Monday, January 19, 2009

David Burchell, The New Yorker, Hertzberg, Paul Sheehan, Obama, The Wire, and Literary Elites to blame for everything

Every day of the week there's always one loon who will launch a gratifying, bile-saturated attack on an elite as a source of the world's troubles, and so we have it in The Australian in David Burchell's Literary elite dazzled by their own creation.

Burchell's article is an interesting study, an example of flailing around in a desperate desire to pin a tail on a donkey, any donkey, provided it's a Democrat(ic) donkey. His object of derision is The New Yorker and its political correspondent Hendrik Hertzberg.

For this kind of low blow hysteria to work, first you must erect a myth - let's start with the extremities to which American political debate during the Bush years was pushed by the likes of The New Yorker (forget Bill Orally, forget Hannity, forget Rupert Murdoch's evil empire Faux Noise).

Then deploy another myth with a crocodile tear or two - about young provincial dreamers like John Updike and James Thurber heading to New York with stars in their eyes and even writing for the magazine. (Let's forget that in those long lost days the magazine was still reviled by rural moralists as fast, slippery and way too big city ponce for its own good).

Then it's on to a common assault on Hertzberg, his left-leaning parentage, the culture wars, and the Gilbert and Sullivan mockery. These New Yorker types have created a meta Obama, shrieks Burchell - "He's awfully clever, we're told, and wildly articulate". (whereas we all know that Bush in contrast was actually terribly clever and wonderfully articulate. Insert Homer Simpons noise here).

"Never mind", says the surreal Burchell, "that Barack Obama makes no claims to academic excellence or that his eloquence was drilled into him, not in ivy-clad college debating chambers, but out of the tempestuous sermons of his Chicago pastor. People will invent for themselves the politicians they want to have (or to hate)."

Just think about the remarkable stupidity of that sentence. Obama learnt all his eloquence from just one man, by sitting in and listening to sermons (forget Lincoln, forget Martin Luther King). He makes no claims to academic excellence (yet his CV boasts about how he was in 1990 elected to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, an achievement repeated ad nauseam by pundits). Then the reflexive Freudian acknowledgment by Burchell - he has invented the people and the politicians he wants to have, so he can hate them.

There's more, including the now standard kicking of baby boomers (how the aged right, usually made up of baby boomers, hate the baby boomers), along with the hope that Obama is definitively not a cultural warrior and that he understands Bush was a good guy who made the best decisions under difficult circumstances. Take that, "those teared-up and weeping masses huddled in the salons of lower Manhattan", surely destined to suffer the same fate as "our own besotted Kevin 07 literary groupies".

So this is what passes in The Australian (proudly owned by an American) as informed literary and political commentary. Pull the other one. Old school New Yorker-ites must be having a chuckle about Burchell talking about lower Manhattan (presumably his rage is focussed on the Village or Soho or Chelsea) when in fact it was in upper Manhattan (west and east side) - the heart of ponce, and the real turf for The New Yorker - where Sarah Palin would have been treated as a hick from the sticks, and Bush called, quite correctly, an inarticulate, inept and incompetent Texan clown, somehow elevated to hero status by the destruction of a part of their town (which otherwise has to cop the kind of double edged abuse delivered by Burchell, typically ending in the notion that somehow it's not the real America). 

So there we have it - when commentators start talking about other commentators for no good reason except to continue the culture wars, the content and the intelligence of the commentary drops to below freezing. Prescription for Mr. Burchell: go spend some time in New York, and while you're at it take a look at the excellent PBS documentary series on its foundation and growth. It might expand your blinkered approach, and outlook on life, and ease a little the hostility and repressed rage you seem to experience (and yes not many people think George Bush did a good job. In fact he was a mediocre, inarticulate, incompetent President. Live with it).

Over in The Sydney Morning Herald, intermittently right wing commentator Paul Sheehan seems to have drunk the Obama kool aid, if only because both of them really like the television series The Wire. So do I - it's the best American television made in years, though as I progress through Generation Kill, I'm appreciating this team isn't just a one hit wonder. (see Sheehan's Obama is walking a high wire).

In contrast to Burchell's unhappy bile, Sheehan throws around positive adjectives like a drunk with confetti at a wedding - apart from his good taste in television, Obama is lucid (writing his memoir), "a palpable inspiration" to African Americans, "adroit in his choice of cabinet" (with a bias towards intellect, pragmatism and real-world success and meaningful diversity).

"This is a worldly administration", continues Sheehan (contrasting it with the Bush administration), and then he begins to worry about the high expectations placed on Obama along with the cliches about the scale of the problems he's inherited, especially in relation to the middle east (and by extension the current folly of Israel's behaviour in relation to Gaza when even the Irish have managed to show how four hundred years of hatred can begin to be dismantled without benefit of guns).

He even finds something to admire in the way Obama has passed the poisoned chalice to Hillary Clinton, in a manoeuvre worthy of The Wire. But maybe we should also remember the remark delivered in The Wire by a political aide about ambitious, well-meaning mayor Carcetti but also about all politicians, after Carcetti has made a series of compromised policy choices: "They always disappoint". And maybe we should by extension await the time that Sheehan will do a Burchell and lash out at his once favored, then compromised new prince of politics.

Even so, and who'd have thought it, reading Sheehan feels like a refreshing shower, after reading the rantings of Burchell. Thank the lord we subscribe to The New Yorker. I wouldn't pick up The Australian off the street if it were offered for free though I have taken the poison from the Qantas lounge for fear others might imbibe the poison (and anyway that noble Murdoch throwaway afternoon train stopper rag Mx tells me all I need to know about Madonna, Britney and sundry bulimics).

1 comment:

ConnectingTheDots said...

Well-written piece. Relevantly, as many nationally influential voices have repeatedly noted, Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X. Google Generation Jones, and you'll see it’s gotten a lot of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (New York Times, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) are specifically referring to Obama, born in 1961, as part of Generation Jones.