the post-modern presidency
That this presidential administration would illegally pay a talk-show host to favorably opine on administration policy is most unsurprising. Unsurprising that is if you have paid attention to how smoothly this crew operates.
I am not necessarily referring to this administration’s willingness to flout the law, though that too is unsurprising. Indeed, the lack of regard for the rule of law by this administration and its recent predecessors is so well established that to discuss this would be fatuous and crushingly boring. Rather I speak of the blatant media manipulation which has long ceased to surprise those of us who see past the facade of moral righteousness and into the post-modern world view that undergirds this Presidential administration’s every act and utterance.
If you haven’t read the details of Propaganda-gate, they are as simple as they are obnoxious to democratic sensibilities. In order to secure frequent positive comment on the President’s “No Child Left Behind” program, the Department of Education paid conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Apparently, this taxpayer funded propaganda was part of a larger “package” of deals that are similar to those which the administration has made in the past.
So far, public criticism of this outrage has been muted at best. Imagine, if you will, the public outcry that would’ve been heard if the Clinton Education Department had made similar deals to promote “Goals 2000”.
I wince just thinking about it.
But we should be outraged on several levels. Outraged because of the misuse of funds. Outraged by the lack of outrage over the misuse of funds. Doubly outraged at the crass manipulation that has become the standard mode of conduct.
Outraged, but not surprised.
Ron Suskind’s now famous article, Without a Doubt did much to put this type of administration behavior in perspective. I would encourage anyone who has not read the entire article to do so, but I’d like to quote at length the portion which is most relevant to this discussion:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
These senior adviser remarks are penetrating because they go so far in explaining so much that would otherwise be perplexing. For example, the administration was not ignoring the reality of the inevitable internal turmoil in Iraq, rather they were creating a new reality. Those of us who decry that 43 ignored simple and obvious facts were just missing the entire point: facts did not matter. I have quoted 43 before thinking he was just being typically stupid, but now I have to wonder about whether he didn’t in fact mean exactly what he said: “Look, I don't care about the numbers. I know the facts.”
Until reading the Suskind article, I for one did not have an adequate appreciation of how thoroughly post-modern is this administration.
The path to the post-modern presidency was first described over four decades ago by an intellectual who was decidedly not a post-modern. In his famous book, The Image, Daniel Boorstin was prophetic in his analysis of media trends and its impact on American culture. I am in the process of reading that book again, and what is so striking to me is that is sounds as if it was written in 2001-not 1961. Anyone who wants to understand media and the political process owes it to themselves to get this book.
That Boorstin was a political conservative and unapologetically patriotic intellectual did not prevent him from describing the American born post-modern construct of the pseudo-event with such clarity as to win acclaim from individuals of every political stripe. Boorstin’s key insights were that real events were being replaced by media manufactured pseudo-events, such as made for television debates, and that real heroes were being replaced by an ersatz variety that we dub “celebrities”. In his view, this new manufactured reality insulates media consumers from real experience and knowledge.
The insight of Boorstin can be seen more clearly than ever in the adept use of the media by this administration to manufacture a reality in which they can thrive and prosper. What is most disturbing is that this is not a new thing, but an accelerating trend. Boorstin described a world where Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy adeptly maneuvered through the media maze in order to generate an image that generates votes. What we saw subsequently in the Reagan and Clinton administrations was a new adroitness that allowed them to more directly generate opinion and free themselves from inconvenient things like facts and legal limits. What I fear is that what we are seeing is an administration which is pushing us even further away from policy discussion and into the realm of propaganda.
Friends, this is a big deal.
However big this story should be, I have little doubt that the story will have very little “legs”. In the rush to find a new an more exciting story, this travesty will be buried under a pile of more lurid and tantalizing headlines. With the Iraqi election coming up soon, this story sadly does not stand a chance. There is no doubt that the politicians and media will be rewarded by a willing constituency that is content being fed that which they crave.
Lost on most Americans will be the observation that our post-modern President has put into service a philosophy that is more properly termed an anti-philosophy because of its contempt for reality. The great irony here is that so many of 43’s well meaning supporters deride moral relativism as the great heresy of our age while their man is busily at work manufacturing a suitable reality for their consumption.
As reprehensible as all of this hypocrisy may be, the greater concern must still be the trend. The stage has been set where propaganda will likely get the seal of approval by the American people. If this administration and the one before it has taught us nothing else, we know that Presidents learn from the political successes of their predecessors. And if, as is likely, the propaganda thing gets added to the essential toolkit of the executive branch, the next administration will be unconstrained in ways we have scarcely imagined as possible in America.
While I share the fear of what the next four years will bring, that which truly terrifies is that which comes next.