The other day I found myself watching one of those CPAN segments in which serious looking men say purportedly wise things in front of a wall full of reduplicated monikers like “Brookings Institution.” I wasn’t enthralled by what the speaker was saying, I even questioned much of it, but what got my attention was the narcissistic self assurance that the speaker had in everything he said, a presumptuousness that lent authority to matters where logic might have had doubts.
Much attention is given these days to the pathological patois of the GOP right, its hustlers and con men. But when you look more closely at the Washington story, people like Cruz, Ryan and Rubio are more like the city’s mosquitos and wasps, stinging, but not defining.
The real power lies in a group that, as Russ Baker once put it, make themselves seem serious by being somber. In Washington you are expected to restrict one's conversation to the limits of Beltway discourse and remain attentive to the appropriateness of one's remarks. Even the worst sins are not described in terms of the evil they have done or the pain they have inflicted, but merely by the fact they are considered “inappropriate.”
I learned this the first summer I worked in Washington as a 19 year old radio reporter. I attended a conference on the Middle East, whose speakers were intensely pro-Israel and anti-Arab albeit in a dignified and reserved manner. Majoring in anthropology, I already had a somewhat different view of the Mid East and I asked a question along those lines.
I don’t remember the question or the answer. But to this day I remember feeling put down and humiliated. I had run head on into somber Washington dealing with an upstart.
Fortunately, I still had a comic book view of journalism: we were meant to be the tough guys battling evil in power and so I was soon embarrassed more by my reaction and promised myself to never let it happen again.
On the whole, I haven’t. Decades later I even asked a question that John Kerry, in his absurdly self important manner, tried to dismiss as ignorant and my immediate reaction was, well, there’s another one you can’t trust. By then I had learned that the more high placed is the person to whom one introduces a new idea, the more likely this individual is to be uncomfortable, dismissive, or suddenly in need of another drink. Unchallenged myopia is one of the most cherished privileges of power.
The problem is that while you can learn to recognize and deal with this sort of thing, but most people in Washington don’t because if you ask too many wrong questions or say too many things burdened with uncomfortable skepticism your days in that fair city may be numbered. It doesn’t matter if those remaining are the same who supported our presence in Vietnam and our failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worse, to a degree far greater than a few decades ago, the Washington media is afraid to ask questions the city’s establishment doesn’t like and so have become powerful enablers of the nation’s decline rather than challengers of those responsible for it.
So, yes, get pissed off at Ted Cruz but watch what those guys say on CSPAN in front of the wall with “Brookings Institution” or similar titles replicated on it. Too often, they are ones who helped ruin our economy, our standing in the world, and our democracy. Even if they did it in such a dignified way.