Saturday, May 24, 2008


digby at Hullabaloo points to Bob Somerby at Daily Howler, who notices journalist and author Kurt Andersen "swooning" over Barack Obama on Charlie Rose and thinks to look back on judgments past. Somerby: "Here [Kurt Andersen] is, chatting as part of Slate’s “Breakfast Table:”
ANDERSEN (9/13/99):
I too like Bill Bradley, and expect to vote for him in the primary. A friend of mine who's a theater director recently told me that I should tell another friend of mine who's a speechwriter for Bradley that he, the director, would like to help coach the candidate in big-audience performing skills. Which I think would be a good idea. And which I also think is a very rich premise for a comedy sketch.

But my problem with politics these that politics don't and really can't matter all that much in this country right now. There are rough, large consensuses on all the big issues—economics, social welfare, civil rights, women's rights, war and peace, even abortion. And they will continue as long as the economy chugs along like this and we stay out of wars any longer than a mini-series. Sure, there's a biggish, scary lunatic right—the Gary Bauerite creationist anti-gay regiments—but they're not going to be running the country or amending the Constitution any time soon. In fact, Pat Buchanan is right about the virtual indistinguishability of the Democrats and Republicans. I sympathize with both Buchanan and Warren Beatty viscerally, if not ideologically. I really think national politics kind of needs to be blown up and rebuilt. For the couple of weeks seven years ago before he revealed himself to be a horrible, crazy gnome, Ross Perot seemed to me like a great idea. And if next November the candidates are George Bush, Al Gore, and Jesse Ventura, it isn't inconceivable that I would pull the lever for Ventura. And I certainly wouldn't be very upset if Bush won, even if he can't name a single book he's ever read.

Somerby lets Jonathan Chait roll "his eyes at this cluelessness", quoting a contemporary Chait assessment:

“This small piece of political anthropology embodies many of the stylistic and intellectual tics that are shaping coverage of the presidential race. There is little in the way of substantive philosophy other than the social prejudices of the yuppie class, which holds the simultaneous beliefs that the current arrangement is producing highly satisfactory results and, at the same time, is somehow terribly wrong.”

digby, having quoted Somerby quoting Andersen, as I did, synthesizes some fine quality insults:

This is a ridiculous person and so un-self aware that he's actually proud of it.

I'm hoping that the current Obama swoon will help Democrats win in November. But let's not forget that people like Anderson are just a little bit untrustworthy as advocates, so I wouldn't take anything they say too seriously. He is a preening, puerile airhead, who may be useful in the short term, but presents a very clear danger to our system and our politics in the long run. These silly fellows tend to be just a bit fickle, if you know what I mean. Just read that excerpt again if you don't believe me.

I'm a pragmatic sort and I am more than willing to take advantages where they come. But the fact that journalists like Anderson are all swooning over Obama is a very mixed bag. Right now it will be helpful in that the press corps also swoons over McCain so perhaps we'll get a little balance. But boys like him tend to get very nasty when their idols turn out to be mortal. . . .It is flattering to have all these fops of the village press corps drooling all over a big Democrat. But they have issues. Big ones. They have the attention spans of a six week old ferret and the fidelity of a cat in heat. It's extremely foolish to trust these abusers with our future. Caveat Emptor.

Media delenda est.

Charlie Rose swoons over Kurt Andersen, having had him on his interview program at least 14 times since 1995. I had no idea, who Kurt Andersen was, until I saw digby's post. Kurt Andersen summarizes his own journalism career:

I WENT TO WORK for Time in 1981 and wrote about politics, criminal justice, and culture, including 15 cover stories. In 1985 I became the magazine’s architecture and design critic – and although I left the magazine in 1986 to co-found Spy, I stayed in the architecture-and-design slot as a contributor through 1992. And in 1993 I returned to Time for one year to write a column called “Spectator.” . . .

During the late 1990s I was a staff writer for The New Yorker , where I contributed a regular column called “The Culture Industry” as well as longer pieces.

On my radio show, Studio 360, I used to deliver three- or four-minute commentaries, which are better heard than read.

And I now write a monthly column for New York called "The Imperial City."

In addition, I’ve written for Architectural Record, The Atlantic Monthly, Metropolis, Rolling Stone, Slate and Vanity Fair, among other publications.

That's quite a career. This is an elite journalist and writer, prolific, presumably articulate in a pleasing way, well-connected and well-regarded.

I listened to the interview on Charlie Rose. Andersen, self-involved and careless, focused on relating his own subjective experience of politics, mostly as an entertainment or a stimulus. He and Charlie joked about how politics was like reality TV, and Charlie noted that celebrity magazines were focusing on political celebrities. Politics, Anderson allowed without elaboration, had seemed to become more consequential over the last 7 years.

What is going on, here?

Well, one thing that is going on, is that a certain kind of political journalism requires that its practitioners be non-partisan "independents" -- people, who are interested in politics as a cultural phenomena, but, whose worldviews do not compel them to affiliate and identify with one Party or the other. There are quite a few Pundits, who are closely identified as Democrats or Republicans -- often with careers as political operatives or staff -- but political journalists, like Andersen, come out a tradition of "objective" reporting where partisan identification would be frowned upon, would be a handicap, in fact.

Tim Burke, a very thoughtful history professor at Swarthmore wrote about his own "independent" political views in a blogpost, he titledThe Loneliness of the Long-Distance Independent. It is very good stuff, but with an remarkable lack of self-awareness for a naval-gazing post, he writes, of himself:

"The independent fantasizes that his ideal candidate will stand proud even if that means not winning, at least if the stakes are high enough and the principle important enough."

Of course, to a partisan like myself this seems inexplicable. For Partisans, politics is a team sport, and when the going gets tough, the team gets going. If the stakes are high enough, the principle important enough, the correct response is to rally to your team. The stakes are, only incidentally, a principle, and, more usually, material benefits, and not winning is losing, and losing is bad.

Now, politics is a team sport, where non-team-members are allowed to swarm onto the field and play, willy-nilly, with no penalty or time-out. The "independent" plays, and her vote is often decisive. When the "independent" is a political journalist or pundit or even just an influential person, her voice, and not just her vote, matters. The "independent" brings not just a set of preferences, but a worldview to both political discourse and the voting booth. And, it is a worldview, which is radically at odds with the worldviews of partisans, who play for keeps; it is a worldview and an associated set of preferences embedded into that worldview, which seem, in fact, deranged, detached and bizarre to well-informed partisans.

It is not a worldview limited only to a particular demographic. All humans share it. But, if you are a partisan, if you have taken sides, and made a committment to the Party identity and association, you have taken on some ballast, that keeps your ship from bouncing around wildly and whimsically. You can take on an awareness of policy and self-interest, to keep yourself oriented and upright and focused; the ballast that comes with partisan committment is the awareness that politics does matter, for something you care about.

The "independent", who becomes a political journalist does not care about policy substance, about material benefits, and will never write sensibly about most policy issues. What she cares about is the drama, about character and motivation and bathos. And, like movie critics, who must see way too many movies, she will tend to get bored and to focus on unimportant details. To maintain her detachment and "objectivity", she must avoid taking on the ballast of partisan committment, and without that ballast, tends to forget that politics does matter.

The canny politician knows that he must appeal to the "independent" mindset, but not with the promises of material benefits appropriate to an interest group, but with a narrative drama about character, ordeal, courage and the triumph of principle -- in other words with drama. This is the stuff of biography. It doesn't even have to be one's own biography: think of Jack Kennedy authoring Profiles in Courage.

The partisans will always claim they want to talk about "the issues", which are the particular material or symbolic policy questions, which partisans think politics can affect. Worldviews vary systematically concerning what politics can affect, or should affect, of course. And, part of assembling a political coaltion is assembling a set of issues that are compatible with your coalition. "Issues" are real and important, especially for the teams, for the partisans. But, even the partisans care about character and drama. Even the partisans want to love their guy, and hate the other guy.

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