Who Watches The Watchmen?

When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.
-- Nietzsche

Bob Somerby has been a national treasure for the last decade, skillfully taking down media idiots at his site, The Daily Howler, and doing a superb job of exposing bias and tracking stories that mainstream outlets often ignore. I've learned a lot from him, ever since I discovered his site in the dark days of the 2004 election.

For some reason, he has a bee in his bonnet about Josh Marshall, who he's now 'humorously' decided to dub "the commissar," for supposed sell-outs to conventional wisdom. It's been an ongoing theme for a few months, and the unspoken argument-- since most of the pieces are attacks on Marshall's criticisms of the Clinton campaign-- seems to be annoyance that Marshall hasn't gotten on board and been more supportive of a campaign that Somerby's personal and generational ties (he was Al Gore's college friend) have made him extremely protective of. The irony is that Somerby's critique-- complaining that Marshall "drank the kool-aid" and painting him as a dictator of liberal thought-- could apply equally to the Howler (or, indeed, anyone who deigns to speak from a position of absolute truth). A passage like this one from today feels rich with unintended irony:

Race has played a fascinating, sometimes unfortunate role in the current Democratic campaign. This morning, the commissar helps us know how we may discuss this subject. As is often the case with such leaders, the commissar doesn’t quite tell us who or what he is talking about. Typically, commissars don’t like to limit the reach of their helpful pronouncements:

THE COMMISSAR (5/7/08): There's nothing wrong with studying these [electoral] percentages in terms of demography. Nor is there anything wrong with Democratic strategists recognizing that their candidates need to win this or that percentage of white voters to win. But creeping in the shadows of these conversations about how Democrats can no longer manage to win the white vote and are only saved from political oblivion by running up big margins among African-Americans is a little disguised assumption that African-American votes are somehow second-rate.

I don't think there's any getting around that.

Does anyone have any idea who or what the commissar means? To which “conversations” he refers? We would guess that he may be referring to the recent conversation between Paul Begala and Donna Brazile. If so, then it’s presumably Begala who has carried the “little disguised assumption” that “African-American votes are somehow second-rate.” We don’t think there’s any getting around that—if that’s who the commissar meant.

Of course, we don’t know if that’s who he means. Wisely, he has chosen not to tell us which “conversations” have broken the rules.

Of course, commissars—of various kinds—are pretty much constantly with us. Once, they took the form of the classic pot-bellied southern sheriff, saying “We know what to do with your kind around heah.” They took the form of the wire-rimmed friend of Mao, helping us think through our re-educations. (The Beatles discussed this variant.) This new commissar seems to understand the rules: He would only reduce the scope of his power if he specified who he was talking about. When he keeps it vague, we’re all put on notice! Please check with me for permission before you try to talk about race.

(And with my Paypal participants.)

Who is the commissar talking about? People! He talks about you.
(italics mine)

I find the italicized passages especially loaded and telling, since in their reductive and purposely provocative choice of imagery, they do precisely what they criticize Marshall for doing (which he's not, by the way): attempting to control the discourse through fear, bullying terminology, absurd analogies and the implied declaration that the Writer Knows Best. All of these are precisely the attributes that Somerby's been so good at dissecting when others in the media do it. Perhaps, per Nietzsche, it might be time for Bob to take a break.


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