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June 8, 2007

presidential dog whistles

TPM's Josh Marshall raises an interesting question.  Basically, why is it that political figures affect us in a visceral, non-intellectual way?
Now, other than warning the country about the terror of a Romney presidency, I bring this up because I've always been interested in the dog whistle nature of our reactions to presidential candidates and other prominent political figures.  There's a cultural-political tuning fork out there.  I feel it to an extent with Bush, though nothing like I do with Romney. And setting aside what people feel about Bush now it was, by and large, the people who reacted so negatively to Clinton who heard Bush and thought, why, what a genuine, down-to-earth guy.

So who makes you hear the dog whistle? And what sort of cultural imprint makes some of us hear it with (a shocking phoney like) Mitt Romney and others with Bill Clinton?

On one level, this is a sort of question one hopes one's children will hold off on asking -- "Why do people like some people and not others?"  Well, um, because they, you know, like people.  But if you can step past the reflexive nature of the question -- i.e., "I don't like the president because he is unlikable" -- it is an inquest that deserves some thought, if for nothing else than to quantify what it is that motivates an electorate to act against its own self-interest?

My gut response is that, well, people are pretty stupid.  Yeah, it reads like a misanthropic bumper sticker, but optimistic little me has been looking for evidence of the contrary for the past bunch of years, to no avail.  I'm not an elitist by birth or by upbringing.  However, it is kind of impossible to go through life and notice that certain human systems -- traffic, on a small scale, and wealth distribution, on a big one -- just don't work unless they are regulated under threat of personal injury.  Couple this with a generally patronizing popular culture and, come to find out, no, we are not smarter than fifth graders.  A manifestation of this is what John Rogers likes to call the Crazification Factor, which, loosely stated, asserts that no amount of enlightenment will solve the problem of the unrepentant bottom X percent of human dumbasses.  See also the Allegory of the Cave, which is about all I remember from philosophy and which I thought I might outgrow someday, but it's still a useful construct.

But this "dog whistle" phenomenon is a little more discrete than the aggressively anti-smart great unwashed -- as appealing as it would be to label Clinton-haters as morons and Bush-haters as geniuses, it would be facile and wrong (making me then a Clinton-hater, I guess).  This is more about how the personal appeal of a candidate/officeholder is received and parsed.  And Josh is right inasmuch as that those with a marked distaste for Shrub, or Slick Willie for that matter, did not need very long to come to the conclusion.  These are snap judgments, judgments so subjective that they more resemble cruising a prospective snogging at the bar than deciding the course of the great republic.

I forget who it was that realized this, but my favorite theory is that the electorate, as a generalized whole, wants to be led someone who reminds them of themselves.  They do not want anyone exceptional; they want an individual that they could plausibly imagine being.  It's a kind of insecurity, a general distrust of achievement, and I think that those that we call charismatic actively manipulate this instinct.  For example, George Bush clearing brush, drawling, while all along he is a silver-spoon New England scion of privilege.  Also, if you recall, Bill Clinton very rarely vibed "Oxford super-genius", whether on the campaign trail or in the White House.  I don't know this process unfolds in everyone's brain, but it seems to be effective.  (Unless... does my desire to be led by the smartest guy in the room make me a smart guy, room-wise?)

On a personal level, I'm not a big fan of artifice in my politicians, nor am I a big fan of stupidity.  I guess that would be my "dog whistle".  This would be why the version of Barack Obama that vibes a cigarette-smoking guest on the Dick Cavett show appeals to me.  This is also why the new, grimly serious version of John Edwards also appeals to me, while the former version of Edwards who would not stop smiling all the time did not.  And as far Romney, Bush, et al go, I wouldn't trust those dudes to file my taxes, let alone run my country.  So, there you have it.

Of course, there are at least six or seven issues raised in this whole post that deserve whole posts (books, even) devoted to such issue alone, but that the Internets for you.  It is why we have Malcolm Gladwells.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:32 AM

June 7, 2007

nothing about paris hilton

Boy, I was hoping that something newsworthy would happen today.   After a whirlwind couple of days of celebrity incarceration updates, I was afraid that might drop off, and we'd be stuck with news of the G8 Summit, or the continuing investigation of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, or egghead shit like that.

Happily, today I am lucky again.  And if she is sometime this evening accidentally naked in public, the news cycle will be complete, and the television newses may continue for another broadcast day.

Why do you think we pay for the news, people, if not for accidentally naked celebrities in jail?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:34 AM

June 6, 2007

roger ailes: inside the terrorist mind

I regret in advance giving Roger Ailes further attention.  Mr Ailes -- president and leading light of Fox News -- recently emceed a swanky dinner for awards for opinion writing, and some of his comments were thankfully put into print.

Mr Ailes is as provocative, as he is recently successful, but he has some pretty peculiar ideas vis à vis journalism's role in backstopping the powerful, as opposed to checking the abuse of the powerful.  For example, from his patter:

The press is an essential pillar of that democracy [which makes this country great, etc.].  The press didn’t invent democracy.  Democracy invented freedom of the press.

That sounds all swelling-music on the face of it, but I'd have to disagree.  Ain't no one "invent" democracy any more than no one "invent" paranoia -- democracy was pretty much just laying around to be implemented, like all those isms.  Accordingly, freedom of the press was not so much invented as it was stumbled across, pretty much concurrently with the stumbling across of democracy, around about the time some really smart American guys were knocking the Constitution back and forth.  To say that one is father of the other is fatuous.  Though smart-sounding, I guess, if you're not so bright.  Naturally, the normal disclaimers of my lack of secondary education in the field of history applies, but you can doublecheck me on Wikipedia, as dubious as they sometimes are.

Plus also the head of Fox News wasting sentences in order to slap freedom of the press back into its subservient place is maybe more revealing than Ailes intended.  But you see, he is a water-carrier, and unapologetically so -- his primary concern is the rehabilitation of the reputation of the water-carrier.

Did I mention that he's rumored to be a big fat man?  I've never met him, but I've heard him described as such, and, as a "blogger", well, you know how it goes.

Not content with turning the concept of freedom of the press on its head, he then went on to comment of the subject of certain Democratic candidates refusing to partake in a debate sponsored by Fox News: 

“The candidates that can’t face Fox, can’t face Al Qaeda,” said Mr. Ailes.  “And that’s what’s coming.”

So much for innuendo -- either you're with Fox News, or you're with Al Qaeda.  Though I must admit that I wasn't familiar with Al Qaeda's tactic of bringing the West to its knees by broadcasting blatant political propaganda on a cable network and labeling it news, but that's just so crazy, it just might work.

Also imagine the hours of fun that can come from imagining what exactly the "that" is that's coming.  Al Qaeda?  The candidates facing Al Qaeda?  The candidates not facing Al Qaeda?  A really rich dessert?  Whichever, it has the ominous tones of a threat, and I wouldn't expect any less.

[Via TVNewser.  More outrage here.]

Posted by mrbrent at 2:51 PM

scooter libby, finally a shitbird

The sentencing of Lewis I. Libby is no occasion for celebration.  After all, this is a man's life we're talking about here!  A man whose years of service should mitigate the fact that he broke broke broke the law, etc. etc.  And he likes children!  How can you put a man who likes children in jail?  And airplane food!  Don't get me started!

Dude, parody is hard.  And now I'm tired.  But I should shout out to Dan G, who shares my affinity for the term "shitbird".  Which is of course what we call a criminal, in the hoosegow, or on his or her way to the hoosegow.  Bob Ney?  Shitbird.  Duke Cunningham?  Shitbird.  Two bit junkie shoplifter behind bars?  Also a shitbird, come to find out.  The term is meant to reward the achievement of breaking laws while in a position of responsibility with appropriate levels of respect and dignity.

And I should also remind that even the unequivocal sentencing of Mr Libby in a court of competent jurisdiction has not tamped down the partisan opposition to the prosecution.  The whole "Plame wasn't undercover" complaint has been dealt with pretty well, but the "There was no crime committed" trope continues on, as from the mouth of Rudolph Giuliani in last night's debate:

I think the sentence was way out of line...  And ultimately, there was no underlying crime involved.

Actually, there were a couple of crimes committed -- perjury and obstruction of justice being the big glaring ones.  The transgression of these laws is very similar in substance to the charge levied against President Clinton, whose impeachment was as big a favorite for some people as a possible pardon of Mr Libby.  To claim that there was no crime committed is the height of mendacity and the rhetorical equivalent of "Did not/Did too".  Even the qualifying "underlying" holds no water in this instance, as the crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice are not predicated on the validity of the charges initiating an investigation.  If in fact there was no underlying crime, then that was a pretty stupid decision on Mr Libby's part, to lie and obstruct justice over nothing.

But I applaud anyone that wants to politicize the Libby trial as some Democratic prosecutorial oversight.  I think that, in the current climate of Bush Administration competency and ethical spotlessness, banging a can about a career partisan operative volitionally electing to be called "Scooter" having to go to jail should have some real traction.  Frist '08!

And in the spirit of Dave Grusin, I hope that Mr Libby remembers to keep your eye on the sparrow, when the going gets narrow.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:34 AM

June 5, 2007

matt taibbi hearts giuliani

Attached please find a piece about Giuliani, written by Matt Taibbi.  It is published over here, by Rolling Stone, which used to be some sort of music/culture magazine.

It's true that Giuliani is still a front-runner for the Republican nomination for president.  Nevertheless, there's only one way to describe a chance to write about Giuliani for a regular political columnist -- batting practice:

Yes, Rudy is smarter than Bush.  But his political strength -- and he knows it -- comes from America's unrelenting passion for never bothering to take that extra step to figure shit out.  If you think you know it all already, Rudy agrees with you. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, they're probably traitors, and Rudy, well, he'll keep an eye on 'em for you.  Just like Bush, Rudy appeals to the couch-bound bully in all of us, and part of the allure of his campaign is the promise to put the Pentagon and the power of the White House at that bully's disposal.

Wait, that passage was not so much critical of Giuliani as it was voters who have some predilection for Giuliani.  Nothing wrong with that -- "couch-bound bully" to me reads as appropriate but too gentle by half.  But there's more, about the specificity of Giuliani's 9-11 heroic nature:

[Giuliani] stood on a few brick piles on the day of the bombing, then spent the next ten months making damn sure everyone worked the night shift on-site while he bonked his mistress and negotiated his gazillion-dollar move to the private sector.  Meanwhile, the people who actually cleaned up the rubble got used to checking their stool for blood every morning.

That's why a plurality of New Yorkers don't like this man very much at all -- we actually find the exploitation of 9-11 crass instead of admirable.  It is very frustrating that the transparency of Giuliani's venality is the very quality that makes him so popular.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:45 AM

it's bring your trained harp seal to work day at yahoo!

And today comes the error-ridden Yahoo! headline I won't mock and/or deride:
• Bush defends missile defense shielde

It's a typo.  In the lead headline.  Unless "shielde" is the feminine of "shield" that I've not yet learned and is all the rage.

A plausible theory is that the copy editor composing this headline was so excited to slip "defends"/"defense" in there at the same time ('It's like, a rhyme!  You owe me a Fresca!') that Spellcheck (at that cognitive equivalent we call proofreading) was abandoned for whoops and hollers.

But it's still just a typo.  And for that we are only sad.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:19 AM

June 4, 2007

like you care what i'm watching

I have not been watching the primary debates.  But I do read about them.  This year, I understand, all the rage is to ask the candidates a question that can only be answered by raising one's hand.

Which, coincidentally, is why I'm not watching any of the primary debates.

You can argue about the weight of the office of the presidency, and how it has been reduced in the past six years to a bloopers reel of clumsiness and malaprops, but, in any event, I don't want to see one the person I will eventually vote for forced to dress as his/her State Flower so that Wolf Blitzer might give them two more minutes of time in which to slowly intone hopeful vague words to the audience at home.

I just hope I can afford the 1-900 number when election day comes.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:11 AM

June 3, 2007

terrorists now look suspiciously like schizo homeless dudes

This was a fine way to start the weekend.  Conducting the business of my Saturday morning, I came across the disturbing news that the terrorists were back!  Not only were they back, but they had ill intentions on the continuing fate of JFK International Airport, a mere five or six miles from may apartment!

Fortunately, the great heroes of the Bush Justice Department were on the case, and the plot was stopped by arrests and press conferences.  Press conferences?  Well, how are you going to know that you are being kept safe is someone doesn't tell you about it at the appropriate times?

Even more fortunately, the plot consisted of little more than smoking while pumping gas and hoping that all gas stations asplode, sympathetically.  But never mind to that -- vote Republican quick, before the terrorists take upside your mailbox with a baseball bat!

Good thing I'm already in a state of constant terror caused by my fear of getting hit by a gypsy cab running a stop sign.

And while I'm on the subject, in the Gothamist post aggregating coverage of the plot I linked above, I noticed this little passage at the very end:

And while some might be cynical regarding the seriousness of the arrests, if the FBI said we caught some guys who were planning on simultaneously hijacking four commercial jets and then flying them into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, causing them to fall, our first reaction would be "Yeah right, like that could ever happen."

If the author is talking of a timeframe of now, as his sentence can safely be read, yeah, that could not happen at all -- ain't no Twin Towers left.

And if he means, if the FBI had told us in the summer of 2001 -- which he surely must have, whether or not he said it -- then I'd have to disagree pretty strongly.  In 2001, we simple citizens weren't yet deadened into cynicism by an administration plainly desperate to push the people's fear button repeatedly through endless self-publicizing of dubious threats.  Threats like Floridians who wanted uniforms, and a New Jersey gang who took their Jihad video to Kinko's to be duped onto DVD.  We cynics aren't cynical about the seriousness of the arrest; the dudes are pretty seriously arrested.  We are cynical of the motives of the Justice Department.

Hell, I'm cynical about the efficacy of the Justice Department.  Surely there must be a terrorist out there who is not a fuckwit, and I don't remember a press conference in the past five years trumpeting a foiled plot that was any more terrifying than something out of an episode of "Scooby Doo".

Posted by mrbrent at 1:48 PM