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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Take the Cannoli...

My new “Think Again” column is called “The Media and Climate Science: ADHD or Deliberate Deception?” It deals with the Murdoch empire, PBS in particular and you’ll find it here.

On the origns of Post-Truthism, continued

The term keeps getting more and more traction so here is the Chuck Colson example, and my adaptation of the term, from When Presidents Lie (Viking, 2004 Penguin, 2005):

Dishonesty has become so pervasive a part of our public discourse that in some cases, the very same people who pose as defenders of absolute truth feel no compunction about relying on deception to do so. Take the case of ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, who, following a prison conversion, founded a national prison ministry, authored thirty-eight books—selling over five million copies—along with daily radio commentaries and a regular column in Christianity Today, the nation’s most important evangelical magazine. In the winter of 2002, Colson discussed the case of the popular historian Steven Ambrose, who had been accused of plagiarizing portions of his work. Colson’s column condemned what he termed America’s “post-truth society” in which “even the man on the street sees little wrong with lying.” How ironic, therefore, that although the column appeared beneath Colson’s byline and alongside his photo, the words he claimed as his own were actually the work of one Anne Morse, one of two full-time writers Colson employs,along with various “contract” writers, to churn out his column.

Colson’s own lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, he makes a valid point. When people talk about lies in American society today, they tend to do so—at least in public—with a degree of naiveté that becomes its own sort of dishonesty. As Louis Menand has observed, “The dissembler is always part of universe of dissemblers.” And though many of us may hide this awareness even from ourselves, “all adult interactions take for granted a certain degree of insincerity and indirection. There is always a literal meaning, which no one takes completely seriously, and an implied meaning, which is what we respon to even when we pretend to be responding to the literal meaning, [and] a great deal of literature (also a great deal of situation comedy) is built around imaginary cases in which one character misreads another character’s code, or in which someone suffers by insisting on making explicit what the rest of the world knows is better left concealed by euphemism or denial.”

CONCLUSION: GEORGE W. BUSH AND THE POST-TRUTH PRESIDENCY

The virtue of truth in the American presidency had, for all practical purposes, become entirely operational. Whether its citizens were aware of it or not, the presidency now operated in a “post-truth” political environment. American presidents could no longer depend on the press—its powers and responsibilities enshrined in the First Amendment—to keep them honest. And the resulting death, destruction and general chaos that seemed ready to explode on a daily basis in Iraq following the US invasion seemed to be just one price that “reality” was demanding in return.

I’ll be speaking, prodigally, about The Cause at the Scarsdale Library on October 2 at 8:00.

Alter-reviews: Three Nights of Rock

So, Bruce: I went to all three Bruce shows at the new MetLife stadium last week. Here are some notes:

Night one: This per usual regarding “A” shows, was a pretty orthodox show. The best parts, according to your correspondent were...

  1. The entrance to Frank singing “Summerwind”

  2. The ’78 version of “Prove It All Night” that followed the (incredibly lame) opener, “Shackled and Drawn,” followed by a relatively rare “Ties that Bind.”

  3. The return of “Mad Dog” Vini Lopez, looking like Professor Irwin Corey, on the too-rare “E Street Shuffle.”

  4. “Mansion on the Hill” into a breathtaking “Racing…”

Night two: This one was a show for the ages; the best setlist I’ve seen since “The River” show and if that doesn’t count, since maybe his 40th birthday show in Philly. Also, the weather was beautiful. In any case…

  1. Opening with the rarely-if -ever before heard, “Living on the Edge of the World” with Bruce reading from a lyric sheet so he could do it from within the crowd.

  2. An “only three-times-since-1980” Incident-into-Rosie to end the pre-encore set.

  3. A really great Ramrod in the encore set.

  4. A mini-set that began with:

  • Lost in the Flood

  • Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?

  • Jole Blon (with Gary U.S. Bonds)

  • This Little Girl (with Gary U.S. Bonds)

  • From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)

  • Talk to Me

  • This Depression (a much more powerful song live than you’d guess from the CD).

Night 3.

This was a really weird night. Sitting in the “E Street Lounge,” where a filet mignon sandwhich cost $21.50 (though it was pretty great), I felt terrible for the people for the people who showed up to get great spots in the pit at 1:30 but were cleared out, together with everyone else, while the band waited for the electrical storm to pass. Everybody had to hang out in the cement hallways, where it appeared that much alcohol was consumed, until they decided to go on with the show at 10:30, making it, I’m guessing, Bruce’s latest show, and also, at midnight, his 63rd birthday. Highlights:

  1. Cynthia

  2. Who’ll Stop the Rain? (Did I mention it continued to rain for most of the show?) into Cover Me into Downbound Train.

  3. Midnight Hour after Happy Birthday “C into D; C into D!”

  4. Pay Me My Money Down into Janey Don’t You Lose Heart

  5. Meeting into Jungleland to end the pre-encore set

  6. Seven Nights of Rock in the encore set

  7. The return of Adele Springsteen with a Fender birthday cake during Twist and Shout, just before two am, though, to be honest, I was on the bus back to the Port Authority by this time, having seen this line one too many times.

The whole thing was an incredible tribute to the dedication of Bruce’s fans, who were almost all there right up to the encores. And yes, of course, the band’s still got it. Next (and last) stop for your correspondent, Kansas City, gonna make my way back there, yeah, yeah.

Oh and if you’re in the market for a little more Kol Nidre, try this

I have to say, the music for this election has been disappointing. Playing “We Take Care of Our Own” after speeches does not make up for all the great shows we had in 2008 in support of um, hope and change. Partially making up for this, however, is the fact that the best one so far will be four blocks from my apartment. Check out the line up for “Jazz for Obama” at Symphony Space on October 9 here Maybe I’ll see you there.

Oh and hey, speaking of good nights of music for good causes The Stand Up for Heroes benefit has been an annual event for Bruce Springsteen, raising funds for injured service members, veterans, and their families. On November 8, 2012, in between shows in Louisville and St. Paul, Bruce will be back at the Beacon for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The Max Weinberg Big Band will be there too as well as Jon Stewart and some ofther funny guys. Visit remind.org for more information and tickets.

Now here’s Reed

Are Conservatives Turning Into a Doomsday Cult?
by Reed Richardson

Someone much smarter than me once made the profound observation: “Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed.” In other words, any flaws one might think they find in, say, a US economy ruined from eight years of Bush administration policies promoting unregulated, fraudulent financial speculation, profligate tax breaks for the rich and two extravagantly wasteful wars, are merely distractions masking the real unseen hand that spoiled the free market sauce. In the case of the Great Recession, for instance, the “smart money” has decided that the real cause was the federal government trying to help poor people buy houses.

The past four years with a Democrat in the White House have only served to further prove this axiom. Despite any minor schisms that may have occurred among the various denominations of conservatism—paleo, neo, social, crunchy, etc.—they have all fervently gathered around one unifying creed for 2012—that the Obama administration has been an pestilence on the country and must be vanquished.

Still, the very presence of a liberal (coughsocialistcough) like Obama in the White House presented something of an uncomfortable dilemma for the right-wing initially. After all, conservatives have spent decades pushing the idea that the US was a center-right nation. But never fear, they quickly alighted on an explanation for this. Obama’s election in 2008 was merely an aberration, you see, a gullible public’s misguided reaction to the spendthrift ways of President George W. Bush, who, you guessed it, betrayed conservatism! (Funny, though, how some of these same now-oh-so-pious conservatives, like the current GOP vice presidential nominee, eagerly aided Bush’s betrayal back when it was happening.)

Given this rationalization of Bush as not really one of us, conservatives allowed themselves to double down on their ideology after Obama’s election (starting on the very first day of Obama’s presidency). Their Tea Party-fueled success in the mid-term elections of 2010 only fueled their revanchist, extremist ambitions. Taking back the House they saw as incontrovertible testimony that Obama had been exposed as a false Messiah, someone who was—incongruously—both a egomaniacal, power-wielding radical and a feckless, ineffectual failure. Conservatism had trounced Obama and the Democrats in the marketplace of ideas, in other words, and the public looked ready for a full Republican restoration in Washington D.C., to “take our country back,” in their parlance. The election of 2012 couldn’t get here fast enough.

But a funny thing’s happened on the way to their expected electoral salvation on November 6th. As that fateful day draws ever closer, all their fevered predictions of Obama’s humiliating defeat appear less and less prophetic. Meanwhile, the Republican standard-bearer looks less and less capable of delivering a late-stage campaign revelation. Even more troubling, Romney’s lack of traction among voters can’t be attributed to his lack of obeisance to conservative dogma or a lack of antagonism toward Obama.

Indeed, the 2012 Republican primaries acted as something of a purification rite for Romney. He finally emerged the victor only after having consistently run to the right of a string of extremely conservative competitors. In the general election campaign, Romney’s likewise not been shy about gratuitously bashing the president or using racist and xenophobic dog whistles to preach to the choir of his party’s increasingly white base. Conservatives had longed for a true believer to run against the president this election—to fully showcase the supposed superiority of their ideology—and they got their wish. But with early voting well underway and Election Day less than six weeks away, the glorious landslide conservatives expected just a year ago now seems like a distant mirage. Even worse, polling in states where Obama and Romney were neck-and-neck all year are now starting to break in the former’s favor.

If I were a conservative, all of this would understandably be an unsettling turn of events. It might even prompt some soul-searching questions: Why would the American people be willing to choose Obama yet again, when we’ve spent four years documenting our daily outrage at him and his policies? Did we misinterpret or overplay the lessons of the 2010 midterm elections? Does the fact that no president has ever been re-elected with an unemployment rate this high no longer matter if our ideology’s economic message castigates half the nation as “parasites” and “moochers?” Are Americans judging this election as something other than a choice between our “pro-growth” conservative policies and Obama’s “redistributive” big-government platform? What, exactly, are we doing wrong?

Alas, this is not the kind of honest discourse one hears among prominent conservatives anymore. Indeed, these kind of self-reflective questions not only fail to elicit frank answers they fail to even get asked in the first place. (Those rare few who do get branded asapostates.) Instead, the right has come to instinctually think—nay, believe—that, in a fair fight, conservative ideas simply cannot lose against liberal ones. But if a preponderance of the evidence in the current presidential campaign indicates otherwise, then there must be some other sinister force at work, tipping the scales.

Over the past week, it’s become clear that conservatives have agreed upon the villain—the media. Indeed, a lap around conservative punditry right now finds just about everybody singing the same hymn (like her and him and her and him, and, as always, this guy), decrying how the media’s outright “liberal bias” is showing through in an attempt to kill off Romney’s hopes of winning. The ne plus ultra of this archetype, though, has to be this Victor Davis Hanson column from Sunday, where he unspools a long catechism of the president’s many supposed failures before damning every major news organization—save one—as “extensions of Obama’s campaign.”

Notably, Hanson also cites Reagan’s much-overstated comeback win over Carter in the 1980 election (which has now become something of a favorite parable among conservatives) to try to show how putting any stock in Romney’s eroding poll numbers is a mistake. But as this MSNBC piece demonstrates, this 2012-1980 analogy is thoroughly flawed, confirming my own corollary to Santayana’s famous quote: Those who are desperate to repeat history are likely to have failed it the first time around.

Still, it’s instructive to note that after having cast out fact-checkers earlier this summer as having a nakedly liberal agenda, conservatives have now moved on to claim that almost the entire industry of political pollsters is also bearing false witness against Romney and the Republicans. Indeed, I feel comfortable saying that, right now, “2008 turnout model” and“skewed polls” are rapidly becoming a mindless bromide as popular in right-wing circles as “apologizing for America,” “leading from behind,” and “you didn’t build that.” One such right-winger has even gone so far as to redress all this liberal bias by creating a new poll-tracking site, called somewhat unfortunately, “unskewed polls,” that performs a kind of conservative exegesis on every survey released by the mainstream media.

Here, in this alternate reality, you’d see that Romney is enjoying a healthy, eight-percentage point lead over Obama nationally, rather than suffering a four-point deficit. Of course, these claims of biased, or skewed polling are both ridiculous and wrong, but foreswearing sagacity and veracity with ferocity and velocity is by now old hat for conservatives. But with this new polling-is-pseudo-science meme, we can add another constellation in the parallel universe that conservatives increasingly inhabit, one populated with other elaborately constructed myths about everything from climate change to evolutionary theory to tax cuts and economic growth to the female reproductive system.

With each passing year, it seems, the closing of the conservative mind continues apace. More and more, theirs is an existence predicated on faith-based, rather than reality-based, political thinking. And so, it becomes understandable that when confronted with facts or statistics that don’t fit their worldview, they try to contort the former to fit the latter instead of the other way around. But as we approach Election Day, this epistemic closure has been greatly amplified, to the point where any data point that doesn’t hew chapter-and-verse to their firmly-held belief that Mitt Romney will heroically bringing conservatives on board his shiny spaceship and deliver them from the Obama Armageddon has become nothing short of blasphemy.

In his 1956 landmark book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger first popularized the term “cognitive dissonance” after he infiltrated a doomsday cult to study the reactions after their promised Rapture/Armageddon fails to arrive. His observed that when presented with incontrovertible evidence contrary to their foundational beliefs, the cultists did not, in fact, suffer widespread disillusionment or renounce their obviously false prophets, but rather the exact opposite. They both redoubled their faith and engaged in furious ex post facto excuses.

This Slate article from a year and a half ago goes on to make the obvious point, that this kind of hidebound groupthink isn’t confined to religious cults:

Festinger was not so wide of the mark when he suggested that we adapt to even the most unlikely of contradictions using nothing more than our methods of everyday rationalization. The faithful could just as easily be those who stubbornly stand by disgraced politicians, failed ideologies, dishonest friends, or cheating spouses, even when reality highlights the clearest of inconsistencies.

And it’s very true that, to read Festinger’s conclusions from 56 years ago, is to see eerie similarities to the detached behavior of conservatives in the run up to what looks to be an Obama victory. The steadfast denials, the furious spinning, the increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial theories, when viewed through the prism of this kind of intellectual hegemony, start to make more and more sense (pg. 28, from Festinger’s book):

But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct…It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.

In other words, there’s safety—and sanity—in numbers for these types of true believers. Yet, all their proselytizing between now and Election Day will probably have little affect on their chances of facing a momentous disconfirmation on the morning of November 7th. Tragically, I fear the conservative response to an Obama victory will resemble what many doomsday cults do after such a public humiliation—simply pick a new date and start all over again.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The Mail

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa
Hi Reed,

Good column today. I want you to know that I appreciate you missing Bruce last night. Jesus has never done much for me, so it is good to know someone is suffering for my benefit.

Dick Morris may have been largely wrong, but I think you've gone too far. For one thing, saying that Ryan as VP was a bad idea was probably right. And the ten point bounce? At least he got one of the digits right!

Reed replies: To your point on Ryan, Frank, touché.

John Kirsch
Mazatlan, Mexico

As a die-hard fan of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, I couldn't let this pass. It was Lee Strasberg, as gangster Hyman Roth, who said "This is the business we've chosen" to Al Pacino, as Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part II.

Eric replies: Damn. I’ve almost a week and I still don’t have a Godfatheresque reply for this. A little help, people?. (The hed, above, is just a placeholder.)

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