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Monday, October 06, 2008

Ground Control to Major John

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on:

This is Major John to Ground Control.  My campaign’s on the floor, and I’m flailing in a most unusual way.  And my ads look very desperate today. . . .

OK, so this newly-revived blog has been spending all this face time with Governor Palin, and it completely missed this segment of Angry McCain’s seething-hot interview with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register last week.  (I did watch the part where he defends the one hundred percent truthfulness of his campaign and his honorable record of service to the country and then responds to the “lipstick on a pig” question by standing up, reaching across the table, ripping open the chest cavity of one of the unsuspecting Register reporters and devouring her still-beating heart in three bites.  But after that I turned it off.) And I want to say right at the outset that it is ageist and ableist and also bad to think that John McCain is not in full possession of his faculties just because he answers the question, “have you always been covered in your adult life by a taxpayer-financed health care plan?” by saying, “I was out of the military for a while before I went to the Congress, but you know, that’s an interesting statement, innit.  So, and I have never been an astronaut, but I think I know the challenges of space, and I’ve never done a lot of things in my life that I think I am familiar with” before launching into the usual talking points about how “free enterprise” health care will allow families to make choices whereas socialized medicine will require everyone in America to share one toothbrush.

Think again about what he’s really saying, people.  John McCain is simply saying that he understands what it’s like not to have taxpayer-financed health care even though he himself has had it for all but a brief period of his adult life, just as you and I know that space is a near-absolute-zero vacuum full of deadly radiation even though we have never been astronauts.  The obvious point of the analogy, folks, is that when you’re covered by a private health plan, you suffer debilitating bone loss and muscle atrophy; and when you’re totally uninsured, no one can hear you scream.  This is one of the strongest endorsements of universal health care I’ve come across in my lifetime; unfortunately, it’s so dang oblique that everyone and her brother seems to have missed it.

The really surprising moment in McCain’s answer, though, comes at the end:

I have always been a free-enterprise person who thinks that families make the best choices for themselves and their future. That’s a dramatically different philosophy than my Democrat friends, in my view, who think that government is the answer. Senator Obama wants to create a huge health care bureaucracy. And we’ve seen that movie before.

So, the answer is that most of my life, in serving my country, I did have health care. I did go through a period when the health care wasn’t very good.

Again, this is a powerful, if subliminable, argument in favor of government-provided health care.  Despite the boilerplate lines about huge bureaucracy blah blah blah, McCain freely admits that he has had fine government health care all his life, except for that period between his service in the military and his tenure in Congress when the health care wasn’t very good and he was briefly exposed to the challenges of space.  It was then that he braved the dangers of explosive decompression and had to return to safety by way of the emergency airlock.  [UPDATE:  In comments, some readers offer an alternate explanation of this passage.  Something about a Hanoi Hilton, it seems.]

On a personal note, I have to say I’m struck by the line “and we’ve seen that movie before.” On its face, of course, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, because the United States has never actually seen the movie “Universal Health Care—directed by the U.S. Government and starring every single American.” The film has been banned in the United States for decades, and as with the Cuban trade embargo, neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have had the courage to lift the ban.  Some conservatives claim to have seen the movie, calling it “incomprehensible, and worse, French,” but I don’t believe them.  I believe, instead, that Senator McCain was slyly referring to the Elton John song, “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” thus offering the Des Moines Register a densely intertextual David Bowie/ Elton John riff that surely owes something to my post from three and a half years ago.  Thanks, Senator McCain!  This humble and newly-revived blog salutes your whimsical pop-culture allusions . . . and your long history of enjoying fine, reliable taxpayer-financed health care!

Posted by Michael on 10/06 at 08:05 AM
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Sunday, October 05, 2008

At the speed of thought

Years ago, when Miles Dyson invented the Internet using the advanced microchip from the Terminator’s forearm, he said to his colleagues, “what we’re looking at here is nothing less than a new stage in the history of human communication.  Someday, the systems we’ll develop with this technology will allow the world to watch the development of right-wing pundits’ sexual fantasies in real time.”

At the time, Dyson’s colleagues thought he was insane.  But he was a Super Genius who could see into the future, and time has shown that he was right.  So, boys, start your engines!

That’s right, fellas, she’s looking at you.  Yes, you right there.  You with the computer.  See those starbursts coming through the screen?  They’re like ... they’re like ... ah, yes, they’re like skyrockets in flight.

Posted by Michael on 10/05 at 11:05 AM
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Friday, October 03, 2008

The return of Arbitrary But Fun Friday

A few years back, Amanda Marcotte was so kind as to guest-blog here for a few weeks, and for her very first post, she offered a memorable Arbitrary But Fun Friday®, Insufferable Music Snob edition, in which she asked readers to name some of the best cover songs of All Times.  Well, my friends, the time has finally come for me to offer the obvious followup: worst cover songs of All Times.

For me (and I know this is arbitrary, but hey, it’s kinda fun), there are basically two kinds of awful covers: one, covers that do nothing good with a song and lead you to wonder why anyone bothered recording the damn thing, and two, covers that actually suck all the life out of a song, give you severe chest pain, and make the entire world worse.  Notable examples of the former include:

-- Uncle Kracker’s boring version of Dobie Grey’s “Drift Away,” which is very much like the original except for the fact that poor Mr. Shafer, with his half-octave range, proves unable to hit the song’s high or low notes, thus rendering the quite lovely melody as something like the hideous three-note drone that is “Follow Me”;

-- Pearl Jam’s even more boring version of Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss,” which is marked by Eddie Vedder’s inability to hit notes or get lyrics right; and

-- Gloria Estefan’s unfathomably boring version of Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around,” which is very much like the original and . . . um . . . yeah, that’s about it.

Notable examples of the latter would have to include Manfred Mann’s version of Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” perhaps the most bombastic treatment of a song ever, though a close competitor is

-- Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which takes a delicate and beautifully understated song and hits it with sledgehammers followed by a 21-gun salute followed by cluster bombs and capped off with a Truck Driver’s Gear Change; and

-- Rita Coolidge’s version of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” which not only manages to take a crisp soul classic and turn it into a warm bath of easy-listening mush, but can also induce nausea in laboratory monkeys as early as the 45-second mark.

Surely, however, no list of Covers That Suck would be complete without the Grateful Dead’s stupefying renditions of “Good Lovin’” and “Dancin’ in the Streets,” which, like the aforementioned Coolidge atrocity, take uptempo soul classics and force-feed them acid until they’ve lost the will to live and all that’s left of them is Bob Weir’s breathless vocal meanderings.  Back in ‘06, Amanda noted that “Devo are the kings of the great cover song,” and she was entirely right; she’s not really an Insufferable Music Snob, you know—she just has really good taste.  And Devo’s evil counterparts in the world of covers are the Dead, the kings of the truly terrible cover song, the kind of cover that makes you wish the giant enlightened insects would come and devour us all, preferably before the next chorus.

Any more you can think of?

Posted by Michael on 10/03 at 02:03 PM
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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Debate:  tactics and strategery

So you’ve come to this humble blog to see if I’m going to caric, cariqa, caricatoo, mock Sarah Palin for talking about our Afghanistan military-commander guy General McClellan.  You’re thinking, “hey, Michael, didn’t you say that Palin was like an unprepared student faking a term paper in real time?  And don’t those faking-it students like to throw out a mess of extraneous horseshit, especiallystuff like proper names, in order to overcompensate for the fact that they don’t know WTF they’re talking about?  And didn’t Palin do a name-check on David D. McKiernan General McClellan completely unprompted, just the way bullshitting students do when they try to cover themselves by saying things like ‘as Frederick Nietzsche pointed out in his Genealogy of Morays’ when you’ve asked them a question about international fishing rights?”

Well, my friends, I hate to disappoint you, but the facts are simple.  General McClellain is a great American hero who knows how to win a war, and Barack Hussein al-Obama was wrong to oppose the wonder-working Peninsula Surge Campaign.  And the American people want an end to the divisive partisan politics of Hussein al-Obama of the Democrat party.  As Governor Palin pointed out tonight, we’ve lived through divisive partisan politics in both the Bush and Clinton eras, and if we’re going to look forward, Americans need to agree that the Democrat party is to blame for divisive partisanship, and Republicans offer a fresh new future of change and reform instead of a finger-pointing obsession with the past.

More importantly, there isn’t a single Sarah Palin fan from Key West to Little Diomede who gives a flying frog whether the governor got McClanahan’s name right.  The important thing is that she opposes taxes that will hurt the umbrella of job creation while standing tall and fighting for a diverse family that rejects the white flag of surrenderdom.  Which is to say, she rallied the base, while Biden rallied liberal elitists who continue to believe that being reasonably informed about shit should be some kind of prerequisite for the presidency.  All else being equal, I’d have to call it a draw.

Posted by Michael on 10/02 at 11:56 PM
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Faith-based initiative

Dear Moloch,

Are you there?  It’s me, Michael.  Hey, listen, I’m going to be watching this “debate” tonight, and I have a favor to ask.  Things have gotten really weird around here lately, and I was hoping you could step in and help us out.  I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote.  It’s true, we’ve kind of forgotten about you, and lots of your competitor deities have managed to elbow you off the stage.  You’re probably pretty upset about that, and I understand.  But if you can put all that behind you, O Moloch, that would be really great—just let me know what (or who!) you’d like us to sacrifice to set things right and get you involved in human affairs again.

I know you don’t usually read blogs, but Moloch, if you’re reading this one, could you let me know in comments?  Thanks so much!  Feel free to use one (or more!) of your many aliases, and be sure to type the captcha word in the little box so we’ll know you’re not one of those nasty diet-drug or porn bots.  Thanks again!!

Posted by Michael on 10/02 at 07:54 PM
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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

So you Palin-mockers think you’re so smart

Over the past month, the Palin Phenomenon has been moving too fast for me to keep up.  It took me a week or two to figure out what I thought about seeing a major-party VP candidate with a child with Down syndrome (pretty cool, except, you know, for her actual policies on disability and McCain’s plan to strip another ten or twenty million Americans of health insurance), and by then, everyone had moved on to full-bore Sarahmania.  Welcome to the Palindrome!  (Sorry.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.) And no sooner did I begin to wrap my head around Sarahmania than the interviews started to hit the YouTubes, and before I knew it, the full-scale panic was on.

My initial reaction to the “in what respect, Charlie?” moment was that it was like watching a student try to fake a term paper in real time: “well, the Bush Doctrine, Charlie, is a doctrine developed by George Bush.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘doctrine’ as ‘a: something that is taught; b: a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief,’ and the Bush Doctrine has taught us much about the body of principles in George Bush’s system of belief, which is to defend America and never blink, Charlie.” Not surprisingly, Palin’s moose-in-headlights performances have reminded almost everyone of what it’s like to try to fake it, and, since many of us have been (woefully unprepared) students at some point in our lives (including me), Palin seems to evoke painful memories across the political spectrum.  Witness CrunchyCon Rod Dreher:

I remember the morning I woke up in my college dorm room and went in to take my final exam in my Formal Logic class. I knew I was unready. Massively unready. And now I was going to be put to the ultimate test. I sat down in Dr. Sarkar’s class and resolved to wing it. Of course I failed the exam and failed the class, because I had no idea what I was talking about. I wasn’t a bad kid, or even a stupid kid. I was just badly unprepared, and in way over my head. Seeing the Palin interview on CBS, I thought of myself in Dr. Sarkar’s exam. But see, I was a college undergraduate who had the chance to take the class again, which I did, and passed (barely). I wasn’t running for vice president of the United States.

I then read the remarkable Ta-Nehisi Coates post that opens with a citation of Dreher, and I found that it called attention to an aspect of McCain’s cynicism I had overlooked. (Dang!  and I thought I’d caught them all!) But until Dreher and Kathleen Parker broke ranks, I was simply amazed by the willingness of conservative pundits to go to the mat for Palin. Katha Pollitt’s most recent column sums up my sense of things exactly (thanks, Katha!):

The stress on high-end conservative pundits is beginning to show. These are people, after all, who belong to the Ivy-educated, latte-drinking, Tuscan-vacationing urban elite they love to ridicule and who see themselves, however deludedly, as policy intellectuals and grown-ups. They’ve written endlessly about “excellence” and “standards.” McCain’s erratic flounderings, and Palin’s patent absurdity, have driven David Brooks and George Will to write columns so anguished I’d feel sorry for them had they not made their bed by spending the past eight years rationalizing the obvious inadequacies of George W. Bush.

(One lovely tidbit from that column: Pollitt quotes Charles Murray’s New York Times Magazine interview with Deborah Solomon.  On Palin, he says, “I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love,” Murray said. “The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government.” Now, I know that Murray has been railing against the evil cognitive elite for much of his career, but the “pointy-headed intellectual” trope is a bit much, since Murray is, after all, an intellectual, and his head is by all accounts very, very pointy.  Which is why it fits so well inside that Death Eater hood.)

“Michael, please,” says my imaginary interlocutor.  “You know perfectly well that even the ‘high-end conservative pundits’ will slurp down any old slop they’re fed by the party.  That’s their job.  It’s degrading and dehumanizing, sure, and a lot of them can’t face themselves in the morning anymore, but you have to remember that the pay is awfully good.”

“What about Bill Kristol?” I asked my imaginary interlocutor.  “I mean, he’s the very most hackiest of the hacks, but he’s also the child of two serious conservative intellectuals.  Do you think he has any morning sickness about Palin-shilling?”

“The thing about Kristol,” I.I. replied, “is that after he’s dead, we’re going to find out not only that he has no vital oils but that he has no internal organs whatsoever.  No higher-order consciousness, no pineal gland housing the soul.  What’s in there instead?  Just balsam wood from tip to toe.”


So I understood Palin, from the outset, as basically the latest installment in a generation-long project of bird-flipping from the right.  Beginning with Reagan, the GOP has come to understand that when it runs with amiable dunces—even putatively amiable dunces—at the top of the ticket (Reagan, Bush II), it kicks butt and (as Atrios succinctly puts it) pisses off liberals; when it runs old-school government-and-civics types who understand things like parliamentary procedure and know the names of furren leaders (Bush I, Dole), it doesn’t fare so well (Bush I won but quickly squandered the party’s Reagan Dividend; meanwhile, Quayle kept alive the attack-on-eloquence-and-arugula).  The idea, of course, is to run “ordinary people” (even if they hail from families who have been among America’s political and economic elite for generations) against us Volvo-driving liberal elitists.  You know that already.  McCain/ Palin merely seemed the most outrageous gambit on this culture-war front, the most deliberate and direct assault on the idea that being reasonably informed about shit should be some kind of prerequisite for the presidency.

Because, you know, the campaign didn’t have to say anything at all about Palin’s foreign-policy expertise.  They could simply have said, “it’s not her strong suit, sure, but she’s a quick study and brings a lot of populist energy to the ticket.” Or they could have said, “she’s a strong social conservative and deeply knowledgeable about how to organize a Rapture.” But no.  Instead, they went on national television and made a series of arguments so stunningly and egregiously stupid that they wouldn’t have passed muster forty years ago in my third-grade class’s debate over the relative merits of Nixon and Humphrey.  Seriously: if one of my fellow eight-year-olds had said anything like, “Sarah Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska is close to Russia,” we would have laughed his (or her!) right out of the room.  And if someone had then tried to follow up with “no, really, she has foreign policy experience because she knows more about energy than anyone in America,” he (or she!) would have been sent to the principal’s office.  Or to the school nurse.

And that, my friends, is why I have chosen to honor McCain/ Palin with that graphic in my sidebar.  As a tribute to their contribution to public debate and reasoned political deliberation.  All under the umbrella of job creation.

I’ve been reading the GOP campaign as being not merely an assault on liberal elites—like I say, that’s old news—but a frontal attack on the very idea of standards of plausibility in argument.  To friends and family (and one or two inquiring reporters), I’ve been calling it the National Insult My Intelligence Tour 2008.  It’s as if they’re simply trying to see how much amazing shit they can get away with (like this amazing shit!), even though (as many people have noted) this strategy requires them to run against the very constituency McCain had courted for over a decade—the elite Beltway punditocracy, McCain’s base.

And in so doing, they’re laying a fairly obvious trap for actual liberal elitists like me.  When I was speaking at the Belmont Humanities Symposium last month, the topic of presidential debates came up—partly because the forum was about debate, check, and partly because Belmont is hosting the second presidential debate.  And in response to one student’s question, I said (among other things) that I can’t stand it when liberals go around saying that Obama is going to wipe the floor with McCain in the debates, or that the Biden-Palin debate will turn the lights out on the whole campaign, because too many liberals and progressives continue to think it’s all a matter of being the smartest person in the room.  There are plenty of Republican-voting people out there, I said, who are resentful and (guess what) bitter . . . because they truly believe they are being governed by high and mighty muck-a-mucks who sneer at their pastimes and their cherished local traditions, and they don’t see Obama (or Hillary either!) as someone who’ll give them the time of day.  If this election gets framed as Ordinary People against Mr. Extra Extra Smart, I thought, the Democrats are going down in flames.  Every time a liberal says, “of course our side should win this—we’re so much smarter than they are,” he (or she!) plays right into the right’s cultural-resentment script.  And they make themselves sound like nineteen-year-old Objectivists into the bargain.

The financial crisis may have altered these dynamics, insofar as it seems to have alerted millions of Americans to the virtues of having a president who knows what he’s (or she’s) talking about.  But three weeks ago at Belmont, I was pretty well convinced that McCain/ Palin were going to spend two months saying the most ludicrous and batshit things just to (a) make right-wing intellectuals and pundits repeat them and defend them, (b) confuse low-information voters, and (c) piss off liberal elites.  And that they might very well win, too.  At dinner that night, after the debate about debates, I suggested to my Belmont hosts that it was part of a 30-year culture-war experiment: just as George W. Bush made us nostalgic for the wit and wisdom of Ronald Reagan, so too, in her time, would President Palin make us long for the sagacity and statecraft of George W. Bush.

But then a non-imaginary interlocutor said a most interesting thing.  (It was a dinner for twelve people, and I didn’t catch his name, or I’d tell you.) He pointed out that the right-wing culture war against pointy-headed intellectuals does not extend to the judiciary.  On the contrary, he said, it’s as if they’re willing to run a cephalopod and a bag of hammers for the executive branch (I don’t think these were his exact words), but they actually recruit and train all their intellectual firepower for the courts (those were pretty much his exact words).  And, of course, he’s right: Scalia, Alito, Roberts—these are all graduates from Pointyheaded Liberal Elite Law School, Evil Genius Division, and the glaring exception, Clarence Thomas, was a Palinesque conservative-affirmative-action fuck-you payback for the rejection of Elitist Evil Genius Robert Bork.

And the right-wing noise machine got the memo, too: witness the fact that everyone on the right, even down to bottom-feeding shriekers like Michelle Malkin, duly took up their torches and pitchforks when Bush nominated Harriet Miers.  I was wrong, I realize now, to have called Palin Harriet Miers 2.0.  Because Harriet Miers was ridden out of town on a rail, in a matter of days, by many of the same people who are now digging in, doubling down, and rooting hard for Palin against the mocking liberal elites.  When it comes to the highest court in the land, these right-wing hacks don’t put up with no second- and third-stringers.

Interesting point, no?  I wish I’d made it myself.

Posted by Michael on 10/01 at 01:30 AM
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