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September 18, 2008

The Rule Of Thumb

There's a rule of thumb for American politics that will never steer you wrong: if the U.S. political class and D.C. press corps worship a political figure and squeak endlessly about how he's a Brave Man of Honor and Wisdom and Accomplishment, that political figure is one of the most dangerous lying scumbags on earth.

What's interesting about this period of history is how reality has simultaneously overtaken the PR campaigns of the Brave Men from each branch of US society.

Military: Colin Powell, the Trustworthy Truthtelling Honorable Gentleman, turns out to be the kind of guy who lies us into a giant meatgrinder war that will cost $3 trillion.

Economic: Alan Greenspan, the Financial Maestro of Prosperous Perspicacity, turns out to be the kind of guy who causes the meltdown of the entire world financial system.

Political: John McCain, the Veteran Maverick Straighttalker Courage-Dude, turns out to be the kind of guy who cannot describe the color of the sky without lying and wants to blow up the world.

I wonder if there's a single member of Washington society who will ever see this pattern in their judgment. Probably not, unless the remaining Brave Men screw things up so badly that we're conquered by Belize.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at September 18, 2008 02:34 PM

" Belize."

Or Spain!

Posted by: shockley at September 18, 2008 03:24 PM

I would like to believe there is an exception to this rule but have not seen one YET! If anyone knows of one, PLEASE ENLIGHTEN ME. Thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 18, 2008 03:25 PM

Will we be allowed travel rights to Belize? If so, I'm OK with it.

Posted by: a.l. at September 18, 2008 03:44 PM

Belize? Not if the Duchy of Grand Fenwick gets to it first!

Posted by: Rojo at September 18, 2008 04:14 PM

I must admit I am having a little difficulty in seeing the downside of the US being conquered by Belize.

Posted by: Mike at September 18, 2008 04:38 PM

Well, let's go back a bit. The press never much liked Nixon, and a few reporters saw him as the resentment-filled scum he was. (Still best book on him are first two-thirds of "Nixon Agonistes.") At least half the people in '68, but an overwhelming majority by '72, liked the commie-hating crook and only the pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals (all intellectuals were pseudo, then) and papists of Massachusetts voted for McGovern.
Something changed, all right, gradually in the Seventies, and the press worshipped Reagan by '80 and has been in a state of respectful, even-handed ass-kissing since. Now, what was it that happened? Pearlstein touches on it, others have too, but the forces that shaped the change have yet to be identified and described convincingly.

Posted by: donescobar at September 18, 2008 04:43 PM

Well yes, those are good examples of scumbaggery, but I wonder -- have we had exemplars that could be held up to emulate? We don't have to stay in this country (that would be hard) -- but I'd be genuinely interested in a type of person that acquired power - legally - and then used it to better society (even understanding that notions like "better" and "society" are fairly squishy terms.)

Come on -- tell of some examples. Not activists, but actual, true to life Brave Men of Honor and Wisdom -- first recognized by the press, and secondly actually accomplished noteworthy, national leadership type things.

Posted by: Labiche at September 18, 2008 05:18 PM

I was just in Belize, and the cool thing about their army is that all the barracks have hand-painted signs and murals on them. It's a very mellow culture, so I'm pretty much in favor of this.

Posted by: Gordon at September 18, 2008 06:16 PM

I for one welcome our new Belizean overlords. And the sooner the better.

The Grand Duchy of Fenwick will do nicely as a conqueror if Belize chooses to send off its expeditionary forces on humanitarian invasions of other worthy targets. Perhaps they can acquire a mini-black hole from the new accelerator and blackmail us with a first-singularity capability.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at September 18, 2008 06:18 PM

victimology. american victimology.

Posted by: sam, err, usamah at September 18, 2008 06:24 PM

I'd go for Firefly of Fredonia as my Duck in Chief.
After all, there "All God's chillun got guns."
Can't we all relate to that?

Posted by: donescobar at September 18, 2008 09:03 PM
I wonder if there's a single member of Washington society who will ever see this pattern in their judgment.

Many see the pattern. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

It's easier to see if you look at societies in antiquity. Any courtier or general that tells the emperor what he wants to hear would be considered today, quaintly, as a brownnoser. But were you a child of that particular century, proclamations from officials as to your country's greatness would easily rival in power, if not exceed, the words of whatever god you happen to worship.

Same shit, different day.


Something changed, all right, gradually in the Seventies, and the press worshipped Reagan by '80 and has been in a state of respectful, even-handed ass-kissing since. Now, what was it that happened?

1) TV news departments became profit-centers.
2) Larger corporations than ever before took over newspapers.
2a) These corporations did not know anything about the newspaper industry and resented treating said industry differently than their original industries, even if misunderstanding and incompetence caused a loss of profits and readership.
2b) These corporations often took newspapers over from families, and families that owned newspapers felt that they had an obligation to uphold journalistic standards in the papers they owned.

How's that?

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 18, 2008 09:30 PM

Belize? We should be so lucky.

By the way, Labiche, I think scumbaggery is an excellent word.

Posted by: Tiffa Hancock at September 18, 2008 09:48 PM

No One

That's fine, but how come the American people, in their collective wisdom (in Peggy Noonan's misty-eyed bullshit) didn't notice nuthin'?

Posted by: donescobar at September 18, 2008 10:10 PM

the frog doesn't notice the boiling of the pot if you do it slowly enough.

Posted by: almostinfamous at September 18, 2008 10:25 PM

Uh, wha?

The American people, being humans, are a rather banal mix of stupid and selfish. (Christian theologians would say "fallen.") In short, we suck.

This is the least of what we don't notice.

Here is the reason why your question surprised me. I've spoken with many old white people who lived through the civil rights era. Many of them were shocked that things were so bad for minorities. Many of them were equally shocked when marchers were treated with violence. It was in their own backyard -- sundown towns to the north, in-the-bones apartheid to the south -- and they were oblivious.

What else do we miss? Howabout the modern day. A good chunk of our products come from slave labor. Our food comes from illegal immigrant work. Local elections matter more than federal ones (okay, that one's subtle). High fructose corn syrup is in everything.

Here's a trick I recommend, though ymmv. When you think "American" (or any other world citizen, but let's stick with us), don't think of your friends and family. Most certainly, don't think of yourself or your peers. Think of a 12th-century illiterate French peasant. That person is the true American, that person is the world citizen. And she always has been.

And don't point out most of us aren't illiterate. What good is literacy when your conditions have you read nothing of value? No, we're that French peasant.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 18, 2008 10:28 PM

But we don't have to be that French peasant. We don't resist being turned into and turning ourselves into a nation of sheep. I participated in some of the things you refer to in the Sixties. You're right. If I hadn't been in the Army in the late Fifties (in Texas), I wouldn't have known what it was about. And yet, the kids on the buses in 1964 were decent, their counterparts today (with the usual % of exceptions), don't give a shit. Again, 1980 was the beginning of an American anti-enlightenment. Or, maybe a return to our origins. Maybe, both.
Big pictures are often fuzzy.

Posted by: donescobar at September 18, 2008 11:02 PM

So you're talking about the difference between generations. Yeah, I can agree that attitudes did change.

Still, empires have always had their yes-men, and it's rare that they're challenged. The 60s was an anomaly, like the progressive movement long before it. I think affluence and financial demands chilled the enthusiasm of the hippies (I know it did in some cases), alongside an unwillingness to analyze their philosophies once reality crushed them. Instead of trying for a more pragmatic way towards peace and/or a better society, they just chucked it and bought a second car.

I can't tell you exactly why the 80s were shit -- dating myself, I hadn't been sentient for all that long -- but I can tell you that they were, indeed, shit.

But what did activism get people? The Civil Rights legislation was huge, but from a white perspective it reduced unrest -- it didn't come anywhere close to creating a model society. Nixon basically got away with it. (Reagan would get away with it even more cleanly later.) Reagan got elected in the first place, though that may be a symptom.

Schools were better in the 60's. The middle class was at its strongest, econmically, and unions were near their peak.*

Propaganda is MUCH more sophisticated now.

Hm. I think I have it. Remember that the 1980 election was the birth of the Religious Right as we currently know it. Abortion (and soon gays) replaced race (though the latter smoldered in the background). Nixon's fall SHOULD have crushed the conservative movement, but, as we all know here, we don't have two truly distinct parties so Dems avoided striking the deathblow. The radical right that had been boiling up since Goldwater took practical control with Reagan and ideological control as exemplified by Clinton (who literally threw Congress to the kleptocrats).

What kind of world does a child grow up in when rightwingers are in control? What kind of world is it when those aristocrats also have the best propaganda system ever designed? The young are deceived to a tremendous degree. I'm as critical as they come of my peers and those younger, but frankly, the baby boomers basically shat all over us. (Actually, the show Root of All Evil just did an episode where Baby Boomers were on trial with Generation X in order to determine which was more evil. The Boomers "won." It's a comedy, btw.)

So we children of the boomers, and later, are lied to so often even a little truth drives us mad (see also, Ron Paul's candidacy).

This isn't all the answer, but I know that's part of it.

Remember, that French peasant probably doesn't like her lifestyle. But as far as she knows, it's toil or die. What does a 17-year-old know now? No, how can she know anything worth knowing.

*Hm. I bet that well-off middle class is a huge chunk of this. Who has the time to do more than vegetate when each family needs two wage-earners in order to break even, never mind save. In the 60s, one dad could raise a family even with a couple of kids going hippie and doing nothing for close to a decade. Now you start working asap.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 19, 2008 12:35 AM

I'm inclined to go with Chomsky here, no one of consequence.

Broadly speaking, he argues that people forget how incredibly fucked-up society was in the early 1960s when he became an activist. This was after nearly 20 years of sustained corporate bullshit backed by really vicious state repression; it was impossible to debate the war in Vietnam even in left-wing circles -- it was considered just too dangerous to discuss the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians for a corporate elite.

As he pointed out after the 2003 demonstrations, this was a quantum step forward; the first time a vast mass of people had protested against an illegal war before it even happened.

The fact that these bastards remain in charge, and that bigger bastards keep coming down the pipeline, is not a product of an increasingly right-wing society. It is a product of an increasingly right-wing and desperate elite.

Indeed, look at the elite's candidates. They are a bunch of imbecilic, cowardly sleazoids -- indeed. But they are all pretending to be mavericks, radicals and apostles of change. Nobody will vote for them otherwise.

The people know that the system is fucked.

If only the people had a voice, or some way of expressing it.

Posted by: MFB at September 19, 2008 02:35 AM

"Pearlstein touches on it, others have too, but the forces that shaped the change have yet to be identified and described convincingly"


Posted by: Friends of Noam at September 19, 2008 04:23 AM

Hey, look on the bright side: we have Dave Petraeus and Barak Obama.

Posted by: abb1 at September 19, 2008 04:30 AM

You forgot Henry Kissinger.

Posted by: the mythical little guy at September 19, 2008 04:46 AM

you left out

Cheney: The Sagacious Safe Hands of Competent Administration whose white-anting of established executive consultation dissemination and record-keeping procedures - even the small percentage of it that's been revealed - has been beyond disastrous.

Posted by: AlanDownunder at September 19, 2008 07:03 AM

This is one of those subjects where Being There is really important.

The problem: so many people that where Actually There are fucking liars. . . and they're the ones that get the plumb PBS specials to document their generation.

One could argue, then, that the 60s represent a severance in liberalism: pro-war stances became anathema to "true" liberalism. Perhaps the rise of a distinct rightwing force in the Republican party also represents the demise of the isolationist (who usually considers himself conservative or libertarian). Thus, Nader and Paul end up not even qualifying as fringe for the parties.

I think my economic view dovetails with what Chomsky says. After all, the 60s white male had more to lose than the present day white male when it comes to bucking the system, but the U.S. citizen wasn't so close to the abyss, either. So now the stakes are higher but society is less conservative (like MFB points out, you have to fake populism) and the propaganda is simply godlike.

And we're due for a populist revolution. It should have happened after Nixon.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 19, 2008 08:00 AM

To continue that, I recall a journalist pointing out that originally, journalism was fairly blue-collar. Kids getting into journalism were middle-class or lower. Then it became a fixture of academia -- you needed a degree to get into journalism. (Which is rather weird in and of itself and comes up again in a second.) Then the scholarship money dries up -- during the Reagan era. (Coincidence? Not so much. College is for the elite, says the aristocracy.) Then the internships -- the jobs that actually teach you how to be a journalist (which makes one ask, what the fuck did I go to college for, anyway) stop paying the new interns. . . hey, just around the time when corps start taking over newsrooms and belt-tightening (read: fucking over the low-end workers and shifting the benefits to the rich while increasing profits by cutting services at the expense of customers and long-term viability).

So, let's see. As SteveB points out, reporters start making tons of money.
And newbies can't make money at all. That means the only new reporters are trust fund babies.
And having their class priorities set, they're put in a world where enforcing said priorities yields lucrative rewards.

And, oh, one more thing. Costs are up for newspaper productions and local papers are bought out or crushed, so there's no competition for the monolithic rags.

But this is all about the propaganda. It's not the only reason we don't seem to care.

However, de Tocqville did suggest that the danger of democracy is that each man ends up on his own, isolated, unaware that his problems are shared by his fellows. The death of local papers contributes to that.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 19, 2008 10:16 AM

@Labiche: "Come on -- tell of some examples. Not activists, but actual, true to life Brave Men of Honor and Wisdom -- first recognized by the press, and secondly actually accomplished noteworthy, national leadership type things."

I nominate Lester Pearson and Gro Brundtland, former Prime Ministers of Canada and Norway respectively. Pearson singlehandedly defused the Suez Crisis in 1957, and Brundtland has worked tirelessly for global action on climate change and global poverty.

Posted by: BaronMarius at September 19, 2008 11:25 AM


Thank you. Of course -- we fail to emulate the right people; they're boring and only want to make things better.

Saw this CNN commercial for a roundtable "advisement session" provided as a convenience to the two presidential candidates.

Who is on the roundtable providing this advisement? US secretaries of state, extending back to Henry the K.

Excellent choices each providing solid advice I'm sure.

(I'm too much of a coward to blow my brains out myself, so I'm just hoping for the general apocalypse to wipe all life from the planet. Even if we were totally gone, the next species to evolve would get to the same point eventually -- it's the nature of social structures to pander to base and selfishness.)

Posted by: Labiche at September 19, 2008 12:06 PM

Lots of reasons and examples. And from looking how all this played out on one campus, also simply that ideas and the people who held them got winded, tired, old.
When the kids at Elite U preferred "Seinfeld" and "Friends" to Camus and Marcuse,you knew a sea change had taken place. Some spotted the early signs, but there was no going back. Something had been abandoned and lost

Posted by: donescobar at September 19, 2008 01:25 PM

Nelson Mandela is the only modern famous/great political figure the establishment will call good who indeed is, as far as I can tell, good. At least he's the only one who comes to mind.

Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez they throw their shit at. Good Canadian and European politicians are ignored.

Posted by: Cloud at September 19, 2008 03:21 PM

Also, excellent distillations on this thread. Cheers.

Posted by: Cloud at September 19, 2008 03:35 PM