Thursday, May 04, 2006

Violation of the Club Rules

When you think about it---and you're not meant to. The world continues on its merry self-destructive but profitable to them what's in on the deal way because we don't think about what we're not meant to think about---the clubbiness of after-hours Washington is a grotesque joke on the rest of us that even Satan wouldn't have the bad taste to perpetrate.

Milton's Satan. Job's Satan would enjoy a good horselaugh over it, being the kind of evil entity that gets a kick out tricking the Almighty into massacring an innocent man's family, wiping out his fortune, and covering his hide in weeping pustules just to prove to the poor schnook, who never doubted it anyway, that He is the Lord God Almighty. Milton's Satan was a sophisticated wit by comparison with the playful, puckish sense of humor of an Oxford College don on Boat Night.

But I digress.

The idea that once they clock out, unzip the coveralls, and gather together at the old brass rail, Senators, Congressmen, Presidential aides, the boys and girls of the Press, and the lobbyists buying the round are, Republicans and Democrats, Liberal and Conservative, really just a bunch of bosom pals forced by circumstances to work in different, rival departments of the same firm and what happens during the day is just the dirty job of earning a paycheck and their real lives begin after the cocktail hour is, I suppose, necessary to their sanity and useful for getting laid.

Whenever I hear a Washington insider bemoan the polarization of politics I know that person is either a Republican about to launch a vicious attack on a Democrat, a Democrat terrified of being viciously attacked, or a journalist who just hates all the muss and fuss because it makes picking which parties to attend a trickier business---choose wrong and some miffed hostess will cross your name off the guest list for a whole month's worth of A-list fiestas.

Insider Journalists seem to have found the path to their self-congratulatory "objectivity" by way of the sports pages. At least when they appear on TV, they adopt the detachment of New York baseball writers forced to cover a crucial series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres---it's interesting because it's baseball, but it's not the Yankees, so let's not lose our heads here.

This is one of Shakespeare's Sister's themes. They cover politics as if it is a game, as if the people involved, the "players," are players, colorful characters whose quirks and foibles make their stories funnier or more dramatic, but whose political views are no more important than a ballplayer's pet superstitions or diligent pursuit of an arcane record. It's not just Joe Klein. He's the model. That Tom DeLay is a thief and a thug and he posed a real threat to the useful functioning of the government never seems to figure in the coverage of him, even as he disappears back down the sewer from which he crawled. The Bug Man, the Hammer, he's just contemporary Washington's Ty Cobb, isn't he?

(As if Cobb's racism and sociopathy were of no real consequence.)

The assumption underlying and propping up all this chummy let me buy you a drink and we'll call it even bonhomie is that "We're all in this together." Everybody in Washington is there for the same reason. To do a job. And that job is to keep the country moving. We may have different ideas about how to get there, but finally we all want to end up in the same place, don't we?


Not true.

It's probably never been true, except for, maybe, the four years during World War II, when we all wanted to beat the Nazis and whip the Japs. But even then there were serious disagreements about what should happen afterwards.

For the whole history of the country there has been a struggle between two sides. There's the one side that wants a democratic-republic with as much democracy as is possible without disorder. And there's another that wants to re-establish some form of aristocracy with as much liberty for those few who have power and money as they decide they need and with as little for the rest of us as the rich and powerful can be forced to begrudge.

That second side, the would-be aristocrats, keeps switching Party affiliations. At one time, many of them were Democrats. But that was a long time ago. Over the course of the 20th Century the racist aristocrats left the Democratic party and joined forces with the Big Business aristocrats who'd taken the Republican Party away from the Progressives.

These two factions, which control the Republican Party today, believe that the United States should be able to do whatever it wants in the world, that rich white people ought to be able to boss the rest of us around, that men get to boss their wives and children around but those who aren't rich must submit to bossing from those that are, that money and status and power are the definers of worth, and that we should have two goverments---or a government with two faces: A harsh, authoritarian one that keeps the rabble scared and in line, and a genial, tame, complicitly winking one taking orders from the aristocracy.

The American Revolution ended monarchism here but it did not do it by changing the minds of the local monarchists, any more than the Civl Rights movement ended bigotry once and for all. Monarchists will always be with us because it's part of human nature. There are some of us who like to boss, and there are lots of us who like to be bossed.

The Founders got rid of a king but they were under no illusions that they had innoculated the American people against tyranny for all time.

If any of them came back from the grave today they'd be amazed that the democrats had been able to hold out against the aristocrats for so long. But they'd have no trouble recognizing that the two sides are still there, fighting it out. And they'd be appalled to see that so many Washington insiders appear not to see it or be sufficiently concerned about what's at risk.

As Digby says:

I suspect that many others who are engaged in the netroots like me became radicalized in their 30's and 40's by a Republican Party that started to behave as an openly undemocratic institution. Why so many of these establishment Democrats and insider press corps aren't exercised by this after what we've seen, I can't imagine. Perhaps they just can't see the forest for the trees. This past decade has not been business as usual.

History has many examples of societies that enabled radical political factions to dominate, through inertia, cynicism or plain intimidation. It happened in Europe in the 25 years before I was born and almost destroyed the whole planet. I know it's unfashionably hysterical to be concerned about such things, but I have never believed that America was so "exceptional" that it couldn't happen here.

The stakes are incredibly high. Without the cold war polarity, the US has bigger responsibilities than ever. And instead of behaving like a mature democracy and world leader, we have been alternating from adolescent tabloid obsessives to playground bullies. This is serious business.

Which brings me to Steve Colbert.

I'm not surprised that many members of the Club, like Richard Cohen, are tut-tuting over Colbert's performance, calling it "inappropriate," suggesting that Colbert crossed some line of common decency, taste, and tact. He violated the Club rules. He came there and told them that what happens in Washington matters. He told them that they aren't playing a game or watching one. Lives are in the balance.

It'd be amusing to ask the Club members what they think someone like Mark Twain would have said if he'd come to their chummy little hoedown. I'll bet most of them admire Twain. Many of them probably read him and sigh out their wish to write like him with a pen warmed up in hell. It doesn't seem to occur to them to act on the wish, but nevermind. Think Twain would have made a couple good natured cracks about President McKinley's bald pate and called it a night?

My favorite post about the Colbert Affair is John Rogers' at Kung Fu Monkey. Rogers has been a working comic, but he's not being funny when he writes:

As for Colbert crossing the line -- how? Did he make remarks about the President's wife? About his children? His sex life? His draft dodging, his drinking and drug use before he found the Lord? No. Every joke used a well-known fact of public-record. Does anyone deny the poll numbers cited? Does anyone deny that the government response to previous crisises have been deficient? Does anyone deny that Administration officials outed Valerie Plame (hell, even the Administration officials now have to rely on he idea it was accidental)? Does anyone deny that the Administration has actively opposed global warming discussions? Listen -- if the President could do a long routine about not finding WMD's and laughing about it, while US soldiers died in the resultant war ... then to be frank I think he set the bar. Oddly, I think that if Colbert had done the routine the President did a couple years ago, THAT would have been crossing the line for me.

If his sin was incivility, then what the audience/bookers were looking for wasn't comedy. Comedy is by its nature uncivil. Comedy is, in both linguistic structure and overall psychological impact, hostile. Sometimes overtly, often not. But there is no such thing as a joke structured like: "You know what makes me happy? Yeah, that same thing that makes everybody else happy. (sigh)" There is no laugh there.

This is how the Club thinks. Colbert was rude and uncivil when he made jokes that told the truth, but President Bush was being a good sport when he made a joke out of the lies that were getting American soldiers and Marines maimed and killed.

The reason is that Bush's "joke" keeps the game going. Colbert's jokes spoiled the fun of pretending it's all a game. Besides, if the wrong person saw you laughing there goes your big speaking fee and that invite to the beach house next weekend.

Even worse, if the wrong people got Colbert's jokes, your editors and readers if you're a journalist, the voters if you're a politician, they might ask you why you're not doing your job.

Thanks to Avedon Carol, once again, for the links.


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