There were two moments during MSNBC’s coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions when I changed the channel to CNN (or Fox News, out of curiosity): once when protesters with handmade signs calling for the “truth about 9/11” were inexplicably allowed to stand around and scream behind the cable network’s outdoor news-anchor desk, and once after Barack Obama finished his acceptance speech and commentator Keith Olbermann proceeded to have an on-air orgasm. On the season premiere of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher the following night, Maher joked that Olbermann (and presumably co-host Chris Matthews) wanted to have sex with the Democratic presidential nominee. The suspicion that Olbermann and Matthews have man-crushes (or at the very least, biases) led to the announcement on Monday that NBC News is replacing the pair with MSNBC host David Gregory during the forthcoming presidential debates and election night.
Olbermann’s bias toward Obama was made clear during the Democratic primary, and both he and Matthews were criticized for their comments about Sen. Hillary Clinton. Olbermann’s political views (and, unlike his Fox News contemporaries, his acknowledgement of those views) made him an odd pick for primetime news coverage: If you wanted an objective opinion during the Democratic convention in particular, you had to switch to CNN or network TV or wait for—gasp!—Pat Buchanan to toss in his (usually fair and balanced) two cents.
One of the so-called controversial moments reported by The New York Times occurred on the final night of the Republican convention, when Olbermann apologized to viewers after airing an RNC video billed as “a tribute to the victims of 9/11.” Atop images of the World Trade Center in flames, a foreboding voiceover reminded us of “buildings burning,” “bodies falling” and “beautiful faces and those loving voices, now gone forever.” Anything but a tribute to those who died on that day, it was the politicization and exploitation of the deaths of thousands of people in order to win an election, and it was clear that the RNC hoped to stir up the specter of fear and loss that helped George W. Bush win the 2004 election.
During the convention, Republicans repeatedly, amusingly spoke about taking Washington back, attempting to squash efforts by Democrats to paint John McCain’s policies as a continuation of Bush’s, but the 9/11 “tribute” only confirmed those associations. Since September 12, 2001, Bush and his party have used fear to move their domestic and foreign political agendas forward. Our patriotism and unity were exploited for political gain, and Olbermann spoke for those of us who watched the video with mouths agape and stomachs turning.
While I don’t agree with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald that MSNBC is removing Olbermann and Matthews solely because of right-wing pressure (is it not possible that complaints confirmed what they, like I, already felt?), his take on the Liberal Media Myth is spot-on, particularly his observation that cable news panels typically balance out their right-wing guests with neutral correspondents—perpetuating the right-wing lie that neutral equals “liberal” and therefore the media must be liberal. (This myth is most effectively debunked by so-called liberal papers like The New York Times, who practically rolled out a red carpet for the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq.) By instilling the fear that a news outlet will be painted blue (and thus see its perceived objectivity diminished), the right has found a way to control the media. Anchors are forced to bite their tongues or remain “neutral” even in the face of hard facts, giving the same weight to both sides of an argument when one side doesn’t deserve it. Climate change skeptics, for example, are given equal time when the science simply doesn’t support their views. The Equal Time Rule might be fair and balanced for presidential candidates, but not for news.
In his New York Times article about the NBC News shakeup, Brian Stelter referred to both Olbermann and Matthews as “politically incendiary.” Matthews is undoubtedly incendiary, but politically? Though much of the Hardball host’s positive commentary about Republican politicos could be interpreted as old-fashioned sexism (he likes ’em tough and stopped just short of calling Hillary Clinton a bitch during the primary), Matthews is one of the most passionate, evenhanded commentators on cable news today. If he seems biased in a 2008 snapshot, it’s because he’s disappointed by the way the Bush administration—an administration, it should be noted, for which he voted in 2000—has conducted itself over the last eight years and has behaved as any news reporter should: as a watchdog. Perhaps the NBC brass was trying to spare Olbermann’s ego by taking Matthews down with him. Both men will still be opining as “political analysts” through November 4th, and Gregory is competent (at least we’re not getting more Dan Abrams), but Matthews is MSNBC’s most undervalued asset.
UPDATE: I can’t bring myself to write anything substantial about this whole “lipstick on a pig” ridiculousness (Greenwald said it all in his column today), but note the poll question posted on MSNBC’s website today for further proof that either a) the myth that the media, and specifically MSNBC, is “liberal” is just that—a myth, or b) the right is succeeding at shaping the tone and political bias of said liberal media, specifically MSNBC. It asks, “Do you think Sen. Barack Obama went too far with his ’lipstick on a pig’ remark?” and then offers three options, none of which are “No, the right wing wants you to pay attention to shallow sideshows to make you forget what they’ve done to the country over the last 8 years”:
1. Yes, he has crossed the line this time.
2. No, this is just part of the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning.
3. I don’t know.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.
On Trend: The Changing State of Coming Out in Hollywood
If there’s anything to deride about Jodie Foster’s show-stopping moment, it’s that it felt dated, dusty, even quaint.
She certainly came prepared. The E! correspondents may have told you that Jodie Foster wore Giorgio Armani to the Golden Globes, but her frock was more like a suit of armor, its metallic straps criss-crossing her chest as if she were bracing for impact. Amid an awards show that’s often little more than a boring, booze-soaked, wannabe Oscars, Foster—who, at 50, proved a drastically young choice for the HFPA’s career-defining Cecil B. Demille Award—provided a riveting slice of LGBT history, using the acceptance of her honorary trophy as an opportunity to deliver a coming-out speech…sorta. Everyone knows the story by now: How Foster jokingly announced that she’s “single” after a virtual drum roll of anticipation, how she thanked her longtime partner and two strapping sons, and how she professed the value of personal privacy, declaring that she’s no reality star, like “Honey Boo Boo Child.” Gawker had a particularly douchey field day with the latter portion of Foster’s monologue, viciously berating the actress for demanding privacy as a public figure in a very public forum. The contradiction at which Gawker took aim is glaringly apparent, but while celebrities may sacrifice certain libel rights and anonymous trips to the grocery store, they are not, in fact, required to divulge personal details to the masses. If there’s anything to deride about Foster’s show-stopping moment, it’s that it felt dated, dusty, even quaint.
Like most viewers, I was glued to my TV as Foster half-spilled her guts at the podium, her words flying out in a candid rush likely helped along by cocktails, but her building-up of the pseudo-confession (which was, admittedly, quite admirable and heartfelt) announced her age more loudly than any lifetime achievement prize could. From wardrobe to word choices, the two-time Oscar winner approached the moment with an all-encompassing wince, even mentioning her publicist’s supposed terror in the process. Already a mature, soon-to-be mom back in 1997, when Ellen Degeneres delivered the “Yep” heard ’round the world, Foster hails from a generation still hung up on the notion of public gayness as career suicide. Moreover, she’s a star whose sexuality has been in question for what feels like ages, so her elaborate confirmation, however tasteful and compelling, seemed like old news in more ways than one. In her way, Foster mocked what she essentially referred to as the new trend of gay stars being compelled to come out, using that contentious issue of privacy as a defense against her delay in jumping on the bandwagon. What Foster failed to acknowledge is that today’s celebrity outings aren’t so much trendy as they are, to pull a Foster and invoke a pop culture reference, the new normal. The growing banality of stars making their gayness known has been one of the stealth triumphs of the Obama era, and at the risk of suggesting agreement with Gawker’s divulge-all viewpoint, if Foster indeed feels there’s a cultural urge for gay celebs to come clean, that alone is something to be celebrated.
Naturally, there’s also the argument that Foster’s long-postponed address of the issue is disrespectful to the gay community, implying she’s not only out of touch, but insensitive to the notion that an earlier admission, in tougher times, might have helped a lot more people (it also doesn’t help that, as some outlets have criticized, her acknowledgment was paired with a suggestion of retirement, which worsens the sting of her wait and surely cripples her value as a public voice for LGBT rights). In regard to gay media figures, all visibility is positive, but I’m not so sure the earth is spinning any better now that Jodie Foster’s lesbianism is verified. I did, for a while, take issue with the tight lips of Anderson Cooper, a man of stature and public importance well beyond the realm of entertainment, and whose open joining and championing of what’s becoming a new movement of civil rights could change minds and influence real-world coverage of LGBT matters. With a lifestyle well known for some time throughout New York and within his profession, Cooper—who, as an international correspondent roaming certain areas that realistically kill gays on sight, had more justifiable reticence than any other recently outed celeb—didn’t surprise anyone when he finally stated the obvious, and it was a satisfying moment indeed. It was a bit of a letdown that the news came via Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, a blog under the umbrella of odious Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast. But, as Sullivan stated in the July 2012 article, which included the text of a personal email from Cooper outlining all the details, the two men are old, trusted friends, and the fact that the story broke via a modest, copy-and-paste blog post directly reflects the gulf between Foster’s spectacle and the actual spread of equality.
It also speaks to the myriad ways gay stars can easily, and often subtly, answer the big question today. Foster may not have received the memo that televised declarations and People cover stories have been shuffled aside as the norm (give or take a Ricky Martin article), but many younger stars who’ve come of age amid the shifting tides have, including 39-year-old Jim Parsons, who revealed his relationship to The New York Times in a May article discussing his work in The Normal Heart; 19-year-old Ezra Miller, who casually identified as queer in an August interview with OUT; and 34-year-old traffic-stopper Matt Bomer, who, in what may be the finest confirmation of celebrity gayness to date, simply thanked his longtime partner in a speech while accepting a Steve Chase Humanitarian Award (the honor was for Bomer’s efforts in fighting HIV/AIDS). These unforced, ain’t-no-thang methods of disclosure represent progress that Foster’s headline-maker managed to both support and contradict. Bomer’s case, specifically, is draped in hope, as the heartthrob has long been stated as choice No. 1 for the very promiscuous—and very straight—Christian Grey in the forthcoming film version of E.L. James’s 50 Shades trilogy. And it’s not just industry types who are doing the cheerleading, it’s the books own rabid, female fans. After all, what could be sexier that the ultimate unattainable male? The point is, we seem to have at last reached a time when going public as a gay celebrity doesn’t equal career death, but a career surge. May be a good idea to rethink that retirement, Jodie.
UC Davis: A Lesson in Civil Disobedience
By now you’ve seen the video and heard the outrage: A group of student demonstrators at the University of California Davis supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement and protesting violent police action against University of Berkeley protesters two weeks earlier were pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police. If the incident doesn’t become an iconic, defining moment of the Occupy movement a la images of black Americans being hosed down by police during the civil rights movement, it has at least galvanized the cause and ignited a long-overdue debate about police aggression circa 2011.
While the UC Davis police were acting on orders by the university’s chancellor, Linda Katehi, it’s unlikely she instructed Lt. John Pike to nonchalantly stroll up and down and shower the students with military-grade pepper spray at point-blank range like he was killing cockroaches in his kitchen. No reasonable civilian would begrudge police officers their right to protect themselves while in the line of duty, but despite UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza’s statement that the pepper spray was used because students were preventing the officers from leaving, video and photographs of the incident contradict her account. Even Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—who likened pepper spray to a nice, peppery vinaigrette on The O’Reilly Factor last night—thinks Spicuzza’s claim is bogus.
The disparity of the police presence at Occupy protests vs. similar Tea Party events, where demonstrators routinely wield weapons, and the clearly organized response (from as high up as the Department of Justice) to the Occupy movements in various cities across the country has been covered reasonably well in the media. The incident is also beginning to shine a light on the gratuitous use of new forms of non-lethal force (like pepper spray, tear gas, and Tasers—what a former police lieutenant calls “standard police procedure”) in instances where, previously, weapons may not have been used at all.
But what no one seems to be talking about is the second half of the eight-and-a-half-minute video, during which the students corral the police and seemingly guide them out of the university quad. Chants of “Shame on you!” and “Our university!” built steadily as the number of students gathering around increased. As the officers back away with their riot guns drawn, Lt. Pike can be seen shaking two pepper-spray canisters, preparing to open fire on the students again. Then one protester can be heard leading a new chant: “We are willing to give you a brief moment of peace, and you may take your weapons and our friends and go. Please do not return. You can go. We will not follow you.” Repeated chants of “You can go!” are then followed by cheering as the police officers exit the university grounds and the students reclaim their quad.
Most, if not all, of the media coverage of the incident at UC Davis has focused on the police action, not the students’ reaction. But what these few minutes of video display is the power of nonviolent resistance and direct action in the face of police force. Just as the overnight occupation of Liberty Square in downtown Manhattan was technically illegal, the demonstrations at UC Davis may have been against the university’s rules, or even against the law. But as a famous civil rights leader once said, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” Its economy of language and lack of obvious poetry makes it one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s less quotable quotes, but it’s the foundational principle of civil disobedience, and one that these idealistic college students clearly understand.
Watch the incident from four perspectives:
Sarah Palin’s Rallying Cry
When Sarah Palin’s new video message regarding the controversy surrounding the assassination attempt of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was released today, I couldn’t help but think of Osama bin Laden. Some will no doubt be tempted to stop reading right here, and dismiss this as the rant of some partisan lefty. A lefty I am, and I make no bones about it, but hear me out. Bin Laden doesn’t just release one of his cave messages to the West following a terrorist attack for which he’s responsible; he often chimes in after any notable calamity, claiming tacit responsibility or pointing a figure at the consequences of American imperialism.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that Sarah Palin is a terrorist. I personally don’t ascribe responsibility for what happened in Tucson, Arizona last weekend to Palin—at least directly. There’s no evidence to suggest that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, had a coherent political ideology, let alone ever saw Palin’s “target list,” on which Giffords’s district was depicted in crosshairs. But like Bin Laden, Palin exists in a vacuum, avoiding both reality and real media interaction, occasionally appearing on FOX News via satellite from her own cave, err, studio above her garage in Alaska and communicating in slogans, soundbites, and 140-character messages via Twitter and Facebook. Using social media is undoubtedly a savvy, immediate, and hands-on method of getting one’s message across, but Palin doesn’t seem interested in engaging her supporters or critics in any meaningful way. She’s an isolated political figure, communicating her ideas, if not her orders, from some faraway headquarters, almost as if she’d prefer that others do her bidding for her.
Andrew Sullivan likened Palin’s video speech to “a rallying cry.” A more conspiratorial, cynical person than myself, someone who believes that Palin is in this for anything other than money, might agree, and read into her use of the word “blood” and the way she emphasized how the “citizens” that were killed were “innocent victims” the same way a rebel fighter might lament collateral damage. But Palin’s latest video missive is unsettling in several other ways. Rather than admit that using violent metaphors during a political campaign was, perhaps, not her greatest moment and, in this case, a deeply regrettable coincidence, and take an opportunity to actually lead by calling for the rhetoric to be toned down (on “both sides,” as is the current tack of politicians and mainstream media figures these last few days, despite there being absolutely no evidence of rhetorical parity), she’s attempting to further divide the country even as she claims that her critics are doing the same.
Palin’s denial of her own contribution to the current political discourse, defending it by ridiculously invoking the political duels of centuries past, is dumbfounding. “When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote,” she said, repeating part of a campaign speech from last year. It’s a rational statement in and of itself, and I like a good metaphor, but again, Palin exists in a vacuum. She talks of the “peaceful exchange of power,” but the manner in which she and others have attempted to rally their supporters is falling on the ears of those who have clearly forgotten that they live in a representative democracy, where change is affected by ballots, not bullets. That Loughner may not have been one of those people, that he is “apolitical” and “deranged,” or that the violent rhetoric is simply that—rhetoric—is a hollow argument. How does Palin reconcile her claim that her actions have no impact when people are showing up at rallies with guns, with posters that literally call for blood?
But Palin and others on the right remain resolute in their unwillingness to admit their mistakes. And to act as if the incitement of violence hasn’t already had a direct effect is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. After health care reform passed in the House last year, Giffords’s office was the target of vandalism, one in a series of directly connected incidents that occurred in opposition to the bill, including a propane tank gas line being cut at the house of the brother of a Virginia congressman after right-wing activists published his address online, believing it was the representative’s home. The question isn’t whether or not political violence can be directly connected to right-wing provocation; the question is how much further will it go?
Sarah Palin is not a terrorist, but she certainly “palls around” with them. During the 2010 elections, she endorsed failed Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who not only used violent rhetoric regarding her opponent, majority leader Harry Reid, but took it one step further by declaring that her supporters were prepared to use “second amendment remedies” if she didn’t win the election. Right-wing anti-abortion extremists routinely vandalize women’s health clinics and post the home addresses of abortion doctors and nurses. These same tactics—which have led to the assassinations of eight doctors and clinic employees since 1993, including Dr. George Tiller—are now being used as a broader political strategy by the right. If it continues, the ends might tragically be the same too.
Vote, Baby, Vote!
Leading up to the 2008 election, we posted a series of vintage Rock the Vote ads on the Slant blog. Unfortunately, they didn’t survive the transition to the new House, but here’s one of our favorites:
Remember to vote this Tuesday, November 2nd!
It Gets Better…or Does It?
Public figures and private citizens of all stripes are joining a movement to tell gay teens suffering from bullying in school or struggling with their identity that “it gets better.” The campaign, simply dubbed the It Gets Better Project, was launched by columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage in the wake of a recent string of teenage suicides across the country which have gotten a surprising amount of mainstream media attention.
But does it really get better? It certainly can, and it most likely will, in a multitude of ways, for most young gays growing up today…if, like the campaign says, they would just live to see it. Cultural change often happens fast, even if it seems unbearably slow; I graduated from high school just a year and a half before the premiere of the first network sitcom with an openly gay male lead character (whose name was in the title, no less!) and just months before my school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance was started. The experience of being a gay teen was measurably different between the time I attended my high school and the years that followed soon after.
But my question is mostly directed to the supposed “adults” in the room. One of the more visible people who have taken part in the It Gets Better campaign is Mario Lavandeira, better known to Internet gossip hounds as “Perez Hilton.” His message is one that’s hard to swallow coming from someone who, as an adult, is a glorified bully, publicly outing celebrities on his blog and scrawling “gay” across the faces of those who won’t kiss his ass. He now claims he’ll stop the bullying, but the point remains the same: Ours is a culture of bullying and bigotry, whether it’s tabloid journalism or mainstream politicking.
There are politicians running for office in the midterm elections this year who have publicly declared that gay pride parades are “disgusting,” that gays can be “cured,” and that openly gay men and women should not be allowed to teach in our schools. Despite progress to end the ban, the U.S. Military still doesn’t allow openly gay members to serve, and gay marriage is illegal in most states in the union.
Connections between these policies and the culture of intolerance in our schools have already been pointed out in recent weeks, but it bears repeating—ad nauseam—until those policies are ended. And organized religion also bears culpability. In response to a Christian reader who was offended by his assertion that people of faith are partly responsible for anti-gay bullying, Dan Savage answered bluntly: “[M]any of your children—having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry—feel justified in physically abusing the LGBT children they encounter in their schools.” (I urge everyone to read his entire response.)
Gay teens aren’t killing themselves because being a “gay teen” in America isn’t easy. They’re killing themselves because being gay in America isn’t easy. Justin Aeberg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, and the countless others whose stories we haven’t heard yet had plenty to live for. But despite brave testimonials like the one shared this week by Forth Worth, TX city councilman Joel Burns, who is married to his husband and who has ostensibly been accepted by his 67-year-old “tough-cowboy”-of-a-dad, things getting better isn’t guaranteed to everyone—or anyone.
In New York City, one of the safest cities in the country for gays, three separate alleged hate crimes against adult gay men were reported over the course of just a few days earlier this month. October also marks the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. These are stark reminders that violence against gays isn’t simply a teenage epidemic.
When we’ve created an environment in which discrimination, bigotry, and violence are accepted, how can we expect our children not to follow suit in our schools and in our streets? It Gets Better is a beautiful campaign, and a necessary one, but it’s one that can only work in conjunction with real, fundamental change: change in our schools; change in our churches, synagogues, and mosques; and change in our government. To the president, I say: You claim you want to see an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but you refuse to do it by executive order out of some pass-the-buck ideal that the body that legislated it should also be the one to repeal it. But I say that all three branches of government are equal. It’s clear where the judicial branch is coming down on the issue, but your Department of Justice insists on appealing those decisions—partly made possible by gay Republicans, to boot—for that same idealistic reason.
If we truly want to help save the lives of not just gay teens, but gay Americans of all ages, we need to stop state-sanctioned bigotry immediately. It’s not enough to simply tell gay kids that it gets better. We have to prove it.
Links for the Day: Gulf Oil Leak Edition
The Obama administration is starting to take some serious heat regarding their response to the Gulf oil leak. Last week, choice words came from James Carville, Bob Herbert, and Tom Friedman, who makes some dubious connections to 9/11.
Forget stuffing pantyhose with dog hair. Now there’s the “Kevin Costner Solution.” Brought to you by Waterworld.
Live streaming oil porn:
Links for the Day: A collection of links to items that we hope will spark discussion. We encourage our readers to submit candidates for consideration to [email protected] and to converse in the comments section.
Spill, Baby, Spill
During the summer of 2008, leading up to the presidential election, Republican nominee John McCain scheduled and then abruptly cancelled a meet-cute with the press atop an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. Despite claims that weather concerns prompted the change in plans, the real reason appeared to be the fact that, nearby, half a million gallons of oil was gushing into the Mississippi River thanks to a tanker accident. The reality about offshore drilling was sullying McCain’s political plans, and Barack Obama, the man to whom he lost the election, is now facing a similar inconvenient truth as president.
In March, Obama announced plans to lift the 20-year moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling as part of a comprehensive energy policy. Ever the pragmatist (and hopeless romantic, apparently), Obama presumably intended to grease the wheels of an energy and climate bill that faces an uphill battle in Washington thanks to the influence of Big Oil on both sides of the aisle. Most experts agree that, for a nation that represents 20 percent of global oil consumption but is home to just two percent of the world’s reserves, the impact of offshore drilling on gas prices would be negligible, but it was part of a political strategy designed to—foolishly, if the stimulus bill, health care reform, and the right-wing response to Obama’s announcement were any indication—lure Republicans to the negotiating table.
But Republican opposition is nothing compared to the realities of offshore drilling, which can soil a presidential or legislative campaign with just one spill. Obama promised environmentalists that his move to expand offshore drilling would be done responsibly, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following a deadly oil rig explosion on April 20th, resulting in an environmental and economic catastrophe that could match or even exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, has tapped a new wave of concerns about safety and regulation. The malfunction of the blowout preventer on the rig in question, which was leased and run by BP, may have been an isolated incident, but it raises questions about whether the technology even exists to ensure that drilling in both existing and newly leased areas along the East Coast, the Gulf, and Alaska can truly be “safe.”
Oilman and John Kerry swift boater T. Boone Pickens took to the cable nets this week to promote both alternative energy and offshore drilling, suggesting that “way too much is being made of the oil that’s comin’ out there in the Gulf. All of that will get cleaned up.” Pickens is apparently unaware that, as of 2007, there were still 26,600 gallons of oil in the Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska courtesy of the 21-year-old Exxon Valdez spill. And as I pointed out in my piece about McCain in 2008, there were 124 spills amounting to over 17,500 barrels of oil during the 2005 hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Pickens and others have rightfully trumpeted the national security dangers of being reliant on OPEC for energy; even Obama seems to have adopted the everything-on-the-table approach. But whether it’s the latest Gulf spill or last month’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Montcoal, WV, the human, economic, and environment costs of homegrown energy—at least the “dirty” kind—don’t seem to be any cheaper or safer.
Image of the Decade: Osama and the Towers
Read the eleventh and final installment in a series of countdown essays written for Salon.
The Lieberman Problem
“I don’t think we need it now,” a prominent U.S. senator said in a statement yesterday regarding a public health care option, and it wasn’t a Republican. Once again, “Democrat” Joe Lieberman has gone rogue. Shortly after the 2008 election, I posited a scenario under which Lieberman, who failed at almost every turn to use his chairmanship on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to hold the Bush administration accountable, would become a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. Democrats, led by the new president, refused to strip Lieberman of his title or his seat in the Democratic caucus after the Connecticut senator not only campaigned against his own party during the presidential election, but did so rather unscrupulously.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid said then that he trusted Lieberman, but this new development in the seesawing life of the so-called public option should come as no surprise: Lieberman went on record as being against a filibuster-proof majority months ago, and he’s fought against his own party on key issues for years. Until now, it’s been his position on foreign policy that has been most troubling (it’s disturbing, if not downright dangerous, to have a politician who pals around with a hatemonger like John Hagee simply because—even though Hagee’s position on Israel is based on his belief that the preservation of the Jews is integral to the coming Rapture—he supports his Zionist agenda to chair a national security congressional committee), but Lieberman’s maverick-y impulses are now poised to kill what could potentially be a transformative piece of domestic legislation. According to Firedoglake, if Lieberman votes against cloture, the process by which Democrats can prevent a filibuster by Republicans, it will be the first time in American history that a member of a super-majority has joined the opposition to filibuster a bill.
So if not now, Joe, when? According to the National Coalition on Health Care, employer-based health insurance premiums have risen 131 percent over the last decade and are projected to double in the next 10 years, and the industry essentially advertised its intent to increase rates via a recent “study” of the Senate Finance Committee’s reform bill, which was, in part, written by those very special interests in the first place. With or without government intervention, the insurance industry has no intention of lowering rates, making a robust public option even more essential.
But here’s the rub: The public option as it’s currently being proposed in the Senate, the one Lieberman is so adamantly against that he would deviate from his party in such an unprecedented way, would not only allow states to opt out (a hurdle overcome by simple shaming; see the stimulus bill), but it would be limited solely to those who are uninsured, rendering it practically impotent for the millions currently paying exorbitant premiums and getting little in return. The watering down of government programs like this is the next best thing to right-wing lobbyist and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s dream of cutting government down to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. A public option so limited in scope will surely fail to create fundamental change in the system, thereby allowing Norquist and his ilk to declare that government is indeed a failure. So perhaps Lieberman will be doing the country a favor by preventing such a weak bill from passing in the first place. Joe Lieberman, hero of progressives?
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.
Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism
Earlier this year, the National Review published a list of the top 25 conservative movies. Number two on this list was Pixar’s The Incredibles:
This animated film skips pop-culture references and gross jokes in favor of a story that celebrates marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement. A family of superheroes—Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children—are living an anonymous life in the suburbs, thanks to a society that doesn’t appreciate their unique talents. Then it comes to need them. In one scene, son Dash, a super-speedy runner, wants to try out for track. Mom claims it wouldn’t be fair. “Dad says our powers make us special!” Dash objects. “Everyone is special,” Mom demurs, to which Dash mutters, “Which means nobody is.”
The Incredibles is probably Pixar’s most difficult film to pin down politically, but it is not John Lasseter & Co.’s only film to be read as conservative. At Big Hollywood, John Nolte (in response to the National Review) thought of Ratatouille as another great conservative film which “examines the same theme of extraordinariness” as The Incredibles. It’s interesting that both of these films are directed by Brad Bird. Bird is actually somewhat of an anomaly in the Pixar political scheme, and thus his films are the ones which are most easily read as “ideologically” conservative – that is, as part of an actual, contemporary political movement. If we step back, however, and consider Pixar’s films in a more relaxed definition of “conservatism,” then a political reading of them can actually help us understand something about their art, not just act as fodder for conservative commentating.
There is something conservative about much of Pixar’s output, but when I say conservative, I mean a small “c” conservative that sees the world along the same lines as Edmund Burke: “A disposition to preserve.” I’m going to call this “social conservatism,” by which I don’t mean the religious or moral conservatism of modern political discourse, but a conservatism that is interested in preserving traditional social features – in particular, the idea of “family” – but which sees such preservation as ultimately futile. The family will dissolve, eventually, and so we must do what we can to keep it going as long as possible. It is a worldview based not on progression but on loss.
From the beginning, the anxiety of the loss of family has been central to Pixar. The Toy Story films are a good example of this. As one questioner put it in Roger Ebert’s “Movie Answer Man” column back in 1999, “Think of the toys as symbols for parents. In the early years of childhood, we are everything to children, and they go nowhere without us. As they get older, we become less important in their everyday life. As parents, we know that will happen, but like Woody observes at the end of the movie, we wouldn’t miss a single day of that period of a child’s life.” Toy Story 2, in particular, focuses on the dissolution of the toy family, as Buzz and the gang attempt to rescue Woody from a toy dealer intent on selling Woody in Japan. The subplot of Jessie, a toy abandoned by her child, is the fullest expression of the abandonment feared by all the toys. Although the film ends with the toy community back together again in Andy’s bedroom, the “message” of the film is essentially to enjoy the time we have with those we love, as it won’t last forever.
This is a surprisingly adult message, but over the years, Pixar has made a number of films which return again and again to the anxiety of familial dissolution. Monsters, Inc. does this through the small family unit of Scully and Boo; Finding Nemo is about a father’s inability to let his son go; in Up, an old man learns to live after his wife’s death. In the (unfortunately) much-maligned Cars, the modern world’s loss of small communities (exemplified by Radiator Springs) is a tragedy, and the film (despite the restoration of the community at the end) is mostly a lament for lost values. None of these films may be overtly political, but the moral message is innate: The family (or small community) is central, and it is failing, so we must do what we can to preserve it.
Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, actually deviate from this formula a bit. Although The Incredibles is certainly about a family unit in crisis, it is also about reconciling innate talent with a mediocre existence. Mr. Incredible wants to save the world, but instead he’s stuck in a dead-end job and a suffocating family life. At times, with its message that those who exhibit greatness are morally obligated to act on such greatness, the film has shades of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. This is the element celebrated by the National Review. Yes, the family unit is important in the film, but the characters are all still “super,” greater than the average citizen. The family unit ultimately sticks together because they have to, because if they don’t someone who isn’t actually talented (like the villain, Syndrome) could ruin the world.
Ratatouille’s message – that not everyone can be a genius, but if you are one you can come from anywhere – also reflects a similar concern with the talent of the individual. Granted, in both cases that talent ultimately flourishes by placing it among a family or community (in Ratatouille, Remy’s big night is assisted by the entire colony of rats), but Bird’s films are ultimately a triumph of the individual, not the community. His films seem to take the inherent social conservatism of Pixar features and run with them in another direction.
WALL-E is another interesting exception. The film is certainly an attack against environmental destruction and excessive consumerism, and it is also the Pixar film which drew the most ire of conservative commentators for its depiction of capitalism as inevitably leading us towards a future of obesity and laziness. At the end of the film, the world is saved by society’s (the whole of society, not just a small portion of it) decision to return to the site of disaster and rebuild. WALL-E himself is the impetus for this change, but ultimately humanity can only be saved if it decides to work together. This, of course, is quite different from a message about a small family unit. The vision of a society working together to achieve its common goals is really a liberal vision, a progressive vision.
It is not that the other Pixar films don’t feature cooperation, but it is usually among smaller groups (a few toys, a circus troupe of bugs, a tank full of fish) that such cooperation typically takes place. This is consistent with the continuing theme that one can only flourish and be saved when a part of the family unit. WALL-E is the great exception to this rule, and even in this case, the film’s heart is in the romance between WALL-E and EVE, a budding robot family.
Obviously, as a film studio making what are nominally “family films” in a category that in America is traditionally pitched to children, Pixar’s focus on the family should not be a complete shock. However, the imagination factory at Pixar is renowned for its work ethic and coherent creative vision, and the fact that their films consistently tackle anxiety about the family is more than just a quirk of their medium. It’s part and parcel of their creative vision. The exceptions to this trend – most notably in the films of Brad Bird and in WALL-E – also remind us that Pixar, though it sometimes resembles an auteur in and of itself, is in fact a collection of artists with unique and separate visions, and not all of their films are going to cohere in some thematically satisfying way.
However, if Pixar has developed a reputation as a socially conservative (with a small “c”) film studio, it’s not unwarranted. Such conservatism is also not antithetical to great art. Recent cinematic attempts at creating a “conservative cinema” have been overly ideological and political and thus failures as art (An American Carol comes to mind, as does the continuing conservative love for Red Dawn), but the same can be said for ideologically liberal films (Crash, any number of recent films about the war in Iraq).
A sympathetic artist, regardless of politics, is going to connect. Clint Eastwood is famously conservative, yet many of his films (Unforgiven, Gran Torino) explore with great artistry and craft the intersections of violence and community. If Pixar trends conservative, let it stay that way. The occasional exception (WALL-E) or variation (Ratatouille) makes the studio that much more interesting to watch, and when a Pixar film really nails the emotion and fear inherent in a family’s breakdown, as in this summer’s Up, it can often be transcendent.
Tom Elrod is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He blogs at http://tomelrod.wordpress.com/.
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.
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