Who, Me? Phony?
by Stephen Cox | Posted August 24, 2013
“The president is focused on what we can do for the middle class in this country” — Jay Carney, White House spokesman, explaining why President Obama hadn’t commented on offenses against women when perpetrated by prominent members of the Democratic Party.
"Now is not the time to go backwards — back to the time middle-class jobs and neighborhood infrastructure were sacrificed to downtown special interests. We need to continue to move forward." — Robert Filner (Democrat), mayor of San Diego, explaining why he was going to resist a move to recall him, prompted by allegations of sexual and financial improprieties.
For many years “It’s for the Children!” was the card thrown on the table of rhetoric whenever America’s rulers and managers wanted more money to do something foolish. Now another trump has been designated: “It’s for the Middle Class.”
As a member of the middle class, I find this ironic. The intended beneficiaries are invariably people who want to tax and regulate the middle class. They are ordinarily rich people, or people who are about to become rich, in money or power, from the aforementioned taxes and regulations. Robert (“Bob”) Filner, who on August 23 resigned as mayor of my town, San Diego, is an example. He apparently doesn’t have a big bank account, although he is suspected of tapping the city treasury to provide himself with certain luxuries and accommodations. But he loves the power to tax and spend. I well remember the scene in Congress when Clinton’s tax raise squeaked through the House. Filner, then a member of that illustrious body, pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.
Phony? Oh yeah.
This summer, President Obama suddenly developed an aversion to phoniness, though not to the phoniness of his own supporters — only to the alleged phoniness of people who accuse his supporters of phoniness. Phoniness about Benghazi. Phoniness about “national security” spying. Phoniness about IRS corruption. Those are the three big current scandals of Obama’s administration, and he himself had previously treated at least one of them as a distressing scandal. In every case, however, his administration has done everything that coverups and lies could do to make itself even more scandalous.
Filner pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.
Things were getting so bad, and so obvious, that sometime in the midst of a long July, the gilded flunkies in the White House decided that the catchword of the season would be “phony scandals.” From the president on down, everyone would use that phrase on every possible occasion. And for a solid month they did so.
It was a dotty attempt to end the administration’s credibility problem, and it was conspicuously counterproductive. After three weeks, polls showed that something like 70% of respondents believed that the scandals weren’t phony at all, that the phoniness was entirely that of the deniers. The campaign continued, despite the fact that only people paid to be Democrats took the message seriously, and then only in public. Do you think that even professional supporters of all things Obama sat and brooded to themselves, “All these scandals . . . all this evidence about incompetence and lies and stonewalling. . . . It all seemed so real. But now . . . now that the president has examined everything so thoroughly, I can see that . . . hard as it may be to believe . . . all of it is just, well . . . phony”? Do you think they said that to themselves? Or do you think they said, “Well, maybe somebody will believe what we’re saying. Anyway, it’s a living.”
But the message, however stupid and self-defeating, caused real concern among reflective people. Had the administration, they wondered, lost its last ties with reality? These people were right, but they were over-reflective. They couldn’t see how funny the whole thing was.
I’m glad I saw it, because for me it stripped some of the last remnants of scariness from Obama’s demagoguery. I was behind the curve, of course; all the surveys showed that with most people he had lost his credibility within the first six months of his first term. That’s one reason why he barely beat Mitt Romney, who was nobody’s idea of a strong, compelling candidate. But now I could see exactly how phony the president’s mindless repetition and affected intonation — characteristic of his whole rhetorical career — can make him look. It was irresistibly comic to see him pause and marvel, in speech after speech, about how Washington had been so distracted by all its made-up causes of concern, its phony scandals, that it couldn’t do its work (i.e., do what he told it).
Like a lot of other politicians, the man still hadn’t adapted to the age of video. He actually appeared to believe that no one could access any more than one version of what he said, or that anyone who somehow figured out how to do so would naturally forget all the other versions as soon as the next mesmerizing performance appeared on the TV screen.
The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying. First the little hesitation, the fake attempt to discover the right phrase, the twisting of the countenance as if the whole face were saying, “This can’t be true! But it is! And it’s my duty to warn my fellow citizens!” — classic signs of bewilderment. Then, at last, he found the phrase! And it was . . . wait for it . . . “All these phony scandals”! Sometimes, reaching for the ultimate dramatic effect, he added, “and the Lord knows what.”
Well, you have to admire a president who at least pretends to believe in God. His real trust, however, was in his audience’s total ignorance — or something worse, its cynicism. Because, as I said, his performance was universally recognized as what it was, a performance. The fact that professional Democrats and party bigots were actually pleased by it, though they knew it was a lie, says a great deal about a large segment of our so-called political life.
The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying.
Now then. Speaking of phonies, I don’t need to remind you of former Congressmen Anthony Weiner and soon-to-be-former Mayor Robert Filner, who, like the patron demon of “progressive” politics, Teddy Kennedy, were completely correct — politically correct — about Women, except when they met an actual woman. Their responses to the revelation of their sexual idiocies were predictably phony: “I need help.” “I need more help.” “I need yet more help.” “And I’m getting it. But what the people really want me to talk about is what I can do for the middle class. Meanwhile, pity and sympathize. With me. And if you don’t, you’re a lousy rightwinger.”
I am happy to join with my fellow Americans in saying that I do not pity and sympathize. Like most of them, I’ve enjoyed the humiliation of Filner and Weiner (as I always enjoyed the humiliation of Kennedy). For three reasons.
First, I was happy that these mountebanks, whose political nostrums, once consumed, would give the government even more tyrannical power over our lives, had been interrupted in their sordid careers. Weiner’s sexual antics (and attempted coverups, evasions, and so on, delightful in themselves) denied him any possibility of being elected mayor of New York. Filner’s sexual antics, and his plucky refusal to resign his office, paralyzed the “progressive” forces that he claimed to represent in San Diego. The extent of “progressivism” was revealed by his crazed resignation speech. After repeatedly asserting that he was the victim of a “lynch mob” organized by the enemies of progress, bent on conducting a “coup” to throw a good man out of office, he provided a list of goals that, he suggested, were the priorities of his political faction: municipal planning by a crew of “world-class urban thinkers” already ensconced in City Hall, the bikification and solarization of the city, the placement of San Diego on the front lines of the war against “climate change,” an “efficient borders” meld of San Diego with Mexico. (Many of the people who spoke to the City Council in defense of Filner had relied on a translator when they threatened political action against anyone who voted to can him.) He gave lengthy tribute to “union leaders” who, he revealed to no one’s surprise, had been his most faithful and consistent guides. He ended with an inspirational quotation from (guess who?) Teddy Kennedy.
So, my second reason for wanting Filner and Weiner to hang in there was simply the educational value of their performance. I admit, however, that Filner’s leave-taking provided its own education in the way in which cities are run. He negotiated an agreement to resign (signed on August 23 but effective August 30, which gives him a few days to do as much damage as he can) in exchange for the city’s paying lots or all of his legal bills. Among the negotiators, be it noted, was the public official who will become interim mayor and at least one other public official who, like the first, may run for his office. Filner’s lawyers will be paid by the city, and he will be defended by the city against a lawsuit filed by Gloria Allred on behalf of a former city employee. The reason for this absurd bailout? According to the soon-to-be interim mayor, “This settlement is an end to our civic nightmare and allows this city to begin to heal."Why is it that the medical metaphor sounds phony? It’s because the city isn’t sick; its political leaders are. The Filner affair continued to dramatize and explain that sickness.
My third reason for relishing the humiliation of Filner and Weiner is that I have long regarded those two as virtually the most obnoxious people in politics (since the demise of Uncle Ted). I can’t forget watching Filner’s little dance in the chamber of the House. I can’t forget all the nasty things I’ve noticed about him — and here I’m not talking about sexual things or even illegal things but all those qualities that have made him loathed, as a person, by the people who encounter him. This was one of the most notorious facts about San Diego politics, and it is a measure of “progressive” integrity that the same set of people who initiated the campaign to remove him had, a few months before, pushed him vigorously as their candidate for mayor. They craved a leftwing Democrat and thought he was the only one with the organization to win. At the same time, they despised him. Weiner, when in Congress, was the “progressive” guy who was always leaping in front of the camera to rant against all criticism of his party. He specialized in low insults, and when asked to return to the question the interviewer had asked him, would hum little tunes to himself and smirk and walk in circles and say, “Are you ready? Are you ready now? Are you ready to let me speak now?”
Imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence.
It’s interesting to ask oneself what roles various people would occupy if our political system were different from what it is. The philosophical answer may be, It’s a meaningless question, because in a different system those people would have developed in different ways. Perhaps. I have my doubts about environmental theories of character formation. But the question is fun, at least.
I like to imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence. The two Presidents Bush would be CEOs of unimportant firms, prevented by abler people on their staffs from facing any realities requiring them to do more than decide what color of paint should be applied to the men’s restroom. Several members of the Supreme Court would be justices of the peace in small towns in the Florida panhandle. Many members of Congress would be good guys running small local businesses; many others would be the people who show up at PTA meetings determined to advance Their Own Agenda; a significant proportion of them would be in jail.
Then I think about a less libertarian society — a dictatorship. What role would our contemporaries play in that? It would take an extreme case of American exceptionalism to dream that they all, as good Americans, would be fighting the Power. They wouldn’t. The Bushes would be doing what I just suggested. So would most judges and legislators. A few would actually be fighting the Power, either because they had an ideology (I picture Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas) or because they knew that a dictatorship just isn’t right. I believe that a small but significant number of legislators, Democratic and Republican, would feel like that.
But can there be any question about where the Clintons would be? Or where Obama would be? They would be the Power. They would be fighting one another to remain the Power, but that’s where they would belong, because on the evidence of what they do right now, they have no compunctions about gathering and using power. To them, the exercise of power presents no moral issues, and they are convinced of their inherent right to wield it. This is the dictatorial personality, in its several versions.
True, they would wield dictatorial power in various ways. I can imagine Hillary Clinton staging a military putsch; I can only imagine Obama getting someone else to do it for him. But you see what I mean. And Filner and Weiner are psychologically fitted for the role of dictator as few other people are. Arrogant, domineering, with no sense of limits, utterly convinced of their right to rule, they would seize the throne or die trying. It’s not for nothing that Weiner and his insufferable wife — whose prepared statement in defense of him resembled the commencement address of a high school student commenting on her Best Friends Forever, and was read in a tone appropriate to its content — are slaves of the Clintons.
Speculation, mere speculation. And none of this has anything to do with sex. Let’s think now about the sex part — or, more sensibly, about the language in which it has been discussed.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. Weiner’s sexting was gross and stupid. Filner’s (alleged) custom of cornering women and demanding a date was reprehensible. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go. You can consider sexting immoral if you want; I don’t, so long as it’s among consenting adults. I see nothing morally wrong with pornography, and although Weiner is not my idea of a pornographic object, each to his own taste. And he wasn’t exactly committing adultery. Filner’s (alleged) conduct — grabbing women, kissing or trying to kiss them, touching their posteriors, pressing them for a date — was obviously wrong; it was a way of manipulating other people in an area of their life that should be sacred to their own choice. It implied that he had a right to rule any woman he met, and that is immoral by any principles of individualism. If it’s shown that he was trying to coerce women into having sex with him in order to keep their jobs or get some favor from the government, then we don’t have to rely on principles of individualism in order to convict him; he’s a creep by any standard.
Nevertheless, this is still pretty low-level stuff. It isn’t rape, much less the rape of the Sabines. In my younger, much younger, days, I, though male, encountered similar conduct, from both men and women. I didn’t like it; I resisted it; I continue to resent it. Yet in those days I was also the victim of an attempted mugging; an attempted physical attack by a gang of other college students who should not have been drunk on the streets at midnight; the theft and destruction of my car . . . . Quite a few things, none of them out of the ordinary, as this world goes. Today, like other ordinary, middle-class Americans, I am constantly robbed by the government of a large part of my income and freedom, and this has gotten worse as I have gotten older, thanks to people like Filner and Weiner.
Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops.
But the language that is used of Filner and Weiner is about a hundred times worse than the language commonly used about a mugging, a gang attack, the theft of a car from an impoverished young person, the theft of livelihood from tens of millions of ordinary people. You would think that Filner and Weiner had committed some Hitlerlike atrocity. But they didn’t.
In Filner’s case, we have heard much about the atrocious nature of his being 70 years old and allegedly “preying on” women as old as . . . 67! What a “dirty old man,” to pick on a “great grandma”! The leader of the anti-Filner forces, Donna Frye, a former member of the city council, former candidate for mayor, and perpetual “progressive” politico who insisted that Filner be elected last year, and got her way, now proclaimed, “Bob Filner is tragically unsafe for any woman to approach.” (I’m leaving out all the tears and self-applause about how hard it was for her to say these words, but duty impelled her, etc.) The salient image is the mayor as King Kong — but worse, because the mighty Kong was interested only in Fay Wray.
Here’s a story about a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, an accuser of Filner:
"He looks at my [business] card. He looks at me. He says, 'Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?' Very quick, very direct. I said, 'No, I'm divorced,'" she told CNN. "'Well, you're beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.' I was really shocked and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Fernandez said. Then came a phone call and voice mail, which Fernandez never returned.
Oh the humanity! As one of the comedians on “Red Eye” said, the first few complaints seemed serious; the later ones made you think, “What next — ‘The jerk wanted to hold the door open for me’?”
Yes, Filner’s alleged sexual behavior was stupid, and wrong. Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops. Duly noted. But that’s not a reason to get upset. It’s the sex thing that really gets us.
Why is this, in a society that long ago assimilated the virtually incredible grossness of the Kennedys’ sexual regime? In a society that regards Bill Clinton as an elder statesman? In a society that honors with profits and sanctifies with awards the grossness of hip-hop “culture”? In a society in which no stand-up comedian can succeed without sex talk that would make a street girl blush? In a society in which the most popular kind of joke about unworthy businessmen or public servants involves their being raped in prison?
Phoniness? Yes, there is a phoniness even deeper than Obama’s.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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