The Revenge of Captain Obvious

If you want to see a Gutenberg Bible or two, you head to the Morgan Library – 225 Madison Avenue at East 36th Street over in Murray Hill. It’s pretty cool, for a One Percent thing. It used to be the private library of J. P. Morgan, but it was made a public institution in 1924 by his son – in accordance with his father’s will. The old man thought everyone should be able to see the amazing rare books, and there’s the Madison Bistro across the street – very French – very nice. Madison Avenue is okay. Murray Hill is, however, considered rather dull and hopelessly not-hip, even it once was a wonderful place – but Mrs. Astor held her last Murray Hill Ball for the Four Hundred in 1892 and that’s all gone. Morgan is gone, the Astors are gone, and the only Vanderbilt left in Manhattan now is Anderson Cooper – and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, is leaving him nothing – by mutual agreement. That particular Gilded Age is over. Madison Avenue is just another street now.

No one remembers any of those folks now anyway. Madison Avenue became something else in the fifties and sixties – the center of the advertising industry, where all national campaigns to sell us stuff we hadn’t known we needed, and which we didn’t really need at all, were planned and produced. These Madison Avenue folks, mostly men, shaped the consumer culture, and thus the culture itself, for decades. That’s what the television series Mad Men is about – who we are is what we have been convinced we must buy, by a group of desperate strivers who hope they got the zeitgeist right. They have to know Americans’ insecurities, which might or might not be theirs too, and Americans’ fantasies, which they might be able to extrapolate from their own, and if they pull that off they can sell you lots of deodorant, or, back then, a slow wallowing car with big fins. This calls for a bit of creativity, but that might not be the right word. Machiavellian cleverness is probably a better term – and they’re still at it. It just gets harder all the time. Have it your way. Where’s the beef? You deserve a break today. Just do it. Their job is to stick such words in our heads. J. P. Morgan, the man who collected the first printings of the most important books ever created, would not approve.

Morgan, were he still around, wouldn’t read their trade journal AdWeek either, but that’s where you find what these Mad Men have found works to dislodge cold cash from the pockets of Americans, at the moment, and there you’ll find a discussion of the hot new ad campaign for – endless variations on a hapless Captain Obvious saying stupid things about hotels that everyone knows, as if they’re big discoveries. The conceit is that there are some things everyone just knows, and by some sort of transference, everyone just knows that the website they’re touting is obviously the only way to book a hotel room – which may or may not be working.

The ad campaign does, however, tap into the current zeitgeist. All argument in America has become dismissive. No one listens to anyone else, they just shrug and smile. Some things are so obvious that it’s not even worth talking to the other side. “They” just don’t get it, and they never will. Hey, everyone knows… fill in the blank. Conservatives know what they know, which liberals will never get, and liberals know what conservatives could never understand in a million years. That’s something to work with. Both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee now might be trying to secure the rights to Captain Obvious to use in upcoming political ads, a bit of humor to drive home the notion that some things are so obvious that any dispute about, say, food stamps or Obamacare, is a joke in and of itself. If it works for that hotel-booking outfit it’s sure to work for any number of politicians. Make the other side feel dumb, or at least make everyone else think they’re dumb, for never seeing the obvious. That could work.

It might not come to that, given the probable licensing fees and the risk of tainting the underlying brand, but some things are obvious. We’ve split in America, and that was driven by demographics. In fact, a recent study found something both interesting and obvious – white people get more conservative when they’re told they are becoming a minority:

The authors, Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson of Northwestern, use data from two main experiments. In one, a group of survey respondents was told that California had become a majority-minority state, and the other group was told that the Hispanic population was now equal in size to the black population in the US. Then, all respondents were asked what their political ideology was. The group that was told whites were in the minority in California, identified as more conservative than the second group.

In another experiment, one group of respondents read a press release saying that whites would soon become a minority nationally in 2042, while a second group read a release that didn’t mention race. The group primed by race then endorsed more conservative policy positions.

Any threat to one’s status as the demographic “in-group” increases political conservatism, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie digs deeper:

Using a nationally representative survey of self-identified politically “independent” whites, Craig and Richeson conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked respondents about the racial shift in California – if they had heard the state had become majority-minority. What they found was a significant shift toward Republican identification, which increased for those who lived closest to the West Coast.

In the second experiment, they focused on the overall U.S. shift with census projections of the national population. Again, they found that white Americans became more conservative – and more likely to endorse conservative policies – when they were aware of demographic changes that put them in the minority.

The final experiment – where questions were further refined and targeted – saw similar results.

Exposure to any majority-minority shift “increases whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions” – because some things become so obvious. Captain Obvious says so, and Bouie adds this:

Even if there’s no minority-majority it’s still true that the United States is becoming browner, with whites making up a declining share of the population. And if this Northwestern study is any indication, that could lead to a stronger, deeper conservatism among white Americans. The racial polarization of the 2012 election – where the large majority of whites voted for Republicans, while the overwhelming majority of minorities voted for Democrats – could continue for decades.

That would be great for Democratic partisans excited at the prospect of winning national elections in perpetuity, but terrible for our democracy, which is still adjusting to our new multiracial reality, where minority groups are equal partners in political life. To accomplish anything – to the meet the challenges of our present and future – we’ll need a measure of civic solidarity, a common belief that we’re all Americans, with legitimate claims on the bounty of the country.

With extreme racial polarization – and not the routine identity politics of the present – this goes out the window.

That flew out the window a few years ago, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore is reminded of something:

This morning I read an excerpt from Stony Brook University Prof. Michael Kimmel’s book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era… This particular excerpt focused on the Aryan Nation and white supremacists, but the book looks at angry white men in general. What he found was a strong correlation between white men failing to inherit any significant wealth or to achieve a status commensurate to their father’s, and a sense that white people are getting a raw deal.

Here’s Kimmel on that discomfort and anger that has festered:

That such ardent patriots are so passionately antigovernment might strike the observer as contradictory. After all, are these not the same men who served their country in Vietnam or in the Gulf War? Are these not the same men who believe so passionately in the American Dream? Are they not the backbone of the Reagan Revolution? Indeed, they are. The extreme Right faces the difficult cognitive task of maintaining their faith in America and in capitalism and simultaneously providing an analysis of an indifferent state, at best, or an actively interventionist one, at worst, and a way to embrace capitalism, despite a cynical corporate logic that leaves them, often literally, out in the cold – homeless, jobless, hopeless.

Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright – as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces – the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families – all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”

They say that’s obvious, and Kilgore adds this:

Maybe in a parliamentary system we would have some kind of ultranationalist party that could serve as steam-vent for this kind of anxiety, but in our two-party system it is inevitable that the more conservative party will take on a significant part of it. It’s this anxiety that explains why the Republicans cannot pass immigration reform even though they have constituencies (the evangelicals, the agricultural industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street) clamoring for it. They have actually been captured by this racial anxiety and now are held hostage to it.

What’s also interesting is that so much of this has little to do with policy preferences and how much it is mixed up in simple racial identity. These folks don’t like Wall Street or big corporations. Huge numbers of them benefit directly from federal aid and subsidies, including from ObamaCare, welfare, and food stamps. Given that, I wonder how their opinions might shift if confronted with a Democratic Party led by Hillary Clinton (with her family’s Bubba factor) rather than Barack Obama. Certainly, they would not find her so immediately alienating, which is not to say that the far right didn’t freak-out for the eight years of the Clinton presidency, because they did.

These folks are going to have to decide what is so obvious only a fool would not see it, and the problem is that can get confusing. In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint has just said that “people of faith” ended slavery, not “big government.” He says that’s obvious:

Well, the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution; it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people; it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Salon’s Joan Walsh is flabbergasted:

Where to start? Far from granting enslaved Americans “inalienable rights,” the Constitution had to be amended by “big government” several times in order to end slavery and grant African-Americans citizenship. (It would take another 100 years to secure their civil rights, including the right to vote.) While Abraham Lincoln no doubt had “love in his heart,” he brought the power of the federal government down on the side of the enslaved, fighting a bloody Civil War to free them.

Why is DeMint even talking about this?

She suggests this:

DeMint’s remarks show that the right is on the defensive on race – they at least know they have to be against slavery and applaud its abolition – and that’s a good thing, I guess. … But the fact is, African-Americans (and women, and children, and workers, but that’s for another piece) needed government to secure their freedom and their basic rights. The one area where we could expect Americans to agree on a role for government – that it was necessary to stop the practice of cruelly enslaving human beings – nah, they want to fight about that too.

Does that make them racist? A lot of people on the right and left actually agree: The word “racist” has probably outlived its usefulness. We just don’t have another term yet. The real debate should be about institutions, policies and actions, not divining what’s in someone’s heart. The problem for the U.S. today is that a whole set of institutions and policies and practices have deliberately advantaged one group over another, and continue to do so to this day.

If you can’t see that, if you won’t see that, if you deny the evidence and even make up false stories to explain the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow terrorism, legal racial discrimination and its present-day manifestations, you have a problem. You are at best indifferent to the persistence of racism and racial disadvantage and uninterested in what might end it.

She is, therefore, cutting this guy no slack:

DeMint’s first intellectual product at Heritage, recall, was authored by a white supremacist who regularly writes about Latino moral and intellectual inferiority. From the blight of birtherism (mostly un-repudiated by mainstream GOP leaders) to routine slurs about Obama as “the food stamp president” with a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mind-set and “a deep-seated hatred of white people” who wants to “create dependency” because “as an African-American male” he received “tremendous advantage” from government programs, today’s GOP has taken every opportunity to play on the racial fears of white Americans to discredit this president and his party.

Yes, but they said all of that was obvious, and not open to discussion, and anyway, Jim DeMint wasn’t talking about race at all here, just small government, or that there’s no need for a government, really, or at least no need for a federal government.

Jonathan Chait offers the condensed version of the DeMint exegesis – “Everybody knows the slaves were freed by Ronald Reagan, and he did it by cutting taxes.”

Yep, that’s nutty, and Ed Kilgore knows why:

DeMint’s rap is based on a series of palpable falsehoods that are extraordinarily common in the exotic world of “constitutional conservatism:” the deliberate conflation of the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution (this is how they sneak God and “natural rights” – meaning property and fetal rights – into the latter); the idea that the Civil War was about everything other than slavery; and the claim of Lincoln’s legacy, even though the Great Emancipator was in almost every respect a “big government liberal” as compared to the states’ rights Democrats – DeMint’s ideological and geographical forebears who touted the Constitution even more regularly (and certainly more consistently) than today’s states’ rights Republicans.

The obvious ain’t obvious, and Commentary’s Pete Wehner suggests that it may be time for these guys to pipe down:

I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected – and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

Good luck with that, as Andrew Sullivan notes:

This is more than a debate. DeMint now runs the Heritage Foundation, and has run it into the ground with know-nothingism and partisanship.

What was once a right-of-center oasis in rigorous social science, economics, social policy, science proper and other academic disciplines, is now a purely political operation, run by ideologues. And the consequences of replacing solid research with ever-more abstract ideological posturing are dire. A major political party is flying blind a lot of the time.

Look at the response to the ACA. Heritage once innovated, inventing several features of Obamacare; now the GOP scrambles to produce anything as a real alternative that can grapple with some of the same issues. Paul Ryan issues a report on poverty that rests on fatal misunderstandings of social science. Another rightwing “intellectual”, Allen West, puts out a book with fake quotes pulled off the Internet. And the seriously smart ones – Ted Cruz, for example – specialize and revel in demagoguery they must know is irrelevant to governing.

This is the mark of a party more interested in selling books to a devoted audience, not a party capable of actually running a government. Which is why, in my view, the GOP is increasingly conceding the full responsibility of running a country in favor of a constant stream of oppositional pirouettes and rhetorical excesses. That may win a few midterms; but it will never win a general – nor should it.

But what about the obvious, that it wasn’t the government, of and by and for the people as Lincoln put it, but the people who freed the slaves? Here, Jamelle Bouie looks at history:

The point of DeMint’s history lesson – and constitutional conservatism writ large – is to place liberals outside the narrative of American history, and to make liberalism a deviation from the norms of American thought. But the opposite is true – constitutional conservatism is foreign to liberals and conservatives – and the truth is ironic. If there was any period in our history where so-called constitutional conservatives held sway, it’s during the brief life of the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, national government was extraordinarily weak – it could not tax, mint coins, or pay collective debts – and states held near-total sovereignty. The result was economic disaster – several states were gripped by depression in the 1780s – and revolt. The failed Articles led American elites to convene a constitutional convention, where they would rethink their approach to national government.

These elites were opposed by the “anti-federalists,” who saw strong government as the prelude to tyranny. Their rhetoric was as hyperbolic as any Tea Partier’s. “A conspiracy against the freedom of America, both deep and dangerous, has been formed by an infernal junta of demagogues,” wrote one.

Indeed, if Jim DeMint wants to sharpen his broadsides against the president, he could do worse than to pick up the Anti-Federalist Papers. Sure, he reveres the founders, but he has much more in common with their opponents.

Perhaps that’s too arcane, if you believe it’s obvious that the founders, who were always right, actually hated the government they carefully created, on the second try, with the Constitution. Where is Captain Obvious when you need him? And who are the Mad Men here?

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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1 Response to The Revenge of Captain Obvious

  1. Rick says:

    It’s been said, and I’m sure it’s true, that if you don’t get some joke, you probably still won’t get it after it’s explained to you. And what I really don’t get is that nonsensical “Captain Obvious” campaign.

    First of all, what’s obvious is that whatever this guy wearing that silly uniform — nautical? military? chief bell-hop? — whatever the hell it is this guy is selling isn’t worth buying. Shouldn’t all those people wonder why this stupid guy in that obviously fake uniform is wandering amongst them, without somebody in authority calling 911?

    I was especially struck by that one ad where he’s about to book a hotel room, presumably to go screw some babe he spots at a bar, then doesn’t after he figures out she was actually flirting with someone else. The fact that some client doesn’t mind being associated with such sleeze is, I guess, a sign of the times. Still, the campaign looks so cheap and humorless, I can’t imagine it convinces anyone to buy anything. I just don’t get it.

    I also don’t get this counter-intuititve study that “finds” people becoming more conservative after hearing about the creeping demographics of the country. If anything, I’d think it would have the opposite effect — that is, hearing that the minority in America will soon be the majority would make you more likely to identify as liberal, since, assuming you would want to be part of the new in-crowd, you will want to be more open-minded — and, as even a conservative knows, that means more liberal. (Of course, whichever way you turn, it’s still pretty cynical to change your politics based on what you read in some press release during a psychological experiment. Whatever.)

    But I think I question the methodology of using “a nationally representative survey of self-identified politically ‘independent’ whites” — since I’ve heard pollsters warn that many who “self-identify” as political independents often turn out later to actually be conservatives. For some reason, conservatives like to think of themselves as more independent thinkers than they actually are.

    Something else that occurs to me while reading today’s column is how so many conservatives like Jim DeMint seem misinformed about American history. I especially enjoyed Ed Kilgore’s pointing out how mixed up they are:

    “… the deliberate conflation of the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution (this is how they sneak God and ‘natural rights’ – meaning property and fetal rights – into the latter); the idea that the Civil War was about everything other than slavery; and the claim of Lincoln’s legacy, even though the Great Emancipator was in almost every respect a ‘big government liberal’ as compared to the states’ rights Democrats – DeMint’s ideological and geographical forebears who touted the Constitution even more regularly (and certainly more consistently) than today’s states’ rights Republicans.”

    I’m amazed whenever I tell someone I meet that I’m interested in American history, and they then jump to the conclusion that I’m a Republican. The attribute of “knowing our history better than Democrats” is just one of many mistaken assumptions people make about Republicans, along with “can be trusted with the American economy” (which always seems to do better with a Democrat in the White House), and “more experienced in matters of security” (despite the “chicken-hawk” pattern of Republican politicians shamelessly dodging wars they purportedly believe in, while Democrats seem more often to be caught fighting in wars they don’t).

    Although it should be obvious that Abraham Lincoln — who believed slavery was wrong and was fighting to keep a nation together, against states that thought their own desires trumped those of any nation-state and that slavery was endorsed by God — it should be obvious to them that Abraham Lincoln was a liberal. The truth is, when it comes to history, just as it is with science and economics, conservatives just make stuff up that sounds right to them. They might not even realize that liberals are not doing the same thing — that is, making up facts to support their own ideology.

    I think conservatives don’t even really believe that facts are all that factual. As Karl Rove reportedly tried to explain to Ron Suskind why reporters like him, who assume “that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”, are feckless:

    “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    That, of course, was back when Rove thought Republicans would be running things for a thousand years, and before he tried to “create” his own “reality” on election night of 2012, before he and his entire “faith-based” community got slapped upside their collective head by reality — and I use the term “reality” here to mean the real one, not some reality “created” by some true believer of one stripe or another.


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