Absurdist Politics

The next time you’re in Paris and have a few hours to kill you could visit the small Salvador Dalí museum up in Montmartre – and that will certainly kill those few hours. It’s dark, the ceilings are low, and they pipe in a sort of second-rate New Age trance music. It’s really quite unpleasant. And if you’ve seen one melting clock you’ve seen them all. It seems, in the end, cleaver surrealism is self-limiting. You get the joke, and perhaps feel smug, and then what? You don’t linger, unless you’re a pretentious twit, seeing this tiresome stuff as full of depth and great meaning. It isn’t. All of this stuff was meant to be shocking, disturbing, and subversive – but no more than that. And perhaps it once was disturbing and subversive, at first take. But it doesn’t wear well, and Dalí ended up out here in Hollywood. He did that dream sequence for Hitchcock in Spellbound – from 1945, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. And no, Salvador, you can’t pour live ants all over Ingrid Bergman – but what he came up with worked well enough, for a snazzy sequence in a mass-market clever trick of a movie. And there was the Disney cartoon he did.

Dalí has found his métier. He went Hollywood, and so it turned out that he was really no more than an impressive showman, a showman who played the part of the absurdly eccentric artist, and finally was a bit of a parody of himself. Picasso probably felt like punching him in the nose.

But you could see this coming. Surrealism is a dead end, save perhaps for the haunting postmodernist short stories of Donald Barthelme – but that’s another matter. Yes, life is absurd. We get it. And what seems fixed and true really isn’t. Yeah, yeah – but we all have to muddle through this life as if things are not absurd and some things really are true, and some things are just what they seem. We know better. We’re not idiots. But it’s best to just move along.

But sometimes it’s just hard. There was that recent Romney ad – the one that took Obama’s words completely out of context – Obama was mocking something John McCain had said, quoting him, and the ad claimed that Obama has said the words about himself. And here is how a Romney operative now explains the ad:

First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business. … Ads are agitprop … Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context … All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.

Ah, Salvador Dalí, and Jonathan Chait deconstructs this statement:

This new justification is a frank embrace of the postmodern approach to truth. The assumption here is that, since a campaign’s arguments are designed to persuade the audience of a predetermined conclusion, they do not need to uphold any standards of truth whatsoever.

But as for this postmodern approach to truth, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wasn’t persuaded:

Between this new quote and their boast that the ad’s mangling of context was strategically brilliant because it won reams of media attention, it almost seems as if Romney advisers are trying to persuade political reporters and commentators to abandon any standards they might use to judge tactics and rhetoric throughout this campaign.

The truth is no more than quaint, perhaps, and the media should recognize that, but Steve Benen won’t buy that:

So, Romney and his team lied. Then they got caught. Then they were pleased.

Truth, facts, evidence, reason, decency, fairness – for Romney and his team, none of that matters. It’s not that they’re considering whether to be honorable; they’ve convinced themselves that the question itself is irrelevant. Their messages to voters, after all, are “manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

Usually, professionals are slightly embarrassed when they get caught lying, but the embarrassment is motivated by a sense of shame – the truth is good, being good is worthwhile, deliberately ignoring the truth is bad, and no one wants to be bad.

But there is no embarrassment when such moral niceties are thrown out the window.

Well, moral niceties are quaint too. But there is the odd thing going on here. There is a truthful Republican candidate, Jon Huntsman, who keeps pointing out that of all those running, he’s the one who’s not crazy. He figures if most every scientist in the world is saying the earth is warming, dangerously, and they have the data, the earth must be warming dangerously, and maybe steps should be taken. He’s the one who says all the scientists are not part of some plot to make America fail. He’s okay with science, and, in fact, is fine with evolution. He’s just not into banning books and ideas and whatnot. And that leads one conservative, Conor Friedersdorf, to suggest something to the base of the party:

If any of you felt disrespected by Huntsman for forthrightly saying that he thinks you’re wrong about a couple of things, understand that it could be much worse. You could embrace a nominee who just lies to you when he thinks you won’t like hearing the truth. And who tells such audacious whoppers that part of him has to believe that we’re all stupid.

What shows more contempt and disrespect, telling someone you think one of their ideas is wrongheaded? Or lying to them over and over about your record, your character, and your business dealings?

Friedersdorf doesn’t think much of Newt and Mitt and the departed Herman Cain, or any of the others. And Huntsman, on the day Newt Gingrich made his pilgrimage to meet with Donald Trump, as they all do, for some reason, said this:

I’m not going to kiss [Donald Trump’s] ring, I’m not going to kiss any other part of his anatomy.

Nonsense is nonsense, Salvador Dalí notwithstanding.

But it doesn’t matter. Now Newt is that man, in spite of this:

In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 36 percent of independent voters regard Gingrich positively, with 43 percent holding a negative view. Their assessment of Romney is far sunnier – 45 percent favorable and only 30 percent unfavorable. Gingrich’s high negatives come even before Democratic attack ads begin reminding people of his many shortcomings – including his confirmed ethical lapses as House Speaker and his lucrative Washington influence-peddling. They also come before Gingrich has had months to remind everyone just how volatile and unlikable he can be.

It seems that we are still in the realm of the surreal, with Gingrich pulling ahead, although there’s Republican congressman Tom Cole:

It’s like Napoleon showing up for the 100 days. We all may follow him into battle again – and you just hope it’s not Waterloo.

It could be, considering Gingrich’s long record on civil liberties – get rid of the First Amendment as free speech could get us all killed, abolish courts that rule the wrong way, even the Supreme Court, don’t allow American Muslims to build mosques and so on. He’s their man of big ideas, like Dalí perhaps. He’s bold. And he’s tiresome.

Others aren’t so bold, like that congressman from Michigan, Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of three House Republicans on that Supercommittee that didn’t fix anything. Upton appeared on Bloomberg TV over the weekend, and was asked an odd question from Al Hunt, and Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress has the video and this transcript:

HUNT: Why under those pre-Bush tax cut tax rates did the economy do so well in the ’90s? And why under the Bush tax rates, less for the wealthy, to do so poorly in this decade?

UPTON: Well, a couple things. One, spending went up, Al, the wars. I mean, that’s trillions of dollars. And also there was no change in the entitlements. And we also know –

HUNT: But that shouldn’t hurt the economy. That shouldn’t hurt economic growth.

UPTON: Yeah, but that impacts the debt and the deficit.

HUNT: But I’m asking, why did the economy grow a lot? Why were more jobs created in the previous decade under higher taxes than in this decade under lower taxes?

UPTON: I don’t know specifically the answer to that question.

And here Steve Benen suggests a little reality might help:

There’s a perfectly sensible response – tax breaks that largely benefit the wealthy, contra GOP dogma, don’t improve the economy or create jobs – but Upton can’t admit this out loud. Well, he could, but the Republican congressman knows the punishment for such honesty would be severe.

But Benen is glad Hunt finally posed the question, and he wishes more Republicans would hear this more often:

Reagan raised taxes and the economy improved; Clinton raised taxes and the economy improved; Bush slashed taxes and the economy was awful. How does the GOP explain this?

And Benen notes that Garofalo cited this report from Michael Linden, who found “in the past 60 years, job growth has actually been greater in years when the top income tax rate was much higher than it is now” – and Benen adds this:

As far as Republicans are concerned, this reality should be impossible.

And melting clocks should be impossible too. It’s like living in a Dalí painting.

But the economist Robert Reich is puzzled by another bit of Republican postmodernist surrealism:

Every time I try to make sense of Republican tax doctrine I get lost. For example, rank-and-file House Republicans are willing to increase taxes on the middle class starting in a few weeks in order to avoid a tax increase the very rich.

Here are the details: The payroll tax will increase 2 percent starting January 1 – costing most working Americans about $1,000 next year – unless the employee part of the tax cut is extended for another year.

Democrats want to pay for this with a temporary – not permanent – surtax on any earnings over $1 million, according to their most recent proposal. The surtax would be 3.25 percent.

This means someone who earns $1,000,001 would pay 3 and a quarter cents extra next year.

So what’s the problem? He notes that relatively few Americans earn more than a million dollars, and a very tiny number earn so much money that this surtax on their earnings in excess of a million would amount to much at all, and most of those people are on Wall Street, and you won’t find a small business “job creator” among that crew. But Republicans say no to the surtax anyway. And that’s nuts:

This puts Republicans in the awkward position of allowing taxes to increase on most Americans in order to avoid a small, temporary tax only on earnings in excess of a million dollars – mostly hitting a tiny group of financiers. Not even a resolute, doctrinaire follower of GOP president Grover Norquist has any basis for preferring millionaires over the rest of us.

To say the least, this position is also difficult to explain to average Americans flattened by an economy that’s taken away their jobs, wages and homes but continues to confer record profits to corporations and unprecedented pay to CEOs and Wall Street’s top executives.

Maybe the Romney spokesperson can explain it, as some sort of persuasive art or something. But now Republican leaders, like John Boehner, are trying to get rank-and-file Republicans, like the Tea Party contingent, to go along with an extended payroll tax holiday – but by paying for it without raising taxes on the very rich. You can’t raise taxes on them. But then it gets really absurd:

According to their latest proposal, they want to pay for it mainly by extending the pay freeze on federal workers for another four years – in effect, cutting federal employees’ pay even more deeply – and increasing Medicare premiums…

But even that is surreal, given what Republicans say they believe about taxes:

For years, Republicans have been telling us tax cuts pay for themselves by promoting growth. That was their argument in favor of the Bush tax cuts, remember? So if they believe what they say, why should they worry about paying for a one-year extension of the payroll tax holiday? Surely it will pay for itself.

Reich unfortunately wants this all to make sense. It doesn’t. Yes, life is absurd. And what seems fixed and true really isn’t. You just move on, although the president is now doing a pretty good job of pointing out the surreal absurdity of all this – and making the Republicans look quite absurd.

But curiously, there is this from New York’s Peter King:

“If we don’t extend the payroll tax (cut), we’re giving the Democrats an issue,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York. “There is no need to give it to them. They’re the ones who mismanaged the economy. They are the ones who put us in this situation. We shouldn’t allow them to get out from under that.”

And Steve Benen comments:

It’s tempting to explain to King that the recession began in 2007 – making it silly to blame Dems for “putting us in this situation” – but let’s put that aside for a moment.

The more interesting realization here is that the New York Republican didn’t say he’s concerned about the economy, and he didn’t say he wants to put more money in middle-class consumers’ pockets. King instead said he wants to go along with a payroll-break extension to deny Democrats a campaign issue.

And ultimately, that’s apparently all that really matters.

And he does agree that’s the modern Republican Party – occasionally willing to do the right thing, but only if they think it will hurt Democrats. But it is a reason, and not surreal at all. It’s just nasty.

But Gary Kamiya argues all this is just part of the infantile style in American politics:

The reaction of the Tea Party (which for all intents and purposes has become the Republican Party) to the mild and innocuous centrist Barack Obama – a president little different in his governing style, with due allowances being made for changed circumstances, from Dwight D. Eisenhower – is so irrational that it is difficult for them even to grasp what president it is talking about.

The Tea Party’s sense of limitless outrage, its bizarrely overwrought rhetoric of betrayal and dispossession, is closer to the rage of a toddler than the reasoning of an adult. The anger appears to predate its putative cause. The institutional party has behaved in exactly the same way: for three years, Republicans in Congress have essentially been having a temper tantrum. “Won’t raise taxes! Don’t care if we default! Waah!”

How did one of the two major American parties regress to a pre-potty-trained state?

That is followed by a discussion of four essays by Richard Hofstadter – his 1964 piece “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt: 1954,” and “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited: 1965” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” – fascinating but lengthy. But it comes down to this:

Far-right American politics has become a theater of projection. To win the nomination, the candidates must exactly mimic the impulses, idée fixes and biases of the faithful. Sarah Palin’s bizarre rise only makes sense in this light. The same logic drove Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I’m you” ad…

The GOP has given its hardcore supporters exactly the presidential candidates they asked for: empty vessels into which the party faithful can pour their anger and resentment. And such candidates, by definition, will not possess any real knowledge of the world, of the political process, of the messy, fallen world we live in. If they do possess such knowledge, they must conceal that fact. Anyone who has actually had to work with opponents and make compromises to get things done – in short, a practical politician – will inevitably fail to live up to the rigid fundamentalism, religious, economic and moral, of the Tea Party. This is why Romney, who is a practical politician and is deeply mistrusted by the GOP faithful for that very reason, must pretend to be stupider and more intolerant than he is.

One can take a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that the infantile rage of the American right may lead it to devour itself. That rage has led Republican voters to support one unelectable loon after the next, simply because they satisfy their urges. But after the election/judicial appointment and reelection of George W. Bush, no one on the left or center of the American political spectrum should be under any illusions that a Democratic victory is assured. And even if Obama is reelected, he faces the prospect of four more years of dealing with a party of angry infants that would rather take the whole country down than have to abandon its righteous rage and cooperate with him for the public good.

Ah, angry spoiled kids are a bother. And Kamiya quotes Hofstadter:

In a populist culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.

Well yes, the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety has now become impossible. We’ve entered a postmodernist surreal world. Hell, it’s like being trapped forever in that dark and unpleasant Dalí museum up in Montmartre. Don’t go there. And as for our politics… we are there.

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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