Friday, April 29, 2016

Comedy is war

Cherry-picking at Stella Creek in the Adelaide Hills. Or maybe a stock photo.
I wanted to say something about that very long essay on liberal smugness or smug liberalism by Emmett Rensin (apparently an anagram, for "Eminent Terms", or maybe "Mr. E. Sentiment") in Vox, which I have not had a chance to read all the way through, as I was having my ironic smile straightened.

In fact I am not planning to read it all because there's too much of it, if you want to know the truth. I'm just going to cherry-fisk, so to speak, picking on the especially offensive sentences as they pop out at me and ignoring the no doubt very significant and judicious argument that Tem Tem Sinner worked so hard to assemble in favor of the stupid argument I discern from this superficial technique, and if you want to complain about it, why don't you just bring it up before the next Blogger Ethics Panel.

But first,
Q. How can you tell when National Review's famed Iraq combat attorney ("Cover me, Jack, I'm going in there as soon as the shelling lets up, with a motion to change venue") David French is lying?
A. When he claims to have had some human experience or other.
As in this contribution on the Rensinade, where he's discussing his own sad experience of the smugness of liberals:

Paragraph 1:
Several days ago I was having dinner with a new friend from New York who’d never had a conversation with a conservative about poverty and economics (don’t be shocked — it’s hardly unusual to run into urban liberals who’ve never had meaningful conversations with conservatives.) 
That parenthetical detail is so perfect: why would his readers be shocked? Because
  • it is in some way natural to assume that urban liberals have meaningful conversations with conservatives, but
  • the readers have never met one, so they don't know whether the assumption is right or not.
They've got to get their information from French, who has apparently met many urban liberals, in some cases providing them with their first experience of serious conservative interlocution. Luckily he won't shy away from telling them the hard truths, huh? But the main thing is, while he is making fun of these urban liberals and the limits of their social interactions he is assuming that National Review readers are more limited still and wholly dependent on him, French, for insight into this baffling species.
As I explained the reasons for my opposition to our current welfare structure — including its contribution to multi-generational poverty and the breakdown of the family — he suggested that I partner with a progressive Christian to launch an informed point/counterpoint series on Christianity, poverty, and inequality.
This may illustrate why urban liberals rarely have meaningful conversations with conservatives when the conservatives are David French. They are probably more likely to prefer the give-and-take of the kind of conversation where you say a little something, and then I say a little something, and you tell a story, and I appreciate what an interesting story it is, and you ask me a question about my life, and I answer it, and that kind of thing. Even if it's not very meaningful.

Whereas if you start a conversation by explaining a bullet-point sequence of reasons for your stance on our current welfare structure (as opposed to the old one? as usual, it's impossible to be certain whether he's heard about the draconian work requirements that were imposed with the replacement of AFDC by TANF 20 years ago leading to radical reductions in the benefits and the number of people receiving them, but it sounds like he hasn't), and it's dinner, and there are six or so normal people at the table starting to stare, I am likely to make a determined effort to change the subject and nip this thing in the bud.

Though I'm hardly likely to do it by advising you to launch an informed point/counterpoint series on the subject, partnered or solo. ("Say, fella, you seem to know a lot about this stuff. Know any Christian progressives you'd like to launch stuff with?")
Inwardly, I groaned. I’d been a part of enough of these “conversations” to know exactly how they tend to go.
And that's where you start to see he's making up didactic fables again and this dinner never really happened. Because if somebody really had proposed the point/counterpoint he wouldn't have been "inwardly groaning", he'd have been flattered and maybe even roused—maybe that interlocutor was a honcho from Oxford University Press, which does a "Point/Counterpoint series" of debates (like the one between Maggie Gallagher and John Corvino on same-sex marriage), that is an obnoxious, smug liberal dedicated to giving people like David French a greater public visibility, and all the TV appearances and book-tour dates appertaining thereto. Far from groaning, he'd be darting out of the dining room to send a quick SMS to his agent.

But no, he has literally forgotten what he wrote in the previous paragraph:
First, I have to prove that I care. Because, you see, the default position is that only liberals truly care about the poor. Then, once I’ve proven to at least a marginal degree of satisfaction that I have sufficient compassion, then I have to prove that I know enough to be a part of the conversation. Then, finally, I have to show that I’m civil.
Hurrying on to the generalized lesson of how awful those liberals are, when you run across them at dinner parties, as French frequently does, running you through this horrible system of litmus tests, having abandoned the story he was supposedly telling altogether.

And the proof comes in Paragraph 5:
I’ll never forget a dinner conversation with new liberal friends a few years ago — people who knew nothing about my military background and education — and to hear them discuss the Middle East with absolute moral and intellectual certainty was astounding. They knew almost nothing, but they also knew everything.
He's inventing the same story, as if he hadn't just told it already, with a different tenor. The dinner conversation, the liberal who's a "new friend". And the same offended surprise when the interlocutor doesn't accept that he, French, knows everything. All that's different is what they're arguing about. (I'll bet he doesn't know anything about the Middle East either, in spite of his "military background and education", which amounted to ten months in 2007-08, about which he and his wife have written a book, more likely I suppose she, the ghostwriter of Bristol Palin's Not Afraid of Life: My Story So Far, wrote the whole thing, but I don't think I'm going to be reading it, so I can't speak with any real authority on that. Or any authority at all. He claims to have gotten a Bronze Star for meritorious service as a Judge Advocate in Diyala, though.) And he's so heedless in the knowledge that the National Review no longer has any standards at all, or so flattened out by whatever drugs he's doing, that he doesn't even realize it. He just keeps typin' along.

David French, fictional high-class dinner guest, illustrates one of the main problems with the smugness thesis of Emmett Rensin (or Interments Me), which is that as far as we can tell from the available evidence, the victims of smug are overwhelmingly not members of the white working class but rather of the ruling class, political actors and journalists. French is resentful that liberals treat him as ignorant, which he is, and projects his resentment on working-class folks because he believes they're even more ignorant than he is, which is not necessarily the case. (He himself knows even less about working-class people than he does about his imaginary dinner companions; and his readers, who may think of themselves as ordinary middle-class people, are in fact elderly rentiers quaking in counter-revolutionary terror like it was 1793 as they sit at their computers in their finished basements.)

Rensin's thesis seems to be that the reason white working-class people don't like liberals (except for the substantial minority that does) is that liberals are smug. Or else that it's a smug thing to think we know why they don't like us, and that's why they don't like us:
Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The rubes noticed and replied in kind. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Literally: We accused our former hard-working friends of the New Deal era of being disdainful and hapless ("You undereducated white guys, how come you're so disdainful? A-and hapless to boot?"), because they didn't like us any more, and in return for these harsh judgments they didn't like us any more. We have seen many retroactionary analyses of social phenomena here at Rectification but I think this is the first time we have seen the proposal of a causality that radiates both forward and backward in time.

Rensin thinks the smug, as typified by the comedian Jon Stewart, is a quality of "knowingness"—
the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid. The smug liberal found relief in ridiculing them
But what opponents? Who did Jon Stewart ridicule? Rupert Murdoch! John McCain! Rush Limbaugh! Mitch McConnell! Donald J. Trump! Wolf Blitzer! George Romney! And not infrequently Barack Obama, John Kerry, Ayatollah Khamenei, or Hugo Chávez, for he made a serious and sometimes annoying effort to ridicule persons of all races, faiths, and political persuasions, without fear or favor.

Who Jon Stewart never made fun of was: poor people, victims of bullying over issues of racial or gender identity, laid-off factory workers, and in particular military veterans. Unless maybe they were fake military veterans like David French or high-status veterans in positions of power who had betrayed the promises made to the men and women in the ranks.

Well, he could be pretty mean to meth addicts. But in general, he aimed his satire wholly at the powerful and rich, throughout.
If there is a single person who exemplifies the dumbass hick in the smug imagination, it is former President George W. Bush. He's got the accent. He can't talk right. He seems stupefied by simple concepts, and his politics are all gee-whiz Texas ignorance. He is the ur-hick. He is the enemy.
No, you're quite wrong on that one. We know very well that George W. went to Greenwich Country Day, Yale (Skull & Bones) and Harvard (Rensin actually gets this wrong, assigning him to Andover, which is where Jeb went, and putting Harvard and Yale in the wrong order). We also know he got crappy grades and was admitted only because of his family status, but he wasn't by any means stupid, just wholly incurious about anything except winning elections, and willfully ignorant when it came to asking about reasons for not doing whatever he felt like doing. But one of the very worst things about him was that sophisticated act he always put on of being a dumb ol' boy who don't know any better, with which he managed to seduce a large number of voters into believing he was some kind of "outsider" and "honest".

The job of satire wasn't to make fun of those voters. It was to help them see, in a compact and enjoyable way, what a fraud he was: not that he was stupid, but that he was callous, frivolous, and narcissistic, and a catastrophically bad president. And I'd like to point out that it succeeded; Bush ended his second term with an unbelievable 22% job approval rating, the lowest in history. Of course voters didn't need Jon Stewart to point out that George Bush was a terrible president, they could see this for themselves (they're smart! pace David French—just mostly too cynical for their own good, which is why they don't vote enough), but the work of comics and snarkists everywhere helped to frame their feelings in a way that helped them avoid repeating the error by voting in another fake man-of-the-people feckless aristocrat John McCain into the White House.
The smug mind defends itself against these charges. Oh, we're just having fun, it says. We don't mean itThis is just for a laugh, it's just a joke, stop being so humorless.
What the fuck are you talking about? Not me. I'm in dead earnest when I'm joking my hardest. Comedy is war. Looking forward to Obama's last WHC dinner on Saturday, speaking of knowing comedians, hope nobody gets hurt.

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