The following is an excerpt from Barrett Brown’s forthcoming book “Keep Rootin’ for Putin: Establishment Pundits and the Twilight of American Competence.” The book will be available on the official Free Barrett Brown website soon.
Even if we look very hard, we find nothing truly funny in service to fascism or communism. But we may find that communists and fascists have otherwise promoted their totalitarianism by way of great and glorious contributions to film, music, and the performing arts—which is to say that anti-individualistic political persuasions may produce fine works of aesthetics, but apparently not humor.
This may lead us to suspect that humor is not subject to whatever strings together the totalitarian-accessible arts. It may also lead us to be wary of any political movement that has lost its ability to put forth comedic works in defense of itself and in opposition to its opponents—and not necessarily because such a movement thus shares a trait in common with communism and fascism, as some traits are superficial and this could perhaps be one of them. Rather, we should be wary for another, more self-evident reason. Political humor is heavily dependent on the ability to perceive and present irony; if a political population consisting of tens of millions of people cannot produce at least a few competent political humorists, we might draw some insulting conclusions about such a population.
For over a decade, the finest political humorist in America was P.J. O’Rourke, a reporter and veteran of National Lampoon whose early adulthood was marked by a gradual transition from Maoism to conservatism. O’Rourke’s conservatism was never of the populist strain; he simply favored free market economics and a somewhat hawkish foreign policy stance in such situations as a hawkish foreign policy stance might be in order. One of the more common elements of O’Rourke’s earlier, more readable work was scorn for the histrionics that so often go hand in hand with mass politics, and particularly the empty ritualism of marches and protests. Conservatives, he asserted on several occasions, do not engage in such activities because they have jobs.
After the election of 2008, when the ongoing descent of conservatism into populism and anti-intellectualism brought us the Palinist tea party movement, the same humorist who had so consistently mocked the mentality of the protest-goer was suddenly unable to find anything funny in large gatherings of misshapen, chanting people. Instead, he criticized those media outlets that had been insufficiently respectful of such things, beginning an August 2009 Weekly Standard piece with the following paragraph of populist boilerplate:
Us right-wing nuts sure is scary! That’s the message from The Washington Post. To put this in language a conservative would understand, the fourth estate has been alarmed once again by the Burkean proclivities of our nation’s citizens. The Post is in a panic about (to use its own descriptive terms) “birthers,” “anti-tax tea-partiers,” and “town hall hecklers.”
“Burkean” is probably not the first term I would use to characterize large demonstrations by self-described “regular folks” in opposition to some perceived contingent of political elites, but then O’Rourke is certainly entitled to his hilarious delusions.
He goes on to complain about a sidebar by Alec MacGillis in which the reporter begins with the assertion that “[h]ealth care reform is not that hard to understand, and those who tell you otherwise most likely have an ulterior motive.” O’Rourke chooses to take this, as well as the entire piece, as some sort of elitist assault on his Burkean masses, to which he responds with a sarcastic quip that is supposed to summarize the intent of this Post piece: “All you town hall hecklers, calm down and go home.”
This is an odd interpretation of the article in general and that first sentence in particular, as the very next sentence of MacGillis’ piece goes on to clarify the intent of the first as such: “Reform proponents exaggerate the complexity of the issue to elevate their own status as people who understand it; opponents exaggerate it to make the whole endeavor out to be a bureaucratic monstrosity.” The rest consists of a summary of the major elements of health care reform proposals that were then under debate—who was objecting to what and why and what compromises were likely to be reached as the process continued and that sort of innocuous thing. But O’Rourke repeats his bizarre characterization of what this is all supposed to convey: “But calm down and go home, because The Washington Post said so.”
One must read between the lines, apparently. In fairness to O’Rourke’s unfairness, though, the Post did indeed assign one reporter to compose a sort of political fashion piece in which is detailed the particular slovenliness of the heckler crowd. As O’Rourke characterizes the article:
Then, to add idiocy to insult, the Post sent Robin Givhan to observe the Americans who are taking exception to various expansions of government powers and prerogatives and to make fun of their clothes . . . Meeting with Givhan’s scorn were “T-shirts, baseball caps, promotional polo shirts and sundresses with bra straps sliding down their arm.”
We learn, then, that making fun of other people’s clothes now constitutes “idiocy” according to O’Rourke, who must not be as familiar with his own body of work as I am.
O’Rourke once began an article on the 1990 Nicaraguan elections with a multi-paragraph critique of the sort of clothes worn by those visiting American liberals who supported the Sandinistas. He included similar critiques of liberal dressing habits in an article on the 1994 Mexican elections. He spent a good portion of an essay on the general increase in world travel decrying the fashions of tourists in general and the French in particular, and elsewhere took issue with the appearances of those among the Great Unwashed who now fly on commercial airliners. He made fun of those who appeared before the Supreme Court in opposition to a flag-burning ban for their general ugliness. He spent much of the ’90s mocking youngish leftists for wearing nose rings and black outfits—in fact, he did this so much as to actually ruin it for everyone else through overuse—and did so on at least one occasion in the pages of The Weekly Standard itself. He’s written an entire article in which he and his girlfriend roam around an Evangelical-oriented theme park and make fun of everyone present for their general tackiness. And he once asserted that Hillary Clinton should stop messing with her own hair and instead “do something about Chelsea’s.”
And, you know what? He was right. Aging liberals who run around Latin America and Mexico dress like idiots. Today half of the people one encounters on a domestic flight would have been rightfully barred from the plane by the captain in a more civilized age. I don’t even know where to start with the sort of French people who wander Manhattan in August. Earnest young leftists should be wearing suits or at least a button-down shirt instead of whatever the fuck they think they’re doing now. You can probably imagine what a bunch of Middle American Evangelicals look like when they’re at the mall. Chelsea Clinton was indeed a late bloomer, although I’m not sure that the appearance of a teenage girl who did not choose to participate in the political arena is of any more consequence than the appearance of a large number of screaming adults who have.
Seeing William Kristol pretend to admire the innocent primitivism of the sort of people with whom he would rightfully never associate is one thing; Kristol has always been worthless. But O’Rourke was once the greatest political humorist of the conservative movement, as well as a strong advocate of taste back when taste still favored Republicans. Today, he must defend the people he once despised; the GOP is now filled with little else.
If we agree that the inability to produce humor on its own behalf is a sign of degeneracy on the part of a political movement, and if we identify the modern American conservative enterprise as being incapable of producing viable political humor relative to its counterparts, and if we understand humor to be dependent on irony and understand irony in turn to be a sign of intellect, we may reasonably conclude that the actual intellectuals produced by such a movement as this will be relatively mediocre. But perhaps we should check just to be sure.
Like O’Rourke, Charles Krauthammer is a refuge from liberalism who eventually became a highly effective advocate of conservatism. Unlike O’Rourke, Krauthammer is just as talented today as he’s ever been. Also unlike O’Rourke, Krauthammer was never particularly talented to begin with.
These things being relative, he is today considered—rightfully—to be among the Republican Party’s greatest intellectual assets. In a profile piece that appeared in mid-2009, Politico’s Ben Smith proclaimed the Canadian-born commentator to be “a coherent, sophisticated and implacable critic of the new president” and a “central conservative voice” in the “Age of Obama.” Around the same time, New York Times mainstay David Brooks characterized him as “the most important conservative columnist right now.” When Krauthammer was presented with an award that summer by Rupert Murdoch in recognition of his having done a lot of whatever it is that makes Rupert Murdoch happy, Dick Cheney himself was on hand to congratulate him. In liberal terms of achievement, this is somewhat akin to winning an award from Noam Chomsky while being fêted by the ghost of Louis Brandeis.
Krauthammer’s prestige is such that, when foreign publications find themselves in need of someone to explain the conservative outlook, they are as likely to turn to our chapter subject as to anyone else. In October of 2009, Der Spiegel published a particularly comprehensive interview in which Krauthammer held forth largely on foreign policy. Among other things, he derides Obama as a wide-eyed amateur who lacks the columnist’s own grounding in reality:
I would say his vision of the world appears to me to be so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a doctrine. He has a view of the world as regulated by self-enforcing international norms, where the peace is kept by some kind of vague international consensus, something called the international community, which to me is a fiction, acting through obviously inadequate and worthless international agencies. I wouldn’t elevate that kind of thinking to a doctrine because I have too much respect for the word doctrine.
In pronouncing judgment upon a president’s competence in the arena of foreign policy, Krauthammer thereby implies that he himself knows better. It is a fine thing, then, that we may go through the fellow’s columns from the last 10 years and see for ourselves whether this is actually the case.
In 1999, NATO sought to derail yet another potential humanitarian disaster in the Balkans by way of an air bombing campaign against Serbia. Krauthammer promptly denounced Bill Clinton in a column that begun thusly:
On Monday, as “genocide” was going on in Kosovo (so said the State Department), Bill Clinton played golf. The stresses of war, no doubt. But perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he needed to retreat to shaded fairways to contemplate the consequences of his little Kosovo war.
Our columnist seems to have since changed his mind on the propriety of playing golf in the midst of conflict, but then if we are to concern ourselves with every little thing for which he has denounced his opponents while giving a pass to his allies, we will be forever distracted, so knock it off. Better for us to note that Krauthammer uses the term “genocide” in quotes and implies such a characterization to be the work of the foolish Clintonian State Department; the intent here is to cast suspicion on Clinton’s judgment by implying that no such thing as genocide is actually taking place. And in the very next paragraph, when Krauthammer asserts that NATO’s intervention thus far has failed to prevent “savage ethnic cleansing, executions of Kosovar Albanian leaders, the forced expulsion of more than 100,000 Kosovars”—with no such terminology being put in quotes this time—the intent is to cast even greater suspicion on Clinton’s judgment by implying that some sort of genocide is taking place.
Krauthammer goes on to argue that air strikes would be insufficient to force Serbian forces from Kosovo. Bizarrely enough, he even tries to convince his readers that General Wesley Clark agreed with him over Clinton, quoting the then NATO commander as telling Jim Lehrer, “we never thought that through air power we could stop these killings on the ground.” No doubt due to space constraints, Krauthammer leaves out the rest of Clark’s answer, in which it is explained that “the person who has to stop this is President Milosevic” and that the purpose of the air campaign was to force him to do just that—which, of course, it did.
Even after Clinton’s “little Kosovo war” proved successful, Krauthammer remained ideologically committed to chaos in the Balkans, having also predicted in 1999 that NATO’s involvement “would sever Kosovo from Serbian control and lead inevitably to an irredentist Kosovar state, unstable and unviable and forced to either join or take over pieces of neighboring countries.” When an ethnic Albanian insurgency arose in Macedonia along its border with UN-administered Kosovo in 2001, he felt himself vindicated, announcing that “the Balkans are on the verge of another explosion,” making several references to Vietnam, and characterizing our continued presence in the region as a “quagmire.” The violence ended within the year, having claimed less than 80 lives. Kosovo has since joined both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and is now recognized by three of five permanent members of the Security Council; as of late 2009, Macedonia is preparing for membership in NATO as well as the European Union.
Like most others who had cried apocalypse in Kosovo, Krauthammer bumbled into the Afghanistan war in a haze of amnesia and inexplicable self-regard. When New York Times contributor R.W. “Johnny” Apple wrote a piece in late October proposing that the conflict could develop into a “quagmire,” our columnist ridiculed him for using a term that he himself had wrongly applied in his own Balkans-as-Vietnam column from earlier in the year. The Apple article in question proved to be among the more prescient compositions of that period. Unlike Thomas Friedman, who was in those days proclaiming that Afghans don’t really mind having bombs dropped on them and was otherwise engaged in the inexplicable application of scare quotes around the word “civilians,” Apple predicted that civilian casualties would become a major source of discontent among the population and that this might very well be problematic for U.S. efforts to win such people over. He ended the piece by pointing out that there exists “a huge question about who would rule if the United States vanquished its foe. Washington never solved that issue satisfactorily after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and solving it in Afghanistan, a country long prone to chaotic competition among many tribes and factions, will probably not be much easier.” And, of course, he was right.
Long after others had abandoned the illusion of quick and long-term success in Central Asia, Krauthammer was still mocking anyone foolish enough to express concern over whether the illusion might be illusory. “Before our astonishing success in Afghanistan goes completely down the memory hole, let’s recall some very recent history,” Krauthammer politely suggested in a December 2004 column. “Within 100 days, al Qaeda is routed and the Taliban overthrown. Then came the first election in Afghanistan’s history. Now the inauguration of a deeply respected Democrat who, upon being sworn in as legitimate president of his country, thanks America for its liberation . . . What do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies.” This was indeed noted by liberals of the time—along with a whole range of other concerns that Krauthammer does not bother to address, with one exception:
The other complaint is that Karzai really does not rule the whole country. Again the sun rises in the east. Afghanistan has never had a government that controlled the whole country. It has always had a central government weak by Western standards.
But Afghanistan’s decentralized system works. Karzai controls Kabul, most of the major cities, and much in between. And he is successfully leveraging his power to gradually extend his authority as he creates entirely new federal institutions and an entirely new military.
As it turns out, this “deeply respected Democrat” won the 2009 election by deeply undemocratic means, further de-legitimizing himself in the eyes of Afghans already angry over the corruption that marks not only Karzai’s cabinet but also certain members of his immediate family. The former monarch’s authority, meanwhile, has not so much been “gradually extended” as it has since retracted. American analysts of both the private and public sort are now virtually united in their contempt for the fellow.
Krauthammer also explains to us the following:
What has happened in Afghanistan is nothing short of a miracle . . . Afghanistan had suffered under years of appalling theocratic rule, which helped to legitimize the kind of secularist democracy that Karzai represents.
The “secularist democracy” of Afghanistan proclaims Islam to be its official religion, holds that none of its civil laws may violate the teachings of Islam, and punishes conversion from Islam by death—all of which was already the case at the time of Krauthammer’s writing.
Elsewhere in the column we are confronted by the following declarative interrogatory: “The interesting question is: If we succeeded in Afghanistan, why haven’t we in Iraq?”
The Interesting Question: If we succeeded in Afghanistan, why haven’t we in Iraq?
Answer: Because our nation’s foreign policy was informed, in large part, by people who thought we had succeeded in Afghanistan.