Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.
Newt Gingrich is a star on political television, a status that was supposed to help his underdog presidential campaign. It's not working out that way.
That's because a new model of video consumption has fundamentally changed the payoff of political TV, as Gingrich learned this Sunday. And the very qualities that make Gingrich a popular pundit also make him a lousy candidate.
Gingrich is still "made for TV"—but in an Internet-driven, parody-refracted 24-hour multi-platform news cycle, Gingrich is the kind of pol who is made only for TV. His pundit pronouncements don't play as well in person (more on that in a moment), or when stacked against their contradictory predecessors by his online detractors, his cable colleagues, or by Fox News' reality overlords at Comedy Central.
The policy scandal currently dominating Gingrich's first week on the trail, which already led Fox News' Charles Krauthammer to declare the end of his former colleague's campaign, started on the set of the most important show in politics, "Meet The Press." Gingrich opposed Paul Ryan's budget as too radical. And he criticized its Medicare substitute as "right-wing social engineering." Conservatives flipped and now Gingrich is backpedaling.
But this is what Gingrich always does—and it's what makes him an "interesting," attention-grabbing pundit. He is a chatty celebrity chef. On Fox, he grills red meat (Obama is the "most radical" president, the "food stamp" president, the "Kenyan, anti-colonial" president), but on mainstream shows, he is quick to cleanse the palate with an even-handed amuse bouche ("I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering"). It's a shtick, and it's been Gingrich's default operation for so long, I doubt he even realizes it.
Now, some analysts were surprised that Gingrich would provoke both his base and GOP leadership in a throwaway line. He probably did not even realize, however, what was going down. After all, pundits are rewarded for challenging their party, and they are rarely held accountable for rank inconsistency. So while nobody really cared that Pundit Gingrich had already said he would vote for Ryan's plan, making him a cynical hypocrite or a waffly mind-changer, Candidate Gingrich is catching hell for saying "sure," he would vote for Ryan's plan. (The one with the social engineering.) And while pundits' track records are largely ignored by the press and public, candidates must actually listen to that huge, invisible audience on the other end of the studio cameras. Which is what makes these 16 seconds some of the most devastating pushback of the 2012 campaign season—and probably the first big citzen advocacy moment of the campaign. This Iowa voter's simple message was recorded, naturally, by pool cameras from Fox News, and is now being amplified across the Internet:
The Iowan, a Republican named Russell Fuhrman, apparently cares about the Ryan budget, and doesn't like GOP infighting. Gingrich looks like he wants out and the handshake hold is the only thing keeping him there. It's the kind of moment that can define a candidate, especially when it goes viral.
The clip was first posted by the Des Moines Register, which reported that Candidate Gingrich was "visibly stunned" by the confrontation, and is lighting up the web. It captures the core of Gingrich's vulnerability—a dated celebrity who is out of touch with his party today—and rests on a policy debate that actually matters (whether to gut Medicare for fiscal savings). The conservative blog Hot Air noted the "merriment with which" people were sharing the video online, suggesting Gingrich "is now officially RINO-in-chief for online conservatives for as long as he’s in the race." Gingrich's hasty YouTube rebuttal is no match for the unscripted chiding he got at the Dubuque Holiday Inn.
In the old days, raising big money and netting an early appearance on shows like "Meet The Press" would mint first tier candidates. Now, the soundbites that emerge from such shows can matter more than the entire appearance. And while TV reporters still give extra attention to candidates made in their image, it is easier to go from politician to pundit than the other way around. Just ask Mike Huckabee. Or Pat Buchanan. Or Sarah Palin. Or, you know, wait a few months and ask Newt Gingrich.
"I'm like a shot a Levittown right in your ass, like a B-12—boom!"
Those were Jon Stewart's last words to Bill O'Reilly in his guest appearance on Monday night's "O'Reilly Factor," in a virtuoso duel where comedy eviscerated farce.
The two highly rated cable stars squared off over one of the more inane controversies in a political season full of inane controversies—whether the White House was wrong to invite the socially conscious rapper Common to perform at a poetry slam. If you haven't heard:
Basically, (some) conservatives said Common's music was vile because he questioned murder convictions and police authority. Also, he has been seen R.W.B—rapping while black. Then, Liberals (and fact-checkers) retorted that Common is a conscious and even cuddly musician, with credentials that include recording a pro-life duet with Lauryn Hill and starring in Tina Fey's last movie. Plus, GOP administrations have hosted edgier musicians who have also questioned murder convictions and police authority.
So when O'Reilly doubled down on his hypocritical case and challenged Stewart to come debate the nontroversy, it was a no-brainer.
In two short segments, O'Reilly walked through his case, responded to factual charges of hypocrisy with some fairly sad parsing and then, when desperate, with rank "pettifogging," to use a term bandied by both men. Meanwhile, the "Daily Show" anchor's rebuttals were striking because, even in this casual mode on a minor item, he was more persuasive than the vast majority of people who are called on to represent a progressive view on TV.
Stewart really seized control of the terms of debate near the end of the first segment, when he asked whether O'Reilly would revoke Bono's White House guest pass, issued by several administrations, because of his song about Leonard Peltier. "It's the exact same thing: A guy convicted of killing a law enforcement official, no?" asked Stewart, adding "Boo-yah!" to emphasize the point. (He salted his rhetoric with rap slang throughout the debate.) And that's when O'Reilly started to melt. "Did Bono, did he actually come out and say that [Peltier] was innocent?" O'Reilly asked, groping for a distinction. "No, I think he was raising questions about it," O'Reilly offered. "Now who's pettifogging?," Stewart countered, "I can't even see you, through your pettifog!"
Stewart closed with a critique that is familiar to Fox's critics, but may be worthwhile for O'Reilly's audience to hear directly, noting that Fox operates a "selective outrage machine" that kicks into gear "only when it suits the narrative that suits them."
Both interview segments are below:
White House poetry night is one of those ceremonial events that you never hear about unless there's a controversy. Or a fake controversy. But today's conservative kerfuffle over a White House invitation for Common—a socially conscious, mainstream hip hop artist and sometime actor (most recently in Tina Fey's "Date Night")—is interesting, since the faux outrage targets an artist who actually embodies many values of his critics.
In a different universe, where conservative culture warriors listened to music before demonizing it, Common would perform at pro-life rallies. Take his famous duet with The Fugees' Lauryn Hill, Retrospect for Life, which strongly questions abortion. "Musta really thought I was God to take the life of my son," he raps, "from now on, I'm using self-control, instead of birth control, because $315 ain't worth your soul." The last line, comparing the cost of an abortion to the value of life, is a repeating hook. Common also uses the song to dialogue with his unborn child, saying "Knowing you the best part of life, do I have the right to take yours?" and lamenting the thought of turning his "woman's womb into a tomb."
Common's musical messages are not predominantly conservative. Among rappers who have achieved commercial success, however, he is known as one of the most conscious and positive artists. Not to be harsh, but if anything, he is considered soft and goofy—certainly not a violent or "gangsta" rapper who would be a political liability in a reality-based universe. I mean, the guy raps about his daughter's favorite movies—"My daughter found Nemo, I found the new primo"—and jokes about stuff white people like—"While white folks focus on dogs and yoga, my people on the low end trying to ball and get over." Those lines are from "The People," which was named one of top 30 "best songs of 2007" by Rolling Stone. The track's music video shows Common rapping with a baby in his arms. Come on.
So how do you turn "Free to Be You and Me" into "Straight Outta Compton"?
Huffington Post''s Jason Linkins shows how desperately some conservatives went digging in the crates, and came up with an old poem challenging police authority and a song questioning the murder conviction of a member of the Black Liberation Army. (Like "Hurricane," but more controversial.) This thin case bubbled up from the conservative website Daily Caller to a Palin tweet—yes, the media still covers those—and then, on Wednesday, to ABC News' Senior White House Correspondent, Jake Tapper. He could not get administration officials to comment on the "issue." In fact, on Tuesday, before covering the Common outrage, Tapper joked on Twitter about the premise of holding the White House accountable for views of invited entertainers. Pointing to Steve Martin, who was invited along with Common to poetry night, Tapper cracked that in the movie "The Jerk," Martin "juggled kittens. IS THIS WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE STANDS FOR?!?!" Indeed. In his coverage on Wednesday, Tapper did add some musical context:
Common ... is not known as a gangsta rapper, or particularly hard core, having appeared on the UPN series “Girlfriends,” the Tina Fey-Steve Carrell vehicle “Date Night,” and starred in the Queen Latifah romantic comedy “Just Wright.” He’s appeared in ads for The Gap and PETA... One JET profile called Common a “conscious rapper,” since his work of late has avoided the 50 Cent mold and focused instead on subjects like fatherhood, personal growth, and the African-American community. (emphasis added).
Sometimes even fatherhood and anti-abortion songs aren't enough. The last GOP Chairman said the party needed a "hip hop makeover"—but clearly that was far too ambitious. They need to start with some headphones.
Update: At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, reporters dutifully kept this story alive, which prompted the most memorable line to date from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "He is within the genre of hip hop and rap... what's known as a conscious rapper," Carney explained. His pushback also alluded to how hard critics strained to make Common seem menacing. "While the president doesn't support the kind of lyrics raised here," Carney said, "we do think some of the reports distort what Mr. Lynn stands for more broadly in order to stoke controversy."
By entering the presidential race on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich assumes the role of the most serious joke in the Republican Party.
If you look at the historical precedents for reaching the presidency, Gingrich is simply not positioned to be a serious candidate. He resigned from the last elected office he held, in the House 13 years ago. He has never won statewide office, held a cabinet position, or served in the military.
By contrast, every president elected in the 20th Century had previously served in the military, or held national or statewide office. Gingrich’s presidential path is not just unlikely—it is unheard of in the modern era.
Gingrich is a serious joke, however, because of the silly company he joins. The speculative GOP field is packed with green room performers (Trump, Bachmann), entertaining interlopers (Paul, Cain) and thin sequels (Romney, Santorum). Almost anything looks sober by comparison.
“Gingrich will add substance to the Republican field,” says former McCain strategist Mark McKinnon. That seems like the kind of faint praise that damns everyone in the equation.
McKinnon also stresses that Gingrich probably can’t win the nomination, but he will make things “more interesting” by being such an “idea factory.” (Who thinks this crop of Republicans needs to be more interesting?) McKinnon is not alone, either. Gingrich “is an idea factory,” another GOP official told the Washinton Post this week, “and Republican voters love him for it.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, now second in line for Gingrich’s old job, has said that he solicits policy input from Gingrich because he is, yes, an “idea factory.”
The reputation didn’t come out of nowhere. Gingrich, who wrote a dissertation on Belgian education in the Congo for his Ph.D. at Tulane, always wanted to be an intellectual heavyweight. He has written or contributed to 17 nonfiction books, including a 2005 tome outlining an updated Contract with America called “Winning the Future,” a title that did not dissuade President Obama from adopting the slogan at this year’s State of The Union. (Joan Didion cooly demolished Gingrich's approach to nonfiction in a seminal 1995 essay, available in her book "Political Fictions.") He also coauthored eight novels of alternative history, including one imagining World War II if Hitler fell into a coma in 1941 (don’t ask), then got into the distribution side in 2007, launching a Gingrich-branded company to publish books and produce movies. Next month, for example, Gingrich Productions will publish a book by his third wife, Callista, that teaches children about American exceptionalism. It apparently builds on their film, “A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism,” which—spoiler alert—features both Donald Trump and Michelle Bachmann. (Non-ironic trailer below).
Still, all this prodigous, profitable production has not only failed to generate a consistent political vision, it has failed to anchor Gingrich enough to avoid a steady string of substantive errors. Readers can recall his recent, blustery gaffes—from the capricious, irresponsible reversal on bombing Libya to his ineffable, patriotic defense of infidelity (“driven by how passionately I felt about this country”) to the penchant for governing by slogan (whether it’s “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or this incessant desire to renew America’s contracts).
Ultimately, that is the most disturbing part about Gingrich as an actual presidential aspirant: It always feels like the biggest joke whenever he tries to get serious. Now, let's all brush up on our American exceptionalism.
The White House just released several photos of President Obama overseeing the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. The most intense image shows the national security team receiving an update about the operation on May 1 in the Situation Room—and it has been digitally altered for security reasons, as explained below.
Before releasing this photograph, which has already drawn over one million views online, the White House took the precaution of blurring out an apparently sensitive image on the laptop in front of Secretary Clinton. The image may have been satellite photography used in connection with the operation:
Exactly one year before the bin Laden operation, the White House removed a picture from its Flickr feed, where it regularly posts official photographs, after discovering that a small part of a CIA document was visible in a picture. (A spokesman said it was merely a CIA fax cover sheet.)
In other shots from this set, Obama's national security team watches his address to the nation about bin Laden's killing:
Below, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, shakes the president's hand after the adress, as Director Panetta and Secretary Clinton watch:
It can be surprising which backstage pictures are most popular among the public, President Obama once told PBS, noting that a shot of his handwritten speech notes was a big hit. That photo went viral after reporters posted and tweeted it to illustrate Obama's hands-on approach to speechwriting.
The images from the bin Laden operation are on track to be the most viewed pictures ever released by the White House, and they reinforce the administration's narrative of President Obama's hands-on approach to security.
Photos from the other end of the mission, documenting the corpse of bin Laden, would surely draw even more attention if released. The White House recently stated that it has not made a decision on whether to release those images.
For The Nation’s complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, click here.
If there were any doubts about the racial animus driving Donald Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama, the billionaire reality-show star exposed himself with his latest conspiracy. On Monday night, Trump questioned how Obama could possibly have been admitted to Ivy League schools, since Trump “heard” Obama was a “terrible student.” Trump told the AP that he was investigating the issue, whatever that means, just as he claims to have dispatched investigators to Hawaii in order to find the president’s famous birth certificate.
“How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump said. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”
By charging that Obama was not admitted based on merit, Trump is suggesting that Obama was admitted because he is black.
In GOP politics, attacking racial minorities as the underachieving beneficiaries of affirmative action is a very old move. Senator Jesse Helms produced the most notorious example, an ad against his black opponent Harvey Gantt that blasted affirmative action for taking jobs from deserving white people and giving them to minorities. Even that dark salvo, however, was putatively linked to jobs and active policy debates. Trump is not so smooth. He is blatantly attacking Obama’s teenage qualifications for college—a topic so obscure, it was a non-issue in Obama’s exhaustive, two-year-long presidential campaign. Coupled with the rage of the Birthers, Trump’s adopted conspiracy crowd, the mogul looks more like he is auditioning for a talk radio gig than the presidency.
Still, racial dog whistles only work when a lot of people play along. Otherwise a coded attack—aimed at the racists but clinging to deniability—curdles into public, blatant racism. (That’s bad in politics and business, so it would restrain even a business candidate like Trump.) So far, the press has been quite delicate when confronting Trump.
The editor-in-chief of CBS News, Dan Farber, sounded rather strained when explaining Trump’s Ivy League attack:
“…how could a person from Mr. Obama’s humble background and academic achievements get into Harvard? Trump’s inference is that Mr. Obama is a cipher, cannot be trusted and is concealing a dark secret.”
What is this dark, untrustworthy cipher-secret? I don’t see Trump saying that the president of the United States is a cipher—a zero or nonentity—but rather that back in the day, Obama was not good enough to get into college without a racial boost.
Even respected liberal commentators have given Trump something of a pass for the racial tension animating Birtherism. Hendrik Hertzberg, the authoritative essayist, argues in this week’s New Yorker that Trump’s appeal to birtherism is “part of a larger pattern of rejection of reality” by Republicans, like denying the science of global warming, or believing that “contraception causes abortion.”
I think that a loose relationship with the scientific method surely helps conspiracies spread, but Birtherism draws on passions that depart substantially from greenhouse gasses. It is a putatively non-racial, vaguely constitutional way to challenge the legitimacy of the first black president and appeal to racists without sounding officially racist. Sure, there may be plenty of GOP tenets running counter to reality nowadays, yet none evoke the suppressed fury of the Birthers. They won’t go away. They are an audience-in-waiting for any amplified race-baiter, from Lou Dobbs to unserious presidential candidates. Indeed, Politifact, the fact-checking site for politics, says its article about the issue (with a link to the certification of live birth!) is the most read item that it has ever published.
I asked Hertzberg about his formulation, and while he wouldn’t “exclude racist undertones,” he said the attack is “more about identity.” “Obama’s erudition, his ivy-league-ness, his urbanity, his citizen-of-the-worldness, his foreign-sounding name, his respect for the authority of reason and science, his ‘aristocratic’ ‘aloofness’ (all of which I love, of course) are equally or more part of the package,” Hertzberg proposed in an e-mail.
The analysts who have directly called out Trump’s race-baiting, to their credit, have tended to come more from the credentialed blogosphere or opinionated television. At the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan observes that Trump had thrown down “the affirmative action card to pump up the GOP base,” and it’s time to take stock: “We might as well concede it: these are racist smears.” At Salon’s War Room blog, Alex Pareene wrote a crisp lede in his story on the emergence of SATs on Trump’s publicity tour: “Donald Trump added a blatantly race-baiting component to his already racially charged campaign against Barack Obama’s Americanness this week. “ Over on cable, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has been especially strong in calling out Trump, a fellow NBC star, noting that he has become a “hero” to racists. Fareed Zakaria, opting for truth over balance at CNN, flatly dispatched Trump’s birther crusade as “shame[ful] coded racism.”
Meanwhile, another CNN story topped the political blogosphere this week, (according to data from Memeorandum), under the bizarre headline, “CNN investigation: Obama born in U.S.”
Does anyone, at any news organization, consider this news? Of course not. Launching another “investigation” into Obama’s birthplace in 2011 and “reporting” the results is not really objective journalism. It is an overreaction to conspiracy theories, masquerading as fact-checking. Let’s leave the politicized, air-quote investigations to Trump. The facts in this area have been established. The only thing left to do is call out the lies—and the racism.
Updates: In New Hampshire on Wednesday, Donald Trump claimed credit for the White House release of Obama’s “long form” birth certificate, and declared that the president should “get off his basketball court” and focus on gas prices. The dog whistles are getting less subtle.
While The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg did not think race was the primary factor driving Trump’s attacks, David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief and the author of an accalimed book about Obama’s background, published an unusually blunt critique of Trump’s “race-baiting” on Wednesday afternoon. “What is there to say anymore about Donald Trump?,” Remnick asks. “That he is an irrepressible jackass who thinks of himself as a sly fox? That he is a buffoon with bathroom fixtures of gold? Why bother, after so many decades? There is no insulting someone who lives in a self-reinforcing fantasy world.” Remnick, a scrupulously measured writer, says we must face facts: “to do what Trump has done (and he is only the latest and loudest and most spectacularly hirsute) is a conscious form of race-baiting, of fear-mongering. And if that makes Donald Trump proud, then what does that say for him?” (Read the entire piece here.)
Finally, over at Jack and Jill Politics, a blog focused on black issues, Cheryl Contee responds to this article and analyzes Trump’s “very savvy racism.” “I’ve heard resentment over college affirmative action from even liberal friends,” she writes, “it’s a huge source of racial resentment.”
Byline: Nation correspondent Ari Melber (amelber at hotmail.com) recently discussed the racial components of the Birthers in this MSNBC interview. His Nation essay on Obama’s candidacy and the jurisprudence of equal opportunity laws, which was published in the 2009 book “At Issue: Affirmative Action,” can be read here.
President Obama's aides often use Flickr, the photo-sharing website, to distribute pictures of backstage moments that reinforce the White House message. The White House just uploaded this photograph, snapped in Rio de Janeiro at 9:30 this morning, of Obama, Chief of Staff Bill Daley and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon on a conference call about military operations in Libya.
(On the other end of the line, according to the Flickr post, were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonaugh and Gen. Carter Ham.)
Early headlines from this trip note the focus on Libya—"Obama Visits Brazil with Libya on His Mind" (Washington Post), "Obama's Brazil Visit Overshadowed by Libya" (NPR). And it's not as if Washington is a better place to talk on the phone than Rio. Understandably, the White House wants to avoid any perception that Obama's eye is off the ball. Still, the other images coming from his trip today show Obama kicking a soccer ball with Brazilian children, which is sure to trigger some conservative fauxtrage.
For more on the Libyan intervention, check out this week's lead Nation editorial.
Does it ever seem like the liberal guests on political talk shows talk less and get interrupted more?
The halting, dominated liberal pundit is something of a cliché in pop culture, from the fake cable segments on 30 Rock to those subversively accurate Tom Tomorrow cartoons. Even putting aside Fox News, which just added to its in-house stable of repentant Democrats by hiring former Senator Evan Bayh, the more balanced debate shows tend to book more conservative guests, as Media Matters has documented, and then give the liberals a harder time.
I was thinking about this while watching the most recent McLaughlin Group, which pioneered today’s political talk. The show was considered brash, fast and revolutionary when it debuted in 1982. (President Reagan once likened it to Animal House, while toasting its influence.) Since then, of course, the show’s style has spread across cable news, along with its star guests like Pat Buchanan and Lawrence O’Donnell. Nowadays, The McLaughlin Group is almost quaint, prioritizing lengthy policy debates over most horse race crap, and teeing up segments with bright fonts reminiscent of a bake sale flyer. The exchanges are still pretty pointed, though, and while everyone brings their A-game, it feels like the liberal guests must fight harder to get a word in. To test that feeling, we counted up interruptions on the last show. It wasn’t even close.
The liberal guests were interrupted seven times.
The conservative guests were never interrupted successfully. (We counted interruptions as cutting in while a guest was talking and preventing them from continuing. An interjection that didn’t stop someone from talking was not counted.)
In terms of the breakdown, four of the interruptions of the liberal guests, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift and Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, were by the host, John McLaughlin. Then the conservative guests, MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan and radio commentator Monica Crowley, added a few more interruptions of Klein. Clift was able to fight them off—she’s a veteran—and only succumbed to host-interruptions.
Now, the unavoidable critiques to this bloggy exercise are “Who cares?” since there are way important things happening in the world, and “So what, isn’t the McLaughlin Group always an interrupt-a-thon?”
Well, political talk shows have an outsided influence on public debates, so it can matter that a seemingly balanced guest roster is skewed in how guests are treated. As for the second one, yeah, you got us, interruptions are especially intense on the show. In fact, this was a comparitively tame episode. I’ll close with a YouTube mashup someone made of moments in a 2008 show that were almost entirely cross-talk.
Malcolm Gladwell made many waves—and enemies—with his New Yorker essay doubting the power of social media in political organizing. "The revolution will not be tweeted," he declared in October, and the revolutionaries tweeted back, sparking a heated and often predictable debate about the web. Since then, of course, people in the Middle East have been Doing Things that are more significant than anything one might say to rebut skepticism about web activism and "weak ties." On Wednesday, however, Gladwell resurfaced in an apparent response to the idea that digitally networked activists are exceling in Egypt—in contrast to his famous thesis. Gladwell's blog post is brief and thin, but it is also important for the ways he gets Egypt wrong.
The Egyptian protests "look like they might bring down the government," Gladwell notes. “As I wrote last summer[,] 'high risk' social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”
“Please," he continues, revealing some exasperation before getting historical: "People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone...and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice." Gladwell ends his post with a pair of odd generalizations:
"People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place" (emphasis added).
The overarching problem here is the false premise, frequently employed in these disputes. No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they're exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution. Now, whether people "always" communicate grievances in authoritarian societies—a dubious claim—is less important to foreign policy than what comes of those communications.
More broadly, Gladwell assumes that asking "why" people "were driven" to these protests is somehow in competition with asking how they achieved such effective protests. Most journalism begins with questions—the questions editors ask reporters, and increasingly the questions audiences ask of the media they consume. We risk large errors when we ask the wrong questions or collapse distinct inquiries. That's especially true for reporting on closed societies. Figuring out whether people are upset enough to protest is one question, which reporters and governments care about, and learning whether those people have the ability to organize protests is another. For Egypt, Gladwell actually has it backwards. It is not a surprise that many Egyptians do not love their dictator—that is not what shocked Washington and the Arab world last week; it is that people managed to plan and execute such a massive public demonstration of that sentiment. So the "how" is more striking than the "why."
Which brings us to another presumption in Gladwell's post : the subjective and potentially indulgent judgment about what is "interesting." Here, I have a little sympathy with his annoyance. Some people are interested in what moves people: first principles and anger points and all that; others are interested in how political action works: collecting petition signatures, party committee elections; and others fixate on technology or media: how an iPhone works, why an article is the most e-mailed. Since the media have more control over public discourse than other groups, by definition, they can skew debates to disproportionately cover their favorite topics, which include itself. This tendency is partially checked by new media, which add criticism and alternative topics to the mix. If there's a blind spot here, however, it is in the areas of media and technology, which are overemphasized by both new and old media. (Pew has data on this trend.)
So while bloggers and the digerati may focus on the new media aspects of Egypt's protests, other people think human rights and the seismic political changes are a bigger deal. The media may also rush to cover visible technology instead of more obscure factors—Evgeny Morozov argues that this happened during the Iranian protests—driving a feedback loop that confuses the public and policymakers alike. So we should be on guard for such dynamics. But when Gladwell simply announces that how people communicate is "less interesting" than why, he's just stating his personal, editorial preference as accepted fact. The banal reality is that different people find different things interesting. And really, by ending his defensive post with that line, Gladwell sounds a bit like the recent Onion headline tweaking his predicament: "Panicked Malcolm Gladwell Realizes Latest Theory Foretells End Of His Popularity."
Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was fine.
He hit his usual bipartisan notes, crediting Republicans for their midterm mandate, but he also urged them to cooperate on divisive issues like immigration reform and clean energy. At times, Obama got loose, joking about TSA pat-downs, tweaking Joe Biden’s Scranton roots, and explaining his education plan, “Race to the Top,” by quoting Jerry Maguire. (“If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement,” he told state governments, “we’ll show you the money.”)
At several points, Obama got down, dirty and boring, wading into the weeds to outline goals like "doubling our exports by 2014," and shifting "80 percent of America's electricity" by 2035.
The address was also quite somber. In proposing an across-the-board spending freeze, Obama sounded like he was resigned to a necessary bummer, not ambitious about a new policy. Curiously, he also managed to step on a key applause line, following up a declaration about “bringing our troops out of Iraq” with a swift warning. “As we speak,” Obama added, “al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us.”
Democratic efforts in Sudan and Tunisia got shout-outs, too, although not the late-breaking protests in Egypt. Finally, Obama advocated more education and innovation funding, trying to square the immediate jobs crisis with a long-term science, technology and infrastructure policy.
Given the president’s rebounding poll numbers, his measured address is likely to be neutral to positive. It may also cement the view, ratified by the very active lame duck Congress, that Obama is committed to getting things done in Washington, even if it means going more than halfway to satisfy his opponents.
The biggest problem, at least for liberals and close listeners, was the logical holes in Obama’s tax talk. He mentioned “tax cuts” twice: Once to claim credit for fattening paychecks with the tax compromise, and once to criticize the thought of making that same tax plan permanent. He vowed to eliminate the "billions" of tax benefits that oil companies currently receive, and then, after bemoaning the deficit, called for cutting "the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years." Two of the three biggest corporations in America are oil companies, by the way, so those reforms might cancel each other out a bit. Now guess which one the Republicans will act on first.