"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, January 08, 2018

Of Angels and Pinheads

During one of the GOP conventions (for W., I think, and probably the second one) Jon Stewart, when he was still on air, and Ted Koppel, playing eminence grise before he finally left the stage in front of the cameras, were having a discussion about GOP rhetoric.  Stewart wondered what Koppel would do if a speaker at the convention declared Koppel a drug dealer, and called for his arrest and conviction.  Koppel calmly replied he'd report the story, and refute it later.  Stewart was gobsmacked, as well he should have been; but Koppel clearly considered such a possibility as likely as pigs flying, or water running uphill.

The prelude to that event was Pat Buchanan's speech to the GOP convention when, if memory serves, Poppy Bush won the nomination the first time.  Molly Ivins averred that she thought it sounded better in the original German, and everyone laughed, and no one was disturbed.

My, how times change:

“Okay, you’re not answering the questions,” [Jake] Tapper said [to Stephen Miller]. “I get it. There’s one viewer that you care about right now and you’re being obsequious because you’re trying to please him. I’ve wasted enough of my viewers time.”
It turns out Mr. Miller had to be escorted out of the building by security.  Even Pat Buchanan was never so obtuse.  But that's just where it started:

Imagine Ted Koppel making that kind of response to the President of the United States.  Imagine any President, prior to Trump, behaving this way.  We are so far beyond the complaints of Pat Buchanan we can't see him in the rearview mirror.  Jokes about "the original German" don't even apply, here.

Michael Wolff told BBC radio that his conclusion in “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House”– that Trump is not fit to do the job — was becoming a widespread view.

“I think one of the interesting effects of the book so far is a very clear emperor-has-no-clothes effect,” Wolff said in an interview broadcast on Saturday.

“The story that I have told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says he can’t do his job,” Wolff said.

“Suddenly everywhere people are going ‘oh my God, it’s true, he has no clothes’. That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end … this presidency.”
Jim Newell cites this as proof of Wolffe's penchant for self-aggrandizement; since Trump, of course we're all hyper-aware of this condition, and see it everywhere.  But is he right?

The only really shocking thing about Wolff’s book is that this conclusion could be treated as revelatory. You don’t need Michael Wolff to show you that Donald Trump is the antithesis of a functional president of the United States. You just need eyes and ears.

Wolff, who shares his subject’s penchant for self-aggrandizement, believes the details in his book are of the kind that will bring about the end of Trump’s presidency. 
Newell is right; one does only need eyes and ears; but the media, which prides itself on serving that purpose for the body politic, is only now admitting that, indeed, the Emperor might be....naked?

Imagine that Jake Tapper interview a year ago.  What has changed about Stephen Miller?  Nothing.  He's still the obnoxious prick he always was.  But now Jake Tapper can accuse him of sucking up to Donald Trump (and Trump helpfully proves it within 10 minutes; he really is our man on their side), and nobody gives Tapper a side-eye.  He can even defend himself against Trump's uninformed and ignorant (and lying?) tweet, and nobody bats a journalistic ethical eye.  Where are the calls for Olympian objectivity, objections that Tapper is becoming part of the story, swoons in the editorial rooms?  Jake Tapper is no Hunter S. Thompson; CNN doesn't engage in gonzo journalism.  And yet, where Ted Koppel would have simply reported the lie Jon Stewart put forth as a hypothetical, Jake Tapper will have none of it, and everyone approves (at least tacitly).

What has changed, except that Michael Wolffe has finally allowed us to have the national conversation we've all been having?  Now the media can discuss the open secret that Mr. Newell says is no secret at all.  But, sadly, it was, until Mr. Wolffe's book:  until the stories were reported ahead of time, until the President of the United States tried to impose prior restraint, not for national security purposes, but simply because he didn't like what his staff was saying about him (very little of what Mr. Wolffe reported has been challenged, aside from a wrong name or two.  NPR complains more about the tone than the substance, and sniffs that "literal" is not a bad thing for news accounts to be.  "Pretty weenie", to quote one of my favorite episodes of "Cheers" (yes, Netflix; sue me)).  Trump insists he gave Wolff no White House access, but Wolffe was seen in and around the building, and who believes Trump, anyway?

Well, maybe NPR and other members of the press still give the POTUS the benefit of the doubt.  But after this book, after this weekend, they are going to have a hard time complaining about Wolffe on the basis that his book says Rupert Murdoch called Trump "a fucking idiot," but elsewhere Wolffe printed the quote as "a fucking moron."  Yeah, there's a world of difference there, especially in a world where we're worried about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Fissures are opening here, in other words.  It may even be that Trump is losing the PR battle:  if  Jake Tapper feels emboldened to shut down Stephen Miller, and Trump's "Fake Media" award is met more with derision than defense, and his attacks on the NFL fizzled, and his constant appeals to Wall Street's numbers prove he has nothing else to talk about, it may be he's lost the power to control the narrative.  The attack on Wolffe Trump hoped to inspire didn't really get very far, but it was gamely carried out by the more august members of the Fourth Estate who carried water for Trump trying to protect their fiefdom from charges that all they really do is traffic in gossip (gossip about matters slightly more important than who is sleeping with whom in your neighborhood, but nonetheless).   Wolffe, they have uniformly declared, is not "one of them.  "Objectivity" is one way they establish that distinction; but objectivity means never pointing out that the President is, indeed, naked.

Or, as Mr. Wolffe says, Mr. Trump can't do this job.  Mr. Newell is right: that fact is obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.  But "objectivity" stops the eyes and ears of the most august journalists.  Chuck Todd got no further than "'a lot of little errors' and small factual errors that 'add up.' "  If that's the most the "journalists" have, they don't have anything.  That they think this makes them "objective" is sad, but inevitable.

Will they ever acknowledge that the emperor is, indeed, naked?  Will anyone even emulate Jake Tapper and deny another Trump toady air-time to be so obsequious?  It would be considered a bad precedent if that happens; but is it worse than the precedent of pretending the Emperor is bedecked in the finest regalia, simply because he is the only Emperor we have?

ADDING: And NPR this morning pursues the horse race, asking if the GOP wants to be talking about Trump's tweets. NPR cannot, of course, discuss those tweets and what they say about the state of mind of the head of state and Commander in Chief. No, that would never do. He who has ears had better cover them; and their eyes, too.


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