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OUR SENIOR MOMENT! If we actually cared about outcomes, we’d care about Senior’s critique: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2006

THERE THE TIMES GOES AGAIN: It would be great if our news orgs tried to help voters understand the logic of public debate. Today, Jim Rutenberg makes an attempt in the Times, discussing the Bush Admin’s ongoing use of rhetorical “straw men.” Rutenberg rattles a long list of incidents in which Bush has stood firm against objectionable views—objectionable views which no one holds. Here’s one early example:
RUTENBERG (9/26/06): After Mr. Bush said at a Republican fund-raising event in Florida on Thursday that when it came to battling terrorists, ''I need members of Congress who understand that you can't negotiate with these folks,'' Democrats were furious at what they heard as a suggestion that they backed a dialogue with Al Qaeda.

''No one in America thinks that,'' Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said indignantly.
Bush implied that Democrats want to negotiate with Osama—even though they don’t.

As noted, Rutenberg gives a list of such examples—examples of political speech designed to mislead the public. But then, omigod—they insist on irrelevance! Rutenberg opted for “balance:”
RUTENBERG: The White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language against political opponents. Democrats have countered the Republican description of their calls for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a ''cut-and-run'' position with a dismissive description of the president's plan for Iraq as ''stay the course.'' The White House complains that that ignores the regular change in tactics in Iraq that Mr. Bush approves.
“The White House is hardly alone in its pointed use of language,” Rutenberg clucks. But Rutenberg hadn’t been talking about “pointed uses of language” to this point in his piece; he had been talking about a specific type of misleading political claim. The Democratic critique which he cites isn’t misleading at all—and it plainly isn’t the type of claim his article had been discussing. Why is this irrelevant example thrown in? It can only confuse the discussion.

As yesterday, so today (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/25/06). It’s simply amazing how weak these scribes are—how empty, frightened, wed to irrelevance, how deeply, defiantly worthless.

OUR SENIOR MOMENT: Here’s what Jennifer Senior says about Lewis Lapham’s new book of columns. If what she says is actually true, it’s actually very important:
SENIOR (9/24/06): At least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent—and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis in support of these claims—you may feel less inclined to throttle Lapham's targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham: the breathtaking lyricism of his voice, the breadth of his remarkable erudition.
If that’s true, it actually matters. Meanwhile, here’s Senior’s view of Sidney Blumenthal’s new book, which she says is much better than Lapham’s. If true, this judgment also matters:
SENIOR: But Blumenthal's columns for both Salon and The Guardian of London, gathered together in ''How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,'' are hardly pitched to win over undecided readers, either.
According to Senior, Blumenthal and Lapham’s work isn’t likely “to win over undecided readers.” If you actually care about political outcomes, things like that might actually matter. But we extremely excited web liberals don’t much seem to care about that. It almost seems that we’re mainly in love with our unrivaled brilliance—with our genius, with the fact that nothing we do could be wrong.

We say that because of the screaming reactions to Senior’s review of these two books, in which the writer dared to say that Lapham is in love with the sound of his voice, and that Blumenthal—while writing much stronger columns—has been addressing the choir too much too. Because we’ve read both writers down through the years, we’re sadly inclined to agree with that judgment. For that matter, we tend to agree with Senior’s judgment about the relative merits of these books. Before we suffer a tribe-wide breakdown about the things Witch Senior has said, let’s be fair and note what she writes about Sidney’s many merits:
SENIOR: Blumenthal still retains some of the finer journalistic instincts. He's a voracious reader and a brisk search engine, consistently able to unearth the most damning quote of the news cycle—as when the editorial board of The Army Times said of Abu Ghraib: ''The folks in the Pentagon are talking about the wrong morons. ... This was a failure that ran straight to the top''—or to highlight a story that got less pickup than it deserved, like The Washington Post's revelation that the United States was wiretapping Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner). He reads reports that otherwise go unread, and quotes mischievous legislative fine print. He also relies on a large cast of dissenting administration insiders to deliver some of his most piquant critiques, which can be very effective, whether it's Flynt Leverett, one of Condoleezza Rice's early choices to direct Middle East peace talks, saying, ''I didn't want to stick around for a charade,'' or James Dobbins, Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan, saying, ''I was horrified by the president's last speech on the war on terror.''

After a while, it's hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power.
Senior is full of praise for Sidney, here and in her previous paragraph. But she has her criticism of his work too. Result? We liberals—increasingly, a tribe of screamers—are eager to string Senior up.

Unfortunately, Senior makes some excellent points about the work she’s reviewing. Like Digby, we haven’t read either one of these books, although we read (and enjoyed) Lapham’s columns for years—until we realized that every column was exactly the same; that they did in fact tend to have “almost no original reporting or analysis,” pretty much as Senior says; and that—again as Senior notes—they mainly existed to tell us about “the breathtaking lyricism of [Lapham’s] voice, the breadth of his remarkable erudition.” At some point, sensible people do get tired of reading the same-old same-old each month. Like Senior, we have a more favorable impression of Blumenthal’s work—but we’ve largely stopped reading his columns too. We can’t quite figure why that is, but perhaps it’s because of the criticism Senior offered after she offered her praise:
SENIOR: After a while, it's hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power. But their content has also been curated with one aim in mind, and that's to cast the Bush administration in the grimmest possible light, rather like Philip Roth telling the story of his protagonist in ''Everyman'' from the point of view of his illnesses. Blumenthal also has a taste for tiresome epithets—he calls Paul Wolfowitz ''the neoconservative Robespierre'' and compares Bush (yawn) to a cowboy.
At this point, is it possible that you don’t long for release when you hit the endless name-calling? Or when you see a brilliant guy descend to this absurd level:
SENIOR: It's hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst. There's a story Blumenthal tells about George W. Bush's private tour of the brand-new Clinton library in Little Rock, during which the president apparently told his guide, ''A submarine could take this place out.'' (The structure juts out over the Arkansas River.) The observation sends Blumenthal into a reverie: ''Was this a wishful paranoid fantasy of ubiquitous terrorism destroying Clinton's legacy with one blow?'' he asks. ''Or a projection of menace and messianism, with only Bush grasping the true danger, standing between submerged threat and civilization?'' Either is possible. But it's also possible that the president was making a joke.
Has loathing of Bush made fools of us all? Read Rick Perlstein’s discussion of Sidney’s book (complete with requisite put-down of Senior). You’ll see that, yes, it really has—it really has made us all nitwits:
PERLSTEIN: [O]ne of the book’s key themes, which I’m convinced more and more historians will be converging upon, is the "Oedipal" interpretation of the Bush presidency. To see it requires a depth of contextual understanding going back several decades that is very much in evidence here, as seen in insights like, "Just as the elder Bush picked someone [as vice president] who might have been one of his sons, young Bush chose a version of his father.”
Good God! Our professors now reason like Maureen Dowd—like Dowd on a very bad day! But so what? On the web, we loudly name-call, wondering why a demon like Senior might voice some objections to this.

That’s an embarrassing passage by Perlstein, who quotes an embarrassing passage from Sidney. But then, it was also a bit of a senior moment when Sidney unpacked Bush’s submarine musings. Our guess? Very few American voters are likely to be swayed by such nonsense. If we were more than a tribe of self-lovers, we’d be inclined to care about that—and to wonder if Senior might be right in some of the judgments she renders.

FRANKLY, RICH MAKES THREE: As happenstance had it, we’d just started reading Frank Rich’s new book when we encountered Senior’s review. No, we’re not big fans of Rich, but we’ve been amazed by how weak his book is—by its empty “analyses,” its silly name-calling, its endless revision of elementary facts to make the case against Bush cartoon-ready. If you don’t care for Bush—and your IQ is 7—Frank Rich has the book for you! And omigod! As happenstance has it, Senior has already reviewed it.