On the 'Person of the Year' Issue
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On the Internet, a volunteer army of bloggers escalated their guerrilla war against the mainstream media ... Nevertheless, they stay on the margins – because, like all insurgents, they're about sniping, not governing. – Andrew Sullivan, in Time's "Person of the Year" issue
It's amazing how useful a bad writer can be in exposing the vagaries of mainstream thought.
Sullivan probably doesn't mean to use the word "governing" in the above passage. He probably needs a phrase, something like "being good citizens," or "behaving responsibly." Sullivan is trying to compare bloggers to the Iraqi insurgency – a wrongheaded and unfair comparison to begin with, one that outrages both parties – but the way he writes it, he implies that the real media's natural role is to govern. In the shaky parallel structure of this sentence, bloggers and guerrilla insurgents make up one pair, while mainstream media and legitimate ruling government make up the other.
We know what he means, but this is the kind of thing one doesn't usually say out loud. Last time I checked, the press was not supposed to be part of the ruling structure in our system of government. On the contrary – and I'm just going by Jefferson and Madison, so I may be out of date – it's supposed to be an antagonist to it, a check on civil power. Sullivan's sentence would make fine rhetorical sense in Myanmar, the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, but in the United States one hopes it is just bad writing.
It's a very odd thing, watching the reaction of the so-called mainstream media to the phenomenon of blogs. The response is almost universally one of total disdain and disgust, but the stated reasons vary.
An argument I see sometimes and occasionally even agree with is that bloggers don't have the same factual and ethical standards that the mainstream media supposedly has, which leads to such fiascoes as the bogus Kerry-mistress story sweeping the country, or the name of Kobe's accuser being made public.
But more often than not, the gripe about bloggers isn't that they're unethical. It's that they're small. In the minds of people like Sullivan, not being part of a big structure intrinsically degrades the amateur, makes him a member of a separate and lower class; whereas in fact the solidarity of any journalist should always lie with the blogger before it lies with, say, the president. Journalists are all on the same side, or ought to be, anyway.
Not Time magazine, though. Time lay with the president. Time big-time lay with the president. What was great about Sullivan's "Year of the Insurgents" column last week was how beautifully it threw the rest of the "Person of the Year" issue into contrast. Here's Sullivan bitching about bloggers needing to stay on the margins where they belong; meanwhile, his "respectable" media company is joyously prancing back and forth along 190 glossy pages with George Bush's cock wedged firmly in its mouth.
The "Person of the Year" issue has always been a symphonic tribute to the heroic possibilities of pompous sycophancy, but the pomposity of this year's issue bests by a factor of at least two or three the pomposity of any previous issue. From the Rushmorean cover portrait of Bush (which over the headline "An American Revolutionary" was such a brazen and transparent effort to recall George Washington that it was embarrassing) to the "Why We Fight" black-and-white portraiture of the aggrieved president sitting somberly at the bedside of the war-wounded, this issue is positively hysterical in its iconolatry. One even senses that this avalanche of overwrought power worship is inspired by the very fact of George Bush's being such an obviously unworthy receptacle for such attentions. From beginning to end, the magazine behaves like a man who knocks himself out making an extravagant six-course candlelit dinner for a blow-up doll, in an effort to convince himself he's really in love.
Throughout the "Person of the Year" article – written by two of America's great Bards of Conventional Thinking, Nancy Gibbs and John F. Dickerson – Time strains to turn banal facts into great character insights, commonplace quotes into Churchillian utterances. It starts right in the opening paragraphs:
Eagles rather than doves nestle in the Oval Office Christmas tree, pinecones the size of footballs piled around the fireplace, and the President of the United States is pretty close to lounging in Armchair One. He's wearing a blue pinstripe suit, and his shoes are shined bright enough to shave in. He is loose, lively, framing a point with his hands or extending his arm with his fingers up as though he's throwing a big idea gently across the room.
"I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been in a very reflective mood," says the man who has just replaced half his cabinet, dispatched 12,000 more troops into battle, arm wrestled lawmakers over an intelligence bill, held his third economic summit and begun to lay the second-term paving stones on which he will walk into history.
Four observations about this passage:
What kind of a maniac puts eagles in a Christmas tree? Are doves no longer ideologically acceptable – even as Christmas ornaments?
How does one come "pretty close to lounging"? I imagine that this is a state of being somewhere between lounging and not lounging, but what the fuck? What would he have been if he were standing – pretty close to leaning?
When you say that shoes are "shined bright enough to shave in," we know what you mean, but at first instant it reads like they're bright enough to wear while shaving. Why not just say, "shined bright as mirrors"?
Are they joking when they follow up "throwing a big idea gently across the room" with "'I haven't been in a very reflective mood'"?
Or how about this lead-in to a later section:
The living room of Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas is a place for thinking. There are big windows for long views, a wall of books and on one side a table that is usually freckled with jigsaw pieces.
I particularly like this passage because it's well-known that Bush doesn't even read newspapers, let alone books. In the 2000 campaign, he carried around a copy of a biography of Dean Acheson for six months, in an attempt to convince reporters that he was a reader. In fact, Bush's utter lack of intellectual curiosity is one of the most newsworthy – and most easily proven – aspects of his character. But when you're president, and Time magazine is profiling you, you get credit for being a bookish intellectual just by having books on the wall.
Time manages to get through the entire profile without quoting a single Bush critic. In fact, almost all of the people who are quoted in the piece are Bush aides, many of them unnamed. This allows Gibbs/Dickerson to report such factoids as Bush's private habit of admitting to mistakes, despite the fact that he refuses to do so publicly ("Privately, he did acknowledge there had been blunders," the magazine wrote), as well as the stirring insight that Bush loves liberty even more than his aides do. "Every time we'd have a speech and attempt to scale back the liberty section, he would get mad at us," Gibbs/Dickerson quote White House spokesman Dan Bartlett saying.
But the best quote from an unnamed source was the one that compared Bush to the icon of icons. In a section talking about Bush's admirable perseverance (contrasted with Kerry's "slaloming") in the face of vocal criticism, this was Time's way of addressing the fact that Bush is the most loathed president since Nixon:
"Part of it could be his faith," says an adviser. "Being persecuted is not always a bad thing."
And these people think bloggers need a comeuppance?
Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.