EDITOR’S NOTE: The 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 (unless you’re the Oregon guy who drove 30 miles with his left-turn signal on. I’ve lost all faith in you),
I’m writing this barreling down I-70, which I learned earlier today is the “Main Street of Kansas.” So sayeth a billboard for all to see just across the border from Colorado. This is not a very good slogan for Kansas, in my humble opinion. I like Kansas quite a bit. I do not like I-70 at all. “Main Street” implies a certain amount of commerce, even hustle-and-bustle. To my mind, it also suggests a homespun charm. I would bet $10,000 (to borrow a locution from Mitt Romney) that “charm and commerce,” never mind “hustle” or “bustle,” do not appear in the firsthand accounts of any I-70 traveler in recorded history (though it’s not like the I-70 Oral History Project is an ongoing concern).
This isn’t the dumbest geographic marketing campaign I’ve ever seen. The last couple times I was in Anchorage, the banners hanging from the light poles downtown proclaimed “Anchorage: Clean and Safe!” This is the kind of slogan that sows doubt rather than reassures. It’s like when a chef insists that no one ever actually died eating his clams “that I know of.” It reminds of the bit from 30 Rock. “Sheinhardt Wig Company: Not Poisoning Rivers Since 1977!”
I can only imagine the town elders of Anchorage sitting around a table saying:
“Okay, now that we cleared the hobos and garbage out of downtown, what do we want our slogan to tell people?”
“That Anchorage is clean and safe?”
“That’s gold! Let’s go with that! And they said we needed to hire a marketing firm!”
A better, and more honest campaign might be “Welcome to I-70! Where even the cows are bored!” Or “Make Sure to Get Off This Highway and Stay Awhile.” Or “I-70: We Clear the Roadkill Faster than those Slackers in Nebraska!”
What I don’t get is: Whose interest does it serve to call this highway the Main Street of Kansas? It’s insulting to Kansas and generates no business I’m sure. Indeed, the last thing you want to tell people is that this is the Main Street of Kansas. Who benefits from such slander? “Cui bono?” I shout. “Cui bono!?”
To which my wife, currently behind the wheel, responds: “Shhh, Jonah. We have 700 miles to go.”
Shhh, Mr. President
Because I have been on an extended road trip, I haven’t followed the news as closely as I might “They don’t call it a multi-state killing spree for nothing” — The Couch). But from the broad brushstrokes I take it that the president is just crushing it. Everything is falling into place. He had to send Joe Biden off to Office Depot to get more notepads because he’s checking off everything on his to-do lists so quickly. (Biden came back with a ten-gallon jug of Elmer’s glue, some pink-unicorn duct tape, and an office chair he won’t stop spinning around and around and around in. “Wheeeeee!”) By this time next week, expect to have Elvis’s “Taking Care of Business — In a Flash” logo painted on the tail of Air Force One.
Oh wait, that must be the road hypnosis talking (“You’re losing it man, keep it together.” — The Couch). Suddenly Joe Biden stops swiveling in his chair and announces in his most stentorian voice: “Attention White House. Attention White House. The Chess Master has left the building. Wheeeeeeeeee!”
You remember the Chess Master right? Here’s Bob Herbert describing him back in 2009:
Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.
Here’s Barack Obama describing his favorite person:
“I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Obama told him. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Yesterday at his news conference, the president said he doesn’t have a strategy yet for the Islamic State. The blowback required the White House to send out his spinners like a farmer sending out his sons in search of a wayward hog. Personally, I don’t care that the president doesn’t have a strategy for the Islamic State — yet. One of the downsides of leading from behind is that it by definition allows problems to fester and become more complex. (“In other news today, six people burned to death as firefighters watched another building burn to the ground as part of Fire Chief Obama’s ‘firefighting from behind’ initiative.”)
How to deal with the Islamic State right now is a very tough question, particularly if you’re Barack Obama. What bothers me is his decision to announce to the world he has pretty much no idea what he’s doing. Taking your time to formulate a strategy, even — especially! — a strategy necessitated by your own mistakes and inattention is entirely defensible.
But when the world already thinks you’re weak, vacillating, and overwhelmed, saying in the pithiest way possible that you’re weak, vacillating, and overwhelmed strikes me as a mistake. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a guy transporting a dingo across the continent.
Of course, if Obama was a Chess Master who sees ten moves ahead, this would all be an elaborate rope-a-dope. Like Michael Corleone, he would wait for his enemies to show themselves and reveal their motives. China is suddenly testing our resolve in the Pacific? “Excellent,” Obama says behind tented fingers. The Russians are calling our bluff? “Ahhh . . . the game is afoot.” Egypt and the U.A.E. are writing us off as a paper tiger? “Just as I expected,” quoth the Chess Master to his briefer. The Germans can’t be counted on to stay loyal? “Of course. Of course.” The Poles have made it clear they consider the U.S. an unreliable, even dangerous ally? “I am disappointed I was so right about them all along.” The Iranians pour Hezbollah into Syria? “Rouhani’s a pimp. He never could have outfought Ahmadinejad. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Khamenei all along.”
The Chess Master was testing our friends and exposing our real foes. Like the sea snake that guy in Gladiator described, Obama let his prey nip and bite at him and now, in a shockingly mixed metaphor, the Venus fly trap snaps shut for the Labor Day Massacre.
The reality, alas, is that Obama is — and has always been — out of his depth on the international stage. Given the prestige of the presidency and the incredible institutional forces behind the office, particularly when a liberal is elected, it takes time to burn through all of the political capital that comes with the job. But Obama has been throwing that political capital on an Oval Office bonfire like so much kindling on a clean and safe Anchorage night. In yet another metaphor that threatens to burn out the dilithium crystals, the credibility inferno is reaching China Syndrome proportions (“You should have said ‘literally’ a lot! Literally means ‘pay attention to how smart my metaphors are.’ Wheeeeee!” — Joe Biden). For a depressing but brilliant analysis of this meltdown, see Bret Stephens’s piece in the new Commentary coincidentally titled “The Meltdown.”
Remember the famous SNL clip where Phil Hartman plays Ronald Reagan? He’s an amiable dunce in public, but get him behind closed doors and he’s a master strategist? Well, maybe that stuff about Obama being the liberal opposite of Reagan is true. Out in public, he seems like he’s the Chess Master (though I never saw it). But get him behind closed doors and he’s in the chair next to Biden shouting “I can spin faster than you!”
Lightworkers Aren’t Funny!
Speaking of Saturday Night Live, Kyle Smith had an excellent piece in the New York Post a few days ago. I will quote at length:
At last, we know the reason why comedy writers don’t make fun of President Obama much.
It turns out the man is completely unmockable.
We learn this from Jim Downey, the longtime “Saturday Night Live” specialist in political japery. “If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say, ‘Degree of difficulty, 10 point 10,’” the writer says in the expanded new edition of the “SNL” oral history book, “Live from New York.”
“It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled,” Downey says. “There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature. [Al] Gore had these ‘handles,’ so did Bush, and Sarah Palin, and even Hillary had them. But with Obama, it was the phenomenon — less about him and more about the effect he had on other people and the way he changed their behavior. So that’s the way I wrote him.”
Got that? The charter Choom Ganger, confessed eater of dog and snorter of coke. The doofus who thinks the language spoken by Austrians is “Austrian,” that you pronounce the p in “corpsman” and that ATMs are the reason why job growth is sluggish. The egomaniac who gave the queen of England an iPod loaded with his own speeches and said he was better at everything than the people who work for him. The empty suit with so little real-world knowledge that he referred to his brief stint working for an ordinary profit-seeking company as time “behind enemy lines.” The phony who tells everyone he’s from Chicago, though he didn’t live there until his 20s, and lets you know that he’s talking to people he believes to be stupid by droppin’ his g’s. The world-saving Kal-El from a distant solar system who told us he’d heal the planet and cause the oceans to stop rising. The guy who shared a middle name with one of the most hated dictators on earth.
Nope, nothing there to mock. No way to get a grip on this polished, oiled obsidian. So comedy writers didn’t and mostly still don’t. Jim Downey isn’t in dereliction of his comedy duty to take down the high and the mighty, or so he begs you to think. He’s just too obtuse to see Scrooge McDuck quantities of comedy gold when they’re sitting right in front of him.
I think Smith nails it. But I’d add one extra point. Comedians, musicians, actors and — yes — pundits face a similar danger: Being captured by their audiences. Once you develop a big following you unavoidably develop a big set of expectations for the kind of material you do. In the case of SNL, I suspect one additional reason they think Obama is unmockable (aside from the cranium-past-the-sphincter butt kissing) is that their audience also thinks Obama is unmockable. I don’t simply mean the viewers, though I’m sure SNL’s ratings are higher in blue states. I mean the people the actors and writers get feedback from. The phenomenon of the Beltway mentality has its analogues everywhere. For instance, I think it would be great for Jon Stewart and America if he was forced to live in Lexington, Ky., or Missoula, Mt., for a couple years and produce The Daily Show from there. Perhaps living outside the echo chamber would allow him to see politics from a less predictable angle.
The Pundit Conundrum
Wait, you’re probably not saying to yourself, did you include pundits in that list of performers? Why yes I did. I don’t have the time or space to get into all of it here, but I think this is a very real and very under-appreciated problem in our political discourse. Pundits, like politicians, comedians, and, of course, mimes can typecast themselves. It’s an entirely natural, human response to feedback not from your enemies, but from your friends. Psychologically, there is little reward for defying the expectations of your biggest fans. If you go off-reservation as it were, the haters will almost never praise you, and if they do, it will usually be a very grudging backhanded compliment. For instance, whenever I say something positive — not exactly a regular occurrence I admit — about Obama, I get at least 20 criticisms for every “attaboy.” And about half the praise amounts to this sort of thing: “Wow, for a paid shill, that was half-way decent. Maybe the Kochs forgot to pay you this month?”
(In my mime work, whenever I refuse to do the Man Walking In Windstorm, the crowd riots like the passengers in Airplane when they find out there’s no coffee.).
There are lots of pundits out there who seem to define their job as simply fulfilling the expectations of their biggest fans. This doesn’t mean they are being dishonest or even necessarily lazy. But it does make them predictable, boring, and unpersuasive. (Telling people what they want to hear almost never convinces the peoples who don’t want to hear it.)
Again, this is in no way a uniquely ideological phenomenon. It’s a human thing. When comedians try to be serious actors, it’s always a rough transition and very often fails. It’s not because the acting is bad, it’s that the expectations of the audience are very difficult to overcome. A few manage — Robin Williams for instance — but it’s a rocky process. And so it goes: When serious people try to be funny; when my Jewish relatives try to breakdance; when Roseanne Bar pole dances. There’s a reason John Gielgud went to his grave with his dream of being the front man for Black Sabbath unfulfilled. Everyone has a comfort zone, but what makes it comfortable is that so many other people expect you to be there.
That’s one of the challenges of this “news”letter. If, like Joe Biden chasing a laser-pointer dot on the wall, I go where the fun takes me, some readers complain about the self-indulgent jocularity. If I wade into the intellectual perfidy wrought by the American pragmatists, readers want to know why I didn’t ask them to pull my finger (“It’s funny because he literally makes a fart sound! Wheee!” — Joe Biden). And then if I don’t ask the really important questions like “Would ice cream be a duck if vests had sleeves?”, the lunatic-fringe crowd write me to say “Fellini didn’t just make movies about clowns!”
The Lunatic Fringe
Speaking of the lunatic-fringe crowd, last week I had to write one of those mini-column thingamabobs (sorry to hit you with the journo-jargon) on the way all of the usual suspects were pouring into Ferguson to turn it into a modern day Haymarket riot or something. I’ll leave the substance for another time (“You always do!” — The Couch). But since I invoked the phrase “lunatic fringe,” I googled it to confirm my recollection that Teddy Roosevelt had coined the term. I was right. He used it to describe the socialists, muckrakers, anarchists, and rabble rousers of the American Left. Here are examples of how to use the term, according to Dictionary.com:
Today, many would dismiss such crudely racist views as belonging to a tiny right-wing lunatic fringe.
There is a lunatic fringe out there that is confused by reality.
Climate deniers are on the lunatic fringe of science and they can find plenty of company there.
And, in the “culture” section of the same page:
Derogatory name for the extreme radical members of a group, especially in politics: “The candidate referred to the organization as being on the lunatic fringe of conservatism.” The term was coined by Theodore Roosevelt.
Spot a theme there? Why it’s almost as if the folks at Dictionary.com think political lunacy only comes from one direction. My dad called it years ago.
Various & Sundry
Zoë Update: This had been the most exciting (in a good way at least) time of the dingo’s life. As I write this she’s sleeping behind me in the back seat under my daughter’s blanket-covered legs. No, really. I don’t really have the time or the battery power to get into all of it. Suffice it to say she’s an excellent car dog. She loved Montana, the San Juan Islands, and Aspen (a.k.a. the Land of All-You-Can-Eat Mice!). But you can check out Zoë’s Twitter feed for some photos.
Last week was my 13th wedding anniversary, which despite my triskaidekaphobia, was nonetheless a reminder of what a lucky man I am that the Fair Jessica was dumb enough to marry me.
Given that this is Labor Day Weekend, and we were just talking about left-wing bias in the culture, I heartily recommend John Miller’s piece on the Haymarket Riot.