I admit I've been a bit on the cranky side as of late. Maybe I've got the holiday blues. Or maybe I'm just irritable from suffering the dull nausea and lethargy of my increasingly nasty and frequent hangovers. It could also be that I'm jittery over the fast approaching crescendoing of the political silly season with the Iowa Caucus nearly upon us.
I've been preparing myself for the coming onslaught of campaign bullshit and cliched celebrity journalism by reading Matt Taibbi's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season
. It's more or less a collection of Taibbi's columns from the 2004 campaign many of which I've read before. But they are well worth revisiting as the new election cycle kicks in if only to temper the inevitable outrage with a reassuring dose of "Yeah, well it's still just the same shit that always happens."
This collection is a ringing indictment of the utter stupidity and insulting phoniness of the American electoral system and the idiotic press coverage that fuels it. One highlight finds Taibbi attempting to edit all of the "bullshit" out of John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention to see if there is anything of reliable substance being communicated. The results are telling.
It's not fair to expect brilliance from politicians. It's not fair to expect them to be charismatic, or to electrify the hall with their speaking skills. It's not even realistic to expect them to tell you what they actually think about things.
But it is fair to demand that they at least make an honest attempt to tell us something about something. Give us some kind of plan; explain something to us. John Kerry has had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the highest levels of the U.S. government for nearly 20 years. He knows more about how the world actually works than all but a handful of people in this country. He has something to tell us.
But what does he do? He climbs up a mountain of cliches, shouts "Think Positive!" from the summit and then calmly skies down into a sea of champagne and confetti with a toy M-16 draped over his shoulder. That is a gross insult, both to our intelligence and to our natural human desire to have some kind of active role in the management of our own affairs—and we all ought to be mighty pissed about it.
Don't get me wrong. Kerry said nothing in this speech, but nothing is still a vast improvement over the other guy. Maybe that's what he was thinking. Just don't tell me this is a great speech. It isn't. It's crap and an affront to human thought. This incredibly cynical politics of mechanized pandering and condescension poisons all of us. And the worst thing is, John Kerry is smart enough to know this—and he doesn't care. Not as long as he's still in this thing, anyway.
When I was done cutting, there were only two lines left.
I was born in Colorado.
America can do better.
Read the whole column
. It's a fine example of Taibbi at his best.
Taibbi's major contribution to the record of 2004 was his unrelenting assault on campaign coverage and the ways in which it dumbs down our already hopelessly stupid politics. The problem isn't so much that presidential campaigns consist mainly of candidates wandering the countryside spitting meaningless wads of focus-group tested buzzwords at the crowds. The problem is that the journalism emanating from these contrivances regularly pretends that something significant has happened.
If you want this to change, if you want politicians to stop condescending to you and feeding you bullshit, if you want the press to stop treating campaigns coverage like they would a celebrity gossip column, then the first necessary step is to stop lapping it up. The only way to convince them that you are not a child is to keep throwing their crap back in their faces until they have to either deal with you honestly or just go the fuck away. No one did this better than Taibbi in 2004.
And this is why it's so disappointing this week to find Taibbi happily swallowing a pile of the same crap that he rejected from the Kerry campaign now that it is being shoveled out (a little more artfully, perhaps) by the Obama people. Taibbi's latest column in Rolling Stone
is exactly the kind of beauty pageant journalism we find him constantly railing against in Spanking the Donkey.
The difference is that, unlike the journalists he made his reputation attacking, we can be reasonably certain that Taibbi knows better which makes this kind of thing all the more dismaying.
The column, instead of focusing on what kind of a President Obama might be or who he represents, concerns itself primarily with Obama's challenge in the campaign which is, in Taibbi's words, to "sell himself sell himself not just as a candidate but as an icon, a symbol of the best possible future for twenty-first-century multicultural America." One already wonders if we are choosing a President or a breath mint.
But, as we have said already, Taibbi knows better than to be this blatantly stupid so instead he tries to justify this tired narrative by hiding behind a series of "crowd reaction" quotes from Obama supporters about whom he concludes
Normally the sight of prospective voters muttering platitudes about "hope" and "change" would make any reporter erupt with derisive laughter, but at Obama events one hears outbursts of optimism so desperate and artless that I can't help but check my cynical instinct. Grown men and women look up at you with puppy-dog eyes and all but beg you not to shit on their dreams. It's odd to say, but it's actually moving.
See, the "puppy dog eyes" of these voters are just so gosh darn cute that we can certainly check our "cynical instincts" and just let them say whatever stupid shit they want to. It's a clever way for the author to simultaneously remind us all of his superior intellect while passively allowing his puppy dogs to take the fall for the load of crap he's about to endorse. I'm sorry but, no, you don't get to do this.
What follows, in short order, is Taibbi endorsing a load of crap. First there's this,
But mostly, Obama is selling himself. When he talks about "showing a new face to the world," it's not exactly a mystery that he's talking about his face. In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy shitbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.
I submit to you that the only thing that distinguishes this paragraph from the vapid personality-driven crap we read from Maureen Dowd on a regular basis is the presence of the word, "shitbags".
And now read this,
But once Obama showed up, the sarcasm evaporated. There was nothing remarkable about Obama's speech and subsequent Q&A session, except that he delivered every line with the force and confidence of someone who's already been president for years. Obama's shtick is to sell his future presidency as one that would recast America as the good guy of the world, one that would be guided by the principles of basic decency ("This isn't just about drawing contrasts. It's about doing what's right"), openness ("Not talking [to other countries] doesn't make us look tough. It makes us look arrogant") and a vision that embraces the challenges of this century ("The task of the next president is to convince the American people that global interdependence is here to stay. Global trade is not going away. The Internet is not going away").
And now go back and re-read the Kerry piece I linked above and you'll find Taibbi mercilessly cutting the same sorts of phrases out of Kerry's speech on the quite correct grounds that they are "bullshit."
If Taibbi wants to engage in the kind of hackery he built his reputation knocking, the least he could do is provide us with some slightly less transparent hackery. But Taibbi hasn't quite mastered the form yet. For some reason he still feels obligated to provide us with some facts about the candidate such as the following.
1) Obama has raised $80 million for his campaign primarily from the same lobbys and interests that are backing Hillary.
2) Obama's (short) voting record in the Senate indicates that he will be every bit as responsive to these interests as would any Clinton... or Bush for that matter.
After reading an article in which author acknowledges these facts and yet goes on to write that the candidate has a "whiff of destiny" about him and that he is a "symbol of the idea that not everything in our politics is rigged" one's only logical response has to be, "Are you fucking stupid, or what?"
Therefore, while his game certainly could use a little polishing, I think we can say that the first player to advance in Wimblehack
2008 is Matt Taibbi.