The Art of the Sale

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 Politics


It worries me that the speech was “a success” because it reminds me of experiences with publicity/promotion types for whom “success” is a non-negotiable perfect attribute, like the speed of light, so that even products that everyone knows became bestsellers because of shrewd advertising or clever placement or well-arranged (or bought) endorsements are, afterwards, used as the metric of “a great product,” from a quality standpoint. In other words, the same people who figure out how to hype a mediocrity so it gets attention and notoriety and sells well, then turn around and characterize it as genuinely worthy (rather than admitting, “It wasn’t very good—we, or people just like us at another company, merely packaged it successfully”).

It’s the same thing with politicians, and it’s much more this way with Republicans than with Democrats because (post-Goldwater) they don’t think the same way about their constituents: they’re not interested in what those constituents actually think or believe or what damage this does—notwithstanding the occasional heroic moment like John McCain, astonishingly, correcting a town hall questioner who called Obama a Muslim—they just want the numbers, the sales, the votes. (My friend, a Trump supporter—for reasons apparently having to do with regulatory agendae and a mistrust of the NATO order and its trade systems, as well as a certain hard-to-define cultural anarchism—was a big fan of Obama; when I say, “You mean the Kenyan Usurper?” he shrugs and says, “That’s politics.”)

So Nixon (at first) and Reagan and Bush II and Trump (not yet but eventually) are elevated to “greatness” because the salesmanship worked well, since each man’s superficial attributes were malleable and compliant enough to fit into the stylistic “President” package (as Trump fit that package last night). And the goal is met; the elections won (just like those products hit their sales goals) and the agendae advanced,* so that eventually this quality itself becomes “greatness”; the operatives can’t tell the difference themselves any more because they’ve devoted their lives to erasing that distinction in the public’s minds.

*Hollywood producer Joel Silver, asked about the artistic merits of Die Hard and his other early hits, famously snapped, “I don’t make art—I buy art!” (meaning, the movies’ success allowed him to expand his personal collection of paintings—and all goals are met).

Out of Touch

Friday, February 17th, 2017 Politics / Writing


What’s absolutely infuriating me right now, more than the daily psychic blows of the Trump era, is the way that my own (and others’) expectation that Hillary would win the election is being turned into a blunt-force rhetorical weapon against us—against myself personally and others who think like I do, as recounted everywhere, daily—not just by Trump supporters but by other liberals/progressives. The “surprise” of Trump’s victory is the argumentative wedge that invalidates any critique: what can I claim to know about Americans’ problems if I couldn’t predict his monstrous triumph?

So when I attack Trump, even when agreed with, I am scolded: my critique, I am told, is invalidated by Trump supporters—not by their views or opinions, but merely by their plurality; not because they’re correct about anything but because they exist in greater numbers than anyone thought—the apparatus of democracy itself is turned against us. (Apparently, only good candidates win—performance in office isn’t as decisive as a priori victory, which is why Trump keeps presenting his electoral stats as if they’re policy arguments.) Because we liberals/progressives underestimated the threat, exactly as von Papen and Hindenburg and Chamberlain did in 1933, we must be wrong about what that threat means, where it came from, and what to do about it.

More specifically, I am angry because when I say what’s wrong with Trump, and what horrifying damage he will do to the world, and specifically to the people he gulled into voting for him, I am told not that I’m wrong but that, simply by describing the problem in con-man/victim terms, I’m adopting an unacceptably superior rhetorical stance. When I characterize Trump or his supporters (which is not difficult; none of this is subtle) I am routinely told that I do not understand something that I can see very clearly—we all are—simply because our observations may be wedged into a framework of “condescension” or “naïvité” (which, while inapplicable and misleading and misguided, is, masochistically or not, emotionally satisfying: it feels good to tell liberals—or for liberals to tell themselves—that they’re blind, because we’re the ones evangelizing our views so confidently and intrusively). And it’s absolutely crucial, if we’re to survive this period (and I literally mean “survive”) that these dangerous and incorrect ideas be set straight.

The unpleasant reality that we all must face is that something terrible has been done to a significant portion of the American public, over the decades, that has ruined their thinking ability to such a profound extent that they are now Trump supporters. It didn’t happen fast and it wasn’t easy—it was a confluence of deliberate and accidental factors, emerging from the advertising renaissance of the 1960s (as chronicled in Joe McGuinness’ landmark The Selling of the President 1968 and elsewhere, especially Rick Perlstein’s brilliant work) and incorporating the infamous “Southern Strategy” and other noxious public movements so that the ability of voting Americans to understand politics on a basic level has been fundamentally distorted and wrecked. Natural anti-authoritarian commiseration and anger was deflected away from predatory corporations towards “government.” Unnecessary, calamitous wars were presented as necessary “defenses.” Bigotry was amplified and nurtured. Personalities of politicians were cast in a movie-style framework that favored “folksy” dumbness over knowledge or capability or achievement—we were taught to prefer candidates we “could have a beer with”; those who reminded ourselves, reassuringly, of our own foibled ignorance rather than of any coherent notion of expertise.

Most important, these and other propagandist elements were shrewdly threaded together (with the collusion of a weak and sensationalistic press) into a coherent system of thought that embraced two or three crucial Orwellian inversions of reality: that those amongst us fighting for the underprivileged or the historically disenfranchised, rather than being heroic (as anyone defending the downtrodden is generally regarded in Western culture, starting with Jesus), are actually “the elite” in disguise, sowing unfairness and imbalance; that the qualifications for high office or for any task that one develops in universities or libraries, rather than enhancing one’s capabilities and perception, are actually the foundation of a sort of effete willful blindness; that (as John Updike argued decades ago) the American pioneer spirit, the spirit of rebellion that was the proving ground for our nation and the symbolic basis for the world’s eternal romantic fixation with “cowboys,” somehow means that dumbness is a virtue; that the ignorant are better; that feelings of exclusion or envy (setting aside those that sell movie tickets or sporting events) are not childish whims that must be cultivated into ambition and competitive, aspirational drive but are, instead, the bedrock of a deep hateful truth, a resentful awareness of a profound, uncorrectable “injustice” that must be nurtured over a lifetime into a profound anger: the worst and ugliest kind of anger; the kind based on the deep psychology of jealousy and bafflement, that fuels totalitarian movements.

Just as Scientology shrewdly insulates its followers against psychiatry and the internet (the forces of reason that can tear it down) or Glengarry Glenn Ross real estate sharks “protect” their victims from attorneys, the people who create the sentiments I’m describing work to discredit not just universities and cities and other symbols of civilization and meritocracy, but journalism and constitutional government—the only forces in a modern society that can save it from tyranny—so that, like Scientologists with serious problems who are trained to run away from the doctors and psychotropic drugs that can save them, the public fights against the forces of enlightenment.

How bad is this problem? Look around you—Trump is the President. But we’re not allowed to outline the crisis the way I’m doing here because it’s “condescending” and “out of touch.” Like missionary doctors sent into infected areas with vaccines, we’re rejected as interlopers: the fact that we weren’t aware of the extent of the disease and rot (that, in other words, we were surprised by Trump’s victory) makes us, not more correct in our dire warnings, but, somehow, less correct; more easily dismissible; “proof” that we know nothing and deserve to be disappointed and alarmed. The doctors and their vaccines are expelled from the villages because they know better than the Shamans—yes, they bring penicillin and it provably works, but that’s irrelevant compared to how superior they think they are; the way that they parade their knowledge so insultingly, for which they must be punished.

So I’m tired of being told that I’ve been “living in a bubble” because I expected Hillary to win. I’m tired of being lectured about how the fact that a surprising number of gullible Americans were tricked (by means of historically-proven totalitarian techniques) into voting 100% against their own interests, thanks to a systematic, half-century-old propaganda campaign and a trained aversion to facts and reality, somehow means that I’m confused; in the wrong; naïve; misguided; “elite.” I’m tired of seeing the catastrophe of Trump’s election being held up as “proof” that liberal/progressive solutions “have failed”—which is like arguing that the rise of Naziism “proved” that Jews had failed. (As David Bowie sang, “To be insulted by these Fascists is so degrading.”) I don’t care if it’s “condescending” or not—there is far more at stake than the pride of Trump’s victims (be they tenants, contractors, “university” students or voters). You can’t get the snake oil off the market if you’re afraid to insult the marks who fell for it. Yes, Hillary lost—the cancer is far more advanced than any of us believed. This makes the chemotherapy more necessary, not less. To hide from the truth, to accept that “we lost” and this somehow means that the forces of enlightenment should give up and go home, is to abandon a fundamental patriotic duty.

Silent Third Panel

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 Cartoons / Writing

As I look (again) at Peanuts—the entire 50-year-project, and its astonishing achievement—I’m noticing new things. I’ve learned, for example, about how everyone credits Schulz with inventing not just the classic four-panel gag strip but the crucial innovation of the “silent” third panel, which Garry Trudeau (whose style I appropriate here) and Bill Watterson (whom I discuss here) and Johnny Hart and so many others have mimicked. (Someone’s got a website just about silent third panels.)

I seized on the below strip because, this time through, I’ve been noticing the sheer force of the characterizations—for example, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lucy is maybe his greatest creation, in terms of depth and complexity (I think somebody else like Jules Feiffer said the same thing)—and I’m realizing anew that what I’ve always loved about Sally is how unabashedly stupid she is. Other characters have moments of slowness or confusion, as manifested (especially) by school problems—Schulz was actually an unusually sharp critic of the now-discredited “new math” teaching system, and, in general, sympathetic to the difficulty of receiving formalized instruction even for the sharpest amongst us—but Sally goes beyond this: she’s a beautiful expression of that sheer, belligerent opacity that only the truly dull-witted have…the refusal to even consider that they might learn or absorb something; the resignation or even contentment in the face of the certain knowledge that they will go through life fundamentally baffled. This strip (June 6th, 1967) seemed, now, like the best example of this I’ve seen:


But as I kept staring at it, I became puzzled and then fascinated—I realized that I’d been missing something, not just about this strip but about the characterizations and the ideas themselves. The more I focus on the “joke,” the more I realize there’s an entire second-level meaning; a “Fool on the Hill” zen clarity and brilliance to Linus’ question and, especially, Sally’s answer. I don’t just mean the cliché of profundity emerging through the pursuit of seemingly naïve or dumb inquiries (Einstein asking “What would I see if I ran along a beam of light?” which sounds like Rod McKuen but is actually the thread that, when pulled, leads to General Relativity) or Art Linkletter’s treacly “Kids Say the Darndest Things” vaudville (which is, of course, exactly the kind of Family Circus horror that Schulz spent fifty years forcibly eradicating). The contemplation Sally engages with in that third panel is not so much Existential as Phenomenological; there are echoes of Husserl in her probing of her own experiential lexicon and the dissatisfaction that results. But her final question goes further back through intellectual history: it’s not just zen, it’s Socratic. Linus’ Nietzschean desire for an Eternal Return, a triumphant rebirth as enlightened superman, is checkmated by the simplicity of her Classical inquiry (as Leon Kass remarked in my “Genesis” class at Chicago, “Nietzsche can’t escape the clutches of Aristotle”).

And where are Linus and Sally standing and why are they there? It’s a blank, Samuel Beckett landscape, complete with hapless, baffled interlocutors pinned eternally in place: Like Vladamir and Estragon, the Peanuts cast lives outside of time, never aging, with no beginning and no end—Linus can’t start over; his immortality traps him even more than our own (or Schulz’) finite lives. (As Jerry Seinfeld said of Pop-Tarts, “They can’t get stale because they were never fresh.”) The more I think about this strip, the deeper and heavier it gets: an avalanche of meaning in these four minimalist drawings and those 25 words. The towering genius of Charles M. Schulz endures—and the fact that it’s carried forward not in scholarly texts or museums but in newsprint, sweatshirts, beach-towels and mugs makes it all the more impressive and indelible.