Breitbart Passing No Tragedy

Since when is cruelty a political principle?

I’ve had several people ask me why I haven’t written about the death of conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. “What do you think,” they ask? Actually, Nicholas Kamm of Rolling Stone already said what I think: that Breitbart was a “douche” whose passing no one should mourn. I wouldn’t have used that word, but the sentiment is in the right (and Breitbart would have had it in no other direction) quadrant. I mourn his death with exactly the same level of sadness I felt when Lee Atwater (1991), Richard Nixon (1994), and Jerry Falwell (2007) died: none. I will preemptively say that I will collectively shed zero tears when the following shuffle off this mortal coil: Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly. (That’s just the short list.)

I don’t loathe these individuals because of their politics, but because they have none. Each, like Breitbart, uses ideology and faux principles as an excuse to be mean-spirited, vicious, and selfish. Since when did creepiness become a synonym for credo? Prevarication for politics? These self-appointed guardians of “truth” worship no god but themselves, care about no one’s economic health but their own, hold few civic ideals, and love the United States only insofar as it pads their bank accounts and assuages their oversized egos. I get the fact that none of these folks invented sensationalism; they are not responsible for a culture in which cathartic anger is easier than contemplative reasoning, nostrums masquerade as policy, and cheap thrills have supplanted compassion. They didn’t invent it, but the Nuremberg defense can’t save them from the damage they’ve done.

If it were only a matter of bad behavior, one could dismiss the Breitbarts of the world for what they were/are: boorish, despicable, and sleazy. Alas, there is too often an actively malevolent side to them. Take the moment that made Breitbart famous: his “exposé” of ACORN. That, as in his video of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod’s alleged anti-white speech, turned out to be a lie. Breitbart faked the data; his video revelations were the equivalent of doctored photographs. Most of what passed for evidence was actually either invented, or was a publicity-seeking selective reading of out-of-context factoids. It was, in short, the sort of hack job that would get a graduate student unceremoniously booted from a university. Alas, there were no professors double-checking Breitbart’s blog and the story, though false, was so juicy that salivating ideologues rushed to the table to slice ACORN to ribbons. As a result, one of the nation’s finest community-empowerment organizations was driven to extinction. Breitbart and his followers did their jobs so well that much of the public believes the lie, not ACORN's 30-year-record of providing needed social services. The sad reality is that thousands of low-income citizens have been deprived of ACORN advocacy for everything from housing advice to voter registration.

Some of Breitbart’s supporters in Congress­–a group no one should confuse with a distinguished college faculty–bemoaned his death, had words of comfort for his family, and called him a “crusader” against fraud. Poppycock! He was the biggest fraud of all. Few shed tears for Nazis condemned at Nuremberg, and I have none for latter-day enemies of justice. Breitbart’s passing won’t improve the world–there are plenty of demagogues (on both the right and the left) remaining–but at least it may slow the damage.


Who Knew? John E. Sununu is Right (Sort Of)

Gar Price Crazy Talk in America!

Four words I never thought I would type: John Sununu is right. Well… sort of. In a March 5 op-ed to the Boston Globe titled “Dripping demagoguery at the pimp,” Sununu blasted President Obama’s energy policy as rhetoric without substance. Sununu, of course, is not an impartial observer; he’s the son of John H. Sununu, a former Republican governor of New Hampshire who was hard right before it was fashionable. Sununu fils served the Granite State in the House of Representatives from 1997-2003 and in the U.S. Senate from 2003-2009, when he lost to the much more sensible Jeanne Shaheen.

Sununu noted that Obama’s faith in alternative energy sources such as making gasoline from algae is a pipe dream that may never happen and will certainly have no impact on rising fuel process any time in the near future. He was also highly skeptical of other panaceas such as hydrogen cells, synfuel, and ethanol, and dismissed talk of releasing supplies from Strategic Oil Reserve as little more than a dog-and-pony show. To his credit, Sununu admits that Obama “didn’t invent Gas Price Crazy Talk.” He knows that petroleum prices involve global markets and that both parties have been guilty of telling Americans what they want to hear. He ended his piece with the remark, “It would be nice if someone treated Americans as though they were adult enough to understand.”

Amen! But this is where Mr. Sununu and I part company. I’d applaud his every word were it not for the fact that he engaged in quite a lot of demagoguery of his own. Someone did treat Americans “as though they were adult enough to understand,” and the children beat him up for it. I refer to President Jimmy Carter, who told Americans back in 1979 that the energy crisis was real, and that rising prices and periodic crises would be permanent unless aggressive steps were taken to break America’s dependence upon petroleum. This is where Sununu is being disingenuous. The Republican Party’s solution can be summed in a three-word slogan used by GOP National Chair Michael Steele: “Drill, baby, drill.” Drilling, in fact, is the only policy at which Sununu even hinted in his op-ed; he blasted Obama for the six-month moratorium on drilling imposed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The drilling option is the ultimate infantilization of the public. It replaces basic science with the child-like fantasy that natural resources can be magically replenished. Fact: petroleum is a finite resource. We may find a new pool here and there, but oil fields are just like your backyard swimming pool: if you pump out the liquid, it will go dry. Sununu finds pond algae fanciful–and I agree–but isn’t it just as much “Crazy Talk” to act as if there are endless supplies of oil just lying about waiting to be discovered? The phrase “there is no energy crisis” came from another energy demagogue: Ronald Reagan, the master that the Sununu family served and continues to revere.

Sununu’s own words haunt him. Yes, President Obama stopped drilling for six months after the Deepwater spill. This means there has been drilling for nearly a year and a half. In fact, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), domestic production has increased by nearly 12% since Obama took office-–that’s more than a half million barrels per day! Notice the difference at the pump? Of course you don’t. The EIA estimates that given global demand, if we increase production by a whopping 25%, you won’t see the difference until 2030, when the price might drop by 3 cents per gallon. Why? You don’t simply drill a hole in the ground, find a nice cache of high-test, and pump it right into your gas-guzzling SUV. First, two of every three test bores are “dry holes,” each of which nonetheless costs a king’s ransom to drill. Oil companies don’t just extract profits for active production; the pump price includes exploration and capital costs. Second, even when a strike occurs, it must be cost-effective; shale oil, for example, is often more expensive to produce than what it will fetch at the pump. It generally takes many years before crude can be safely and efficiently extracted, refined, and sold.

America’s quest for cheap energy is akin to its search for a diet that will allow us to eat like hogs and be as lithe as gazelles: a fantasy. Cheap gas is over, folks. John Sununu is right to call fix-it-fast rhetoric demagoguery. I just wish the source had more credibility. Alas, Mr. Sununu and his ilk have been part of “Gas Price Crazy Talk.”


Smith College Show on Debussy's Paris Delights on Many Levels

Going to the Smith bulb show? Make sure you stop by the art museum.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster image of Aristide Bruant is one of the most recognizable graphics in the Western world. But who was he? Ten

points if you know he was a famed cabaret singer. Give yourself twenty more if you have the foggiest idea what he sounded like.

Hearing Bruant while gazing upon his poster is among the many delights in a newly opened show at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) in Northampton, MA (now through June 10), and the exhibit isn’t even about him or Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s just a small part of a show in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of classical composer Claude Debussy. Those who have seen other shows at the SCMA will be pleasantly surprised by Debussy’s Paris: Art, Music and Sounds of the City. Smith has one of the finest private collections of art of any college in America and has launched many superb shows, but it seldom generates buzz for creative displays. Let us hope that guest curator Laura Kalba, a Smith professor of art, has just raised the bar; Debussy’s Paris is a visual, aural, and intellectual delight.

I admit that I the thought of the exhibit did not initially thrill me; Debussy’s music is too mannered for my taste. What the exhibit does, though, is play off the myriad contrasts of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was a world in which Debussy’s music--often labeled impressionistic--coincided with the artistic movement called impressionism, as well as symbolism, the first rumblings of surrealism, plebeian culture, and emerging commercial popular culture. One of the many joys of the SCMA show is its embrace of popular culture. Long before we get to the computer station where Debussy’s music can be heard, we stop at listening posts to hear the singsong patter of street peddlers and sampl

e recordings of the kinds of Parisian street sounds Debussy would have heard. Even better, we learn to appreciate the manner in which popular and fine art collided in the late 19th century. The spectacular theatrical modern dance of Loie Fuller, for instance, would not have been possible without the perfection of electricity. In like fashion, her flowing sensual movements owed more to can-can dancers than the buttoned-down world of bourgeois Paris. And let us not forget that painters such as Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Bonnard, and Seurat–all on display–were only slightly less scandalous to bourgeois critic

s than the cabaret stars, prostitutes, and absinthe-drinkers painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Debussy–whose private life was a shamble–sampled all these worlds, with much of his music evoking the symbolism of painters such as Odilon Redon, the chaotic pulses of the street, and developing modernist impulses. In the most direct example, Debussy wrote his famed “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in response to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, and sought to replicate the sound cadences of that work. And speaking of cadences, you could hear piston-like staccato in the cabaret, especially in the songs of Yvette Guilbert, who sang as if the jackhammer was making way for structures she intended to compromise with irony and humor.

I came away with new appreciation for Claude Debussy, though Bruant and Guilbert remain more my cup of tea. (Or should I say absinthe?) Years ago I read UMass professor emeritus Charles Rearick’s superb Pleasures of the Belle Epoch: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France and imagined what that world must have been like. Thanks to Debussy’s Paris: Art, Music and Sounds of the City, I have a better idea.

Those venturing to Smith for its annual spring bulb show (March 3-19) should definitely set aside time to see this exhibit.