Forgive me. There are so many provocations in the world that are sensible to resist – and here, now, I’m going to do the opposite.
Blame Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize (either way, in 2016, do be sure to blame something). Curious to know what detractors might think about this, I stumbled upon this remarkable diatribe by Tim Stanley in The Telegraph. And his less than illuminating assertion that Dylan is “a dim star strumming a guitar.”
Quick, sidebar question: which is more irritating, the smaller quote, taken out of context – or, in fact, the context:
“But the Nobel is supposed to be awarded not on the basis of what the public likes (if it were, Doris Lessing wouldn’t have won it) but on ability matched by idealism. Dylan has both, but his body of work falls far short of that produced by past winners: Yeats, Gide, O’Neill, Solzhenitsyn etc. The scale of their output and the thematic density of their texts outstrips Dylan by light years. He is a dim star strumming a guitar; they are suns around which we orbit.”
Alright, sure, a large part of Tim Stanley’s job is to provoke a reaction. Like the host of a radio talk show that depends on listener phone calls: he must not be bland. At what cost, though, is he ‘interesting?’
It’s been a long election season. The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is now too real and too close. My nerves are frayed, and the many provocations of the world are harder than usual to resist. And so, I admit, I erred in not avoiding this:
Isn’t The Telegraph supposed to be a beacon of conservative good sense? A broadsheet, ‘newspaper of record,’ above the tabloid fray? Maybe it is. And maybe I’m cherry-picking unfairly two articles by one writer, in a heightened state of jittery sensitivity.
Let’s take a closer look, though, just the same. What kind of journalism is When Trump goes low, Obama goes lower? And do you agree with my answer to this question: tossed-off and tawdry, and replete with pernicious conjecture, conflation, and dubious assertions.
(Yeah, I really did mean “closer look.” What follows is Stanley’s article in full, with my annotations as footnotes… feel free to worry just slightly about my current mental state!)
When Trump goes low, Obama goes lower
Barack Obama got some things off his chest on Wednesday afternoon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In a beautiful, rich university – on a field of AstroTurf – he called Donald Trump a risk to the survival of the republic. It’s clear that President Obama is fighting not only for Hillary Clinton but the preservation of his own, highly contentious legacy.
In an interview broadcast earlier that day he’d already rebuked FBI director James Comey for announcing that fresh emails had been found related to the investigation of Mrs Clinton’s use of a private server. “I trust her,” said the President, as if putting an end to the matter. His faith puts him in a minority. A recent poll found that more voters trust Mr Trump than they do Mrs Clinton.
At Chapel Hill, he quipped that Mrs Clinton is “underappreciated at home” but that she is a vastly superior choice to her opponent. On that subject, the President had a lot to say. He suggested Mr Trump tolerated the Klan, threatened the press, “stiffed small businesses” and “bragged about getting away with sexual assault”. He even called him “a loser”. Mr Trump, said Mr Obama, is “temperamentally unfit” to be President and should not be let near the nuclear codes. He added: “This should not be a controversial opinion. Over time, crazy [has become] normalised.”
This kind of rhetoric is classic Obama. He enjoys playing the wise professor and comes off like a very smart man lowering his intellectual bar in order to school the rest of us on stuff that we really should’ve grasped years ago. If you don’t vote for Hillary, he explained, then Trump will win. The country needs to be united, he added, or else it will be divided. And the Republicans who threaten Hillary with impeachment before she’s even been elected, he suggested, were encouraging gridlock in Washington. These truisms are irritating not only because they are bleedin’ obvious, but also because they were delivered in a fake southern accent. Many presidents have a habit of doing this. They think they connect better when they don’t pronounce their “g”s.
But hang on a second: isn’t it a bit divisive to call your opponent divisive? Especially when you imply that he’s an idiot authoritarian. Indeed, the flipside of Obama’s patrician tone is that he’s always been happy to parody his opponents to the edge of a smear. Hillary, he observed in 2008, was only “likeable enough.” And that year he infamously observed that working-class conservatives “cling to guns or religion.” Michelle Obama once said: “When they go low [meaning the Republicans], we go high.” That’s nonsense. When Obama’s opponents go low, he goes even lower.
Low is where the votes are. In his Chapel Hill speech, the President acknowledged that North Carolina is now tied in the polls. Actually, Trump is thought likely to win this large, important state. That puts Trump on a slightly easier path to the White House.
And if Trump enters the Oval Office then it’ll amount to a rejection of Obama as much as Clinton. This election is partly a referendum on him. For instance, many voters are furious that their monthly health insurance premiums have just gone up by a national average of 25 per cent (although they can get a tax credit to help). Moreover, a Trump victory will represent the defeat of Obama’s whole style of government as well as its substance. It will say that patrician is out and Right-wing radicalism is in.
Obama always liked to believe he could move his country beyond the culture wars, even though he himself manipulated them. Well now it’s plain that much of America is tired of pretending that it’s united in affection for diversity – and Obama’s old promise of hope has lost its potency. The choice faced in this election isn’t hope. It’s either settling for Hillary or burning the house down with Trump.
1. “I trust her,” said the President, as if putting an end to the matter.
Stanley’s editorializing here is hardly helpful. Politicians are forever denigrated for being evasive. What, in this instance, should the President have done differently? He is, after all, offering his perspective. Why should he do so only equivocally?
2. A recent poll
What poll?! Cherry-picking polls to bolster your argument is assuredly not the hallmark of conscientious journalism. You might just as well claim, “According to the internet…”
3. he quipped
Obama asserting that Clinton is “underappreciated at home” doesn’t seem much like a quip, so why characterize it in this way? It’s the word choice of a writer who prefers that his reader not take Obama seriously.
4. the President has a lot to say
This is willfully disingenuous. Wouldn’t it be strange if the incumbent President didn’t have a lot to say about the opposition candidate to replace him, five days before the election?
Another revealing choice of word, leaving open to interpretation the accuracy of Obama’s words – even though they do, in fact, stand up to scrutiny. (We need not suggest Trump “bragged about getting away with sexual assault” – it is, simply, a fact.)
6. school the rest of us
Spare us, Stanley, this ‘man of the people’ shtick. You write for The Telegraph, you were educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and your middle name is Randolph. (Says Wikipedia.) Sure, this kind of anti-establishment pose is all the rage right now… but must we really be so jaded as to resent the notion of a President being smart, or that his office may have some pedagogic utility?
7. These truisms are irritating
Can we safely assume that Stanley doesn’t much like Obama? Well, alright, to each his own. But here, surely, whatever journalism there is in this article lapses into a rant. Should addressing any of the following subjects really be outside Obama’s remit, with the election less than one week away: the consequences of not voting for Clinton; the need for unity over division; the prevalence of Republican obstructionism?
8. isn’t it a bit divisive to call your opponent divisive?
Well, no, not necessarily. This is circular reasoning; pick at this thread and it will soon unravel.
9. When Obama’s opponents go low, he goes even lower.
Charitably, I suppose the rest of this article encourages the reader to reach this same conclusion. Realistically, though, you’d have to be extraordinarily credulous – or worse – to do so. You’d have to ignore a decade’s worth of evidence to the contrary, and the brute facts of 21st century racism.
10. Actually, Trump is thought likely to win this large, important state.
Nope! Simply starting a sentence with “Actually,” doesn’t empower it to make a falsehood true. According to the average of numerous polls, North Carolina – on Nov. 3, 2016 – is about as close to a toss-up as can be. There’s nothing the least bit “likely” about Trump winning or losing it.
11. many voters are furious that their monthly health insurance premiums have just gone up by a national average of 25 per cent
To my eyes, “many” and “furious” here are the word choices of a lazy journalist, sacrificing rigor in an attempt to be persuasive. Put this objection to one side, however, and we’re still left with the problem of what Stanley leaves unsaid. The profit motive of insurance companies is hard-wired into American healthcare; blaming Obama for this is to miss the wood for the trees. Moreover, Obamacare has extended healthcare coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans. Stanley is painting a most incomplete picture.
12. now it’s plain that much of America is tired of pretending that it’s united in affection for diversity
My goodness. Stanley is writing this sort of thing for a living. Is he also tired of this same pretense? It would, at least, help to explain much of what precedes this weirdly opaque observation.
13. The choice faced in this election isn’t hope.
Does Stanley mean “…about hope?” Or has he, at this point, given up even trying to make sense?
The stakes are too high. Journalism is too important. Let’s do better.
Today’s post soundtracked by: