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Mock the Vote

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook is not superstitious, but there was a curious, and slightly disconcerting, convergence of Deep Think last week that caught our attention. It began with a front-page story in the New York Times—“As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around the Globe” by Nicholas Kulish (Sept. 28)—which could be excused as one of the Times’s routine efforts (usually confined to the Arts pages) to rekindle the sixties spirit. Or maybe not. The article chronicled a worldwide cycle of mass protests—from India and Israel to Greece and Spain—against elected governments, reflecting “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.” One young Spanish woman summed it up this way: “Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” Marta Solanas told the Times. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

Photo of voting booths

Well, not quite: Senorita Solanas is just the latest generation of comfortably alienated middle-class youth to find their parents’ institutions off-putting, or the trappings of democratic politics and governance hopelessly bourgeois. You expect such parlor nihilism from the young, and you certainly expect the Times, now safely in the hands of Baby Boom editors, to print it on Page One. 

What you are less likely to expect is a chorus of support from people who, theoretically, should know better. First, there was former OMB director Peter Orszag, an alumnus of President Obama’s economic team, who took to the pages of the New Republic to deplore America’s polarization and lament that Washington seems incapable of getting things done. This is hardly the first time The Scrapbook has heard a politician complain about dissent, or exhort the machinery of government to do his bidding. But it was the first time we had heard an ex-cabinet officer suggest that “we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions.”

Wrote Orszag, “we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” 

Once again, The Scrapbook is accustomed to journalists who profess impatience with the machinery of democracy, and look longingly to the rule of the enlightened and anointed. Such distinguished citizens as Thomas L. Friedman and Fareed Zakaria routinely exalt the energetic leadership in the People’s Republic of China, where such annoyances as voting, Republicans, public sentiment, and free speech are in short supply. We are less accustomed, however, to hearing such talk from political practitioners such as Orszag, or the elected Democratic governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue. We can’t say whether Perdue shares Orszag’s faith in rule by “automatic policies” and “depoliticized commissions,” but after listening to her last week, we know what she doesn’t like.

I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover.

Now, it is true that Governor Perdue instantly recognized the implications of what she had said, and sent word the next day to the press that she had been “joking . . . sarcastic.” But The Scrapbook has listened carefully to what she said, and believes she meant it. And why shouldn’t she? Her party lost its momentum in Congress after the 2010 elections, and during the last year has had considerably less success enacting Obama’s agenda. There’s no undoing the results of the last election; the obvious solution is to abolish the next.

Which, of course, will not happen. But it is surely a measure of the state of mind among Democrats that, having failed to persuade voters in the last round, they daydream about preventing them from voting in the next. Everyone in Washington believes that public opinion is on their side, and that if the other guy would just shut up and act bipartisan, Congress would do what we want them to do. The only difference between Peter Orszag and Bev Perdue is that Perdue wants nothing to be tested at the ballot box, and Orszag wants to write the rules and regulations himself. But both know exactly what Americans need and deserve.

There’s a hilarious passage in a memoir (Crisis, 1982) by Jimmy Carter’s late chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, in which he flies to Panama to plead with the resident dictator to offer safe haven to the ailing ex-shah of Iran. Not only does Gen. Omar Torrijos agree to Jordan’s proposal, but he does so (in Jordan’s admiring account) almost instantly—and with no recourse to any argumentative legislature! What a contrast, Jordan reflects, with politics in Washington, where an irritating system of checks and balances prevents President Carter from snapping his fingers and demanding obedience. 

If this were Europe in, say, 1932, The Scrapbook would be worried about where such sentiments might lead in the wake of an economic and political slump. But since it’s America in 2011, these Democratic dreams of authority just sound absurd, and we thank whatever gods may be that we all get to vote again in just 13 months.


Lean Backwards

Last week, Fox News was in the middle of a cross-country tour celebrating the network’s 15th anniversary. It seems they have good reason to celebrate. The network remains the undisputed cable news ratings champ, and while it’s hard to pin down the exact figures, it’s estimated that Fox News made $700 million in profit last year. That’s more than “CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined,” reports Business Insider

Given Fox’s competition, their continued success is hardly surprising. “The genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes,” as Charles Kraut-hammer once remarked, “was to have discovered a niche market in American broadcasting—half the American people.” Krauthammer’s observation seems to be reinforced by the fate of the more liberal news network, MSNBC. While Fox was breaking out the party hats last week, the New York Times reported, “MSNBC Is Close to Falling to Third Place in Cable News Ratings.” Not only that, TV Newser reports that CNN’s ratings are up double digits this month, mostly at the expense of a slipping MSNBC. CNN now beats MSNBC in just about every hour of the day outside of primetime. And even in primetime, MSNBC’s ratings advantage is very narrow.

The Times attributes MSNBC’s ratings plunge to the departure of the famously difficult-to-work-with Keith Olbermann earlier this year. It’s true that Olbermann’s replacement on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell, has brought in significantly fewer viewers. But Olbermann has a news show on Al Gore’s Current TV channel, and he hasn’t exactly taken his audience with him. The number of viewers for Olbermann’s new program could probably fit comfortably into the former vice president’s Prius. If MSNBC rose to prominence by voicing a fiery liberal opposition to George W. Bush, that era is definitively over. In a center-right country, there’s just no demand for a combatively liberal network. 

In case anyone thought that Olbermann’s departure might cause the network to reevaluate the utility of putting a liberal spin on the news, the answer is “no.” MSNBC’s big moves this year have been its oft-mocked “Lean Forward” marketing campaign and the hiring of Al Sharpton, a commentator not exactly known for his Murrow-esque commitment to veracity.

Meanwhile, CNN has been courting the center. While those attuned to liberal media bias can still find much at CNN to complain about, the pretense of objectivity at least matters to the network. And it has rounded out its commentariat by employing figures popular among grassroots conservatives, such as Dana Loesch and Erick Erickson. Even a slight attempt to cater to the political perspective of half the American public might be paying some ratings dividends. 

Speaking of dividends, we assume that Comcast/General Electric/NBCUniversal shareholders will at some point care whether their cable news network makes money. When that time comes, it won’t exactly be a difficult decision to throw in the towel and clean up the hot liberal mess that MSNBC has become. The Scrapbook suspects they’ll replace the current lineup with something that’s more, well, fair and balanced.

Inspire Editor Expires

Times are indeed tough for the magazine industry—advertising is down, subscribers are aging, young readers prefer the online and the free, and few print organs have made their online versions -really work. But none of that is why Inspire looks to be joining the likes of Gourmet, George, Sassy, and Talk in the dustbin of failed periodicals. Inspire’s editor Samir Khan wasn’t fired because he spent too lavishly on the publication’s Hollywood parties, or because he crossed swords with the wrong Newhouse. Khan was caught in the crosshairs of an unmanned drone last week in North Yemen, alongside his pal Anwar al-Awlaki. Inspire, by the way, is the English language tract sponsored by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Dispatching Awlaki, a 40-year-old American-born Yemeni cleric and member of AQAP, was a major achievement for the Obama administration in its campaign to bring AQ officials to justice. In May, Navy SEALs put paid to Osama Bin Laden, and at the end of August AQ’s Number Two, Atiyah abd al-Rahman, wound up on the wrong end of a drone in Pakistan. Khan, it seems, was a bonus. The 25-year-old Saudi-born New Yorker was probably just riding in the wrong convoy at the wrong time.

In a sense, you have to hand it to Khan. Most editors never really want to get too close to their subjects. Try to imagine Vogue’s Anna Wintour schlepping fabrics across Seventh Avenue. But Khan lived the life. He wasn’t afraid to embrace his subject—which of course was jihad.

Khan’s audience was English-speaking Westerners disenchanted with the Zionist-imperialist conspiracy to destroy the umma and looking for tips on how to bring it down. The purpose of Inspire was to guide and encourage these young jihadists.

Some of Khan’s editorial choices were derivative, to say the least. Aside from the bad rhyme in the headline, “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” was little more than a reworked version of Andrew Kopkind’s infamous 1967 New York Review of Books story with the diagram showing how to make a Molotov cocktail. We wonder what was in the works—a profile of the new al Qaeda emir titled “Ayman al-Zawahiri Has a Cold”?

To be frank, The Scrapbook was never entirely sure who was reading Inspire—outside of Western intelligence services. Pretty much anyone who logged on to its website must have had his name filed away in some pretty sensitive places. And that loss to intelligence-gathering is the only reason to miss Khan, whose sad misspent life had only a slightly longer run than his evil publishing empire.

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