Fighting Chance

[12 January 2005]

By Terry Sawyer

In the previous issue of “Mind Over Matters”, written during the scorched earth aftermath of the 2004 US Presidential election, I needed to bay at the moon a bit. I found myself filled with rage and loathing for the stupidity, avarice, and pedestrian evil of my fellow man. Using tribalism, scapegoating, and raw limbic fear, Republicans engineered a victory from psychological warfare tools invented somewhere around the dawn of fire. And yet, part of me still waited for the Diebold voting scandals to unfold, irrationally hoping that Bush’s victory was simply a dirty backroom handshake hammered out during an Illuminati luncheon at Cracker Barrel. Sadly, though no doubt there was much voter intimidation and Republican subterfuge, even Greg Palast’s paranoia math never added up to a John Kerry victory.

I’ve had the damnest time surrendering my binky of contempt. I stand by my original sentiment, but in and of itself, my piece was less a map through a tumultuous terrain and more an ecstatic act of justified arson; I wanted to hypnotically stare into the heart of my own emotional inferno for days. It was almost as if I’d just broken up with my country and I was in the stage of putting that mix tape in the mail, with all the fuck you mother fucker songs, and the overwrought poetry that ends with the hell cracking like an egg just to swallow the traitorous ex whose black soul you hadn’t noticed because of your own blinding inner purity. But after gorging for weeks on pundit hindsight, I was ready to channel that defiance into something other than fantasies of Jesus rescheduling the Rapture early to rid us of the enormous burden of his followers.

I put on my army fatigue boxers and an old navy peacoat complete with Hanukkah geld medals and old mop tassels for epaulets. I chomped on a cigar and moved Playdoh models of Rupert Murdoch and Grover Norquist across an old Risk board with a shuffleboard stick. Nothing happened. Though the armchair warrior poses work for the President, if I wanted to be realistic about changing the tilt on the political playing field, it looked like I would have to do something other than land on an aircraft carrier and shake my hot crotch box for the legions of disaffected white men who think politics is just a way to play “mirror mirror” with some action hero fantasy of what it means to be a man.

What I’ve come up with amounts to little more than a couple of strategy clichés, but they bear repeating given the liberal tendency to internalize defeat, further liquefying the soft butter spinal columns of our politicians and the two or three wind sock pundits we have at our disposal. Whereas conservatives viewed the victory of Bill Clinton as a reason to push an even more rigidly extremist line of their politics, many liberal writers seem to believe that what we really need to do is look over the rancid buffet of conservative ideology and see what ideas might not taste so bad if we hold our noses. Witness the flurry of articles from the numbing voices of moderation, telling us that we need to jettison the liberal elements of the party in order to achieve victory through mimicry, even though it was those most liberal elements that were able to organize the greatest voter turnout any Democrat has ever seen.

As usual, the conventional wisdom is little more than handing out paper water cones for the lemming cliff sprint. Chris Suellentrop typifies the clusterfuck in his piece, “Feel Good Politics: The Therapeutic Activism of Moveon.org” (Slate, 8 December 2004) where he attempts to shiv Move.On.org through some catty version of people watching, broadly characterizing its participants as people for whom politics is just a pit stop on the way to pilates class. But Move.On.org, more than anyone else, galvanized liberal involvement in the election, bringing together progressive people all over the country and arming them with argument, organization and an entry way into the political process that led many from mere catharsis to actual activism.

Besides MediaMatters.org, MoveOn.org was one of the only organizations willing to counter the toxic smear campaign of the right-wing radio circuit against John Kerry, which handily burbled into mainstream discourse through well-placed surrogates on cable television and op-ed pages all over America. But Suellentrop fancies himself witty for taking a few pot shots at people who shop at Whole Foods, which is the political humorist’s equivalent of “pull my finger”. This is punditry at its lowest, where one is considered intellectual for merely striking a contrary pose against something commonly believed to be good. For all his bitter pomp, Suellentrop never once proposes an alternative or peer for what MoveOn.Org has attempted, perhaps because he has little more than a passing interest in the outcome either way. Punditry is about prettily pretzeled discharges of logic, not about living with the consequences of ideas in the world.

The standard bearer for liberal hari kari is Peter Beinart, The Editor of The New Republic who spins argumentative yarns the way Madame Defarge knitted death sentences into her shawls. There’s an intricacy to his craft and such labor put into looking so deliberative, that his resulting tone has the aerosol air of a Solomon verdict. In “An Argument for A New Liberalism. A Fighting Faith” The New Republic, Beinart lays out his prescription for the revival of liberalism. After making the charge straight from Fox News that liberals don’t care that much about the existential threat of terrorism and then equating liberals who opposed the Iraq war with communists, Beinart goes on to recommend that we out-war Republicans, in effect that we salvage liberalism by becoming ultra rightists in the prosecution of the war on terror. Kudos to Beinart for his lockjawed support of a position no matter how ill fated, wrong, and destructive.

The world needs more people not willing to let the wall of the real impede their Tarzan progress from one bad idea to the next. Like the President, The New Republic had more rationales for the war than scarves in a bottomless clown hat, pulling out a new one when the old one wore thin, which makes me think that the real rationale for the war was that it made our country feel better to engage in a collective act of visceral brutalization. There’s nothing about “Eye for an Eye” that says it has to be the eye of the person who actually attacked you. Beinart’s prescription is one of loathsome moral bankruptcy, one that has the advantage of political viability and the disadvantage that, winning the election by this means we would have no souls. Despite the verbal pirouettes, Beinart’s solution is not much more than retreat and surrender under the condition that our captors allow us to wear “Victory!” sweatshirts.

The fact is if liberals want to win elections, we need to believe that we can actually change people’s minds through the tandem act of accumulating power and the exercise of reason. Watching the post-election prattle, I was repeatedly struck by the punditocracy’s descriptions of what Americans “think” about issues of gay marriage, John Kerry’s flip floppery, taxes, or the connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Somewhere in the background, Republicans must have darkly giggled while they fed raw meat into their moray eel tanks. Why on earth would liberals look at the shifting sands of opinion polls as if they’re trying to move the Himalayas with a bendy straw? The yapping commentators have no end to the number of negative “impressions” voters had of Kerry as if such things were congenital rather than acquired.

How the hell does a voter have an “impression” of a person that they have no personal connection to? We form impressions of public figures, for the most part, based on the way the media frames them. What the pundits can’t admit is that for the last two elections, they have been willing peddlers of explicitly Republican campaign narratives under the guise of reporting. Voters have these “impressions” of Democratic candidates because they have them impressed upon them. Voters thought Al Gore was a liar by virtue of the sheer number of stories which said so, regardless if those stories themselves were based upon deceptions and lies (see DailyHowler.com for the laughably ugly reality). Republicans and their media machine spill falsehoods into the mainstream media veins like a puking gush of squid ink, and because the media’s cycle has a relentlessly forward momentum, there’s no time for retraction, fact checking, or pulling out a coordinated pattern of deception and making that the story.

The Republican demonization machine is a wonder of Satanic ingenuity. When Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove is at the controls, it has this special air of audacity. One example: undermining Kerry’s character by suggesting he was a coward in Vietnam, knowing full well that Democrats will demur rather than toss out raw sewage stories of their own. Republicans know how to rob someone of personhood by turning them into constellations of projection which evoke all kinds of sexual envy and status insecurity. Watch as Hillary Clinton becomes the stand-in for every woman who thought she was too good to take you to the prom, the woman who makes more money than you, and probably doesn’t even want your limp ass hickory stick because she’s secretly, egads, a lezzie.

It certainly happened to Bill Clinton, though the tropes were resentment of his sexual prowess and painting him as a low-class hick (the latter being one of the odder ironies, given the elevation of George Bush as the man’s man of the hour).

The moving parts change from attack to attack, but the pattern is exactly the same: a poisoning of the public information trough with hatcheting characterizations. If there were a democratic equivalent, it would be accusing George Bush of officiating in Satanic liturgies in daycare centers. We’d need to create an organization called “Ritual Victims for Justice” to bombard the subterranean media with their recovered memories of Bush in a ram’s horn tiara painting pentagrams with umbilical cord blood. Eventually, what’s left of the marginally non-partisan mainstream media, veal-penned by their contorted ideas of covering “both sides” of a story without passing judgment upon the truth of either, would surely need to address the tearful accusations of our newly formed “independent” group.

But seriously, I’m simply suggesting that we as the media-consuming public realize that the “public opinion” we hear of in the press is like tall grass in a hurricane’s exhale and highly responsive to people who speak with pithy clarity. Republicans use Orwell’s 1984 as if it were a football coach’s playbook. Want to allow corporations to spill toxins into people’s drinking water? No problem, call it the “Clear Skies” initiative and paint liberals and bureaucratic slaves who hate jobs and stand in the way of all these nice CEOs who just want to do the right thing on their own timetable (i.e., never) . (“Facts About The Bush Administration’s Plan To Weaken The Clean Air Act”, The Sierrra Club.org)There is no opinion sacrosanct for a Republican, no moral belief that can’t be reshaped in tasty language. Segregation wasn’t about racism; it was about state’s rights. Locking up Japanese in concentration camps during WWII? A perfectly rational idea, says Michelle Malkin , conservative commentator who lays the groundwork for future Muslim internment in her latest In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and The War on Terror (Regnery, 2004). Republicans don’t have the assets needed to get a shame loan.

The lesson to learn here is that liberals could easily win just as much ground without even stooping that far, but in order to do so we must first carve out some solid ground to stand on and then defend it repetitiously, stubbornly, with all the airbrushed logic we can shake from public relations teams who have so brilliantly transformed the Republican party by putting glitter covered cork on their fangs. We don’t need to lie, we only need to set the agenda and shellac our beliefs with a spoon full of sugar cooked over a flame. It doesn’t have to feel like a cheap frig in the gutter if we don’t want it to. Like it or not, this kind of bumper sticker molding is the lingua franca of your average voter and if we want undecided people to come around to our way of thinking, we need to actually offer counterarguments and defend them rather than finding the Republican ideas that don’t make us look like a three year old girl in her mother’s high heels.
Like it or not, we absolutely must have a powerful echo chamber in order to get a hearing for our ideas. Read David Brock’s The Republican Noise Machine(Crown, 2004). Tomorrow. I’m not kidding. Brock used to ply his wares as ink assassin for the Republican matrix, slandering and verbally slaughtering people like Anita Hill even though he knew she was telling the truth. After an existential crisis that some might call growing a conscience, he left behind his cushy gig as assault author and set about exposing the fraudulent ways in which conservatives built a shadow media that would eventually rise up and swallow whole everything we once knew to be truth, justice, and objectivity.

Republicans disregard traditional notions of political journalism, preferring the model set out by the collective Borg in Star Trek: bending all stories back into the mother meld, finding nothing objectionable in using their syndicated tentacles to shove every square fact through the round hole of their reality. We’re literally decades behind their massive infrastructure, with modest efforts like talk radio AIR America making incremental but much needed headway. We have nothing that even closely resembles the lockstep cadre of the Republican party’s “yes men”. Watch the liberal guest on any given cable show and you’ll see how much the liberal strains to give both sides credibility or even whacks other liberals to prove his/her own objectivity, while most conservatives mouth a party line that, for all its non-existent deviations, may as well be pre-recorded and played through the mouths of blow-up dolls in Brooks Brothers suits.

Perhaps liberalism is simply too coalitional and diverse to be able to pull this off, our beliefs in tolerance making us too muddy eyed to be able to feel comfortable defending our positions with the kind of dog-and-pony show rage that’s all the rage in infotainment. But it’s one thing to have principles, quite another to be extinct. Liberalism needs to find the happy medium between death and dishonor.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sawyer050112/