The Quote-Unquote Presidency

by Jonah Goldberg
Obama does his job as if the word had quotation marks around it.

Editor’s NoteThe following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and the folks who think a Friday without a ‘Dear Reader’ gag is like something else without something else),

First let me say I’m sorry about missing last week’s G-File. I was at AEI’s World Forum. I would tell you all about it except the whole thing is like double-secret off the record. I can tell you that panda bear is delicious and not nearly as stringy as you might expect (the trick, apparently, is in poaching the filet before you roast it). Also, you’ll be glad to know that when they let me out of my pit to fight James Pethokoukis with an uprooted “No Parking” sign (Jimmy P. chose a garden rake as a weapon — and he chose poorly!), I earned my gamemasters over 50,000 quatloos (what they’re calling bitcoins these days).

While at the World Forum, I had an interesting experience (“We’ll be the judge of that” — The Couch). I was talking with a couple Master of the Universe types (technically one MoU and a couple other MOUs-in-training) and one of them said to me something like “This sounds familiar. Did you write that somewhere?”

I had been talking about cigars (fitting, in that we were in the cigar lounge) and, yes, in fact I had written about whatever it was I had been saying. It felt a bit embarrassing at first, like I was cribbing material or something. But then I got defensive. Yes, I wrote it, I said. Followed by, “You’re damn right I ordered the code red,” which was a really strange thing to say.

Anyway, I don’t really have much of a larger point here, other than that the wall between my writing life and my conversational life is pretty low. Obviously there are some things I don’t share in print (or in my interpretative-dance shows). And there are some things I write about that I rarely talk about (“immanentizing the eschaton” rarely comes up at my daughter’s basketball games). But if I have a good insight — or what I think is a good insight (often a huge distinction) — I’ll probably write about it. And, if it seems appropriate in conversation — or dance — I’ll bring it up there as well. I guess the reason the whole thing stuck in my mind is that it was a reminder of how weird my life is. If you’re a plumber it’s fairly unlikely that someone will say, “Wait a minute, didn’t you snake a toilet just like this at work?” And if they did, it would be the questioner who would feel weird.

If you don’t get what I’m driving at, consider this. A very famous U.S. politician asked me the other night if the couch in the cigar lounge made he Couch from the G-File jealous. That’s weird. (“And crazy! I don’t need your validation.” – The Couch).

The Ironic Presidency

I was thinking: Maybe it’s time to put quotation marks around the entire Obama presidency?

Let me explain. In punditry and other wastrel professions, there are all sorts of ways to suggest that a word isn’t being used correctly. Scare quotes are the preferred approach. This is when you put quotation marks or (it’s better if you use your hands to gesture it out) “quotation marks” around a word in order to suggest that we all know the word inside the quotation marks doesn’t quite mean what it does or that it is being used for convention’s sake. Think of my entirely appropriate — if grammatically abysmal — use of quotation marks in “news”letter.

A ‘Digression’

Now, let me offer a brief parenthetical on the difference between using scare quotes and just using quotation marks incorrectly. As anybody who has ever seen a “Parking in ‘Rear’ Only” sign knows, some people really have no idea how to use quotation marks, often mistaking them for italics. There’s a whole blog dedicated to this fact. I particularly like the sign that says “In case of emergency ‘remain calm.’” Read literally, this would mean something close to the opposite, like “In case of emergency, do not remain calm but pretend to for appearances sake in an oddly detached ironic way” or some such. For the misuse of air quotes, I refer you to Joey Tribbiani from Friends.

‘Digression’ Over

Scare quotes are different. Here’s the “authoritative” take from Wikipedia, which is actually just fine:

Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to imply that it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept. Thus, the quotes are used to establish a use–mention distinction, in a similar way to verbally prefixing with “so-called”. When referred to as “scare quotes,” the quotation marks are suggested to imply skepticism or disagreement with the quoted terminology.

For one concrete example, when George W. Bush was proposing to create private accounts for social security, liberals reacted like he wanted to put a Hooters in the Vatican. (That analogy only works if you assume liberals have a sense of piety with regard to the Vatican — or disdain for Hooters. If you can’t get your head around that, substitute “liberals reacted as if he wanted Lena Dunham to stop doing nude scenes and do something worthwhile with her life.”) As a result, many liberal commentators would refer to President Bush’s social-security reform, as social-security “reform,” often putting the reform part in quotation marks to suggest that while the cowboy from Texas may consider it a reform, the cognoscenti do not.

Another approach is the use of the phrase “so-called.” This, too, is an entirely bipartisan technique. Many conservatives refer to “so-called gay marriage” and just try to get a liberal to say anything other than “so-called partial-birth abortion.” Pro-tip: If you want to make your significant other angry, just wait until he or she makes you a nice meal and then call it “so-called dinner.” And fellas, you get to use the phrase “my so-called wife” only once in your life, so make it count!

A less common technique in print, but quite common in TV punditry, is the coprophagic grin, combined with an eye roll and/or an air-quote gesture. As a kid in the 1980s watching the Sunday shows, I’d see this a lot from Eleanor Clift and Sam Donaldson types when the phrase “evil empire” came up.

The Iron(ic) Hand of the President

So why all the throat clearing about a point anyone this side of Joe Biden can grasp? Well, first of all, if you haven’t learned by now, the G-File is a lot like riding a bike to Gary, Ind.; the best part is the journey, not the destination. Second, I needed some time to figure out what I wanted to say. And, last, you can get in a lot of trouble for calling Barack Obama a “so-called president.”

So let me be clear. I am not a birther. Nor do I believe Obama stole the presidency. He’s the duly elected commander-in-chief. He’s my president as much as anybody’s. In other words, he’s not illegitimate — but he is pretty bad at his job. And I think this stems from the fact that he does the job like it should have quotation marks around it.

Obamacare’s Roman Holiday

Consider the fact that Obamacare is now simply untethered from law or policy. This week the administration announced that you can get a hardship waiver from Obamacare if your hardship is . . .wait for it . . . Obamacare. This is like getting out of doing push-ups during basic training if you can prove that doing push-ups would be difficult for you, defeating the point of doing push-ups in the first place. The White House is quite simply making it all up as they go along. You can’t really point to a thing that is Obamacare because doing so would be like pointing at the blob in a lava lamp and saying “that looks like Michael Caine eating a badger.” Maybe it looks like that right now. Give it a second. When you criticize Obamacare the response from its defenders gets meta really quickly.

Sure, the defenders will admit, more people have lost their insurance than gained insurance because of Obamacare. Yes, yes, the website is the screen-doored submarine of websites. Sure, the president is simply disregarding countless laws and regulations he and his supporters once considered so sacred only racists, psychopaths, and Koch brothers could oppose. But good God, “DON’T YOU WANT PEOPLE TO HAVE INSURANCE, YOU HEARTLESS BASTARD!?!?!”

For some reason, it all reminds me of that scene from Gladiator:

COMMODUS: My father’s war against the barbarians, he said himself it achieved nothing. But people still loved him.

LUCILLA: People always love victories.

COMMODUS: But why? They don’t see the battles. What do they care about Germania?

LUCILLA: They care about the greatness of Rome.

COMMODUS: Greatness of Rome? But what is that?

LUCILLA: It’s an idea, greatness. Greatness is a vision.

COMMODUS: Exactly. A vision. I will give the people a vision and they will love me for it. They will soon forget the tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men. I will give them the greatest vision of their lives.

Obamacare has ceased being a thing for its defenders and has instead become an idea, a vision. To question the greatness of Obamacare is to miss the point of the greatness of Obamacare.

And so has been so much else with this presidency. For two centuries, the president’s job description had “make speeches” pretty far down the list of requirements. Admittedly, it’s been moving up the queue for a long time, but until Obama, “make speeches” wasn’t the whole list. As I wrote in my “Obamacare Schadenfreudarama“ screed, Obama often seems to think saying “X must happen” is all he needs to do to ensure that X happens. Saying “the website is great” means the website is great. Talking about “red lines” is the same thing as enforcing “red lines.” It seems to me, this is because Obama is only comfortable running for president not being president. That’s why he always reverts to campaign mode.

The contrast between Putin and Obama is really striking. Putin’s an evil thug (just putting that out there because a lot of idiots seem to think that criticizing Obama’s weakness amounts to proof conservatives are apologists for Putin). But he has this old-fashioned notion that foreign policy is about things like spheres of influence, warm-water ports, force projection, money, trade, armies, language, culture, history, etc. Obama, Kerry, and company seem to think foreign policy is about words and international opinion and being “on the right side of history.” (Don’t get me started on that).

Even when Obama comes down from Olympus to deal with reality, he does so in a way where it’s more like he’s playing the role of president rather than being president. His “Year of Action” is the political equivalent of Beatlemania (“it’s not the Beatles but an incredible simulation“). “Action Mania! It’s not action but an incredible simulation.” I mean, am I the only one laughing that the Democrats filibustered themselves this week to talk about the crisis of climate change? They control the senate but stayed up all night to talk about how something must be done while refusing to propose actually doing something. This makes a Bryn Mawr seminar (unless they prefer to call them “ovulars” now) on post-modern themes in the sermons of Thulsa Doom seem like a really productive use of time. I think Obama was happiest when he was president-elect. He had that faux presidential seal and, before he had anything to do, he could talk as if his talk really was a substitute for action. Once in office, the talk and action started to diverge and he never could get them to line up again, at least not for long.

And yes, “filibustering yourself” sounds dirty. You thought I missed that.

Speaking of Post Modernism

A lot has been written — including by me — about Obama being a post-modern president. Not all of it is that great (including my stuff). But there’s still something to the idea. Anyone who defines sin as “being out of alignment with my values” is up to something sketchy. The problem is that trying to define post-modernism is like trying to sculpt a working carousel out of lime JELL-O. And arguing with self-described post-modernists is one of the most joyless shortcuts to an intellectual ass-ache I can think of. (“Was that a ‘parking in rear’ joke?” — The Couch.) As the late Christopher Hitchens said, “the Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.” And there’s good reason to think John Leonard was on to something when he asked, “Isn’t post-modernism really one big cover-up for the failure of the French to write a truly interesting novel ever since a sports car ate Albert Camus?”

But for our purposes, definitions are easy enough. The post-modernism Obama came of age studying (Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, etc.) holds that truth is “socially constructed,” so not only is there is no capital-T Truth that stands outside the individual or society, but all meaning is up for grabs in a contest to see which “stories” will define our civilization. Ultimately this means truth becomes a political question about who wields power rather than an investigation into anything eternal or external to our own perspectives. (I’ll spare you — for now — my rant on how post-modernism was actually pre-modern magical thinking flim-flam gussied up to sound clever.) “Simplifying to the extreme,” Jean Francois Lyotard explained, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”

Sadly, Incredulity toward Metanarratives opened for Insane Clown Posse in 1997. It was their last show as they were severely beaten by the crowd halfway into their first song, “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” Ironically, the lead singer was bludgeoned by an obese female juggalo with the words “TRUTH” and “FACT” tattooed on her knuckles. You can’t make something like that up.

But that’s not important right now. “Incredulity toward metanarratives” is also code for “I get to say whatever the hell I want if I do it in a French accent or wear a Palestinian scarf over my tweed jacket.” Fans of “The Adventures of Letterman” — not the once-funny late-night-talk-show host, but the cartoon from The Electric Company (narrated by Joan Rivers!) – might remember that the superhero used letters to thwart any threat. The villainous (oddly turban-wearing) Spell Binder would use his wand to change the “L” in “light” into an “N” for “night,” causing the world to be plunged into darkness, or he’d change “pear” to “bear,” making things awkward for a young lady who intended to eat a pear. Letterman — who was faster than a rolling “O” — would swoop in to save the day. (Just watch the videos I linked to, it will explain everything.) Post-modernists are a bit like Spell Binder. They hang quotation marks on any capital T Truth and the weight pulls that top bar in the capital letter “T” down until it becomes a smaller, lowercase letter; making “the Truth” into simply “a ‘truth.’”

But all of that is incredibly far afield for a “news”letter that is already longer than a short speech by Joe Biden. So I’ll stop here for now.

Various & Sundry

Oh, you should know I’ll be on vacation next week. I’m heading to California and, later, Vegas. No idea if I will be filing a “news”letter or not. West Coast time is rough for a product I write the morning it’s due. And, FWIW, next Friday is my birthday, no less. Plenty of time to send a card, attached to a check or a bottle of scotch.

The new GLOPcast came out this week.

I am pleased to announce I’ve re-signed (not resigned) with Fox News for another year. More on all that some other time.

On March 19, I will be debating Eugene Robinson on the role of government in a free society at Miami University in Ohio. It’d be great to have some friends in the audience.

On April 4, I will be speaking at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference.

I will be teaching a class at Hillsdale this April as a Pulliam Fellow. I will be giving a big speech while out there on April 10, I believe. If you’re in the area, mark your calendars. Details TK. Oh, but the really exciting part is I will be bringing Zoë with me. I think she’ll like Michigan in the spring.

On April 28, I will be speaking at the Kansas Policy Institute. Would love it if you could make it (alas, this is a rare tickets-for-sale deal. But on the other hand I’m not in Kansas all that often). Details here.

Zoë update: Healthwise she’s in the clear. Attitude-wise, we’ve got a long road ahead of us. She’s a pretty wild girl. Tough to potty train. Being a dingo of sorts, she apparently thinks it is vital to dig deep and narrow holes in the backyard — perfect for ruining lawns and breaking ankles. She also considers the line between steak, bacon, sticks, dead mice, dirt, and grass to be pretty arbitrary. We were pretty spoiled with Cosmo who was wicked smart but a bit stoic when not worked up. There is no subtext to Zoë. Here she is having a grand time with a golden retriever twice her size. The nice thing is we love her, so love helps get you through the “Zoë! No! NO!” moments.

Oh, and in other news, Zoë is on Twitter now. It remains to be seen how much tweeting she’ll be able to get into her schedule.

Lady Gaga, artist

Scientists map universe in 3D, which is just as stupid as showing the universe in 2D given that we’ve all read our P. D. Ouspenski.

The amazing thing about capitalism part 3,978,129,001 Part N: It allows someone to make a hobby of photobombing butt cracks.

What your language sounds like to foreigners.

But mom, she followed me home!

Matt Zoller Seitz on Deadwood (one of my all time favorite shows)

For the When Republicans do it, it’s eeeevil! File.

Douglas Adams’s generational guide to technology.

18 famous TV roles originally played by someone else.

Bummer: 50 things that turn 50 this year.

33 facts about famous people you won’t believe are true.

Eleven movies based on poems.

And eleven famous actors in commercials.

Mind-control animals!

Debby’s links!