You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

January 10, 2010

Our Blubbering Elite

I briefly lived in Los Angeles a long time ago, just after the riots following the acquittal of the police who'd beaten Rodney King. One day I was talking to the nephew of a bigtime movie producer, and he soberly explained to me that black gangs in LA had a secret plan, and soon were going to be attacking the three Bs, Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air—ie, the richest, whitest sections of the city.

I didn't know anything about Los Angeles, but I remember thinking: yeah, I'm pretty sure that's...not true.

What I've learned since then is that fantasies of imminent attack from omnipotent foes are the norm among powerful rich people. Who knows why, although I suspect it's because their lives are pretty dreary and telling themselves these kinds of ghost stories helps fill up the long dusty hours between checking their stock portfolio.

So it's no surprise that, as Digby points out, Roger Ailes feels like this:

...the 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on Mr. Ailes. They convinced him that he and his network could be terrorist targets.

On the day of the attacks, Mr. Ailes asked his chief engineer the minimum number of workers needed to keep the channel on the air. The answer: 42. “I am one of them,” he said. “I’ve got a bad leg, I’m a little overweight, so I can’t run fast, but I will fight.

“We had 3,000 dead people a couple miles from here. I knew that any communications company could be a target.”

His movements now are shadowed by a phalanx of corporate-provided security. He travels to and from work in a miniature convoy of two sport utility vehicles. A camera on his desk displays the comings and goings outside his office, where he usually keeps the blinds drawn.

Here are a few more examples of similar insanity that I've been collecting and that don't seem to have circulated widely. First, this is David "Axis of Evil" Frum talking about his days as a Bush speechwriter:

...had you asked me in December 2001, “Do you personally think you’re going to live to see the end of the first Bush administration, or the end of the Bush administration?” I would have told you I did not. I was convinced there was going to be some kind of event, near the White House, downtown Washington, something, a car bomb, something like that, and the chances were that a good number of those of us serving were not going to make it. So we were not in a euphoric mood. We were going to work every day with quite an expectation that each time you kissed your family in the morning, you may well not be coming home that night.

Then there's Walter Pincus, who recently described the 2001 atmosphere in white official Washington:

I was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and I saw the anxiety that overtook the city after the loss of 3,000 lives in the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. Friends and colleagues spoke openly of their fears of another attack and purchased gas masks and duct tape to secure their homes. Imagine the atmosphere in the White House, where, one month earlier, the president had received a CIA briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." FBI Director Robert Mueller, new on the job, told Post reporters and editors at a luncheon several weeks after the attacks that there may be as many as 100 al-Qaeda cells inside this country.

Some people think elites cooly use fear to dupe everyone else into doing what they want. But while the duping part is real, first they dupe themselves. What's really amazing is America has made it to this point without a high government official wetting their pants on national television. I just hope no one ever tells them about The Hook!

MORE: As Tristero points out, they remain weepy preschoolers even today.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 10, 2010 12:16 PM

It's a shame the elite is wrong about being unseated... if we ever got organised... ho-hum

Posted by: RickB at January 10, 2010 02:18 PM

Very perceptive. Read The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. Truly a light bulb moment in understanding the Authoritarian psyche backed by decades of experimental data.

Posted by: Leon Benjamin at January 10, 2010 02:44 PM

I'm just trying to imagine a newspaper columnist over here writing something like that MoDo article you linked to at Digby's blog, and failed utterly. The level of scorn and contempt in which politicians are generally held (particularly when in Government) would never allow it.

The Monarchy has been sufficiently gelded that thinking of ER as 'Mommy' is probably harmless enough, though I don't think many people do that, either.

The problem is that, in times of crisis, too many people seem to turn for solace to — yes, you guessed it — Obama. Argh.

Posted by: NomadUK at January 10, 2010 02:45 PM

There is apparently actually something called 'elite panic' officially studied by disaster sociologists. I know this from Rebecca Solnit's remarkable recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell. Anyone interested can easily find it from Amazon or any other bookseller for reviews or get it from a library. So I'll skip a description, but it's a remarkable book, and though not an environmental book, per Bill McKibben it is a "landmark book." I agree with him.

What's striking about these guys like Ailes is that their fear seems real, and in that respect it's unique among their beliefs. As of a couple of years ago, Cheney drove around with a protective suit to guard against a chemical or bioweapon attack in the back of his limo ALL THE TIME. In Cheney's cae, this extreme reaction could not logically stem from 9/11, but presumably preceded it. Why? At least I wondered that.

It turns out that during the 90s, the end of the Cold War created a different kind of elite panic that included fear of proliferation of WMDs. That elite panic built steadily until it exploded into the popular culture with 9/11, but its existence is well evidenced before that. Several reports were issued by commissions on the subject around 2000--the Cutler Baker report in January 2001; the Hart Rudman report in Sept 1999; a Rand 1999 WMD report. Those reports followed nearly a decade of mounting concern within the National Security elite about nuclear weapons proliferation resulting from the breakdown of the USSR and the fears about what Saddam still might have, or still be developing, as well as about what had happened with Sarin in Tokyo in 1995, and what could have happened in the first WTC bombing in 1993 if the cyanide in the bomb had not been vaporized by the blast. Those aren't crazy things to worry about--it isn't true that there is no cause for caution. Which is to say, the panic isn't quite psychotic.

But, of course, it's the response to the problem that matters. The Cheneys and Ailes of the world, and in significant part even the Poppy Bushes and Clintons and Scowcrofts and apparently Obamas, think the answer is US power. In the words of Madeleine Albright, we're 'the indispensable nation.' It's up to the US to police the world, hold it together, keep any rogue state from getting WMDs. The only real dispute among the elite seems to be how much we listen to the elites of our allies. A little or not at all seem to be the choices.

History suggests that this method of threat amelioration isn't stable, which means in the long run the elite solution to the problem is going to compound it instead of fix it. (History also suggests this is a typical elite solution.) Considering the nature of the threat and the exponential increase in destructive power resulting from technological advancement, that is depressing. Then again, it seems like we're going to destroy the world even if we don't create a supervirus or nuke everything, so what the hell. Uh oh, I need to go read more Solnit!

Posted by: N E at January 10, 2010 04:06 PM


You wrote: "The problem is that, in times of crisis, too many people seem to turn for solace to — yes, you guessed it — Obama. Argh."

As to why--I'm no expert on this, and you probably already know it--see:

Mostly I'm struck by the fact that in the late 80s something called 'terror management theory' was developed. Much of academia does government work, so these ideas quickly end up in the National Security State bureaucracy.

This quote is included in all the crap on the wikipedia entry:

"Developing from the analysis of authoritative leadership by Erich Fromm (1941) in Escape from Freedom, people in a state of emotional distress by nature are prone to the allure of charismatic leaders. Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them."

Posted by: N E at January 10, 2010 04:16 PM

The funniest sentence in this article (on possibly on the Internet) is "black gangs in LA had a secret plan."

Posted by: RTT at January 10, 2010 05:25 PM

This meme certainly predates the L.A. riots... I faintly remember reading about how it was absolutely certain in the late 1960s that the black folks were going to, at any moment, come roaring out of their ghettos and start raping and pillaging in the suburbs.

I'm sure it's been a mainstay in the minds of the upper classes from time immemorial, but I know for certain that it was in its modern form even then.

Posted by: grendelkhan at January 10, 2010 07:15 PM

Imagine the atmosphere in the White House, where, one month earlier, the president had received a CIA briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

Presumably an atmosphere redolent with the phrase "oh, that memo."


The book by Rebecca Solnit that N E mentions is very good though I would have preferred more of the historical stuff and less philosophical meandering (which also starts way too early). The historical stuff is worth the price of admission, however: excellent coverage of the San Francisco earthquake and how the city was half burned to the ground by military idiots in the aftermath; the Halifax explosion and its impact on the start of disaster studies; Katrina (the popular altruism, the elite abandonment, the media panic, and a very strong section on the racist vigilantism that emerged in Algiers Point), 9/11 and others. I'd also like an account of this issue that more clearly considers which (if not both) of the two possible interpretations of actually existing population behaviour in crisis (in contrast to the Hobbesian fantasies of mob anarchy promulgated by panicky elites and their class cronies in the media) is true: that the aftermaths of disasters transform social relationships such as to create a space for altruism; or that the notion that people are constrained by "rational" self-interest is always a myth. Solnit seems too enamoured of exploring the poetic implications of the former notion to make a clear examination of the latter. All that said, still an excellent book.

See her recent TomDispatch piece on 9/11 if you haven't already.

Posted by: weaver at January 10, 2010 07:23 PM

Perhaps there is something else at work here, in addition to everything else that's been pointed out. Maybe some of these rich and powerful people are feeling these existential fears because they understand the inherent injustice of their power and wealth. So instead of feeling a natural human guilt that can be channeled into a desire to engage in more constructive versions of noblesse oblige, they transmute their guilt into fear that the little people they trample upon daily (directly and systemically) might rise up and seek brutal, bloody justice (a la the French Revolution). They have already convinced themselves that they deserve to have what they have because they are better than us, and that the true injustice would be for them to live in a more equitable and just fashion. Hence the paranoid bleating, the gated communities, and the bodyguards; you never know when the peasants will get restless.

Posted by: Sam Holloway at January 10, 2010 09:01 PM

I've always suspected that well-off and powerful people know on some level that they're making the world a worse place by perpetuating gross inequalities and, in the case of US government types, increasing suffering and death, and that's why they always feel in danger of having their stuff taken away and of getting killed.

And when they accuse specific, virtually powerless groups, like urban Blacks, of being on the verge of aggression towards them, I've always thought they were just deflecting their own hostility toward Blacks or whoever onto the Blacks themselves, accusing the powerless of the hostility the powerful themselves really feel. This is done even more when the groups targeted are actually being attacked by the powerful.

Call it projecting, displaced hostility, or deflecting attention from their own wrongdoing, to me it's all a form of complex lying, sometimes even to the extent of fooling themselves.

Posted by: deang at January 10, 2010 11:37 PM

I have a photo of me in lovely Yushan park reading a newspaper with the headline "1500 National Guards sent to Los Angeles." Fortunately I got home in time for the Watts Towers festival that summer. I'll admit the vibe was a little odd there that year, but it was cool.

Posted by: godoggo at January 11, 2010 12:34 AM

I don't know about POLITICAL elites but amongst celebrities, ie famous singers, musicians, and that sort there are roughly two main categories in which people fall as a kind of psychological "coping mechanism" to their fame;

1) "Survival guilt" aka oh my gosh I can't believe this happened to me and I don't TRULY deserve it and yes while sometimes it's fun and it has its perks, the rest of the time I feel like a huge fraud and it eats away inside of me, causing me to do something, anything to get out from under it; or

2) "I'm a God" and all the fawning press and fawning lackeys and the catering to my whim about how to set up my dressing room and the rest is PROOF that I am a quasi-divinity and anyone who disagrees with that, anyone who puts me down isn't just annoying, isn't just contemptuous but is actually a BLASPHEMER against the sacred awesomeness that is I.

I'll let you figure out which politicians are which :P

Posted by: Soj at January 11, 2010 01:46 AM

deang, I once heard there's an old joke among the Irish something along the lines of "The English will never forgive us for what they've done to us."

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at January 11, 2010 08:25 AM

I read these stories and can only think, these guys are cowards......

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at January 11, 2010 11:00 AM

This is kind of funny if it wasn't so true. I think the ruling elite tend to believe their own hokum. But every seat of power seems to be based on fear on down through the ages. Its like Orwell's 1984 come to life. But do you know what the elite really fear? That the masses will actually wake up and see the little man behind the curtain... ahhh, a guy can dream can't he.

Posted by: Belly Ache at January 12, 2010 12:59 PM