5 political clichés we should leave in the 2010s
It's that time of year again when columnists are expected to reflect upon what has happened in the preceding 360 or so days and offer advice or predictions to no one in particular. Because we are also at the end of a decade, there is an additional imperative at work here. My contribution to this all-important discourse is to grump about five clichés common among both politicians and journalists that I for one would be happy not to encounter in 2020 or, indeed, ever again.
Do you remember when Lady Gaga attended some awards show wearing a dress made of meat? I had to check the story to make sure that it had happened (and that it wasn't a Yoko Ono stunt from the '60s or something Madonna had done when my parents were teenagers). That was what fashion journalists would call a "bad look," with the latter noun taking the sense of a personal aesthetic or fashion sense. This is not what journalists mean when they say that responding to Donald Trump's state of the union address on the same night as Stacey Abrams is a "bad look" for Bernie Sanders or that an innocuous mistake made by television contractors is a "bad look" for the New England Patriots. The authors know perfectly well that by giving a short speech critical of the president after a similar one has been delivered by an African-American female politician, Sanders is not in fact attempting "to take attention from a voice that rarely gets this kind of national stage" (though one might well point out that former state legislators who fail to win statewide office are rarely chosen to speak nationally on behalf of their parties for reasons that have nothing to do with race or sex and everything to do with their relevance and actual political skills). Ditto the sportswriters who understand the difference between the already overblown "Spygate" controversy and a camera operator filming stock footage in the stadium of the worst team in professional football for a web documentary.
So what exactly is "bad" here then? The fact that if we insist on publicly subjecting certain actions to a deliberate bad-faith reading, the result is something that could be interpreted as negative? Calling something a "bad look" is a wink-wink nudge-nudge way of saying that while one understands that x isn't actually bad, some unspecified group of more ignorant persons might interpret it as such. Who exactly these persons are and whether they would actually reach this conclusion is unclear. It is also irrelevant to the real purpose of Bad Lookers, which is to heap scorn on people they already dislike for doing bad things (being racist and sexist or cheating in sports) they admit they aren't actually guilty of.
Keep your distance
There is an old and almost certainly apocryphal story told about one of Lyndon Johnson's early campaigns in Texas. Faced with the possibility of losing a close race, Johnson instructed his campaign manager to spread the rumor that his opponent, a pig farmer, routinely engaged in bestiality. The poor hatchet man replied that it was untrue. "I know," LBJ said. "But let's make the son of a bitch deny it." This anecdote is a good illustration of what politicians, and, alas, journalists are doing when they demand that that so-and-so "distance" him or herself from something. Sometimes it is a Republican politician whose campaign has received the support of a white supremacist blogger whose identity would be obscure if it weren't for the inexplicable profiles of him in Mother Jones; sometimes it is a Democrat whose broad base of supporters include harsh critics of Israeli policy or who have said and written all manner of absurd things while they were living in hippie communes during the Nixon administration or serving as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. But the end result is always the same. If the requested public abjuration takes place, the person making it is implicitly admitting that the connection being drawn between him or herself and the object of the disavowal was valid and reasonable; if he or she refuses, well, ditto. This is rhetorically and intellectually dishonest and very tedious to read.
I seriously doubt that when someone "calls on" — this is the formula always employed by the press — the president to "distance himself" from David Duke or the junior senator from Vermont to do the same vis-a-vis Nicolás Maduro, the premise is that, in the absence of such a metaphorical disassociation, normal persons would assume that their political agendas or methods were similar. Nor is it clear, if one insists that Trump is actually a Nazi or that Sanders really does think Venezuela is a kind of Shangri-La, how some forced ritualistic disavowal would be expected to change their underlying views. Once again, this is about guilt by association and outrage-mongering.
One of the many baselessly pleasing activities to which I devote far too much time is imagining what historians, philologists, hagiographers, and so on of the year 3000 will make of us. Mostly this involves dreaming of the learned disputes among future scholars of The Simpsons, which will be available only in the form of transcripts of the first, second, and eighth seasons and subjected to the kind of inquiry we associate with Roman comedies. I also wonder sometimes whether readers of whatever remains are left of our newspapers will think that American society in the early 21st century was more casually violent than it in fact is. What other conclusion could one draw from the fact that whenever anyone performatively decries the badness of something or someone else, we say that he or she has "blasted" or "slammed" the latter? This particular bit of journalese coarsens public life. It also valorizes behavior that is utterly unremarkable — i.e., one politician saying that another politician is bad. (Consider what would happen if "blasts" were replaced with something more accurate like "criticizes" or "disagrees with," leaving us with Onion-worthy headlines like "Biden criticizes critics.") The corollary of this is the cheapening of the experience of people on the other side of the world who are actually subject to "blasts" and face the very real prospect of being "slammed."
Stand and deliver
A cursory search of my primary email inbox reveals that during the last calendar year I received no fewer than 450 messages asking that I "stand with" politicians ranging from Trump and Obama and Sanders to various obscure House candidates (someone named Lucy McBath alone accounted for more than two dozen of these) and with both of our major political parties. Virtually every single one of these emails also contained a solicitation for campaign contributions. This is fine and normal. My question is why those responsible for drafting them did not just say that at the outset, especially when they are offering things like hats and frisbees and guacamole bowls in exchange. "Give Trump money and receive a poorly thought out joke t-shirt" makes a good deal more sense to me than asking me to "stand with" the president. What would it even mean to "stand" with a politician? Literally to stand next to him or her on a stage or in the middle of a stadium or arena that was meant to accommodate a minor league baseball team and whatever hair metal bands are still touring? Why would anyone wish to do such a thing?
Protesting too much
This is less a rhetorical device than it is a delusional perspective on one of the least understood phenomena in politics. Every few weeks I feel like I read a piece in which a journalist condescendingly asks why there aren't more people protesting Trump or President Bolsonaro in Brazil or some other boogeyman. The answer, very likely known to the authors, is that these unnamed individuals or groups feel as if they have better things to do with their time.
They are not wrong. In the United States and most countries within the NATO sphere of influence, what we think of as political protests — people assembling in groups, carrying signs, chanting, singing, often but not always while wearing absurd costumes — are a more or less harmless form of entertainment among persons of a certain class. This was not always the case, of course. But the March on Washington, for example, took place under conditions that would now be impossible to replicate: among them were the protest's profound novelty and the radically different, and vastly more concentrated, media infrastructure of 1963. Nothing remotely like the march had ever happened before, and thanks in part to the fact that there were only three television channels and a flourishing, responsible print media, it was able to capture the imagination of the entire country.
Nowadays there are protests in front of the White House and on Capitol Hill 365 days a year. The annual March for Life, for example, draws hundreds of thousands of people, and it has rarely if ever drawn any attention even from the Washington Post. I have attended dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of protests as a member of the press and can assure you that they are all equally meaningless. So there is no need to browbeat ordinary working people for their lack of enthusiasm here. A better question than why more people aren't protesting is why anyone bothers in the first place.