May 30, 2010

Buck the Narrative (Part One)

Left and Right, Liberals and Conservatives, Libertarians and Socialists, Republicans and Democrats, Teabaggers and Coffee achievers . . . it's all bullshit. We are bipolar nation.

Here's one that has to have occurred to you: the narrative is the problem.

For a couple weeks it was all about Rand Paul: Rand Paul is the new Republican, Rand Paul took on Washington and won, Rand Paul has energized the conservative base, and on and on and on . . .

First of all, every non-incumbent runs against the evil of Washington as they define it. Every one. What are you going to do? "The government is doing a great job." Why the hell are you running then, putz? No, this always-running-against-the-government has been going on for years - probably since the dawn of the republic - and both sides do it, no matter who is in power. Sometimes even incumbents try to do it. It's ridiculous. It's meaningless. It demonstrates a stultifying poverty of imagination. And, like nationalism (with which its opposition is only on the surface), it is often the refuge of scoundrels.

Then there is the idea that Rand Paul is somehow a "new Republican" born of the Tea Party movement. Wrong. He's the garden variety Reagan Republican. He's the male Sara Palin, less annoying, more boring. No big deal. He's not the new libertarian savior for the right, he's not the new Satan for the left. Hell, I don't know why all the left wingers are acting like he's a sign of the apocalypse - fantastic dullard though he may be, he's probably less of a whackjob than Jim Bunning, the guy he's favored to replace. He's no worse than many with whom we are dealing with now.

Then there's the idea that he "energized the base". Well, Republicans better hope that's not the case, because there wasn't a hell of a lot of energy there: there were four major candidates running in the two Kentucky primaries on May 4th, and Paul was third in the vote count. That's right, two contested primaries, and both the Democrats out polled Paul. It's not that the Republican primary was uncontested, though Paul won handily . . . as late as a week and a half before the primary, the Republican race was closer than the Democratic race. Does this mean anything? No, it doesn't. It doesn't mean that Paul energized the base, and it doesn't mean his campaign is in trouble. It doesn't mean anything . . . just facts waiting to be twisted into a narrative.

Paul did the right thing by ducking Meet the Press. He figured out his place in the landscape, even if the narrative isn't ready to let him go just yet. Meet the Press is a no-win for Paul: he would be exposed as a Palinesque lightweight or, even at best, would drop a couple sound bite bombs to cause the petit-bourgeois Republican pause. And almost nobody in Kentucky (that is, the people he has to impress to win the election) gives a shit about Meet the Press . . . me included. I've met them, and they annoy me. And I was really annoyed by the chest puffing that followed: only the third guest to cancel in 62 years!! No, Ms. Executive Producer Betsy Fischer, that is not "a big deal", because your contribution to the cultural scrap heap is not a big deal.

And now, courtesy of one of my favorite radio shows, On the Media, there's another wrinkle to the whole "outing" of Rand Paul: the idea that Paul won the primary because he was getting a "free ride" because of a "diminished local press corps". Bob Garfield called out the Courier-Journal's Keith Runyon for not giving the story its proper push, but the point of the whole interview was never clear: the CJ were the ones that teased out the whole Paul "I don't support the Civil Rights Act in its entirety" story line, and they did report it, and they did comment on it in their editorial pages. Garfield himself pointed that out, while implying that the CJ somehow soft pedaled the story. Runyon simply pointed out that the story was out there because of the CJ, not in spite of the CJ, and that if the story was under reported, that had nothing to do with the editorial department of the paper, who traditionally does not try to influence the coverage of the news.

In the whole six plus minutes of the piece, I could never figure out where Garfield was headed. Closest I can figure, he was upset that there wasn't more outrage over Paul's beliefs during the Kentucky primaries, and that somehow the professionals like Rachel Maddow and Robert Siegel were able to give the story it's proper due (even going so far to call Maddow's interview a "gentle vivesection" . . . yuck!) when the CJ dropped the ball. What that means, of course, is that according to the "liberal" media, the CJ didn't slot the story solidly enough into THE NARRATIVE.

The real story over this incident is indeed the lack of outrage over Paul's comments, but it doesn't have anything to do with the traditional way of seeing things as articulated by OTM. The fact is that this kind of speech is common in American political and cultural dialogue, and if there isn't more of an outrage, it's because people are used to it. The bigger story is that a large percentage of Kentucky's population believes as Paul does, and it doesn't break down cleanly over socio-economic, political, or even racial lines. The Tea Party had become media shorthand long before they were analyzed and understood (which has yet to happen). Garfield is right that the media isn't doing their job - he's just looking in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.

There are no good guys here: we are constantly assaulted by broad-band political vulgarity. Every media outlet from every ideological corner handicaps politics as if it were a sporting event. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the minutiae of sports: the self-referential narrative, the self-important subtext. But nobody dies when the Yankees win.* Political pundits have devolved from intellectuals (philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, etc.) to being handicappers. Forget Cornell West, you may as well have Beano Cook on your weekend news show for all the ideas that those talking heads dredge up.

If it seems that I am not properly outraged over Rand Paul, it's because I'm not. Rand Paul isn't the problem: all politicians have been focus-grouped to death, including Rand Paul. They are not guiding lights. They are never ahead of the curve. The politicians will never change. They are the symptoms of our nation, of the narrative that defines our consciousness. The very language of our political discourse is corrupt and bankrupt, devoid of any real meaning. It's time to, as they say, flip the script.

Buck the narrative.

Oh yeah, and screw the Coffee Party. I hate reactionary bullshit.
* No one dies, but every time the Yankees win, an angel loses its wings. Only the heroic efforts of the Twins have kept us from a heaven devoid of angels.


comfortstarr said...

While I agree with you for the most part, one issue I have is that it's not difficult to see through "the narrative." We are generally a dumb electorate and dumb consumers of information. It takes so little to understand when/how a "news" organization breaches the objective-subjective border. We need to be teaching media studies in our schools at around 6th grade (though, of course, it'll never happen as media studies is seen as a liberal topic).

And that brings me to my second point: I don't think you can just say the left/liberal and the right/conservative media are the same. I think that's a false equivalence. What Fox does is different from what MSNBC does. The ideology of the right (notice I don't say "conservatives") permits a certain "ease" with facts. While I would say the liberals (notice I don't say "the left") tend to have a bit more respect for what is baldly true.

Anyways... good stuff.

Bill Zink said...

Yeah, I definitely feel you on the first point, though I think seeing through things goes deeper than taking either Fox or MSNBC at face value. I think we have to assume that EVERYTHING has a whiff of bullshit and that we take the bits and pieces of information and construct "what we know", and more importantly, take personal responsibility for our views AND their ramifications.

I tend to agree with you on the relationship between Fox and MSNBC, at least as it pertains to, say, Maddow v. Beck. Olbermann is kind of a tool in my opinion, and Shepard Smith consistently surprises me, to the point that I will actually watch for a couple minutes if he's on. I'm not ready to say that the right wing media is worse than left wing media, though. It's just that the really egregious left wing media are under the radar because America is such a right wing country.

josh said...

"Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others."