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May 29, 2017

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Parodic Crudeness
From The New Criterion November 30, 2015.
The Other Woman

As I check in with The Guardian nearly every day, I find myself keeping a private tally of the top headlines of the year which could only have appeared in The Guardian and which thus make it the lovable home of what was once called the loony left but now, in the age of Jeremy Corbyn, I suppose must be called the left tout court. A few weeks ago the paper ran one that has to be a contender for top headline of this year, if not of all time: "A moment that changed me — my husband fell in love with a bonobo." That will certainly take some beating, though I would be sorry not to be able to give some kind of runner-up notice to "Cops ignore me because I have light skin. That just reaffirms their racism" or "I work at the US Senate. I shouldn’t have to dance at strip clubs to feed my son" or "Do you applaud Caitlyn Jenner because she is brave, or because she’s pretty?" — or, the previous occupant of the top slot of the year before it was deposed by the bonobo lady, "It’s time to stop misgendering trans murder victims."

You think being murdered is bad? Just try being misgendered as well! But there also ought to be a prize for the provider of the most consistently self-parodying material, and that would have to go to the American feminist Jessica Valenti, who appears on the "Comment is Free" page of The Guardian seemingly more often than any other single contributor. Here are a few of my recent favorites from Ms Valenti’s impressive oeuvre: "Teaching my daughter to cook does not make me a bad feminist"; "You might not think you’re sexist — until you take a look at your bookshelf"; "Women deserve orgasm equality"; and, her own entry into the always fruitful "It’s time to. . ." category, "It’s time to retire the idea that alcohol-facilitated rape is simply drunken sex." 

Whose idea is that, I wonder? And isn’t retirement too good for him? That reminds me of another of her columns titled: "Sexual assault is an epidemic. Only the most committed apologist can deny it"  "Committed apologist"? Can she possibly mean committed apologist for sexual assault? I fear she can — because it is entirely typical of her to forestall argument by implying that that is what you are if you question her epidemiological metaphor. In the same way, "Worldwide sexism increases suicide risk in young women" suggests — and is meant to suggest — that if you’re not a feminist who hews pretty closely to the Valentian idea of what "sexism" is, you’re responsible for the deaths of young women all over the world.

What makes such writing parodic is the crudeness with which it reveals the assumption, usually more subtly adumbrated, which lies behind so much of what one reads from writers on the left — and, increasingly, on the right, too. This is the assumption that to disagree with the author is to brand oneself, ipso facto, as outcast from the world of civilized discourse, an "apologist" for rapists and criminals if not a rapist and a criminal oneself. There is a similar tactic at work in another one of Ms Valenti’s prize-winning efforts: "Opposition to legal abortion takes magical thinking and a lack of logic" — with the sub-head: "Those intent on destroying access to abortion live in a dream world where they are right and just, even as they are continually provided evidence to the contrary." Not, that is, like anyone we know.

As must now be apparent, taking advice on logic from Jessica Valenti is like — but, no, there’s nothing remotely like it. She seems to admit as much, too, in the opening paragraphs:

There was a time when I empathized with those on the other side of the abortion debate. They felt abortion was murder — and no matter how wrong I knew they were, I understood that believing such a thing would mean fighting to make abortion illegal. But I don’t understand anymore. There are too many holes in their logic, too much magical thinking and outright lies to leave room for meaningful debate. How can you find common ground if you’re not even living on the same planet?

I wonder if she realizes that she is admitting the "lies" and the "magical thinking" and holey logic are all words that apply only on planet Valenti? The rest of the article is a typical mixture of muddled thinking and bad writing — suggesting either an absence of editorial supervision at The Guardian or a willingness to let her reform the language as well as the political culture:

Perhaps the most dangerous fantasy, though, is the anti-choice claim that if Roe v Wade is overturned women won’t be arrested for having abortions — even though this is already happening while the procedure is legal. In some cases, as with [Carly] Fiorina, these aren’t self-deceptions but knowing lies, made to provocate [sic] and rally people behind the cause by any means. And the power of these lies are [sic] dependent on the widespread, manic self-righteousness that makes anti- choicers unable — or unwilling — to separate fact from fiction.

A nice concession to generosity of spirit there, to imply that they may just be stupid and deluded and not the lying evil scoundrels they otherwise appear to be.

This conceit of not living on the same planet with the speaker — usually the speaker is more careful to stipulate that he or she is the one living on planet Earth — is one that I discussed in some detail in these pages (see "Lexicographic Lies" in The New Criterion of October 2012) in connection with Bill Clinton’s claim at the Democratic convention in 2012 that Republicans were living in an "alternative universe." On that occasion, you may remember, he was referring to what he and his fellow conventioneers must have regarded as the preposterousness of Republican claims that, as Mr Clinton put it, "the President and the Democrats don’t really believe in free enterprise and individual initiative, how we want everybody to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy."

In other words, it was a complaint about the debasement of what is still anachronistically called political "debate." Mr Clinton had a point, too — a point from which the fact that Democrats had made and are still making at least an equal contribution to this debasement does not distract. By now a similar idea in the somewhat toned-down sense that the two parties are talking about quite different things, has become almost a commonplace. Here, for instance, is Philip Rucker in The Washington Post writing in the wake of the second Republican debate last September in an article headed "Are Democrats and Republicans talking about the same country?"

To the Democratic candidates, the 2016 presidential campaign is about shrinking the gap between rich and poor; combating climate change; and expanding voting rights, gay rights and workplace equality for women. To listen to the Republican candidates is to hear an entirely different campaign — one that centers on defeating Islamic State terrorists, deterring a nuclear Iran, restricting abortion, and debating whether to deport illegal immigrants and construct a wall to keep them out. At a political moment of pitched voter anxiety, candidates in both parties talk in dark, sometimes apocalyptic tones — but about different issues, as if they’re addressing two different countries.

At least it’s countries and not planets. At least they’re talking about different things rather than referring to each other as the scum of the earth — though, as it happens, they are doing that, too. And, in a way, they are addressing two different countries: the America divided into red and blue states that everybody has come to take for granted since we were first introduced to it with the election of 2000. The conduct of the campaign so far has been such as to confirm the more general short-circuiting of debate in our political culture — debate in the genuine sense of a rational argument about political ends and the means to them — but the effect has been even further to reinforce the dominance of that culture by the media’s hunt for scandal, which is what was crowding out any real debate long before the red-blue divide.

It was exactly this media scandal culture which was exposed for all to see with Megyn Kelly’s first question to Donald Trump in the first Republican debate, which made no pretense of any interest in why he was proposing himself as a candidate for the presidency but only in what he would say when it was put to him that he was a bad man, unworthy to hold the office. "We’re Living," as Jim Geraghty of National Review puts it, "in Post-Deliberative-Democracy America."

Obama’s entire presidency is marked by statements and behavior that suggest he’s willing to engage and negotiate with the world’s most brutal regimes, like Iran, but he finds his American critics and opposing lawmakers too silly, extreme, or malevolent, inherently beyond the pale. The man who bowed to the Saudi King is the same man who called on Latinos to "punish our enemies." The president who is so eager to pronounce "Pakistan" "Taliban" and "Koran" in the authentic style of locals dismisses his domestic critics as "teabaggers."There’s little sign this will change. The entire apparatus of the Democratic party — from DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to MSNBC to the New York Times editorial board carry this same conviction that their opposition is self-evidently evil and not worthy of having a real debate with.

Mr Geraghty was responding to a point made by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post who had written that, "when the main players in our politics give up on deliberative democracy, it feels like some Rubicon is being crossed" — but was making the point that the Rubicon had been crossed some time ago, perhaps as early as the first days of the Obama administration when, by spurning Republicans in Congress with the announcement that "I won," the President first indicated a willingness to believe that, as Mr Gerson put it, "opponents are evil — entirely beyond the normal instruments of reason and good faith. So the only option is the collection and exercise of power."

I think it may be a point worth making that this attitude goes back a lot further than the dawn of the Age of Obama and that the President himself could not have been so successful in ignoring constitutional constraints on his power if the ground had not been prepared for him a long time before by an irresponsibly partisan and progressive media. He depends on the scandal culture and the scandal culture depends on a rigid adherence to the Jessica Valenti view of the world, which is that the enemies of progressivism are bad people — racists, sexists, homophobes, liars and bigots — just waiting to be exposed by the vigilant progressive paladins of the media. The President has merely adopted the progressive "narrative" prepared for him by the likes of Ms Valenti by (for example) making Republicans and others opposed to gun control complict in a mass murder in Oregon: "This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction." It’s clear that, by "we" he means "they"; by "our" he means "their."

Donald Trump may have electrified a Republican audience by defying Megyn Kelly’s scandal-mongering and living (so far) to tell the tale, but I’m afraid we must suppose the majority of Americans to be still susceptible to the whispered blandishments of scandal in their ears, and Republicans and conservatives listen as attentively as anyone else. Just look what happened when the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, made an injudicious remark about the House subcommittee which has been investigating the murders of Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 — a remark gleefully seized upon by the media, and by the principal subject of that investigation, Hillary Clinton, as proof that the subcommittee was politically motivated in its persecution (as they saw it) of Mrs Clinton. Why, this is what they had been saying all along!

Logically there was no inconsistency between the conduct of a public-spirited and disinterested Congressional inquiry into an obvious State Department screw-up and the awkwardly-phrased welcome given its political effects by someone expecting to benefit from them — except, of course, that a man in Mr McCarthy’s position should have known that the Democrats and their media allies would see it as an admission that the inquiry was not public-spirited at all but politically motivated at the outset. Many conservatives have so far adapted themselves to living under the threat of being turned into scandals that they now take for granted the media’s malign purpose towards them and, instead of blaming the media, blame each other for making the "stunningly stupid" comments (Jonathan S. Tobin in Commentary) that expose them to further bad-faith attacks by the media. Once the pattern of media exposure of secret Republican perfidy has been set, as it was set at least as long ago as Watergate, it becomes progressively easier to repeat it, even when, as here, it may seem to be of dubious applicability.

When, on the retirement of John Boehner, Mr McCarthy was subsequently forced from the House Republican caucus’s election to the Speakership, it was whispered about on the Internet that his withdrawal had to do with more than just his now-notorious "gaffe," but, oddly, the scandal-obsessed media adopted an unaccustomed reticence about this. The New York Times didn’t mention it at all and The Washington Post only referred to a letter mentioning "misdeeds" from one of Mr McCarthy’s House colleagues — who proceeded to deny that he had had any misdeeds of Mr McCarthy’s in mind. The Post was inclined to take this denial at face value, though it did mention that Mr McCarthy had made his announcement "with his wife at his side."

I might be inclined to congratulate the progressive media on their restraint if I didn’t suspect that it was owing to their wish not to distract their public from the preferable scandal that the GOP was divided, at war with itself and so suffering from an "inability to govern," as Harry Reid slyly put it. "The GOP sinks deeper into chaos. Can it still function as a party?" wondered the Washington Post. "McCarthy Withdraws From Speaker’s Race, Putting House in Chaos" headlined The New York Times.

That putative "chaos" represented a swiftly arrived-at media consensus and a much better scandal from the Democrats’ point of view, I think you’ll agree, than some boring sex scandal, even assuming that they could have rustled one up. It also allowed them to keep just as far away as ever from any of the substantive matters that might once have interested our political class — way back before it arrived in Washington with its mind already made up about everything.




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