It was about ten years ago, on the third or fourth solo trip to Paris to kick around for a few weeks and feel more at home than is possible here in Hollywood – where no one ever feels at home – that something seemed strange. Don’t concern yourself why a twice-divorced systems guy raised in Pittsburgh, educated in Ohio and North Carolina and living in Hollywood, always felt that that first afternoon in Paris, fresh off the overnight non-stop from Los Angeles and sipping cognac at dusk – and just watching the December rain on the streets outside an obscure café off rue Bonaparte – felt as if he had finally come home, again. It’s a personal thing. Some of us feel that way. There’s no explaining it – it’s just so.
The odd thing was picking up odds and ends at Monoprix, or buying pipe tobacco at the shop on the corner, or just buying a newspaper. About that time each commercial transaction now ended with you hearing the words Bon journée – roughly, have a nice day.
This was new. Of course, the words were delivered in an automatic sort of way – just part of the script, just like in every store in every mall in America, muttered without conviction. At least you didn’t get the unconvincing forced grin, required of the staff by store management on this side of the pond – this was France after all – and there were no yellow smiley-faces pasted all over. But you noticed the change. There used to be silence – not hostility, as some see – but just silence. You went on about your business and so did vendeur. What kind of day you had was you own business, as so was his. That’s life. And one does not intrude. There had been a comfort in that, but it was now gone.
Perhaps it was a marketing thing – tourism is big business and getting all American with that have-a-nice-day thing had been suggested by the government, and was now required by law or something – but the French were also saying it to the French. In short, everyone was lying. No one meant it. It was just something you said.
Oh, it was harmless enough, but haven’t you ever been tempted, when some perky clerk with a goofy grin tells you to have a nice day, and actually seems to mean it, to just blurt out that you’ll have whatever kind of damned day you please? Cheery directives can be really, really irritating. And they’re really irritating from people who don’t know a thing about you. It’s presumptuous, and manipulative in an odd way.
Or maybe that’s all wrong. Maybe ending everything with that empty have-a-nice-day thing is really an indication of pervasive existential angst – a hope against hope that someone, somewhere, and maybe you, will be the one to actually have a nice day, however unlikely that is in the sad and tragic world. Or it’s just a mindless courtesy – our small gift to the rest of the world. The rest of the world seems to have rejected the yellow smiley-faces.
Yep, we should be courteous and decent to each other. It just makes things easier all around. But it gets complicated.
Consider our presidential campaign. Obama is all courtesy and deference – he talks about issues and policy and things that need to be done. He doesn’t do personal attacks. It’s just not in him. He listens, thinks, and responds. He is, above all else, respectful and polite. In politics, that’s very odd.
McCain is somewhat the opposite – suggesting Obama is far too popular and must be as shallow as Paris Hilton, and perhaps a traitor, because he’d rather lose the Iraq war to win this election, and all the rest. Actual policy seems to bore McCain, of course, so he talks about character – his – and his opponent’s lack of it. And of course that gets nasty. That’s more traditional.
And now McCain has a running mate, Sarah Palin, who is far more blunt that he is, and ten times as nasty, with no policy experience at all. He’s doubled-down on the old way of doing things – he’s pushed in all the chips. This should work, and it might.
The Republicans, at least the evangelical right, which seems to have now taken over the party from the neoconservative policy wonks, is ecstatic about her – she can give a rip-roaring speech and really stick it to the uppity, elite lefties.
But here is where it gets confusing. The McCain campaign has said they will keep her under wraps for two weeks – she will answer no questions, do no interviews, and there will be no press availability at all – and according to Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, she will just not tolerate any interviews “until the point in time when she’ll be treated with respect and deference.”
The idea is the press is out to get her, and that’s just unfair – and of course the word is that Joe Lieberman has been posted to Alaska to give her a two to three week crash course in foreign policy, the economy, and all the other issues. By the time she will debate Joe Biden, her Democratic counterpart, she will have something to say. In short, Joe is Professor Henry Higgins, she is Eliza Doolittle, and the Vice Presidential Debate is the Embassy Ball. Hey, it worked just fine in the movie.
Be that as it may, the odd thing is the call for respect and deference – which is kind of rich, given her way of doing politics. It seems this campaign will be long on irony. Fox News’ Chris Wallace followed up, asking when voters can expect to see this woman answer tough questions from reporters. Davis’ answer to that was even more curious – “When we think it’s time and when she feels comfortable doing it.”
This was a demand for respect. But it just doesn’t sit well. In fact, Josh Marshall explains that these aren’t training wheels we can believe in:
Sarah Palin could be the President of the United States in four and a half months. We tend to think of this as an abstraction; but it’s true. And yet today she’s so unprepared and knows so little about the challenges and tasks facing the country that she can’t even give a softball interview.
That’s really all we need to know. Yes, she’s off being prepped at some undisclosed location. And I’ve little doubt that by the time her debate rolls around she’ll be sufficiently pumped full of slogans and bromides to make a show of it. But now, this moment, is the one that tells us all we need to know.
As is so often the case, Palin is the incarnation of the Republican slurs. The darling of the hard-right; she gives stem-winding speeches. She pushes all their buttons. But she’s such a lightweight, they can’t risk letting her answer a few questions. Not even on Fox. They know she’s not ready and probably never will be. But they think the politics might work for them.
Well, Rick Davis said that he perceives the media environment as “hostile” – they had no choice, or something, as no one is being courteous.
In the New York Times, Chris Hoyt argues that some sort of adversarial process is both appropriate and necessary with this:
In our instant-news and celebrity- obsessed culture, Palin went from Sarah Who to conservative rock star in less than a week. In less than two months, she could be elected vice president to serve under the oldest president, at 72, ever elected to a first term, and one with a history of recurring melanoma. Intense, independent scrutiny by The Times and the rest of the news media of Palin’s background, character and record was inevitable and right.
… By choosing a running mate unknown to most of the nation, and doing so just before the Republican National Convention, John McCain made it inevitable that there would be a frantic media vetting.
… The drip-drip-drip of these stories seems like partisanship to Palin’s partisans. But they fill out the picture of who she is, and they represent a free press doing its job, investigating a candidate who might one day be the leader of the Free World.
Steve Benen adds this – “The only thing I find frustrating about Hoyt’s explanation is that it has apparently become necessary to state the obvious.”
The press was supposed to tell her to have a nice day? That’s not how things work. That’s not what the press is supposed to do.
The McCain campaign may have figured that out, or decided the whole thing looked bad. They changed their mind – ABC’s Charles Gibson will get the first sit-down interview:
Republican vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin is offering her first televised interview to ABC News in the coming week in Alaska.
Palin, the surprise pick of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, has been giving campaign speeches alongside the Arizona senator since the GOP convention but has not sat down for an interview about her views.
A McCain-Palin adviser says an interview was offered to ABC’s Charlie Gibson several days ago and that they expect it to happen in the latter part of the week in Alaska. Palin is the governor of Alaska and is expected to return home at midweek after more joint appearances with McCain.
One might be forced to conclude the McCain folks just don’t get the whole concept of politeness and courtesy – you cannot use the concept as a political weapon, in this case a defensive weapon. You can be asked, courteously, what you think and why you think that. Asking you to explain your positions and how you arrived at them is not in and of itself intrusive and presumptuous. Did they really think anyone would think it was?
Yes, they did. Sure, she can end up looking foolish, or worse. But no one is out to get her. The idea is to find out what she thinks, and how she thinks. It’s pretty basic stuff.
The universal response to sequestering her, and calling foul, seems to have surprised them. They were told they just didn’t understand the whole concept of respect and deference – they had no clue that this wasn’t the issue here at all. So they folded, no doubt puzzled why this gambit didn’t work.
But then they don’t have a feel for the difference between asking questions and just attacking – it’s all the same to them. It isn’t the same to most adults, and to Obama. But then, this may be a difference in how you approach the world, of the difference between liberals and modern conservatives, as they are now, after years of Karl Rove. Maybe it’s also a difference in how you were raised – how you were told to approach the world, as a life-long winner-take-all individual competition, or a life-long business of working with and considering others too, and being polite and courteous. The French have a term for those brought up with the latter view – bon élève – brought up properly.
Of course, we aren’t French, are we? Perhaps Obama is more French than John Kerry was – except the Republicans haven’t picked up on it yet.
Still, as with the have-a-nice-day things, being polite and courteous has an element of lying to it. You end up saying pro forma things you really don’t mean, just to ease things along. You tell white lies – no, dear, that dress does not make you look fat.
But those are not the same as flat-out lies, meant to deceive for your own ends. Lying out of fear that someone will find out what your really did, or to manipulate others with a deception to get what you want, is another matter entirely. There is a difference here that the Republicans may also not get at all.
On Sunday, September 7, ABC’s Political Punch reported on Sarah Palin’s speech that day:
She said she “championed reform of earmark spending by Congress, and I told the Congress thanks but no thanks on that ‘Bridge to Nowhere'”, omitting mention that she’d campaigned for governor supporting the bridge.
This seems to be, actually, a flat-out lie, much like McCain saying Obama wants to raise everyone’s taxes, where the Washington Post editorial board noted that “McCain’s ads on taxes are just plain false” and his campaign’s message is peddling a “phony, misleading and at times outright dishonest” line.
These are not white lies to ease things along.
Turn to an expert on lying, Hilary Bok, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Bioethics and Moral and Political Theory at the Johns Hopkins University (bio here). She’s also the daughter of Derek Bok, the former president (1971-1991) and recent interim president (2006-2007) of Harvard, and his wife, Sissela Bok, the philosopher and ethicist, herself the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners – Gunnar Myrdal, who won the Economics prize with Friedrich Hayek in 1974, and Alva Myrdal who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. Her mother also wrote Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life – and that’s quite good. These folks have thought about such things.
Here is what Hilary Bok (blogging as “hilzoy”) has to say about what is going on now:
When politicians lie – and here I mean not just putting the best spin on things, but out-and-out lying – they might as well walk up to each and every one of us and say: Hello! I have no respect for the value of your time! You might have other things to do – work, playing with your kids, taking a long hike in the mountains, whatever – but I don’t care. I’m going to put you in a position where you’re going to have to research everything I say, or else just give up on your civic duty. You don’t get to assume that my words are, if not exactly true, at least somewhere in the general vicinity of the truth, and decide whether or not to vote for me. If you want to be an informed citizen, you’ll have to become obsessive, like hilzoy.
They might as well add: I have no respect for democracy. In a democracy, citizens listen to what each side has to say and decide who to vote for. To work, it requires that what each side says bears some resemblance to the truth. If I cared about democracy, I’d respect those limits – maybe stretching the truth every now and then, but generally maintaining some sort of relationship between what I say and reality. But guess what? I don’t care about democracy! If winning requires that I make things up out of whole cloth and hope that I’m successful enough to frustrate the popular will, then that’s what I’ll do. Don’t like it? Think democracy is a good system, one that we should cherish? That’s just too bad.
Palin appalls her:
She is not just telling lies; she’s telling lies that have been exposed as lies, and that have gotten a lot of attention. Assuming she does not actually want to lose, she must assume that her audience either doesn’t know that she’s lying, or doesn’t care. In either case, it’s deeply cynical, and deeply insulting.
I just hope she isn’t right.
But Palin, and McCain, may be right. Divide the electorate into three parts. One third doesn’t know these two are lying, one third really doesn’t care – it’s kind of cool and they will win the election with the clever lies, and everyone likes a scoundrel. The final third just gets depressed, and one third of the votes wins nothing.
Now and then you get a pleasant and witty person on national television pointing out that what we’re talking about here is not spin, or perspective or opinion – it’s just lying. Watch Rachel Maddow tell the truth – watch her call McCain’s lies what they are – just lies, and not even good ones. That’s kind of refreshing.
Some bloggers get it. At Daily Kos, see Kagro X saying that the hallmark of Palin’s tenure in politics is that she expects to do as she pleases without consequence:
There are a million problems with naming someone as Not Ready for Prime Time as Sarah Palin to the ticket. But one that deserves more attention is the broader implications of her “it’s not rocket science” attitude toward governance.
While it’s a great applause line for the Republican Party faithful who hate government anyway, and who, frankly, have fallen a bit too much in love with anti-intellectualism, it’s also indicative of the fact that she’s grafted together the absolute worst possible aspects of several different brands of Republicanism.
She’s never played in a world where there are real procedures that are in place for a real reason. She thinks everything’s a PTA meeting, and she can just do what she wants, because she’s the boss and everyone hates red tape. Fire town officials on a whim? Sure. Fire state officials on a whim? Well, sure. Though it turns out someone actually cares about process a little bit there. Still, it’s Alaska! So who’ll ever focus on it?
Well, she did say governing anything is not exactly rocket science – as George Bush seemed to feel when he ran for his first term. How hard could it be? We all, or enough of us and the Supreme Court, agreed – then. Will that work again?
Also at Daily Kos see “brownsox” with this:
It is this view of governance, this paradigm of how “executives” should act when faced with circumstances they don’t love, in which McCain believes so strongly as to endorse it in his Vice-Presidential nominee. Since Palin is, after all, his chosen lieutenant. The most terrifying aspect of Sarah Palin’s selection is not that John McCain did not properly vet her. It’s that he probably did vet her… and he found that this reckless, me-first attitude towards governing matched his own.
Sarah Palin’s failings speak to John McCain’s failings. He couldn’t care less about her authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway attitude towards governance (or maybe that’s what he found attractive in her). He couldn’t care less whether Sarah Palin is prepared to lead the nation. He wanted her, so goddamn it, he’ll have her, and America will have her, and they’ll fucking like it!
It’s not that John McCain doesn’t get it. It’s that he doesn’t care. Not unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office.
And he may win. Maybe it is time for another trip to Paris.
Oddly, I watched Gore concede to Bush, on CNN International, sitting in my hotel room on the left bank in Paris in the middle of the night, across the street from the old church where Descartes is buried. Damn – should have just stayed there. But then all those French folks would now be telling me to have a nice day. What are you going to do?