The Limits of Crass and Unthinking Exploitation

Out here in Hollywood, the seventies were the golden age of the schlock disaster movies. There were movies where a giant rogue wave barrels in out of nowhere and capsizes the big fancy cruise ship, turning it upside down so that the floors are now the ceilings and so on. Everyone knew what would happen next. Someone starts screaming. We’re all going to DIE! This goes on for some time, for maximum effect – the audience is supposed to shudder or something – and then the calm and decisive hero slaps the screamer in question across the face, hard, perhaps several times, sort of waking them up from their panic. The screamer in question falls silent, in embarrassment and shame, and then delivers the requisite response. “Thanks, I needed that” – and then everyone figures out how to get out of the particular pickle they’re in. After all, in the movie in question the title song is all about how there’s got to be a morning after – there always is. There were variations on this sort of thing involving burning skyscrapers and earthquakes and a seemingly endless series of those “Airport” movies. Then things changed. In 1980 Paramount gave us Airplane!

The Zucker brothers weren’t very nice in their movie – they made fun of all the silly crap that had come before. All those blockbuster disaster movies were, after all, often little more than a sad array of faded former big stars, hoping not to be forgotten, hamming it up in their thankless cameo roles. The Zucker brothers just did the same and they showed that it was all absurd, and suddenly panic itself was passé too – it was a lame joke. Real life isn’t like that. Yes, a few people panic in real disasters, and some people just shut down, but most people simply try to figure out what the hell to do next. Disasters aren’t funny – the only thing that’s funny is rich Hollywood producers trying to get even richer by rolling out sentimental drivel about imaginary nonsense that’s unlikely to happen to anyone, ever. Crass and unthinking exploitation was the butt of the joke. The age of blockbuster disaster movies was over.

Crass and unthinking exploitation of pain and disaster wasn’t over of course, given human nature. Pain and disaster are levers – something you can use to get what you always wanted. Think of George Bush and his neoconservative pit crew and owners. No, none of them were behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on that September morning all those years ago – only tin-foil-hat fools peddle that nonsense, or once did. They were, however, handed a lever to move the world. They didn’t expect that group of attacks – they were as surprised as the rest of us by all accounts, which is certainly not to their credit – but that disaster was something they could use to get rid of that pesky Saddam Hussein and take over Iraq, and then use to rebuild Iraq and in fact the entire Middle East into something we always wanted. That didn’t work out, but you can hardly blame them for getting all excited that it just might. They suddenly had a lever after all. It’s just that they turned out to be as crass and unthinking as any ambitious Hollywood movie producer in the seventies.

Now we have Hurricane Sandy, and as there’s got to be a morning after, the question is whether anyone will use this disaster as a lever to get what they always wanted. The climate-change people think they might have just that lever. See Meghan McCain to GOP after Sandy: Do you still doubt climate change? There’s also Brad Plumer – Yes, Hurricane Sandy is a Good Reason to Worry about Climate Change – and Al Gore of course. They’re probably right, but many will say this is just crass and unthinking exploitation and do what the Zucker brothers did – make fun of them. That’s happening already – as you would expect.

The New York Times editorial board sees another lever – this disaster proves we still need Big Government at times, to get us through these things. Mitt Romney is wrong – the states, most of which are broke now, thanks to the House Republicans, cannot handle such things – and private enterprise has no incentive to jump and fix things either. Jonathan Cohn puts it nicely – “Government, in the abstract, doesn’t get a lot of love from the voters. Maybe Sandy will remind people that it should.” There’s a lot of that going around.

Maybe that’s crass, given what just happened:

The sweep of devastation from Superstorm Sandy became heartbreakingly clear Tuesday: At least 46 people are dead, and authorities face the unimaginable task of restoring power and transit for millions of others.

“We have not seen damage like this in a generation,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, assessing the scope of a hurricane that swept homes into the ocean, flooded large swaths of coastal areas, left millions of people without power and crippled transportation, told NBC News.

The storm, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, was proof that “nature is an awful lot more powerful than we are.”

President Barack Obama declared major disasters in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, promising that the federal government would do all it could to help local authorities cope with damage. The president was scheduled to visit damaged areas in New Jersey on Wednesday, the White House said.

Romney is campaigning Wednesday. Obama is off to New Jersey, which is not a swing state – he’s way ahead there anyway – and he’s not campaigning. It’s just work, trying to fix things, and New Jersey got the worst of it. It’s not exploitation of anything – if Obama was just handed a lever to move the political world he won’t use that lever to do any such thing. That would be crass.

And Obama now has an odd ally in the governor there, Chris Christie, the man who gave the keynote address at the Republican convention, this time shocking everyone at Fox News:

Fox News co-host Steve Doocy wondered when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was going to get some of the same benefits from the hurricane with a photo op in disaster-stricken New Jersey towns.

“Over the last couple of months, you have appeared throughout the country, Governor, on behalf of Mitt Romney,” Doocy remarked to Christie. “We hear that perhaps Mr. Romney may do some storm-related events. Is there any possibility that Gov. Romney may go to New Jersey to tour some of the damage with you?”

“I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested,” Christie replied, immediately shutting down the idea. “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics and I could [sic] care less about any of that stuff.”

“I have a job to do,” he added. “I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

This was followed by stunned silence. Romney might have a lever here. Christie is a hero in the Republican Party and could help out – and he flatly refused, and seemed angry. You don’t exploit death and pain and destruction for political ends – period, end of story. The whole rationale for the existence of Fox News was rejected. He may not be asked back.

They should have seen this coming:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) praised President Obama’s work to help states battered by Hurricane Sandy as “outstanding” Tuesday, but cautioned that the recovery would be a prolonged effort. Christie, a prominent surrogate for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, said Obama had moved quickly to help designate his state a disaster area to better expedite federal assistance.

“The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” said Christie, in an interview with NBC’s “Today.”

“Last night, I was on the phone with FEMA at 2 a.m. this morning to answer the questions they needed answered to get that designation and the president has been outstanding in this. The folks at FEMA, [Administrator] Craig Fugate and his folks have been excellent,” he continued.

In a separate interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Christie added to the praise, saying that “the president has been all over this and deserves great credit.”

“He gave me his number at the White House and told me to call him if I needed anything,” he added.

Romney’s lever, if there was one, was gone, although Charlie Pierce suggests another lever here:

In case you missed it, no matter who wins next Tuesday, Chris Christie almost guaranteed his inauguration on January 20, 2017. From his tough-guy outburst at that dough-brained mayor of Atlantic City, to his outburst of genuine grace regarding the president and the federal response to the deluge that swamped his state, to his fundamental acceptance of the reality that we need a national government to solve national problems, to the way he slapped around the denizens of the Fox News Couch of Stupid, you have to give it to the man. He’s been a genuine star over the last 48 hours…

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog doesn’t agree:

Why don’t I agree? Here’s the short answer: President Giuliani. Remember, we have one reality test of the premise that a Northeastern loudmouth can catapult himself to the GOP presidential nomination, and then the Oval Office, on the basis of one moment of bipartisan grace in response to a crisis, in the midst of a career otherwise built on fighting everyone who looks at him crosswise. We know how Rudy’s story turned out.

He also has a longer answer:

Do we really believe Christie is going to win the Republican nomination in 2016 because he praised the person Republicans in 2012 hate more than anyone who ever lived? Giuliani, at least, built his moment of grace around mournful rage at swarthy Muslim evildoers; he didn’t praise anyone Republican voters think is the Antichrist. Unless we’re going to replace Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016 with the Morning Joe Greenroom Primary, what Christie is doing now is going to make him less appealing to the Republican base, not more.

Sincerity is not going to help him win with his party. He won’t be their next nominee. He doesn’t pull the obvious levers offered to him – but who is arguing with him? Exploitation is crass. Everyone sees what you’re doing. Even the folks at Fox News may have figured that out, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir points out here:

Watching Fox News all afternoon, on the day after Sandy made its devastating landfall along the Eastern seaboard, was like entering an alternate dimension – but not the one you’re thinking. No, this was the dimension where the unfocused anger, the slow-boiling subsurface paranoia that drives so much of the coverage on Roger Ailes’ news network, has miraculously drained away. Fox on Tuesday afternoon was not just a real news network as well as a genuinely “fair and balanced” one – it was actually a pretty doggone decent one.

One of the info-nuggets revealed in the bright yellow crawl across the bottom of the screen, sometime around 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, read like this: ROMNEY CAMPAIGN TOLD TO RAMP DOWN CRITICISM OF PRESIDENT OBAMA.

Whether for moral reasons – or purely tactical ones – that decision had apparently spread, top-down, throughout the Fox News operation. If the discomfort and difficulty of this undertaking was palpable at times, there are quite a few people, even at Fox, who are trained in actual journalism and can pull it off for short periods. So what we saw across Megyn Kelly, Shep Smith and Neal Cavuto’s successive afternoon shows was largely straightforward reporting on the damage in New York City and along the New Jersey shore, most of it handled with aplomb.

O’Hehir reviews the full day. It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last:

It was no doubt a relief for Fox’s proprietors and viewers to lurch, very suddenly, back to business as usual with “The Five,” the terrifying 5 o’clock panel show that features right-wing attack dogs Greg Gutfeld (in a blinding yellow sweater) and Kimberly Guilfoyle (who might have been made up for Halloween, except that she always looks like that) ganging up on token liberal Bob Beckel. They all made some obligatory mumbles about the terrible storm and the bravery of first responders, with a few asides about how “presidential” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looked. (Is that a dig at Obama, though – or at Romney?)

Then the group started discussing how disgraceful it was that the Obama administration deliberately left Americans behind to die in Benghazi, and that it was so true that Chrysler’s Italian owners were planning to outsource Jeep production to China (which somehow or other was also Obama’s doing). So the world was very nearly back on its axis…

Levers were being pulled again. It’s just that Mitt Romney wasn’t pulling them. Salon’s Joan Walsh explains that was because Romney was in a tough spot:

It’s become a platitude to say that no one should be playing politics with Hurricane Sandy, but that’s silly. When the performance of government suddenly becomes a literal matter of life and death to many Americans, we ought to be thinking about what kind of government we want to have, and that involves politics.

It’s impossible not to see that this storm has devastated Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. The response to the hurricane has seemed like one long dramatic Obama campaign commercial, a lesson in “We’re all in this together,” while Romney, the man who said he’d dismantle FEMA, flails on the sidelines.

The man did say he would dismantle FEMA – long ago in the primaries, perhaps for tactical reasons – but he did say that. He has to live with that now, and Walsh shows how lame his alternatives are:

Romney’s “relief” event outside of Dayton, Ohio, was surreal enough to be a campaign parody, with the candidate comparing the federal government’s hurricane relief efforts to the time he and some friends had to clean up a football field strewn with “rubbish and paper products.” It was supposed to be a parable of how Republicans handle disaster – with private charity, not government intervention – as Romney told his audience, “It’s part of the American spirit, the American way, to give to people in need.” The Republican went on to talk about the time some Hurricane Katrina survivors were rerouted from Houston to Cape Cod and the good people of Cape Cod responded by donating food and, yes, television sets.

Walsh points to this item – the Red Cross and almost all private charities don’t want canned goods and blankets and whatnot. They want funds that can be used where they’re needed. “Stuff” just has to be sorted and distributed and may not be what’s specifically necessary at the moment. What are they supposed to do with old television sets?

And it only got lamer:

Romney promised to put the goods on a truck to where they’re needed, “I think New Jersey,” he said. That was a funny choice. Maybe it had to do with the fact that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has all but endorsed Obama in the last two days, repeatedly praising his “leadership.”

Maybe it was all a Zucker brothers’ movie, although Walsh is not that impressed with Christie’s big change:

Let’s be honest: The New Jersey governor has not been Mitt Romney’s most loyal foot soldier. He was quick to join the calls for Romney to release his tax returns earlier this year, and his keynote speech in Tampa was more like a Christie 2016 campaign kickoff than a tribute to Romney. There’s obviously a heavy element of self-interest in Christie’s response. His approval as governor hinges on how he handles the storm, and so do his presidential aspirations. He’s got a huge incentive to work well with the president. He’s also got some incentive to stick a shiv in the flailing Republican contender, since a Romney loss would clear the way for a Christie 2016 bid as well. He’s clearly playing politics here.

That, however, wasn’t the real problem:

Outside of Romney’s embarrassing European tour this summer, when he insulted Britain over Olympics planning and divulged a secret briefing by MI6, this is Romney’s worst moment yet. As the storm approached, political reporters dredged up his pledge to “absolutely” restructure FEMA to give power to the states. At a Republican debate in June 2011, he suggested the private sector should do more, because federal spending even on FEMA was “jeopardizing the future of our kids.” Tell that to the kids of New Jersey, Gov. Romney. And of course the Ryan budget would slash funding for FEMA.

After this relief event reporters did ask Romney if he still favors sending FEMA funding and responsibility back to the states, and asked him over and over and over. He pretended he didn’t hear the questions, and Walsh sees why:

Romney won’t answer because he can’t. We saw him pivot to the center, to become the white Barack Obama, in the three debates, as he realized his unpopular policies and his contempt for 47 percent of the country was dooming his presidential bid. He’s got no standing now to talk about how he’d handle this disaster. The heroes of Sandy, so far, are the first responders, the cops and firefighters and emergency technicians, the folks evacuating patients from hospitals and trapped citizens from flooding. These are the people who’ve been demonized by Republicans for the last two years:  the public workers who have become the new “welfare queens.” When Obama pushed a jobs bill that would have helped states and cities avoid laying-off such workers, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell derided it as a “bailout,” and Paul Ryan, of course, voted against it.

It’s too late now. Crass and unthinking exploitation is always the butt of the joke:

No one can be reassured by Romney’s empty posturing. Unless there is some government-abetted or neglected further disaster, I think Obama will be reelected next Tuesday. Hurricane Sandy has reminded us what’s at stake.

Disasters can no longer be used as levers to get what you always wanted. Maybe George Bush screwed the pooch there, or maybe it was one too many schlock disaster movie back in the seventies. And see Charlie Pierce again:

Now, after these two days, it ought not to be beyond the pale to “politicize” the simple fact that, even though the Republican half of it was an embarrassing clown show, this election has come down to a battle between two visions of the functions of the national government and, through that, a battle over whether the political commonwealth exists at all. It is not politicizing anything to point out the obvious fact that one side of these arguments is lying as a soggy pulpish object on the beaches of New Jersey, and the other one is out there trying to get the lights back on.

A few people panic in disasters, and some people just shut down, and some see any disaster as a way to get what they always wanted – but most people simply try to figure out what the hell to do next. Maybe there are enough of those left to get Obama reelected.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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