Meta-Commentary

Intangibles

Posted in culture, media, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 26, 2012

Sally Quinn wrote a much-panned essay about the “End of Power” in Washington D.C., which John Chait summed up as follows:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Granted, Sally Quinn is to politics as Murray Chass is to sportswriting, but she’s not alone. When Elliott Suthers says geeks are ruining politics, he’s just recycling Jason Whitlock’s argument about sports from 2011; there’s no shortage of articulate professionals mourning the decline of the intangible in their profession. Quinn’s requiem for the D.C. dinner party is different only in that American politics depends on norms and traditions in a way that the Great American Pastime does not.

The metaphor is seductive. In baseball as in politics, our affiliations are deeply felt though largely the product of location and upbringing. Common to both are the endless public pieties and back room deals, the demand for prediction over analysis, speculation about the farm team, and the retroactive imposition of grand narratives on unrelated events. To many folks, both of them seem rather boring.

But in baseball the lines of accountability are easier to draw and the border between rule and tradition better defined. Players don’t get tossed for talking to the pitcher about his no-hitter while it’s in progress. Tongues will wag, but the game will go on. When Chuck Knoblauch hits Keith Olbermann’s mom with an errant throw, nobody blames Tino Martinez. Not so for the United States Senate, which relies on shared norms in order to function. By embracing the filibuster as a one-size-fits-all tool of obstruction, the Republican Senate Caucus not only wounded those norms, they damaged the institution’s ability to carry out even the most routine functions. And with the same ineffable logic that’s often used to defend Pitcher Wins, these failures were laid on the White House lawn.

The fracturing of these Senatorial understandings isn’t due to a lack of well-attended parties at the Bradlee residence, but in recounting the long twilight of her own importance Quinn manages to brush up against something serious: nobody has any real idea what to replace them with. The result isn’t the end of power, but it may well be the end of governance.

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Serwer

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 16, 2010

Serwer responds to Chait’s agent-free argument that Obama’s intervention in the Park51 controversy will pay dividends for the Democratic Party, if not for Obama.

Not to pick on Chait in particular, but there’s a liberal complacency when it comes to conservative intolerance that I find maddening.

However, guest-blogging at TNC’s Atlantic digs some months earlier, Serwer offers a similarly structural account of American history:

The American conscience, when it decides to act, is mighty–but it is also sluggish and vain. Americans are crushed by the weight of not fulfilling their own high expectations–so the shameful acts of one generation are often rectified by a subsequent generation unencumbered by their own complicity in such acts.

Serwer’s positions are not contradictory, but they certainly exist in tension with one another. To the extent that the Park51 issue and the fecklessness of the right generally produce any results for the Democratic Party among American Muslims, the proximate cause won’t be either natural affection (per Chait) or the American conscience (per Serwer). In asserting such, they both stumble upon the error at the heart of Democratic politics. To paraphrase Parker/MLK:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it can be bent toward justice.

Political relationships are personal, iterative and transactional, not simply a matter of acquiescence to vast, world-historical forces. Leaders have agency. Additionally, there’s no reason to believe that one group will produce significant political outcomes for another simply because the latter doesn’t denigrate the former in public fora; “nowhere else to go” is a reason not to leave a coalition, not a reason a to enter one. Recent statements from Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama suggest that there’s not a whole lot of interest in building that kind of relationship. There may be an argument that this primal scream by the GOP will help foster an environment where American Muslim leaders can have the sorts of conversations with Democratic leaders that lead to electoral alignments, that’s a predictive argument, and one that’s currently a bit short on support.

Parenthetically, we should also ask what use or value our national conscience holds if we must be absolved of all wrongdoing before it has any discernable impact on our actions. Today, the sort of national conscience that begets real political courage remains firmly in the realm of blue fairies and gold badges–assuming it ever existed.