Rhetorical Parlor Tricks

World-weariness is rhetorically and socially useful. You know how that goes. Assume an air of world-weariness – you’ve seen it all before and anyone who is all excited and enthusiastic, or are in a panic asking if the sky is really falling, is overreacting and being foolish. That works. Serious people are more measured about things. You’re the guy who has seen it all and remains calm. You don’t rant and you don’t shout – at best you raise an eyebrow, ironically. People will then think you’re wise and insightful, with a depth of experience they could never match if they lived to one hundred travelling the world and reading all the great books and chatting with Mother Teresa and Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking and Lance Armstrong. And they obviously haven’t done that – so ideally they’ll feel like fools, or like stupid shallow children. Of course you’ve done none of that either, but the idea is to make it seem like you might have, or should have, or could have.

It’s all in the presentation – a deep and resigned sigh of world-weariness goes a long way – that, and giving in and explaining you position one more time, in even simpler terms, terms even a nine-year-old could understand. You’re not being condescending, of course. You’re just doing what you must in these degenerate times, when so few know anything about anything really. What has the world come to? It’s so sad. But you pat your listener on the head and assure them it’s not their fault.

Of course this is a crass sort of one-upmanship and a bit of a parlor trick. It’s a classic case of passive-aggressive dominance. Master it and you can say the most outrageous nonsense and no one will dare gainsay you. Heck, if they try you’ll just sigh again, even more deeply. You’ve cleared the field. You win.

And you can make a career of this. After all, Sartre and Camus and that crowd did – The Myth of Sisyphus is the classic there. Life is absurd – man’s search for external meaning is futile, and unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values is damned hard. But you have to face it. You’re on your own, so man-up.

What, you don’t think you have to face it? You think there are big and important external and eternal truths? Sartre and Camus would say no, and explain why we have to face it, actually – and explain it with very careful and impeccably logical arguments. But those who later read Sartre and Camus and agreed with them – generally posturing college kids – never had the intellectual firepower to make those arguments. They just sighed. That works too. Just don’t wear a beret and smoke a pipe – people laugh. It’s all the in the presentation.

In vaudeville they use to call this your shtick – a Yiddish term for your gimmick, your hook. It’s an adopted persona. You build your career on it – the loveable tramp or the stingy and bad violin player, or a guy with a stooped walk, greasepaint mustache, a lot of lascivious eyebrow raising and a cigar – whatever works. And these days, if you’re a political pundit, world-weariness is a pretty good shtick.

In fact, Charles Krauthammer – the widely syndicated Washington Post columnist and one of the Wise Men of Fox News. And he’s been around – McGill and then a stint at Balliol College, Oxford, and then Harvard Medical School, where he had that diving accident in his first year that left him a paraplegic. But he got his MD anyway and began working as a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General – he’s board certified with published papers on the epidemiology of manic illness.

But he gave that up and became a dyspeptic world-weary political commentator. He coined and developed “The Reagan Doctrine” in 1985 and he defined our role as sole superpower in his famous essay The Unipolar Moment – just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He’s the neoconservative of all neoconservatives, in tight with the American Enterprise Institute and the go-to guy on the post-9/11 world and the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. Before that it was Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan. What comes next is anyone’s guess. We have the responsibility to act unilaterally anywhere. We’re all that’s left to do the right thing in this sorry world.

That may seem nuts, but it’s all in the presentation. The others on the Fox news panel rant and rave, and he sits quietly, and then reluctantly drops his own bomb. And all gaze upon him in awe, or that’s the general idea:

Hawks favor war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is reckless, tyrannical and instinctively aggressive, and that if he comes into possession of nuclear weapons in addition to the weapons of mass destruction he already has, he is likely to use them or share them with terrorists. The threat of mass death on a scale never before seen residing in the hands of an unstable madman is intolerable – and must be preempted.

Doves oppose war on the grounds that the risks exceed the gains. War with Iraq could be very costly, possibly degenerating into urban warfare.

I happen to believe that the preemption school is correct, that the risks of allowing Saddam Hussein to acquire his weapons will only grow with time. Nonetheless, I can both understand and respect those few Democrats who make the principled argument against war with Iraq on the grounds of deterrence, believing that safety lies in reliance on a proven (if perilous) balance of terror rather than the risky innovation of forcible disarmament by preemption.

It all sounded so reasonable. It didn’t work out. He said there would be an “Arab Spring” – peace and prosperity and pro-America and pro-Israel democracies springing up all over.

We’re still waiting. On the other hand he is a supporter of legalized abortion and an opponent of the death penalty, and he thinks intelligent design is a crock, as it’s just “tarted-up creationism” – evolution will do. But he is rather fond of torture as policy, in a limited way. And he hates that Coat Factory Mosque planned for Lower Manhattan.

All this must puzzle the folks at Fox News mightily – but he has protected himself. He’s been everywhere and seen everything and thought deeply. The others all around him are mere children – with good intentions and the right instincts (they’re on Fox News, after all) – but they are children nonetheless. But he forgives them. It’s not their fault.

Needless to say they don’t let him anywhere near Glenn Beck. Beck has the opposite shtick – the manic and scattered divinely inspired fool for God who often makes no sense at all and sometimes calls himself a rodeo clown. You don’t put them on air together. You don’t want to confuse your audience. And anyway, Krauthammer is thoroughly opposed to anything Obama has done and might do, and thinks all Democrats are misguided children, so Fox News finds him useful. And his shtick works – he is sad about how things worked out and doesn’t want to be nasty about that man-child Obama or anything, but something must be done. Those who are appalled at Beck’s manic madness get the same thing from Krauthammer – cloaked in that shield of world-weariness no one can penetrate. Beck is just silly – from the German selig – “blessed” and “pious” and “innocent.” Over time the meaning changed to “harmless” and then “pitiable” – but Beck takes the word back to its roots. If you don’t like silly there’s Krauthammer. Either way Fox News has you covered.

But there still is the matter of passive-aggressive dominance, by claiming the mantle of reluctant and selfless melancholy world-weary authority bordering on the maudlin. Yes, master that and you can say the most outrageous nonsense and no one will dare gainsay you. But sometimes they do.

Consider Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post:

Note what connects these issues. In every one, liberals have lost the argument in the court of public opinion. Majorities – often lopsided majorities – oppose President Obama’s social-democratic agenda (e.g., the stimulus, Obamacare), support the Arizona law, oppose gay marriage and reject a mosque near Ground Zero.

And consider Yahoo! News, August 12, 2010:

A new CNN poll has found that most Americans think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married. … As polling-statistics blogger Nate Silver points out, the margin of error [as well as the poll’s status as the first to find majority approval] means we can’t assume that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, but it is “no longer safe to say that opposition to same-sex marriage is the majority position…”

And there will be an Arab Spring.

Glenn Greenwald lined those up and is having none of it:

That particular factual inaccuracy, which I am 100% certain will never be corrected by the Post, is the least of the problems with Krauthammer’s column today. Above all else, he seeks to delegitimize concerns over the Right’s intensifying use of racially and ethnically divisive tactics as nothing more than the last refuge of a Democratic Party which, he argues, espouses unpopular policies and thus has no means of winning an election other than by falsely accusing its opponents of bigotry.

And that’s nonsense:

It requires extreme blindness or extreme dishonesty to deny that our politics is more racially and ethnically polarized than it has been in a long time. Virtually every Fox News/right-wing-talk-radio controversy relies on scaring economically anxious white Americans into ignoring the prime cause of their economic insecurity – plundering by Wall Street bankers, abetted by the government they own – and focusing instead on some manufactured menace from powerless racial and ethnic minorities: black people preventing them from voting (New Black Panthers), stealing their elections (ACORN), and treating them unequally (Shirley Sherrod and Eric Holder’s Justice Department); Muslims who want to conquer their country and celebrate over their Christian corpses (the Triumphalist Ground Zero Mosque); invading, marauding Latino armies coming to steal their property and rape their women while their Marxist allies in Government (led by a black Muslim President) disarm the white victims.

And an example, Greenwald suggest Matt Taibbi on the recent primaries and how the Tea Party crowd took over the Republican Party:

In Arizona, John McCain trounced a Tea Party candidate named J.D. Hayworth by over 30 points in a primary race that was largely interpreted by the media as a repudiation of Tea Party values. I’m not sure they’re right about that. McCain had to spend $20 million to fight off Hayworth – a staggering number for a Senate race – and beyond that, he had to bend himself completely ass-backwards issue-wise in order to maintain what’s left of his cred with right-wing voters. 

McCain’s biggest problem with Republicans has always been his occasional willingness to describe Hispanic immigrants as human beings (remember his “Hispanic immigrants are God’s children, too?” spot in 2008?). That occasionally culturally empathetic McCain got stuffed in a steamer trunk for this primary season, though. McCain always had nuanced positions on immigration, having once helped author the 2006 immigration proposal that would have created a difficult but feasible pathway to citizenship for illegals already here in the U.S.; now he’s not only gone back on that, but has gone 100% caveman in a desperate attempt to hold on to his bigot constituency. Never an advocate of walls and fences, McCain in this race was shrieking that we just need to “complete the dang fence.”

Greenwald is of the mind that Krauthammer is full of crap, and cites Glenn Beck’s pronouncement on Fox News that Obama is a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Someone has unpopular policies and thus has no means of winning an election other than by falsely accusing its opponents of bigotry. Krauthammer has it backwards:

An incumbent Party which has presided over extreme economic suffering has little to offer other than dredging up fear – much of it well-grounded – in the alternative (you may despise what we’re doing in power, but look at those hateful, bigoted freaks over there).

The real problem is that much of the anxiety and anger being cynically exploited by the Right is very real and justifiable. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, one of the more partisan Democratic boosters in the pundit class, commendably acknowledged that today. After accurately condemning Glenn Beck’s despicable wrapping of himself in the legacy of Martin Luther King — as though the angry whites he leads of today are the oppressed blacks of yesterday – Robinson explained:

“But many will attend for other reasons, and they’re the ones I feel sorry for. As the growth of the Tea Party movement clearly demonstrates, millions of Americans feel alienated from their government, distressed about the economy and frightened of the future. Their concerns deserve to be heard. Instead, their anxieties are exploited by hucksters who see fear and anger as marketing tools.”

The full Robison column is here. And for giggles see this:

On the eve of conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial, a blogger’s assertion that parts of the nation’s capital should be avoided touched off accusations of racism and a sharp response by angry city leaders.

Thousands of tea party supporters were expected at the demonstration Saturday that Beck has called a “Restoring Honor” rally to show support of the country’s military at the site where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago to the day. The location and timing prompted civil rights leaders to cry foul.

“They have a right to rally. But what they don’t have the right do is distort what Dr. King’s dream was about,” the Rev. Al Sharpton declared Friday. He called the tea party assembly an anti-government action and has organized a counter rally also near the site of King’s historic speech.

With emotions already high, the work of a largely unknown tea party blogger, Bruce Majors, brought them to a fever pitch on Friday.

The blog, which first appeared last Monday and has been widely viewed and distributed since then, warned conservative protesters visiting the nation’s capital to avoid certain subway lines, suggesting they are unsafe, that certain neighborhoods should be avoided, that the city is populated by the world’s refugees – that taxi drivers are often Arab or African – and that generally visitors should be wary.

It was generally a guide to help you avoid black people and Arab-looking people, and perhaps Hispanics. Be safe out there. You’re an American. They aren’t. Bruce Majors seemed sincere enough. And he was just trying to help. But Bruce Majors didn’t help Krauthammer’s cause. The reluctant and world-weary man who has seen it and can explain it all – the pathetic losers are falsely accusing their opponents of bigotry – is spouting nonsense, as Greenwald sees it:

There’s no doubt that this genuine anxiety is being exploited by the ugliest elements on the Right, but that has happened because the Democratic Party has ceded the field to those right-wing “hucksters.” As much as anything else, this is the great failing of the Obama presidency. Although Obama and his Party are being blamed for the intensifying economic crisis, it is just historical fact that the unraveling took place under the Bush administration. It seems as though it was decades ago, but it was only in October, 2008 – when Bush was still President – that John McCain argued that the economic crisis was so severe that the presidential campaign should be suspended in order to attend to it. That is the same crisis – which exploded during the Bush presidency – from which we still have not recovered, which has progressively worsened.

Greenwald wishes Obama and the Democrats would man-up and call out this nonsense:

That crisis presented a huge opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to bring about real change in Washington – the central promise of his campaign – by capitalizing on (and becoming the voice of) populist anger and using it to wrestle away control from Wall Street and other financial and corporate elites who control Washington. Had they done so, they would have been champions of populist rage rather than its prime targets.

But, as John Judis argues here they wasted that opportunity – they threw it away. Greenwald:

Rather than emphatically stand up to the bankers and other oligarchic thieves, they coddled and served them, and thus became the face of the elite interests oppressing ordinary Americans rather than their foes. How can an administration represented by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers – and which specializes in an endless stream of secret deals with corporate lobbyists and sustains itself with Wall Street funding  – possibly maintain any pretense of populist support or changing how Washington works? It can’t.

This is madness:

There are few more bitter ironies than watching the Republican Party – controlled at its core by the very business interests responsible for the country’s vast and growing inequality; responsible for massive transfers of wealth to the richest; and which presided over and enabled the economic collapse – now become the beneficiaries of middle-class and lower-middle-class economic insecurity. But the Democratic Party’s failure/refusal/inability to be anything other than the Party of Tim Geithner – continuing America’s endless, draining Wars while plotting to cut Social Security, one of the few remaining guarantors of a humane standard of living – renders them unable to offer answers to angry, anxious, resentful Americans. As has happened countless times in countless places, those answers are now being provided instead by a group of self-serving, hateful extremist leaders eager to exploit that anger for their own twisted financial and political ends. And it seems to be working.

And Greenwald sees what is coming:

It is indeed difficult to believe that the country will so quickly return to power the same Republican Party – in an even more warped and primitive form – that virtually destroyed the U.S. over the last decade through a mix of extreme corruption, recklessness and lawlessness. But nothing is more foolish than underestimating the dangers that come from this potent mix of economic oppression and the aggressive fanning of racial and ethnic resentments.

But Greenwald is fighting the manic and scattered divinely inspired fool for God who often makes no sense at all, and here, the passive-aggressive world-weary man who has seen it all, of whom one should be in awe. He’s being tag-teamed, as we all are.

The only answer is to think of it as vaudeville. Everyone’s got a shtick. And even if they’re not playing for laughs in this case, you can laugh. With Beck that’s easy. With Krauthammer his world-weariness is rhetorically and socially useful – it’s a kind of a weapon. But it is really is nothing more than crass one-upmanship and a bit of a parlor trick. And once you see how the trick works you move on. Nonsense is still nonsense.

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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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