08 November, 2007

A pithy retreat from substance

Just a short break here from the ongoing spencer/Cassady tax policy debate, to turn to another topic close to all of our hearts here at debaser: the inanity of the American press.

The news coverage of Venezuela has long been ridiculous (and correspondingly ridiculed: from the left, from the right, and, of course, the sublime.) Critics have noted the sensationalistic headlines, the selective use of economic statistics, the reliance on cookie-cutter story lines, and the not-so-subtle insinuations about the state of Hugo Chavez's mental health.

Of course, spencer may point out that this sort of criticism is just too easy. With that charge I wouldn't disagree. Indeed, it justifies my dismay: it is so easy because it is so widespread. There literally
isn't a multiplicity of viewpoints (outside of the blogosphere, that is, which is an increasingly important caveat) besides that one lukewarm apologetic pseudo-Democrat straw man that Fox gleefully beats up on night after night. The jingoistic line becomes the conventional wisdom, common sense, hegemonic. But at least such vene-laziness hasn't infected intelligent and substantive publications like Slate, right?

Wrong. Slate's Anne Applebaum has decided that the best way to repackage the old anti-Chavez cliches for re-publication is through the lens of celebrity. In her latest piece, timed for the 90th anniversary of the October Rebellion, she compares the US celebrities that have recently visited Venezuela with the intellectuals and journalists that once flocked to revolutionary Russia:

Fast forward 90 years, and surprisingly little has changed. True, the Russian revolution itself is no longer much admired, not even by Reed's heirs on the far left. But the impulse that drew Reed to St. Petersburg remains. The Western weakness for other people's revolutionary violence, the belief in the glamour and benevolence of foreign dictators, and the insistence on seeing both through the prism of Western political debates are still very much with us.

This is a point well taken. From American college students drunkenly singing IRA fighting songs to the glorification of El Che, we consistently romanticize "third world" or underdog struggles - in part a comment, I think, on how safe, boring and unsatisfying our own politics have become. But next, almost in a parody of her own statement, she uses her (highly questionable) interpretation of events in Venezuela as a weapon against her own domestic political adversaries. Hilariously, she writes

In fact, for the malcontents of Hollywood, academia, and the catwalks, Chávez is an ideal ally.

There you have it: I am officially in league with "the catwalks". We have strategy meetings every Tuesday to decide which "dictator" we want to flatter us next. And you're not invited. Seriously, though, Chavez is not loved nor defended by many in American Academe. Both economists and political scientists are very pessimistic about the intersection of oil and constitutional reform in Venezuela - but many are also concerned about an American foreign policy off of which it is easy to score political points.

So sure, it is valid to deride the self-absorbed celebrities duped or flattered into buying the Utopian rhetoric as if it hadn't been perfected by Peron more than half a century ago. But even as she decries that these celebrities have no grasp of the very deep, complex, historical context (an assertion as speculative as it is probably correct) Applebaum goes on to merely wave at those very issues on her way to indulging in juicy gossip disguised as informed indignation. Even while cautioning that the complexity of foreign affairs can easily become hostage to the "prism of Western political debates" she manipulates Venezuela in an attempt to demonstrate the ego-centric and shallow nature of the American Left. As if Hollywood and "the catwalk" represent the Left in any sense except in the minds and pens of the pundits. As if Sean Penn is in any way comparable to John Reed, or, for that matter, George Orwell or Herbert Matthews. As if anyone cares what Naomi Campbell thinks about Venezuela.

But thats the point: in making the debate about the Penns and the Campbells, it is less and less about Chavez or about US policy, or the underlying problem of how Latin America is to go about dealing with massive poverty, inequality, and political marginalization. Speaking of Penn, Applebaum says: "As for Venezuelan politics, or the Venezuelan people, they don't matter at all." She could be describing her own article, and most of the American press. In the words of Jon Stewart: Stop. Please. You're hurting us.

Update: BoRev got there first, as usual more eloquent than I.


Cassady said...

In his defense, Sean Penn is becoming increasingly political. To boot, he has that devilishly alluring half-smile that America loves.

Elliot said...

Sure, Sean Penn can have his opinions; I respect that. What bothers me is that he automatically "speaks" for the Left due to his celebrity status. And thus, Applebaum uses him to avoid engaging with the issues at hand. She doesn't discuss his actual views, or the relative merits or disadvantages thereof. She resorts to speculating about his motive. That signals an intellectual laziness that is all too frequent.

Cassady said...

That is an excellent point. Leaving Penn aside, Applebaum basically avoids anything resembling responsible journalism. Entirely.