Magazine | February 6, 2012, Issue

Lean Left

MSNBC drops the mask

MSNBC, which is a cable news channel in precisely the same sense that a gentlemen’s club is a club for gentlemen, has been doing a public service by collecting its tedious liberal operating assumptions into a series of advertisements, the “Lean Forward” campaign. If you want to know more about the obscure motives of the agitated and fitful little hamster turning the neocortical wheel inside Rachel Maddow’s apparently impenetrable noggin, then by all means have a gander at these commercials at msnbc.com. If, on the other hand, you have a full and productive life, with family and professional obligations, hope to make a good account of it to your Maker, and are Stoically mindful of Seneca’s declaration that life is long enough if you know what to do with it, then allow me to summarize the videos for your convenience.

The first thing to know is that Rachel Maddow loves, loves, loves the Hoover Dam. Also bridges, but mostly the Hoover Dam. Sporting a hardhat, the most comical choice of headgear since Michael Dukakis took his fateful ride in that tank (and Mr. Dukakis at least had the excuse of needing to butch up his public image, whereas MSNBC was criticized for applying the opposite pressure to Ms. Maddow), Ms. Maddow begins a speech that sounds like it was written for the villain in an unpublished Ayn Rand novel: “When you are this close to Hoover Dam,” she says, “it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a Human Project.” She goes on to say, “You can’t be the guy who builds this. You can’t be the town who builds this. You can’t even be the state that builds this. You have to be the country that builds something like this.” The question before us, she argues, is whether America is still the sort of country that can build a Hoover Dam.

It would take the federal government to build a Hoover Dam today — who else could get the zoning permits to facilitate such an outrageous exercise in wanton self-aggrandizement? Ms. Maddow says that she has a “devotion to facts that borders on obsessive,” so here are some facts: The purpose of the Hoover Dam is to generate electricity, which it does — about 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours in a typical year. A typical U.S. nuclear plant produces nearly three times that much power (12.4 billion kilowatt-hours, according to the Department of Energy), and it does not take the equivalent of a Normandy invasion to get one built.

Not that you’d want to build one, but if you did, you couldn’t, and Ms. Maddow & Co. have led the way to ensuring that you can’t: More Americans died building the Hoover Dam than at the Battle of Bunker Hill — OSHA would have a conniption, and MSNBC would lead every broadcast with the story.

The construction of the Hoover Dam was a man-made catastrophe for the Colorado River delta estuary, wiping out untold numbers of indigenous local species and permanently altering the salinity of the water and the character of the ecosystem. Ms. Maddow has been a champion of the Endangered Species Act, having a tender place in her heart for the most humble smelt (not a sparrow falls, etc., with the usual provisos for unborn human beings) and accused the Bush administration of having “tainted” it. (This was illustrated with a picture of a cute little bunny.) The Hoover Dam is an obsolete facility swathed in some of the most pompous midcentury fascist architecture to be found outside of Rome. Building it cost a lot of lives (human, piscine, and riparian) and represented a tremendous misallocation of capital. Which sounds precisely like a federal stimulus-package candidate, except for the part about the poor little fish.

Ms. Maddow goes on to talk about how her father taught her to conserve water, “not just because it was some hippie-dippy personal virtue, but because the State needed it.” That’s maybe not the most articulate expression of totalitarian etatism ever offered, but it’s pretty good: Personal virtue is beside the point — the State has need of you.

There’s a lot of talk about “the People” in these videos, and Ms. Maddow and her colleagues want you to know that, despite their being multimillionaire media celebrities, they’re just regular folks. Ms. Maddow is in her accustomed hoodie-and-glasses mufti, holding forth in picture-postcard Middle American coffeeshops, using salt and pepper shakers to illustrate the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, about which she is invincibly ignorant. When she is not immersing herself in quaint Americana, Ms. Maddow divides her time between Manhattan and the mid-19th-century country home in Massachusetts she shares with her blonde art-dilettante partner — which is to say, she has Mitt Romney’s life, not yours, sucker.

#page#But never you mind all that, anyway, because Ed Schultz is here, at the diner, on camera, enraged, tumescent, holding forth with an unseen and possibly imaginary interlocutor, no doubt of the sassy-1970s-sitcom-waitress variety or of the salt-of-the-earth-short-order-cook variety: “It’s got to be about the people! It can’t always be about the profit.” Mr. Schultz, no doubt a regular diner denizen right out of an Edward Hopper painting, whose personal net worth is estimated to be in the low eight figures, entered the world of jock journalism after failing to make it in the Canadian Football League, the mighty, mighty Winnipeg Blue Bombers having decided that they could live without him, and later transitioned into the more profitable realm of being a folksy left-wing ogre.

Unlike Ms. Maddow, Mr. Schultz does a reasonable impersonation of the man he plays on television. You can imagine him at a diner — more likely at a bar — holding forth on the news of the day, venturing from time to time among the various grassy knolls of his mental geography. He likes to talk about manufacturing. The nation, he says, must “recommit to manufacturing — all American workers need is for someone to believe in them.” (If you clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will get a job.) And how do we do that? “We have to put the same incentives on the table for the manufacturers as we put on the table for the Wall Street barons.” American manufacturers in fact get far, far better incentives than do Wall Street barons, because the country has for a generation been taking the advice of men such as Mr. Schultz and doing everything imaginable to bribe manufacturing businesses into manufacturing business here.

You know who really hates it when we take the advice of Ed Schultz? Ed Schultz. He recently went on a tear denouncing Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a company that invested in, among other things, an American steel mill, Steel Dynamics. Steel Dynamics is based in Indiana, which provides incentives to — you know it — manufacturers, of which a steel mill is a pretty good example. DeKalb County, where the mill is based, offers incentives, too. So what we need to do is to “put the same incentives on the table for the manufacturers,” except when we don’t, because Mitt Romney is Satan, whatever. Mr. Schultz knows better, since his network is owned by G.E., which exploits every incentive in the book and famously paid no corporate taxes in 2010, a fact about which Mr. Schultz and his colleagues have been notably circumspect.

He’s more expansive on the history of arch-segregationist J. Lindsay Almond, but not to the point where he would get around to mentioning which political party made that odious white supremacist governor of Virginia and a judge.

The “Lean Forward” campaign does feature some first-rate voiceover and editing work. We get a passel of multiculti clichés — Chinese dragon dance! colorfully costumed Mexicans! — and the usual populist bumf. A voice intones: “All men and women have certain inalienable rights” — flash to an image of two dudes getting married — “and that while history has gotten us this far” — flash to image of Barack Obama striding haughtily across a stage, and then, I kid you not, to a wind farm — “blah, blah, blah.”

Another ad says we are “built to evolve” and then shows a quick progression of American presidents, from Carter to the sainted Big O, apparently the pinnacle of political selection. That split-second evolution sequence covers George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, and that is pretty much the only time you’ll see a Republican in these ads. The voiceover says: “Starting today, ideas that advance our country, no matter who or where they come from, win.” No matter where they come from, so long as it’s a Kennedy, a Clinton, a Rodham-Clinton, or a wise Latina. Or any number of iterations of Obama, who in the theology of MSNBC has more avatars than Vishnu.

Yeah, there’s Chris Matthews too, and he says something stupid, but this here is a news publication, and, besides, I’m all out of salt and pepper shakers.

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Poetry

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Film & TV

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