The DC Rally to Restore Sanity — from an Intimate Distance

Halloween, our cultural pagan fun, shrewdly conscripted by our wise Christian ancestors.  Here in Washington DC, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert convened a Saturday rally of liberal fun-seekers, serious people tired of being so relentlessly serious.

I don’t have so much a point to make as an impression to paint.

When I first heard about the Rally to Restore Sanity, I thought, being a right-of-center thinker, great, more insufferable malice directed at America, more liberal condescension, more reasons why liberals bubble up in their self-perpetuating righteous cocoons because they’re convinced they get it and ordinary Americans don’t.  Wearisome.

And another thing.  I went from liking Jon Stewart to deeply disliking Jon Stewart after his performance on Crossfire in 2004.  His smug lecturing of Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson — gee guys, I’m just a wee comedy show but you’re supposed to be serious journalists and “stop hurting America” — sounded so passive-aggressive self-aggrandizing, such a deceptive ambush with comedy as cudgel.  Repeatedly mocking the manifest civility of Begala on the left and Carlson on the right, Stewart purported to be the arbiter of journalistic integrity, the guy who actually got it.  But he denied any responsibility for such journalistic integrity himself, being just a wee comedy show.  Or maybe he just thought he was that much smarter.

Late in the segment, just before a break, Tucker Carlson said, “I do think you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.”  To which Stewart responded, astoundingly, “you know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”

See, that was awkwardly aggressive, and not funny. I didn’t watch him thereafter.

I had some baggage about the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Then my friend Kathy Nester told me she’d be coming to the rally and could she and a friend crash at my place, which is a ten-minute walk to the mall where the rally would be held.  Absolutely, I said.  Kathy, and two of her amazingly engaging friends who became my friends, Felicia and Gwen, had stayed at my place during President Obama’s inauguration festivities in January 2009.  I didn’t attend any of the festivities with them — I was still misty-eyed over John McCain’s loss — but I got to experience, vicariously, the enormous historic thrill of that inauguration.

If Kathy told me she was coming to meet with a secret cabal bent on eliminating skinny white males with blue-green eyes, and needed a place to crash, I’d have said absolutely.

To know Kathy is to love her.  She’s a wacko liberal (as to her I’m a wacko conservative) doing public defender work in Jackson, Mississippi.  She was just recently admitted into the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers, an honor reserved for the very best in the profession.  We’ve known each other for over 20 years, since law school at the University of Texas, and life in that interim has been a bit of a roller-coaster for me.  From 1989 to the present, Kathy has been a steadfast friend.

Kathy and Jesus

She’s actually done the To Kill a Mockingbird thing, in reverse.  The story is told in Harry Maclean’s book, The Past Is Never Dead.  Though a wacko liberal, she vigorously represented James Ford Seale, the former Klansman who brutally murdered two 19-year-old African Americans, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, in 1964.  A jury convicted Seale in 2007, but Kathy persisted.  There are neutral rules designed to prevent show trials long after the offense, when witnesses and evidence are old, gone or compromised, and Kathy pressed these rules most effectively.  A Fifth Circuit panel agreed with her and overturned the conviction.  Only when the full Fifth Circuit — all 18 active judges — agreed to rehear the appeal (which is very unusual), and th

en split 9-9, did the conviction get reinstated.  By a tie vote, Seale, now in his 70s, will die in jail.  Kathy asked the Supreme Court to hear the issue, but they declined.  Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia said they should have.

Mississippi leads the South in prosecuting Klansmen for racial murders in the 1960s.  In the most gut-wrenching and complex narrative of the South, Kathy’s personal sympathies could not be clearer, but she nevertheless devoted her considerable skills to a Klansman, very nearly successfully.  It is perhaps the most honorable representation I’ve been privileged to witness in my own 20 years as a lawyer.

Kathy is why lawyer jokes are very funny but not very true.

While she was here for the Jon Stewart rally, Kathy and I argued, at times yelled at each other, and then resolved to figure out where we had misunderstood.  And I thought to myself, this is hopelessly complicated, the human exchange, and our only hope, and it helps tremendously when the humans love each other.

How deeply I would wish for every liberal to love a conservative, for every conservative to love a liberal.  Without this very human dialectic, we’re deeply ignorant.  We never gain any insight into how the other person thinks, what buttons send them spiraling into pre-rational realms, how precisely they are able to hear us but not listen to us, and vice versa.

We know this ideological sliver we know because it is perpetually reinforced by all of our other fellow occupants of the sliver.  And we think we know why the other side is stupidly or treasonously wrong because, by dang, everybody I know says it’s so.  It’s obvious.  If I were Earth Emperor, the first two things I would do would be to stop genocide, whatever the cost, and to ensure that everyone understood the fraudulence of obvious.

Hegel said we know least that with which we’re most familiar.  I tagged this notion 27 years ago, reading by a kerosene lamp in Kakamega, Kenya.  But I didn’t really understand it.  I’m beginning to.

Our brains are hard-wired to love a comfort-zone.  Neural processing is vastly complicated.  And when we can put something into a category that has already been processed, how eagerly we do it.  We cease to examine what we know, because, well, we know it.  It’s in the comfort zone.  And that familiar thing sits in our brain, unexamined, and drawing unto it every pittance of fact and experience that reinforces its luxury to grow fat and unexamined.

We’re configured, for the sake of efficiency and longevity, to presuppose that any strangeness has already been processed, that we can put it “over there.”  We instinctively decline to engage the strangeness on its own terms because that would open up an exhausting new neural processing.  We default to the categories we (think we) know.

Unless we love the other that is strange.  Then, in Martin Buber’s phrasing, I-It becomes I-You.  Our brain proceeds much less efficiently, and much more humanly.  We then crave understanding, the very thing we eschew when we’re processing efficiently.

It is neither liberal nor conservative to crave this understanding.  It happens only in concrete human relationships.  You know it when you feel it.

Liberals came to this rally for as many reasons as there are human motivations.  Conservatives understandably suspect these motivations because it all looks like liberals saying wearisomely again, we’re so tired of trying to elevate you, and by the way, we have a sense of humor and you don’t.  Some rally participants doubtless felt this way, but most did not.

Yusuf Islam, who used to be Cat Stevens, who used to be Steven Katz, participated in the rally’s elaborate train metaphor, with his signature song “Peace Train.”  When I was too young to be desperate, I played a Cat Stevens vinyl over and over, and I heard the lyrics I wished to hear.  And I survived.  I thanked him directly for that on a Fort Worth, Texas radio station back in the 1980s.  It doesn’t matter to me that he’s flirted with fatwas.  That is the way our brain works.

It is difficult for me to trust Jon Stewart because he poses as perpetually insincere, and because he was a dick in 2004.  But he closed the rally with a tone that sounded, at least initially, very much like sincerity, leavened a little by the comic’s anxiety.  With these words I strongly agree:

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing.  There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned.  You must have the resume.

Indeed the media thrive overmuch on manufactured conflict.  And to be sure, the left and right name-calling has become absurd.

If liberals came away from this event resolving to police their own (with an exhortation to conservatives to do the same), then it was a tremendous success.

Let’s see.

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Who’s Funnier — Democrats or Republicans?

It’s here!  Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington DC!  It’s for those, says the website, “who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.”  Indeed.

Which got me to thinking, since Jon Stewart is frighteningly funny, who’s actually funnier?  Democrats or Republicans?

You might imagine the answer obvious, since Democrats are generally smarter and have wider access to more sophisticated forms of wit than Republicans.

But true students of humorosity (humor as a category of rigorous scientific testing) say the jury is out.  Consider this anecdote:

Joy Behar of The View fame, with evident anger issues, calls Sharron Angle a “bitch.”  Angle sends Behar flowers and a nice note: “Joy, Raised $150,000 online yesterday. Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Sharron Angle.”  Humorosity scientists agree, that’s funny.

Behar shoots back: “I would like to point out that those flowers were picked by illegal immigrants & they’re not voting for you, bitch.”

Citing the need for further investigation, humorosity scientists refuse to comment.

An anecdote, of course, settles no issue.  I happen to think Republicans, or their ilk, are funnier these days — P.J. O’Rourke, Matt Labash, Dennis Miller — but it has not always been so.

A sense of humor in politics is typically a function of electoral optimism.  When you’re winning, you’re more relaxed, and funnier.  When you’re losing, you’re sulky and humorless.  (“Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.” –Adlai Stevenson)

Democrats were winning big in 2008, and were pretty funny.

Compare these lists of bumper stickers for Democrats and Republicans.  I think any earnest and objective assessor of humorosity would have to agree that the Democrats were funnier.  Democrats had bumper stickers like “McPalin: A Bridge to Nowhere” (which nicely built on the Alaskan origin of the infamous “bridge to nowhere”), “If I Owned 7 Houses, I’d Think the Economy Was Great Too!” (which has been removed from most bumpers), and my personal favorite: “Jesus Was a Community Organizer, Pontius Pilate Was a Governor.”

An idiosyncratic digression: would we really prefer Jesus over Pontius Pilate as President of the United States?  I mean really.  Think about this.  Think you’re done thinking about it?  Think some more.  That’s all I’m going to say.

Meanwhile, Republicans sported relatively tepid stickers like “NObama,” and “Yes Mac Can.”

There were some good ones:  “Obama For Change? That’s All You’ll Have Left In Your Pockets,” “Your Wallet: The One Place Democrats Are Willing to Drill,” “McCain ’08: Proven Leadership So We Don’t Have to Hope.”

But as humor, notice how long it took to get to the point.  Democrats could get instantaneously to the point with “John McCain: Continue the Pain,” “McCain is a Fossil Fool,” and “If Sarah Palin Is Qualified, So Am I.”  The best political campaign humor is always succinct — and inevitably so because broadly shared cultural understandings fill in the blanks and permit much more to go unstated.

Notable as well in 2008 was relative meanness.  Oddly, Democrats were meaner.  I say oddly because typically electoral optimism makes one more relaxed, funnier, and more magnanimous.  Yet Democrats were demonstrably meaner.  The assault on Sarah Palin was amazing in its meanness.  Some bumper stickers: “Pregnant Unwed High School Dropouts for Palin,” “Sarah, While You Were Looking at Russia, Maybe You Should Have Been Watching Your Daughter,” “Abstinence-Only Education Really Works, Huh Sarah?”

I have a theory about this.  Americans, like voters in every democracy, have always been mean in electoral politics.  When Benjamin Disraeli called half the British Cabinet “asses” during parliamentary debate, a member rose to demand that he withdraw the statement.  Disraeli responded, “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”

Okay, that’s not technically a testament to the meanness of the electorate — I just love that story, believe it should be taught in schools, and couldn’t fit it in anywhere else.

The relative meanness in 2008 wasn’t Democrats being meaner, just typically mean.  Whereas, the great majority of Americans in 2008 were unwilling to be mean to the first African-American presidential nominee in history.  It was a kind of enforced civility, yes a double standard, but the more admirable because this moment was historic, and very American.

The spike in meanness about Obama now?  An enormous advance for African-Americans.  The great columnist Carl Rowan, who died at the end of the 20th century, wrote “A minority group has ‘arrived’ only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”  The 21st century corollary of that wisdom is this: a minority group has arrived when it can produce the leader of the greatest nation on the planet, who is treated with contempt equal to all previous leaders.

But back to funny.  So a Republican farmer in rural Ohio gets targeted by the Ohio Department of Labor for failing to pay proper wages to his help.  The DOL agent assigned to the investigation tells the farmer, “I need a list of your employees and how much you pay them.”

“Well,” says the farmer, “there’s my farm hand who’s been with me for 3 years.  I pay him $400.00 a week plus free room and board.  The cook has been here for 18 months, and I pay her $300.00 per week plus free room and board.”

“Any others?” asks the agent.

“Well… there’s the half-wit.  He works about 18 hours every day and does about 90% of all the work around here.  He makes about $10.00 per week, pays his own room and board, and I buy him a bottle of Bourbon every Saturday night.  And sometimes he sleeps with my wife.”

“That’s the guy I want to talk to, the half-wit,” says the agent.

“That would be me,” replied the farmer.

I just think Republicans are funnier these days.  Maybe just because they can be.

But I’ve always been weary with conspiracy theorists, birthers, truthers, Oliver Stone… So I close with this true story.

A group of conspiracy theorists were traveling to a conspiracy theory convention.  Their bus crashed and they were all killed.  At the gates of heaven, it occurred to them, they could finally find out what really happened.  The leader of the conspiracy theorists approached God and said, “we just want to know, who killed John Kennedy?”

God said, “Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy, and I have forgiven him in My way.”

The leader of the conspiracy theorists went back to his group, and reported, “guys, it goes much higher than we thought.”

Godwin’s Law, Hitler comparisons, and Stop!

My friend Mike Godwinyet another University of Texas Daily Texan editor who acquitted himself very well in that position and thereafter — formulated two decades ago what has become widely known as Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”  In other words, virtually any internet discussion, given enough time, ends in pernicious comparisons to Hitler and Nazis.

It is elegant precisely because it does not pre-judge, simply predict.  Though Mike himself may legitimately lament that overwrought comparisons to Hitler trivialize the Holocaust, his Law says only that such comparisons invariably happen.

One might imagine that the predictive force of Godwin’s Law would decline precisely as it became better known — that is, as more and more people came to understand the profound silliness of Hitler comparisons, such comparisons would become rarer.  Who wishes to invite the most obvious ridicule imaginable?

Alas, Godwin’s Law remains robust.

Godwin’s Law applies specifically to the internet, where anonymity routinely brings out the repugnant in people.  I’m guessing that an email or public speech or face-to-face salon version of Godwin’s Law would have little predictive force.

And in a way, that’s what makes the persistence of a form of Godwin’s Law he would never have articulated so puzzling.  Why has the left become so profligate with Hitler and Nazi comparisons — in public?

I hasten to add, Hitler and Nazi comparisons frankly make less sense on the right.  Hitler’s Nazi party was the most abominable scourge the right has ever produced.  A little humility on the right is appropriate.  Not to minimize Stalin’s or Mao’s contemporaneous genocidal slaughters from the left — just to say I’d be a bit less tolerant of spurious Hitler and Nazi comparisons coming from the right.

Not to start with Hollywood, but, well… it’s easy.  Richard Dreyfuss plays Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s “W,” and tells Joy Behar that playing “the villainy” of Dick Cheney simply involved getting in touch with his inner Hitler.  (Which, as he’s “always said to kids,” we all have, along with Jesus.)  Among the multiple layers of irony here is Richard Dreyfuss getting in touch with his inner Hitler while his director, Oliver Stone, told the Sunday Times back in July that the Americans and the British supported Hitler, that Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jews, and that the Holocaust is overplayed because of “Jewish domination of the media.”

Then Rob Reiner huffs to great applause on Bill Maher’s show that his “fear is that the Tea Party gets a charismatic leader, because all they’re selling is fear and anger and that’s all Hitler sold. ‘I’m angry and I’m frightened and you should hate that guy over there.'”

The Tea Party has come in for a rather unseemly amount of Nazi comparison.  When they were fairly new, and making town hall meetings by complacent Democrats a bit uncomfortable, liberal commentator Bill Press complained about tea party protesters because, “taking a page right out of a Nazi playbook,” they were bussed in.  “Rule by the mob,” he declared.

No!  Not bussed in!  Like Oprah Winfrey offering to send people to Jon Stewart’s upcoming rally in Washington DC?  Bill Press thinks Oprah is a Nazi??!  Who knew?

No, Bill Press doesn’t think Oprah Winfrey is a Nazi, and no, he doesn’t think tea party members are Nazis.  He just used a much-too-convenient trope.

And much too convenient it has indeed been.  The thousands of ugly comparisons of Bush to Hitler dwarf the comparisons of Obama to Hitler.  All of these people, on both sides, should be ashamed. There is not a single whispered syllable of dialogue — only smallness and hate, only the shamefully public denunciation of dialogue itself — from stupid comparisons of any American public figure with Hitler and Nazis.

Republicans should be especially careful.  Hitler was the ultimate right-winger.  No left-wing politician in America bears the remotest political resemblance to Hitler.  Do not be stupid.  Democrats play this game at their peril because no one buys it. It may appear easy, but no Republican politician in America bears the slightest resemblance to Hitler.  The charge is equally baseless and stupid.

And speaking of stupid, Americans get it.  If they’re swayed at all by Nazi comparisons, it’s in the opposite direction.

Hispanic Racists and Hispanic Winners

It’s a wonderful time to be Sanchez and racist.  First, there’s California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, trashing her Vietnamese-American Republican challenger, Van Tran, by insisting breathlessly in Spanish on Univision that “the Vietnamese and the Republicans are trying to take away this seat” — and adding, without a particle of support, that Tran is “very anti-immigrant and very anti-Latino.”  (Not to worry though, she supported Hillary in the primaries, and so Bill Clinton will be there to campaign for her.)

Then, there’s CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, just fired by CNN for anti-Semitic remarks.  After calling comedian Jon Stewart (born Jon Leibowitz) a “bigot,” who “grew up in a suburban middle class New Jersey home with everything you could ever imagine,” Sanchez sought to describe Jews in “context” (since Jon Stewart, as a Jew, is a minority):

Very powerless people… [snickers] He’s such a minority, I mean, you know– please, what are you kidding? — I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.

Liberal Hispanics can be racist and stupid!  Who knew?!  Welcome to the human race.  Perhaps we can get beyond the notion that racism is a pathology peculiar to white conservatives.  And here’s another reality: not all Hispanics are liberal (or suckers for liberal racist pandering).

Hispanics cannot be taken for granted by Democrats to quite the same extent as African-Americans and Jews.  The Hispanic community has spawned a range of political orientation, conservative, moderate, and liberal, that doesn’t give rise to the condescending counting of a minority as a reliable Democratic party voter.

Certainly the strong lineup of Hispanic Republicans running for office this cycle suggest that Hispanics are an electoral force to be reckoned with — by both parties, and not taken for granted, despite racial pleas by liberal Hispanics.  The columnist Carl Rowan wrote a while back, “a minority group has ‘arrived’ only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”  Very true.  To which I would add, a minority group has become an electoral force of consequence when the entire group is not entirely predictable.  Only then do politicians speak to them as adults.

Part of the backlash now against President Obama — by tens of thousands of Americans who voted to elect this historic president and felt proud to be Americans in casting their votes and celebrating his victory — has to do with President Obama becoming a predictable liberal.  Had he truly been a centrist, and a post-partisan president, as he promised, had he truly been post-racial, as he promised, then much of the animus against him would never have materialized.  But the President has not been centrist, and has yet to seize upon a single moment to be post-racial, despite multiple opportunities.

In short, President Obama has become a predictably liberal African-American politician.  Before the shouting begins, let me explain.  It used to be that white (and any other ethnicity except African-) Americans would fairly predictably vote against a black candidate because he or she was black.  That is no longer true and has not been for a while.  To take only the most recent example — against a white, moderate war hero, Obama won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Whites at the center and to the right of center voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008 because of a promise.  Both candidates were outsiders with little experience who promised to be different and centrist.  Jimmy Carter was trounced by Ronald Reagan in 1980.  2012 is a long way away — but Barack Obama is poised to lose a commanding Democratic party majority in congress in 2010.

The majority of white people are not liberals.  None of these people dislike President Obama because he is black.  They dislike him because he is liberal, and he promised not to be.  Americans voted in this historic election believing they had elected an African-American centrist, a man who would vindicate both America’s diversity and pragmatism.

But President Obama ended up being predictably liberal — on health care, enormous bureaucratic expansion, government spending, labor, labor appointees, environment, energy, immigration, racial issues, voting rights, Supreme Court nominees, and an awkwardly excessive pro-Islam foreign (and occasionally domestic) policy.  Americans might elect an African-American Republican in the near future, but it will be a while before they trust an African-American Democrat — unless, of course, President Obama successfully triangulates against a Republican congress and recasts himself, convincingly, as the centrist and post-racial president he originally promised to be.

Hispanics are better situated.  Democrats take African-Americans and Jews for granted.  They cannot take Hispanics for granted.  Hispanics are much better situated to win non-gerrymandered general elections — because they are not predictably liberal.  Because of Hispanic political diversity, it is possible to be Hispanic, moderate (or conservative), and electable — in either party, but only because Hispanics have credibility in both parties.

I wish no political future for racists like Loretta or Rick Sanchez — but for Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval, and Susana Martinez, Godspeed.

[UPDATE: See Linda Chavez’s October 8th column, Democrats can’t rely on Hispanics forever, in which she makes the sensible point that Hispanics rank education their number one priority, and every substantive education reform measure comes from Republicans.  Republicans should be undertaking outreach to Hispanics on issues like education.]

[UPDATE: Rick Sanchez apologizes, sort of.]