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Rant #355
(published November 8, 2007)
A Recipe for Sadness: Why the Jon Stewart/ Chris Matthews Fight Matters for the Obama/Clinton Nomination Fight, and Why It Might Matter for Your Soul
by Fritz Swanson
Poor Mojo Newswire: Jon Stewart demonstrates that Chris Matthews is a whiny chimp

Stewart tells MSNBC host: Your book is a 'recipe for sadness'

I watch Jon Stewart and I watch Chris Matthews, and I have to confess up front that I love them both. I love Jon Stewart like I would love a really smart older brother. He makes sense of the world in a way that is personally powerful for me. He speaks directly about ideas that I am only just forming as he says them, and so he always feels like my sharper, clearer other self. But I love Chris Matthews the way I love an aging uncle. He is out of step with the ebb and flow of the precise moment we live in, but he would have been me, and I would have been him, if we had shared each other's lives.

Jon Stewart is my brand of leftism at this exact instant. Chris Matthews is the leftism I would have had if I had lived through Vietnam and Watergate. He's a surly working class lefty, with a mixed up family that pulled in equal measure toward Kennedy and Reagan over the course of his life. He worked on the Hill for Tip O'Neil, but he was a cop too; he went out with the Peace Corps, but he had buddies "in country" fightin the 'Nam.

So, when I see these guys fighting, it hurts me inside. Funny, smart older brother tears wise but disconnected uncle a new asshole at family event. This is a recipe for sadness.

They are both right, and they are both wrong.

And incidentally, they perfectly describe the current Democratic nomination fight.

When Stewart derides Chris' book as a "recipe for sadness" what he means is that Chris is offering a book that reduces life down to the gimmicks of political battle. In effect, Chris is saying that everything in life can be reduced to a rhetorical problem, and can be solved likewise by way of rhetoric. But speaking as a person who teaches rhetoric at a major university, I can see the limits of this analysis, however true it may be on the surface.

Rhetoric is "the art of persuasion", persuasion is the application of soft power, the exertion of power is a kind of restrained violence. From this simple equation we get Prussian General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz's famous pronouncement (from his book On War) "War is a continuation of politics by other means."

Reduced down to Matthews' meaning we get: "Rhetoric is how I get what I want without having to punch anyone in the process." Basically his book uses all of the lessons of political campaigning ("It's always a campaign," Chris said. "It's a campaign to get the girl of your dreams; it's a campaign to do everything you want to do in life.") to teach you lessons in the proper use of rhetoric in order to achieve all of your goals.

For Stewart this is, by definition, a "self-hurt" book, a "recipe for sadness." He compares it to The Prince because he sees it in the contemporary context where rhetoric is used entirely as a whip and a cudgel, as a way to score points and oppress people, as a tool to manufacture consent and whip the frenzies of war.

Rhetoric when taken in a vacuum, outside of the context of soul or morality or ethics (I would argue we are in such a cultural state, and it is to this state that Stewart is referring), can best be summed up as it is often summed up by my students:

"Arguing correctly is how I can live my life and never be wrong."

Or, as Bush would have it: "I'm an optimist because I believe that I'm right. I'm a person at peace with myself."

This is the horror. Stewart, who really only knows this historical moment as it has developed over the course of his career (he started on MTV, remember, where style is everything, substance nothing), is knocked over by Chris. These two men don't know it, but their conflict is over a deep misunderstanding, and the key to it occurs in the following exchange.

"But there has to be some core of soul in there," Stewart retorted. "What campaigns are, are photo opportunities that are staged, and there's nothing in this book about, 'Be good; be competent.'"

Matthews said that information was in the Bible — "it's been written," he said.

"This book has been written too, it's called The Prince," Stewart retorted, referring to Machiavelli's treatise. "I thought that (your book) was a recipe for sadness. ... If you live this book, your life will be strategy, and ... you'll be unhappy."

This is the gulf that separates them.

In Chris's world, you see, there is already a soul, a sense of morality and ethics that exist externally. He never really talks about it directly, but I can see it motivating him deeply, and like Stewart, when he doesn't see it in a politician or a celebrity he is instantly revolted to the point of being almost inarticulate.

The key here is that Chris is offering a book about rhetoric presupposing that his readers will also share his inherent morality and sense of truth. As he says, that truth "has already been written." I suspect this presupposition is so deep (coming from a Peace Corps vet who asked "what he could do for his country"; who walked a beat, who worked tirelessly on the Hill for a Democratic speaker trying to fight back the madness of Reagan's misguided conservatism) that Chris may not even be aware that he holds it, that it guides his actions. He just wrote a simple book trying to explain how political rhetoric and regular life can work together.

And he can't even imagine how Jon Stewart doesn't get him. And Jon Stewart can't imagine how Chris Matthews can't get how evil the book sounds. And they both just stare at each other hurt and amused in equal measure.

Rhetoric requires that you already know what you want, and that you want the right things for the right reasons.

Chris grew up in a world that never thought about that part of dialogue, never seemed to consider the implications of a world where this idea would be called into question.

Jon grew up in a world made by Chris, made by a culture devoted to rhetoric alone, without a shared sense of right and wrong, without Goodness and Competence as shared values. (The Baby Boom didn't know this was the world they were building, but they were too busy fighting to notice until it was too late and we got Bush.)

Chris thinks that if we only know how to fight right, know how to use the correct terms of rhetoric, then the world will work.

Jon knows that a world dominated by rhetoric in a vacuum is only a world constantly fighting and never listening, constantly seeking advantage for the sake of advantage, desperately trying to fulfill my student's dictum: To Always be Right!

Or at least, this is how this fight paints them.

And I find this so interesting because this is the fight the left is having between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.

Hillary is basically on Chris' side, presenting voters with a perfect rhetorical package. She is only interested in one thing: Fighting Republicans. "I'm in it to win it!" she said, launching a campaign that is defined by that single goal: "Winning."

This is the Old Left, the hippies from those hazy dorm rooms that Obama keeps talking about, who have grown tired and scarred over the years, and who cut their teeth taking Labor's street fighting tactics into the classroom and out onto the public square. These are true Robin Hood Liberals who Steal for the poor, who kick in the teeth of racists, who take the fight to them hard.

The Old Left is Angry, Impatient, and they want shit done now. Hillary is a ball-buster, unabashedly so. She is going to fight for you. This, more than anything else, is why Hillary is doing so well in the National Primary fight. Her message is simple, and fits neatly into the Democratic Message going back to long before the Civil War:

"You want shit done? We'll get shit done for you."

The problem with this message (ask Slaves for example) is that it kind of doesn't matter what "shit" is so long as you want it done. That's Rhetoric without ethics. It's a machine gun that doesn't care who wields it.

Surely it means that Hillary can do good things. But that is sort of incidental. She wants to work the system, acquire power, develop her fighting prowess and control her message. This is what she wants. She wants power. That's not bad necessarily, but it is limiting. Because within the framework of rhetoric first, goals second, she can only really focus on what she can sell, or, if she amasses enough power, what she can force everyone to buy.

This is the definition of "Clintonian." It lingers very heavily on the side of "what is possible."

The small flaw here is that she only fights for what she can get, and so is untrustworthy. But the big flaw here is that she gets so lost in the system of power that she no longer meaningfully represents anyone except the system itself. She becomes a bludgeon, a megaphone, a broadcast signal, and her only message is devastation.

Barak is on Jon's side. He wants to change the content of the debate, the tone of the debate, the nature of the debate. When Jon went on Crossfire and said "You're hurting America!" he was seeing the world as Obama describes it. The bloodsport theory of politics had risen as triumphant. Clinton and Rove are its perfect practitioners. And there is still a feeling in the base of the Dem Party that all they really want is their own Rove, their own Gladiator, who will go out and crush the Republican, stuff universal healthcare down their throats, crack open their skulls and shit on their graves.

Barak and Jon want to get past that. Stewart's critique of Matthews, and Barak's critique of Hillary, is that the public needs to be let back into the discussion, and that leaders and citizens need to re-educate each other about what is right, what is wrong, what we all need, what we all fear.

If rhetoric is only about persuasion, it runs counter to this basic idea. If rhetoric is the soft application of power, of violence, it is Cheney-esque, it is Clintonian, it is Rovian, and it is secretive.

As one of my students said to another in a classroom workshop: "If a piece of evidence isn't working for your argument, just cut it out. It only weakens your case."

Another student asked him, "Isn't that dishonest?"

"Not if you win the argument," he replied without a flicker of dissonance.

Barak wants to talk to enemies, reveal our strategy, test his ideas against the dialogue of nations.

The key here is that he is still persuading, still deploying rhetoric. But his brand of rhetoric shocks Hillary. She laughs at it, because she doesn't understand what he is doing.

Why admit ignorance? Why search for answers out in the public space, why admit weakness or humanity? She assumes, as Chris does, that "that book is already written."

Jon and Barak understand an essential truth. That book isn't written.

Clinton and Matthews (and the Boomers generally) misunderstand rhetoric, and so they have been deploying a broken rhetoric that only seeks to break us and our conversation. They aren't really trying to persuade, even if in their hearts they believe they are.

The Baby Boom dialogue that is freaking Jon Stewart out, and that Barak Obama is trying to fight isn't a dialogue at all. It is a monologue, and though its content might change from left to right, from Clinton to Rove, its ultimate purpose is subjugation. Two Parties, Both of the State. We fight not over whether we live under tyranny, but over what color our flag should be.

The book isn't written.

We don't know what we want. We don't need a leader to help us go somewhere. We don't need a leader who will just manufacture our consent, or remain constrained by an imperfect perception of that consent.

We need a leader who can help us figure out where we are and who we are. We need a leader who understands our confusion, maybe even shares some of it with us, but who can give us the tools so that we can, as a nation, sort through the confusion and chart a course together.

What Chris doesn't get is that rhetoric is not about getting stuff. Rhetoric is about discovering what is worth getting. Arguments aren't about winning or losing. Arguments are about finding truth, and writing the unwritten book.

I'm sad Chris is so wrong on this, but his moment has passed. This isn't about scoring points. This isn't about executing the limited and strict plan of some pre-existing narrow interest group. This isn't about championing some narrow cause anymore.

This is about goodness and competence. This is about developing a new American consensus.

Because if you can bring the country together around a new shared identity, if you can show everyone, help everyone, to see where we are all standing, if you can really bring people the truth, if you can make us "us" again, then there's no persuading left to do, and no fights left fight.

This is the high ideal of the Obama campaign, and I think exactly what Jon is sees absent in Chris' book.

The danger here, though, is that maybe Obama is just a "hope-monger."

Maybe Chris and Hillary are right, and the only thing there is in this world is what you can sell, that there is no truth, only a series of basic "transactions" and either we're on the winning side or the losing side.

The poor and the disenfranchised are very easily seduced by "transactional politics" for good reason: they don't have a lot of time, but they need a whole lot done. They don't want to wait for a national consensus, and they don't want to come to know people who used to kick them around

Maybe life is only about getting what you want and "never being wrong."

But if that is true, then it calls the whole notion of the soul into question. It calls justice and hope and freedom into question. It calls human dignity into question. Utilitarian rhetoric of this sort may not mean to do this (Chris and Hillary may not mean to do this) but that is what is happening.

Chris is right. Jon (and I) do fear something in his book. And cruel as it may seem, unfair as it may seem, that something is fascism.

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