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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mean Girls

by digby

Ezra took Jonah Goldberg to task for his egregious Gore trivia column this week-end but I don't think he goes far enough. Jonah clearly thought this would be an entertaining riff for his little circle jerk to giggle over as they sipped their frappucinos, but I think it's actually a perfect example of the symbiosis between the wingnut noise machine and the robotic mainstream media, which Jonah Goldberg (!) now embodies.

The "Gore is a crazy liar" meme just pops out naturally, as does the speculation about the Clintons' sex lives or the idea that Dean is a screaming freak. These are established GOP narratives that the lazy media, both right and mainstream, just pull out of mothballs for their own amusement and I'm not sure it isn't too late to stop them. I'm frankly a bit stunned they still feel comfortable doing it what with all the death and destruction of the last five years, but it's quite obvious they have done no introspection whatsoever. If, after all that's happened, the media can slip so effortlessly into both the Clenis and Crazy Gore memes without even a moments pause, then a bold new strategy is required.

As a card carrying member of the rightwing noise machine Goldberg is very aware that trivializing Democrats is helpful to his cause. His harpy mother made a career out of it. And he is also aware that ridicule and cheesy gossip are very effective ways to make liberals' appear to be insubstantial and beside the point. It gets people's attention in ways that other forms of criticisms don't. The cartoonizing of Democratic politicians is one of their most effective tools and we've made a grave error in not better understanding it and using the same methods to equalize the playing field.

Here on the blogs we have some masterful voices of ridicule and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are liberal heroes for the same reason. Wr have tons of biting, dizzyingly precise take-down artists on our side. But none of these themes seem to capture the mainstream media as do the wingnut themes and I have concluded that it is because they are too sophisticated. Just like Goldberg and his frappucino sipping sycophants, we too entertain ourselves with this stuff. But unlike them, we only entertain ourselves. They entertain the press.

The right specializes in schoolyard taunts and sleazy gossip because they must attract the stupid vote in order to get elected and that's the only humor stupid voters understand. But it's also because it's what the media prefers --- they too have to attract the masses.

We have tried their comic book insult method on occasion, but it has always seemed to backfire. The Republicans, having shrewdly capitalized inherent rightwing insecurity, are remarkably successful at parrying. My favorite was this:

Dean: "You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever and get home and still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well Republicans, I guess can do that. Because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."

The right went into a full-on screaming frenzy over that. It was as if Dean had said the Republicans eat children for lunch. They went nuts, claiming that you should never insult average voters. Many Democrats agreed that it was clumsy and crude to put it that way. But put the word liberal or Democrat in there and see if it works a little bit better:

"You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever and get home and still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well liberals, I guess can do that. Because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."

I don't know about you, but I've heard that kind of thing thousands of times from every strata of the right's hierarchy. Bashing rank and file liberals is so common that you don't even have to make the explicit argument anymore --- you just say it with an appropriate sneer and everyone gets the picture. Of course, some on the right do enjoy spelling it out:

Here at the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston, conservatives are deploying a series of covert signals to identify one another, much like gay men do. My allies are the ones wearing crosses or American flags. The people sporting shirts emblazened with the "F-word" are my opponents. Also, as always, the pretty girls and cops are on my side, most of them barely able to conceal their eye-rolling.


As for the pretty girls, I can only guess that it's because liberal boys never try to make a move on you without the UN Security Council's approval. Plus, it's no fun riding around in those dinky little hybrid cars. My pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call "women" at the Democratic National Convention.

And it's not just the cranks and the professional provocateurs like Coulter. Remember this?

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott today told an enthusiastic Neshoba County Fair crowd that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is “a French-speaking socialist from Boston, Massaschusetts, who is more liberal than Ted Kennedy.”

Imagine if Ted Kennedy had used similar stereotyping and said "George Bush is a slow-talking hillbilly from the old confederacy who is more racist than Strom Thurmond." Do you even want to think about the uproar? (And has any Democratic politican in recent years said anything close to that?)

Lott's remark got big laughs down in Mississippi. And I have little doubt that it got big laughs in press rooms all over the country. I don't recall anyone but a few bloggers being a bit insulted by his comment.

Certainly, New England didn't rise up in high dudgeon and demand that Lott retract his comment. That's partially because the phrase "Massachusetts liberal" is now simple shorthand for cowardly jerk-off and people in Massachusetts seem to have resigned themselves to it. (Birthplace of the American revolution be damned. Only the secesssion is to be revered as an inviolable symbol of our heroic heritage these days.)

If someone from Massachusetts had said anything, they would have been told to lighten up. It's only a little gentle ribbing. God you Democrats are a bunch of frail little wusses. How can you protect America? Meanwhile, you're walking on the fighting side of Trent if you go after him with stereotypical taunts about southern culture. They can play into all these subterranean psychological currents, but nobody else can. Works great. For them.

We could play their game too, but it's very difficult for liberals over the age of twenty to get in touch with their inner seventh grade asshole. I'm not sure why, but we seem to prefer a more subtle form of humor. I suspect it could be because of this:

An investigation by Simone Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues shows that the ability to understand sarcasm depends on a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills in specific parts of the brain.

Dr Shamay-Tsoory, a psychologist at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa and the University of Haifa, said: "Sarcasm is related to our ability to understand other people's mental state. It's not just a linguistic form, it's also related to social cognition."

The research revealed that areas of the brain that decipher sarcasm and irony also process language, recognise emotions and help us understand social cues.

"Understanding other people's state of mind and emotions is related to our ability to understand sarcasm," she said.


The study showed that people with damage in the prefrontal lobe struggled to pick out sarcasm. The others, including people with similar damage to other parts of the brain, were able to correctly place the sharp-tongued words into context.

The prefrontal lobe is known to be involved in pragmatic language processes and complex social cognition. The ventromedial section is linked to personality and social behaviour.

Dr Shamay-Tsoory said the loss of the volunteers' ability to understand irony was a subtle consequence of their brain damage, which produced behaviour similar to that seen in people with autism

"They are still able to hold and understand a conversation. Their problem is to understand when people talk in indirect speech and use irony, idioms and metaphors because they take each sentence literally. They just understand the sentence as it is and can't see if your true meaning is the opposite of your literal meaning."

Now, I would hesitate to say that the right does not understand irony and therefore, are brain damaged. That would be very rude. Still, you have to admit that this proves my point:

A good sign that Tom DeLay doesn’t have the facts on his side: the top source for his latest defense against his critics is Stephen Colbert.

This morning, DeLay’s legal defense fund sent out a mass email criticizing the movie “The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress,” by “Outfoxed” creator Robert Greenwald.


DeLay thinks Colbert is so persuasive, he’s now featuring the full video of the interview at the top of the legal fund’s website. And why not? According to the email, Greenwald “crashed and burned” under the pressure of Colbert’s hard-hitting questions, like “Who hates America more, you or Michael Moore?”

Apparently the people at DeLay’s legal fund think that Colbert is actually a conservative. Or maybe they’re just that desperate for supporters.

This is not surprising to me. You can tell when some of the rightwingers go on the show that they don't know what they are dealing with. They suspect that something is up because of the audience, but they really don't get it. "Their problem is to understand when people talk in indirect speech and use irony, idioms and metaphors because they take each sentence literally."

I have also long suspected that the media doesn't know that Stewart and Colbert are satirizing them as well. They get the part about the politicians. everybody makes fun of them. But they don't see that the entire premise of the show is that TV news people and pundits are idiots. It explains why more than few of them weren't quite sure what to make of Colbert's "partisan" speech at the White House correspondents dinner.

They operate on the same seventh grade level as the Republicans. Here's Joe Klein:

SCARBOROUGH: You know, it's interesting you say that. If -- of course, if Hillary Clinton were to be elected and then re-elected, you could go back to 1980, and there would have been a Bush or Clinton as president or vice president from 1980 to two thousand -- I guess it would be 2016.

KLEIN: Gag me with a spoon.

I rest my case.

What do we do about it? I don't know. But we can't pretend that the press' willingness to run with this puerile crapola for their own amusement doesn't hurt us. We would like to stop them by appealing to their better natures, but that hasn't exactly worked out. And now they are behaving like shocked little schoolmarms that the left is "angry" about what they've done. It appears that no matter what happens --- even Armageddon apparently --- they are going to run with the breathless, sophomoric Democratic narrative the Republicans created. And they are too powerful to ignore.

So perhaps we should think about how to give them what they want: a Republican narrative that appeals to their seventh grade sensibilities. I throw this out there for you to discuss. (I'm going to have to have an aspirin and coke and listen to "Last Train To Clarksville" before I can properly get into the mood.)