Sunday, August 02, 2009

Nausea: Bad, bad, news

Having the summer off between semesters has meant, among other things, that I have been actually keeping up with the news and news analysis. But this has not necessarily been a general good for my sense of well-being with regards our democracy.

Locally, the California budget mess has underscored how incredibly spoiled we have become in this state. We want it all, but we don’t want to pay for it. It also highlights the constitutional mess at the heart of all disquiet, specifically, the initiative process that allows citizens of the state to vote in new laws. As a kid, I always defaulted to the assumption that the imitative system was tremendously innovative, and innovation has always been the bragging right the Golden State. But these plebiscites have meant that complex laws relating to the budget have been placed in the hands of the civically illiterate populace who, by all accounts, do all their research the day before they go to vote (based largely on the loops of political ads that run incessantly the 72 hours before election day), or they vote the way their political party mailers tell them to vote.

It also means that the legislation of morality can been made a reality. Hence, proposition 8 makes millions of Californians second class citizens by banning their right to enter into a legally-recognized marriage. Other important issues in recent decades that have also been “put to the vote” have included immigration reform, medical marijuana, criminal sentencing mandates, and auto insurance laws. The result of all this direct legislating has been mixed at best and catastrophic at worst. Prop 13, passed in the 1970s, has undermined the state’s ability to balance the budget and, more tragically, has shattered the public school system. Prop 215 ostensibly opened the door to medical marijuana in the state, but subsequent Federal challenges, including DEA raids, have only underscored how poorly the law was thought out.

In general, it is a good idea to leave specialized work to the experts. Despite how we in the state feel about lawyers in general and legislators in particular, they understand how to craft law . Most citizens, even those who may actually work in the legal field, do not have the time or inclination to research the implications of a law. The citizen, pressed for time, and frankly uninterested in the nuances of state law, will vote with his heart rather than his head. If you doubt this assertion, watch any TV ad for or against a proposition. They appeals are always emotional rather than logical. Sadly, what this usually means is that the better funded campaign wins.

This is why the Founding wigs opted to have a representative, rather than a direct, democracy. The agreement is that I will vote for you because you are the expert. It’s why I pay a doctor to diagnosis my stomach pain, because left to my own judgment, I could very well kill myself. Just because we can vote on-line for who’s hot and who’s not, doesn’t mean we should leave potentially life-altering legislation up to caprice.


The other issue, and one that I had hoped would have gone far, far away ages ago, is the so-called “birther” contingent congregating along the right-wing fringe. Despite patent, Flat-Earth-variety absurdity of the claims that President Obama was not born in the United States, and despite easily accessible data confirming his Hawaiian birth, and despite even the very conservative WorldNetDaily affirming said American birth, the lunatics in the denier camp continue to make noise. But what is worse than this, is that the noise receives airplay. CNN, MSNBC, and of course, FoxNews have spent hours on air talking about the fact that these people exist, giving over time to footage of a hysterical woman at a Republican event waving her own birth certificate and, far from demanding the president pony up his proof, flatly stated that Obama is in fact Kenyan.

This is not newsworthy. Just because someone in a lunatic asylum thinks they are Napoleon, does not mean Anderson Cooper needs to get his thoughts on the state of French politics, nor does it mean that Keith Olbermann has to spend a ten minute segment “debunking” the lunatic’s story. It is a freak-show story, fit for the Weekly World News, (or perhaps a blog!).

And, of course, it is not only the “birthers,” it’s the socialist-takeover conspiracists, it’s the “Tea Party” dimwits, and the all the other simmering, borderline hate groups that simply want to stir the shit because it provides them with an identity and a way of shielding racists sentiments. But we don’t need to afford them the veneer of legitimacy that comes with national exposure on major news programs. For example, the 9/11 “truthers” are still “out there” looking for the holographic projector that made it look like planes hit the Pentagon, but they receive no mainstream coverage. They, along with the moon landing hoaxers have to make do with shoddy youtube videos and occasional conclaves at the Ramada Inn conference room. There is no real purpose to discussing easily debunked conspiracies. The only people who need to be shown the point-by-point debunking are those on the fence. Who, at this point, “isn’t sure” if Apollo 11 landed on the moon? Those Republican congresspersons who were trailed by a reporter the other day asking if they believed Obama was in fact an American and who then said “I don’t know” or that they “still had questions” don’t really need more information. They are pitching woo with their fringe base. Perhaps segregation era politicians in the South had to cop a similar line, despite their liberal education. George W. Bush probably does not believe in Intelligent Design over Darwinian Evolution, but when asked, he felt he had to say that he “hadn’t made up my mind yet” about Evolution. Why? So he can go back to Texas and glad-hand the yokels at the next BBQ. It’s pure pandering. Which is their problem, but the public discourse should not be dictated by the least educated, least informed, and the least sane. Because, for them, there is not enough evidence on the planet to get them to believe that the African-American President of the United States was born on American soil. Every certificate is a forgery. Every expert is a dupe. Plus, they need to keep believing these nutty things because doing so gives them an identity, a fellowship of like-addle-minded morons. Which, again, is fine for them. I have better things to do, and so should news organizations.

Sufficed to say, Uncle Walter wouldn’t have touched them with a 10 foot boom mic.


Then, of course, there’s Sarah Palin. She was the former governor of the lightly populated state of Alaska for a few months before she decided it was too much a hassle and quit a year and some change before the end of her term. Presumably, she wasn’t doing too much governing while she was on the road with McCain, and, let’s face it, how much work does anyone do when they come back from a long vacation?

She is like Bush in that she is not intellectually curious or particularly bright. She is inarticulate, but her inarticulateness is differently expressed from W’s. Whereas Walker Bush suffered from chronic malapropisms, semantical gaffs, and transient aphasia (e.g. his famous “… you can’t get fooled again” avowal ), Palin’s speech patterns related to the construction of compound and complex sentences, exhibit a strange, and frankly disturbing tendency to begin on a particular topic and end elsewhere. I say disturbing because it happens enough to lead me to suspect that she thinks she is quite clever. She thinks she is doing the usual bait-and-switch routine that all politicians do when they are asked a tough question. Essentially, if you can’t answer the question in a straightforward manner, then just respond with something in the ballpark of the topic, but leave out the questioners pesky inquiry.

(Why does this strategy seem to work in the American media? The Brits won’t stand for it. At least not Paxman. My thought is that politicians learned a long time ago that news programs don’t want to spend a lot of time on a particular question, and they don’t necessarily want to annoy their guests. So, any answer will do, because probing is just not done. Katie Couric, perhaps because she is Katie Couric, got a chance to “pull a Paxman” on Palin, thus exposing the veep candidate as a fraud and intellectual non-entity. And Jon Stewart had done yeoman’s work in this regard, but why should he have to? He hosts a comedy program!)

So, Palin is, at best, a political lightweight who is well-suited to governing a small, isolated population of anti-government fanatics. The thing is, her newsworthiness ended when her final day in office ended. She no longer has executive power. She can no longer threaten wildlife or spend Federal money on local programs and take credit for it. She should be a non-entity now. A citizen. But, if anything, she is more a draw than ever before. Her not doing stuff was a segment on Olbermann last week. Her bizarre utterances were lampooned on Conan O’Brien, which is fine, but then the news replays Captain Kirk reciting Palin’s garbled verbiage as poetry. It is bad enough that The Daily Show, Leno, and Letterman have become primary news sources for citizens, but what does it mean when supposedly legitimate news programs replay and dissect these ephemeral comedy bits as though the bits were actual news?

Particularly galling is the way progressives salivate over the prospect of Palin continuing on in public life. They want her around to lampoon, to mock, and to make themselves feel better about their intellectual superiority. But this is highly dangerous because it underestimates the power of the fringe and the utility of good marketing. We just finished eight years of a presidency that should never have happened. A dimwitted, C-minus drunkard got into the office because Americans wanted someone they could feel superior to. Americans are inherently anti-intellectual and distrustful of brainpower. They like “folksy” and they like simple. They like Southern accents, even when they are faked (as W’s assuredly was).

(An accent never hurt. Why would someone governing Alaska need to cop a Minnesotan accent? Why would Barak Obama need to drop his “g”s when talking at a Town Hall meeting? )

For the same reason we in California will vote with our emotions when it comes to complex legislative issues, Americans in general will go with the empty smile, the knowing wink, and the insincere lip-bite when they vote for their ruler. The head never enters into it.

For these reasons, it is highly undesirable (if you consider yourself a progressive) to continue to give Palin exposure. Because any exposure is good exposure in a cultural milieu where emotion, marketing, and money are game changers. Success in the Obama years may not assure continued Democratic control in 2012. By all accounts, the Clinton years were wildly (if superficially) successful. That Gore lost may has as much to do with boredom and apathy as it did the machinations of the Florida Secretary of State. The more celebrity status Palin has going into 2012, the more appealing she may be to the same moronic masses who call for Obama’s birth-certificate or for Texas secession.


These three stories - not to mention the “beer summit” and the endless speculation about the contents of corpus Jacksonia - are, of course, mere symptoms of a profound sickness in our culture. In our race to be egalitarian, we have allowed the crass, vulgar, and boorish to become the taste makers and the discussion facilitators. It is as if at a restaurant the child in his high-chair is made to order for the adults. Well, perhaps we have come to develop a taste for ice cream, cake, and French Fries . But no one is sustained on such a diet.

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