In a brilliant and provocative essay on the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, Norman Mailer wrote that liberalism is “wishful, pretty, programmatic, manipulable by jargon and utterly stripped of existential content.”
Mailer was a man of the left, but he identified as a “left conservative.” Much of his best political writing—from The White Negro to The Armies of The Night—involved his attempt to infuse the flaccid American left of the academy and political organization committee with the energy, vitality, and potency of the cultural left, the orgasmic explosion of jazz, the feral liberty of the sexual revolution, the intensity of rock ‘n’ roll, and the beautiful obscenity of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin.
For several years, Mailer feuded with another leftist intellectual, Gore Vidal. In addition to being the greatest essayist in American letters for decades, Vidal also wrote novels about psychotic transsexuals, a police officer who moonlights as a dominatrix, and a television news producer who travels back in time to get an exclusive broadcast of “Live From Golgotha: The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”
Although they were often at each others’ throats, Vidal and Mailer had more in common than they would have admitted. They both had outrageous and entertaining personalities. They were both brilliant writers, and important thinkers, and they both knew how to successfully navigate the world of infotainment. On television, they were sharp, edgy, and intellectually daring, but also fun. One could imagine either of them attracting barrooms full of eyes and ears while telling long stories, tie askew, drink in hand, looking good, and getting laughs, just as easily as they fit into the lecture hall at Harvard University.
Given that Mailer correctly saw himself as an outsider of the American left, and Vidal was always further left than the mainstream liberal, they might not make for the best comparative figures to the contemporary left, but they were two of the foremost public intellectuals of their era, and they, at a minimum, kept a certain side of the left alive—the side that resisted the jargon-laden, robotic removal of existential content from liberal politics.
According to a new report from National Review, the American left has rung the final bell, and by unanimous decision, given the heavyweight title to the prohibitionists and bores, the schoolmasters, the hall monitors, the bureaucrats, and the humorless scolds.
Eliana Johnson, using unnamed insiders as sources, describes the backroom politics and organization of MSNBC—the liberal alternative to Fox News that investigate reporter Jeremy Scahill rightly condemned as having “less diversity of thought than a DNC planning committee.”
MSNBC is now “Rachel’s show”, as in Rachel Maddow, the always self-satisfied host of The Rachel Maddow Show who invents new ways every night to feign incredulity over Republicans taking conservative positions. Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, has called Maddow the network’s “quarterback,” and Johnson reports that he wasn’t exaggerating. Maddow gives more editorial direction than Griffin himself, and she is chiefly responsible for the network’s turn toward what she calls, believing it is a compliment, “Nerd Land.”
“Nerd Land” is led by Maddow and her friends, who according to Johnson’s research, was instrumental in getting jobs—Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein, and Melissa Harris Perry. Hayes and Klein are obvious dorks who represent the new avatar of male liberalism—the slightly effeminate, recycling, bicycle riding, organic eating, sensitive man. They are smart, educated, earnest, and about as riveting as oatmeal.
It’s odd that Maddow would include Melissa Harris Perry in her self-selected stable of dorks, because there isn’t anything dorky about Perry. She’s a highly educated woman with an academic sense of policy advocacy, but she’s also attractive, culturally engaged, and unabashedly sexual. She’s hosted panel discussions on cunnilingus, which included a moment of her dancing to the SWV hit “Downtown,” demonstrated the Harlem Shake, and in a moment of instant infamy, hung tampon earrings from each of her lobes to suggest how Texas women get around a prohibition of using feminine hygiene products as protest props in their demonstration against a state bill banning abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy. Perry’s willingness to display libidinal energy, and flirt with obscenity, separates her from the boredom of Klein, Hayes, and Maddow, who together, compose a cable triplet of androgyny and mediocrity.
Maddow’s insistence on including Perry in her dork category might expose the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that is common among liberals. Because a black woman is an educated and eloquent professor and author, she must be a nerd.
The other revelation of Maddow’s “Nerd Land” classification of her work and priorities is the combination of smugness and repellence that has now taken over the liberalism coming off college campuses and into the studios of cable television and the voting booths of Democratic Party primaries. What Maddow and Hayes don’t realize is that most people don’t really like nerds like them.
As shallow as it is to vote for a presidential candidate because he seems like he’d make a better drinking buddy, as Karl Rove encouraged voters to do so when President Bush faced John Kerry’s challenge, there is no underestimating the power of personality in politics and punditry. Most Americans would rather avoid the scold in the room, whether it’s Maddow constantly calling everything sexist, or Hayes seeing racism in every political Rorschach test.
Just as President Bush empowered the massive pain in the ass called the “religious right” as a cultural force in America, President Obama has empowered the practitioners of identity politics whose main target in their war on human interaction is humor. Jokes are out of the bounds at Nerd Land, just as sex is an unmentionable, and progress is invisible. America has a black president, women are outperforming men in education and many professions, and gays are entirely mainstream with a majority of the American public, according to all polls, in full support of gay marriage. The inhabitants of Nerd Land, however, dismiss these developments and claim that America is still a racist, misogynistic, and homophobic “rape culture” where the comedy of Seth McFarlane, the comics of Ted Rall, and compliments on a woman’s appearance threaten to sentence everyone outside of the white, heteronormative Patriarchy into a dungeon of oppression and misery.
Fans of Maddow and Hayes might remind me that their respective programs are full of sarcasm. Maddow is especially adept at giving a wink at the right moment or changing her tone of voice to mock the Republican subject of her rant. It’s important to pay attention to the timing of her humor, however. Unlike Mailer, whose jokes were unpredictable, or Vidal, whose wit was acerbic, Maddow’s delivery is dependent upon a lengthy process of justification in the form of charts, graphs, and data. Hers is the laugh of the satisfied statistician. Hayes, using a similar method, has the chuckle of the technocrat. Their humor belongs to the bureaucrat, who after a long day’s work, lets loose by cracking wise about the weather on his way out the office door.
Given the growing boredom of the left, its fixation with petty identity politics, and its smug pretensions, there is cultural space for rational, sharp and fun figures from the right to take over the conversation. They must have a commitment to expanding and enlarging freedom, rather that restricting it, and they must have secular priorities.
The libertarians of the new Fox News Business program, The Independents, might, with a little luck, serve as a model for the direction of the cultural conversation on politics in America. Its chief host, Kennedy, of former MTV VJ fame, is not only smarter than Maddow, she also has a wicked sense of humor, and the boldness that can energize and enliven the sleep inducing seriousness of punditry. Her newest book, The Kennedy Chronicles, features her nude on the cover, and follows a chapter on libertarianism with a chapter on playing dice with a drunken, horny Michael Jordan in a nightclub bathroom.
Much is made of America’s partisan divide, and the media often presents Americans with the choice between fiscal conservatism and tax and spend liberalism, but the real divide might exist between the worlds of Nerd Land and The Independents, and their respective queens—Rachel Maddow and Kennedy.
Regardless of political affiliation, anyone interested in cultural vitality and variety—fun, sexiness, and laughter—better hope that Kennedy’s vision triumphs. Otherwise, we’ll all have to live in Nerd Land.
—David Masciotra is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. He’s the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp (forthcoming, University of Kentucky Press).