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.

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38 thoughts on “the post-modern presidency”

  1. It is unsurprising that another commentator is < HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fwww.drudgereport.com%2Fflash3mg.htm">on Shrub’s payroll<>. In addition to buttressing my original argument, I think it is clear that there will be more such revelations in the future.

    The important question is how we are going to react. And judging by how quickly propagandagate died the first time, I think you and I know what will happen: nothing. My fear that propaganda will become just another ordinary tool of executive “statecraft” is coming true with extraordinary rapidity.

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  2. OT: Is it really too much to ask for to keep the bad guys from boarding the airplane in the first place… I mean, what was the newsflash that happened between boarding the plane and sitting on the plane flying over the ocean. Maybe the servers were down…. JEEZE!!!!!

    < HREF="http://www.blogger.com/r?http%3A%2F%2Fstory.news.yahoo.com%2Fnews%3Ftmpl%3Dstory%26cid%3D564%26e%3D1%26u%3D%2Fnm%2Fsecurity_flight_dc">Taking off your shoes at the airport is the least of your problems<>

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  3. Ayshala,

    I have performed the Raptor’s function here (testing the parimeter fencing) and haven’t found the limit yet… but I’m not dead yet. 🙂

    The bar is set pretty high (or is that low). Think about it… TexasConservative is free to contemplate another man’s ass here…. that certainly doesn’t pass my living room test. I really hope he went off and prayed for forgiveness about his homosexual tendencies. Next thing you know, he will have to support gay weddings.

    btw… glad you asked about TC’s “OBJECTIVE” comment. I was missing it’s meaning also. You have to remember TC talks funny. He and Tony will blame that on world views… but basically it just boils down to frickin strange. 🙂

    It’s so nice to have another liberal visit the Plank blogger black hole (TC… for crying out loud black hole is a reference to space).

    Common Good …. left the greedy GOP in 2002 for good.

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  4. How odd! I would have thought, because of legal reasons, they would have one. Just for the basics, stating that you shouldn’t violate copyright, or use profanity (has anyone ever had a problem?), or display risque and illegal pictures. I guess I’m too used to seeing things like “Do Not Ingest” on a bottle of Windex.

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  5. ayshala,

    There is no regulation of content to my knowledge. That said, because of various laws, I am confident that they do police things for illegal activity. Obscenity is obviously in that category.

    I am not totally beyond deleting a post, though it would have to be pretty much in the clearly illegal camp for me to do so. I have trouble imagining what it might be short of illegal that would cause me to do so.

    Fundamentally, I believe in the free and open exchange of ideas. The more diverse the set of opinions, the more useful the discussion. I feel strongly that if someone goes out of bounds, it will police itself through the impact on one’s ability to be listened to by others, and by the direct confrontation by others of opposing views or who simply find someone’s post distasteful.

    I say all of this not because we have ever had an issue here. I thought I’d just say it so people would know I have thought about it and that truly, there aren’t many limits here that you wouldn’t have in your own living room.

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  6. On requirements:

    None. Zero. Bupkiss. Shrub’s IQ. Nada.

    No topic excluded. No profanity filter. You are not required to enjoy what we do here, but I would encourage it.

    Even pandering to the host is not required, though not necessarily entirely unwelcome. 😀

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  7. Amazing Texas,

    I’ve looked all over this blog, as well as all over the Blogger site, and I see nothing that states I am REQUIRED to do anything. You must be thinking of somewhere else.
    Last I checked this was a site that belonged to Tony, so I think I’ll concentrate on his wishes.

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  8. TexaCon,

    Glad to hear you enjoy disagreeing. Keep up the good work. Somebody has to keep us honest around here.

    I certainly did not mean to come across as a blanket endorser of Suskind. I think there is very little we read from the media that can just be trusted without critical assessment. That said, the naked fact of Suskind’s painting the administration as evil does not sway me toward finding his reporting as less credible. I suppose it all comes down to the old “benefit of the doubt” discussion. I do think this administration is evil and perhaps that colors my attitude toward the Suskind article.

    Then again, I don’t think so. Before ever reading the whole article, I read an excerpt along the lines of what I quoted here. The words of the “senior advisor”, as I said in the original blog post, explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable that I felt compelled to read the rest of the article and found it to be of great profit. I also found that reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche are profitable in the same way-you don’t have to agree with everything they say to find wisdom in their words. That the Suskind article rings true to me is because it sensibly explains things and is consistent with the facts before me.

    Lastly, if I have ever accidentally left the impression that I was implying that 43 is anything other than stupid, I apologize. I do think his handlers are brilliant and dangerously brilliant at that. 43 is obviously not so stupid that he is unable to read the speeches and respond with prepared answers (like his predecessors)-obviously not. Is he well below the caliber of intellect (to say nothing of caliber of character) which I think we deserve as the “leader of the free world”-certainly.

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  9. What was that Common, Googled? I never!

    Ministry of Silly Walks?
    The Meaning Of Liff? (No I didn’t spell it wrong)
    Search For The Holy Grail had to be done entirely in “short shots” because “King Arthur” was too drunk the entire time to remember his lines!

    Now I’ll just “Run away!”

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  10. Oh, geeze, I’ve died and gone to Norway. It comes across so bluntly and frankly quite mean but seriously, no one likes a complainer. There ARE other countries folks.

    Man, this story is really bad, and I’m no fan of Suskindian “journalism” (didn’t he say religious people are retarded?) but this story paints a really eee-ville picture of our administration. Ronnie is good at that stuff. He’s a regular Johnny Letter. I guess no one here watches SNL, never mind. It appears that some of us simple folk always believe that you should believe none of what you read and half of what you see. I believe there is truth to his article, however. But perhaps some of the conjecture is at least up for debate as to whether it is true or not. Oh, I know what the blogmat reads as I stand under this blog jamb, a few of the words I’ll have to lookup when I get home though. But none of you seem to believe that maybe part of this could be untrue. “Yes, it is 100% accurate TexaCon so don’t you get us all fired up.” Seems like people glean reality based on their <>perception<> of what is true and what is not. “Y’all shurr doo taulk fuhnny.” I’m more disappointed with the Rod Paige v. Armstrong Williams debacle. Geeze, talk about stupid. But this one, c’mon, can we make up our minds? Is George Bush an idiot or a genius? Which one is it. “Let’s pick an adjective and stick to it.” Oh, I know, that’s too simple. It’s too clear cut. He could be both. He’s pretending to be an idiot and liberals fall for it but ooooh, that cunning s.o.b. can be so ingenious it’s scary. Right. Your arguments are more respected, from a simpleton such as myself, when you stick to one marinade of criticism. That’s just me.

    I just want to take the time to say that when I DO get the time, I DO enjoy disagreeing with all of you.

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  11. Thank you Custom, I’ll heed your advice.

    And, “But I’m not dead yet!”

    Now Tony, you refer to his Alhizmers (sorry, butchered that spelling). I’m not allowed to talk about that, since I’m a liberal. Opposing views just become enraged that it implies insensative elements. Have to stack the info in the locked file, along with info about a certain NRA star called Charles.

    Let me ask a general question though, is anyone else damned tired of hearing about “***** GATE”? Though I sympathize with the democrats, Bushes term has had what, 15 “gates” now? Whatever happened to just “screwed up?”

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  12. Worship Reagan: hardly. Say something positive about someone and suddenly you support their whole agenda?

    Besides, given what we know about what came afterward for him, when he said that he didn’t recall, it seems more plausible than other responses might. 😀

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  13. ayshala,

    Of course, there are and always have been good and honest journalists. Believe it or not, there are good and honest lawyers, used car salesmen… I don’t know that I would go so far as to agree that “there was once nobility in journalism”. When I read stories of the advent of journalism in 18th century, I am always struck by how little things have changed since. Long before yellow journalism, you had Benjamin Franklin Bache and James Callender.

    No matter which period of our nation’s history I look at, I find a lot of “fault” with journalism. Fault as in not achieving my personal desires for what journalism should be. But then, it isn’t really a fault in the proper sense of the word because journalism is what it is. They provide a service-people pay for it. Once you introduce the payment into things, you automatically have a flawed process if you what you seek is objectivity.

    Again, I personally don’t agonize a great deal over this: we should consider anything critically in the first place. But there is the rub, Americans don’t look at things critically in any sense of that word. And once the public becomes wholly uncritical, propaganda becomes a very serious matter indeed.

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  14. ayshala,

    A chick that likes Monty Python movies… come on. Next you are going to say you like beer and watching NFL playoffs. 🙂 Quiz: Finish the following: “Bring out your dead. But *** *** **** ***.

    Warning: Tony worships Reagan… tread lightly. 🙂

    Are you questioning our “for the rich people” democracy? What a commie. 🙂

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  15. This just makes my blood start to turn cold. Really, how far do things have to go before the U.S. realizes our political system is rapidly becoming one of the WORST in the “free” world. Lots of money does not mean we are the smartest, it just means we are the most greedy nation.

    Tony, there was once nobility in journalism. Even W.R. Hearst’s “invention” of yellow journalism didn’t obliterate the cornerstones. However in the last ten years, the last bit of that nobility has been sucked down the drain.

    As for quoting lies from Reagan…..that would fill up a blog in itself! He came up with the best line of all time. When in court and being questioned, remember to just say “I don’t recall.” Amazing that it got him off the hook completely.

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  16. Tony,

    Thanks for the link… great (but depressing) read. fyi… for anyone who read the article, make sure you read the linked information on presidential lies. I loved Reagan’s “trees hurt the environment more than cars”. The sign on the tree “chop me down before I kill again” was priceless. lol!

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  17. “Armstrong Williams has responded”

    He lost me at “I have always supported vouchers”. Who cares what this cable TV knuckle dragger has to say? The issue is this administration spending federal tax dollars on their ideology PR. Williams is just the evidence. All this will do for Williams career is increase his appearances on FoxNews.

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  18. ayshala,

    Well, like the administration, they are just starting to do things in the full light of day. The problem is that the media sold us the fiction that they were to be trusted. Really, nothing has changed but that some people are starting to become aware that you have to read news sources critically just like anything else.

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  19. DavidR,

    What I think is in fact different is the direct payment by the government for the opinion. I understand that this has happened indirectly for a long time. I understand that for the players involved, it is not a big leap. But it just seems to me that when this becomes standard operating procedure to make direct payments, and we acquiesce, that it crosses the line from corruption into over propaganda.

    But on your larger concern, that America is too stupid to develop a discerning opinion, I of course totally agree. And yes, it is a larger problem. Interestingly, when I spent time writing on that topic, I pretty much got a collective yawn back on my blog response. It seems this is a problem we all recognize, but just don’t have much interest in fixing.

    I wonder also, if this phenomenon is distinct? Which came first, the dumbed down media, or the dumbed down American? In Boorstin’s book, he traces the roots of all this content free entertainment masquerading as news back to the mid-19th century. I think the only fix is better education, but I also think the reality management is a distinct problem that must be addressed.

    This is all, in your own turn of phrase, “bone-crushingly depressing”.

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  20. I think I’m going to be physically ill. But when the nations top newsmen (Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw)…go on national television and state that *they* cannot be trusted, you know things have gone too far. That they are being forced to lie. That John Stewart has more truthful news than they do!!! It was an interview with the two of them that I caught late one night. I think it was on HBO, but I could easily be wrong. The two men actually said “Don’t watch us, it is a waste of time.”

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  21. “Campaigns and elections are the process in which democracy seperates the willing from the able…and goes with the willing.”

    “The Republican Party is the party of nostalgia. It seeks to return America to a simpler, more innocent and moral past that never actually existed. The Democrats are utopians. They seek to create an America so fair and non-judgemental that life becomes an unbearable series of apologies. Together, the two parties function like giant down comforters, allowing the candidates to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought.”

    Jon Stewart – America (The Book)

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  22. I just noticed I spelled “those” as “thoughs” above in my post. I must be reality-based TV material. 🙂

    Jeeze… sure hope that doesn’t mean I have to watch “Who’s Your Daddy”. 🙂

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  23. I am not terribly disturbed by the corrupt use of a media pundit to disseminate propaganda. Nor am I that concerned about the whole “post-modern” media image-management reality-management thing. Personally I don’t think any of this is all that new, only the technology is different. However, the wealth of information and alternative views freely available on the internet and other sources should tend to mitigate against the misuse of the media by administration propagandists.

    What disturbs me, depresses me, infuriates me, and leaves me virtually without hope, is the extent to which it works, in spite of how utterly transparent it is (or should be) to any person with a grain of intelligence. This speaks to the fact that the American electorate, as a rule, lacks the basic intelligence required of them in a democracy. That’s the real problem.

    It’s like the current slew of “reality-based” television, fit for viewing by morons. Why is there so much of it? Because it’s popular. Why is it popular? You get the drift.

    …R

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  24. I wish I could be suprised by such an action, but the decay of ethics and action on ethics has moved so far that it seems to be a call to more partisan rhetoric rather than action.

    There is a time where choices like those would have ended a career in politics because of the amount of distrust it generated. Now it just seems like it is another way of bending or molding reality to get the result you want.

    I wish I could say that I was suprised, but I am not. I hope I am remembering this correctly. John Adams warned us against political parties because he saw them as devisive. In modern times, many think the two party is more polorizing than anything else. As a result, we have a system that tends towards the extreme and alienates the middle, which is where everyone needs to come back to.

    What do I think will become of Propogand-gate, nothing. It will be a bump early in the second term of an ineffectual president with a dry sense of humor and a tendency towards megolamania.

    May the New Year bring Peace and safety to all.

    Brackenator

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  25. Great post Tony, but I don’t think they feel they have to hide much anymore. These guys opted for Iraq, and still got elected again. That’s probably the bigger scare. I’ve always figure the US citizens, in aggregate, “get it”. So if the wool was being pulled over our eyes, it would just be temporary, and we would self-correct. I don’t feel that way anymore, not after this election. What could have been more obvious than the last four years. Now one crazy man and his administration can take us all down.

    Even thoughs who support Bush, should question the level of “digust/hate” on the other side. I think it is different than anytime in my lifetime, and I think it can’t all be attributed to 911. It is obviously very, very tough times, but it took a president on his own domestic and foreign jihad to raise it to this level, IMO.

    No matter what side of the political isle you are on, we should all recognize “this isn’t healthy”.

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