Runcible Blog

Junk Politics

During jury duty I had lots of time to finish reading Junk Politics: The Trashing of the American Mind by Benjamin DeMott, English professor from Amherst College (check out a radio interview with him from WBUR). Listening to his interview, he sounds even more curmudgeonly than I imagined. But his criticisms in Junk Politics have real bite. Most pages drip with outrage -- not cynicism like much of Noam Chomsky's essays but no-B.S. criticism of today's politicians and the political atmosphere.

DeMott focuses most of his obtuse book on the kind of "compassionate conservatism" and "I feel your pain" anecdotes that are increasingly the norm on both sides of the aisle. He says that politicians substitute sympathy for substantive policy. For example, when John Edwards spoke about being the son of a mill worker, the idea was that "common people" would identify with him and think that he would know what's best for middle-America. But he appealed to emotions ("I'm the sensitive country boy who knows what it's like to be poor") without having to provide any kind of concrete ideals. DeMott argues that it's not enough to "feel bad" for poor people -- in fact he almost discourages such sympathy -- rather, he asks, what can we do about poverty, racism, and inequality?

One interesting chapter deals with the changing management styles during the 80's and 90's that seem to mirror the "compassionate conservative" act. Best selling books on management approaches taught that effective bosses are those who can be sensitive to their employee's needs -- it wouldn't hurt to shed a tear occasionally -- but also be able to act aggressively and ruthlessly so as not to undermine their authority. That kind of bipolar management sounds familiar to me, but I didn't know that books actually recommended such an attitude. DeMott exposes those theories as a con-game to make employees seem happy while squeezing the most productivity from them.

He draws the "effective boss" parallel to the current breed of neo-conservatives who have learned that most of the electorate won't stomach typical conservative policies unless they are dumbed down and dressed up in "common folk" clothing. They've discovered that the uninformed and uninvolved public responds to issues framed as good vs. evil and to leaders who mirror (however disingenuously) the common man. Just look at Bush -- the perfect neoconservative: he's a "straight shooter" from Midland, Texas who loves baseball, was an average student, and bumbles over his own words (hey, he's not perfect!). No wonder he was adorned by the Right -- they knew that they'd rather have an empty suit they could control in the whitehouse than any Democrat. You could also see a similar thing happening during the California recall, when the Republicans tried to kick out every other challenger and eventually anointed Gov. Arnold. "Electability above substance" seems to be the prominent political fad these days.

Junk Politics varies in its clarity and coherence. I think his criticism is right on, but someone a little more to-the-point would've written a more effective book. For instance, one chapter breaks into a first person fictional narrative about a no-politics/junk politics enthusiast who relishes in celebrity gossip and the entertainment of political one-upmanship. Unfortunately, it doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the book -- or if it does, it's lost on me.

One chapter assaults L.L Bean on the basis that it promotes a return to an American past that never was. DeMott criticizes L.L. Bean for creating a world -- he calls it Beanland -- which erases disharmony between the races and the sexes and imagines a society of rugged-individualist-conformists who wear L.L. Bean clothes and subjugate their wives. Personally, I've never seen an L.L. Bean catalog, but DeMott certainly takes issue with it (and feels guilty for browsing through it occassionaly).

Another thread throughout the book deals with the "assault on the past": attempts to avoid social change by declaring an end to inequality. He blames Hollywood black/white buddy movies for unfairly minimizing the very real, pervasive differences between blacks and whites. He hints that guilt drives the attempts to deny that there is inequality in America. Nobody wants to admit the Native American genocide or the centuries of black oppression existed, let alone apologize for it.

I'd like to keep my comments on the book shorter than DeMott's 262 pages...In retrospect, I should've borrowed Junk Politics from the library instead of buying it. DeMott makes some great points but wastes a lot of space with circular references that only an English professor could appreciate.