Friday, October 29, 2010

Pee-wee Herman and the Culture Wars

When I read yesterday's New York Times article about the "redemption" of Paul Reubens, the creator and embodiment of Pee-wee Herman, I couldn't help but think that it was, in some small way, a sign that we were winning the culture wars. That seems crazy when the Teabaggers are about to gain control of the House of Representatives by reigniting a lot of those culture war conflicts that we've discovered never went away in the first place. But I think, if we can keep those idiots from dragging us back into fascism or the Pleistocene, we can keep winning.

At this point, Reubens' comeback has been longer than the time he was at the pinnacle of his creative and popular success. Following Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the movie that gave me the lifelong goal to visit San Antonio and find the basement of the Alamo, was the Saturday morning television show Pee-wee's Playhouse. Unfortunately, I scorned the show (and most other children's programming) because, at the time, kids abandoned cartoons and comics and other things that seemed too childlike for budding adults. Today, with prime time cartoons and superhero movies, kids carry those things into adulthood and the diving line has been erased. For those kids younger than me or not foolish enough to rush into some facade of adulthood, they were blessed with a wonderfully surreal television show that had a huge budget, little creative interference, an amazing cast, and, of course, the imagination of Paul Reubens.

For five seasons, anyway. The show had wrapped up (Reubens was weary of the character and the grind) but reruns were still airing on CBS. But in July 1991, Reubens was arrested for masturbating in a porno theater in Sarasota, Florida. In a stunning waste of time and police and legal resources, cops would prowl porn theaters looking to enforce morality and rack up easy arrests. Of course, public wanking should be illegal, but it also shouldn't be a police priority. How much money and manhours were wasted on this case? One article puts a cost of $2000 just on police protection for Reubens' courtroom appearance.

There was another cost as well, a cultural cost. Reubens went into seclusion and his evidence of his work immediately started disappearing. CBS stopped rerunning his show and toy stores around the country stripped Playhouse merchandise from their shelves. I remember reading about this in my local newspaper and went back to a newspaper database today to verify my memory of this: a local toystore, like stores in most in the country, removed all their Pee-wee merchandise, but accidentally overlooked two lunch boxes, probably because lunch boxes would have been in a different aisle. An "indignant" customer found them the next day complained about their presence, saying they "shouldn't be displayed for children because he was sick and perverted.'' It's helpful to look at the timeline of this. Reubens was arrested on a Friday night and a reporter noticed his arrest record the next day. The beginning of the next week that particular toy store chain ordered their stores to remove Pee-wee merchandise, and that store did so on Tuesday night. The outraged customer was at the store on Wednesday.

I remembered this incident for 19 years because to me it became emblematic of the culture wars. I exaggerated it slightly in my mind, but not by much. I imagined a permanently-clenched evangelical rooting behind boxes the next morning trying to find the last, misplaced Pee-wee Herman doll so he could harangue the poor manager, spit flecking from his open mouth while he screamed about "sick perverts" because all trace of Paul Reubens hadn't disappeared fast enough for his liking. This happened a thousand different ways over a thousand different things during the 80s and 90s.

It was tempting to think that in the 21st century this had gone away, but it hasn't. Things like the George Tiller killing and the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction proved that the culture wars hadn't left us even before the Teabaggers went full retard. Even Paul Reubens had another culture war incident in 2002 when he was arrested over a handful of objectionable items in his 70,000 piece pornography collection. (The charges were dropped in 2004.) Cops may have stopped raiding adult theaters - which largely died out anyway due to home video and the internet - but they are still busting people for owning porn despite its ubiquity on the internet. But this served to be merely a speedbump on his long comeback trail, nothing like the consequences of his 1991 arrest. Sure, moralizing culture warriors are still with us and people see pedophiles under every rock thanks to Dateline, but in the age of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears, masturbating to porn seems decidedly tame. The culture warriors would say we've degraded as a society, but are Lindsey Lohan's antics so much worse than Clara Bow's or Tallulah Bankhead's?

The difference is that I think we've become a lot freer and more open about things than we were in 1991. Technology has helped. The same internet that I used to find that old newspaper article preserves the memory of Pee-wee Herman through video clips, Wikipedia articles, fawning blog and message board posts, and a thousand other ways. We can't stuff Paul Reubens down the memory hole for masturbating because the internet will remember him, and we're all wanking to things we find on the internet anyway so we're not going to ostracize someone else for it. We can't be outraged about Janet Jackson's nipple when we've seen 2 Girls 1 Cup. We can keep the memory of George Tiller alive through internet activism. More and more homosexuals are stepping out of the closet at younger and younger ages, and the internet (most recently with Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project) is helping them. Popular support for DADT and prohibiting gay marriage is collapsing. The pace might be slow, but we are winning the culture war.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How the right is wrong on Rachel Maddow's Steve Stockman comments

This Monday, Rachel Maddow began her show with a powerful segment about the extremism of the current crop of GOP candidates and made connections to the extremists last GOP "revolution" in 1994. She discussed the ties to the racists and extremists in the militia movement of two '94 legislators in particular:

Yes, this has happened to a smaller degree before. In 1994, in the first midterm election after the last Democrat president was elected, we got a slate of candidates that included Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Steve Stockman of Texas. These two were so close to the militia movement in this country that Mr. Stockman actually received advance notice that the Oklahoma City bombing was going to happen.
It's hard to forget the crazy that was the late Helen Chenoweth, who was, with help from The X-Files, responsible for mainstreaming the black helicopter paranoia of the militia movement. Steve Stockman was not as flamboyant, but just as nuts. This Texas Monthly story (free registration required) contains many of the lowlights of Stockman's short congressional career. Stockman was the author of a manifesto published in Guns and Ammo declaring Bill Clinton and Janet Reno murderers and that the Waco siege was staged to push an assault weapons ban. (This kind of conspiracy theory is echoed in the current right-wing claim that the BP oil spill was staged by environmentalists.) He claimed a secret operation at Fort Bliss spied on the militia movement. He got into a public tussle with the mother of a murder victim when he wanted to use his name for an anti-gun control bill. He called for a government investigation of the Kinsey Report, 47 years after its publication. The Texas Monthly estimated he generated an ethics investigation once every two months. When asked about his interest in ceramics, he replied "don't say that or they'll think I'm a fag for sure. '' Thankfully, Stockman was sent home after a single term.

It was for the honor of this distinguished legislator that the right-wing blogosphere sprung into action after Maddow's report. Stockman is most notorious for receiving a fax notification the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. Unfortunately, Maddow was either the victim of a misstatement or sloppy research as Stockman didn't receive the fax until after the bombing. To her credit, Maddow issued a prominent correction during her show on Wednesday.

On Monday, I said that Mr. Stockman's notice from the militia movement about the Oklahoma City bombing was advance notice. It wasn't in advance, it was right after the bombing. I apologize for the misstatement. It was an editing error and it was mine alone.
Still, the right-wingers were unforgiving. The trolls at Newsbusters claimed that Maddow implied "Stockman consigned 168 innocent people to death". Reason accused her of "mistakenly accusing someone of being an accessory to the worst act of domestic terrorism in this country's history". And most over the top, according to Outside the Beltway, she knew she was making a false claim on Monday because she gave the correct information about the Stockman fax in an earlier broadcast in March, the same broadcast she cited in on Wednesday in the above clip.

I don't get it. I know that as a liberal, I'm inclined to give Maddow the benefit of the doubt, but I can't come up with a reasonable interpretation of her comments that would make any of the above statements accurate. There seems to me a clear difference between, to take a recent turn of phrase, palling around with domestic terrorists and being directly involved in an act of domestic terrorism. Even Maddow's most thick-headed critics know this, but only the wildest extrapolation of her remarks would place Stockman in the latter camp. And if Maddow was doing this - purposely according to OTB - why was she so subtle about it? Wouldn't it drive home her thesis even more to play up Stockman's supposed involvement? Why make such a dramatic accusation in passing and then immediately drop it?

The conspiracy theory is too tempting to pass on, but to reasonable people who have no axe to grind and don't have a need to cram Maddow into the paradigm of a partisan crank, it seems much more plausible that this was simply an error, that they were correct in March but sometime in the last ten months the busy staff and host of a daily commentary show forgot the details of a 15 year old incident involving an obscure one-term congressman.

This (feigned?) outrage about Stockman's lack of responsibility for the Oklahoma City bombing allows Maddow's critics to ignore what Stockman was actually responsible for: peddling conspiracy theories and contributing to an atmosphere of paranoia and hate. If anyone in Congress got a fax from Bill Ayers at any time in the last half-century, those same critics of Maddow would be absolutely outraged. But the terrorists who killed 168 people felt that Stockman was such a kindred spirit that they singled him out for notification, and Maddow's critics think that's just Stockman standing up for the heartland.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Two black Fox News commentators: one gets rich, one gets fired

Liberals (or alleged liberals) tend to fill, with a few exceptions like the occasional appearance of The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, two roles on the Fox News Channel. One is the obvious foil, usually a milquetoast liberal like Alan Colmes who plays the foil to and is easily overcome by a heroic conservative. Sometimes the foil is someone they think will appear buffoonish to the audience, like a blustery Nation of Islam spokesman.

The other role is the validator, the liberal who lets conservatives feel that their ideas and claims are accurate and/or widely held across the political spectrum. In print that role is filled by a certain publication which has inspired the phrase "Even the liberal New Republic..." On television that role is played by "Fox News Liberals" like Kirsten Powers and Mara Liasson. The most notorious of these FNL liberals is the minority liberal who validates conservatives' worst impulses and unfounded paranoias about other races and religions, who tells them that their secret dark impulses are just good sense:
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
Juan Williams has been at this for a while. Before this, he was most notorious for his "Stokely Carmichael in a dress" comment about Michelle Obama that prompted NPR to forbid Williams from identifying himself as part of NPR while on Fox. After that, Fox had to be content with having a black liberal instead of a black liberal from liberal NPR validating conservative race paranoia. Such a service is quite valuable; for being the Fox News audience's black best friend he will now get a $2 million payday under his shiny new Fox contract.

Given the recent firings of Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, and Dave Wiegel - Glenn Greenwald adds to this list past incidents with Eason Jordan, Peter Arnett, Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield, Bill Maher, Ward Churchill, Chas Freeman, and Van Jones - this would obviously seem part of a trend of news organizations jettisoning personnel who cross certain lines with their public comments. Instead the right-wing has, in a display of hypocrisy that is stunning even for them, charged to defend the "free speech" rights of Williams, including many of the same pundits and organizations who called for the firings of the people listed above. In retrospect, should we really be surprised by this? It's long been a trend for the right to demand the scalps of outspoken liberals while arguing for consequence-free "free speech" for even the most noxious of conservative bile.

And thus the Fox audience gets to imagine themselves champions of free speech who accept viewpoints from all over the political spectrum, a fantasy worth the $2 million that Roger Ailes just dropped for Juan Williams' new contract. But to see how true that fantasy really is, look at the case of Marc Lamont Hill. Dr. Hill, an African American Columbia University professor, was a regular on The O’Reilly Factor, prompting outrage from the likes of Accuracy in Media, who called him "cop-killer apologist", and David Horowitz, who called him an "affirmative action baby". This is, of course, the same Accuracy of Media and Horowitz who are currently getting the vapors over Williams' firing and are virulently defending him. Hill was abruptly fired from Fox News almost a year ago to the date of Williams' new Fox contract. Hill wasn't even told and had to find out via a Google alert.

I guess Fox News will defend the "free speech" rights of their employees to defy orthodox thinking as long as they are only defying the liberal orthodoxy.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

How James O'Keefe finally went too far

James O'Keefe thinks he is a victim.

I've been approached by CNN for an interview where I know what their angle is: They want to portray me and my friends as crazies, as non-journalists, as unprofessional and likely as homophobes, racists or bigots of some sort....

Instead, I've decided to have a little fun. Instead of giving her a serious interview, I'm going to punk CNN. Abbie has been trying to seduce me to use me, in order to spin a lie about me. So, I'm going to seduce her, on camera, to use her for a video. This bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five will get a taste of her own medicine, she'll get seduced on camera and you'll get to see the awkwardness and the aftermath.

Let's take a look at the context for a second. A 26 year old whose only accomplishment is a string of fraudulent videos was being courted, so to speak, by a professional journalist who flew to Maryland at his request not to interview him, but merely to persuade him to consent to be interviewed. With this kind of red carpet treatment, to insist on personal victimhood requires one to be either a con artist, a sociopath, or possessed of a high degree of cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps all three simultaneously. It would take the proverbial army of psychologists to suss out which is which in the current conservative movement and their collective fantasy of victimization.

The reason that this particular stunt of O'Keefe's is getting significiant pushback - despite abundant objective evidence of his perfidy - is because this time that fantasy of victimhood has collided with mainstream journalism's fantasy: its self-image of doing serious, important work.

Sure, conservatives have mounted a decades-long assault on journalism and instead of pushing back, time and time again mainstream journalism has accepted the non-existent charge of "liberal bias" and dutifully moved rightward. But in a perverse way, conservative attacks actually validate the mainstream media's sense of self-importance. They reassure journalists that they have an effect on the public, that their work really does matter. And they don't have to do any real reassessment of journalistic institutions, they just have to tweak the content a bit, quote more conservative talking points, add more right-wing correspondents and columnists. The liberal critique of journalism is more substantial, raising basic questions about the methods of journalism and its role in society and attacking the core assumptions of the mainstream media. In other words, liberals aren't just saying you are leaning too far in one direction from the center, they are saying that you are doing your jobs incorrectly in a very fundamental way. This is, I think, why while the reaction of journalists to liberal criticism ranges from being dismissive to going completely apeshit, conservative criticism is meekly accepted.

In the past, the media has completely embraced criticism from this particular conservative, perhaps most famously exemplified by the ombudsman of the Washington Post asserting that the media should pay more attention to the already overhyped ACORN story. But this time the reaction is an immediate pushback. You can see it in this tellingly defensive remark buried in CNN's story on O'Keefe's latest prank:

Boudreau, who has won multiple awards for her investigative reporting, called the comments "ridiculous."

You can just hear it, can't you? "How dare you question that we're doing serious journalism here? We've won awards."

It is even more blatant in Boudreau's first person account of the incident, which is astonishingly defensive about her nine years as a professional journalist. Since I rarely watch CNN these days, I can't judge how good of a journalist Boudreau is, but if you're going to assert your seriousness as a journalist, perhaps you should mention some of the actual journalistic work you've done instead of merely proclaiming your work ethic. "But I got blood on my shoes! I'm a serious journalist!" This is the kind of bland, content-less "journalism" that substitutes showing up at the crime sense and walking in blood for actually investigating a crime, the kind of "journalism" that congratulates itself and gives itself "multiple awards for investigative reporting" without tackling or questioning issues in any substantive manner. For this kind of journalism, O'Keefe's crime wasn't to be a partisan activist trafficking in fraudulent videos, it was to question this self-congratulatory fantasy, and journalism isn't going to let him get away with it.