The Magazine

Staggering Idiocy

Panicky progressives struggle for reasons to support Obama.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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A website called 90days90reasons.com went online this summer, after the writer Dave Eggers got worried about the diminishing enthusiasm for Barack Obama among people like him. Eggers is a hipster, I guess you’d call him. He lives in San Francisco. He’s best known as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a long, funny, clever, and annoying memoir, which was published, like Barack Obama’s less funny and less annoying memoir, when its author was scarcely pushing 30. Kids grow up so quickly these days. The memoir’s immense commercial success, along with the popularity of a magazine he edits, led the New York Times to call Eggers “the magnetic center of a literary counterestablishment.”

Panicky progressives

Gary Locke

Normally when the Times calls a fellow a magnetic center of a counterestablishment, you’ll find him cuddling snoozily in the lap of the Times or some other establishment enterprise, a plump purring pussycat, defanged and declawed. Even so, on Eggers’s pro-Obama website, glimmers of independent thinking flash here and there. For one thing, several contributors aren’t very pro-Obama. 

“Has he failed?” asks one, who lives in New York. “Sure he has.”

“There’s no whitewashing the fact that his presidency hasn’t been a green one,” writes another, who also lives in New York. 

Still another, an Indian, who lives in Seattle, writes: “I tried to think of one great thing Obama has done for Indians. And I couldn’t think of one damn thing.”

Eggers himself acknowledged the problem in the website’s manifesto, called “The Opening Salvo.” The ambivalence among “progressives” is what drove him to start the website in August. 

“We are three months away from the presidential election,” he wrote, “and there is a stunning lack of energy displayed by likely Obama voters.” His solution: Each day, for the 90 days before the election, a different contributor—a writer, a singer, an artist, an activist, all members in good standing of the counterestablishment—would write an essay offering a pithy reason why Obama should be reelected. “Obama cares about women’s health.” “Obama repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” “President Obama Supports Women’s Right to Choose.” “Obama is on the right side of land use and transportation policy.” Some reasons are pithier than others.

The essays themselves show all the magic of political discourse in the Internet age—the freewheeling energy, the unconventional lines of argument, the damn-the-torpedoes prose—which is another way of saying that Eggers really needs to hire a copy editor. Some sentences you can read several times without success. “Millions of progressive Americans,” Eggers writes, “are now behaving as if, because Obama hasn’t addressed their particular pet issue, that the best way to express their dissatisfaction is to allow Mitt Romney to become president.”

“Corporations,” notes the writer John Sayles (Dutchess County, New York) in Reason 49, “have been anointed responsibility by the Supreme Court as both eligible of public subsidy and free of, and, like all large and unrestrained creatures, act only in their own self-interest.”

Typos abound, along with grammatical mistakes, but grammar and punctuation et cetera et cetera et cetera are far less important than the proper phraseology. A Reasoner will never call himself a liberal, for example, if he can use progressive instead. Keeping up with the lingo is an important signal that progressives send to one another to certify their own progressivity. That’s why global warming is now climate change; using the former in place of the latter proves you’re a laggard. On 90reasons, the right to an abortion is now women’s health, and gay marriage is now marriage equality, just as Indians who became Native Americans a generation ago are now most often just Indians again. Keeps you on your toes.

Gay marriage—wait!—marriage equality was the first reason cited on the website’s first day by the first Reasoner, a man named Ben Gibbard, who is identified as the lead singer of a band called Death Cab for Cutie. He’s from Seattle. Four long days would pass on the website, four more reasons would be offered, before the right of gays to marry each other was again cited by a Reasoner as a reason to vote for Obama. Marriage equality came up again a week later, in an essay by an actor from New York, and then the next day too, by a songwriter in New York, and then four days later, by a Reasoner from Brooklyn, and so on, at irregular but very brief intervals. As I write, however, it’s been more than 10 days since a Reasoner mentioned marriage equality. I don’t know what’s going on.

Reading the posts from all these writers and artists over the last two months has reminded me of the chasm that separates the talent for creative work from the talent for making a whole lot of sense, rationality-wise. “I have noticed something in Mitt Romney’s name, which I think speaks to what he is about,” writes the movie director David Lynch (Los Angeles) in Reason 52. “If you just rearrange a few letters, Romney becomes R MONEY. I believe Mitt Romney wants to get his mitts on R Money.” 

A musician and surfer named Jack Johnson (Oahu) says: “I’ve met President Obama twice, and both times he gave me a hug, not a handshake.” This is Reason 55, and Johnson knows his line of argument is shaky: “Maybe that’s not a good enough reason to vote for him but it sure makes me trust him more.”

The hug logic works for Jim James, who came all the way from Louisville one time to play music at a White House function and got to wait in a reception line to meet the Obamas. “When I reached the end, the pomp and circumstance seemed to fall away, and there were two real people there, real people who reached out, gave me a big hug, and said thanks for coming,” he argues. “They were REAL. Somehow in those three minutes they made me feel at ease and conveyed the truth of the human experience: that no one is any better or worse than anyone else.”

The truth of the human experience turns out not to include Republicans, however, for in the next paragraph James notes that George W. Bush is an “evil robot” who did not “have a real relationship with his wife.” Robotics is a common theme among the Reasoners, particularly as it applies to Mitt Romney. According to David Cross (New York City), Romney is “a craven, out-of-touch capitalist robot.” Reggie Watts, who’s a musician (Brooklyn), reasons that we should vote for Obama because “he’s not a robot, like Romney is.” Also, “He’s not an asshole.”

Yes, I know: Our counterestablishment suffers from a bad case of potty mouth. The bassist for the Foo Fighters (Los Angeles) says that corporations are “assholes.” Judd Apatow (Los Angeles) worries that his young daughters, when they grow up to leave home and get jobs, will not receive “equal pay for equal work.” 

“If this was the case,” he says, “it would be f—d.” He adds: “I don’t think I can think of a better word,” and I believe him. Apatow writes screenplays for a living. 

But he has a serious point to make! President Obama, he notes, deserves reelection because he “created the White House Council on Women and Girls,” which will go some way to solving the “equal pay for equal work” thing. Here Apatow employs another line of argument that has sadly become common to the Reasoners. An urban planner (Los Angeles, which must be an awful place to be an urban planner) wants to reelect the president in part because he began the federal government’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities. A man who has a son with autistic children (San Francisco) will vote for Obama because he has created “programs” for autistic children—a “shit-ton” of these, he says. 

For the counterestablishmentarians, “program” and “funding” are words with talismanic power. President Obama will “fund programs” or “not cut programs” that will rescue the environment or curb domestic violence or teach civility or help the disabled or train the jobless. The proper program can do everything but play canasta. And it can be advocated without wondering how it might work or whether it would work or what other programs would not be funded so it could be.

As they’ve piled up on the website the last couple months, I’ve found this kind of Reason oddly dispiriting, precisely because it’s so conventional—it’s the kind of thing you might even hear from a Republican. From a counter-establishment, I expect more reasoning like Jamaica Kincaid’s (Vermont). “I am a woman,” she writes. “From the time I was 14 years of age until I was 57 years of age, every twenty-eight days or so, I had a menstrual period.” She concludes, after several long paragraphs of logic-chopping, that Obama’s “simple, firm, clear support for a woman’s right to choose .  .  . is what makes me committed to his reelection.” QED.

But such arguments are increasingly the exception on 90days-90reasons.com. What a strangely conventional thing Eggers’s hipster counterestablishment turns out to be! Why, in my day, sonny, a lead singer for a band with a name like Death Cab for Cutie wouldn’t be caught dead endorsing a Democrat, especially one who’s busy convincing the country of his pragmatism and moderation. Counterestablishments simply lived outside categories like right and left and Democrat and Republican. And they were never suckered by White House commissions and federal initiatives.

No longer, apparently. Whether the counterestablishment has taken over the Democratic party or the Democratic party has overtaken the counterestablishment, I don’t know. But it’s clear they’ll be very happy together.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.


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