strong reaction to his post-election surprise actions, it is not a stretch to say that if he had been honest with the voters about his plans, he might not have been elected.

Sorry, but no—whatever one thinks of Walker’s current proposal, he didn’t campaign on the promise to end collective bargaining. How far off-track has Brooks now gone? Last evening, on the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly was careful to make this point, contradicting Laura Ingraham again and again.

O'REILLY (2/24/11): But according to this poll, Walker has not won the hearts and minds of his citizens in limiting collective bargaining. He has not.

INGRAHAM: Well, but he won the election campaigning on it.

O'REILLY: In everything—everything else he won, he's winning, but not in this.

INGRAHAM: Governing by polls is also quite difficult; as you said it's difficult to measure. I don't—do you know anyone who answers their home phone to even do a poll? So you know, they're, they're fascinating until—until you realize that he campaigned on this very point to restore fiscal order, and sanity to the state. You cannot do that—

O'REILLY: But he didn't campaign on limiting—no, no, no! He did not campaign on limiting collective bargaining. He did on fiscal responsibility.

INGRAHAM: Right. But Bill—

O'REILLY: And Ohio Governor John Kasich made a very good—

INGRAHAM: —in two months.

O'REILLY: —case last night. But he didn't campaign on collective bargaining. He did not.

Oof! From Mr. O, we got the straight dope. From columnist Brooks, not so much!

Why is Krugman’s column important? Good God! Because he constructs the larger narratives voters simply haven’t received from liberals down through the years.

In our view, Krugman’s column does have a few problems. In the following passage, we think his account of the past few weeks is somewhat bollixed. But good lord! Right at the start of his column, Krugman describes Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine”—and in this passage, he describes a war the public must hear described:

KRUGMAN (2/25/11): In recent weeks, Madison has been the scene of large demonstrations against the governor’s budget bill, which would deny collective-bargaining rights to public-sector workers. Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions—an offer the governor has rejected.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab—an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy. And the power grab goes beyond union-busting. The bill in question is 144 pages long, and there are some extraordinary things hidden deep inside.

Within our political culture, powerful interests relentlessly bash the unions. In September, NBC News devoted an entire week to bashing our teachers and their fiendish unions, while the “progressive” hosts on the cable arm sat around diddling themselves and laughing about Sarah Palin (see below). When have high-profile liberals/progressives looked for ways to tell average people about the way the world really works? Klein’s book is a great place to start—though it’s never discussed on the cable arm, where Klein herself almost never appears. It’s a thrill to see her book, and this ongoing war, described in this morning’s column.

Average people of the right and the left get looted in the war Klein describes. Progressives should look for ways to spread this news across those tribal lines.

Special report: How to respond to the Limbaughs!

PART 3—WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH BASHING (permalink): In Michael Lind’s view, liberals and progressives spend too much time mocking the likes of Glenn Beck. Last Tuesday, he explained this view in his weekly piece at Salon.

We think he made some very good points. Then too, we think he sometimes made those points rather poorly.

Who is mocking the Beck types too much? At the start of his piece, Lind named two names. We think he got one name wrong:

LIND (2/15/11): What dumb thing did Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck just say? You don’t need to watch Fox News to find out. The progressive media will tell you. The economy is still in a coma, revolution is rocking the Middle East—but you can be sure that Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews will take time to snicker at something silly that Palin or Bachmann or Beck said in the last 48 hours.

Is the constant mockery of these bloviating right-wing demagogues really the best use of precious center-left media time? I think it’s likely to backfire on liberals, for several reasons.

In the rest of his piece, Lind explains why he thinks this constant mockery isn’t the best use of center-left time. We think his views are well worth noting. But let’s start with the names he called out.

There’s no question about it! Nightly mockery of Palin/Beck/Bachmann is a key part of the MSBNC play book. (Limbaugh/Sean/BillO are regulars too.) That said, it seems to us that Rachel Maddow pushes this button less often than the channel’s other major hosts. Chris Matthews does love playing such cards, in the most simple-minded way possible; where once he mocked and trashed Hillary Clinton, he now delights in mocking and trashing those two conservative women. And O’Reilly-bashing was a foundation of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown program. Now that Lawrence O’Donnell has inherited Olbermann’s 8 PM slot, he too makes this sort of thing a nightly treat for viewers. And Big Ed Schultz relentlessly pounds these reliable bozos too.

If you watch an evening of liberal cable, you’ll surely see these familiar types getting mocked and pounded. Is something “wrong” with this sort of segment? Not necessarily, no. But Lind lists four major drawbacks to the drumbeat of Beck/Palin/Bachmann-bashing. We think one or two of his points are weak—but several of his points are quite strong.

Does the constant bashing of Beck/Palin/Bachmann “make other far-right Republican conservatives [like Paul Ryan] look moderate?” Possibly, though that doesn’t seem like the major problem to us. Does it “make liberals look like snobs?” Given the way these segments tend to get done, you can bet your sweet bippy it does! (More below.) Is the nightly bashing of Palin “a reactive strategy that gives the initiative to the right?” Not necessarily, but we think Lind’s presentation of this claim is worth reading:

LIND: It’s a reactive strategy that gives the initiative to the right. When progressive opinion leaders wait for conservatives to say something stupid and then pounce on it, they cede the choice of topics in national debate to their enemies. No doubt this drives ratings, attracting hyper-partisan Democrats whose greatest pleasure in life is the rather low one of picking apart the statements of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck: "Nyah, nyah, Glenn Beck is wrong again!" But it’s no substitute for a liberalism that tells its own story, on its own timeline, and lets the right react.

Does MSNBC’s nightly Palin-bashing provide a certain kind of viewer with his or her “greatest pleasure in life?” Presumably, this helps explain why this is such an integral part of the channel’s game plan. But at the end of that passage, Lind begins to make the strongest part of his argument.

We agree with Lind; Palin-bashing “is no substitute for a liberalism that tells its own story, on its own timeline.” As he continues, he makes his fourth complaint about these attacks. Some of his references are somewhat obscure; some of his claims are hard to establish. But we think this passage moves us toward the target:

LIND: It’s a waste of effort and attention. We are mired down in two wars in the Muslim world and suffering from the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. The last time things were this bad, in the 1930s, American liberals and leftists were debating the nature of capitalism and government and world politics and putting forth their own, often contradictory plans. Liberal politicians and journalists devoted little, if any, time to dissecting the errors of right-wing crackpots of the period, like the radio priest Father Coughlin.

Of Ezra Pound, the American poet who became an apologist for Mussolini and Hitler by way of monetary theory (which has a way of driving people mad), Gertrude Stein observed: "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." The populist right has cornered the market for village explainers in the American media in part because liberals have abandoned it. The relatively poor ratings of liberal media pundits reflect their decision to follow a strategy of narrowcasting aimed at the minority of Americans who have graduated from four-year colleges and the even smaller minority with graduate and professional degrees.

Have liberal pundits—has MSNBC—decided to narrowcast to college grads? We have no idea. But Lind is certainly right on one point—the populist right has done a lot of “explaining” in the past forty years, while the left has been hapless and silent. In almost every area of American life, the public discourse is substantially driven by the ludicrous claims and misleading narratives which have been aggressively pushed by the think-tanks of the right. Plainly, the left does need its own “village explainers”—the left needs narratives and understandings that will help average people make better sense of the political wars around them. With our side so much in need of such tools, it can be disheartening to watch the cable warriors burn so much time on the latest silly statement—especially when so much of this work is done in such blatant bad faith.

Is Palin-bashing done in bad faith? You can bet your bippy again! Olbermann constantly embellished the things he claimed that BillO had said—though he never mentioned BillO’s attacks on “Tiller the baby killer” until after Tiller was murdered. And O’Donnell’s attacks on the Beck/Palin crowd have often been a study in silly, rube-running bad faith. Last week, he used the ugly attack on Lara Logan as the latest excuse to gin up a pleasing complaint against BillO (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/11). Just last night, he played his viewers for semi-fools when he started his bashing of Beck:

O’DONNELL (2/24/11): Time for tonight’s “rewrite.” Glenn Beck occupied this space last night for something that he said that was idiotic and untrue. Today, he has bent to the pressure of my criticism and apologized. Here he is on his radio show today.

BECK (videotape): With that being said, I think it was on Tuesday that I was making a point about political activists and I started to talk about the difference in rabbis. Somebody has called me ignorant for what I—what I said on Tuesday. And I think that’s a pretty good description of my—what I said.

In just a few short months on the air, O’Donnell has become a master of feigned outrage—and a master of slick self-promotion. In fact, there is no sign that Beck had “bent to the pressure of [O’Donnell’s] criticism;” as O’Donnell later semi-noted, it was really ADL chief Abraham Foxman whose criticism Beck had addressed. But of one thing you can be sure: If you watch O’Donnell’s show each night, you’ll get a nightly dose (or three) of Palin/Bachman/Beck/Sean-bashing—often about some trivial matter. You will rarely see any real attempt at any real “village explaining.”

The progressive world badly needs explanations; if those narratives ever emerge, they will involve the endless dissembling driven by major figures like Limbaugh. We have often urged progressives to look for ways to tell average voters that they’re being deceived by trusted figures like Rush; that can’t be achieved by the silly vamping presented on cable each night. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that cable’s nightly bashing is really an entertainment function. And make no mistake: When simpering figures like Gail Collins devote so much time to bashing Bristol Palin, the world will see that conduct for what it is—for the simpering snobbery of an upper-class pseudo-liberal world.

Please give us narratives, Lind was saying. Give us frameworks of understanding! This is how he ended his piece, which made good sense overall:

LIND: The center-left needs its own village explainers, with their own charts and their own blackboards. In the plain language used by FDR for his Fireside Chats, they could show how liberalism is rooted in American values and history, instead of being an alien transplant from socialist Europe. They could sketch the relations between today’s radical right, with its loony theories about a Muslim-leftist world revolution, and the similar conspiracy theories of the Liberty Lobby in the 1930s and the John Birch Society in the 1950s. They could put up diagrams on the screen to explain elementary Keynesian concepts and show the need for public spending, or exports, or both to make up for depressed private consumption in a near-depression like the present. They could...

Oh, never mind. It’s easier to run a clip of Palin, Bachmann or Beck, and then roll your eyes and ask a fellow pundit to join you in snickering at those idiots.

We might not make Lind our program director, but he makes very good overall sense. What narratives might connect across tribal lines? Isn’t it time we all asked?

The snickering won’t get us real far. As the phenomenologists might exclaim: On to the things in themselves!