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treating palinism seriously

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Sep 25th, 2008

Though I wonder whether it’s appropriate to credit Sarah Palin with a sufficiently coherent worldview (and I mean this with stress on world, since it’s clear that she lacks the life experience, self-reflexivity, and intellectual sophistication to understand either the structure of globalization, any foreign cultures, or the way non-Americans perceive this country) to qualify as “Palinism,” Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed in today’s NYT productively analyzes her assertion of American exceptionalism. For Cohen, the defining characteristic of Palinism is anger, which comes from a building sense of American decline in the popular viscera. This anger is manifest in the widespread and willful ignorance evident in debates over issues from climate change to military strategy; as the left attempts to produce a discourse grounded in fact, the conservative movement continuously adheres to a love of truthiness that exposes its ignorance of the gravity of the matters at hand

The article is particularly interesting when placed into dialogue with Empire as a Way of Life, by William Appleman Williams, which I just read for Race, Empire, and Modernity. While it’s difficult to claim today that any one particular event or discourse is the strongest evidence for Williams’ thesis (since so much points to the imperial character of American political/social/economic ideology), Palinism is certainly a contender. Assertions of American exceptionalism increasingly ring hollow in the Internet age, when your ability means more than the color of your passport.

In his preface, Williams argues that a characteristic of the “imperial way of life” is an inability “to say no to our desires.”  He quotes another historian’s description of “our ‘growing national disillusionment when it appears that the desires must be limited'”, which is a surprisingly prescient evocation of Palinism more than thirty years before anyone outside of Anchorage knew who Sarah Baracuda was. If we take this discussion of desire seriously, it’s possible to read Palinism (and the related desparation of rust belt whites ‘clinging to their guns and religion’) as a truly fetishistic construction. The unreasonable importance Palinists give to trivial social policy is the fetish obscuring their (dis)avowel of American decline. Only an enforced ignorance of the rapidly morphing world order could make denying gay marriage seem worth the effort.

With the financial system collapsing around us and the real vacuity of American wealth no longer ignorable, a truly international awareness is essential. Even Adam Smith’s own analysis supports the need for a global approach (it’s good to fight on their turf):

Riches do not consist in having more Gold and Silver, but in having more in proportion than the rest of the World… whereby we are enabled to procure to ourselves a greater Plenty of the Conveniences of Life than comes within the reach of Neighbouring Kingdoms and States

Instead of colonial plunder, today’s riches are virtual: information, skill, education, creativity, etc. It’s not enough for a Palinist to “know” that we’re in a bad spot because imported stuff costs more, jobs are being “outsourced” in inreasingly creative ways, and people are asking to be paid in Euros. In this century, leaders need to understand education, productivity, energy policy, foreign affairs, cultural production and everything else of importance in relative terms. Thinking America is Exceptional laughs in the face of a global approach because it raises painful truths about our own value. We need our leaders to interrogate this fetishism before we wake up an irrelevancy.

madden's epistemic break

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Sep 15th, 2008

Today’s Times had a brilliant article about John Madden that makes the counterintuitive argument that the man is a true public intellectual, responsible for a drastic shift in how people watch, understand, and follow american football. Before the internet made fantasy sports into a multi-billion dollar industry and even casual fans were able to access and analyze statistics at a close-to college level, Madden initiated a transformation in football television that brought the intricate strategy of the game to the fore. According to Bryan Curtis, pre-Madden football announcers assumed viewers had no interest in defensive shifts, coverage strategy, or offensive linemen and thus concentrated on constructing a human-interest narrative that saw the game itself as the enactment of a dramatic story of conquer and triumph. The video footage focused on individual feats of strength with tight shots.

professor madden taught football for fans at the university of california

professor madden taught "football for fans" at the university of california

I think this is reflected in the attitude older fans bring to sports in general, but Madden’s Break makes it (arguably) most obvious in football season. I see many fans of my father’s generation who see sport as a metaphor for life more broadly and love an underdog’s triumph over a dynasty, etc. According to Curtis, this material formed the bulk of the dialouge during football telecasts.

Madden rejected the idea that football fans couldn’t (or didn’t want to) understand the full complexity of a football play. As an announcer, he encouraged his directors to use more wide-angle shots, which show more of the field, so viewers could watch the development of the play. He pioneered the use of the Telestrator to annotate replays of the last down and direct fans’ attention to important but less obvious elements of strategy, including the importance of the offensive line.

Madden’s best-selling video game franchise is an important aspect of the current football culture. Curtis emphasizes how important the game’s realism is to Madden, but the franchise passed by Real years ago. The game now achieves a level of hyperreality with its sophistocated control that takes weeks to master, its reverse-engineered playbooks, and its super slow motion, pausable replays that allow the player to fly around and inspect from every conceivable angle. (The gameplay is complicated even beyond the virtual field: “franchise mode” lets the player be the owner of the team and manipulate everything from hot dog prices to personel decisions. There’s even a surprisingly rich mediascape that should certainly be purused before raising ticket prices.) In a truly postmodern twist, ESPN now uses the game to create simulations for its analysts’ shows, since it permits a nearly infinitely detailed examination of real and potential game situations. EA Sports even uses the latest Madden version to run an annual Super Bowl simulation complete with coverage worthy of a live game. The computer has picked the winner four out of five years.

I found this article interesting for many reasons, but I think one of its biggest accomplishments is a characteristic of all good criticism: the ability to make something one knows well strange. Only by showing the development of the current emphasis on strategy and global play development could did I realize how intelligent football coverage is today. In a time when it feels as if complexity is being stripped away from every aspect of our mass culture (as is certainly the case in politics), it is really nice to be treated as an adult by a pop-culture production.

I think what Madden did was instigate an epistemic break in football culture. Instead of perceiving a football game as a narrative, the fan now engages with the coaching strategy quite deeply. A generation raised on EA Sports’ Madden video game franchise “knows” what it’s like to lead a team down the field in a two minute drill. Today’s NFL icon is Bill Belichick, not the Steel Curtain; the Patriots’ recent domination has been a victory of a brilliant strategist. (It’s telling that while steroids are seriously harming the competition in nearly every other sport, the most effective cheating campaign recently uncovered in the NFL was a theft of information: Belichick was found to be stealing and decoding opponents’ defensive signals with an array of sideline cameras.)

Indeed, Eric Mangini, the Jets’ new coach and a Belichick disciple, was one of the most surprising success stories last season. He has never played football; Mangini started as a 23-year old ball boy for the Cleveland Browns before getting an internship in the PR department. Belichick, then the Browns’ head coach, saw Mangini’s enthusiasm for statistics and his grasp of the game’s subtlties so he gave him the lowest coaching position: cutting film. Ten years later, this (former) fan had become a coach in the country’s biggest media market.

Putting it in perspective

Category : Uncategorized · (1) Comment · by Sep 13th, 2008

After thinking about coverage of the Palin interview yesterday, i went to this morning to find the second part of the interview (this event was too good to be squashed into one night of television). Instead of finding a link to a video of our potential VP, i was treated to a large (and obviously effective) ad for Wipeout, a new show that does for Spike’s infamous MXC what the Food Network did for the original Iron Chef.

The Iron Chef transition from funny dubbing to the American “Kitchen Stadium” worked out pretty well. We’ll have to see if the MXC concept is still as funny once we actually know what the announcers are saying. I guess that’s why they decided to make it really American: the announcers (one of whom is from ESPN) spend much of the show making fun of the fat people who fall off of some bouncy rubber surface, slam their faces into a wall, and fall into a pool of mud. It’s kind of like a cross between The Biggest Loser and a beer commercial.

After this, I went downstairs to make some breakfast and was listening to NPR, for what I thought would be a refreshing dose of sanity. Instead, I was clued into the expert opinion on Sarah Palin’s performance. Apparently she didn’t make any big gaffes. There was even a discussion about whether the Bush Doctrine question was fair.

I expect that from a News Corp property, but NPR? Dismayed and confused I finished my cinnamon bun and retreated upstairs to bury myself in Althusser and some more of the sweeper.

Fairness or a failure of responsibility?

Category : Uncategorized · No Comments · by Sep 12th, 2008

It could be that I’ve started to perceive the world solely in the bold, red headlines of HuffPo, but I certainly didn’t think the story from Sarah Palin’s ABC interview was that she thinks she’s “ready.” But apparently, The Times’ Jim Rutenberg felt that was pretty crucial, since he spends his first four paragraphs recounting Sarah’s declaration of fitness. Though we hear a bit about her Bush Doctrine “stumble” 200 words in, it’s not until nearly two-thirds of the way through the piece that Rutenberg shares the embarrassing play-by-play.

When I learned about the notorious buried lede, it seemed like a style mistake. But after reading about what the Internet is doing to our brains, this seems like an egregious abdication of responsibility by Rutenberg to orient the story around such a trite part of the interview. The Bush Doctrine is not an obscure piece of foreign policy jargon. Our dear leader’s vacuous statement of purpose has caused untold damage to the world; this is from the new york post, not the journal of foreign affairs. In my reading, Palin’s lack of awareness is bigger than her saber rattling towards Russia, her full-throated support for israel right-or-wrong, and her belief that the Iraq war is a mission from god.

So how do we evaluate The Times’ coverage? I frequently find that The Times’ efforts to balance their coverage devolve into fruitless attempts to lose the designation as a liberal rag. Instead of ideologically evening the ship, Times coverage and news judgement often go too far. Short of a Murdoch purchase, there is little The Times can do to win Bill O’Reilly’s heart. More than ever, the recent spate of outright lies from the McCain camp demand an active, responsible, vigorous fourth estate. The abdication of responsibility from the mainstream media allows this to continue with coverage bland enough to earn headlines like “Campaigns Trade Barbs Over Obama Lipstick Comment.” This isn’t fact checking, it’s score keeping.

MSNBC is in the midst of another struggle for “balance” and ethics in a changing media landscape. No one is sure how to maintain both standards and audiences, how to keep pressure on discourse without facing a boycott, how to serve the public interest while remembering the state of media ownership. I can’t throw my full support behind Olbermann – because a distinction between editorial commentary and news is still important at any news organization – but I can’t help but be grabbed by the audacity of his Special Comments. After years of seething anger belonging to the conservatives in a time when the right has been exposed as thoroughly wrong, Olbermann’s commentary is a televised moment of poitical jouissance. Palin’s stage-managed poise reflects her experience as the second runner-up at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant and is a strong, spectacular defense against Charlie Gibson’s energetic examination. The performance makes it difficult to remember that she’s shanking the responses to entry-level foreign policy questions. For the television viewer, this recital of authenticity was a powerful simulacrum that thoroughly veiled her thin biographical experience; proximity to Russia and one intercontinental voyage (in 2007). Youtube and cable news will concentrate  the Nixon/Kennedy debate effect, except this time no one’s listening on the radio.

This is why it so important for The Times to shape up. It’s fortunate that McCain played the Nixon to Palin’s Kennedy on The View today. But without a strong, candid voice in print, our only hope might be for the Matthews-Olbermann team to get mad as hell. If they don’t, people are just going to keep taking it.