Frank Rich versus Frank Rich

by: Matt Stoller

Sun Oct 14, 2007 at 13:27

Today, Frank Rich wrote a column called 'The Good Germans'.  He spends a bunch of column inches lamenting how 'we' have let the war go on, and are as complicit as the Germans during the Nazi regime.  Here's the nub:

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.

And yet, last month, here's Frank Rich.

Americans are looking for leadership, somewhere, anywhere. At least one of the Democratic presidential contenders might have shown the guts to soundly slap the "General Betray-Us" headline on the ad placed by in The Times, if only to deflate a counterproductive distraction. This left-wing brand of juvenile name-calling is as witless as the "Defeatocrats" and "cut and run" McCarthyism from the right; it at once undermined the serious charges against the data in the Petraeus progress report (including those charges in the same MoveOn ad) and allowed the war's cheerleaders to hyperventilate about a sideshow.

Rich is operating according to the rules of the media elite.  It's ok to whine about the problem, but try to do anything about it and you're getting very much uncivil, sir.

Lots of people might be loving Frank Rich's column today that says that Americans are responsible for what America does.  Of course, many of us passed the basics of citizenship 101 in grade school, and have been working to try to fix the political system ever since we woke up and noticed a group of lunatics and incompetents in charge.

For instance, Moveon, which apparently is a juvenile McCarthyite group. 

Matt Stoller :: Frank Rich versus Frank Rich

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We are complicit... (0.00 / 0)
  ...just not in the way Frank Rich says.

  Frank Rich was a juvenile Gore-basher in 2000, too -- he's got his own share of responsibility for the Bush horror show.

  But getting to the larger point, consider this: we have a flock of Democratic presidential candidates of varying quality. Democratic primary voters, we are told, are fed up with the war, fed up with Washington's disconnect from the public, fed up with the health-care crisis, fed up with corruption... essentially fed up with everything.

  And these same Democratic primary voters are stampeding to support the one candidate who represents the LEAST amount of change from the current status quo everybody supposedly hates.

  Americans HAVE had reform-minded candidates available to them over the years -- Eugene McCarthy, Howard Dean, Ned Lamont. We had every opportunity to put them in office. And we've always rejected them -- only to later bitch about how awful everything is.

  So in that sense, Rich is right. As long as we keep on giving power to corporate-drone-establishment candidates, we're little better than the good Germans.

"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

Old school thinking (0.00 / 0)
For people like Rich, who want us to do stuff except when we do stuff, the anachronistic mindset involves more than just a misguided devotion to civility.  It's another symptom of the same familiar disorder that got us into this mess: over-reliance on rationalism.

"If we fashion a platform around polls of what people want, they'll vote for us."  It's the thinking that lost us President Gore, that lost us President Kerry, that lost us a Congressional majority after impeachment.  Time and again, we have seen that facts are not enough.  Voters organize their thoughts in narratives.  Narratives are organized around compelling, brief metaphors (not in the high school poetry sense per se, but in the sense of one thing that evokes associations with other things).

The Mark Foley scandal from 2006 is an excellent example: it helped give people the hook they needed to form a narrative of Republican corruption.  The MoveOn ad was at least trying give people something simple and quick that they could use to form a narrative of the administration's betrayal. 

It's all well and good for pundits to demand people pay attention to their government.  But it won't mean anything unless it's part of a compelling narrative, preferably a moral one--betrayal fits that bill perfectly.

Yes we Kang

Even Boring Old Facts Can Work (4.00 / 1)
if they're put into a proper narrative.  Look at how far Ross Perot got with his flip charts back in 1992.  And he was crazy as a loon.

The one thing you cannot do is just toss those facts out with no narrative at all worthy of the name.

So, of course, that's what we do, time after time after time after time.

Or worse still, we use the unconscious narrative frame, "Look how smart we are!  Vote for us, you morons!"

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Well put... (0.00 / 0)
especially your last point:

Or worse still, we use the unconscious narrative frame, "Look how smart we are!  Vote for us, you morons!"


[ Parent ]
But whose daughter's wedding (0.00 / 0)
will we be able to blame BushCo for trying to sabotage?


"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
They do the OPPOSITE of what people want. (4.00 / 2)
"If we fashion a platform around polls of what people want, they'll vote for us."

  Actually, they've outgrown this. The polls say people want to pull the plug on the Iraq debacle, and the Democrats are courageously and boldly ignoring them and going full-speed ahead, not only in keeping Iraq going, but in opening a whole new can of worms with Iran.

  Whether that'll translate into thunderous Democratic victories next year remains to be seen. One can be forgiven for not being particularly optimistic.

  But if the beltway consultants want to keep on partying like it's 2002... well, who are we to disagree with such unassailable strategic wisdom?


"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

[ Parent ]
I don't know that Rich is actually contradicting himself (0.00 / 0)
I don't think it's fair to say that Rich is attacking MoveOn because he has issues with people attacking Petraus.  He's saying that MoveOn's "betray us" messaging undermined or distracted from the real substance behind their otherwise legitimate Petraus critique.  I actually disagree with Rich and don't think that the "betray us" messaging was a mistake, but I wouldn't go so far as to say his critique is entirely without merit or that he's calling MoveOn itself a juvenile/McCarthyite group (vs. saying that their ad was juvenile/McCartyite).

He tumbled into the right-wing frame (4.00 / 2)
  He didn't have to re-state and reinforce the concern-troll crowd's reaction to the Petraeus ad. If he agreed with the substance (and it appears like he did), he could have simply emphasized THAT, and chastised the concern trolls for their phony outrage.

  And for sheer juvenile-ness, check out his rantings on Al Gore in 2000. Unbelievably superficial crap, about Gore's "attitude" and his wardrobe. Frank Rich is not an innocent bystander in the trainwreck that American democracy has become.


"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

[ Parent ]
A slippery slope into right wing frames (0.00 / 0)
I agree.  I think Wes Clark's response did a better job in this regard, though it too sometimes slipped into the right-wing frame.  This speaks once again to the need for more  and stronger and more vivid progressive framing and narratives.  When in doubt, a journalist/interviewer will likely default to the dominant frame...and we're still behind on that front.

[ Parent ]
I think Frank Rich has a point. (0.00 / 0)
The German people just went about their lives while their government did horrible things to other countries and portions of its own citizenry.
It became a staple of '40s movies and beyond to contrast scenes of fun loving Germans hoisting a stein of beer with scenes of the horrors in the concentration camps.

I have thought about this when I see giddy Americans at the closing bell at the Stock Exchange on a profitable day - or fans going crazy at a football game - while innocent children, men and women are being slaughtered by representatives of our government.

I felt this way during the Vietnam war.

The question is: what do we do?
I don't think the MoveOn ad villainising Patraeus was much in the fight to reverse our government's course. The target should be Bush, Cheney and the real villains behind this war. Patraeus, like others in the military, are doing what they are told to do. We should be attacking the ones giving the orders.
Look who wound up going to jail over Abu Ghirab. Not Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld.

What would we ask of others if we were being subjugated and attacked by a despotic regime? Would we be content with an ad in a newspaper?

How about unrelenting pressure on Congress to end this war now.
How about stopping all government functions until the funding is ended.
How about a relentless barrage unon these nothing frontrunners who are content to let the killing go on until 2013 and beyond?

How about Blogs ceasing to give so much space to people like Clinton and Obama until they start representing us. They're Senators. They could be addressing the Senate daily. Instead they're traveling around grubbing for money - missing important votes in the process.

I've noticed this tendency in the media (0.00 / 0)
to blame the left for being weak and spineless when it does too little, and then turn around and blame the left for being too radical, or irresponsible, or uncivil, when it occasionally finds the stones to actually do something. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don't. When we do too little, we are weak. When we do too much, we are being uncooperative.

And it's not just bloggers or activists, but Dems too. When Dean was trying to start a movement, he was labelled as a loose cannot and even a bit crazy--i.e. he tried to change a sitution that even the media generally admitted was not going well. When Dems tried to do serious oversight earlier this year, we heard a chorus of "Dems have to be careful to not overdo the oversight or they'll alienate the voters"--which Dems seem to have listened to, unfortunately. And now that they're doing too little oversight and not enough to end the war, the media is all over them for being weak. Argh.

It's a built-in bias that most in the media are probably not even consciously aware of, the premise being that Dems are to be criticized no matter what they do, because they are, inherently and unalterably, both too weak and too combative at once. They are seen as gnats, who by merely existing are to be dispised, not matter what they do.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Dems allowed this to happen, by first failing to realize that the New Deal coalition was gone and letting time pass them by (and thus reinforcing the "too liberal" meme), and then by veering too far to the right in the hopes of making up for lost time (thus reinforcing the "too weak" meme).

If Dems could figure out a way to combine the passion and principles of the old Dems, with the political smarts and wiliness of the New Dems (or the old old Dems, like FDR & LBJ), they could seriously put together a powerful and lasting ruling majority that the media will likely soon come to respect, however grudgingly--just as it did the conservative ruling majority once it became clear that Reagan & Co. meant busines and weren't flashes in the pan.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton


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