October 30, 2008

The Death of Meaning Pt. 1

I feel sorry for John McCain. I'm not just saying that; I really do. In the past, he has lived up to the way he bills himself for this campaign: for instance, he was the only person to have the balls to go into Michigan during the primary and tell the voters that those auto jobs are gone and never coming back. He came out against the Bush tax cuts. He has demonstrated more compassion for economic refugees (a.k.a. illegal immigrants - see, I can play this word game too!) than most anybody on either side of the aisle. He has fought for real campaign finance reform, though the bills that bear his name are always watered down beyond all recognition. Before he decided to run for President as the Republican lowest common denominator (John the Senator?), he was a stand up guy. Not a shining beacon of intellect, and not someone whom I would have ever voted for, but a stand up guy.

Now, he is completely surrounded by idiots. This is easily the worst campaign I have ever seen, and even if he finds a way to win this thing, I won't change my mind about that. He makes John Kerry's people seem like Nobel laureates. One is left to wonder: what would this election have been like if John McCain ran as John McCain? And maybe chosen someone like Condi Rice or Christine Todd Whitman for his running mate instead of that silly Alaskan woman? Not that I'm a big fan of either of those folks, but at least they have demonstrated a capacity for the job.

But anyway, this isn't a commentary on the campaign. Well, actually it is, but it's so much more . . . This is

the death of meaning, part one.

In our culture's slaughterhouse of meaning, politics is the killing floor (sing with me now, in your best Howlin' Wolf: "I should have quit you, a long time ago"). It is not coincidence that Harry Frankfurt cites primarily examples of political speech in On Bullshit. Traditionally, politicians resorted to mantra-esque sloganeering ("I like Ike!") and simple corruption to bulldoze rational thought and win elections. These days, the game keeps getting more convoluted and ridiculous, starting with Lee Atwater's truth-optional campaigning for Bush Sr., through the Clinton campaign's . . . uh, let's say rhetorical flexibility, to Bush Jr.'s acceleration of the Clinton method to a fine art. Obama practiced the art of rhetorical impenetrability during the primaries, waiting until he was in the driver's seat before choosing a direction (by the way, if McCain is running the worst campaign in recent memory, Obama has the best - and once again, I won't change my mind if he loses). McCain's operatives are trying to work in the best Karl Rove tradition, but they are all silly hacks who, if Sarah Palin's recent rhetoric about "the REAL AMERICA" is any evidence, have the wannabe Timothy McVeighs of the country as their target audience.

But mostly, they're just silly. Yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered, Michele Norris interviewed senior McCain advisor Nicolle Wallace (listen to the whole interview here). In it, she was trying to pin Wallace down on the McCain campaign's claim that Obama is a socialist, a claim that McCain himself backed off of in an interview with Larry King. In a three-and-a-half minute interview, she actually gave the correct answer, which is "John McCain believes that 'spreading the wealth' is something that Barack Obama's tax policies have in common with socialism." A reasonable person in a longer interview might add that there are several functions of the US Government that reflect the influence of socialism, but that Obama wants to move closer to socialism, while McCain wants to retreat from it. Neither McCain nor Obama advocates a move all the way to either end of the spectrum. A reasonable person might also add that the McCain campaign's assertion that Obama is a socialist is common election year hyperbole, and most Americans are sophisticated enough to understand that.

But, unfortunately for McCain, this senior advisor is not a reasonable person. She starts out reasonably enough, talking about how the polls are narrowing in key battleground states, and hitting her talking points about Obama "spreading the wealth". Norris then plays the clip from Larry King and asks Wallace a direct question: "So tell me something: if John McCain does not think Barack Obama is a socialist, why is that message a centerpiece of his recent campaign?" Now, let me reiterate - I don't think this is a "gotcha" question. There is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question that doesn't entail any sort of backpedaling . . . but Wallace proceeded to head toward the stratosphere with her answer. She started by vomiting up her talking points quickly, stumbling over them, and then saying "Joe the Plumber was the first one to use the word 'socialism' to describe Barack Obama's plan and vision in his own words, which was to 'spread the wealth".

Oh please, dear God, not Joe the Plumber . . .

Norris tried to steer the interview back on track by pointing out that Joe the Plumber is not running for president, but John McCain is, and that it seems that the campaign is repeating a charge that the candidate himself does not believe. Wallace starts to get back to the question, but is distracted: "Well, John McCain is saying that the idea of 'spreading the wealth' . . . Oh, Joe the Plumber just got on the Straight Talk Express, speaking of his words and his wisdom and his economic ideas . . . you know, he is someone who shares John McCain's belief that, as a small business owner, and this election is about . . . "


What the hell???!!! The economic ideas of Joe the fucking Plumber???!!!

This is ridiculous on so many levels it's difficult to know where to start. First of all, I would bet you one month's pre-market crash income that Joe the Plumber DID NOT WALK ON THE BUS AT THAT VERY MOMENT . . . which means that, as ridiculous as it is to be distracted in the middle of a presumably rather important national radio interview, this was a planned rhetorical dodge, which is even more . . . hell, I can't even find the words. It is indescribably, amazingly, mind-bogglingly ridiculous and strange.

Secondly, this whole Joe the Plumber thing is completely surreal. I mean, this guy stumps for McCain! This guy is so off base that even Shepard Smith (Fox News) called a foul on him for saying (in his role as McCain spokesman) that if Obama is elected, Israel would "cease to exist". Now, if you've got Fox News anchors calling you out on behalf of Obama, you're way off the reservation. It's not unusual for a candidate to have various mascots for a campaign, but you don't let the idiots talk, and especially not with your explicit backing. I mean, we get it, he's a normal guy, a REAL AMERICAN (in Palin parlance), and he's voting for McCain. If I need my toilet fixed, I'll call him. I mean, he must be a damn good plumber, since he makes more than $250,000 a year, which would put him right in line with Obama's tax hike. On second thought, never mind, I can't afford him. Oh, wait, when Obama redistributes the wealth, I'll get my lazy welfare-Cadillac-driving hands on some extra lucre, & then I'll be able to afford him! Oh, Joe the Plumber, is there anything you can't do?

Okay, a bit of a tangent there. Difference is, I'm writing a blog. Nicolle Wallace is a senior campaign advisor (senior!) for a guy who theoretically knows how to surround himself with people capable of running the most powerful country in the world, and she's doing an important radio interview less than a week before the election that will determine the fate of her boss. Is it any wonder that conservatives are depressed that this goat rodeo of a campaign represents their interests? Is McCain losing this election on purpose?

Norris finally managed to get Wallace back on track, and she gave the reasonable answer: "John McCain believes that 'spreading the wealth' is something that Barack Obama's tax policies have in common with socialism." But, she couldn't stay on track for long: "Listen, you go into a restaurant, and instead of leaving a tip, you stiff the waitress and give it to the homeless person outside. It is a noble thing to do, it is spreading money earned by that waitress and giving it to someone outside . . . "


Stiffing a waitress to give money to a homeless person is socialism? That's not redistribution of wealth, that's assholery. Anybody who would do that to a waitress (who, without that tip, would be earning sub-minimum wage) isn't a Marxist, they're a douche bag. I understand exactly why this tower of intellect that is John McCain's senior advisor spent so much time to come up with this off-the-cuff analogy: they want all us broke-assed people to think that it's our income that's going to get cut by all this wealth redistribution that Obama plans to do. Wallace's ridiculous little allegory doesn't map, though. It's just stupid. Obama-as-socialist would make sure the diner tips the waitress and tosses some coin to the homeless guy outside. McCain-as-capitalist would argue that, as noble as this may be, the added expense to a night out would actually cause the diner to stay home, thereby putting the restaurant out of business, and in turn putting both the waitress and the homeless person out in the street. See, I can do this, why can't a senior campaign advisor for John McCain?

It's not unfair to call Obama a socialist - certainly hyperbolic, but not unfair. He is talking about making taxation more progressive, which is an idea that has its roots in socialism. Of course, America already has a progressive income tax, thanks to that bastard Bill Clinton*, and in spite of the best efforts of George W. Bush. And, if Obama were really a socialist, he wouldn't have such a lame health care plan. It's just that, post-Clinton, post-Rove/Cheney/Bush, you expect a little more elegance in the manipulation of language. These McCain people are rank amateurs. I never thought an administration could be worse than Bush's, but I'm beginning to see a road map to that particular hell.

Obama made it through the primaries with smoke and mirrors. He relied on nebulous concepts to make himself everything to everybody, leaving the real work (hacking away at the Republicans) to left-wing kamikazes like Dennis Kucinich. I don't like it, but I understand why he did it, and it obviously paid off: I never thought I would see the day someone would out-campaign a Clinton. McCain made his deal with the devil, but this particular devil was out of tricks (and really, he'd been pushing that pacemaker to the red line for over eight years now . . . it's time he rested). Their butchering of truth is visible to most anyone who wants to see. One can disagree with his fellow citizens on philosophy, economics, morals, etc., and still be civil . . . but anyone who falls for this crap is worthy of our derision.

Meaning is dead & buried in an unmarked grave. Pity the fools who still believe it alive.

This has been a bulletin from a Real America that thinks Sarah Palin is a joke. I'm Bill the Appliance Salesman/Bill the hopelessly obscure experimental musician/Bill the grouchy middle-aged white guy who actually thinks people read his silly shit, and I approve this message.

* Before you all write me, I know it wasn't Bill Clinton who instituted the progressive income tax. That was a joke . . . 'cause, you see, the right-wing media machine blames everything on Clinton . . . get it? Pretty funny, huh? Actually, progressive income tax was instituted by notorious left wing wackjob Teddy Roosevelt. Or at least that's what it says on the internet, so it must be true.


Matt said...

Though I tend to think your criticisms of Obama's campaign are a bit overstated (but not outright wrong), I thought this was an exceptionally written piece. well done. I actually thought about leaving the hard copy I printed out in the break room at work.

Jen said...

Bill, I am laughing out loud here. You have some great insights on your blog :)

Chinstrap Family Productions said...

The Death of Meaning is a fantastic trilogy. And yes, I read this "silly shit" with glee. Welcome to Beechmont, Mother Fucker!