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CHURLS IN CHARGE (PART 1)! Why do we liberals lose spin wars, Drum asks. Incomparably, we start on our answer: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2005

MUST-SEE MTP: If you didn’t see Sunday’s Meet the Press,we strongly suggest that you read the full transcript. No runaway bride intruded here! For the full hour, Tim Russert and panel discussed the chances of a nuclear attack inside the U.S. And guess what? The chances of that are pretty good, all five panelists told their host. Here’s where the rubber hit the road, near the end of the program:
RUSSERT (5/29/05): I'd like to go around the table. Chairman [Thomas] Kean, let me start with you. Based on everything you've learned during the course of your work as chairman of the September 11 Commission, do you believe it's a distinct possibility that you could witness a nuclear bomb in the United States of America in your lifetime?

KEAN: I believe that, and we talked to nobody who had studied this issue who didn't think it was a real possibility. And if we don't perhaps head Lincoln's advice and, at this point, think anew and act anew, I worry very seriously.

LEE HAMILTON: Oh, yes, I think it's a distinct possibility. This technology is spreading. It's no longer confined to a few people or one or two countries. We've been fairly fortunate with the non-proliferation regime over a period of several decades now. We don't have nearly as many nuclear-power countries as might have been predicted 30 years ago. So the technology is spreading; terrorism is spreading; radical Islam is spreading. You've got an explosive mix here.

RUSSERT: Senator [Sam] Nunn?

NUNN: I agree.

American society will cease to exist on the day that attack occurs. Tim Russert deserves large credit for conducting this hour-long discussion. And oh yes, make no mistake—this startling discussion will have no effect on our fatuous public discourse. Like everything else of major importance, it will be ignored—deftly disappeared.

Special report: Churls in charge!

PART 1—GOTHAM’S TOP FOPS: On Friday, Kevin Drum asked an interesting question: Why do conservatives outshine liberals in our nation’s spin wars? For Drum, the question goes all the way back to the days of “Jane, you ignorant slut”—the days when James J. Kilpatrick battled Shana Alexander on 60 Minutes:

DRUM (5/27/05): I remember at the time being annoyed at the fact that I thought Kilpatrick was wrong, but also that he was much the better debater. What's more, an additional 30 years of watching liberals and conservatives on TV hasn't changed my mind: conservatives usually do better.

Why?

Drum is puzzled by this phenomenon. For ourselves, we’re puzzled by some of what he says, but it’s all worth quoting:
DRUM (continuing directly): Why? It's not that liberals don't get a chance (as on talk radio, which was taken over by conservatives very early) and it's not that network news honchos are unsympathetic to liberals. I don't think it has anything to do with the quality of the people or the quality of the thoughts. Liberals do fine on op-ed pages. Nor am I under the misimpression that liberals are unable to be nasty enough. And yet, in show after show, they're typically overmatched.

This is genuinely perplexing, and I think it's a big part of the reason that political talk shows have such heavy conservative representation: they're just livelier and more interesting on TV than liberals are. I don't have a clue why this is so, but since it goes directly to the core of recent liberal weakness at shaping public debate, it might be worth someone's time to give this some dispassionate study.

Some of that reasoning strikes us as strange. For example, are liberals “unable to be nasty enough?” The famous “Jane, you ignorant slut”—the SNL parody of Kilpatrick-Alexander—was a comic statement of the obvious fact that Kilpatrick, the conservative, was more aggressive than his liberal non-antagonist. But Drum asks the question of the age. And since he doesn’t have a clue, he makes an open cry for help. “How about it, Media Matters?” he asks, seeking assistance from a site which almost surely won’t attack him as it answers his question. Luckily, though, we at THE HOWLER have been explaining this matter over the course of the past several years. Given the light we’ve incomparably shone on this problem, we’re surprised that Drum is still in the dark. But let’s make his important question the starting point for a week-long rumination.

Why do liberals fail in our nation’s spin wars? Over the weekend, we thought about that problem as we watched Woody Allen’s Interiors, a 1978 film—the director’s first “serious” film—which we hadn’t seen since, oh, 1978. As we watched, we were mainly struck by the self-involved foppishness of all the central characters. As it turns out, others had the same reaction, even in real time. In the Washington Post, Gary Arnold rolled his eyes at the film’s endless high foppistry:

ARNOLD (9/29/78): Eve and Arthur have three daughters. Renata, played by Diane Keaton in a severe, sneering fashion that might actually have enhanced her performace in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," is a respected, embittered poet, first encountered confessing platitudinous fears of creative impotence and death to an unseen analyst. Flyn, played by Kristin Griffith, is a relatively content cutie who works in Los Angeles as a TV actress, Joey, played by Marybeth Hurt, who bears a curious resemblance to Woody Allen, is a rising reservoir of resentment, owing to her lack of vocation and obligation to cope with mother more often than her older sisters.

Renata has a writer husband, Frederick, played by Richard Jordan. Fearing that he is a mediocre novelist, Frederick overcompensates by evolving into a caustic literary critic. His character alone would betray the resounding banality of Allen's vision of emotional torment among the intelligentsia.

The headline: “Woody Allen Shoots an Angst Revue.” In a second Post review, Judith Martin rolled her eyes at that “resounding banality,” listing some of the banal thoughts “the intelligentsia” emit in the film:
MARTIN (9/29/78): Psychotherapy, like a surgical operation, fascinates the patient but does not enthrall others. If only that could be accepted, a great amount of dreariness, some of it produced by otherwise interesting and imaginative artists, could be spared.

It takes such a profound misunderstanding to account for Woody Allen's having produced a boring film. Woody Allen!...But "Interiors," for all the tremendous skill that Allen and many others put in it, is boring.

"I feel a real need to express something, but I don't know what it is I want to express or how to express it."

"It was like I was here and the world was out there, and I couldn't bring us together."

"I want to do something with my life."

"It's time you thought of my needs."

"I don't like what I'm becoming."

"I'm not being treated seriously."

"I don't know why she makes me feel guilty."

These are just a few lines that fit in around the expression of thoughts or action: lines like this make up nearly the entire script.

“That's it,” Martin later writes, “the framework on which the endless discussions about who feels guilty and who feels unfulfilled are held.”

And that was our reaction entirely as watched the film. We were struck by the crowning pointlessness of all the high angst from the self-involved central characters. But then, we played an “extra feature” from our rented DVD—the movie’s 1978 trailer. Remember—this film was written and directed by Allen, so big New York critics all knew they must fawn. In the type of ponderous voice-over normally reserved for NFL self-promotions, a voice of God read these reviews as they appeared on the screen:

A masterpiece. It ranks with the finest films ever made. A work of art. You must see it.
—Gene Shalit, Today show

Woody Allen’s most major work to date. As true a tragedy as any that has come out of America in my memory. A consuming film.
—Penelope Gilliam, The New Yorker

Interiors crosses an entirely new frontier, dealing directly and perceptively with the human condition.
—Judith Crist

The foolishness even made its way to L.A. On the film’s trailer, the voice of God read this blurb too:
Interiors is a somber, intense and stunning new work. A movie of uncompromised purity, Interiors is thrilling.
—Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
Yes, Interiors is thrilling—if you find yourself thrilled by the self-involved anguish of a gang of Manhattan’s top fops. As we heard these reviews intoned, our thoughts turned to the “sagebrush revolution” that sent Ronald Reagan to the White House two years after these gushers appeared. Across America in 1978, there must have been plenty of people who were annoyed by this film’s banality—people like Arnold and Martin (and us). Later, some of those people heard these reviews thundered down when they saw the film’s gushing trailer. Just who were the high-hatted people who found this movie to be so “thrilling?” Voters must have asked themselves that—and must have felt that those vaunted coastal elites had lost touch with their own mainstream values. Many such voters must have felt it was time for a cultural change.

Yes, super-high Manhattan foppistry ruled in those ponderous reviews. But then, right to this day, liberal interests have often been fronted by these very same foppish folk, by the deracinated Manhattan types who thought Interiors showcased great tragedy—the tragedy of a “mediocre novelist” who is furious because his wife, “an embittered poet,” gets better reviews than he does. Why do conservatives often do better in the nation’s endless spin wars? In part, it’s because liberal interests are often promoted by a wide array of self-involved fops. It’s a problem we’ll explore all this week.

Let’s state the obvious. Almost surely, Shana Alexander was a perfectly lovely person during the years when she lost those debates. But she may have been a bit too refined to represent the real interests of liberals. That may explain the problem Drum had with those now-iconic debates. But then, that and related problems persist in the current fronting of liberal interests. We’re surprised he still doesn’t know it, but we’ll bang on the problem all week.

TOMORROW: When fops attack

DROLL KROLL: In Newsweek, Jack Kroll also described the self-involved fops whose problems were supposed to add up to tragedy—the truest tragedy out of America in the memory of The New Yorker:

KROLL (8/7/78): [E.G.] Marshall plays an aging lawyer who can no longer tolerate living with his mentally disturbed wife (Geraldine Page), an interior decorator whose exquisitely refined sensibility has become pathologically obsessive—a wrongly placed vase or a clashing color is for her a spiritual crisis. Their three daughters (Diane Keaton, Marybeth Hurt, Kristin Griffith) have inherited a varying psychic legacy. Keaton is a successful poet who is tormented by thoughts of death, married to a failed novelist (Richard Jordan). Hurt, who wants desperately to be some kind of artist but has no talent, refuses to settle down to domestic life with Sam Waterston, a political scientist. Griffith is an actress whose beauty dooms her to be treated as a sex object. A smorgasbord of crises gets its main dish when Marshall decides to divorce the neurotic Page and marry a good-natured vulgarian. (Maureen Stapleton).
“A wrongly placed vase or a clashing color is for her a spiritual crisis,” Kroll wrote. But then, liberal interests are often represented by members of this high foppist class (and by members of closely related groups), with the sad result Drum describes. “Vulgarians” everywhere must have wondered why they should worry about all this foppistry. The problem extends right up to this day—and speaks to Drum’s excellent question.