The Punch That Isn't Thrown

It's like that line from They Might Be Giants: "If it wasn't for disappointment/I wouldn't have any appointments."

The Queen of Hearts is back today with another predictably obtuse column on the Friday debates. As if the top part of her column doesn't know what the bottom part is doing, she opens with a long list of all of the stupid things John McCain and his party have done this week: the Sarah Palin-Katie Couric interview; the botching of the bailout plan; the faux campaign suspension. She notes Bush's lack of credibility, the long litany of mistakes over the last eight years.

And then she finds a way to turn all of this against Barack Obama.

Never mind that nearly every poll suggests Obama won big; never mind that both McCain's and Palin's numbers have been in free-fall for two weeks; never mind that a larger narrative is hardening about the craven condescension and lying of the McCain campaign. Never mind, never mind, never mind-- and off with their heads! The Queen of Hearts has a narrative to construct, and she'd never let something like data get in her way.

Reading her 'column,' I thought of this piece at firedoglake. I don't think Maureen Dowd is racist (although her columns this year have certainly drawn on racist imagery in their attempts to emasculate Obama); I do know that Dowd's ongoing mythologizing seems to fit with the historical narrative that Smith is tracing. For me, Smith's larger and more interesting point is not about race, but about how stories in general get codified, and how conventional wisdom hardens. And that applies very much to Dowd. Here's a key passage:

Nobody in the mainstream press calls Obama cowardly or devious, exactly. But many pundits and analysts seem always to believe Obama under-performs and misses opportunities. Back in the early 20th Century, overtly racist white Americans expected Jack Johnson to perform like a subhuman brute in the ring. By showing finesse and intelligence, Johnson was getting above his raisin'. Well, actually, the bigots believed he was getting above his species...

...But when a journalist like
Politico's Roger Simon can watch the first debate and then write, "The Mac is Back," something besides simple debate analysis is going on. I don't know Simon, but I know he has an outstanding reputation among his peers, probably due as much to his affable, Wally Cox-like demeanor as to his reporting skills. I've singled him out because his analysis is baffling, but also just because the media elite seem to like him so much, and I want them to think deeply about why they are writing what they're writing. I'm certain Simon's no throwback racist, and I make no such accusation. He probably just wants McCain to win.

I am, however, saying this: Over the last 10 days Obama has begun to pull away from McCain in the polls. The margin is significant. Also, the snap polls after the debate showed the public giving the Democratic nominee a significant win. Had this situation been reversed, had McCain been pulling ahead in the polls substantially and won a clear victory in the debate, Simon and his colleagues would be writing Obama's obituary. They would not be writing, "Barack is Back." No one can honestly doubt that.

And I believe that this has something to do with Americans' racial attitudes. A different standard is applied to Obama, as it was to Jack Johnson. He's achieved something no one thought a black American would achieve in this era. That's a sobering enough thought, but it's true. His victory in the Democratic primary surprised all the pundits. And they're still surprised. And most of them believe that the racist vote in America will probably be sufficient to defeat him. They just don't say it so bluntly.

That's the filter that this passage from the Queen of Hearts comes through:

Given the past week, the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines.

Even when McCain sneered, “I don’t need any on-the-job training, I’m ready to go at it right now,” Obama didn’t directly respond, but veered off into a story about his father being from Kenya and how he got his name. (Thanks, Barack, we got that from your book. It’s great for a memoir, but not a debate.)

McCain kept painting Obama as naïve, and dangerous, insisting that he “doesn’t quite understand or doesn’t get it.”

Obama should have responded “Senator, I understand perfectly, I’m just saying you’re wrong.”

On the surge, he could have said that McCain was the arsonist who wanted to be praised for the great job he’s doing putting out the fire he started.

When Obama took quiet umbrage at McCain’s attack about troop-funding, he could have pounded the lectern and said with real anger: “John, I am sick and tired of you suggesting that I would take funds away from our brave soldiers. I no more voted for that than you did when you voted against our funding proposals that would have imposed a timetable. And unlike you, I did not vote against funding increases for the troops that have come home with devastating physical and mental injuries.”

And who cares what Henry Kissinger thinks? He was wrong 35 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Obama did a poor job of getting under McCain’s skin. Or maybe McCain did an exceptional job of not letting Obama get under his skin. McCain nattered about earmarks and Obama ran out of gas.

We’re left waiting for a knockout debate.

In fairness to Dowd, this desire for a more pitched and violent debate isn't limited to conservatives or their media allies; it can also be seen in the militarist spaces of Daily Kos and even on a site like Digby. I love Digby, but her addiction to the Eoyre position-- the nervous suspicion that she and many of her fellow posters have that doom and death is around the corner unless we hit now--suggests that what's important is not just winning, but winning in a certain way, one which protects the conception (privileged on the right and left) of politics as warfare. This addiction to conventional narratives can even be seen in a liberal hero like Jon Stewart, whose recent interview with Entertainment Weekly was, with the exception of the quote I posted a few days ago, a crushing disappointment. Reading Stewart's surprisingly bitter comments about the state of the campaign, I thought of Garry Trudeau's critique of Saturday Night Live 25 or 30 years ago: he said the show was a lost opportunity, because its addiction to what he called "kamikaze" comedy-- strafe bombing everyone without any sense of perspective-- meant that it reduced satire to a bland mediocrity. There was no edge because there was no real commitment to anything but a hipster nihilism.

Maybe making fun of American politics for nine years-- a very long time to stare into the void, after all-- has left Stewart something of a husk of his former self. But there was a striking contrast between his answers and Stephen Colbert's-- the latter's were specifically targeted and self-effacing; Stewart's read like he was auditioning to play Howard Beale in a dinner theater production of Network. And the saddest thing was not the bitterness, but the blandness: there was very little specific to this year's campaign, but instead a series of predictable talking points about campaign-speak, corrupt candidates, and the failure of media filters. It's not that he was wrong so much as he wasn't saying anything at all: he was simply recycling a worn-out critique that could've been made in 1960, 1980, 1992...and indeed, was made in those years. The effect, ironically, was to make Stewart look like the campaign managers he supposedly despises-- like them, he's guarding a turf, fiercely defending a schtick that has served him very well.

I don't think anyone would deny that Obama is facing off against some very bad people, and I'm not suggesting a Pollyanna naivete as a strategy (or is a tactic, Sen. McCain?). But I do think one of the truly striking things about Obama's campaign is not just the racial or generational shifts it represents, but its desire to craft a different kind of narrative, one which seems to thwart the more standardized desires of both opponents and supporters. Obama and his people are smart enough to know that sometimes the most graceful move is the punch you don't throw, especially when your opponent keeps hitting himself in the face. Or, to put it more succinctly, it's best summed up by this fantastic graphic my girlfriend sent a few weeks ago (which she found on the blog Cajun Boy In The City):


Bob Westal said…
I don't find the Stewart interview disappointing, but then I wouldn't have expected so much from it. Although I've read much better interviews with both guys, I think the difference between Stewart and Colbert in an interview like this is that Colbert is essentially free to be silly, while Stewart is in a quasi-political position.

He can't be seen as being too much in any one camp or he risks being pidgeonholed and losing a lot of his cred as an observer -- along with Republican guests. This is not just a political/practical matter for Stewart, it's also a creative concern as nothing is less funny than a show which becomes all about political advocacy. (Exhibit A -- the unbearable Fox News comedy program whose name I have expunged from my memory.) Colbert, since he plays a conservative but everyone knows he's a liberal (but a lot of conservatives still like him anyway), is kind of free to say whatever apt thought comes into his head because he's in a funny kind of DMZ and, even in an interview like this, he's still really an actor. Stewart is some version of himself (or at least perceived that way). He ends up in the same position as the politician but working on behalf of the Daily Show empire rather than a political campaign. Also, we liberals have to live with the possibility that Stewart might not be one of us, precisely.

Also, in a way, Trudeau was actually right about early SNL -- he was apparently hoping for a truly satirical show, which it never really was. At it's best, it was more of a silly comedy show in the Monty Python tradition, which was never quite satire either.

The main thing is, both Colbert and TDS are funnier than ever and the fact remains when just about no one in the major media was calling BS on Bush, Stewart & Co were. At this point, Stewart could pretty much endorse Lyndon Larouche during his own time and I'd still be in awe.
Brian Doan said…
Hi Bob,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. The question of "sides" is a really interesting one. I don't really care if Stewart is on "my side," since I often feel uncomfortable with lefty orthodoxy, anyway (Daily Kos and I support the same candidate, for instance, but there's a lot about that site I dislike, and don't feel like we really share a lot, aside from basic party affiliation).

My main concern is that he wasn't funny-- in the past, in interviews, he's been able to sidestep those advocacy questions and express his anger with real wit and charm and self-deprecation (compare his 60 minutes interview in 2004 or 2005 to this EW piece). The Stewart that came across in this interview felt more like late-period Lenny Bruce, where the comic feels so overwhelmed by disappointment that he's stopped making jokes, and taken on the mantle of truth-teller. But it's not really interesting-- it's just conventional wisdom in the guise of hipster distance.

You mentioned Colbert's advantages of playing a character, and I think that's a great point-- that pinpoint parody might be why I find myself enjoying Colbert much more than the DS these days (although, like you, I still enjoy the DS). By coming at it from "the inside," he's able to really focus his satire and go much deeper than the DS, which seems increasingly invested in a comedy of false equivalency that they make fun of the MSM for engaging in. Right now, Stewart is at his best when paired with Colbert-- their chemistry at the Emmys was much funnier than the DS has been lately, because Colbert seems to take the edge off him.

Maybe I'm reading too much into all this. I still really like Stewart, despite the frustrations I expressed in my post. But it seems only fair, since Stewart's Beale-esque annoyance means he's already cast himself in the role of Serious Guy.
Bob Westal said…
A couple of interesting points. I can get pretty annoyed with many aspects of lefty orthodoxy myself (I worked for a time at an antinuke/peacenik organization right out of college back during the Reagan era where I was the resident nonradical, so this goes way, way back with me...), but when it comes to characterizing DailyKos, you've got to be careful because it's actually something like 2,000,000 blogs in one -- a huge community where you run pretty much every gamut from people who worship the Clintons (or used to, anyway) to people who won't be satisfied until Noam Chomsky is President and Howard Zinn in minister of information.

Markos Moulitsas himself is fiercely partisan, and often wrong, is anything but an orthodox lefty -- he's basically an organizing/electoral wonk with an occasionally funny chip on his shoulder. Some of the front pagers can get that way for me sometimes, but then all I means when I say that is they come across like a less intelligent version of Digby, who sometimes annoys me in that regard herself. There are bloggers you cite who really drive me crazy at times, so I guess left orthodoxy is in the eye of the beholder.

Actually, what I like about Kos, especially now, is that most of the more interesting posters are not really writers at all, but activists who are basically giving reports from the front lines. On the other hand, it's not where I go for real analysis -- I'll take Josh Marshall or Kevin Drum or Steve Benen any day over most of the people we've talked about. And, boy, do I miss Molly Ivins. Atrios has been growing on me lately, himself. Glenn Greenwald is brilliant, but a lot of the time kind of half-Gore Vidal style cynic, half Howard Beale himself. (I've been avoiding him since the RNC.)

But I really didn't get Beale from the Stewart interview -- more like he was just tired and a little crabby and therefore feeling disillusioned with practically everyone, which I often feel like myself when sleep deprived. (I wonder if his kids are sleeping through the night yet.)
Bob Westal said…
Oh, it occurs to me now that I think Stewart had his kids a few years ago, so the presumable answer to my question is "yes" -- but toddlers can get to parents too, I've seen it. Also, I love the graphic too. (Guess where I first saw it?)
Brian Doan said…
Who needs kds when, like me, you have insomnia? (:

Thanks for the correction on Kos-- you're right to suggest that it's a more diverse space than I might have given it credit for. I gues I tend to think of Markos as Kos, because he's so often noted as its public face. And he does tend to drive me crazy. But I do appreciate the democratizing function that the diverse diaries provide.

I like Greenwald's Salon stuff, but agree that he can be shrill at times (and as I type that, I can imagine a Glenn Greenwald column in response, documenting in twelve bullet points how my response to him is part of an overall conservative matrix that shapes media discourse (:).
Brian Doan said…
Oh, and thanks for mentioning Benen-- I've enjoyed his stuff for awhile, but more and more over the last few months, he's become a must-read for me: smart, reasoned, funny and passionate without being obnoxious. Really great stuff, both in terms of analysis and linking out to other blogs/stories. And Marshall is great, too.

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