Tuesday, September 16, 2008

While You Were Blinking

DOCTOR: Have you noticed any adverse side effects in your son since he began taking Ritalin?
HOMER: Well, he's stopped blinking. He says that's when they get ya.

--Simpsons episode, c. 1999

PALIN: I -- I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink.

So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.

--September 11, 2008 interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC

I can see what Palin was talking about now! After drinking two pots of coffee and chomping a sheaf of nicotine gum wads, I am now sufficiently "wired" for every new threat to rational discourse. While I was blinking, I missed the whole Lipstick on a Pig story. Now, we've been told by McCain's folk that this election isn't going to be about issues. It may be about personalities or campaign money. But as Palin demonstrates with her manic fealty to "the mission," it's really about the collective attention span.

I won't bother embedding the YouTube video that documents every last blink, wink, stammer, and groping locution of Sarah Palin's first press interview. Nor will I re-play the Bush Doctrine sound bite because I hear Charles Krauthammer has the copyright on that term and has fully absolved her of any misunderstanding. More on the Chucky Lexicon soon.

Like just about everyone, I assumed that if Sarah Palin were going to fumble, she would do so on some arcane policy quiz or left-field factoid. Who is the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia? Did you agree with the telecom immunity bill? She could easily, nay proudly, botch these questions or quickly tease out right answer. But if I had to ask the softest of softball questions for a guns-and-god Republican candidate, it would be "Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?"

This is an important distinction because her next interview is going to be with Sean "Why doesn't mom love me?" Hannity. I think we can expect him to be gently deferential as he drills her on, say, the three branches of government or the state flower of North Dakota. Because if you can't ask her about the biggest initiatives within your own party, then it's time to skip to the swimsuit competition.

Forget the pregnant pause that followed Gibson's question and the charitable wide-shot that covered it. Forget her annoyed tone as she answered this question with a question, "In what respect, Charlie?" Forget that Charlie followed up with the generously open-ended "What do you interpret that to be?" We're now playing the Game of Questions from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: What do you interpret that to be?
PALIN: His world view?
GIBSON: No, the Bush Doctrine enunciated September 2002 before the Iraq War?
PALIN: What does it all add up to?
GIBSON: Can't you guess?
PALIN: Are you addressing me?
GIBSON: Is there anyone else?
GIBSON: How would I know?
PALIN: Why do you ask?
GIBSON: Are you serious?
PALIN: Was that rhetoric?

Everybody with us? We've gone from a yes/no softball, to an open-ended invite, to a specific query. Palin could have blathered any affirmation she wanted for the first question. She could have interpreted her heart out for the second. And she simply should have known the third. But she fumbled all three. So far, the most effective defense for Palin's ignorance and lack of curiosity has been to make explicit what most of us have assumed since she was announced: that McCain has treated his first executive choice like a scratch-and-win sweepstakes. And just as McDonald's employees can't participate in their own contests, the winner of McCain's long-shot lotto should not have any insider knowledge. So not knowing the Bush Doctrine actually makes her more qualified. You have nothing to worry about because she's just another coupon-clipper like you.

If only they could explain why everyone has to clip coupons these days. Or how a $25 billion dollar coupon (earmark cuts) can pay for $200 billion in tax cuts and the $500 billion we already owe this year. But I shouldn't lecture. If you have sight of Russia, you must perforce have insight into Russia. And if you play Sodoku, you know a thing or two about numbers, so all that insider elitist Washington hoo-ha about the economy needn't scare you, either.

Dammit, I did it again. Sigh.

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Have you ever wondered what a nagging, trivial story like Lipstick on a Pig looks like after you extract it from the globulous maw of hypernews? Well, Glenn Greenwald yanks that festering tapeworm from out the anus of mainstream media in a magnificent essay over at Salon.com. I don't think I've ever seen someone trace every meme and mutation like this. He follows the phrase from its first utterance to its latest iteration as a major news story. But even if you blame Obama for the lion's share of that distraction, Greenwald's piece still reads well as a case study in media watchdogging. In an election where every blink counts, it's refreshing to find someone with the brute patience to tell a complete story.

While you're over there, check out his latest column, too. He explains how the real tragedy about Palin and the Bush Doctrine isn't her ignorance of the subject; it's that this ignorance disqualifies her from a debate we desperately need to have. Sadly, many of us on the left relish the spectacle of that ignorance too much to engage or change it. It struck me watching Tina Fey's pitch-perfect impersonation on SNL: this mimicry reveals nothing about Palin's character (the way Colbert's funhouse mirror actually brings O'Reilley and Hannity into sharper focus). No, Tina Fey actually beautifies Sarah Palin and offers the temptation of years of bankable laughs if we let her achieve higher office.

I know I sound like a humorless jerk right now, but it took me five years to realize that W was chosen by Dick Cheney to placate more than the wacky right. He was chosen to make liberals so delirious with indignant mockery that we failed to fight him. In times like this, I switch from John Stewart to Sage Francis:

But some of y'all still haven’t grown into your face,
And your face doesn't quite match your head.
And I'm waiting for a brain to fill the dead space that's left,
You're all, "Give me ethnicity or give me dreads."
Trustafundian rebel without a cause for alarm,
Cause when push turns to shove
You jump into your forefathers arms.
He's a banker, you're part of the system,
Off go the dreadlocks in comes the income.
The briefcase (the freebase)
The sickness (the symptom)
When the cameras start rollin' stay the fuck outta the picture pilgrim.

Mr. Save The World, spare us the details,
Save the females from losing interest.
And Miss Save The Universe,
You're a damsel in distress,
Tied down to a track of isolated incidents.
Generalize my disease,
I need a taste of what it's like.
Living off the fat of kings,
I play the scab at your hunger strike.
Slow down Gandhi, you're killin'em.

Who's the one to blame for this strain in my vocal chords?
Who can pen a hateful threat but can't hold a sword?
It's the same who complain about the global war,
But can't overthrow the local joker that they voted for.

--"Slow Down Gandhi" from A Healthy Distrust

I smell similar bait with Palin and simply wish we had better candidates before better comedy. When every blink counts, the only political capital worth measuring is attention deficit dollars. Authentic wit is the shortest distance between two ideas. As Ted Widmer recently pointed out in Slate, Obama is losing that fund-raising drive:

The last politician to zing a convention as effectively as Palin did was Ann Richards, the formidable, beehived governor of Texas—a Democrat. Her 1988 oration was a work of genius, not only for its classic line that George H.W. Bush was born with "a silver foot in his mouth"—a much more complex and interesting joke than anything Palin said—but also for its New Deal earthiness and brassy feminism.

Rousing as it was, Biden's recent speech has nothing on this. His joke that McCain should be called "Bush44" takes too long to set up and isn't worth the effort to repeat. If Rudy Guiliani = noun + verb + 9/11, then McCain = ?! We need something more than petty ad hominem gestures to complete that equation.


Jesus said to turn the other cheek. The Bush Doctrine says you can strike both of the other guy's cheeks before he's hit either of yours. It takes spectacular effort to maintain the agonizing contradictions at the heart of right-wing morality. True, the apocalyptic death-wish of Revelations has a free-market match in disaster capitalism -- Christian doctrine blessing the Shock Doctrine. But overall, the American right is still losing energy and credibility on laughable concessions to its evangelical base. Like it or not, a solid majority of Americans are pro-choice. They know that Intelligent Design is a joke and climate change is real. Stem-cell research hurts no one and has the potential to help everyone. But because 25% of the country believes that Adam and Eve rode a dinosaur to church,* men like McCain still bend over backwards to appease them.

Remember, the Democratic primary may have taken a long time and ended on a 50-50 split, but the Republican primary crumbled in whole chunks along deep ideological fissures, leaving only one candidate who didn't look or sound totally ridiculous to a general election audience. John Kerry's 2004 primary victory owed to a similar succession of Lesser Evil choices. That quick contest yielded a candidate whose chief appeal was that he wasn't George W. Bush. Or Al Sharpton or Howard Dean or Joe Lieberman.

A similar dilution characterizes the emergence of John McCain. Imagine a Democrat snagged by three Nader-sized factions. Until a few weeks ago, McCain represented the American Right sans libertarianism (Ron Paul), religiosity (Mike Huckabee), or sadism (Mitt Romney). He called out the religious right for the "agents of intolerance" that they were. He dismissed Rush Limbaugh as "a clown" and suffered mightily for that slight. He told W to his face that he should be ashamed of himself during the 2000 campaign. Which is why it's so sad that he chose to debase himself by aligning with Bush so many times and then disowning or reversing his few noble departures: tax cuts, torture, global warming. His choice of Sarah Palin completes this degeneration because she steers the campaign back into Karl Rove's Culture Wars. At the end of the primary race, I wondered what was left of the Republican Party. Now I wonder what's left of John McCain.

Don't blink or you'll miss him, too.


*Adam and Eve rode a dinosaur to church
Credit where it's due. This is a Tina Fey joke from a few years ago. Can we get more of this, please?


kimrennin said...

We see, in some things blinking will get you killed, it will get others killed. Blinking is why 911 happened, it is why Hitler happened and it is why Pearl Harbor happened. Taking your eye off of the ball is how your opponent wins. So to answer the critics of Sarah Palin who doubt her resolve or her honesty when asked that question, to answer Andrea Mitchell and the other pseudo sage and wise journalistic philosophers, I don't want a leader who blinks, I want a leader who has the ability to keep their eyes focused on the ball 100% of the time.

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