Radio commentary, January 15, 2011

Against civility

The horrendous shootings in Tuscon have certainly inspired a lot of drivel from the commentariat. They were heartbreaking, but please let’s not draw stupid conclusions from them.

Perhaps most annoying has been the call for a return to civility. Well, no, I don’t feel like being civil. I like being rude. The problem with the rudeness in American political discourse is that it’s often so stupid, not that it’s so rude. The idea that politics can be civil is a fantasy for elite technocrats and the well-heeled. I’m reminded of something that Adolph Reed once said to me, characterizing a mutual acquaintance as the kind of person who thinks that if you could just get all the smart people together on Martha’s Vineyard, they could solve all our social problems. Obviously they couldn’t.

Margaret Atwood once wrote that politics is about “power: who’s got it, who wants it, how it operates; in a word, who’s allowed to do what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it and how.” There’s no way that could be rendered civil. The field of politics is constituted by vast differences in interests and preferences. Much of the time, we don’t talk about those things directly or explicitly. We talk about them in caricature or euphemism, or take it out on scapegoats.

Some on the so-called left, such as it is, are using Obama’s speech in Tuscon the other day as an excuse for rediscovering their crush on him. On The Nation’s website, always a rich source for high-mindedness, John Nichols wrote this (Don’t Tone It Down, Tone It Up: Make Debate “Worthy of Those We Have Lost”):

It has been said that Obama strives for a post-partisan balance. But this was Obama speaking as a pre-partisan, as an idealist recalling a more innocent America — and imagining that some of that innocence might be renewed as shocked and heartbroken citizens seek to heal not just a community but a nation that is too harsh, too cruel, too divided…. [F]or a few minutes on Wednesday night, we dared with our president to answer cynicism with idealism, to answer tragedy with hope, to answer division as one nation, indivisible.”

Really, John, when was this nation ever innocent? When we were trading in slaves and killing Indians? What act of “healing” will make this nation less divided? The rich and powerful have a lot of money and might and they’re not going to give it up easily.

Elsewhere on The Nation website, Ari Berman actually used the phrase “better angels” to characterize the pres’s rhetorical targets (In Arizona, Obama Appeals to Our Better Angels). (Uh-oh, I said targets.) This reminded me of Alexander Cockburn’s great characterization of the role of the mainstream pundit: “to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers.” But clearly it’s not just the mainstream pundit—so too alternapundits. It’s not just that these stock phrases grate on the ears—their use is a symptom that their speaker is evading some complexities.

12 Comments on “Radio commentary, January 15, 2011

  1. Fantastic, as usual!

    (Couple missed words and typos in the transcript, fwiw.)

  2. On Deconstructing the Rhetoric in Tucson: Maintaining the Status Quo by Handling the Working Class…in which the State/investor class regime co-opts a child’s death…

    Last year, while speaking near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Ralph Nader offered the irrefutable observation that “there was a seamless transition from Bush to Obama.” In that vein, another journalist has observed that Obama is enacting Bush’s third term. Both accurate, both incontrovertible statements.

    With the connivance of the State, there is, in fact, a war being waged here at home by the investor-class Right and near-Right (i.e., both parties are corporatist) to maintain the status quo of top-down economic warfare by an elite coterie of five per cent–consisting of rentiers, their consiglieri, the Fortune 500 CEOs and their major stockholders, and the never-to-be-sated guardians of capital depositories, the banks. The brazen manipulation of the non-participant ninety-five per cent of American labor is seen most recently in the utility found in a child’s senseless death, i.e., a death co-opted in the service of manufacturing the consent of the “bewildered herd.”

    The investor class/State-induced inequity here at Empire is so inherently tenuous–by virtue of the purposefully-volatile nature of market activity–that the status quo complex must be finessed on an ongoing basis via MSM duplicity, disinformation, etc., in order to maintain momentum. Hence, the grotesque contrivance at Tucson lamenting the death of a child at the very same moment that Obama’s murderous military programme–in only one of a myriad of examples: Afghanistan–effects the deaths of scores of children struck down by drone shock-and-awe of, e.g., wedding parties! A pipeline connecting vast natural gas resources in the Caspian Sea to India compels ongoing war crimes conducted in plain sight: this is merely our 234-year-old narrative of aggression and acquisition writ large in the era of Late (i.e., finance) Capital. That is, we are witnessing the death throes of an ostensible “experiment” in democracy gone terribly–but quite predictably–awry.

    And, what of the identity on the Right, that largely working-class collective of enraged, primarily non-ethnic, whites seeking redress of grievances? Owing to an abiding mistrust–and fear–of “the other” they have effected a catharsis of sorts–an unloading of diffuse anxiety and rage–a temporary relief, to be sure, but one clung to en masse via corporate-owned media demagogues as spokesmodels. That is, they are less a gathering of informed adults confronting economic disparity at its source as a haphazard mob seeking reassurances through prejudice and commonly-held biases. They are a latent element now actualized, and also valued, of course, for their utility in sustaining the privilege, entitlements, etc., for Empire’s opulent minority. In return for this essential service individual and collective hysteria, angst, etc., was subdued–until the horrific events in Tucson.

    The collective defect of the Right is betrayed through only one dimension of their “ethic”: they quite openly have chosen to project their animus upon a segment of humanity and not the only appropriate focus of working-class animus: investor-class behaviour. It is this dire malignancy that identifies them as merely another face of the Power/money elite: both traffic in exclusion. The saving grace of the anarcho-syndicalist Left will be precisely the opposite: anarchism valorizes the individual considered via inclusive community. From Charles Péguy:

    “The revolution will be moral or it will not be revolution.”

    Dean Taylor

  3. Yeah, Ari Berman used that moronic phrase “better angels” in a sounding with Jon Wiener on KPFK, and as I drove through the snow, and listened to the anti-atheist’s earnest goo-goo instructions for the Democrats and his hero Obama, I once again realized how very, very bitter I was in college up against these idiotic strivers, how they came to rule the world with their fake liberal conservatism, and then I continued being bitter, but at least I could turn off the podcast, and take solace in my superiority by having thrown away my Nation subscription years ago.
    “Better Angels” sounds like a stupid, stupid pop novel – what the hell does Berman mean by such Palinesque nonsense?

  4. The problem with America’s politics is not the lack of civility… it’s the lack of politics. Alternet, HuffPo, The Nation… loads of libbylefties just gushing over their guy Obama. Maybe O’s regime is right: these pwogwessives ARE on drugs! And they’re certainly ignorable. Civility and $2.00 will get you a cup of coffee at Dean and Deluca, and nothing more. On the same day as President Facebook’s Tucson speech, I tripped over these headlines in my work email box and Yahoo!’s front page:

    Unemployment Claims Jump After Holiday Jobs End: More people applied for jobless benefits last week after retailers shed temporary holiday employees. New claims jumped by 35,000 to a seasonally adjusted 445,000 — the highest level since late October. – NPR

    U.S. Foreclosure Filings May Jump 20% in 2011 as Crisis Peaks – Bloomberg News

    The Rise of Payday Lending: The payday lending industry is serving a growing segment of middle-income Americans who need credit and can’t get it elsewhere. – CNBC

    Recession’s Toll on K-12 Budgets Both Wide and Deep – Education Week

    Simon Johnson: Now US taxpayers are subsidizing Goldman’s investment in Facebook – MarketWatch


    Can we AFFORD to be civil?


    Oh – and I found this sort of interesting: Is Germany going to pull the plug on the Euro?,1518,735812,00.html

  5. those on the left who ignorantly oppose ‘sloganeering’ won’t like this, but here it is in short form: if you want peace [read: civility], work for justice.

  6. I agree with your notice of the absurdity of the times, Stephen.
    We take our comforts where we can.
    I watched (fast-forwarding at times to stem the pain) the recent CSPAN Book TV show starring a red-dress wearing, well coiffed
    woman named Kristin or something (OK, she looked disturbingly like my sister, but was reduced to asking if the canapes were good with the two warring journalists) and Roger Hodge and Jonathan Alter. In my dreams of retirement, I am going to open a way-off Broadway cafe theater, and I will have this show re-enacted for all eternity. It was that good.
    1. Roger Hodge gave one of the most skittering, ectomorphic, brave but deeply weird performances any left mic-pundit has ever given.
    2. Jonathan Alter, as the most compromised toad ever seen, was as good a villain as Hollywood could ever produce.
    Favorite Scene; At the end of Hodge’s twitchy, bravura alternating between Alter ass-kissing and on-target strafing, Hodge interrupts Alter’s from-the-inside croaking: “Are you, like, on the PAYROLL, or something. I mean, my God…” Alter does vaudeville eye-rolling and Stewart-like (aping Caarson) playing to the camera, while the crowd of New york dignitaries harrumphs at Hodge’s impertinence.
    Favorite Q/A: at the end, well-educated , older liberal Names trot up to the Q/A mic, just like us nobody schlubs, and semi- ask unanswerable diatribe peeves of their own, including a Danny Schechter hand-waving, grab the world by the lapels, frothing demolition of both dudes in 25 seconds, then the show ends.
    I may have been the only person to see it, but, I will forever hear the modulating lies of Jonathan Alter, pronouncing this or that torture or crime by Obama’s administration as “the best we can get” in the guise of some phantom journalistic objectivity.
    Jesus, Hodge, check into Yaddo immediately.

  7. Haha, Nichols out-Nichols’ed his saccharine and stupid self.

  8. A fine post, as usual. Also glad to see you attack those ingenues at The Nation.

    The Great Diverter strikes again, and will use the uptick in his stock price as leverage to attack Social Security and privatize public education, as per the major clauses in his employment contract.

  9. Good post.

    per SOTU, Obama will yell at teachers. It’s bipartisan.

    And in this way, smart motivated will definitely want to go into teaching.

  10. Great post Doug. I’ve long wanted to write an essay entitled “The Problem with ‘Problems'” or something like that.

    The New Democrats constantly see the world that way. Poverty, inequality, crime, violence, racism, etc…are “problems”. When, in fact, they’re bred-in-the-bone, even intentional. It’s not “problems” that need to be “solved”, it’s battles that need to be fought and won.

    It’s tempting to say the New Dealers saw it differently. They did….somewhat, after a while. Mostly they tried to “solve problems” too, but had to embrace structural changes when the fixes didn’t work.

  11. During a conversation with a Nobel Prize winning economist, he told me: “I got where I am by always choosing the middle ground. We can make it a broad middle ground, but we have to stay within this middle ground if we want to achieve anything.”

    He has made A LOT of money by staying in the middle ground, and still postures (publicly) as some kind of “rebel”….

    There’s a passage somewhere in Brecht’s poetry which says (I paraphrase): Whenever the rich tell the poor that things will get better, they (the rich) always speak with full stomaches.

    Nothing great has come from being civil; there’s a reason why we call it civil disobedience!

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