The title of this essay is a quote from Lily Tomlin I’ve had for at least a decade: I used it in my email signature for a few months half a dozen years ago, and it seemed true then. But after the utterly cynical way racism and antisemitism have been used this week to market media products, I think I’m beginning to truly comprehend what she meant.
I’m going to share two stories that sharpen Tomlin’s point to a bleeding edge. The first turns on media handling of George Bush’s contention that the low point of his presidency was when musician Kanye West, appearing on a post-Hurricane Katrina fundraising marathon, said that the administration’s response to the disaster showed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The second deals with Glenn Beck’s recent attempt to tar George Soros as a Nazi collaborator.
Are you keeping up?
I’m briefly on the road again, one of those jaunts that includes two cross-country flights in a few days. But I did have time for a ritual I only perform in hotels, watching “The Today Show” as I exercise in the morning. On Thursday, Matt Lauer interviewed Kanye West.
I wish I had a different verb than “interviewed” to describe Lauer’s process. “Extraction,” with its hints of penetration and excavation, seems closer to the truth. Lauer wanted West to humble himself, but it appears that West wasn’t entirely aligned with the program. Lauer put words in his guest’s mouth, and West tried to spit them out. West, who is famous for having weak impulse control, did take responsibility for his habit of talking without choosing his words carefully:
I came here to say that I made mistakes, that I’ve grown as a person, and it’s not as easy as boxing someone into a villain role or into a race role. I did not have the information, enough information in that situation, to call him a racist. That might have been the emotions I felt, but me being a rational, well-thought-out, empathetic human being and thinking about it after the fact, I would have chosen different words.
The interview is well worth watching for several reasons: Lauer’s determination to extract precisely the apology he deems appropriate; the lengths he goes to in rephrasing West’s comments to make them fit that determination; and West’s acute awareness of what Lauer is doing, the meta-conversation he attempts to engage.
For example, with a live camera trained on West, Lauer shows his guest footage of Bush’s face—no sound—as the former president describes how bad it felt to be called out by West. Lauer does this in precisely the same way the owner of a new puppy rubs its nose in the soggy newspapers of an accident. “When you look at his face,” Lauer asks, “what would you say to him?” West says, “You don’t really have to do the TV stuff with me. This is reality. This is the real thing going on.”
I know what he means. The air of unreality is intense. After all, this is a president who started a war in Iraq based on falsified evidence of weapons of mass destruction, driven by a desire to avenge his father’s reputation, heedless of the waste: an ocean of blood, a mountain of money. This is a president who presided blithely over an economic collapse midwifed by his own ancestors, allies, and appointees, creating mass suffering as ordinary working people continue to pay an enormous bill run up by greedy speculators untroubled by ethics. This is a president who—more than five years after Katrina—is able to survey the destruction of largely black communities, of the homes and lives of the least privileged—and come away feeling aggrieved that a pop star dissed him for it. This is a president who made torture official policy…. Well, you get the idea.
How disconnected from the consequences of his own actions must Bush be to perceive the small, personal pinch of feeling misunderstood by Kanye West as the nadir of his career?
How disconnected from the world outside his own TV ratings must Matt Lauer be to make use of this to extract ritual self-humiliation from Kanye West (and when West refused wholehearted cooperation, to put words in his mouth like a puppet)?
Are you keeping up?
For the record, friends, when people who are vilified for their color, class, or heritage suffer disproportionately from official policy and practice, whatever else may be going on—oversight, ineptitude, indifference—structural discrimination is at work in the form of racism or other invidious prejudice embedded in the very pores of the body politic. When someone criticizes a sitting president for the impact of his policies, the exchange is a form of symbolic language, in which the person of our national avatar stands in for the administration as a whole. Regardless of whether or not George Bush’s inner life is free of racial stereotypes (which would make him an exceedingly rare bird among the living), he presided over a fiasco—an orgy of structural racism in action—in New Orleans that made Kanye West’s comment sound like understatement.
Are you keeping up? When things are this cynical, it’s easy to lose your bearings. I find it a helpful reality-check to imagine a commercial media landscape shaped by the spirit of inquiry, rather than cynicism. It’s a big stretch, I know, but try to see yourself in some alt-universe hotel room with “The Today Show” broadcasting in the background:
Matt Lauer: George Bush called your post-Katrina comment the low point of his presidency. What do you say?
Kanye West: Are you sure he said that? It’s really hard to believe someone who ordered so many deaths, trashed the economy, and made hating America an international obsession would trouble himself with something I said.
Lauer: I guess that is hard to believe. But look, it’s right here (shows West the passage from Bush’s memoir). Some people say you should apologize for calling him a racist. What do you think?
West: I didn’t use that word, Matt, but I did use his name. I used it to stand in for the whole administration policy post-Katrina. I judge our policy-makers by what they do. I don’t know if Bush’s heart is pure, but I used a figure of speech to condemn the actions of his administration, and I won’t take that back.
Lauer: So it wasn’t personal?
West: That was not my intention. I was expressing the shock and outrage everyone around me felt about the Bush administration’s actions. But let’s leave the door open, Matt. If George Bush wants to come on TV and apologize to all the parents whose kids were sacrificed in Iraq because he created a fake excuse for war there, I’ll be glad to give any apology he wants, fair trade.
Lauer: Let’s see if Mr. Bush wishes to respond to that. Thanks to Kanye West. And now to Al for the weather.
Right after I listened to the actual (and far more surreal) Lauer-West dialogue, I checked my email to find a forwarded message from Simon Greer, President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice. You can read it on JewishJournal.com.
I’ve written before about Fox commentator Glenn Beck’s “Nazi Tourette’s,” and his penchant for “The Big Lie.” Now Beck has turned his venom on zillionaire financier-philanthropist George Soros, who has contributed billions to causes that promote the open society Soros sees as the antidote to totalitarianism and fascism.
Greer’s organization supports progressive causes too, but on a much smaller scale. Last spring, he was singled out by Beck:
Responding to an article I wrote supporting a government role to advance the common good, Beck scolded me, declaring that my words “are what led to the death camps in Germany” and that I “as a Jew, should know better.” To discuss this and other, similar comments, on July 26, I joined rabbis Steve Gutow and David Ellenson, on behalf of fourteen prominent leaders of national Jewish organizations, in a meeting with Fox News President Roger Ailes and the producer of Glenn Beck’s television show, Joel Cheatwood. We spoke for almost an hour about the concerns held by many Jews about Glenn Beck’s constant and often inappropriate invocation of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany on the air.
We were assured by Ailes and Cheatwood that they understand our concerns and would explain them to Beck. Two days later, I received a hand-written note from Beck, which stated: “Simon, Joel shared the details of your meeting yesterday. Please know that I understand the sensitivity and sacred nature of this dark chapter in Human History. Thank you for your candor and helpful thoughts.”
Beck charged Soros as Nazi collaborator, spinning Soros’ experience as a young teenager in Hungary, sheltered by a righteous Gentile. Said Beck:
George Soros used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.
Are you keeping up?
Greer’s piece sets the story straight for anyone who cares to know the facts. He and other Jewish leaders are again contacting Fox’s leadership in the hope of reining in what has become a torrent of outrage against Jews, African Americans, gays and other sexual minorities—everyone associated with democratic values and liberal policies who isn’t white or right enough for Beck’s America. And I am sitting in this hotel room recognizing that there is literally no end to the depths this country’s commercial media will sink, for no reason beyond the cynical desire to attract viewers by any means necessary.
Greer and his allies, just as Color of Change has done in response to Beck’s race-baiting, are encouraging viewer’s to communicate their outrage, in the hope it will turn the tide. Media Matters has good coverage of the unfolding affair.
Here’s a clip featuring Senator Joseph McCarthy and Army counsel Joseph Welch facing off in 1954 in a moment widely perceived as signalling the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s witchhunts. McCarthy disrupts the proceedings to denounce a young member of Welch’s law firm. Welch, appalled, addresses McCarthy directly: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator…. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Today, of course, the vicious scapegoating McCarthy performed as an elected official is completely decentralized and voluntary, merely an ongoing promotional campaign by commercial media operatives.
Are you keeping up?
I wish I had something brilliant to say about how to neutralize the damage the epic cynics running our commercial media are doing to the hope of genuine democratic discourse in this country. I’m going to think hard about it, of that I am sure. But right now, I admit it: I’m having a hard time keeping up.
I love Charles Brown’s version of this song, but YouTube doesn’t have it, so this version will do. America’s question for Glenn Beck: “Who Will The Next Fool Be?”