Dear Reader (particularly those of you who will buy me a drink on the Lido Deck next week),
In Men in Dark Times Hannah Arendt says, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it . . . it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are.”
This, naturally, brings to mind that great episode of the Brady Bunch “Adios, Johnny Bravo.” This YouTube video summarizes the tale expertly, but since you might be at work and are reluctant to get caught watching Brady Bunch videos (again) at the office, I will summarize. Greg Brady, scion of House Brady, is offered a contract from a record label. At first he is reluctant to sign on because he’s a loyal member of his family band. But the record producers convince him that he owes it to himself to be all he can be. They want him to become the new smash-hit sensation “Johnny Bravo.”
The role of Johnny Bravo comes complete with a sensational matador-themed costume and a rented gaggle of winsome young ladies ready to tear it off on command (very much like the job of senior editor here at National Review). The producers promise that he won’t simply be in the Top 20, he’ll be the Top 20. “Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride,” they tell him. It would be a tempting offer for any young man.
After much soul-searching, Greg agrees to become Johnny Bravo. That is, until he finds out that the producers don’t much care about his musical talent. Through the wizardry of music production — long before the advent of AutoTune — they twist his vocal stylings to what the market wants, not what Greg’s muse has on offer. “That’s not the way I sound!” Greg protests.
The producer retorts, “You? Now c’mon baby, don’t get caught up on an ego trip. I mean who cares how you sound? We’re after the sound.”
If you don’t care about my sound, what do you need me for? Greg asks.
“Because you fit the suit,” another producer responds.
Putting the O in BravO
Forgive me for committing the error of defining my meaning. But Barack Obama fits the suit.
In my USA Today column this week, I argued that Barack Obama is indisputably good at one thing: Getting elected president of the United States.
That’s it. He’s not good at being president of the United States. He’s not good at being the head of his party. He’s not good at diplomacy or public policy or managing large bureaucracies. He has no new ideas. But man did he fit the suit, metaphorically speaking.
The Annals of Johnny Bravo
I’ve used this Johnny Bravo analogy before because, let’s face it, great literature is timeless. (I was sorely tempted to use the Dreadstar comic book plotline about Maxilon, the robot messiah. But that felt too obvious.) In 2004 I compared former general Wesley Clark to Johnny Bravo for similar reasons. Liberals such as Michael Moore, desperate to negate President Bush’s national-security advantage, saw in Wesley Clark the perfect figurehead for their anti-war message. But Clark proved inadequate to the task, so in the Democrats’ infinite wisdom they went with the human toothache who now serves as our secretary of state.
The logic remained the same, though. Because of John Kerry’s overly mythologized military record, Democrats convinced themselves that he would be the perfect person to stand up to those evil neocon-chickenhawk Republicans. The problem in retrospect is only slightly more obvious than it was at the time: Kerry wasn’t famous for his war exploits; he was famous for his anti-war theatrics. Also, there was that human-toothache thing.
But here’s where Obama is different from Kerry and Clark. Obama is Johnny Bravo. They asked Kerry and Clark to play a role. Obama was asked to be exactly who he is.
I realize this runs against the grain of a lot of right-wing thinking — that Obama is really a secret Muslim-Marxist radical biding his time to seize the means of production and impose sharia. Well, the clock is running out on that theory.
I have no doubt that Obama’s more left-wing in his heart than he is in his speeches and public priorities. But my basic point is that Obama doesn’t realize that his electoral success was a function of the media age we are in. He fit the part. He said the right words. He was an anti-George W. Bush when lots of people desperately wanted an anti-George W. Bush. He was black, cool, and eggheady in just the right way. Voting for Obama made lots of people feel good about themselves — which is a terrible reason to vote for anybody. Media elites and average Americans alike were seduced because they wanted to be seduced.
They — starting with Obama himself — believed the hype. And he still does.
He’s like modern-day Johnny Bravo lip-synching an auto-tuned song about “keeping it real” and he thinks he’s actually keeping it real. He goes around talking about how much he hates talking points and sound-bites, how much he loathes cynicism and ideology. And yet, he does all this in talking points and sound-bites packed like verbal clown cars with ideology and cynicism.
I believe it was Dwight MacDonald who first pointed out the problem with the Johnny Bravo story. In real life, few of us would turn down the offer made to Greg Brady. A teenager, raging with Bill Clinton-level hormones, is promised fame, fortune, and femmes. All he needs to do is rationalize that it’s actually about his talent. Also, as Alfred Kazin noted in his response to MacDonald, a more plausible story would have the record producers lying to Greg Brady. They would manage the talent by telling him what he wanted to hear. They’d never, ever, tell him he got the gig just because he fit the suit. They’d explain that the distortion of his sound isn’t as pronounced as it really is. And besides, what a small price to pay to break into the business. He could indulge his muse later once he was a star. And Greg Brady would believe it.
The Devil & Greg Brady
People like to quote the line from The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to convince the world he doesn’t exist” — even though Baudelaire said it long before Verbal Kint (and I have no doubt someone will tell me Baudelaire was ripping off the Bible). But I think people miss the point of why Satan is the Prince of Lies and not the Prince of Excellent Negotiating.
If you know you’re dealing with The Devil you won’t sell your soul. That’s what’s so implausible to me about Faust. The moment you know you’re talking to the Devil, all self-serving existential and atheistic rationalizations should disappear. I mean it’s the Devil! It’s one thing to take a flier that you might be selling your soul. It’s quite another to know that a) your soul exists and b) you’re trading it away for all eternity. Selling your soul (for personal gain or glory, at least) only really makes sense if you don’t realize you’re selling it. In a properly functioning market where players have perfect information, the commodity market on souls is pretty moribund. That’s what makes “Adios, Johnny Bravo” so allegorical. Greg Brady recognized that he was being asked to sell his soul.
Fortunately for the Devil, the ability to delude oneself and rationalize in service to ambition, ego, and self-interest is one of the knottiest and most enduring flaws of the crooked timber of humanity. It is a big reason we are not angels.
We have a tendency to think this is only a problem for dumb people, but the fact is brainpower is famously susceptible to the seductions of self-interest and ego. And not just immune; intellect is just as often as not the Devil’s marketing department. Lenin was the smartest guy in the room; so was Woodrow Wilson. Their IQs didn’t ameliorate their problems, they created them. I have no doubt that Obama has a high IQ. It’s just high enough for him to always come up with a clever reason why everyone else is wrong.
I really didn’t intend to write about Lucifer, so forget the Devil for now and just think of things like public choice, self-interest, ego etc. Most teachers’ union hacks actually believe they are helping kids by making it hard to fire drunks, pedophiles, and buffoons. Even most defectors from North Korea still harbor love in their hearts for their Dear Leader. One can only imagine the things Justin Bieber tells himself about his “art” and his “craft,” never mind what the people who make a living off him tell Bieber. The people behind No Labels honestly think it’s everyone else who is delusional. Crony capitalists are convinced they are free marketers. Male porn stars surely convince themselves that they are a big reason On Golden Blonde did so well. No faction is immune to the natural human tendency to believe what you want to believe. President Obama says he believes his own bullsh*t, and he’s not alone. I think he was utterly sincere when he said that being good at running a presidential campaign was evidence that he would be a good president. This is like a great shoe salesmen thinking he’d be a great cobbler. It’s possible, of course. But the latter does not obviously flow from the former.
From Schadenfreude to Fremdschämen
In my corner of the world, schadenfreude has reigned supreme for the last few days. Just look at the NRO homepage since Tuesday night. It’s been the psephological equivalent of dancing in the end zone. And I’m all for it. Though I thought this display by Mitch McConnell in Harry Reid’s office was a bit over-the-top.
But that press conference on Wednesday was interesting. For most of the last six years, the press corps might as well have been wearing Johnny Bravo T-shirts to every news conference, at the end of which they’d hold up a cigarette lighter and shout “Free Bird!” as the president hit the same old refrains of being a problem-solver and a pragmatist (Yes, I know that sentence was a crime on so many levels). Groupies like Chris Matthews might shout out requests like “Make fun of the birthers again!” Or “Do the one where you say you’re going to make Republicans sit in the back and shut up!”
But as Obama droned on and on in that press conference on Wednesday, it felt like a horrible realization was washing over the Johnny Bravo Fan Club: Obama’s grown stale. Johnny Bravo has a shelf-life. There was Obama prattling on and on about how he had a mandate, he heard the voice of the non-voters, the GOP has an obligation to do what he wants, he did nothing wrong, blah blah blah. It was all so tone deaf and otherworldly and — most of all — it was so unfathomably boring. As I joked on Twitter, he could have seamlessly segued into reading the instructions for how to change the toner cartridge on a Xerox machine and the audience might not have noticed.
Maybe I’m wrong. But it kind of feels like Obama is a karaoke singer who doesn’t realize someone unplugged the machine. He’s out their belting out his golden oldies and no one is tapping their toes any more. When that Maryland crowd left the arena after they got their picture of Obama a few weeks ago, it felt like the Bay City Rollers playing an Indian casino and foolishly playing “Saturday Night” too early in the set.
And it’s not just Obama, it’s the Democrats generally. Remember when the audience booed when that New York Democrat tried to play the “war on women” card? Or when the press started openly mocking Mark Udall for being Mark Uterus? Just a week or so ago, Hillary Clinton was out there like Mick Jagger with a cane belting out “trickledown economics” like it was fresh material.
In January, in a far superior “news”letter, I wrote of fremdschämen, the greatest German word ever. I wrote:
It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping! No, that’s not right. It’s my new favorite German word. What is amazing, to me at least, is that I am only just now learning of this word, despite having a soft spot (right below my elbow) for fun foreign words (“I myself am overcome with backpfeifengesicht right now” — The Couch). Even more surprising is that we live in the Golden Age of fremdschämen, so you’d think more people would be using it.
So what does it mean? It means feeling embarrassed for someone else. But more than that, it means feeling embarrassed for someone else because that someone else doesn’t realize he should be embarrassed.
I think that’s where we’re heading with Obama. (Let’s face it, we’ve been there with Biden for years.) That press conference was embarrassing, and pretty much everyone in Washington who watched it thought so — except for Obama. Just as he thought he won his first debate with Mitt Romney, he thinks that whenever he belts out his standards, people love it. And no doubt the producers behind the scenes are still telling Johnny Bravo exactly what he needs to hear.
Various & Sundry
Zoë Update: Well today’s G-File didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked and the Dingo is to blame. She’s a sweet girl but a bad, bad dog sometimes. My wife took Zoë on a ride-along to school this morning. When they got back home the Fair Jessica took Zoë off her leash and opened the door to the house. Zoë took that opportunity to turn around bolt up the street for squirrel-hunting and other dingo-ish adventures. She would not come when called and thought it was a fun game when we tried to catch her. I had to leave this “news”letter for quite long time to retrieve her. It’s about as close as I’ve gotten in a while to the dog eating my homework. She’s getting worse about this sort of thing and while it’s fun to sing “born free” and watch her tear about, not everyone is so amused by a dingo on the loose. Moreover as a blockhead, she is pretty oblivious to cars. I fret we’re going to have to train her with a shock collar for awhile. I hate the things, but it may be for her own good.
Halloween: To compensate for the subpar “news”letter today, I offer these humble pictures of me and my daughter on Halloween. The tradition continues.
There’s still time to buy The Seven Deadly Virtues.
No one seems to like my column today, except me.
Scientists determine Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” is the catchiest song ever.
Speaking of catchy songs. I’m all about that base.
The politics are meh but still pretty funny: Obama uses anger translator.