gall and gumption

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thanks for Clearing That Up

What the whole Shirley Sherrod/Andrew Breitbart affair needed, of course, was less clarity. Trevor Butterworth, contract egghead at Forbes magazine, has brought it, in a post titled "It's the Inaccuracy, Stupid."

This is what you have now instead of a butler named Jeeves or a Tudor mansion imported in pieces and reassembled on Long Island. You have the English guy on retainer to make jokes of the "America and Britain are two cultures separated by a common language" variety harumph ha ha. Trevor began this Transatlantic two-cultures schtick sometime back with an article on the semicolon. Now he has worked his way up to irony.

If there is one thing that triggers a gag reflex in those of us from the English-speaking colonies of Pax Americana, it's the sentimentality. Were irony, sarcasm and cynicism sports, Britain and Ireland would be perpetual gold and silver medalists, while doe-eyed, good ol' U.S. of A. would barely qualify as an also-ran.

All reasonable people can be assumed to agree therefore that the widely expressed disgust over Breitbart's (initially successful) attempt to have a black woman federal employee fired from her job on the basis of a doctored video is just that American sentimentality again. Though it's good for boundless optimism!

You know that they sit in the bars of luxury hotels in Third World countries that they are buying piece by piece or to which they are shipping container-loads of small arms, and say things like "Now in America we have optimism. Why don't these people have optimism?" In fact old Fatcat probably believes, sincerely, that it was his optimism that made him rich, and not his cutthroat greed and meanness.

To this hopelessly constipated stupidity, Trevor, palming once again the same worn, greasy deck of dead jokes, stereotypes, and cliches beloved of the closet Anglophile and Imperial nostalgia buff--pining for the days when you just went around raiding shit and beating the rest of Europe to Africa, to a chorus of sentimental Christian propaganda that ended in the slaughter of almost a generation of young men--gives the use of his intellectual uh, credentials I suppose.

Breitbart, he admits sportingly, "screwed up."

On Monday, the day after the big thunderstorm that took out power over a large area of the suburbs around me--but not mine luckily this time--I took my car to the mechanic. He drove me to the Metro station and I went on to work, and near the end of the day I realized that I had left my house keys with the car keys, that is, with the car. I got my cousin D. to run me up there but we got caught in traffic (of course) and when we got there the place was all closed up and the owner unreachable by phone. Meanwhile the manager of my apartment building was at the beach. So I had to shell out $200 and change for a locksmith, and of course the lock was unpickable so he had to sort of blast it to pieces very noisily with a power drill while the dogs, probably desperate to pee, thought Armageddon was here again like that time last week when the power went out in a thunderstorm and things kept making buzzing noises.

See that? Forgetting the keys? That's screwing up. Screwing up is leaving the car parked in neutral on a hill without engaging the emergency brake. Screwing up is forgetting to turn off the fire under the rice. Screwing up is cheating on your partner or getting a DUI.

The expression "screwing up" suggests that Breitbart was trying to do something other than what he was doing and just, well, did it wrong, put Flap A into Slot B instead of into Slot A and that's why the drawer didn't work properly or the toy helicopter didn't fly. Trevor wants to suggest that the problem with the Sherrod video was mere inaccuracy and, what the hey, newspapers have never been accurate and he's got the charts and figures and a quaint bit of 19th-century lore to prove it.

Breitbart's intention was to harm Shirley Sherrod. He singled her out to misrepresent her before the world as a "racist." It was a deliberate fabrication, a misrepresentation of who she was in order to tell a bigger lie. Ruining her reputation and causing her the loss of her job was a big win for Breitbart until the facts came out. His subsequent self-defenses were as contemptibly dishonest and full of bad faith as the video. Trevor does not mention the ACORN video that effectively destroyed an organization committed to ensuring that the poor get to vote, but when a person gets caught in shameless lies twice it's something more than "screwing up." So far the only penalty that Breitbart has had to pay for the actual harm he has done is to endure the scorn of sane people, whom he despises because he is full as a tick with nastiness and rage.

But Trevor is there to defend him. I'm not a mean person, you know. If Breitbart ever ends up getting sued out of every penny or so disgraces himself that even his sponsors don't want to touch him, I'll drop a dollar in his hat as I pass him on the sidewalk. I don't discriminate. If he were in court I'd hope he had a good defense, and I have no doubt he has the means to get one in that unlikely event.

Breitbart had no grounds or standing to go and interfere in this woman's life and work. He had no legitimate motive. He did not find a case against Sherrod, he fabricated one by lying. Deliberately, and badly, for the purpose of making her look like a racist so he could prove that "Black people are the real racists." Now, it's bad enough that he goes and troubles this woman, but he does so with the intent of ginning up race hatred in a country that, it's clear, is still unable to deal rationally and justly with it.

It's not sentimentality that makes me find Breitbart and his methods so loathsome: it's his dishonesty and malice. This would have been perfectly clear to Samuel Johnson, who wrote, in response to just exactly the sort of glib consequence-free contrarianism that Trevor thinks is so very cool and which he deploys in defense of the indefensible. This pose isn't intellectual realism and detachment, it isa lack of self-awareness:

I am always afraid of determining on the side of envy or cruelty. The privileges of education may sometimes be improperly bestowed, but I shall always fear to withhold them, lest I should be yielding to the suggestions of pride, while I persuade myself that I am following the maxims of policy; and under the appearance of salutary restraints, should be indulging the lust of dominion, and that malevolence which delights in seeing others depressed.

I'd like to see someone try to tell Johnson that he was just sentimental.

The Civil Rights movement was about righting an ongoing, entrenched injustice. The victims of discrimination were not incurring an obligation to the indulgent kindness of sentimental Americans; they were getting partial payment on an obligation that was long, long past due. This has nothing to do with how anybody feels about Shirley Sherrod or any other individual black person or black people as a group. It has nothing to do with sentiments at all. Sentiments helped move the cause but at the core of it was a principle.

Here is Johnson with the principle:

If Trevor finds American sentimentality so gag-worthy, why doesn't he talk instead about the principles? They apply in exactly the same way to all forms of discrimination, like the kind that killed Shirley Sherrod's father, and they apply to Sherrod's own case. She did not do anything to forfeit her right not to be molested by some nasty political pervert with an axe to grind. And if she doesn't have the right not to be molested in this way, no one does.

If Trevor sees far enough into American culture to recognize that Americans often conflate sentimentality with morality, why doesn't he appeal, then, to a robust English tradition of unsentimental morality? Well, I really don't think that's what he's getting paid for. Instead of following up on Breitbart's abusive practices, he goes after some guy at the Baltimore Sun.

But Rodrick's argument that democracy lies in the distinction between the mostly trivial errors of the mainstream press and the mostly substantive errors of the upstart right-wing media is a sentimental illusion, utterly unsupported by accuracy studies or even straightforward observations of the "mainstream media failed to grasp the recent, systematic failures in the financial system" variety.

I'd be the first person to acknowledge the hip-deep horseshit that the news business talks about itself and its mission. Trevor and I went to the same journalism school, and the stuff is gag-worthy. But only a person who is willfully self-deceived or an idiot could believe that the malicious fabrications of a ratfucker represent any kind of viable "upstart" alternative.

Trevor has disappeared the moral question at the heart of the Sherrod affair and now he is in the act of disappearing it in journalism too. Just as he bypasses the question of whether there is a meaningful distinction between sentimentality and morality, so to he leaves in a muddle the question of whether there is a meaningful difference between journalism and "making shit up." Then, deploying his anecdotes about William Randolph Hearst and other Amazing Facts, he suggests that only a sap would try to act as if there was a difference.

Having disposed of the sentimentality Trevor lets the moral issue drop along with it. Which suggests, that for all he presents himself as a representative of the English grit and no-nonsensicality, he is no better at distinguishing these same two things than his audience of Americans. And there's where you can identify the service he's doing for his employers; because with the morality disappeared, even the sentimentality becomes a childish indulgence that can be dispensed with. He is performing the service of relieving his readers--those "boundless optimists"-- of the burden of even paying lip service to morality and truth. While, of course, joshing them about their soft, mushy centers and thereby, incidentally, insinuating that they are really actually over-endowed with sensibility. Gosh! That must be why the poor are constantly taking advantage of them and why the blacks are so ungrateful.

Johnson was onto that cheap dodge too:

Well, you know, back in St. Kitts I used to get accused from time to time of being in somebody-or-other's pocket. When I was attacked in my house, the opposition party newspaper wrote that perhaps I had been attacked because I had colluded with the government in hiding crime statistics. I was accused of being in the pay of George Soros (Oh! If only!). Even my friend Jamie Astaphan once accused me of secretly working for the Prime Minister--and that was the only time I blew up about it. I wrote him a long letter in which I basically explained that there was nobody in St. Kitts who could afford to buy me. I don't say I don't have my price, because that would be tempting fate. I don't work for a wingnut-funded science-debunking think tank. That's luck, mainly, but I'm glad that the temptation never offered. I really feel I can't afford to--that that would forfeit for me the little respect I hope to retain among the people I respect. That's all I've got, because I'm probably never going to be rich. And within myself there is a feeling that it would take a lot of money to recover or compensate me for that little bit of inner self-respect once I sold it. Even to say so much seems like asking bad luck to come and live with me. So I'll just hurry to the point. With the foregoing considerations I could imagine writing a defense of Andrew Breitbart's "journalism" under only one condition that I got a really big check. About four feet wide by about two and a half feet high, at least. I'd like to be photographed with it, like they do at those charity fundraiser things, with the donor's name clearly visible. And it would be big in the other sense of course too. Really really big. How big? Oh, a fleet of Brinks trucks would be involved. And I would then retire from my brief appearance in public life to the private Caribbean island that came with the compensation package.

That doesn't appear to be the deal that Trevor got, but seems to think he has found a way --a petroleum-based product maybe--*to touch pitch without being defiled.

*Scroll down to the comment section of this article and watch him tackle someone who asks who pays the bills at his statistics-debunking web site, STATS.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Lafayette Square

Where I work is two blocks away from the White House. I wander over that way at lunch whenever the weather and the absence of errands permit; I'm trying to make a habit of it, not because of the White House but because of Lafayette Square. I find downtown DC a little dull to look at, as so much of whatever individuality and color it might have had has been developed right out of existence. My favorite things are the increasingly rare little survivals. But Lafayette Square has turned into a find. It's just exactly the right size for people-watching, and I find that if I just go somewhere and just watch for a while without feeling compelled to justify my existence in any way I get a big lift out of it. There is always always someone demonstrating; last week there was a group from the Congo, and yesterday a Vietnamese lady presiding over some anti-nuke signs. Yesterday there was also a street preacher. I had my iPod (of course) so I only caught little bits of his act: there was something about Jesus! Jeeeesus! Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus! and then I think the Vietnamese lady or some sirens drowned him out, and then a little later I heard him say, "You can say your blah blah blah, you can say yadda yadda" but I didn't make it to the end of whatever that thought was.

A regular in the park is the still rather buff older black man with long white locks and a long beard, who sits on a bench in his underwear or something looking very like underwear.

I passed him on my way to the pond on the east side of the park, where I was hoping to see baby ducks. But there were no ducks in that pond. All the ducks were taking naps in the other pond, and the only bird in this one was a struggling pigeon. He was just out of reach, and after looking at him for a while I started taking off my shoes. The place is swarming with cops as you can imagine, and I'm pretty sure they would not approve of someone climbing into the fountain. But I couldn't spot any of the park rangers (it's a National Park) and I didn't think it was the sort of thing you could ask one of the guys guarding the White House to do. So I thought OK. But then along came this blond kid about 16, he looked, a tourist who didn't speak a word of English. He caught on to what I wanted and waded into the water, grabbed the pigeon and handed it to me, and then just buzzed off to wherever he was headed.

Well there I was standing in the park with this soaking wet half-drowned pigeon in my hands. Still no sign of a park ranger, so I just sort of held it hoping it would recover. But after several minutes of wandering around looking for a ranger I realized that the pigeon had other problems than being half drowned. It was not long for this world. Rescue was not in its future, so I was started to think maybe I could hand it off to someone who would know how to put it out of its misery. And then I realized "I am standing here in the park holding a sopping wet diseased and dying pigeon in my hands." It was not exactly the sort of handful anyone would want to relieve me of. So I laid it on the ground under a tree and wished it the best--a gentle sleep.

Yesterday's best was the old homeless black man, sitting on a bench in the shade with a big suitcase and other assorted luggage, including several large sheets of poster board. These he had written on in blue, red and black magic marker--large, careful block letters. He was reading from a big, well-thumbed, leather-bound gilt-edged Bible. I got just close enough to him to read what was on the sign that was at the top of the stack--I was very curious to see what it said. I must say I was not disappointed.