The Age of the Electronic Whale; or Politics and Hyperbole
There’s one criticism of my writing that I’m especially sensitive to, the accusation of hyperbole. I’m happy to tangle with disagreement and often amused by personal insults and mockery, but when someone suggests hyperbole, I feel like I’ve failed in something essential. For the accusation to stick, it has to be demonstrated that the subject doesn’t actually believe what they’ve written. It’s an accusation of being disingenuous, having exaggerated a point beyond the limits of what the author really believes. It’s a devastating criticism. How can any writer expect someone else to believe a point that they themselves know is a whimsical untruth?
In a blog post, George Packer described the “fall of Arlen Specter” in a Democractic primary election in Pennsylvania. He contrasts this with the “rise of Rand Paul,” who won a Republican primary in Kentucky on the same night. It’s loose but familiar language that takes something which, by all accounts, is boring and grafts onto it a Miltonian drama. Pity poor Specter, the wet-eyed whale of the Senate who pragmatically served for three decades. Packer writes his post without ever mentioning Joe Sestek, the Democratic congressman who beat Specter in the election.
Instead, the usurper of Specter’s guard is Rand Paul a few states to Southwest, in another party’s primary. This framing through exclusion allows Packer to dissect the metaphysical implications of party elections and continue his sigh-of-the-times thinking, which winds up at the figure of Barack Obama , described as the “product of a sober, meritocratic establishment that has fallen into widespread dispute.”
Specter is a holdover from that crumbling establishment and Paul, and the Tea Party with which he self-identifies, is the cause of that institution’s crumbling. Paul is cut from the Jim DeMint prototype of the new electronic loner politician celebrated by the Tea Party. They come to government “not to legislate but to blow things up.”
Missing from Packer’s blog are references to any of the individual issues debated in either primary, and the particular, and very distinct, communities in which they took place. I’ve only watched from afar, but Specter’s political fight was mostly one of having to distance himself from past ties with George W. Bush and his Republican legacy in one of the country’s most important swing states.
Paul’s stumping points are, in many ways, a continuation of the libertarianism of his father, who threatened to upend the Republican presidential primaries in 2008 through the force of ideas rather than institutional loyalty. The junior Paul is opposed to the idea of a Federal Reserve, suggested a $2000 deductible be added to MediCare to help control costs, opposes federal farm subsidies, and calls Bush’s No Child Left Behind program a “great intrusion” on state’s rights.
You could argue all of those points, and they’re worthwhile arguments to have. In fact, they’re essential to the conversation because they’re the real subject. Politics is not a narrative, it’s about the bureaucratic administration of the country. By definition it’s boring. It’s like making a career out of the conversations one has with their accountant every April, the clash of vaguely thought-out presumptions and the inescapable demands of black and white law.
There’s a tone of self-pity in Packer’s post. He writes with the helplessness of one expecting an avalanche after having seen a few pine cones fall to the ground. He writes as if the most important part of politics are the invented dramas that play out in newspapers and televised puppet debates, and not the hundreds of bills passed during the sleepy hours on C-SPAN when the political blood-letting gives way to an indecipherable debate on interstate speed limits and how much to spend on the Coast Guard for the fiscal year.
There are big moments in politics, and they matter. But we can’t put them in narrative terms, they have to be taken for what they are, massive hulking measures with tentacles whose impact is nearly impossible to keep track of, let alone predict. Instead we report on the stories we understand, using language that’s as interesting as possible, and then despair when we realize that, according to the narrative we’ve constructed, the good guys start to lose ground.
The fact that Packer compares the results of a party primary, winning the right to compete in a state election for a seat in a single branch of government, to direct democracy is simply incoherent. It’s as incoherent as when Sarah Palin brings up Saul Alinsky and socialism/communism/Marxism or whatever other kneejerk slur happens to be on the tip of her tongue.
If Barack Obama is sober, why does he make jokes about predator drones in a year where theyve killed civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq almost monthly? Is he really a product of a meritocratic establishment, having become a party celebrity after a public speaking engagement and the publication of one memoir? Is it meritocracy to elect a charismatic man to the presidency after two years in the Senate? Is the practice of ophthalmology, Paul’s career calling, less meritocratic than that of Obama’s years as an attorney?
I voted for Obama, and don’t mention any of that to derogate the man, but I would like to unseat the terms we use when we talk about politics. Arlen Specter was a decent politician, but I can’t say he was sober. He was mercurial and I know of at least one instance where he sent a page to fetch him a quart of rum during Senate session. Barack Obama seems like a fine and smart person, but I’d rather not take him as an icon for anything.
He is the number one bureaucrat in our country and a powerful advocate to influence the law-making process of the House and Senate. He cannot, and should not, be said to represent an institution of sobriety and meritocracy. George W. Bush was a thoroughly sober president, though that doesn’t have much to say about his record, and I don’t think Packer would want to include him in the fundaments of this crumbling establishment.
Writing about politics sucks. To do it honestly is to embrace obscurity, not because no one could understand, but because no one would likely care. Narrative writing is vastly preferable, both as an undertaking and as an entertainment. Every narrative is about its writer more than its subject, and Packer’s post, like too many political pieces, projects the author’s impressions on the dehumanized busts of his subjects for emotional effect. It’s a good trick, but a liar’s one. In pulling itself off it risks the most dangerous of all possible outcomes of hyperbole: a writer who convinces a reader of something in which he doesn’t actually believe.