The proper perspective for viewing the NYT McCain story, the unfolding food fight, and the continuing fallout, is Gramsci's twin concepts of the war of position and the war of movement. I've written about this several times before, but here's a quick refresher.
(A) Gramsci's motivation was that the predicted worker's revolution did not occur in the mot advanced capitalist countries, as Marxist theory predicted. He therefore sought to explain why this was so, and what to do about it. The answers he came up with, described briefly below, have been adapted by people whose viewpoints are far removed from his--Rush Limbaugh, for one--so there is no need to accept his initial premises, if--like I do--one finds his descriptions of processes compelling.
(B) Grmsci attributed the failure to make an anti-capitalist revolution to the capture of worker's ideology, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling or dominant) culture, transmitted by institutions such as the church, compulsory education, popular culture, etc. as well as appeals to bourgoise ideologies, such as nationalism, consumerism, careerism, etc. which also enjoy their own forms of instutional support.
Such institutions and ideologies have both their own independent rationale and function in their own spheres, as well as their function in the largr social system. Gramsci's conception allows us to view both institutions and narratives at varying different levels of abstraction operating according the same over-all logic, without denying or distorting the fact that they also follow their own particular logic as well.
(C) To overcome the power of hegemony, and create a workers revolution, Gramsci argued for a two-fold strategy, First, a "war of position" to build working-class counter-institutions, and take over bourgoise ones while promulgating working-class ideology. Second, once this stage was successful, then a "war of movement" to the actual insurrection against capitalism, with mass support that Marxist theory originally predicted.
Consciously or not, the American right has adopted Gramsci's fundamental insight, but adapted it to their somewhat different position in society. On the one hand, as Gramsci advised, they have dilligently built up their own institutional infrastructure, and attacked existing instriutional structures that they do not control, seeking either to take over or cripple or destroy them. On the other hand, they have combined the war of position and war of movement into a more integrated whole, frequently taking advantage of a constellation of positions to launch a "war of movement" attack on an insitution they wish to cripple, destroy or take over, or an idea, principle, value, or narrative they wish to discredit, or subvert.
With this in mind, the NYT McCain story can be viewed as particularly involving:
(1) The expression of conservative identity politics, a binary worldview that involves the valorization of all things "conservative" and the demonization of "liberals" specifically, and anything generally that stands opposed to, or outside of self-defined "conservatism." I've written about this previously, back in 2006 in diaries at MyDD here, here, here, here and here.
(2) The narrative of "personal virtue" as the foundational concern of politics, which is a core conservative belief dating back at least to Hesiod's Works and Days, and heavily inscribed into the DNA of the Western Worlds in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. This narrative is strongly connected to cognitive developmental levels two and three in Robert Kegan's schema, which I've previously described here and here, for example.
(3) The rightwing war on fact-based (i.e. "liberal) journalism as a specific facet of their overall attack on modernity, empiricism, reason and critical thought. The NY Times, as the nation's leading daily newspaper has long been a prime target in this war, and has long been significantly compromised by their successes.
For a more detailed description of how this perspective affects our understanding of the NYT-McCain story and its repurcussions, join me on the flip....
|A Quick Prelude
It's my utmost desire to stand back from this episode and see it in larger perspective. But I think it's only fair to lay a few cards on the table about my immediate reaction. First and foremost, as a working journalist what I find most troubling is that one of the four NY Times reporters working on the story, Marilyn Thompson, felt so distressed at how it was handled that she quit--as TNR noted--and went back to work at the Washington Post, where she had previously worked for 14 years. Whatever that was about, it was not normal, and the Keller's attempt to say there was nothing extraordinary about how this story was handled simply doesn't pass the laugh test.
As discussed below, some people feel this story should never have been published. As I note along the way, if so, it joins a long list of similar stories written about the Clintons. (Not just in the 1990s, but as recently as a May 23, 2006, when the Times ran a 2,000 word front page piece, "For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives", that stirred up Hardball, NBC's Today, CNN's The Situation Room, Fox News' Fox & Friends, Fox News' DaySide, and several editions of Fox News Live as Media Matters noted at the time--h/t Digby. You'll be Shocked! Shocked! to discover there was no tut-tutting over the Times decision to frontpage the story above the fold. The Tuts were saved for the Clintons.) Furthermore, as Jamison Foser notes ("John McCain and the Clinton Rules"), "In contrast to their treatment of Democrats, in which they declare a 'scandal' true if any element of it is true, the media have moved to declare the entire McCain story a 'smear' if any element of it is false."
Finally, it seems quite possible that the Times story was published instead of a much more straigh-forward story that should have been published months ago. Be that as it may, such machinations are all too typical of the Times conduct over a period of decades. And if we cannot tell for certain what happened in this particular case, the larger pattern is much, much easier to discern....
The Conservative War On Reason, Generally, And The NYT In Particular
The New York Times is hardly my idea of the embodiment of reason, but that is at least substantially due to the remarkable success that the right has had in subverting it over the years. Never pure to begin with, of course, the Times none-the-less has had made a number of dramatic rightward moves over the past 30 years that richly illustrate the success of the rightwing culture war, and the absurdity of their claims that Times is a fearsome liberal monster.
In the 1970s, it played a decided second fiddle to the Washington Post's Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate Affair, then hired Spiro T. Agnew's former speechwriter, William Safire, as an op-ed columnist as Nixon's presidency was circling the drain. Safire proceeded to wage a relentless war against those who dared ferret out the truth about Nixon, using the most faithful of the propagandists tools: lies and repetition. His big lie was that Nixon hadn't done anything particularly bad, and he made this point by comparing anything unsavory a Democrat might have done to Watergate. He wrote dozens of columns with this same tired theme, over and over and over again. There is a word for this sort of journalism: Safire was a hack. And "liberal" New York Times was happy to give him a regular slot in the most valuable media real estate in the land to peddle his rightwing hackery.
In recent days, the Times has repeated this move, with amazing fidelity, giving a similar slot to the spectacularly wrong-headed Bill Kristol, one of the biggest neo-con cheerleaders of them all. Not just totally wrong about Iraq, but totally wrong about everything.
In betewen these two episodes, the Times brought us Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee--two Clinton pseudo-scandals which its ace reporter, Jeff Gerth, did everything imagineable to keep alive. At the same time that the Times was advancing the Whitewater story, of course, Rush Limbaugh was falsely attacking them for allegedly ignoring the story. This is a key element of righwing culture war practice. Evidence means nothing. Facts mean nothing. All that matters is what one asserts... over and over and over again. Repetition="proof."
Then, of course, there was Judith Miller and the WMDs that were not there. If only it was only Judith Miller. But, of course, it was not. She was just the lightening rod, as the Times' recent hiring of Kristol makes, well, Kristol clear.
But there's a deeper point that goes to very heart of how America's worldview has been utterly perverted, and the role that the Times as an agenda-setting institution has played in that process. It includes, but go far, far beyond the fact that the Times has never really seriously considered the Downing Street Memo, or any of the wide range of evidence supporting its revelations that the Iraq War was flimsy put-up job.
Indeed, rather than being an enemy to Bush, the neocons, and the entire rightwing agenda, the Times has been a remarkably faithful purveyor of their worldview. The counter-narratives that might challenge this view have been assiduously marginalized in the Times coverage. The Times quite simply ignores the mountains of evidence that the neocon plans had nothing to do with fighting terrorism, that 9/11 was just an excuse for them, that their response to 9/11 was, quite predictably, totally inappropriate and counterproductive, that their policies have been a catastrophic failure, not just objectively, in realworld terms, but in terms of their own ideological program. (Iraq really was supposed to be a cakewalk, even Iran and North Korea were minor concerns, China was the real enemy. This is all spelled out in the Project for a New American Century's September 2000 report, "Rebuilding America's Defenses" [PDF].)
Finally, bringing us back to the topic of John McCain, there's the minor additional point, which I blogged about last weekend, that McCain was the number one choice of the neocons in 2000, and that his worldview--dating back decades--is virtually identical to what Bush's only became after 9/11, the worldview that lead to the Iraq War, and to his ~30% job approval ratings.
This is, of course, not at all in line with McCain's "moderate maverick" image. Accurate reporting about Bush, the war on terror and John McCain would, quite simply, doom the Republicans to at least a 40-state landslide defeat this coming November, and countless downticket losses as well. Compared to that, the Times story about McCain was positively benign, not to mention utterly trivial.
Finally, I want to mention Cenk Uygur's post calling attention to a pattern of buckling under rightwing intimidation. Cenk wrote:
NY Times Holds Stories Because They're Afraid of Conservatives
The John McCain-Vicki Iseman story is not the first article the New York Times has held back for political reasons. They have now done this on at least three occasions:
1. The original FISA story on how the Bush administration was not getting warrants for wiretaps inside the United States.
2. The original story in 2004 that showed Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
3. The McCain-Iseman story.
We had James Risen, the writer of the first two stories on our show back in 2005 and he admitted that they held the Bin Laden story until after the 2004 election because the New York Times didn't want to "get caught up in the politics of it." (You can listen to the whole Jim Risen interview here.)
Another way of stating that is that they were afraid of being called the liberal media by Republicans. After decades of being chastised for being liberal, they have become gun-shy. In this McCain story, they also held off until they were about to outed by other news agencies as sitting on the story.
Now, this is abosolutely, positively true. But, as I have indicated above, it's all relatively superficial. Even the NSA spying story is relatively innocuous compared to the various impearchable offenses involved in fradulently taking us to war with Iraq. After all, the latter involves international war crimes, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, not to mention more Americans than died on 9/11.
The fact that all this falls well outside the scope of the debate over the NY Times story on McCain is silent testimony to the power of hegemony, and the incredible strength of the rightwing culture war apparatus.
Vicki Iseman And The GOP's Adulterer's Primary
Perrhaps what's more remarkable about the Iseman story is that it's somehow regarded as remarkable. After all, way back in the summer of 2006, Steve Benen speculated on the prospect of an adultery-laden GOP primary, and did so in an article with a revelatory lede, reminding us--as if we really needed it--that the treatment John McCain just got from the Times (and the rest of the Versailles media) has been SOP in writing about the Clintons for a decade and a half:
What if three admitted adulterers run for president and no one cares?
By Steve Benen
Last month, The New York Times published a 2,000-word, front-page dissection of Bill and Hillary Clinton's marriage. It contained no real news, few named sources, and plenty of gossip masquerading as political coverage. Observing that the Clintons typically spend 14 days of each month together--hardly unusual for a couple that includes a senator and a peripatetic former president--the Times opted for the half-empty conclusion that the two lead "largely separate lives." The story also made an oblique reference to a Canadian politician named Belinda Stronach, the significance of which would likely be grasped only by insiders and people who read tabloids at supermarket check-outs. In a cover article last year, the Globe claimed that Stronach and Clinton were more than just good friends.
If the Times had evidence to support the innuendo, it decided not to print it. But despite the vaporous quality of the story's facts, David Broder's Washington Post column just 48 hours later indicated that a new conventional wisdom was forming, one which sought to undermine Hillary's presidential ambitions. After describing his boredom at a substantive speech the senator gave to reporters on energy policy, Broder concluded that the failure of reporters in the post-speech Q&A to grill Hillary about her personal relationship with her husband was the "elephant in the room."
Gosh, that's funny. I have no memory of the firestorm that erupted over that story. Must've been one of those lost weekend thingies. Oh, wait. I forgot. Media Matters already covered that. Never mind.
Of course, there was once a time when reporters believed that the sexual peccadilloes of American leaders were a private matter, and the nation was probably better off for that belief. In the late 1990s, Broder himself argued several times that these kinds of stories don't do voters any favors. But the rules were shifting, thanks largely to the mainstream press and the GOP's relentless pursuit of Bill Clinton. Now the Times piece suggests that we're in for three long years in which reporters will judge Hillary Clinton's character by rumors about her husband. But it may be Republicans who have the most to lose.
Lurking just over the horizon are liabilities for three Republicans who have topped several national, independent polls for the GOP's favorite 2008 nominee: Sen. John McCain (affair, divorce), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (affair, divorce, affair, divorce), and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (divorce, affair, nasty divorce). Together, they form the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.
Well, of course, mean old Newtie didn't run after all. But Fred Thompson did. And while we have no evidence that Fred Thompson cheated on his first wife, before divorcing her in 1985 so he could date younger women, Mark 10:11 [see below] has no statute of limitations written into it, when it says, "And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her".
So, let's just say that (A) this is one of the strangest "family values" parties one could possibly imagine, and (B) the press has never really said "Boo!" about it.
A while back, however, Glenn Greenwald had a bit more to say:
Saturday September 1, 2007 07:41 EST
McCain's selective defense of "traditional marriage"
Here is John McCain's "straight talk", in defense of traditional marriage yesterday, regarding the Iowa state court's decision declaring unconstitutional that state's opposite-sex-only marriage law:
John McCain also entered the fray last night, calling the decision "a loss for the traditional family," and noting that he supports "the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman."
By stark contrast, this is John McCain's "straight action":
McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money.
How can John McCain claim to believe that the law should recognize only "traditional marriages" while simultaneously demanding that the law recognize his own so-called "second marriage" -- also known as "an adulterous relationship" under the precepts of "traditional marriage" (Mark 10:11 -- "And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her").
The issue is not that McCain sinned in the past. It is that he argues now that the law ought to recognize only "the traditional definition of marriage" while simultaneously demanding that the law recognize and treat as equal his own "marriage," which is as much a deviation from the "traditional definition" as the same-sex marriages he opposes. How can someone with this "family" stand up in public and claim to support the "traditional definition of marriage"?
This is what's known as a "twofer"--both McCain's own trademarked "straight talk" schtick and the conservative brand name "family values" schtick go down in flames at the same time.
But, it's not news. Such is hegemony. And McCain is hardly alone in this. Indeed, it's truly remarkable how riddled with sex scandals and used-to-be-sex-scandals the GOP is, and yet how little news it makes, how little impact on the nation's politics. And the New York Times is a partner in making this happen.
A mostly silent partner.
But that's precisely the point.
Straight Talk? The Meme, The Man, The Muck
Say, did I just say, "Straight Talk"? Did I just "Glenn Greenwald"? Well, Glenn had a post up yesterday, highlighting the Newsweek story about how McCain's categorical denials of the NY Times story contradicted his own sworn testimony.
Before getting into the meat of the matter, I want to comment on how Glenn starts off his post:
I agree completely with Greg Sargent, the editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and many other McCain critics that the NYT's story on McCain yesterday was extremely poor journalism -- filled with unsubstantiated irrelevancies (his alleged affair with a lobbyist) and, where relevant (McCain's intervention on behalf of Paxson), composed exclusively of long-disclosed news to which the story added nothing new. It shouldn't have been published, at least not in that form.
Here, Glenn is weighing in with a conventional "liberal media" ethos. It's an ethos that is absolutely not designed for fighting a cuture war. Indeed, it's an ethos that's designed to make you a sitting duck in a culture war. And that's a big, big part of why the right has been cleaning up in the cuture war for the last 30 years.
Two points need to be made here. First, I'm not arguing that we should descend to the level of the right. But when we do make this sort of criticism, we should not do it in a way the right can use. We should explicitly link to similar examples that have targetted liberals and/or Democrats, such as the 2,000 word piece on the Clinton's marriage referred to above. That's how to be both principled and savvy in the ways of the culture war at the same time.
Second, this is actually a very weak attack on McCain that actually distracts from the most significant--and most newsworthy--reasons why the man is actually a danger to our national future. As indicated above, the Times didn't have to run this sort of piece to damage and/or tell the truth about John McCain. All they had to do was print the truth about the Bush, the neocons, 9/11, the war on terror, and McCain being way out front on all of this long before 9/11. But no one expects the Times to do that.
Now, back to Glenn's post:
But what is significant is the seriously misleading statements that McCain made when denying key parts of the NYT story. One of the central claims of that story was that Paxson Communications, a major McCain contributor and provider of jet travel, repeatedly requested that McCain intervene on its behalf with a pending FCC matter, and thereafter, McCain personally contacted the FCC to demand that it expedite its ruling on a matter of vital important to Paxson (a contact which prompted a "scolding response" from the FCC Chairman, who called McCain's letter on behalf of Paxon "highly unusual" and inappropriate).
In issuing a very specific, point-by-point denial of the NYT story, McCain specifically denied that he ever talked to Paxson's CEO, Lowell Paxson (or any other Paxson representative) about this matter:
No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay discussed with Senator McCain the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proceeding. . . . No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding.
But Newsweek's Mike Isikoff today obtained (or was given) the transcripts of deposition testimony which McCain himself gave under oath several years ago in litigation over the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold. In that testimony, McCain repeatedly and unequivocally stated the opposite of what he said in this week's NYT denial: namely, that he had unquestionably spoken with Paxson himself over the pending FCC matter....
And if that's not enough, the Washington Post now has a story, "McCain Disputed On 1999 Meeting: Broadcaster Recalls Urging FCC Contact", in which Paxson himself contradicts McCain.
So, again, Straight Talk? Not so much....
Which leads me into one of my recurrent topics--the politics of cognitive developmental levels--and how it helps illuminate the strange workings of the "Straight Talk" meme, a meme that's been prominently applied to Ross Perot, George W. Bush and Ron Paul, as well as John McCain. The implications of "straight talk" are quite clear--in ordinary parlance, a straight talker is someone who tells the truth, without all manner of qualifications and embellishments.
But the "Straight Talk" meme is something quite different--it takes the superficial lack of qualifications and embellishments as proof that what is said is true, even if what is being talked about happens to be rather complicated, and very much in need of qualifications and embellishments. One could understand the "Straight Talk" meme simply in terms of American anti-intellectualism, ala vintage Richard Hofstadter. But I prefer Robert Kegan. In the table below, "Straight Talk" is an example of the underlying structure of Level 2--a "durable category":
|Kegan's Subject/Object Schema of Cognitive Development|
|Stage||We Are: |
(structure of knowing)
(content of knowing)
POINT OF VIEW
POINT OF VIEW
The first thing to understand is that we are talking about mere appearances here. While the real deal is an "Enduring Disposition"--the psychological manifestation of a durable category--the "Straight Talk" meme refers simply to the appearance described above.
The second thing to understand is that normal conservatism operates on Level 3. It corresponds to adult consciousness in a traditional society. The self is defined in terms of the matrix of social roles and relationships of the surrounding society.
At that level, we are those roles and relationships, and any criticism of them is a criticism of ourselves. "America, love it or leave it," indeed.
Except that--Third Thing--America was founded as a Level 4 institution. Our very Constitution is the very embodiment of a "Relationship-Regulating Form." And it is the conservative, Level 3 mind's complete incapacity to deal with Level 4 that leads to falling back on Level 2 pseudo-certainties.
You see, each level is more complicated than the one before. Each level involves taking what was subject, the foundation of thought and being, and making it object, turning taken-for-granted context into clearly manipulable content. For those who remain embedded in the taken-for-granted context, this is not merely a frightening possibility, it is, quite literally, inconceivable, because they lack the context needed to conceive it.
Traditional, Level 3 societies change only very slowly over time. This is where the "narrative of 'personal virtue' as the foundational concern of politics" described at the beginning of this post fits in. So long as society is basically unchanging, the person who exemplifies living by the rules has a very strong claim to encompass the very essence of what politics is all about.
But modernism developed out of the quickening pace of change that first hit Europe a good seven centuries ago, in the fast-paced trade-oriented city-states of Northern Italy. They called it "The Renaissance," but it was actually much, much more than the rebirth of ancient knowledge, because that ancient knowledge feed into a newly dynamic form of life, from which a wholly new future would spring--the future in which we now live. This future requires, among other things, the active engagement in reshaping the rules by which we live. Change is simply too rapid, and too all-pervasive for us to remain unchanged and still fit with the world around us.
But the Level 3 mind sees such change as its very destruction. To note things that need changing in America is to be anti-American in this view. Ironically, this view is quintessentially un-American. People come here to reinvent themselves. That is the whole point of America. If reinvention is not your thing, then you just don't belong here. Of course, no Level 3 mind can grasp such a basic Level 4 fact, which constitutes an existential threat to its very existence. And a common response to such overwhelming threats is one form or another of ego defense mechanism, such as regression, which is defined as :returning to a previous stage of development."
Other defense mechanisms are commonplace in conservative politics. Wikipedia describes the most primative level of defense mechanisms thus:
Level 1 Defence Mechanisms
The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These three defences, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external reality and eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear crazy or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as healthy mechanisms.
* Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
* Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
* Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
These mechanisms clearly underly the aforementioned "rightwing war on fact-based (i.e. "liberal) journalism as a specific facet of their overall attack on modernity, empiricism, reason and critical thought," described in the introduction to this post. They also serve the preservation of "conservative identity politics, a binary worldview that involves the valorization of all things 'conservative' and the demonization of 'liberals'"--also described in the introduction.
The third item connected with there two was "the narrative of 'personal virtue' as the foundational concern of politics," which I have already touched on above. But it emerges in the context of defense mechanisms as well. The next level of more advanced defense mechanisms includes:
* Idealization: Subconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than they may actually have.
This is clearly how conservatives tend to see their leaders, and John McCain is no exception--even though many conservatives are not on board with him just yet. Conservatives are hardly alone in this, but their tendency toward idealization is generally more intense, and often occurs in tandem with regression. This helps explain the potency of the "Straight Talk" meme--a leader idealized for honesty tells them it's okay to turn away from, even deny the bewildering complexity that seems to threaten their very existence. It' not just okay--it's downright noble. It's good old, down-home, Red State "Straight Talk"!
John McCain is trainwreck waiting to happen. But, then, so was George W. Bush. The right will try to unify itself via hatred of the left, and the push-back against the NY Times story is emblematic of that effort. We must fight back against this with a wide array of responses, although we're severely handicapped by the degree to which conservatives have captured and/or incapacitated so many institutions, particularly media institutions.
But above all, we must fight back by developing our own critical consciousness, and sharing our insights with one another. We must develope a common language for speaking the truths that conservative deny, as well as those they simply cannot conceive. The development of this consciousness has to be supplemented by the development of new institutions as well. That is what counter-hegemonic struggle is all about.