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INANITY AMONG THE RUINS! Clan members have always believed this way. It’s the essence of life in the clan: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 20, 2009

Ruminations on Cather and Burden: For ruminations on Willa Cather, see below.

INANITY AMONG THE RUINS: In this morning’s New York Times, David Carr devotes his weekly media column to the cable networks’ coverage of last week’s Tax Day events. He focuses heavily on Fox—but he does mention CNN and MSNBC, specifically citing Rachel Maddow. This run-down of the three networks appears early in his column:

CARR (4/21/09): The cable news networks took it from there. Fox News, after running more than 100 promos about its coverage of the event, which did a pretty effective job of marketing them at the same time, had wall-to-wall coverage on the anointed day and dispatched four of its leading hosts around the country to perform a kind of hybrid task, covering events that they also seemed to be leading.

And in the increasingly politicized environment between the covered and coverers, Susan Roesgen of CNN, covering a tax protest in Chicago, could not have been more contemptuous of the people she was interviewing, shaking her finger at them and shouting them down. In a move that I’m sure freaked out her bosses, she suggested that the protests were “antigovernment, anti-CNN.”

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC frantically belittled the rhetoric and motives of those involved in the tea party events, even as she spent oodles of air time on the rallies.

As noted, the bulk of Carr’s column is devoted to Fox; we disagree with nothing he says. We will disagree just a tad about Roesgen; we were more struck by her inability to ask a coherent question than by her contempt for the people she interviewed. On the other hand, Maddow really was contemptuous of the various Tax Day participants, a contempt she expressed (in a “juvenile, prurient” way) over a five-night period. In our view, Maddow gets off remarkably easy in Carr’s column today. Keith Olbermann doesn’t get mentioned at all, not even for his ludicrous conduct on Thursday night, the evening after Tax Day.

In our view, MSNBC’s treatment of these Tax Day events was stunningly stupid—profoundly repulsive. Last week, we didn’t get the chance to mention a few parts of this ridiculous conduct. As we record these last few aspects, just consider how soft Carr was in his treatment of the “progressive” network’s utterly ludicrous work:

Dumbest question in the world: How stupid did the performance by Maddow and Olbermann get? Consider a pair of interviews they conducted on April 15.

For five solid nights, Maddow had ridiculed Tax Day participants as “tea-baggers,” stressing a slang meaning of “tea-bagging.” (It was a “juvenile, prurient approach,” she mused, explaining that she “just couldn’t help it.”) On April 15, Maddow interviewed Wayne Slater, a veteran Texas political reporter who had attended one of the Tax Day events. Maddow endlessly promotes herself as an endlessly brilliant Rhodes Scholar. Finished her interview with Slater, she asked one of the dumbest questions ever asked on cable:

MADDOW (4/15/09): Wayne, one last question, and I hope, I hope you hear this in the spirit in which it is intended. And I’m asking this because I know you are a savvy guy and because this has actually become sort of a serious issue about these tea party protests today. Did you get the sense today that anybody knew why it would be weird to use the word “tea bag” or the word “tea-bagging” as a verb? Do you think they, they get that, they understand the weird implication there?

SLATER: Two things. One, Rachel, I don’t think anybody of the folks who were, I was surrounded by today watches you on MSNBC. I could be wrong, but I’ve got a feeling they were looking at another channel when they watched so they don’t know this.

MADDOW: I didn’t invent this idea! I’m just reflecting the culture. [Laughs]

SLATER: I know. I turned around, there was a guy right behind me who had a tea bag hanging from his sunglasses; a woman next him had several tea bags around her face, hanging from the brim of her cap. I am convinced, Rachel, that they did not know the other implications of what they were saying.

MADDOW: I pray that is the case. Wayne Slater, senior political reporter with the Dallas Morning News, thanks very much for your time tonight, Wayne. It’s great to have you on the show.

SLATER: Great to be with you.

We would have been stunned to see Maddow ask such an utterly foolish question. Except we’d already seen Olbermann conduct a similar foolish discussion with poor Howard Fineman, one hour earlier. Like Slater, Fineman had attended one of the Tax Day events. He ended up explaining the fact that the sky is blue:

OLBERMANN (4/15/09): After the Fox News reporter had this honesty moment here and after all the unending ridicule wound up himself calling it a “tea bag” tax protest, as you heard, I want to get to the other factors in a second. But purely on the political theater versus political humiliation meter, where did this land?

FINEMAN: Well, the point is, Keith, that I didn’t interview all the people at the rally about this. But my guess is that most of them thought a tea bag was a tea bag, OK? So they had no sense whatsoever that there was a whole sub-text to this, whatever urban language is involved, they don’t know anything about, don’t want to know anything about—

OLBERMANN: Well then, just judge it on its—

FINEMAN: Which is sort of part of the, part of the point. It’s part of the point.

OLBERMANN: Just judge on its political merits, taking aside this avoidable—although not really very easily avoidable double entendre.

In fact, the double entendre was very easily “avoided,” everywhere else these events were discussed. On MSNBC, this “juvenile, prurient” double entendre defined more than a week of simpering pseudo-coverage—and yes, Maddow did invent this theme on cable, despite her (typically) disingenuous attempt to claim that she had not. And so, poor Fineman had to explain the basic facts of life to his “liberal” host. As if he were speaking to someone from Mars, the gent explained the blindingly obviously: The vast bulk of people at these events wouldn’t have known that “tea-bagging” has a sexual meaning. One hour later, a former Rhodes Scholar made Slater explain the same thing.

One week into her ugly attacks on the deeply stupid “tea-baggers,” could Maddow really have been this clueless? If so, she was clueless by choice, of course; she was clueless because it worked for her interests. But surely, her question for Slater was one of the dumbest ever asked on cable. And unfortunately, the question captures a stereotypical picture of a certain type of pseudo-liberal. In asking that question, Maddow portrayed herself as someone who was profoundly clueless about the culture of average Americans. She had now been ridiculing them for a week. But she still was in the dark about something as simple as this.

Could Maddow have been sincere in that question? We don’t have any way to know—but it was surely one of the dumbest ever asked. So it goes when a small, dumb, self-impressed pseudo-elite get handed Their Own Rhodes Scholar.

Bring on the dumb: On Friday, we briefly mentioned the astounding performance by Janeane Garofalo on Thursday’s Countdown. We’re not sure what has happened to Garofalo in the past fewyears. But her previous outing on Countdown was one of the most ridiculous performances in cable history (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/09). In last Thursday evening’s rant, she managed to top herself.

According to Nate Silver, more than 300,000 people attended last Wednesday’s events. In a deeply moronic oration, Garofalo clued us in to their motives and world-view. This is just the way she began:

OLBERMANN (4/16/09): On a more serious note, we’re now joined by actor and activist Janeane Garofalo. Good to see you.

GAROFALO: Thank you. You know, there is nothing more interesting than seeing a bunch of racists become confused and angry at a speech they’re not quite certain what he thinks. It sounds right to them, and then it doesn’t make sense.

Let’s be very honest about what this is about. It’s not about bashing Democrats. It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about.

OLBERMANN: That’s right.

GAROFALO: They don’t know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. That is nothing but a bunch of tea-bagging red-necks. And there is no way around that.

It’s stunning that any cable channel would put something so stupid and ugly on the air, with its own $5 million man nodding dim-witted approval. As Garofalo continued, she lectured us on the workings of the brain—the workings of the brain of more than 300,000 people:

GAROFALO (continuing directly): And, you know, you can tell these type of right-wingers anything and they’ll believe it, except the truth. You tell them the truth and they become—it’s like showing Frankenstein’s monster fire. They become confused, angry, highly volatile.

That guy caused in them feelings they don’t know because of their limbic brain—we’ve discussed before, the limbic brain inside a right-winger or Republican or conservative or your average white power activist, the limbic brain is much larger in their head space than in a reasonable person. And it is pushing against the frontal lobe. So their synapses are misfiring.

Things slid downhill from there.

It’s stunning to think that any channel would put such garbage on its air. (Perhaps this show should now be called Countdown 911, as a signal that it’s pure parody.) To his credit, Howard Kurtz challenged this remarkable segment on Reliable Sources this Sunday. It’s slightly amazing that Carr didn’t mention this in today’s column.

The clan will always defend the clan: It’s also stunning that “liberal” bloggers have said nothing about this week-long nonsense. But throughout history, the clan has always defended the clan—and these bloggers are part of a “liberal” clan. (The Clan of the Bad News Cave Bears? The Clan of the Kewl Kidz?) This clan has now made an organizing principle clear: It’s OK to show overt contempt for those who are beneath us. Consider the repulsive Ana Marie Cox, dumbly lounging with Kurtz:

KURTZ (4/19/09): MSNBC, as I mentioned at the top, seemed to delight in making fun of this whole “tea party” Tax Day business. And we have a clip here of one guest on MSNBC, Ana Marie Cox. Let's roll that.

COX (videotape): It is true that tea-baggers are grossly under-represented in Congress. I'm trying to work on that personally, but, you know, one can only do so much. I think David Vitter really is the right spokesman for the movement though.

KURTZ: All right. Now, “tea-bagging” is sexual slang, the definition of which we are not going to go into on this program. And you took some heat for a series of jokes about that sort of thing. Do you think in retrospect that you went a little far on that?

COX: I don't think I went far. I mean, I think that we all talk about we have different roles as journalists and commentators, and I always approach things from a humorous and risque point of view when possible. And also, this is something that we made very clear in the beginning, since the setup of that interview, which is the organizers themselves use "tea-bag" as a verb quite a bit, and it was unfortunate that they did not apparently have access to the Google to find out what that means.

Kurtz didn’t ask why Cox, an alleged news analyst, would “always approach things from a risque point of view.” But one key point came clear in Cox’s highlighted comment: Throughout history, the clan has always derided those not of the clan. In this wry statement, Cox suggests that the tea-baggers are too lower-class to have access to the Internet. But then, the clan will always suggest such thing about those not in the clan.

In her puzzling role as a major pundit, Cox has long been deeply unfortunate. In the past few weeks, she has eager to tell the clan the things their leaders will always tell them: That the real fools are The Other—those found in the other clan. She’s a slightly cleaned-up version of Garofalo—but she sells the same inane, hate-loving message. She’s always risque because she’s a fool. She peddles clan values for the same unfortunate reason.

Historically, these openly condescending attitudes have always damaged progressive interests. It may be that the rules of politics have fundamentally changed in the wake of the Bush Administration’s varied depredations. More likely, this won’t turn out to be the case—and progressive interests will pay the price, again, for these repellent, moronic attitudes.

Some readers won’t understand what we mean. They will believe that Garofalo, Olbermann, Maddow and Cox are of course quite brilliantly right. Clan members have always believed that way. It’s the essence of life in the clan.

An attempt at avoidance: In an attempt at avoidance, we had originally penned this post about dear Willa Cather:

Parceling out our respect: Yesterday’s Post’s Outlook section had a very good “spring cleaning” piece. Ten prominent people were asked to name something the world could afford to throw out.

Naomi Klein suggested we could throw out Larry Summers; we’ll show you her reasons tomorrow. But we were especially pleased by Marie Arana’s recommendation. She said we could do without the Nobel Prize in Literature. They make hackneyed choices, she said:

ARANA (4/20/09): After World War II, the judges did choose a few giants: Herman Hesse, Andre Gide, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. But what of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene or Jorge Luis Borges? Or E.M. Forster, Mikhail Bulgakov and Willa Cather? By my count, 15 of the 105 laureates deserved the prize. That's hardly an efficient way to recognize excellence.

Willa Cather! We’ve never quite known if we should be embarrassed by our love for some of her work.

We especially love Cather’s defense, in My Antonia, of “the hired girls”—the young Bohemian and Scandinavian women who worked on farms, then as domestic servants, in the Nebraska of Cather’s youth. For our money, several bits of recent political history are captured in Cather’s ardent defense of the young women she so admired.

Cather tells the story through the voice of Jim Burden, a male alter ego who was perhaps able to express Cather’s own reactions to these young women in a way which was more digestible for the place and the time. Burden travels from Virginia to Nebraska as a youth, as Cather did in real life (in 1883). In the fictional town of Black Hawk, Burden comes to feel “contempt” for the Anglo boys who refuse to act on their heart’s attraction to these vibrant “country girls.”

One summer, a dancing pavilion appears in the town (“near the Danish laundry”). Saturday night dances begin. Burden sets the scene for one of our favorite passages in fiction:

I never missed a Saturday night dance. The tent was open until midnight then. The country boys came in from farms eight and ten miles away, and all the country girls were on the floor—Antonia and Lena and Tiny, and the Danish laundry girls and their friends. I was not the only boy who found these dances gayer than the others. The young men who belonged to the Progressive Euchre Club use to drop in late and risk a tiff with their sweethearts and general condemnation for a waltz with “the hired girls.”

As Cather starts the next section of her book, her Burden describes the social tension created by the hired girls:

There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school.


I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.

“Physically they were almost a race apart,” Burden says of these vibrant young women. He starts to explain: “That was before the day of high school athletics”—before the day when young women were expected to live through their bodies at all. Daughters of well-to-do families “stayed indoors in winter because of the cold, and in summer because of the heat,” Cather’s Burden says. In marked contrast, Cather describes the physical vibrancy of the Bohemian and Scandinavian girls—a vibrancy no Black Hawk boy could fail to notice, we’re told.

And yet, these Black Hawk boys were unwilling to act on what they so plainly saw. For our money, the first paragraph which follows is a bit rough. The second contains a powerful bit of analysis which remains highly pointed today:

The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house which best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.

The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.

“The country girls were considered a menace to the social order,” Cather writes. “Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background.” And so, because they threatened a stultified social order, the immigrant girls were gossiped about sexually, Burden goes on to explain. But then, cheap sexual insult continues to be a favorite “approach” of the dead.

Cather ends this part of her book with a story about Sylvester Lovett, cashier in his father’s bank, who “took all the dances Lena Lingard would give him, and even grew bold enough to walk home with her.” Poor Lovett! “He was daft about her, and everyone knew it,” Cather’s Burden relates. But alas! “To escape from his predicament, he ran away with a widow six years older than himself, who owned a half section.” As the section closes, Burden dreams of the day when he can express his contempt for Lovett’s cowardice. Decades later, Cather realized that dream when she published this book.

Minor irony: We don’t know if any male writer has ever described men’s attraction to women as deftly as Cather does here. She doesn’t need to deny-through-posturing, as male writers will more typically do. But Cather observed a phenomenon which remains in full force today:

The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. In essence, Cather was describing the phenomenon Naomi Wolf dissected in Promiscuities, when she described the punishment dished to girls and young women who act on the hyper-sexualized messages society constantly sends them. That girl will find herself trashed as a slut, Wolf accurately wrote. As if to make her into a seer, Wolf herself was sexually trashed, for a long ugly month, when her unremarkable role in the Gore campaign was revealed in November 1999. But no one had to feel any alarm! No “liberal” ever dared open his mouth to utter a peep in Wolf’s (or Gore’s) defense. The “liberal” world’s respect for respectability was much too strong to allow for that! As far as we know, only two major pundits defended Wolf during that long, disgraceful month; their names were Safire and Kristol. You mistake the mettle of modern “liberals” if you find that fact surprising.

Cather described the punishment that’s still dished to young women who are perhaps too vibrant. But then, the “liberal” world loves dishing out punishment too. They also turned to sexual trashing last week—as their kind constantly does.

Black Hawk looked down on these young women, Cather relates—looked down on them in part because their families didn’t speak English. Last week, Black Hawk looked down on its social inferiors again. Through inane figures like Maddow and Cox, Black Hawk looked down on them because they don’t have access to Google—don’t know what “tea-bagging” means.

Olbermann and Maddow served as village burghers in Black Hawk last week. Just a thought: Progressive interests have always been harmed when weak-minded souls of this sad type take their pleasure this way.