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De Mainstream that Leads to De Nile

August 21, 2004
By Pamela Troy

Of the many phrases British novelist C.P. Snow coined during his long career, my favorite is "The Cynicism of the Unworldly." It describes the exaggerated distrust people ignorant of politics sometimes display towards political insiders, a tendency to compensate for lack of knowledge by believing the absolute worst. In the mind of these unworldly cynics, politicians (with the exception, of course, of those they support) are thoroughly dishonest, possibly even murderous sociopaths devoid of any human feeling beyond the lust for power.

But there's another version of this self-serving blindness that's endemic within what Snow called "The Corridors of Power." I call it the Naivete of the Insider.

Where the Cynicism of the Unworldly is the result of impotence and fear, the Naivete of the Insider is the product of privilege and complacency. Affluent insiders in politics and the press forget that they can be as insulated from certain realities as backwater residents. The rules of power, and the rewards they've garnered by playing by them, loom in their vision, blocking off their view of a shifting reality that is constantly changing those verities. These naifs are sitting ducks for equally powerful but more wide-awake insiders willing to exploit this complacency.

Lately, as I've watched cable and network news, I've been amazed by what appears to be the inability of these insiders to learn from their mistakes. This denial manifests itself in a touching faith in what certain commentators call "the Mainstream," that being the voice of the Beltway as filtered through the mass media.

It's true that recent events have shaken the unspoken assumption of "The Mainstream" as an unerringly accurate molder and reflection of American consensus. (Who can forget how flummoxed many news agencies were by the massive demonstrations against the Iraq war in 2003?) But when these things happen, instead of reassessing their assumptions and admitting just how badly they've screwed up, the powerful naifs currently dominating American discourse raise the "Mainstream" like a torch to illuminate and reassure those elect who stand within its beating light. The actual word "mainstream" is not always used, but Mainstream Pundits have their little ways of conveying displeasure with uppity outsiders who occasionally manage to get a word in.

What follows is a short and admittedly unscientific list of some of these approaches. Most of them have been around for years, but have been thrown into sharp relief by recent mainstream embarrassments like the dearth of WMDs in Iraq, the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, the "coverage" of the Democratic convention, and the subsequent terror alerts.

It should be kept in mind that I'm assuming these memes are the result of naivete rather than a deliberate disregard for the truth.

After all, I'd hate to be guilty of the cynicism of the unworldly.

NICE PEOPLE DON'T SAY SUCH THINGS!

"I'm against the 'liar' label for two reasons. First, it further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern. Second, insults and rage impede understanding." - 6/30/04 - Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

For the past 20 years, mainstream liberals and moderates have promoted an approach to argument that puts what they fondly believe to be "civility" over the integrity of genuine debate. As far back as the 80s, this was manifested by the careful avoidance of the word "racist." "Oh no-no-no," they'd say, "Don't use the word 'Racist!' It'll just make them mad and close the lines of communication!"

So they destroyed real communication by allowing racists to control it. Over the next few years racist assumptions and beliefs were steadily reintroduced into the mainstream by white supremacists confident of not being publicly tarred by that unpleasant "R" word so long as they don't actually don sheets and burn crosses. By the early 1990s, there were Americans who, with apparent sincerity, defended that overtly racist book The Bell Curve on the astonishing grounds that author Charles Murray is well-spoken and educated, and therefore his positing a significant and unchangeable black intellectual deficit isn't "racist" at all!

The release of Fahrenheit 9/11 offered a multitude of updated examples, the most obvious being Ellen Goodman's column on the Moore film, a piece which could serve as a template of the Nice People approach. She sets the usual tone of smug faux-apology in the opening paragraph in which she presents herself as an island of lady-like sanity in a theater filled with the insensate hoi polloi:

"Maybe it was because the man on my left was doing a play-by-play when any member of the Bush team came on the screen. Maybe it was because the movie theater was within pitching range of Fenway Park. But halfway through "Fahrenheit 9/11," I realized this wasn't an audience, it was a fan club."

You can almost hear the faint note of regret, see the delicate frown line between her brows, the hands raised in delicate demurral as she goes on to insist that that she agrees with much of what Moore said. Honest she does! But, well, not the method of saying it. As a coup-de-grace to Moore's credibility, she compares him to Rush Limbaugh, and implies that this mainstream chestnut might be a "heresy" as if she were saying something especially daring and original. "Michael Moore has been called the left-wing answer to Rush Limbaugh. But is it heresy to ask whether the left actually wants its own Rush?"

The reasoning behind the "It's just like what Rush Limbaugh does" cliché seems to be, "Rush uses sarcasm, satire, and anger to mobilize his listeners. Moore/Franken etc. also uses sarcasm, satire and anger to mobilize his viewers and listeners. Therefore, they're exactly the same!"

Of course, they are not. There certainly are leftist yahoos as irresponsible as Rush is when it comes to facts and as nasty when it comes to personal attacks, but unlike their right-wing counterparts they generally don't get gigs on CNN or other major outlets. What makes Rush's harnessing of ridicule and mass anger both dangerous and offensive is the extent to which it relies on ridicule and mass anger alone. There are rarely any actual facts in his screeds that stand up to examination, which is why, unlike Moore and Franken who do come armed with facts, Limbaugh assiduously avoids confrontation with those who disagree with him.

SMART PEOPLE DON'T SAY SUCH THINGS!

"You know, I look at this movie as a journalist, and as a journalist I have this affection for facts and accuracy. And even though there are facts in this movie, on the whole it's not accurate." - 7/27/04 - Gwen Ifill on Meet the Press

During the rise of the religious right in the 80s, nervous liberals and leftists outside of the Beltway would occasionally point out to moderate insiders the increasing grass roots influence of the Religious Right, their pernicious influence on public discourse, and the profoundly anti-democratic, unconstitutional cast to their agenda.

The usual response from both Republican and Democratic moderates was a patronizing chuckle, a knowing smile and the assurance that, really, there was nothing to worry about. They were keeping an eye on these nuts and, as experienced political animals, knew exactly how to handle them. Like the indefatigably inept Baldric in the old Black Adder comedy series, they had a "cunning plan," one which apparently included allowing right-wing extremists to take over one of the two major political parties, write that party's platform and eventually control the White House, the Congress, and the Senate.

Boy, I'll bet those drawling Moral Majority Hicks are sorry they ever took on those Machiavellian puppet-masters in the Beltway!

What's fascinating about this meme is its apparent indestructibility. Given the press' utter failure at covering the administration's march to Iraq, there's something almost touching about Gwen Ifill's claim that, because she's a journalist, she's also a steely-eyed skeptic, on the qui vive for anything that runs counter to her "affection for facts and accuracy." I'd love to see her say this in front of a live audience - preferably one that has just finished watching Michael Moore's movie, and is still wondering why that footage of the Presidential car being egged and the Black Caucus being told to sit down and shut up got so little airtime from all those eagle-eyed truth-loving journalists four years ago.

This presumption of intellectual superiority can turn into barely concealed hostility when it's vigorously challenged, as became evident during the Democratic convention. Who can forget the spectacle on MSNBC of a group of affluent white people talking over Al Sharpton's spellbinding speech? That well-known spokesman for black America, Howard Fineman, observing sagely that Sharpton "could actually turn off the black vote. I think, frankly, it's an insult. It's an insult, I think, as an outsider, to African-American voters that they're giving this guy as much time as they are?"

But for my money, the most revealing comment came from Doris Kearns Goodwin. "In fact," she said "the yelling in the rally right now is like chalk on a board, a blackboard. It's grating. You can't bear to listen to it," a statement that came across less as concern for the welfare of a major political party than the malice of an arrogant pundit hearing her own assumptions blatantly contradicted by a bunch of proles who don't even have their own newspaper column.

THEY JUST WOULDN'T DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT!

"And you're not among those Democrats who at this point are ready to say this is all politics, Bush may be in trouble of getting re-elected, this kind of concern may rally public support around the commander in chief. You're not one of those Democrats skeptical about the motive behind this?" - 8/1/04 - Wolf Blitzer nervously checking Eleanor Norton's Mainstream bona-fides on CNN in the wake of Tom Ridge's post-Democratic convention announcement of terror warnings against specific New York Targets

When someone pulls the Nice/Smart People Don't Say Such Things tactic out of their hat, this one is sure to follow. The words "They wouldn't DO something like that" are rarely uttered, but the non-Mainstreamer who encounters it will nevertheless bump into an unbreachable wall of irrationality that plainly has that trusting premise as its foundation.

The most egregious example I've observed on a personal level was the Washington insider I once met, a smart, pleasant woman who, after listening to concerns about the integrity of our election process, unverifiable electronic voting, and the very real possibility of someone fiddling with the software to get the results they want, smiled and averred confidently that we really didn't need to worry about it. You see the party was going to work very, very hard to mobilize Democrats and get everyone out to those polls so they could vote!

Even after the 2000 Election, the notion that legally cast votes might not get counted was apparently beyond her comprehension. See, her reasoning went, if the margin is too large, they just won't DO that.

More recently, various moderates and liberals have been responding to Fahrenheit 9/11 by denouncing as ridiculous Moore's implication that the Bush administration might have sent us off to war over a pipeline. Of course, the fact that this pipeline would represent millions of dollars to Unocal and its investors, and has been cited as far back as 1997 as a reason for future American intervention in the region is beside the point, as is the role that US companies (United Fruit in Guatemala comes to mind) have played in American intervention in the past. To say that the cash and power represented by this pipeline couldn't possibly have anything to do with our interest in the region does strike me as just a tad disingenuous.

I've been mystified by the reasoning behind this meme for the twenty years that I've been hearing it. I can only guess it's a way of saying, "I see these folks at Beltway cocktail parties all the time and they're just some of the nicest guys you can imagine! You should hear Lee Atwater/Newt Gingrich/Karl Rove tell a story. Why, he had us in stitches!"

WHODATHUNKIT?!

"The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times. " - 8/12/04 - Howard Kurtz

Sometimes - not often, but it does happen - events move so quickly and the facts become so undeniable that the powerful naifs in the press and our government are caught in especially embarrassing errors.

One of the most obvious examples from the past is the Satanists-Are-Eating-Our-Children craze of the late 80s and early 90s, in which many press outlets and law enforcement officials unquestioningly embraced the premise of a highly secretive, intergenerational cabal of perverted devil-worshippers infiltrating our preschools and committing unspeakable and violent acts on toddlers that - oddly enough - left little or no actual physical evidence. I'll never forget, once the tide began to turn and the horrible, shameful reality began to set in, a TV news reporter who introduced a story about a person wrongly accused of being a Satanic child molester with the comment that the innocence of the accused in such cases was "something that just never occurred to anyone."

Really? It didn't occur to ANYONE? Not even to the poor slob being hauled off to prison as a child molester? Not even his defense attorney?

These days, we typically hear the "Whodathunkit" gambit from mainstream journalists and other professionals talking amongst themselves on camera about the current situation in the Middle East. "Whodathunk the current administration would lie about their reasons for going to war? Whodathunk there were no WMDs? Whodathunk our invasion of Iraq would have turned out so badly?"

Their conclusion? Why, NOBODY wouldathunkit, that's who! "We all thought that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction!" they say, opening their eyes very wide and looking at each other with an air of wild surmise.

The implication of this is, of course, that the thousands of Americans and Europeans who turned out to protest the war just before the invasion of Iraq and who loudly expressed their own doubt about Saddam's possession of WMDs count as "nobody," which makes it a little risky if it's uttered in front of some of those "nobodies" in the flesh. I'm happy to report that when Tucker Carlson once tried this on a panel in front of a live audience, the result was a low growl rising from the auditorium that made him glance a little nervously out at the seats.

Perhaps because of this, some of the smarter pundits avoid stating it directly. One method is to issue a weak mea culpa bristling with qualifiers and terms like "hindsight" and/or "in retrospect" in it. "You know folks," the editor will write, "with 20-20 hindsight, and in retrospect, I think it sometimes, occasionally mighta sorta coulda maybe looks like we shoulda done a better job of examining the Bush administration's rationale for going to war." You can almost hear the words "but hey, who knew?" at the end.

Another is an approach taken by Richard Cohen, who wrote a piece in which his dead granddaddy visits him in spirit form to scold him for not being skeptical enough about the Bush administration's march to war. It is, to Cohen's credit, quite funny and engaging. It also implies that the weakness of the Bush administration's case was so carefully hidden back in the Spring of 2003 that it could have been apparent only to someone with access to a ouija board.

No doubt it's more bearable for a Mainstream pundit to invoke "hindsight" or to conjure up a finger-wagging ghost than actually deal with all those sordidly real "nobodies," those living, unworldly cynics outside the "Mainstream" who had 20-20 vision, not months later, but at the all important moment.

And who can, with perfect justice, look at the mainstream and say those unbearable words, "We told you so."

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