Languages are endlessly fascinating. Here in Hollywood, in this building, there are three French nationals, the elegant fellow from Brazil who will now and then lapse into Portuguese, the new girl from Spain who can lisp Castilian, the old woman in the apartment by the elevator who, as much as she tries, always ends up in Yiddish – and of course the resident manager who is Ukrainian, so the workers she hires all always talking to each other in a mixture of Spanish and Russian. We really should have a Japanese gardener – common enough in Southern California – but you can’t have everything. The city does have Tongan gangs in Long Beach, and Armenian gangs in Eagle Rock, but, if someone comes to visit, pleasant Little Ethiopia is just down the hill and Thai Town two miles east, even if all mixed in with Little Armenia, and Koreatown is nearby. And there’s the Byzantine-Latino Quarter for Greek food and a mojito. Yeah, there’s more than slacker English and rude Central American junk Spanish spoken around here.
But some find foreign languages endlessly irritating. You may think it’s a joke, or a stupid cliché, but it does happen in Paris – the American tourist, outraged and frustrated at not being understood, decides the best way to be understood might to explain himself again in English, only louder. It doesn’t work, so he tries again, even louder. When you see it – and you actually will – it’s very odd. It’s a conceptual error – what doesn’t work still doesn’t work if you say it louder, with more passion. Volume and passion are not the problem. But as Mark Twain noted in Innocents Abroad, it is sometime worse to try the local language – “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Of course by now you’re thinking of the Republicans. Having had their hat handed to them in the 2006 elections – losing both houses of Congress – and again in 2008 when they lost the White House too, they seem to have decided no one rejected their policy positions, really. They are doubling down on those positions – opposition to allowing any particular woman a choice regarding abortion, and opposition to birth control, and to any sort of overtly sexual Janet Jackson stuff, and opposition to gay marriage and gay rights in general, and opposition to social programs that help people in trouble, as those people need to learn personal responsibility and take care of themselves. And they are certainly not happy with all the Mexicans they see everywhere they turn around. And they are for insulting and terrifying other nations, and pro-torture – to keep us safe – and for low taxes and no regulation of any businesses, and for low taxes on the successful – to keep us prosperous. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed either by eliminating the capital gains tax or starting a war, or both. And, in general, government is bad – it always screws up. The private sector never does.
Now that may be a cartoonish oversimplification of a deep and subtle political philosophy, but that is, unfortunately, what people see. No one has time to read and consider conservative political theory from Burke to Oakeshott – it’s just that what seemed to a slight majority to be a fine way of approaching things, for a time, simply came to seem rather stupid. It didn’t work – there was New Orleans, and the wars that went sour, and a funny thing, no one caught The Gay from Lars and Bruce next door – they were pleasant good neighbors. It wasn’t contagious, and it just wasn’t a big deal.
So now the Republicans, like that tourist in Paris, are getting louder and more passionate. If the nation has rejected their policies and the philosophy that underlies those policies, the answer must be to articulate those policies with more zeal, more often, and louder. But it’s the parallel a conceptual error – what manifestly didn’t work cannot be sold to a skeptical public by purifying it into its essence, purging the party of its moderates, and laughing when the senator from Pennsylvania jumps ship, holding Tea Bag Parties and screaming that Obama is a socialist. It didn’t work at the hotel in Paris, and it’s not working now. People just look at you blankly, befuddled. It’s a language problem, not an issue of volume, frequency and ardor. No one doubts that true believers really, really believe what they believe. That’s impressive, in its way. It’s just that has nothing much to do with being persuasive. Ask the antiwar crowd from the late sixties. They know.
And it’s not as if no one has been telling the Republicans about this. The New York Times’ in-house moderate conservative, David Brooks, tries once again to work this out is his column The Long Voyage Home:
Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders – from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin – who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes – freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.
But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
Okay, a columnist in the fancy new Renzo Piano postmodern Times building just off Forty-Second Street should probably not be offering a revisionist assessment of the works of John Ford – we should be doing such things out here in Hollywood – but he has a point. The John Wayne guy was the one who made community and civic order possible, by fixing the problem. In fact, that is precisely why he was the good guy. That was what John Ford actually said, and what the Republicans missed entirely. The John Wayne guy, after all was taming the west. Yeah, he shot the bad guy – the disrupter of social order – but that was so things could finally settle down.
So the Republicans should shape up, and Brooks suggests how:
They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.
But Brooks notes that the Republicans just aren’t that into taming much of anything:
The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.
Kevin Drum comments:
I think this column suffers from Brooks’ usual weakness for extending metaphors beyond their useful life, but his central point is a pretty good one. The American public is obviously in the mood for a little less cowboy capitalism and a little more stability, and there are both liberal and conservative ways of getting there. Democrats obviously support the liberal path, and to compete, the GOP needs to stop offering up its usual menu of non-answers and instead figure out a conservative way to tell the business community to behave itself, a conservative way to produce more clean energy, and a conservative way to genuinely address everyday healthcare concerns.
It’s not impossible, but the true-believer rump of the party wants nothing to do with it – and they’re suffering the consequences. They could do a lot worse than to spend a little less time listening to Rush Limbaugh and a little more time listening to Brooks.
That’s not likely. Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog puts it nicely:
When it suits them, Republicans already ask what threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids. And they come up with the same answers they have for every other political question. We’re endangered by rampant gays! And high taxes! And government-run schools! And the war on Christianity! And border-crossing Mexicans! And weak-willed terrorist-coddling Democrats! And naive gun-grabbers! And the UN!
When gay marriage is attacked, for instance, it’s almost always on the basis of its alleged threat to the larger community. Never mind the fact that we’ve all read and heard a dozen different explanations of why the marriage of two same-sexers has an impact on other people and none of these explanations make the slightest bit of sense – Republicans just keep trying to make the argument that gay marriage is bad because it hurts non-gays. It’s a threat to the community!
He says the Republicans really do care about community:
Republicans are actually quite fond of making distant threats seem concrete by talking about communities in peril — remember Reagan saying that failing to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua “would mean consolidation of a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas”? In the present day, we have right-wingers arguing that if the U.S. ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “government would assume the primary role of rearing your children.” We have right-wingers arguing that illegal immigration from Mexico means we’re all gonna die from swine flu. We have right-wingers arguing that school kids and parishioners die in killing sprees because schools and churches tend to be gun-free zones.
See? Right-wingers do care about community! Their one-size-fits-all short list of solutions isn’t just for individuals!
Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast is a bit less sarcastic:
Of course we’ve had a taste of the Republican vision of civic order in the federal Administration of George W. Bush and the local one of Rudy Giuliani. It’s a vision of mass surveillance of Americans’ comings and goings, a concept of pre-crime where we’ll assume you are guilty no matter how innocent you are, and then, of course, there’s the ever-popular police shootings of unarmed black men.
But the she gets to her main point, that, ever since Reagan, Republicans have had a real conceptual error:
They can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. Ronald Reagan wasn’t an actor who played “The Gipper” – he really WAS the Gipper. He put on a cowboy hat and that made him a rancher. George W. Bush bought a stage ranch in Texas, denying his Kennebunkport roots, and became a cowboy who spent his vacations clearing brush trucked in from a local schoolyard.
Republicans worshiped the illusion of cowboy rather than the real thing. And then there’s Jack Bauer, the fictional CIA agent of 24. How many times have we heard the “ticking time bomb” what-if scenario used to justify torture? This scenario is taken right out of 24, and that show is used to “prove” that torture works. Yes, in the eyes of the defenders of torture, we know torture works because we saw it in 24.
Now, that is odd. Republicans may scream about how Hollywood has corrupted America – that seems to have something to do with Sean Penn and Barbara Streisand – but actually Hollywood corrupted these guys. It’s almost laughable. But then, a decade ago, I was doing some Christmas shopping in Paris and handed my Wells Fargo Visa card to the woman at the counter in Bon Marché – and when she saw the picture of the stage coach she started giggling. She was right. This cowboy thing is silly.
Michael Tomasky at his Guardian blog agrees:
When Republicans were the party of community and order, the enemies of those two values were GOP-friendly enemies: street criminals; liberals who were too sympathetic to street criminals, perverts, America-bashers; the Russkies, who sort of loomed over everything else.
But crime isn’t an issue. On social and culture-war questions, non-ideological Americans are burned out and creating a quiet tolerant majority. There are no Russians. There are terrorists, yes. And for a while Americans went – just barely – for the John Wayne-type response. But it failed. And they chose something else.
So, he says, the biggest threat to community and order in today’s America is unchecked capitalism – by default. And he suggests you fight that with what the Republicans cannot stand – regulation, intrusion and changes in taxation. And that is where Brooks is in trouble:
It requires a response the GOP as currently constituted is utterly incapable of offering. I think David knows this but left that part out.
And I’m not sure I agree about John Ford. But this helps explain to me why I always hated Westerns, even when I was a little kid. Long before I even knew what liberalism and conservatism were, I was deeply suspicious of Western’s simplistic (as I saw it) morality.
I couldn’t even sit through The Searchers, which many people reckon one of the 10 greatest American films ever made. I walked out of it. Don’t tell me how it ended. I don’t even care!
But I care how this ends, and if Brooks’ analysis is correct, there’s nothing for Democrats to worry about because Republicans can’t become what he wants them to become.
No, they cannot. And in fact, they’re going the other way, as in Palin joins GOP rebranding effort, Limbaugh says leaders fear her:
A few hours after Rush Limbaugh told listeners GOP leaders launching a Republican re-branding effort hated and feared Sarah Palin, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor announced that the Alaska governor had finally accepted an invitation to join the group.
On a conference call last week for the National Council for a New America, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain said he thought his running mate would probably be part of the effort as well — but there had been no immediate confirmation by her office.
The National Council for a New America (NCNA) is supposed to mark ” a new phase in the Republican Party’s effort to remake itself: A formal acknowledgement by top congressional and national leaders that the GOP needs to change its pitch and its ideas.” Yes, it is more of the same, only louder, and with feeling.
Limbaugh said this:
Something else you have to understand is these people hate Palin too. They despise Sarah Palin, they fear Sarah Palin – they don’t like her either. She’s, according to them she’s embarrassing … Clearly, in last year’s campaign, the most prominent, articulate voice for standard, run-of-the-mill, good old-fashioned American conservatism was Sarah Palin. Now, everybody on this Speak to America tour has presidential perspirations [sic]. Mitt Romney there, he wants to be president again. Jeb may someday. Eric Cantor, some of the others, McCain – I don’t think he does, but you never know. So this is an early campaign event, 2012 presidential campaign, a primary campaign, with everybody there but Sarah Palin.
And of course that’s not fair, as she is the purist of the pure.
But Reihan Salam, co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, in the Washington Post writes that it’s high time to “reclaim conservatism” from Coulter and O’Reilly and Limbaugh and Hannity and all the rest:
Conservatives don’t need higher volume. Conservatism at its best is a tough and demanding creed. To sell it, you can’t call people who’ve lost their jobs and their homes “losers.” You need to sell the virtues of a growing and flourishing economy and the free-market policies that will make it happen. Because conservatives aren’t a majority, hard-edged accusations of socialism wind up alienating millions of potential allies – voters who are a little uncomfortable with Obama’s spending, particularly if it threatens to saddle their children with debt, but who recognize that the government needs to act to stave off an economic collapse.
Andrew Sullivan agrees:
I’m not a Democrat and if pushed, I’d have to say right now I’m a libertarian independent. I’m uneasy about Obama’s long-term debt, to say the least, but I’m intelligent enough to know it’s not Obama’s as such, but mainly Bush’s, and I’m also cognizant that the time to cut back may not be in the middle (or beginning) of a brutal depression. On most issues, I side with what used to be the center-right, but the GOP is poison to me and many others. Why?
Their abandonment of limited government, their absurd spending under Bush, their contempt for civil liberties, their rigid mindset, their hostility to others, their worship of the executive branch, their contempt for judicial checks, their cluelessness with racial minorities and immigrants, their endorsement of torture as an American value, their homophobia, their know-nothing Christianism, and the sheer vileness of their leaders – from the dumb-as-a-post Steele to the brittle, money-grubbing cynic, Coulter and hollow, partisan neo-fascist Hannity.
Other than that they’re fine. And that loud tourist in Paris really is a fine fellow.
But in the Washington Times you get Andrew Breitbart arguing that you cannot make crimes committed against gays hate cines, because giving, say, the beating of a gay guy that special designation takes something away from Breitbart – his freedom of speech. If he says he hates gays he doesn’t want anyone coming after him. That’s just his opinion, and it’s protected speech. And then he adds this:
The real hate crime these days is the Orwellian intimidation wielded by the left against those that don’t think the way they do. It’s worse than waterboarding.
All you can do is stare blankly, befuddled. It’s a foreign language, and it’s getting louder. But that doesn’t help.