Two Kinds of Spin, Partisan and Literary

The New Dishonesty. Watching Mark Racicot and Terry McAuliffe -- the Republican and Democratic National Committee heads -- square off for the first time on Meet the Press last Sunday morning was a disheartening spectacle. There's an aspect of artifice to the latest spurt of hard-core partisanship, as incarnated in these two men, that's more than a little offensive. It's almost as though both sides have decided, simultaneously, that 9/11 has grown sufficiently distant that it's okay to throw the switch and become nasty again.

And along with partisanship comes blaring dishonesty. Exhibit A is a recent New York Times dispatch by Richard L. Berke, which manages to capture both McAuliffe and Racicot in precisely the same preposterous spin move -- trying to talk around an embarrassing 2001 electoral defeat by claiming the other party's victor as their own.

Here's McAuliffe on Michael Bloomberg's Republican victory in the New York mayoral race (one that was greatly aided by a racialized meltdown on the Democratic side): "They spent $ 53 million in the last election and all they could do was elect a lifelong Democrat to be mayor of New York."

And here's Racicot on Mark Warner's Democratic victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race: "In Virginia, you had economic circumstances that were making it more challenging, and you had a candidate in Mark Warner who was pretty conservative in his economic principles."

Can anyone wonder why Donald Rumsfeld got top billing on Meet the Press that morning, while Racicot and McAuliffe were saved for last? In a recent Times op-ed, Robert Wright argues that the transformation of Rumsfeld into a "folk hero" tends to elide the Secretary of Defense's lack of vision about the true causes of terrorism. But Wright fails to sufficiently appreciate the way Rumsfeld has become the second coming of John McCain -- a straight talker with "wit and charismatic candor" (in Wright's own words).

The appeal of Rumsfeld, as opposed to Racicot and McAuliffe, is that you don't know in advance what he's going to say -- much less that it's going to be a manipulation.

Abusing Literature. But the spin in the past week is also coming from more unpredictable quarters -- namely, one of the top intellectuals of the Bush administration. As soon as Leon Kass's presidential bioethics commission was empanelled, the members were assigned to read an anti-science short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not an anti-science philosophical treatise, mind you, but a piece of fiction. And the bug is spreading: Complicated bioethical issues are also being reduced to pat literary interpretations in two of the nation's major newspapers.

In Monday's New York Times, William Safire opined about human cloning by citing Hawthorne and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, the longtime technophobe Jeremy Rifkin dug up Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in order to frighten us about artificial wombs. (Brave New World is also Kass's favorite book when it comes to conducting ethical philosophy; apparently the members of his bioethics commission couldn't be expected to read an entire novel.)

The objection here is not to reading great books, or even to extracting lessons from them. Rather, it's to a mode of argument that assumes works of 19th (or in Huxley's case early 20th) century literature provide us with the be-all and end-all of wisdom about 21th century conundrums. In fact, revealing though they may be, these books weren't written with the present day in mind, and don't reflect the complexity of our current political and ethical situation. As a result, even the most obvious things about the narratives they contain simply aren't parallel to current cloning or stem cell research debates. For example, as Glenn Reynolds observes,

The Hawthorne stories that Kass favors all involve science that doesn't work. That is, it doesn't deliver on its inventors' promises.
But Kass's big fear is science that does work. He's not against cloning that fails. He's against cloning that succeeds.

Because of such discrepancies, arguing politics on the basis of literary texts amounts to little more than a sophisticated-sounding form of spin: full of sound and fury, but fundamentally manipulative. This is especially the case when such texts are used as a substitute for serious philosophical debate and inquiry -- which should be inspired and whetted by dispassionate, analytical works in the field of bioethics. The present literary analysis isn't fair to the American public, which deserves better. And it certainly isn't fair to books like Brave New World.

Talk Goes Mute. Blame the 90's. But on to some lighter fare: namely, a curious phenomenon surrounding the recent failure of Tina Brown's Talk magazine. Freelance culture analysts are now brooding about how Talk's failure represents the passing of an "era" of "profound shallowness and great fun" (Andrew Sullivan); about the way Brown's splashy celeb-infested parties epitomized "the bravado and giddy self-indulgence of the 90's" (The New York Times). Hang on a second here -- weren't the 80's the shallow years? Is every generation doomed to fight the last decade?

Go Away, Mr. Postman. And finally, some internal matters. After "Idea Log" asserted last week that the conservative pundit Ann Coulter had actually been right about something, the e-mail correspondence came pouring in. Coulter, you may recall, stated: "We are looking for Muslims. We know that's what the next terrorist will be, and it's preposterous for airlines to be wasting everyone's time." She was clearly talking about terrorist attacks on commercial airliners in the context of calls for racial or religious profiling at airports. "Idea Log" took her side:

…let's say it loud and clear, in chorus with Ann Coulter: The people who are going to heed Osama bin Laden's call, and try to attack the United States, are Muslims. (No, not all Muslims are attacking us; but then, no non-Muslims are either.)
The fact that such a statement is politically charged is the real problem.

The above passage refers specifically to foreign Al Quaeda terrorists like Richard Reid and the 9/11 hijackers; as a commentary on Coulter it also has a strong emphasis on airliner attacks. So imagine our shock when correspondent after correspondent cited the (presumably) homegrown anthrax terrorist/s and Timothy McVeigh as examples to refute the above contention. The trouble is that, as The American Prospect reminds its readers in every single issue, the devil is in the details. These examples just aren't germane. Give us a break, oh gentle readers.