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SHOP OF FOOLS! Crackpot Bachmann did it again. But then again, so did Gene Robinson: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2010

Far down a broken trail: In today’s column, Paul Krugman recalls how he felt when he saw his country’s new president recite a hackneyed policy line:

KRUGMAN (11/5/10): I felt a sense of despair during Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union address, in which he declared that “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” Not only was this bad economics—right now the government must spend, because the private sector can’t or won’t—it was almost a verbatim repeat of what John Boehner, the soon-to-be House speaker, said when attacking the original stimulus. If the president won’t speak up for his own economic philosophy, who will?

Krugman assumed Obama meant it when he recited that hackneyed line. We don’t know what Obama thought or believed at the time, but we’ll throw this log on the fire:

Obama was reciting a hackneyed meme which had long been a standard part of our discourse. By the start of 2009, our political discourse was riddled with such hackneyed, unintelligent notions. By 2009, nonsensical claims defined our discourse—had done so for a very long time.

Krugman understands all this, of course, and he has fought against it We’ll only say this: Whatever was true about Obama’s state of mind, a president can’t change such a ludicrous discourse by himself. In a functioning world, that task would fall to other players—to columnists, professors, lesser politicians, to people depositing checks from “think” tanks.

But our discourse doesn’t work that way—hasn’t worked that way for a very long time. Consider the fall of 2000. At that time, Krugman tried, in three separate columns, to note that Candidate Bush was baldly misstating the basic facts about his own budget plan. But so what? The rest of the “press corps” sat and stared, including the “liberals” at his own paper. They wrote about Gore’s sighs instead. They clowned and fooled all through that campaign, and for many years after. (Meanwhile, Gene Lyons’ “Fools for Scandal” had appeared in 1995.)

Krugman made an accurate observation, three separate times. But by the fall of 2000, our discourse didn’t run on such fuel—hadn’t done so for a very long time.

Your nation has gone far down a broken trail, with very few “liberals” noticing. We were surprised to read this confession, authored this week by Will Bunch:

BUNCH (11/2/10): For me—and I think for a lot of people—the moment that "sanity" left the building in American discourse came in late 2002 and early 2003, when it became clear that Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Paul Halfwits, and their minions were dead set on invading Iraq. This was a country that had nothing to do with the supposed issue at hand the 9/11 attacks or any ongoing terror threat from al-Qaeda—and, weakened by years of sanctions, an allied no-fly zones, etc., posed no credible security threat to the United States. And so the idea of a U.S.-initiated war with Iraq struck me as so—and I cannot think of a better word—"insane" that for months I waited for the forces of reason, such as influential journalists, foreign policy experts, and rational members of Congress, to rise up and swat down such a bad and dangerous idea. In fact, it struck me, foolishly, at the time that an Iraq war debate—such as it was in that winter of American-flag lapel pins—would validate the very reason that I and so many others in my generation went into journalism in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, in aftermath of Vietnam, civil rights but especially Watergate, when it was dogged reporting and the uncovering of facts that proved that an American government had gone way off that tracks. Surely that would happen again in 2002-03.

When that didn't happen—and when so many of the nation's best-known journalists not only failed to expose the lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq but enabled them—it radicalized me, and radicalized my ideas about journalists and our responsibilities in a free but fragile society.

Even now, people like Bunch still write such things. Reading an essay like that radicalizes our youngest analysts.

Bunch was surprised, in 2003, when influential journalists (and foreign policy “experts”) failed to swat down a gruesome idea? He can still present that story today, without going back and revising his time-line? We’re still supposed to think that our systems were working until 2003?

We often wonder if our lives are a cosmic joke played by the gods. Reading Bunch’s memoir, we pondered the wisdom of Homer.

To liberal intellectual leaders, our culture was working through 2003. It still makes sense to say that today. Your country is far down a broken trail. Will it be coming back?

SHOP OF FOOLS (permalink): In today’s New York Times, Michele Bachmann is found at the top of page one (just click here). In a sad commentary on our failing political culture, Carl Hulse doesn’t mention what Bachmann did on Wednesday night’s Anderson Cooper.

What did Bachmann do on that program? In a sadly typical outing, she pushed the latest crazy tale about Barack Obama. Last evening, Rachel Maddow devoted a large chunk of her program to Bachmann’s performance. We’ll use Maddow’s efforts as our focus in a “Special Report” next week.

In some ways, Maddow did an excellent job describing one part of our broken political culture. In other ways, she showed no sign of knowing how to address such problems. Let’s put it this way: Who did Maddow call for help? First, she spoke with “humorist and author of More Information than You Require, a man who is an expert in fake facts, John Hodgman.” Then, in “The Interview,” her hapless guest was the high Gotham lady, Gail Collins.

Predictably, Hodgman was much more cogent than Collins. But progressives will never create a winning politics given a brain trust which revolves about people like Collins.

In the course of her ruminations, Maddow asked a very good question: How do we deal with a culture which is increasingly built around “fake facts?” But alas! To quote an image Maddow used: Speaking with Collins about such matters is like “tackling heart disease by cooking up a passel of deep fried cheese.”

On Wednesday, Bachmann blindly blithered forward, advancing the latest fake claim about Obama. To his credit, Cooper did a fairly good job pushing back; he challenged Bachmann’s bogus claims in a way which was a bit stronger than one might expect. Grading Cooper, we’d give his effort a good solid C. Grading Cooper on a curve, we’d give him at least an A-minus.

But as our discourse keeps falling apart, conservatives aren’t the only ones pushing tortured or ludicrous claims, to the delight of their partisans. On Tuesday, Gene Robinson played this familiar game too, in a column in the Washington Post. Strangely enough, Cooper had already critiqued Robinson’s column. We’ll look at Bachmann’s performance next week. This morning, let’s review Gene.

Presumably, Robinson had simply run out of things to say by Tuesday morning. He wrote a column anyhoo, offering a hackneyed theme a hundred pundits had offered before him. “First, I'll state the obvious,” he said. “It's not racist to criticize President Obama.” Having said that, he quickly implied the opposite, offering a review of Tea Party lingo you’ve heard many times before:

ROBINSON (11/2/10): First, I'll state the obvious: It's not racist to criticize President Obama, it's not racist to have conservative views, and it's not racist to join the Tea Party. But there's something about the nature and tone of the most vitriolic attacks on the president that I believe is distinctive—and difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.

One thing that struck me from the beginning about the Tea Party rhetoric is the idea of reclaiming something that has been taken away.

At a recent campaign rally in Paducah, Ky., Senate candidate Rand Paul, a darling of the Tea Party movement, drew thunderous applause when he said that if Republicans win, "we get to go to Washington and take back our government."

Take it back from whom? Maybe he thinks it goes without saying, because he didn't say.

On Sunday, in a last-minute fundraising appeal, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee implored his supporters to help "return American government to the American people.”

Again, who's in possession of the government, if not the American people? The non-American people? The un-American people?

You’ve heard it many times before; Robinson let you hear it again. When conservatives say they want to “take back our government,” their language is “difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.”

By that evening, Robinson was clowning and laughing as part of MSNBC’s election coverage. Ironically, this conduct was especially striking during Chris Matthews’ interview of Bachmann; Robinson can be heard laughing in the background as Matthews asks a series of foolish questions, the type of questions which end up casting Bachmann as a figure of sympathy. The conduct of these corporate fools was ridiculed on Fox the next night. But then, it was also subjected to a bit of ridicule at The Daily Beast.

Bachmann is a giant fool, a genuine danger to the republic—but Matthews has been a cancer for more than a decade, even if Bunch hasn’t heard. And the marginal nature of Robinson’s column had already been addressed by Cooper, speaking with NAACP president Ben Jealous on his October 20 program.

According to Robinson, the GOP’s “take back our government” language is “difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.” The NAACP’s recent report about the Tea Party includes a similar line of reasoning. Speaking with Jealous, Cooper noted that many liberals and Democrats have used the same language in recent years. He then asked Jealous to explain why Democrats can use such language. As Bachmann did on Wednesday night, Jealous evaded his question:

COOPER (10/20/10): One of the things the report also takes issue with is the Tea Party movement's battle cry—you know, “Take it back, take your country back.” You hear lot of people at Tea Party rallies saying, “I want to take my country back.” And the report suggests that this is nationalism, it's really a form of racism in disguise. I want to just play for you that statement being made by some other folks. Let's listen:

HOWARD DEAN (videotape): Today, we stand in common purpose to take our country back.

JOHN KERRY (videotape): To take back our country.

CHARLES SCHUMER (videotape): We are going to take our country back.

BARACK OBAMA (videotape): It's going to be because of you that we take our country back.

HILLARY CLINTON (videotape): To make sure we take our country back.

BILL RICHARDSON (videotape): Are you ready to take our country back?

AL FRANKEN (videotape): This is the year we take our country back.

COOPER: Why is it when Democrats say, “Take our country back,” no one says that's extreme nationalism, but when Tea Party supporters say it, it's ominous and racism in disguise?

JEALOUS: Well, you've got to put it in context. You know, when you see a Confederate battle flag flying in South Carolina, it’s one thing. Maybe somebody can argue it’s heritage. It's often tinged with a whole bunch of other things.

But when you're in Washington State, and you see people flying Confederate battle flags, it's a—it's a very different sign. This isn't about heritage. They're about as far away as you can get from the former Confederacy.

And the, the reality is that the—that these groups, you know, again, going all the way up to the top, they deny, they deny, they deny, and then they throw out Mark Williams. And the interesting thing with Mark Williams is it was the Tea Party Federation who pushed him out. Tea Party Express still hasn't completely disowned him. You know, they made comments: “He's still very much connected to our group. He's still part of the family,” and so forth.

And, and the reality is, the reason we issued this, this, this, this report is to ensure that somebody blows the whistle. You know, I was there for months saying, “Look, stand up and say—and just call them out for, for calling John Lewis the N-word, for calling Barney Frank a vicious slur.” And finally we blew the whistle and we started to see some action.

Did you follow that? If someone in Washington State flies a confederate flag, someone in some other state shouldn’t say, “take my country back.”

Jealous didn’t exactly answer the question. Politely, Cooper moved on. But in fact, Howard Dean didn’t just use that language once; in the fall of 2004, it formed the subtitle of one of his books. (You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America.) Meanwhile, here was Governor Ed Rendell, former head of the DNC, on the Ed Show last night:

SCHULTZ (11/4/10): Let’s bring in Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who knows the landscape. Governor, good to have you with us tonight.

First of all, the money. Do you think in 2012 that the Democrats will be able to meet and surpass this corporate money machine that has spurred upon the American public in this most recent election? What do you think?

RENDELL: Well, first of all, I love your message, Ed. We don’t have to surpass it. We don’t have to even meet it. We just have to make sure we raise enough money to be competitive. And we saw that in California, for example. Both of our candidates were outspent badly, but they raised enough money get their message across.

But the only way we’re going to do that is for progressives to start figuring out that they’ve got to step up. If we’re going to take back this country from the corporations that want to just control it and use it, and milk the country—and that`s not all of our corporations, by any means—but if we want to take back this country from the special interests, everybody’s going to have start giving a little bit, and they should start now. Not wait until right before the election, start now.

If you want to allocate $25 a month, well, if do you that for the next 20 months, that adds up to a very nice, healthy gift. And we’ve got start doing it. If we want to take back our country, we’ve got to participate.

Rendell wants to take our country back already! He wants to take it back so much, he voiced the desire three times.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with what Rendell said. This is standard political talk—so standard that it formed the title of one of Dean’s books. But when Robinson hears this language from the other side, he types a hackneyed column, using mumble-mouthed formulations to advance the one political claim modern liberals know how to advance. Is this as dumb as what Bachmann did when she spoke with Cooper on Wednesday? That would be a matter of judgment. But in our view, it reflects the paucity of actual politics in the burgeoning liberal world. This lack of real politics also appeared when Collins blathered at Maddow.

Is race “playing a role” in opposition to Obama? Presumably yes, it is. But Robinson offered a hackneyed approach to this problem, a mind-reading approach which is hard to defend. He found a way to impute this ugliest charge in American politics to everyone in the Tea Party movement; he did so on a day when an electorate which was 78 percent white was heading out to vote. Of course, people should challenge racial animus where such animus can be shown to exist. But for much of the pseudo-liberal world, claims that the other tribe is a gang of racists is a substitute for effective political thought. Was Robinson’s paint-by-the-numbers column as foolish as Bachmann’s disgraceful performance? It’s hard to weigh such broken toys. But the performance which follows was every bit as gruesome. Remember? This is the way the gang at MSNBC approached the first Tea Party events, in April 2009:

OLBERMANN (4/16/09): On a more serious note, we’re now joined by actor and activist Jeanine 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 rednecks. And there is no way around that. And, you know, you can tell these types 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.

Is Bernie Goldberg listening? Bernie might not have heard this when I said this the first time. So, Bernie, this is for you. It is a neurological problem that we’re dealing with.

[…]

This is a pathological—it`s almost pathological or elevated to a philosophy or lifestyle. Again, this is about racism. It could be any issue, any port in a storm. These guys hate that a black guy is in the White House, but they—they immigrant-bash. They pretend taxes and tea bags—like I said, most of them probably couldn`t tell you thing one about taxation without representation, the Boston Tea Party, British imperialism, whatever the history lesson happens to be. But these people always—unless there’s some people with Stockholm Syndrome.

OLBERMANN: I didn’t see them. They were in the back. They weren’t near the cameras, which is bad strategy on the part of the people staging this at Fox.

GAROFALO: True. And Fox News loves to foment this anti-intellectualism.

There was more, but we’ll stop with the unintentionally comical remark about the other side’s “anti-intellectualism.”

One hour later, Maddow promoted the rebroadcast of this embarrassment. “Coming up on Countdown, Keith gets to the bottom of tea-bagging with Janeane Garofalo,” she said.

The American discourse is a disaster—has been for a very long time. The introduction of “fake facts” is so basic a part of our culture that the Times doesn’t even mention Bachmann’s disgrace, even as they discuss the lady at the top of today’s front page. For decades, our political culture has increasingly been built around lunatic factual claims (The Clintons are serial murderers!) and inane policy narratives (If we lower the tax rate, we get extra revenue!). For many year, liberals happily slept in the woods as this broken culture took hold. Now, we’ve finally roused ourselves—and we issue columns like Robinson’s.

Our guess: This won’t work.

Liberals love calling the other side racists; it often seems like the only political play we know. But just how smart was Robinson’s column—on the merits, on the politics? This poses a challenge to all progressives: Can you see the dumbness which may prevail on your side? Or are we so in love with our tribal screams that we too will drive our nation into the sea, meeting the criminal dumbness of the Bachmanns with dumbness which comes from our own?

Final point: Garofalo’s performance came eighteen months before those rednecks with the limbic brain problems kicked the ass of the people with all the smarts. Can you see how foolish Garofalo was—in her analysis, in her approach to politics? Or are we all Michele Bachmann now?

Is Christine O’Donnell us?

Robinson’s answer to Cooper: Robinson at least has figured how to answer Cooper’s question. Why is it OK for liberals to use that familiar language, but racist when conservatives do? Here is the part of the piece which gives the “obvious answer:”

ROBINSON: On Sunday, in a last-minute fundraising appeal, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee implored his supporters to help "return American government to the American people."

Again, who's in possession of the government, if not the American people? The non-American people? The un-American people?

There's an obvious answer, but it's one that generally comes from the progressive end of the political spectrum: Americans must fight to take back their government from the lobbyists and big-money special interests that shape our laws to suit their own interests, not for the good of the nation.

That may be what some Tea Partiers have in mind, but the movement hasn't seen fit to make campaign finance reform one of its major issues. And the establishment Republicans who are surfing the Tea Party wave—while at the same time scheming to co-opt the movement—would view the idea of taking money out of politics with horror, if they thought it might actually happen.

So who stole the government? What makes some people feel more disenfranchised now than they were, say, during the presidency of George W. Bush?

Does that make sense? We’d have to say no. Ask a Tea Partyer and they’ll tell you who they think they’re taking their country back from:

They’re taking their country back from the unions; from the trial lawyers; from the gun-grabbers; from the liberal elitists. They’re taking it back from the people who want to redistribute the wealth. None of that may float Robinson’s boat—it certainly doesn’t float ours. But when Robinson can’t even figure out what these people would say, he seems to say something about himself. He seems to say that he doesn’t know the first thing about our politics.

He’s so tribal he can’t even guess what The Others would say.

Should we take our government back from the unions? In the past two months, Robinson kept his trap shut while his owner, NBC News, conducted a jihad against teachers unions. Question: Why shouldn’t conservatives think unions are vile when even the liberals refuse to challenge such rancid attacks, conducted by the biggest superstars at their own “news orgs?”

They’re taking their country back from the unions! At MSNBC, all the children kept their mouths shut while the suits played this ugly old card.

Starting Monday: What Bachmann Said