Monday, May 10, 2010

The Cartoonification of America (REVISED)?

--Stan Lee

I like Iron Man fine, but I am more of a Batman sort of guy when push comes to shove. Batman, if you can forgive this blogger for saying so, is more realistic (I know, I know). Iron Man is, if you'll forgive us again, way too "cartoonish." "Repulsor Rays"? Blogga, please! It is profoundly abstract, science fiction-y, and beyond the messiness and compromise that constitutes the daily reality of you and me. What happened to when attractive men and women were the big box office draws and not suits of armor and explorations into the third dimension? Then again, considering that franchises massive success this weekend (and, apparently, for the foreseeable future), maybe America -- at least today -- itself goes in for cartoonish, mindless escapism. I can almost understand that with this economy.

Hegelian, if not so much cartoonish, are many of the nebulous financial instruments that got us into This Great Recession in the first place. "Default swaps," for example, sound, in retrospect and perhaps in all reality, to be instruments better-suited for the Fantastic Four's "negative zone" than for private wealth creation. Kevin Phillips -- a former Nixonian supervillain, who turned, late in life, towards the lambent light, wrote last year:

My 2002 book, Wealth and Democracy, in its section on the "Financialization of America" noted that the "finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector overtook manufacturing during the 1990s, moving ahead in the national income and GDP charts by 1995. By the first years of the next decade, it had taken a clear lead in actual profits. Back in 1960, parenthetically, manufacturing profits had been four times as big, and in 1980, twice as big." Hardly anyone was paying attention. By 2006, the FIRE sector, its components mixed together like linguine by the 1999 repeal of the old New Deal restraints against mergers of commercial banks, investment firms and insurance, had ballooned to 20.6% of U.S. GDP versus just 12% for manufacturing. The FIRE Sector, now calling itself the Financial Services Sector, lopsidedly dominated the private economy. A detailed chart appears on page 31 of Bad Money. Some New York publications and politicians try to insist that finance per se is only 8%, but the post-1999 commingling makes that absurd.

This represented a staggering transformation of the U.S. economy - doubly staggering now because of the crushing burden of its collapse. You would think that that opinion molders and the national media would have been probing its every aperture and orifice. Not at all.

Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha, one can almost hear the supervillain's laughter, twisting his well-oiled moustaches, all-the-while tying a damsel to a railroad track. Recently, Ezra Klein used a curious Captain America analogy to explain "retconning," something he claims is a "similar dynamic on the (American political) right."

Consider our present political situation. What can be more cartoonish than the wingnuts? Very Spy vs. Spy, they. Wingnuts are more intent upon exposing perceived "hypocrisies" in their opposition than actually arriving at the truth of an issue, what is best for the country. "Here’s one mistake wingnuts always make," said centrist John Avlon. "They view political opponents as their enemies, not well-intentioned fellow Americans. They demonize disagreement." So, of course, do Marvel comics villains. Particularly the science villains.

The double-barrelled stranglehold of wingnuts over our political discourse is something straight out of the X-Men. Moderate voices recede into the background as the squeaky wheels get the prime time evening cable programs. Death Panels? Really, Sarah Palin? Isn't that the device, if memory serves, that Annihilus used to vanquish Blastarr? And, on nougaty, wingnutty Left, the conversation is not much more intellectually coherent. Despite the cold, hard fact that there was never the votes for single payer, wide-eyed Progressives, wholly naive about how to accomplish incremental change, put the Obama administration through Dante's Inferno before his ultimate success. Way to go, lefties!

Then there is the case of the United States Senate. An institution long on compromise, it has become, post-Karl Rove, an institution embracing the outer fringes. On the right, consider: Bob Bennett, a conservative, was defeated at Utah GOP Convention by ... conservatives? WTF? Have they even studied what David Cameron was able to accomplish in running from the center? Part of this present Senate awfulness is, to be sure, anti-incumbency; part of this thusness, also, is, quite frankly, bat-shit craziness. Ideological purity tests are changing the composition of the US Senate, right and left, for, IMHO, the worse. Obama-backed Arlen Specter is in the fight of his life against Joe "Sixpack" Sestak. Granted, Spector is an opportunist, but he is also a moderate, a non-offensive man and is an ally of the President. What's with all the high-pitched, cartoonish hate? Remember when -- and it seems now so long ago -- sensible, clear-minded Great Centrists like Moynihan, Simon, Hayakawa and Rudman were in the Senate? That was the golden age. Now partisan fishmongers like Al Franken and Bunning ride the precious Senate-only elevator.

And what about the news media? In the hyper-reporting halo-ing the Times Square terrorist incident last week, restraint among the press in the media capital of the world was almost entirely absent. This weekend WashPo's Howie Kurtz had an interesting conversation with David Frum, the editor of; Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and former managing editor of 'USA Today Live'; and John Aravosis, the founder of From CNN:

Howie Kurtz: Let me turn now to the subject of leaks, because in that crucial period from the bombing, which was on Saturday night, to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, to the Monday night arrest, there were stories, Fox News, the local NBC station in New York and elsewhere, about the suspect was of Pakistani descent, lived Shelton, Connecticut. Reporters actually showed up at Shahzad's home, even though as we now know, he was on a plane.

"Should that information, Lauren Ashburn, have been held back by reporters?

"ASHBURN: One of the first lessons I learned in local news when I was covering a serial killer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, my very first live shot, was restraint. If you don't -- if the police are saying, can you give me a beep (ph) here, give me some time, if you don't know all of the information, if you're looking at some tiny piece of it and don't know the larger picture, shut up. And I think that in this case, it would have been very helpful to this investigation if reporters had done that.

"KURTZ: It's almost like reporting troop movements in war time. But at the same time, we have to recognize, where do these leaks come from? Most likely in this case, it was law enforcement sources telling reporters, trying to show that they are on the case, that they're on the job, about a guy who had not yet been apprehended.

"FRUM: I think one of the things we're also hampered by is -- John has mentioned before a distinction in blogs and mainstream media. I think that distinction is dead and that there is -- there is only one media of various forms, various degrees of success. And everybody in the so-called or the former mainstream media knows if we don't cover things, there is some blogger who will. And that there is a game played where blogs criticize the mainstream, but then you also have the -- there's the feeling that, well, you shouldn't touch this story so that we can have it, because a blogger will do it if the mainstream, so-called mainstream, ex-mainstream media don't.

"ASHBURN: Because somebody does it doesn't mean -- it's like, you know, Johnny did it, so I'm going to do it.

"FRUM: The point is that the restraint has to be universalized.

It is the peculiar wisdom of the United States that we summon in times of grave peril from our collective unconscious leaders strong enough to lead us through the fires. Is this because our country is based in ideas of natural law as opposed to purely a matter of heredity? Thumotic excess, rising levels of wingnutiness and a lack of consensus-building could possibly lead to an America where political opponents characterize the enemy as cartoonish supervillains. And Life, as those of us who love independent movies and serious television and Great Books know, is neither black nor white. That sort of simplistic mindset will continue to cleft this country in twain if left alone. It is the unsexy gray of compromise and hard work that got America through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and it is the hard work and compromise that will get us through, I believe, this Great Recession.

(Ed Note: Apologies for not cleaning up my post yesterday. Kind of a long argument and pace to sustain, --R)

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