Today, the city of Chicago elects its mayor. In other cities, there would be a primary vote, then another at the time of the general election in November. But given the scarcity of Chicago Republicans — it’s like 25 guys, and they’re all professors in three departments at U of C — the Democratic primary would effectively determine who will be mayor of the city anyways.
So, Chicago’s mayoral race is nonpartisan. And it’s at the end of February — which in Chicago, is even more masochistic than it would be in cities with a more temperate climate.
Since Chicago’s longstanding Mayor Richard M Daley announced he would not seek re-election for another, Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago-area Congressman, Democratic Party powerhouse, and (until recently) Chief of Staff for President Obama, has sought to sew this thing up. There were some brief problems establishing his residency and right to run for office, but now it looks like he’s off to the races.
Since Emanuel announced he was running for office, he’s been joined by a delightfully funny and foul-mouthed shadow on Twitter calling himself @MayorEmanuel. Like Fake Steve Jobs before him, @MayorEmanuel combines a kind of exaggeration of the known qualities of the real Rahm Emanuel — profanity, intelligence, hyper-competitiveness — with a fully-realized, totally internal world of characters and events that has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the comic parallel universe @MayorEmanuel inhabits.
For instance, @MayorEmanuel’s “about” section on Twitter reads: “Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes.” The idea is that if we strip back the secrecy and public image to something so impolitic, so unlikely, we might arrive at something approximating the truth. But, despite my status as a one-time — and actually, I still hope future — Chicagoan, I haven’t been a regular reader of @MayorEmanuel. My friends retweet his funniest one-liners, and that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday, however, @MayorEmanuel outdid himself. He wrote an extended, meandering narrative of the day before the primary that took the whole parallel Rahm Emanuel thing to a different emotional, comic, cultural place entirely. It even features a great cameo by friend of the Snark Alexis Madrigal. The story is twisting, densely referential, far-ranging — and surprisingly, rather beautiful.
And so, once more using the magic of Storify, I’d like to share that story with you. I’ve added some annotations that I hope help explain what’s happening and aren’t too distracting.
In its original form, it has no title. I call it “The Two Mayors.” Read it after the jump.
It’s a classic paradox of American democracy: citizens love America, hate Congress, but generally like their own district’s Congressman. (Until they don’t, and then they vote for someone else, who they usually like).
Huder points out something even more paradoxical: Congressional approval takes a hit not just when there’s a scandal, or when there’s partisan gridlock in the face of a crisis, but even when Congress works together to pass major legislation:
By simply doing its job Congress can alienate large parts of its constituency. So while people like their legislators, they dislike when they get together with fellow members and legislate.
From this, Huder concludes that “disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA.” But let me come at this from a different angle: professional and/or sports.
There’s almost an exact isomorphism here. Fans/constituents like/love their home teams (unless their performance suffers for an extended period of time, when they switch to “throw the bums out” mode), and LOVE the game itself. But nobody really likes the league. Who would say, “I love the MLB” or “I love the NCAA” — meaning the actual organizations themselves?
Never! The decisions of the league are always suspect. They’re aggregate, bureaucratic, necessary, and not the least bit fun. Even when leagues make the right decision, we discount it; they’re just “doing their job.” The only time they can really capture our attention is when they do something awful. And most of the time, they’re just tedious drags on our attention, easily taken for granted.
If it’s a structure, it doesn’t seem to be limited to politics. It’s a weird blend of local/pastime attachment, combined with contempt/misunderstanding for the actual structures that work. Because we don’t *want* to notice them at work at all, really.
I realized today that the entire Andrew Breitbart/Shirley Sherrod/Obama administration scandal, and arguably the entire Tea Party/conservative/media pundit civil-liberties and “reverse racism grievance industry” can be explained in this sketch about the heavy metal band Wicked Sceptor from the Mr Show with Bob and David episode “Show Me Your Weenis!”:
“Guys, you gotta see this tape. It’s a black official being TOTALLY racist in front of the NAACP!” A guy gets a tape from some random college student the Underground Young Republican Tape Railroad, dubbed so often it’s practically worthless, that doesn’t really show what it’s supposed to. But the guy — and I don’t know if this recipient is Andrew Breitbart, or if Breitbart’s the guy from the Underground Tape Railroad and cable news is the recipient — says “No shit?”, watches it anyway, and decides to cynically pass it off as what it’s claimed to be.
After all — you’ve already paid for the tape, what are you going to do, not show it to your friends? Even if it isn’t what it says it is, you can get some entertainment out of debating whether or not the tape really shows what it says it does. The elephants [get it?] aren’t really fucking, but who cares? You can have a “conversation on race,” one that’s exactly as serious and informed as the conversation college kids have sitting on a couch watching a viral video together.
Meanwhile, the guys in charge watch a little bit of the tape and freak out. Every blogger in the country is downloading this! Tour’s cancelled, career’s over.
Okay, now the metaphor shifts. Now the band, Wicked Sceptor, are actually the Bush-era conservatives who have suddenly turned around to see racism, erosion of civil liberties, economic disaster, failing wars, a man-made ecological disaster on the gulf coast, a bottomless budget deficit, and the spectre (scepter) of a totalitarian regime everywhere they look.
They’re watching two videotapes, one of the years when conservatives were in power, and all of those things were happening, and another of the lunatic, demagogue fringe that’s gradually defining the institutional and ideological center of the Republican party, engaging in all manner of incompetence, parodic levels of racism, making jokes about eating ribs and witch doctors and anchor babies and the NAACP and Obama secretly wanting black people to stay poor and stupid and they’re saying, what’s the big deal? It’s just a party tape.
|The Colbert Report||Mon — Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Then we say to the conservatives, “guys, I’m gonna take your tape out, and I want you to do me a favor and watch this OTHER tape of the Democrats being racists and fascists and acting hateful.” Meanwhile, we’re actually taking the same tape, putting it behind our backs, and putting it in the VCR.
And when they see it, they’re horrified. Outraged. Disgusted. They can’t believe what they’re seeing.
And we scream, “That’s you!!” And they laugh and dance around and sing, “alll-rii-iight!”
Then someone tries to be reasonable. Tries to break it down and explain the complexities and the nuances of the situation, and how we’re all, all of us, implicated in the horrible history of our country, its racism and wars and intolerance and political dysfunction and neglect of the sick and the poor and its energy addictions and terrible media culture and general short-sighted willingness, even eagerness, to murder the future to pay the interest on the present.
And they say, “Racist!”
Meanwhile, Shirley Sherrod says, fuck it. I’ll go to Fire Island.
Ta-Nehisi sums it up:
It’s always a marvel to me to watch this guy [Colbert] go in on somebody. As much as I love Stewart, Colbert is act is for the ages. He is channeling all of our simmering left-wing anger and refracting it through the mask. From a black perspective, it is very familiar–but I need to re-read Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray to tell you specifically why.
A few years back, he sliced up D’Nesh Dsouza so bad, that I don’t think he knew he was bleeding until a week later. And now, here he is according Laura Ingraham all the respect that she so richly deserves. That this woman can satirize Michelle Obama for eating ribs all day, and when wonder why anyone would think she was racist is vexing. I actually regret that–the anger, I mean. Frustration with these people, so often, feels useless. And then you see it turned into something like this, and you understand that rage has its purposes.
We had a few years, post-9/11. where it seemed like this sort of language disappeared–at least as it related to black people. Now we’re back to situation where the most publicized political movement of our time believes, that charges of racism have destroyed “whole cities,” that the NAACP is as bad as the Klan and is perpetrating “racial terror,” that white people should have the right to say nigger, that the amendment that granted African-Americans citizenship should be repealed, and that “white America” needs to “see black people condemning the NAACP.”
It’s worth remembering that this is the Tea Party’s reply to charges of racist elements in their ranks. It feels like something out of 1986.
And then you have to read the final thought.
Times like this truly do make me wish superheroes were real.
There’s an affecting moment in J Michael Straczynski’s recent run on the comic Thor. The Norse god of thunder’s been dead for three years, but has come back to life, as only gods and comic book superheroes can.
One of the first places he goes is New Orleans. Thor was dead when Hurricane Katrina hit a year earlier, and he knows he could have stopped the hurricanes, the floods, or otherwise saved the city and its people. But he wonders where the rest of the superheroes were: “Why were not force fields erected? Why were tides not evaporated by heat and blast? Why were buildings not supported by strength of arms and steel?”
Just then, Iron Man shows up, to tell Thor that all superheroes need to register with the federal government to prevent superpower-caused disasters. Instead of preventing Katrina or repairing New Orleans, Iron Man and his fellow superheroes have been fighting each other over this registration requirement, part of what Marvel Comics called Civil War.
There’s some meaning to be drawn from this, that I can’t fully articulate. Something about thinking too small, thinking about short-term hurdles and squabbles rather than the big picture; a blindness to the fact of habitual human suffering that would be willful if it weren’t also somehow sickeningly necessary.
I’m not sure. But I think I know why I’ve been reading more comic books lately.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been my favorite writer to read on this Rand Paul mess. (Short version — Ron Paul’s son won the Republican primary for a Senate seat in Kentucky, after which his candidacy kind of fell apart after some really clumsy and embarassing interviews where he tried to say that he was against the Civil Rights Act banning segregation, but that he wasn’t a racist, would have marched with MLK, and thinks a free society means people/businesses are free to do despicable things.) Here are the key bullet points:
- Why can the media only focus on how bad this looks for Paul politically, rather than try to engage with his opinion as a serious position? “[W]hile I expect politicians and their handlers to think in terms of messaging, I also expect–perhaps foolishly–for media to be in the business of pushing past that messaging to actual ideas. What we get instead is a faux-objectivity, that avoids the substance of issues and instead focuses on how that substance is pitched. In that sense, much like the relationship between entertainment and many entertainment journalists, it’s really hard to see media as more than quasi-independent extension of campaign apparatus.”
- Why can’t Paul and his conservative/libertarian supporters actually engage with this stuff more seriously? “What I’m driving at is raising the question about methods is never wrong, to the contrary it’s essential. That process is undermined by people who raise those questions, without having thought about them, without being able to speak to their nuances, and are mostly concerned with tribal signaling. People were dragged from their homes, raped and murdered over civil rights. Talk about it, by all means. But talk about it with the intellectual seriousness it deserves.This is not a third grade science fair project.”
- This post, “Towards an abstract courage,” is my favorite, because it addresses the idea that certainly, Paul and every other decent person would have been allies with King and other desegregationists to bring segregated businesses down, without the federal government stepping in. “Now, after the police dogs, night-sticks and fire-hoses have been beaten back, Rand Paul wants to reopen the question, while, to be sure, claiming that he would have had the ‘courage to march with Martin Luther King.’ This is a common strain of courage. It chiefly shines through in men born 50 years too late. Presently among the crowd, they are distinguished at that decisive moment when queried about wars they won’t have to fight, in times they will never live. These men populate our history books. They are all on the wrong side.”
- To that end, “Towards a manifested courage” tells the story of Joan Trumpauer, one of the white freedom riders arrested in Jackson, MS for integrating a lunch counter.
Coates links to Charles Lane in the Washington Post, who writes:
Suppose an African American customer sits down at a “whites only” restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner’s options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he’ll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he’ll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he’s violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner’s discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it.
Conversely, it is precisely because of this nexus between private discrimination and public enforcement that the larger community, through the political and judicial process, acquires a valid interest in legislating against discrimination. The public is entitled to say whether their tax money should pay for arresting black trespassers on whites-only property.
This, for me, is a huge point, since it establishes that segregation and desegregation aren’t at substance purely a matter of freedom of association or the content of characters/hearts, but a matter of recognition under the law. What we see are the people, those angry faces — but what makes the invisible infrastructure for all of that anger is the law.
To see how important — and how slippery — this point can be, read this NYT editorial excoriating Paul, then Chris Bray at History News Network, who justly slams the NYT:
[T]he American history of racial oppression and brutality is a history of government. The founding document of the republic privileged slavery as a lawful institution, and government served that institution for another seventy-eight years after that. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all American slaves; it freed slaves in states engaged in rebellion…
After the abandonment of Reconstruction, “redeemed” southern governments rebuilt structures of oppression through law and the institutions of government. Jim Crow laws were laws; the regime of racial segregation was not simply a set of social choices. That guy standing in the schoolhouse door? He was a governor. Why is that so hard to figure out?
I think it’s because we’ve seen the pictures of the dogs and the firehoses and the angry men and women behind them, and we’ve assumed that that’s what discrimination looks like, to the point that we can’t understand anyone or anything as racist unless it looks like that.
But I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s a secret history of the invisible that we’re tracing. And the thing about being invisible is that it’s pretty easy to be everywhere.
[Michael] Steele is representative of a fascinating but little noted development on the right: the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the party’s anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in for their own private gain. In this cause, Steele is emulating no one if not Sarah Palin, whose hunger for celebrity and money outstrips even his own.
I think it was either Daniel Larison or Andrew Sullivan last year who noted that conservative pundits’ power and profit tends to go up whenever the Republican Party does worse. If you control the White House and/or Congress, you don’t really need a radio host or non-office-holding former candidate as a spokesman. But buckraking isn’t limited to the right — as Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald, and Wonkette point out, it’s kind of hard to see Harold Ford’s Senate run in NY as anything but an attempt at self-promotion. (Ford probably won’t win the primary nomination, but his place as a guy who gets interviewed on cable news is safe for years.)
In fact, “buckraker” is probably best reserved for pseudo-journalists, i.e., pundits who act as political hacks — but for their own benefit, over and above that of their media network or political party. That (as Word Wizard points out) is closer to the origin of the term, both as a variation on “muckraker” and its (probable) coinage by Jacob Weisberg in The New Republic, all the way back in 1986, in an essay called “The buckrakers: Washington journalism enters a new era”:
[M]ark February 1985 as the start of the next era. That was when Patrick J. Buchanan went to work at the White House and his financial disclosure statement revealed, to widespread astonishment and envy, that he had made $400,000 as a journalist in 1984. This included $60,000 for his syndicated column, $25,000 for his weekly appearance on ‘The McLaughlin Group,’ $94,000 for Cable News Network’s ‘Crossfire,’ $81,000 for a radio show, and more than $135,000 for 37 speeches. Welcome to the era of the buckraker.
But Buchanan was always a marginal figure, a good interview but someone who was always at the outside of the Republican party and national politics. The fact that Michael Steele has essentially refashioned the national chairmanship of his party — which (national political figures like Howard Dean aside) used to be a pretty low-profile, behind-the-scenes, support job — into a me-out-front full-time media position seems significant — Steele doesn’t have an incentive to promote the party at the expense of himself.
Serving as party chair is always a short-term gig. As Buchanan and now Palin and Ford have shown, buckraking is forever.
Google’s announcement that they’re going to stop censoring their Chinese search results in response to a cyberattack targeting Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents is big news, but I wanted to look* at some older instances of political attempts to control information (and of users to hide it).
Samuel Pepys, the only person more famous for writing a diary than Anne Frank, had a problem. He’d bought this book, Mare Clausum by John Selden, in a 1652 translation that included a lavish dedication “To the Supreme Autoritie of the Nation: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of England.” The trouble is that in 1660, Charles II was restored as king of England. Whoops.
In 1663 a new edition – keeping Nedham’s translation, but changing the title page – had been published by two booksellers called Andrew Kembe and Edward Thomas… For readers who already owned the 1652 edition, and who didn’t want the shame of the old title page but were reluctant to shell out for a new one, there was another option. The bookseller Robert Walton was offering a new title page that could be bound or pasted into the old edition, restoring the dedication to Charles I.
Pepys was nothing if not politic and practical, so on 17 April 1663, he visited Walton to paste the new title page into his book. Pepys also burned books that he thought might incriminate him, either with the government or his wife, as in the case of a French book Pepys found pornographic:
Friday 7 February 1668. We sang till almost night, and drank my good store of wine; and then they parted and I to my chamber, where I did read through L’Escholle des Filles; a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for imagination’s sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.
As Nick Poyntz (who blogged about this at Mercurius Politicus) wrote: “This is the seventeenth-century equivalent of wiping your browser history.” Awesome.
* Actually, I was going to write about Pepys anyway. But Google! China! Crazees.
All the arguing I’ve been doing over the health care proposal on the table, including with some of my closest friends, reminds me of this great Max Weber essay, “Politics as a Vocation”:
We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that.However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends–that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’–and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.
You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of ultimate ends, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent–and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said,he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action. The believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order. To rekindle the flame ever anew is the purpose of his quite irrational deeds, judged in view of their possible success. They are acts that can and shall have only exemplary value.
But even herewith the problem is not yet exhausted. No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones –and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications. From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications.
There are all sorts of ways that you can pervert this idea of “responsibility,” from the assumption that responsible politicians are always hawkish (and non-hawks are correspondingly irresponsible) to the proposition that the stance of responsibility implies an excess of caution (the accusation of which has dogged both Obama and John Kerry before him).
The proper sense, though, I think, is to recognize that politics, especially national politics, has a unique relationship to life and death of citizens (both of one’s own state and of others) — and that an ethic of responsibility demands that one account for the consequences of policy on these terms. To that end, a policy-maker will frequently have to compromise themselves ethically and politically (in the narrow sense of electoral politics). Here’s Weber again:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth–that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.
As much as I’m disappointed by the outcome, I have to love Nate Silver’s analogy/analysis of the failed push for a public option. Essentially, Silver’s take is that the core group of conservative Democrats were never going to accept a public option, said so early, repeated it whenever they were asked, and so, a bill containing a public option was never going to beat a filibuster.
Suppose the following scenario plays out when you’re trying to buy a used car:
Dealer: The price of the car is $2,000.
You: For that beat-up Honda Accord? I’ll give you $1,200.
Dealer: Nope, it’s $2,000.
You: How about $1,500?
Dealer: I’m going to stick with $2,000.
You: Will $1,700 get it done?
Dealer: My best and final offer is $2,000.
You: Give a guy a break! $1,875?
You: $1,995 and a free Slurpee coupon?
Dealer: Now we’re talking — step into my office.
Is that a negotiation in bad faith? Is the dealer moving the goalposts? No. He’s being very stubborn and very firm — but he’s also being very explicit about what he wants. It’s possible that you were an incompetent negotiator and that maybe if your first offer had come in a little lower, or a little higher, you could have gotten a better price. But more likely the dealer simply had more of the leverage and ultimately $2,000 is an acceptable price to you, even if it’s more than you were hoping to pay.
Progressives did just about everything in their power to try to get a decent public option into the bill. They threatened. They bargained. They complained. They organized. They persuaded. They begged. There was the opt-in, the opt-out, the trigger, the Medicare buy-in. There was no lack of initiative or creativity. And they actually had quite a bit of success: from 43 votes in August, they got up to perhaps as many as 48–52 for a strong-ish public option, and 57–59 for a weak-ish one. People like Kay Hagan, Tom Carper and Kent Conrad, to varying degrees, came on board.
But just because you perceive yourself as being in a negotiation with another party doesn’t entitle you to win that negotiation, or even to split things halfway. Sometimes your adversary doesn’t think there’s anything to negotiate at all. Sometimes they would in theory be willing to negotiate if you could find the right leverage point, but there’s nothing that fits the bill, for all your best efforts. Sometimes their first offer is pretty much as good as it’s going to get, and not merely a negotiating ploy.
What’s that? Oh, yes. Silver explicitly excludes Sen. Joe Lieberman (Prick — CT) from this analysis. Lieberman’s about-face on the Medicare buy-in proposal, motivated seemingly only by a desire to get payback from progressives who didn’t support him against Ned LaMont, would be comic if it didn’t play with people’s lives.