Maureen Dowd needs a mirror
Maureen Dowd had a very good column on Sunday, but her congenital solipsism and narcissism likely prevent her from being able to recognize the degree to which she helped create that which she now condemns. Dowd is smart and savvy and an entertaining writer, but she's also the paragon of everything that is wrong with what passes for political analysis in the traditional media. But she did write a good column, on Sunday, and given her elevated perch at the New York Times, that's a good thing. Discussing the anti-intellectual movement that now defines the Republican Party, Dowd wrote:
Bill Maher continued his video torment of (Christine) O’Donnell by releasing another old clip of her on his HBO show on Friday night, this time showing one in which she argued that “Evolution is a myth.”
Maher shot back, “Have you ever looked at a monkey?” To which O’Donnell rebutted, “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”
And Dowd quoted from a recent conversation she had with Maher.
“I find it so much more damaging than the witch stuff because she could be in a position to make decisions about scientific issues, like global warming and stem cells, and she thinks primate evolution can happen in a week and mice have human brains.”
And Dowd referred to Sarah Palin's climate denialism and Sharron Angle's autism denialism and Joe Miller's bizarre brand of Constitutional originalism, and correctly assessed the real goal of Palin, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Jim DeMint, which isn't a return to an idealized 1950s but to the 1750s, before the advent of modern science and modern republics and modern democracy. Which, one might add, accords perfectly with those that seem to want to become the effective future monarchy.
So, good for Dowd. Yes. The Republicans are not funny, they are unfettered from reality. And given that they are not the cartoon characters they seem, but a political party that could in the near future gain some semblance of governing power, that makes them dangerous. But Dowd's long-apparent incapacity for self-reflection necessitates an explication of her own role in propagating a national political dialogue that too often lacks any dialogue about actual politics. The modern Republican Party would not be what it is if not for the enabling of people like Maureen Dowd.
Climate change and right wing attempts to gut the social safety net are not new issues. The former was a constant subject of study and analysis in scientific journals by the 1990s. The latter has been a constant subject of Republican ideology since the social safety first was created. But how often has Dowd written about either? In the 1990s, Dowd wrote about O.J. Simpson more often than she did global warming or climate change. She wrote about President Clinton's relationship with an intern several times more often than she wrote about Social Security. When the traditional media spent more than a year obsessing over Clinton's private behavior, Dowd was its Pulitzer Prize-winning apotheosis, becoming the pop culture personification of what T.S. Eliot once described as "distracted from distraction by distraction." To Dowd, issues rarely were worth analyzing and all politics could be distilled to pop culture pablum. And it only got worse.
Few elections in U.S. history have been more consequential than was the 2000 presidential campaign. But perusing Dowd's coverage, one would think it was but a "reality" television show, a beauty pageant for homecoming king. Al Gore was an intellect steeped in the intricacies of policy, Bush was but the nitwit heir to a political dynasty, and all Dowd seemed to care about was their clash of personalities. Her coverage was uniformly shallow and mocking, her derision of Gore's depth revealing much about her and little about him. She graced us with gems such as this:
Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating.
Al Gore was never a natural performer, like his father, so he concentrated harder on his homework. If he could not be charming, he would be dogged. So now, in debates, he is doomed to be Annoying Boy, apple-polishing and doing that smug-mugging.
And then she had the temerity to write:
What has this race come to in the final stretch? It isn't turning only on issues. Vast chunks of voters are being swayed by a kiss, a sigh, a roll of the eyes, a smirk, a befuddled stare.
Which she well knew, having written so much about the puerilities and practically nothing about the substance.
Our unelection is superior to our election in every way. The campaign was never about anything. Lockbox, prescription drugs, blah, blah.
Sure. If one didn't look beyond the most superficial surfaces, the campaign between a visionary intellectual and a callow anti-intellectual ideologue wasn't about anything. Not the environment or international relations or the economy or corporatism or even the very nature of government. As usual, Dowd couldn't manage to delve beyond sound bite simplicities. The results were no more important than that of a cheap parlor game:
Sure, Al Gore, a k a Monsieur Tussaud, is an insufferable maniac for detail who hates delegating and is engineering every move in Florida. Like Ahab, he's so consumed with absurd attempts to prove he actually won Florida by nine votes that one friend described him to The A.P.'s Sandra Sobieraj as a ''lost soul.''
And her attempt at putting herself into Gore's head, once again, revealed much about herself, and nothing at all about him.
I feel stunning
Feel like running and dancing for joy . . .
O.K., enough gloating. Behave, Albert. Just look in the mirror now and put on your serious I only-care-about-the-issues face.
She couldn't fathom the possibility that to some people issues do matter. Her incapacity for self-reflection there revealed itself in her obliviousness to who, exactly, it was that was looking in a mirror.
As Dan Kennedy wrote in The Boston Phoenix, in 1999:
Dowd's awfulness is more complex, and more frustrating, than mere hackery, for it is a natural outgrowth of her immense talents -- her sharp eye, her sure command of the language, her knack for the illuminating pop-culture or literary reference. As a White House correspondent, she helped revolutionize political reporting with her nasty wit and novelistic detail. Her best-known lead, on a 1994 homecoming by one of Oxford University's most famous alumni: "President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to a university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree."
Dowd's edgy journalism has always been controversial, and many of her critics were relieved when she moved to the op-ed page, in 1995, where her opinions would be clearly labeled as such. (Dowd replaced Anna Quindlen, a feminist trailblazer who left the Times to write novels.) Trouble is, relieving Dowd of the burden of actually having to cover stories served only to reinforce her most solipsistic tendencies. On the surface, her columns appear to be about presidential sex, Hollywood, even the Irish peace process. In truth, her work is nearly always about herself.
So, yes-- Dowd's Sunday op-ed made some great points. But the idiocy that now is such a basic part of our political dialogue would not be what it is if not for the likes of Dowd. The extremists she now fears are the inevitable consequence of her own lack of respect and responsibility. She helped dumb things down to the point that modern Republican idiocracy became possible. Rarely could one read Dowd and learn. She was and is but a gossip columnist masquerading as a political columnist. As she recoils aghast from the politics she helped nurture, someone should buy her a mirror.