No Mo’ PoMo

Keep critical theory out of campaign coverage

In his Washington Post column yesterday, David Broder wrote of interviewing both presidential candidates: “The first question I asked John McCain and then Barack Obama was: How do you feel about the tone and direction of the campaign so far?”

Broder summarizes their responses thusly: “No surprise. Both men pronounced themselves thoroughly frustrated by the personal bitterness and negativism they have seen in the two months since they learned they would be running against each other.”

Which says a lot. Because, um, Obama and McCain are thoroughly frustrated by the bitterness and negativism they have seen? In one sentence, and two telling uses of the passive voice, Broder might just have summed up one aspect of the crazy rhetoric of this campaign: the strange assumption that notions and narratives are simply floating about in the ether, without origin or accountability. The negativism the candidates are talking about is not something they have seen; it’s something they have made. It’s negativity they themselves have created and encouraged and engaged in and indulged in. So why not say that?

The Great ‘Race Card’ Debate, to step back a week, might offer an answer. Consider the media back-and-forth about who first played that card. (He started it! No, he started it! Well, he was being a jerk! No, he was being a jerk!) Many in the media were positively Trillingesque in their discussion, reading deep into McCain’s “Celeb” ad and the text of Obama’s now-infamous speech in Rolla, Missouri. Was it McCain, with an ad that appeared to attack Obama’s celebrity but was actually meant to foment white fears by suggesting Obama’s sexual desire for his young, white, “sexually available” costars? When Obama mentions “John McCain” in one sentence, and then “those folks” in another, and then “those folks” trying to make people scared of Obama (race card!), was he conflating the McCain campaign—which has never engaged in overt race-baiting—with the 527s and other groups that have? What did he mean when he said, “those folks”? What did he mean when he said he doesn’t look like other presidents on the currency?

It’s unclear. And, importantly, it will remain unclear, however much parsing the press does, because the answer comes down to a question of intention: the only way to know what each camp was thinking was to, well, know what each camp was thinking. It’s the Bizarro-World version of the intentional fallacy: rather than the authors’ intention being beside the point, their intention is, in this case, the only point. And that intention is all but impossible to determine short of Obama or McCain or a surrogate actually coming out and explaining, candidly, what they were thinking when it came to the race debate. There’s been very little fact presented in the course of this debate—not because there aren’t facts, of course, but because those facts are nearly impossible to find.

Which didn’t stop the press from engaging in what’s become a favorite pastime: Parsing All The Drama. We got articles announcing, “McCain Camp: Obama played the race card.” Which were complemented with articles announcing, “Obama Camp: McCain played the race card.” Stenography ruled. “Behind the accusations from both sides in the last 24 hours,” Politico wrote,

lies a furious battle to frame the racially charged conflict many in both campaigns have been girding for and to find effective ways to blame the other campaign for any unpalatable racial subtext to a race that — in theory — could actually show the better angels of America’s nature…..

McCain aides say their goal is to pre-empt what they believe is Obama’s effort to paint any conventional campaign attacks as race-based.

Obama’s aim, in the view of the McCain camp: “to delegitimize any line of attack against him,” said McCain aide Steve Schmidt. He said he saw that potential trap being sprung when Obama predicted in Missouri Wednesday that the GOP nominee would attack the Democrat because he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.

The he said/she said, stenographic framework here is justifiable; short of the small miracle of political candor, there’s simply no fundamental truth to be determined or related here. But the press didn’t seem to realize the futility of their own endeavors. Rather, they gleefully added to the noise. “Did Obama Accuse McCain of Running a Racist, Xenophobic Campaign?” Jake Tapper asked. “RACE CARD! RACE CARD! The McCain camp started bellowing, and it hasn’t stopped since,” Bob Herbert declared in pseudo-response. On cable TV, in particular, talking heads debated, ad nauseam, Who Played the Race Card and Why They Played the Race Card and What It Meant that Whoever Played the Race Card Finally Played the Race Card.

As the days of race (de)bating wore on, something became increasingly clear: many in the media didn’t care, really, what the facts were in this case. The facts, they’d decided, weren’t as important as the ideas. Sure, objective information is great—but in the absence of information, subjective ideas will do just fine. Besides, they make for better TV.

In Jonah Goldberg’s USA Today column this week, he argues that Obama is a “postmodernist,” a thinker for whom “words have no fixed meaning, and truth is often just a matter of perspective.” The column was silly, and justifiably criticized. But it was also, I think, instructive. Such readings of the campaign are laughable, not because they’re wrong, necessarily, but because they’re unproductive. Does Goldberg’s “PoMo O” construction ultimately serve anyone besides Goldberg, or anything besides his own ego? For that matter, does the whimsical comparison of Obama and McCain to nearly every literary figure since Odysseus—yep, I’m looking at you, MoDo—advance any conversation besides one that could take place within a D.C. book club?

The answer, MoDo, is no. Literary readings of our political narrative imply that the readings are ends in themselves. And that their primary purpose, therefore, isn’t to help readers and viewers better understand what’s at stake in the choice they’ll be making in November, but rather to help readers and viewers better understand how clever certain reporters are.

And we wonder why Americans are disillusioned with the media.

That’s not, to be clear, to condemn the search for narrative frameworks in political coverage—which is, of course, a primary and necessary function of the political press, particularly before an election. It is, however, to argue the obvious-but-often-overlooked point that politics is, in fact, more than mere performance. That there are realities at stake in the campaign that reach far beyond Paris Hilton and tire-pressure gauges and the like. That people are losing their homes and their jobs and their health care and their faith in the government’s ability to help them cope with the losses. That we are currently waging two foreign wars, and that the candidates’ divergence in their views of each will guide American foreign policy not just for the next four-to-eight years, but the foreseeable future.

I cringe when I see the political press treating the candidates not as people who are engaged in a job interview, but instead as literary figures who are engaged in some kind of epic, existential quest for some kind of epic, existential employment. Even some literary legends might doubt the efficacy of that endeavor. “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, “serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.” And, I’d add, ever more jaded.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.