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A KING’S HEIGHTENED DRAMA! Frankly, Rich encouraged war—the war your side tends not to win: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2008

FRUM/MADDOW: Oh what the heck. Frum-Maddow has disappeared beneath the waves—but we said we’d voice our reaction (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/08). Therefore, we’ll say this:

When someone from the other side agrees to trash his party and his candidates, your side has already won. It doesn’t make sense to try to win bigger (as Maddow, to a slight extent, seemed to do in her introduction). It makes more sense to accept your win—to extend a gesture to the person who is willing to trash his own side.

Frum said these things on Maddow’s show:

FRUM: I absolutely am concerned and unhappy with the kind of campaign my party has been running.

FRUM: I agree—a lot of unfortunate things have been said by people associated with the [McCain] campaign.

FRUM: The McCain campaign is doing a non-substantive job and doing a lot of politics of cultural resentment—that’s all true. And they are going to pay a heavy price in November.

FRUM: I hope that my party, as it probably goes into opposition, will do better.

Before he even appeared on the show, Frum had made similar statements. That already counts as a major win for the Dem Party side.

To our ear, Frum and Maddow both made sensible if imperfect statements during Monday evening’s discussion. We didn’t think that either side “won”—and we didn’t think it was constructive when KO announced Maddow’s monster win the next evening. We’d have liked to see the conversation continue, on some other occasion.

Polling has made it clear for some time: If we could agree to drop “the politics of cultural resentment,” the side you’re on would most often win. Indeed, “the politics of cultural resentment” was dreamed up by the other side to counter that very fact.

Special report: Why Riches can’t help!

PART 2—A KING’S HEIGHTENED DRAMA: It was the first thing we read in this morning’s Post—and it illustrates the problem. Yes, Thomas Boswell was writing about sports—about a subject we pursue for pure fun. But quickly, he heightened the sense of the drama surrounding the Rays and the Red Sox:

BOSWELL (10/18/08): Now, we can't lose. This weekend, we may watch as Boston runs its streak to an incredible 10 straight wins in ALCS elimination games. Bend the laws of probability? The Red Sox would mangle them. The odds of winning 10 straight games against roughly equal foes are about 1,000-to-1. The Sox have now pulled off eight such win-or-go-home LCS games in the span of just three Octobers.

Well, OK. But in fact, the odds against what the Sox have done (eight straight wins of this type) stand at 256-to-1. But why say that, when you can cite odds of “ about 1,000-to-1”—thereby letting you say “incredible,” thereby making your story more thrilling? We only talk about baseball for fun. But Boswell heightened the drama as he imagined what might yet occur.

But uh-oh! Colbert King also heightened the drama in today’s Post—but he was discussing the most serious topic in all of American politics. King was discussing race and race hatred. But even as he started his piece, the gent was embellishing wildly:

KING (10/18/08): "Kill him": the battle cry of a lynch mob and words yelled out by a man at a Sarah Palin rally in Clearwater, Fla., this month, according to my Post colleague Dana Milbank.

With this rhetorical sleight of hand, an unfortunate shout by one single person slid into “the battle cry of a lynch mob.” Having granted himself that advantage, King soon rendered a judgment which was, on its face, just absurd:

KING (continuing directly): Some observers claim that the proposed killing was directed not toward Barack Obama but at Bill Ayers, the co-founder of the radical Weather Underground that bombed public buildings during the turbulent Vietnam era. Ayers, now a college professor who has served with Obama and other noted Chicagoans in civic enterprises—and hosted a campaign event for Obama's initial run for the state legislature—is being portrayed by John McCain’s campaign as Barack's bosom buddy, the facts notwithstanding.

Whether the call for assassination was aimed at Obama or Ayers is immaterial. It represents a dangerous new low in American politics.

Surely, King can’t really believe that. He can’t believe that an unfortunate call by one nameless person “represents a dangerous new low in American politics.” King had massively heightened his drama in these first three paragraphs—but he wasn’t talking about baseball (where “kill the umpire” is a famous old cry). He was talking about our most serious subject—and doing so quite irresponsibly. Quickly, more sleight of hand:

KING (continuing directly): Tell a rabid audience that Barack Obama is "palling around with terrorists" (as Palin has done), imply that Obama is friendly with people out to destroy America (as she also has done) and what do you expect?

The ugliness is stunning.

In our view, Palin’s conduct has been inexcusable—as has that of McCain’s campaign. But King glided past the misconduct of the principals, instead inventing “a rabid audience,” one whose “ugliness is stunning.” In fact, this is an ugly, inept brand of journalism. And it’s bad for progressive interests.

Why is this bad for progressive interests? First, because you simply can’t build a progressive politics from the desire of people like King to overstate, mislead and inflame. King makes no factual misstatements here, as liberal leaders have frequently done in the excited march toward November (new examples on Monday). Everything he says can be defended as technically accurate—or as a statement of opinion, however baldly absurd. But King’s rhetoric encourages, almost demands, leaps of logic—encourages readers to think that one man’s cry makes everyone around him “rabid” (and perhaps “ugly”). We were specifically taught not to write or think this way in the ninth grade (by Peter Drobac). But people like King never stop.

Why is this bad for progressive politics? First, because you simply can’t build a progressive politics from the desire of people like King to make average people dumber. It’s dumb to think that one man’s cry turns thousand of others into “a lynch mob”—into “a rabid audience” whose “ugliness is stunning.” But beyond that, writing like this keeps a “culture war” going. The pseudo-right invented this culture war, because it can win no other way.

Why is work like this bad for progressive politics? Because many people will see the unfairness of King’s loud cries—and their hearts will harden accordingly. They will harden in their sense that there is no harbor for them on “the left”—in their sense that there is no reason to listen to liberal or mainstream complaints about the conduct of McCain and Palin. Some of those people would have seen what is wrong in the conduct of McCain and Palin—if King had bothered to dirty his hands explaining the misconduct to them. But they will recoil at the sheer absurdity of this column’s rhetoric—even as pseudo-liberal hearts are warmed. This leaves us caught in that “culture war”—the war the other side wants.

As a general matter, nothing is dumber than fighting on turf the other side has chosen. And that’s what pseudo-liberals do when they keep this “culture war” going—along with its familiar handmaiden, the journalism of perfect dumbness.

Why did the pseudo-right invent this war—invent the politics and journalism of dumbness? Because it can’t win on more traditional grounds, in which you stick to facts and logic, to saner types of assessment. The main thing wrong with what King writes today is its dumbness—its blatant lack of fair assessment. Beyond that, it keeps us from a saner discussion—a discussion in which, all polling shows, the more progressive side would most often win.

But then, that is just what Frank Rich was doing in last Sunday’s column. Remember? Rich started as emperors like to do—with an absurd misstatement:

RICH (10/10/08): If you think way back to the start of this marathon campaign, back when it seemed preposterous that any black man could be a serious presidential contender, then you remember the biggest fear about Barack Obama: a crazy person might take a shot at him.

In fact, there was no time, at the start of this race, “when it seemed preposterous that any black man could be a serious presidential contender”—and Rich of course understand this (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/13/08). Rich invented that claim—a preposterous claim—because it would heighten his drama. Soon, he was saying this:

RICH (continuing directly): Some voters told reporters that they didn’t want Obama to run, let alone win, should his very presence unleash the demons who have stalked America from Lincoln to King. After consultation with Congress, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, gave Obama a Secret Service detail earlier than any presidential candidate in our history—in May 2007, some eight months before the first Democratic primaries.

''I've got the best protection in the world, so stop worrying,'' Obama reassured his supporters. Eventually the country got conditioned to his appearing in large arenas without incident (though I confess that the first loud burst of fireworks at the end of his convention stadium speech gave me a start). In America, nothing does succeed like success. The fear receded.

Until now. At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of ''Treason!'' and ''Terrorist!'' and ''Kill him!'' and ''Off with his head!'' as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Does Rich “confess” to that reaction? To us, it sounds more like a boast. Did Obama get his Secret Service detail “earlier than any presidential candidate in our history?” In fact, that’s almost accurate. But note the culture of pseudo-journalism as it emerges in that last paragraph. Preceding King by five days, Rich lets himself enjoy his portrait of those “raucous” McCain-Palin rallies, in which (after offering other embellishments) he reports “the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets.”

Unfortunately, it’s Rich who’s engaged in uninhibited slinging there. This claim is based on the Milbank sketch, the one to which King referred—but Milbank only described one person offering one such epithet (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/8/08). But ah, the power of pluralization! Instead of one person saying one stupid thing, we now have “uninhibited slinging of racial epithets”—and an ongoing culture war, driven by Rich’s deceptions.

A great deal was wrong with Rich’s column last Sunday. This was unfortunate, because, as we noted, his basic premise was perfectly accurate. The McCain campaign was trying to make voters think of Obama as some species of terrorist—as a pal to terrorists, as a supporter of terrorists, as someone who lies about ties to terrorists. (Rich specifically noted the way Palin pluralized that word—“note the plural noun,” he warned—after he had pluralized his! Frankly, that’s classic Rich.) Many voters would have seen the problem with McCain and Palin’s behavior—if Rich had made the case. Instead, he spent a great deal of time embellishing claims about McCain and Palin’s supporters—thus sustaining a large culture war. By today, King barely mentions the gross misconduct engaged in by McCain and Palin. Instead, he’s eager to draw a pleasing portrait, in which one man’s cry melds into that of a mob, in which we are absurdly said to have attained “a dangerous new low in American politics.”

The first problem with Rich and King is this: They’re basically deceiving their readers. Last Sunday, Rich began with a bald misstatement; today, King starts with gross sleight of hand. And no—you can’t build progressive politics from the desire of upper-caste types to mislead readers. Few readers will be positioned to know the various ways they’re being played. Last Sunday, Rich lied to readers as he began. But few readers could possibly know that.

The second problem here is larger. Pseudo-liberals who sustain the culture war are playing the game the other side chose. In modern polling, progressive positions tend to win; for that reason, the other side chose to wage an endless, damn-fool war. In effect, you’ve assembled the world’s best baseball team—and Rich and King keep agreeing to play football.

The headline on King’s column today says it all: “A Rage No One Should Be Stoking.” Under that headline, King stokes rage—a rage that furthers the game plan devised by the other side.

One last thought about Rich’s column: It’s obscene when people like Rich spread fantasies about someone else getting murdered. We have no idea what sorts of dreams lead lone nuts to engage in political killing. But at the start of that column, Rich was telling those lone nuts that they can break a political movement’s heart with one act of ugly violence. Do such dreams encourage crackpots to act? Like you, we don’t have the slightest idea. But precisely because no one knows such things, sensible people have long agreed not to speak about such matters, unless such speech is clearly required. For example, we all recall the frenzy from last June—the phony, staged, bogus frenzy about the deeply troubling thing Hillary Clinton so plainly hadn’t said.

Rich was preening and posing last week—about someone else’s murder. It’s par for the course from this horrible man—who started you off last Sunday with bald-faced misstatement, as he so constantly does. People like Rich seem to live for the drama—and for the misstatements which heighten the drama. It has always been fun to enflame the rubes. Throughout history, the Riches have done it.

Where King ends: Yes, McCain could still win this race. As he refers to some racist and foolish voters, here’s how King understands that fact:

KING: Do those Ohio residents, or the Florida Palin supporter who snapped "Sit down, boy," or that angry man in Louisiana who wants to "keep the nigger out of office" represent today's America?

Or are they part of a dwindling breed of die-hards who have seen their best days? I believe they are the latter.

But we, and the rest of the world, will know more on Nov. 4.

King offers a stark contrast here. Those voters may be “part of a dwindling breed”—or they may “represent today’s America.” In fact, they’re almost surely part of a dwindling breed. And of course, to some extent, they do represent today’s America.

If McCain wins, Obama won’t likely stoke the rage that’s being stoked today in King’s column. But through their impoverished rhetoric, King and Rich almost surely will. They’ll keep insisting on culture war—on the war the other side chose, the war you tend not to win.