Dear Reader (especially those of you who don’t really care if I have a fresh Dear Reader gag),
Longtime readers should probably give their eyes a rest. Longtime readers of mine, however, should probably know that “of mine” is just a figure of speech and that I don’t actually possess them, thanks to a little thing called “the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Ok, enough of that silliness and more of this silliness. Oh. Crap. You can’t see my Frodo Baggins sock puppet can you? Damn you, “News”letter, for not being sufficiently visual.
But since we’re on the subject of visualness, visuality, visual stuff, think back to pretty much any movie where the main character has to spend a lot of time on something painful, slow, or difficult. The best examples I can think of are the workout scenes in the Rocky movies: Rocky in the frozen wastes of Siberia, Rocky in the gritty urban gyms of L.A., and, of course, Rocky waking predawn in his filthy apartment and, after scarfing down a bunch of raw eggs, running through the cold and bleak streets of Philadelphia.
And yet it’s inspiring. Uplifting. Motivating. You’re like, “Man, I should do that. I mean the whole sequences are only about 8-12 minutes long and at the end of the montage the guy’s in fantastic shape and all those kids are jumping up and down with him. That looks like a good time. Honey, do we have any eggs?”
But guess what? That stuff is hard. If it wasn’t you think I’d look like this?
It’s also boring to watch, which is why filmmakers usually lay down an uplifting soundtrack and some fast edits. Or they just skip ahead.
District of (Something Clever that Rhymes with Columbia But Means ‘lame’)
So why do I bring all of this up? Great question. Why did I bring this up? (“So answer it, Dufus.” – The Couch)
Oh, right. Well, I read this piece by Josh Barro on why he thinks D.C. is boring. He was responding to this generally unpersuasive and whiny meditationby Rebecca Greenfield on how D.C. isn’t hip which apparently launched something of a kerfuffle on the interwebs.
First, it should be noted that this is a very, very, very old conversation that starts from scratch every few years in Washington as the new young’ns come in and discover that D.C. is not quite a real city.
About every five years the Washington Post will run its big piece on how we measure up to New York City. The short answer to this question is: We don’t.
As I’ve been telling people since I first moved here, the great D.C.-New York rivalry is like the Harvard-Cornell rivalry that everyone at Cornell knows about but no one at Harvard has heard ever of.
New York is a much less interesting and important city than it used to be, but comparing it to D.C. is ludicrous. D.C. has a hard enough time competing with Baltimore (one of my favorite places, by the way) and other cities in its own seed. Asking it to compete with New York is like putting Frankenstein up against Godzilla. Frankenstein’s really into it; Godzilla just feels something squishy as he braces himself to fight Monster Zero.
I know exactly what you’re thinking: “Doesn’t Jonah know that Monster Zero’s correct name is King Ghidorah?”
And I guess some of you might also be thinking: “Is there a point here?”
Yes, I’m getting to it. This ain’t no Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Why D.C. is relatively lame is actually a pretty interesting question and, like the questions of “why are Jews liberal?” or “why did you just pee on that man’s shoes?” there are a lot of entirely plausible answers to it. One big part of it is that this city has always had an extremely limited commitment to commerce – the reason why great cities are formed in the first place. But the most obvious answer is the one Barro zeroes-in on and Greenfield downplays. Barro writes:
The real problem is buried deep in Greenfield’s piece, and sadly it’s not one that policy change can fix: Washington is boring because it’s full of people who work for and around the government. These people may be insufferable (Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists) or dull (bureaucrats, lawyers), but they are highly unlikely to be hip. [BLOCK]
Hip, Hip To Be Square
Please forgive one last tangent. I think all of this worrying about being hip is just about the most unhip thing I can imagine. Okay, I guess I can imagine a few more unhip things: John Kerry buying stool softener at the CVS, Donna Shalala running to catch a bus, John Boehner eating a nice bowl of soup, etc. But you get the point. When I was younger, openly talking about how you want to be cool was the height of uncoolness.
In fairness to Barro, he’s not worrying about being hip himself, he’s just explaining why he finds D.C. boring. But Greenfield and most of her critics seem to really care about being hip. And therein lies part of the problem. It’s all so forced, like Clark Griswold vowing that everyone will have a fantastic time and will whistle Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah out their nether regions. Or Phil Connors in Groundhog Day trying to recreate his romantic snowball fight.
Trying too hard to be hip or cool has always struck me as kind of pathetic. Of course, these days I’m a cranky dad who can’t wait to escort my daughter’s forthcoming suitors into the wall Al Bundy style (profanity warning). But then again, I’ve always loathed this sort of thing, even when conservatives were the ones trying to be hip. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1996 that holds up surprisingly well, I think.
I’m not sure I even know what hipness actually means. But I do know that among the most boring people in the world are the sorts of people who care about it a lot.
There, on the Horizon: The Point!
I think Barro’s absolutely right that Washington has more than its share of boring people. But you know why that’s true? Because government work is boring! I don’t necessarily mean it’s boring for the people who do it. One man’s drudgery is another man’s passion. That’s one of the beauties of the individual pursuit of happiness. Everyone has his own definition of happiness.
But in the aggregate, there’s nothing thrilling about government work (not counting certain government employees like Navy SEALs or the guys who land on earth-bound asteroids and blow them up). It’s full of details, paperwork, and the body-politic-constipating spackle of human avarice and lethargy.
You can make the equivalent of a Rocky-training-montage about government work, but it will for the most part be a lie or a joke. Here’s the best, albeit imperfect, illustration of my point.
This is why so many liberal movies about politics are so, so, so, so – wait, one more “so” – so stupid. For instance, in the movie Dave, we’re led to believe that if only a real American could cut through the b.s., get beyond the labels, and fulfill the Volkgeist he would solve all of our problems by . . . wait for it . . . introducing a jobs bill! If only conventional politicians could think outside the box like that!
The problem is that increasingly the American people have not only turned the presidency into a vessel of the culture war, but they treat it as if it operates according to the rules of the popular culture rather than the rules of reality.
In 2008 Barack Obama ran his campaign like it was a movie and the mainstream press let him. I’m not going to go through all of that lightworker, flash-point for humanity, messiah nonsense again, but you know what I’m talking about. The campaigning in Berlin, the turning of the oceans, the columns: It was all stagecraft designed for a quintessentially aesthetic ecstatic experience. It may not have worked on you, but it worked on a lot of people.
And it’s still working! This guy is still running to play the president on the screen to make “us” feel good about ourselves. It’s still a presidency played out like a Hollywood script and defended on almost entirely “meta” terms.
In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Barack Obama, it seems to me, is that he’s the first president to reject Mario Cuomo’s formulation that you campaign with poetry and govern in prose. He still thinks it’s all about the poetry.
The Vision Thing
One of the points of Tyranny of Clichés was to show how even conservatives have come to accept progressive notions and categories as part of their own dogma. My friend Charles Kesler (buy his fantastic new book here) offers a good example that could have been a chapter in my book: “Vision.” Woodrow Wilson introduced the American people to the idea that presidents should have a “vision” for what the whole country should look like and how its citizens should live. He extolled “leadership” over stewardship, because his understanding of leadership required a strong sense of followership from the American people.
Alas, now even Republicans talk of the presidency as a means of carrying forth a vision for America. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Republican vision much better (usually) because it tends to be in line with the American tradition and at least harkens back to the limited government the Founders intended. But it’s worth remembering that for over a hundred years, presidents didn’t run for president to be visionary leaders of the country, they ran to be “statesmen” whose job it was to faithfully administer the mechanisms of the government and guard the constitutional order.
That understanding of the presidency isn’t the stuff of exciting movie montages. And, alas, it’s certainly not hip.
Various & Sundry
My column today is a bit different, you might enjoy. We can discuss more next week if you like.
I’m sorry if the G-File feels a bit off today. I am exhausted. I was in Seattle earlier this week and then instead of getting some rest I was up very late last night. I was a presenter at the Media Research Center’s 25th-anniversary gala and it put me in a bit of a foul mood. It’s nobody’s fault, save perhaps my own. I don’t do well reading from prepared remarks and I don’t do well reading other peoples’ material. Or at the very least it makes me uncomfortable. Anyway, I am bleary-eyed this morning and I suspect that I am late for a nap.
If you’re reading this on Friday, I’ll be on Special Report tonight.
Speaking gigs: I’ll be debating Peter Beinart at the Ashville School in North Carolina on October 11.
On the 13th I’ll be in New Jersey for the Defending the American Dream Summit.
On the 16th I’ll be at Delta College.
On the 17th another debate with Beinart at the University of Virginia for the Edmund Burke Society.
On October 25, I’ll be at St. Louis University giving a speech on political correctness (which, alas, means I need to write a speech on political correctness).
And on November 5th I’ll be at Northwest Missouri State.
The latest Long-Goldberg-Pod(cast) is up. Lemme know what you think, I still feel like it could use some work.
Oh, about Jesus’ wife: Never mind.
India is a tech powerhouse and the ninth-largest economy in the world. But for some reason its equivalent of the BLS has a website that looks like it was designed by Mrs. Crabapple’s fifth-grade class.
Twelve proposed states that didn’t make the cut.