In praise of demerits: Ross Douthat

In today’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat pecked characters on a keyboard that after hours of cogitation first turned into sentences then cohered into paragraphs. Someone called it “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Let’s look at it together.

The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bush’s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The only people from whom nostalgia is flowing are the permanent occupiers of seats in cable talk show green rooms. The rest of us wondered why the hell a war with Iraq over Kuwait mattered and loathed George Bush’s AIDS policy, a generous word for an irritated improvisation. 

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

Ah, the nut graf. We live in an America increasingly dominated by minorities and one of Douthat’s paladin acquaintances implicitly admits he wishes it ain’t so.

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

“What IS it about social media, the Freedom of Information Act, and Afghanistan and Iraq that makes these brown people so pushy?”

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

“We in Washington hate you.”

However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.

In the previous paragraph, he quotes Foer on Henry Adams, whom I suspect Foer has read and Douthat has not; in this one, he alludes to the late minor novelist Louis Auchincloss, who spent a half century painstakingly writing about the incestuous stupidity of the WASP culture revered by Douthat. At any rate, his insight: put women, blacks, gays, and your Mexican housekeeper in Andover and they might be as nearsighted as the Bushes.

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.” At the same time it would have retained both its historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism) and its more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism).

Something something hippies, something something unwashed atheists, mmm delicious word stew.

It’s de rigueur for liberals to lament the decline of the Rockefeller Republicans, or the compromises that a moderate northeastern WASP like George H.W. Bush made with Sunbelt populism.

De rigeur yourself, pal.

But a WASP establishment that couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard was never likely to maintain its hold on a mass political organization like the G.O.P. Whereas an establishment that still believed in its mission within its own ivied bastions might have been seen as more politically imposing in the wider world — instead of seeing its last paladin, a war hero and statesman in a grand American tradition, dismissed in the boomer era as a “wimp.”

Cogitation, words, sentences, paragraphs.

The point of this counterfactual is not to just join the nostalgic chorus around Bush’s departure for the Great Kennebunkport in the Skies. Rather it’s to look forward, and to suggest that our current elite might someday be reformed — or simply replaced — through the imitation of the old establishment’s more pious and aristocratic spirit.

Imitating a pious and aristocratic spirit that hid essential truths from the American public and ruled as if, to cite a forgotten WASP scion, “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law.”

An excerpt from a boring defense of meritocracy follows. I can quote too, from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Imitable Jeeves: “You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?”

Axios: make people dumber faster

A few weeks ago I shared with students a couple of journal articles published in the 1980s lamenting the damage that USA Today would cause to journalism. Its sharp cheerful primary colors, reliance on graphics, and avoidance of long articles represented a bowdlerization of news — a rebuke to the intelligence of readers, according to these Serious Men. Continue reading

2018’s first worst political clichés

The ending of a political cycle doesn’t mean that reporters and pundits have retired the old clothes they’ve worn for two years and longer. At the cost of my health I exposed myself to four hours straight of cable news television because I’m compulsive about blogging as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki is about correctly pronouncing county names.

Here are five of the worst political clichés this season:

1. Soccer moms

2. “Alienating women.” Because women get alienated. Men get…angry?

3. “Not appealing to the middle.” Voters’ positions are a sour mishmash because unlike politicians they can’t pay the rent and for a focus group out of one check.

4. “Race to the bottom”

5. The quiet mourning of pundits, mostly white, for the death of the rural white Democratic voter. White voters will not leave Trump, and we should stop hoping so because they’re racists and our coalition doesn’t need them. Plus, they’re old and will die of emphysema and eating processed cheese. Fuck’em. I mean, why on earth would you want them leaving Trump? You think the separation will stop their racism? Many those racists voted for Obama. They were still racists.

Length /= Proof

So, I’m a partisan, but I’m trying to figure out what crime Andrew Gillum committed by accepting Hamilton tickets from an FBI agent other than possibly lying about where he got them? What quid pro quo happened? The POLITICO story, naturally, buries the lead twenty-five paragraphs down with a quote from a federal prosecutor:

Zimet said the acceptance of gifts by Gillum is “probably not” a federal “theft of honest services” crime “if there’s not some quid pro quo attached to it,” and a quid pro quo can either be a vote “or a promise to do something that gets you closer to criminality.”

The Tallahassee Democrat‘s story, detailing evenings of booze, trips to Costa Rica, and rooms at the Millennium Hotel, is more thorough, but all I get from this document dump is how, to quote the story, lobbyist Adam Corey, under FBI investigation, “assisted Gillum in positioning himself for a run at statewide office.” The story’s length adduces its seriousness.

It’s the kind of political reporting that drives me bonkers: narrative without analysis, reminiscent of the direst of 2016 coverage.

Rashod Ollison — RIP

Doing research for my 2018 MoPOP Pop Conference paper on Angela Winbush, I found the following bit published two years earlier:

It’s a shame the St. Louis native, who’s a successful producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in addition to being a powerhouse vocalist with a five-octave range, isn’t more well-known outside of R&B. But some of the fault lies with Winbush. Steeped in the holy waters of gospel, like many soul sisters who preceded her, her style was perhaps too black. And given the culture erasure of the Reagan era, that was too much.

“The cultural erasure of the Reagan era” — a phrase fraught with significance. So vehemently do we despise the GOP and Donald Trump that we have allowed media elites on cable shows to use Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of John Winthrop’s figure the city on a hill as an example of What We Have Lost; so swiftly do we mythologize our presidents that the evil is oft interred with their bones. To millions of gay men and black Americans, the white straight dudes who endorsed an assault on state and federal power lived in a beautiful city on a hill; the rest of us were condemned to shacks at the foot of the hill.

Not until a week before the conference did I understand that the author of this Winbush piece would sit on my panel — beside me. This intimidated me. Reading a paper on the power of Chaka Khan, Rashod Ollison seduced the crowd from the moment he played a clip of her marvelous hit with Rufus, “You Got the Love”; he held their attention with the precision of his insights, read in a silken purr that rumbled when confronted by an obscenity. Black and gay, Rashod Ollison, the columnist and reporter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma two days ago, could not be bullshitted. I sensed he would not bullshit me either. After my presentation, he looked me in the eye, nodded, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I demurred. He said, “Now I’m goin’ back to my room to blast me some Angela.”

Other tributes have praised Rashod’s warmth and the depths of his commitment to music as soul power. Because she gave us permission to “dream and build,” Aretha Franklin “will always be a revolutionary act,” he wrote two months ago about the R&B and gospel singer-pianist. A life like Rashod Ollison’s was also a revolutionary act. Men like Rashod don’t wear out their recti muscles looking for cities on a hill — they make do with what they have, describing it as ruthlessly as their imaginations allow.

On the contempt for education

Most citizens when asked regard teachers as essential to holding together what we used to call the Fabric of Society; but they don’t want tax dollars going to raises. Blame state governments and talk show personalities’s decades-long assault on so-called big government and public sector unions (if asked, many Miami-Dade residents of both parties view the teachers union as the Comintern). Continue reading

‘What does it matter what you say about people?’

The teacher never told you anything but white lies
But you never see the lies
And you believe

–Elvis Costello, “New Lace Sleeves.”

John McCain died on Elvis Costello’s birthday, so a quote is appropriate. After exposing myself to the radioactive fallout of the obits, I realized with some comfort that mission accomplished: I despised McCain’s legacy even more than I did twenty-four hours ago. Continue reading

Doom averted!

My first question for the Braman Honda salesperson three weeks ago was not about mileage or maintenance: “This Civic doesn’t come with a CD player, right?” He looked at the asphalt, shook his head sadly for my sake. Three years earlier, signing the paperwork on my first leased car, I was delighted that I had a working player instead of the Discman and tape adapter I’d used in my 1998 Ford Explorer since the Breeders’ Title TK pretended to be Excalibur and jammed itself. In the last fourteen days I’ve been burning music into a USB drive. I was one of those Luddites who kept archival stuff on CD and relied on my phone for new music — music I still often bought on CD, mind.

Turns out Best Buy has delayed the inevitable:

Best Buy officials say the chain has decreased its focus on CD sales, but denied multiple reports it had ended sales entirely as of July 1.

“The way people buy and listen to music has dramatically changed and, as a result, we are reducing the amount of space devoted to CDs in our stores,” the company said in a statement. “However, we will still offer select CDs, vinyl and digital music options at all stores.”

….The statement from the company was its first comment since reports emerged in February that it told music suppliers about plans to pull CDs from stores on July 1, which resulted in a some confusion

CVS still sells tape adapters, in case you wondered.

The so-called civility crisis

At best a tepid enthusiast of Michelle Goldberg’s columns, I hereby endorse her latest, in which she parses the levels of gall necessary to be a member of the Beltway pundit class that regards civility as a heaven to which American citizens have a duty to ascend. “The right’s revulsion against a black president targeted by birther conspiracy theories is not the same as the left’s revulsion against a racist president who spread birther conspiracy theories,” she writes in the column’s pithtiest sentence.

Goldberg:

Faced with the unceasing cruelty and degradation of the Trump presidency, liberals have not taken to marching around in public with assault weapons and threatening civil war. I know of no left-wing publication that has followed the example of the right-wing Federalist and run quasi-pornographic fantasies about murdering political enemies. (“Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands,” began a recent Federalist article.) Unlike Trump, no Democratic politician I’m aware of has urged his or her followers to beat up opposing demonstrators.

Instead, some progressive celebrities have said some bad words, and some people have treated administration officials with the sort of public opprobrium due members of any other white nationalist organization. Liberals are using their cultural power against the right because it’s the only power they have left, and people have a desperate need to say, and to hear others say, that what is happening in this country is intolerable.

Sometimes, their strategies may be poorly conceived. But there’s an abusive sort of victim-blaming in demanding that progressives single-handedly uphold civility, lest the right become even more uncivil in response. As long as our rulers wage war on cosmopolitan culture, they shouldn’t feel entitled to its fruits. If they don’t want to hear from the angry citizens they’re supposed to serve, let them eat at Trump Grill.

When “Morning” Joe and “Mika” Bryzezinski mourn the inability of a racist president’s mouthpiece to get a meal, and Bell Curve enthusiast Andrew Sullivan whinges against open borders while applauding his mythical political independence, I understand a little the Trump voter rage at so-called elites. Both Sides Do It and we’re living in normal times.

The legacy of Charles Krauthammer

Wrong about Barack Obama. Wrong about “identity politics.” Wrong, most infamously and disgustingly, about Iraq. Men and women are dead because of Charles Krauthammer’s columns. They’re dead because Very Serious People in the Bush II White House read his bellicose columns in the aftermath of 9-11 and felt an ideological kinship. When Iraq was collapsing after the so-called “cakewalk” of the administration’s direst masturbatory fantasies, he offered a moist towel and balm in The Washington Post. Continue reading

Monticello moves into the 21st century

At the conclusion of our tour of Monticello in 2006, my friend and I gathered with our fellow guests in a sort of foyer. We had toured the nail factory, fields, and Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. The guide, a genial woman in her late sixties, gave us a wrap-up. “There ah rumors that Mistah Jefferson had relations with one of his slaves, one Sally Hemings, but if you want mah opinion, Mistah Jefferson was too much of a gentleman to considah such a thing.” This prompted a gale of laughter from the group: men, women, young, old, black, white. This startled our guide, who joined because she’d look like the butt of the joke if she didn’t. Continue reading