And Despair

It’s no wonder kids find high school English tedious. They have to read tedious poetry, and then have something to say about it if they haven’t yet mastered the art of fading into the woodwork for forty minutes each day. They will have to write a paper about some odd poem, however – there’s no escape – and one of those odd poems used to be Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias. That’s a high-school poem, simple-minded and obvious. A traveler comes across what’s left of a giant statue in the desert. All that’s left is two legs and its broken face off to the side, and an inscription – “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Yeah, right – and this is where the student is supposed to explain the concept of irony, a concept foreign to most teenagers, or diving deeper, explain the folly of thinking any moment of triumph, or extended run of triumph, will last in this cruel world, where all comes to naught, and so on and so forth. Ozymandias, by the way, was an alternative name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II – and Shelley knocked out his little sonnet after the announcement that British Museum’s had just acquired of a large fragment of a statue of the guy. That was cool, but even Shelley didn’t take the poem all that seriously. He and a friend decided to see who could come up the best sonnet about the dead Egyptian fellow, the fastest, and Shelley won – but there was nothing deep and new in Shelley’s short poem. It was just the bloody obvious, well put – and thus now perfect for teenagers with other things on their minds. Perhaps high school English teachers still make kids read it, for that very reason.

Paul Simon, however, spoke for all of America in his 1973 hit song – “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

That says it all. Simon’s narrator might have been thinking about high-school algebra or introductory French, but it’s more likely he was thinking about all that crap in that tedious English class about irony – situational irony and dramatic irony and verbal irony and all the rest. That was a bummer. All irony is tedious and depressing, showing that things aren’t what they seem, almost always, and implying that nothing at all lasts, really. Screw that. Life should, after all, give us those nice bright colors that make you think all the world’s a sunny day. That Shelley poem and all the rest do the opposite. Forget all that crap. Of course Simon’s little song is, in itself, deeply ironic. The narrator is a blissful goofy unaware fool.

He is, however, an American. We do have the best nation on earth, the only really good one, and America, having gotten everything right, will last forever, getting better and better – and everyone loves us too, except for those who hate us for our freedoms, and that’s obviously envy. President Obama, on various occasions, has said we do have a lot to be proud of, and we’re right to feel pride, but every other nation on earth feels the same way about itself – and he got hammered for saying that. Republicans, led by Sarah Plain and the Tea Party wing, said Obama was out there apologizing for America all the time. Mitt Romney rode that pony too, having someone ghostwrite a book for him – No Apology: Believe in America – or maybe he wrote the thing himself. Obama, however, had only been pointing out something mildly ironic, that all nations think they’re the best, at least at something. No one makes cheese like the Swiss. Wasn’t anyone paying attention in high school English class?

Apparently not, and it’s easy enough to see that the major divide in American politics has to do with irony. Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, which is supercharged Republicanism and beyond, doesn’t do irony. They don’t get the concept, and as a little irony is necessary to compromise, to get at least something useful done, they don’t do compromise either. Here’s the list of the fifty-four times they have voted to repeal or tweak Obamacare – and today’s fifty-fifth vote – and they see no irony in this. The House Republicans, dominated by the Tea Party, have asked America – and useless whining Democrats in particular – to look on their works, you who think you’re so mighty, and despair, at your own worthlessness.

Shelley might have something to say about that, but he’s dead, so Michael Tanner in the first and still the most important conservative periodical, the National Review, wall have to fill in for the poet:

As the Tea Party celebrates its five-year anniversary, many commentators are asking whether the grassroots anti–Big Government movement is still relevant.

In some ways, this seems a silly question. The Tea Party has been enormously successful in changing the terms of the national debate on issues such as debt and spending. And, while its favored candidates have suffered some high-profile defeats, it has also won important victories. The Republican midterm sweep of 2010 would not have been possible without its energy and enthusiasm.

Yet it’s also true that the Tea Party’s clout is waning. According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 30 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the movement, the lowest level in its history. This seems particularly unsettling when polls also show that the public still overwhelmingly supports the Tea Party objective of limited government. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows a record 72 percent of Americans feels that big government is the greatest threat to the future of the country. Voters who feel that way should be flocking to the Tea Party in droves.

They are not.

What we have here is the ironic scattered remains of a colossal statue of a once mighty king, alone in the desert, and Tanner offers the obvious:

Americans tend to dislike confrontation from their political leaders. Certainly, things like the government shutdown tended to turn off some voters, especially when misrepresented by a biased media. The overheated rhetoric of some tea-party leaders may also drive away otherwise sympathetic voters. Calling every dissenting Republican a RINO or inferring that President Obama is some sort of crypto-Muslim Communist is not going to win friends or influence people. Some tea-party activists definitely come across as a bit over-caffeinated.

They ruined a good idea:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Fine, but Obamacare is the law now, and working reasonably well, and will keep working better and better, and the national debt keeps dropping, faster than at any time since we came home after taking care of Hitler and Tojo and then invented suburbia – so those core issues may not play well in the real world beyond the closed and self-contained conservative universe. Tanner goes on to argue that social issues were not part of the original Tea Party platform, so all the talk about banning gay marriage and deporting everyone vaguely brown, and going beyond banning abortion to ban all forms of birth control, and all the talk about Jesus weeping every time someone passes other regulation limiting access to assault rifles for children, really did mess things up.

That’s the typical lament from economic conservatives, who are never all that excited about any particular social issue, but they no longer own the Tea Party, and the problem now is that all these various positions, and many more, are presented without even a hint of irony. Think of Paul Simon’s blissful goofy unaware fool in that song. Now imagine two million of those.

As Talking Point Memo points out, the problem is a lack of self-awareness:

State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-MS), the tea party candidate in the Mississippi Senate race, was listed as the keynote speaker at a gun rights event along with a Confederate memorabilia store owner who has advocated for racial segregation – and backed out of it when it was highlighted by a state political blog.

As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday McDaniel had been listed as the keynote speaker at the Combined Firearm Freedom Day/Tea Party Music Fest in Guntown, Mississippi on May 17. McDaniel was listed as the primary headliner of the event alongside a number of tea party groups, McDaniel’s campaign manager, who is also a state senator, and a seller of American Revolution relics and Confederate memorabilia called Pace Confederate Depot.

The online store’s owner, Brian Pace, founded the Council of White Patriot Voters in 2011 and is quoted in a local news report as saying “whenever we had racial segregation things were much better off.”

To be clear, Pace said that he had shut down the Council of White Patriot Voters and formed the Confederate Patriot Voters United, with the same members, which the Southern Poverty Law Center still lists as an active white nationalist hate group in Mississippi, as renaming things is kind of stupid, because it all comes down to the same thing:

“If you feel like segregation is what you want to do then that’s your freedom of association, that’s your constitutional right. That’s basically the way we look at it. If you believe in segregation you know that you have a freedom to segregate if you want to, if you don’t believe in segregation then that’s your free choice,” Pace said.

Free choice is good, right? There’s nothing complex and ironic about free choice, after all, except there is:

After Y’all Politics, the blog authored by a supporter of incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), highlighted McDaniel’s scheduled attendance at the event, McDaniel’s campaign insisted that he was “not confirmed.”

That’s in contradiction to what assistant event organizer Kevin Owen told TPM. Owen said that McDaniel had been confirmed as the keynote speaker for the event, but he said that chief event coordinator, Jay Anthony, had been coordinating directly with the McDaniel campaign. Anthony did not respond to multiple requests from TPM for comment.

By about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the flyer for the event dropped McDaniel’s name (but it still included the name of McDaniel’s campaign manager, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner). Sojourner said that she saw that she and McDaniel had been listed as planning to attend the event.

“I saw that they had. Neither one of us was confirmed and that call has been made and supposedly they’re putting out the correction,” Sojourner said. “There were several Second Amendment groups that were planning different events and we’re both very strong Second Amendment supporters and so there were several events that were planned and it was basically just kind of the discussion was ‘well when you get some things done and scheduled let us know’ but there was never any confirmation on exact events or what was happening.”

There was a lot of tap-dancing here, but no one was surprised:

McDaniel’s name has been connected to neo-Confederates and white supremacists before. Last year McDaniel attended at least one neo-Confederate event in Mississippi. His twitter account also appears to have retweeted a white supremacist.

The man likes free choice in everything. If people like the idea of lynching niggers, he’s all for their free choice to advocate that, and act accordingly. Well, maybe not, and there’s this:

Republican Matt Bevin, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) tea party primary challenger, spoke at a cockfighting rally which he said he thought was an event advocating more general states’ rights.

On Bevin’s campaign itinerary he listed a Saturday morning event at The Arena in Corbin, Kentucky as a “states’ rights rally.” But according to organizers, the event was very clearly a pro-cockfighting event.

“I was the first person to speak and then I left,” Bevin said according to the News Journal of Corbin, Kentucky. “They knew I was here. They asked if I would be interested in speaking. I’m a politician running statewide, any chance I get to speak to a few hundred people I’m going to take it.”

Fine, but things are seldom what they seem, and it always pays to pay attention:

Cockfighting, surprisingly, has been a topic that’s come up in the Kentucky Republican primary. In February, a group associating with cockfighting promised revenge against McConnell in response to his vote in favor of a major farm bill in January, a provision of which made cockfighting a federal misdemeanor with a punishment of as much as a year in prison and a fine of $100,000.

Economic conservatives like Michael Tanner, worried sick about debt/deficit issues – two different things but they don’t care – and appalled that the wrong sort of people will now be able to buy quality-controlled health insurance, and that people still get food stamps, and Medicare and Social Security checks too, are watching folks they might find useful in office embroiled in issues about bringing back segregation and cockfighting, which some, who like irony, refer to as chicken-boxing.

They’ve had enough, and Talking Points Memo, reports on the push-back from conservatives with at least a modicum of self-awareness, like S. E. Cupp, who pops up on CNN these days, with this tweet for the guy in Mississippi:

Sorry, you get no credit for dropping out of white nationalist event you agreed to keynote. Ass.

There’s more:

“When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas,” Republican strategist John Feehery told TPM in an email. “This is the problem with the tea party and their candidates. They lack judgment and that lack of judgment makes them poor general election candidates.”

The National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC), which has done some of the most heated battling with the outside groups that support McDaniel, quickly took to twitter to attack McDaniel over the episode.

“Candidates who associate with white nationalists and segregationists events give away GOP seats to Democrats!”

It goes on and on:

Mississippi Republican Party chair Joe Nosef urged McDaniel to clarify whether he supports groups that promote the confederacy and segregation.

“Running for the United States Senate is a very important thing and as a party we need to always be careful and focused and serious about what our views are and what our interests are,” Nosef said according to MSNBC on Thursday.

Brian Walsh, a former NRSC communications director and vocal critic of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said that McDaniel’s decision to pull out of the event when he did didn’t “smell right.”

“It just doesn’t necessarily smell right that he disavowed it after it became public,” Walsh told TPM. “These are the sorts of issues that Democrats would have a field day in the general election. And it’s the type of thing that cost us winnable seats in the last couple of cycles.”

And there’s this:

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were puzzled at how tea party favorite and Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin could attend a cockfighting rally and not know it was, you know, a cockfighting rally.

“What? Wait, so he went to the rally?” Brzezinski asked on Thursday.

“I don’t know how you accidentally stumble into a cockfighting rally,” Scarborough said.

It’s easy enough if you weren’t paying attention in high school English. That stuff about irony wasn’t crap. That Shelly poem did show the obvious, rather well, and you certainly don’t double-down:

Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin continued to address his presence at a rally for supporters of legalizing cockfighting by saying America’s Founding Fathers were very involved in the cockfighting world too.

“But it is interesting when you look at cockfighting and dogfighting as well,” Bevin said in an interview on the Terry Meiners Show on Louisville’s WHAS on Thursday. “This isn’t something new; it wasn’t invented in Kentucky for example. I mean the Founding Fathers were all many of them very involved in this and always have been.”

Bevin missed the lessons on verb tenses back in high school English too, unless the founding fathers are still around, somewhere, making wagers on chicken-boxing at this very moment. An ironic shrug might have saved the day. This made things worse, but Dana Milbank reports there’s no irony possible anywhere on that side:

House Republicans on Wednesday held Benghazi hearing number 1,372,569 – give or take – and this time they were determined to find the proof that had eluded them in the previous 1,372,568 – that Obama administration officials had put politics before national security.

Alas for the accusers, this hearing went the way of the others.

Lawmakers had another go at Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting CIA director and the man who revised the infamous “talking points” that said the September 2012 attack on American facilities in Libya had grown out of a protest. The talking points are key to the Republicans’ claims that President Obama tried to hide the true nature of the terrorist attack because the presidential election was just weeks away.

Morell, a now-retired career intelligence official who served under six presidents, and was with George W. Bush in Florida on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks, has the credibility to validate the conspiracy theories Republicans have been floating about Benghazi. But instead, he used the rare public session to rebut the accusation.

Oops:

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) let loose a string of insults on the uncooperative witness, saying Morell was either “misleading by omission” or “lying by omission” and violating “your obligation to this committee….”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) skipped the questions in favor of accusations. “I believe that the totality of the information was obfuscated and that there was an intentional misleading of the public,” she said, charging Morell with changing the talking points “for the White House.”

Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who is retiring to be a talk-radio host, had drawn grumbles from some conservatives for being insufficiently zealous about Benghazi. Wednesday’s three-hour extravaganza should help him with those critics, because it gave Republican lawmakers a chance to vent their rage.

Angriest, or at least loudest, was Rep. Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), who shouted virtually his entire statement: “We get on talking points, and we get about who said this and whether the station chief said that. And the bottom line is that we’ve got people running around who killed Americans, who are sipping mai tais or whatever they’re sipping, and we can’t do anything about it.”

The echo is clear. My name is Tea Party, king of kings! Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! That didn’t work for Ozymandias either. Look back on all the crap you leaned in high school. Some of it wasn’t crap at all, ironically enough.

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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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2 Responses to And Despair

  1. Rick says:

    “All irony is tedious and depressing…”

    Irony is boring? Are you kidding? I live for the stuff! Irony is funny! At least the kind of irony that I like is.

    In fact, it’s apparently the essence of humor itself, in that brain scans of people experiencing humor show all the activity in that part of the brain that solves complex questions. What makes us laugh is the realization that whoever told the joke was able to force us to bring something to the party, to use our brains, to close the gap, to make sense out of what would be senseless had we not been able to solve the puzzle given us.

    In the case of Ozymandias, there’s that inscription, him arrogantly predicting that his works would impress people forever, and then we look over and see there’s nothing there but those two legs? That’s hilarious! In that case, the one who told the joke was Shelley, although in a wider sense, maybe it was some god who lived long enough to give this pompous asshole his well-deserved comeuppance, to let the world know his probably-worthless works would not be everlasting after all.

    Irony, on its own, may not make life worth living, but it sure does make it less tedious and depressing.

    Michael Tanner, in his postmortem of the Tea Party decline in the National Review, first looks for something nice to credit them with:

    “The Tea Party has been enormously successful in changing the terms of the national debate on issues such as debt and spending.”

    I know he’s trying to throw them a bone and everything, but maybe he missed that there has been somewhat of a turn, of late, noted prominently by Paul Krugman, that people are finally starting to listen to economists like him who have been stating that there is no crisis of debt and spending — and to the extent that there is, it’s that there hasn’t been enough of either. So not even that can be counted as part of any positive legacy of the Tea Party.

    But you want legacy? Try the impact of the short-lived and supposedly feckless “Occupy” movement. They came and went fairly quickly, but people are still talking about the 1% and 99% and debating whether something needs to be done about inequality of income and wealth in this country.

    Yes, those people got sort of silly with all those drums and ridiculous hand signals and that comical “human microphone” stuff, but at least they were not quite as full of themselves as those folks in the three-cornered hats, carrying signs with pictures of Obama with that little Hitler mustache under his nose, who are still arguing among themselves as to what the hell it is they stand for.

    Rick

  2. John Le Pouvoir says:

    Luckily, I missed most of those tedious North Hills High School English classes as I was notoriously truant for my H.S. years. This leaves me, at age 67 and looking back through the lens of a half-century, much more able to appreciate irony. I’m blessed to have the view of mountains ,and I can retreat to those vistas and Paul Simon’s later work ‘Graceland”, when the voices of the assault on we, the meek, the poor, the old, become too much to bear. Thanks, Alan, for your erudition and energy to daily confront all the babel.

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