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Irony! Maybe ...

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Maureen Dowd fired one across the bow of President Obama today in her New York Times column. As a former Naval officer I can tell you that firing across a bow is intended to show that you have ammunition and are willing to use it to further your own aims ... and that your aim is good. Today Maureen Dowd missed hitting the bow by only a hair's breadth and threw up a column of water onto the decks of the still slightly questionable seaworthiness of the USS Obama. The skipper is doubtless not pleased, being soaking wet from the experience, and being not pleased will doubtless retreat further into that place that Ms. Dowd penned him.

Such is the power of the press to create self-fulfilling commentary. Or, is this just a bit of hubris on Dowd's part when she asserts that [even though]

Jon Stewart and bloggers mocked the journalists, suggesting they were too chummy with power ... the picnic was on the record, and good reporters can't be co-opted by some cold French fries. Whenever you see politicians in a relaxed or stressful situation, beyond the usual teleprompter speeches and scripted photo ops, you learn something about those charged with making life and death decisions. You may even pick up some news.

Cold French fries, indeed! One gets the notion that journalists eat out of dumpsters with a passion and a cold French fry becomes a story about cooling Francophilia. No, I think Maureen is many times too self-righteous about the positive qualities of her profession. Still, (as I mentioned to someone today), the press corps is pretty much the same as it was in 1933 or 1956 or 1982 or yesterday. It has deadlines, a need to fill screens or pages for sale, and clearly each member and each publication has a prevailing point of view. In other words, it is not pristine, it is not beautiful, but it does incorporate a certain "free market of ideas and positions" that in time sift out into effective political journalism or ineffective fluff.

Irony is a trope, a figure of speech, in which the intent of the speaker is to say one thing and mean quite the opposite. In modern America the term has been invested with inanimate objects and public opinions, cultural values, and the like. So, Irony is complicated. But, at least we can agree that Irony is about value reversal and gestalt-like shifts from positive to negative or vice versa. Dowd is telling us that she has resisted the gestalt shift on Obama fiercely (not really!) until today, whereupon she has seen the emperor naked and not nearly as comely as she had hoped. Her dashed hopes are a bit more whiny than she intended, I think.

Synecdoche (sin ECK doh key) is also a trope, a figure of speech, one where the part is taken for the whole, the whole for the part, or the container for the thing contained, and vice versa. If you spend a lot of time nuzzling the semiotics of synecdoche you will find that it is a favorite of philosophers like Hegel who posit "organic" causal processes, who resist strenuously the descent into Irony implicit in all tropes. Maureen Dowd jumped straight toward Irony, but it interesting to me that she avoided the complicity of journalists in the "making of the President" or the "unmaking," as you will.

Complicity is the press corps problem. They get nothing without "befriending" someone they might better be criticizing. They need deep background all the time, so they become part of the problem, as it were, an organic part of the administration. They are, however, part of two worlds, the general culture which is their primary audience, and the local establishment which is their bread and butter that they dare not (usually) to scourge.

My colleagues disagree about whether Maureen scourged Barack Obama, but I think they are in tacit agreement that an unfunny-bone was struck sharply. Given that Dowd is writing to and about Obama, her propositional attitude seems to be a surrender to the imperatives of her professional class that coincides with a need to let us know that Obama is not what we (or at least she) believed he was. This is not new; but it is Dowd, a loud voice in the culture.

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Personally, I added her hypothesis to the several I have about Barack Hussein Obama, some of these hypotheses overlapping and some not. This hypothesis struck me as a theory of Obama that he expected the "Liberal press" to give him a free trip to the next campaign. I think that is more true than not. I do not think Obama dislikes the press categorically or for any aesthetic or moral reasons, although I think that the crafty Dowd tries to infer that. I continue to believe that Obama is poorly staffed in the West Wing and that his loyalty to Rahm Emanuel, among others, is taking on the color of being hostage. Emanuel is out of his depth; he belongs in a much lesser job. My evidence is the year-long debacle over health care reform. Rahm botched his role completely. He did not do such a hot job fingering Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, either.

Who the Press Secretary is is irrelevant, since Maureen's comments go around that factotum directly to The Man. So, perhaps the deficiency in the White House is that there are too many people with too little clout with the basic person who is President. But that is another essay.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese History, (more...)

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