"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
(updated below - Update II – Update III)
The New York Times‘ David Brooks and Gail Collins had an online ”conversation” with one another this week, and Brooks did an excellent job of explicitly demonstrating most everything that is relevant — and destructive — about the mentality of the standard Beltway journalist (h/t reader jm). In fact, much of what Brooks wrote about what he believes tracks almost completely the discussion I had with Jay Rosen on Bill Moyers’ show last week regarding the rot of the American political press. First, there’s this from Brooks:
What I’m really annoyed by, though, is the withdrawal of Tom Daschle. What are we, a nation of virgins? . . .
Of course, Obama asked for all this with his cynical promise to ban lobbyists from his administration. There’s a word for lobbyists: experts. Some are sleazy and many are quite admirable, but the idea of trying to run Washington without them is absurd.
To David Brooks, lobbyists are nothing more than “experts” who provide important and helpful insight to legislators as they earnestly try to craft laws in the public interest. Not only are lobbyists a positive influence, but they’re actually indispensable. The fact that these so-called “experts” are paid by the wealthiest corporate factions to ensure that the laws Congress passes are designed to serve their narrow, insular interests — and that this is accomplished by pouring money into the coffers of the very people who write the laws so that they’re writing the laws that serve these interests — never makes it into Brooks’ understanding of this process. Thus, he is baffled that anyone would find lobbyist-domination of our political process to be at all objectionable.
Here we see the full expression of one of the most predominant attributes of the contemporary Beltway journalist: because they are integral members of the Washington establishment, rather than watchdogs over it, they are incapable of finding fault with political power and they thus reflexively defend it and want it to remain unchanged. From the discussion Rosen and I had with Moyers:
GLENN GREENWALD: And the minute [Daschle] left [the Senate], he traded in on his influence and his contacts to make enormous sums of money by telling large corporations and wealthy individuals how they can get the legislation that they want from the Congress, including giving advice to the very companies and giving speeches to the very companies that he would have ended up regulating as part of his duties as Health and Human Services secretary.
And I think the press overlooked that, and didn’t think that was much of a story was because it’s so customary in Washington for members of both political parties. That’s how the system works. And the members of the media, being integral parts of that system, want to do everything other than offer critiques of it. . . .
If you were to say to normal Americans, and it’s the reason why these issues resonated, and why Barack Obama made them a centerpiece of his campaign, that members of Congress leave office and make millions of dollars doing nothing other than essentially peddling influence to wealthy individuals who can have their way with Congress.
Most people consider that to be corruption. That’s what Barack Obama called it when he ran. Yet, to members of the media, who have spent their lives in Washington, who are friends and colleagues of the people who are engorging themselves on this corrupt system, that is just the way of life. It’s like breathing air or drinking water. It’s not anything that’s noteworthy, let alone controversial.
JAY ROSEN: Well, what doesn’t get considered, Bill, is that there could be anything radically wrong with Washington. That the entire institution could be broken. That there are new rules necessary. That idea, that the institutions of Washington have failed and need to be changed, doesn’t really occur to the press, because as Glenn said, they’re one of those institutions. And they’re one of the ones that failed.
Even more revealing about the rotted institution known as “Beltway journalism” is this observation from Brooks:
I assumed Obama understood all this [that lobbyists were good and necessary] and the campaign blather was just for show. But it turns out he’s created a climate of Puritanism in which any error is grounds for disqualification.
People like Brooks don’t merely expect that political officials will ignore and violate their own campaign commitments once they get into office. They think that political officials should do that, that it’s naive and foolish if political officials actually take seriously the commitments they make to citizens during a campaign.
Those with rewarding positions inside an imperial court (such as Brooks) naturally view the masses outside of the court with condescension and contempt — as ignorant, dirty, irritating rubes who need to be pacified with empty, deceitful words (“campaign blather,” as Brooks admiringly calls it), in order to keep them placated and believing (at least enough to enable hope) that the imperial court actually cares what they think. But all Serious, savvy, sophisticated royal court members know that none of that is supposed to matter. Not only do political elites have the right to ignore the claims they make to pacify the masses, they have the affirmative obligation to do that. That’s how the worst nightmare of the political establishment is avoided: namely, having mass sentiment affect and infect what they do.
It’s amazing how explicitly Brooks here is endorsing — and demanding — deliberate deceit of the public. There is, for obvious reasons, extreme anger among the American citizenry towards the piggish sleaze, systematic corruption, and wholesale destruction permeating the political establishment and our political and financial elites. In order to pacify those sentiments, political elites tolerated, perhaps even desired, a presidential candidate with credible outsider pretenses who claimed to empathize with that popular anger and who wanted to combat the political elites who were the targets of it — but only on the condition that he didn’t really mean any of it, that it was all just a means to deceive people into believing that they still live in some sort of responsive democracy and they retain even a minimal ability to shape what the Government does. The anti-Washington rhetoric Obama was spouting was tolerated by media elites only to the extent that none of it was sincere.
There is a direct relationship between (a) evidence that Obama didn’t mean any of his campaign rhetoric and doesn’t intend to do anything other than blend into and perpetuate the Washington status quo; and (b) the media’s sentiments towards Obama. The more there is of (a), the more positive is (b). Conversely, the less there is of (a), the more negative is (b). That’s why Brooks is angry with Obama here: there is almost a suggestion that Obama might have meant some of the critiques he voiced about Washington during the campaign or, at the very least, that Obama’s anti-Washington rhetoric might force him, now and then, to oppose prevailing Washington orthodoxies and go against dominant Washington power centers even if Obama doesn’t want to (which is what happened when his “campaign blather” forced Daschle out). Brooks is fearful and thus angry that Obama created a Frankenstein: leading people to believe that there would be any changes in Washington and that they had the right to expect it.
Here we find the single most significant characteristic of the standard Beltway journalist: the desire to protect and defend the Washington establishment from the desires, views and interests of the dirty, lowly masses. From the Moyers discussion:
GLENN GREENWALD: If you look at what the media were saying about Obama favorably, both around the time of his election and subsequent as well, they kept insisting that he could continue Bush’s counterterrorism policies that were so controversial.
They were praising him for leaving in place all sorts of Bush officials. What the media wants to see is continuity, that he’s not threatening to their way of life and to their establishment, for the reason that we talked about before. That’s how he wins praise from them, is by showing that he isn’t going to change things fundamentally, and therefore, isn’t a threat to their system. . . .
The more [Obama] threatens the Washington system, I think the more hostility the press will feel towards him, and therefore, project to the public about him. And that, too, can undermine his political popularity.
JAY ROSEN: If you’re a career Washington reporter, how do you know that your knowledge is always going to be relevant throughout your career? Well, if politics is just an inside game, then you’re always on top of it. If all of a sudden, a new dynamic enters it, you may not have the knowledge you need to be the expert, to be the authority. And I think there’s a tendency for Washington journalists to see everything converging towards the political game that they are themselves masters of.
I think that the ideology of the press is not so much liberal or conservative. They think themselves the keepers of realism, of savviness. I think the real religion of the American press is savviness. And in their view, it isn’t savvy to say you’re going to mobilize the anger and frustration of the American people and bring that power to Washington to change it.
That’s not how politics works. The way politics works is you say things like that to get elected, and then, once you’re in, you make your accommodations, you show that you want to hew to the center. You demonstrate that you’re bipartisan. You pick people who are familiar. . . .
GLENN GREENWALD: It isn’t so much that the media is liberal or conservative in terms of how those terms are defined conventionally in our political spectrum. What ends up happening is that ideas that are threatening to the media and to the political elite end up being attached to the label of liberalism or leftist ideology.
With the corresponding orthodoxy that the one thing Obama, for instance, needs to show, is that he’s not beholden to the far left of his party, or that he’s willing to scorn the leftists and the liberals in his party. That’s when he generates the most praise. And the-
BILL MOYERS: From the Washington press corps.
GLENN GREENWALD: From the Washington press corps.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
GLENN GREENWALD: If you go back and look at the way in which Obama was praised for the last two months — almost entirely — by the media, it will almost always be based on this idea that he’s not an ideologue that he’s not in concert with the liberals and the leftists in his party. That’s the greatest accomplishment in the eyes of the media a president could possibly aspire to.
And the reason for that is because in their eyes, the liberalism or the leftist ideology that they’re scorning are not things about policy making per se, or even approaches to foreign policy. It’s the idea that the prevailing consensus among our political elite is corrupted and needs to be radically changed. And so, what I think they are most afraid of is having the anger of the American people start to affect what happens within their system. What they want more than anything else, is to exclude those external influences. . . . .
JAY ROSEN: The narrative that we aren’t getting is that the political class cannot solve the problems it created. And that some outside force is needed. People from outside, ideas from outside, as well as the anger and sort of mobilized feeling of Americans themselves.
This is exactly what Brooks is saying. Indeed, if one reviews most of the political controversies of the last decade, one finds exactly this dynamic: the political and media establishment joining together to deliberately distort American public opinion and thus render it irrelevant in what the political class does: the mass desire for de-funding of and withdrawal from Iraq; the overwhelming demand for investigations into Bush crimes during the administration; the widespread belief now that those crimes must be investigated; the extreme majorities favoring “even-handedness” in our Middle East policies; economic policies and government processes promoting the interests of the majority rather than the narrow corporate interests that so transparently own and control political officials. The overarching role of the Beltway journalist is to obscure and distort those widely-held views on the part of the citizenry and thus prevent them from having any impact, protect political power from those beliefs.
What makes this journalistic servitude to the Washington establishment most repellent is that these same pundits generally — and David Brooks in particular — endlessly hold themselves out as the Spokespeople of the Ordinary American, even as they work tirelessly to protect the Washington political class from their beliefs, interests and sentiments. That’s how people like David Brooks pile media deceit (“we speak for ordinary Americans”) on top of political deceit (we view campaign commitments as “blather” to keep the masses satiated and quiet).
The most significant fact of American political life is that political journalists (of all people) see their role primarily as defenders of, servants to, spokespeople for the Washington establishment. That’s how they obtain all of their rewards and remain relevant. The concept of journalists as watchdogs over political power has been turned completely on its head by power-revering servants like David Brooks, who is anything but atypical (indeed, there’s a whole new generation of Beltway journalists who have learned and are eagerly replicating this model). Brooks is about as typical and illustrative as it gets. They benefit substantially from the prevailing rules of political power and, thus, their only concern is to preserve and strengthen it and protect it from the growing dissatisfaction and anger of the peasant class. The more they do that, the more they are rewarded.
UPDATE: Along these lines, Billmon this week asked a very good question and, in doing so, compellingly demonstrated why it’s the fear that this realization will grow that, more than anything else, motivates David Brooks and his coddled, insular political and media comrades.
UPDATE II: In the context of discussing torture, renditions and the State Secrets controversy, The New York Times‘ Tobin Harshaw expressly accuses me today of “shrillness” (after having implied it several times in the past):
Greenwald, whose shrillness is usually balanced by ideological consistency and a willingness to hold Barack Obama to the same standards to which he held the previous White House resident . . . .
That, of course, is the same accusation that was continuously launched against Paul Krugman circa 2002 for irresponsibly suggesting that there might be something more than just a little bit wrong with the Bush administration.
One is guilty of the sin of “shrillness” if one: (a) argues that there is something fundamentally — rather than marginally — wrong with our political and media establishment and/or (b) fails to use suitably restrained, muted and respectful language when expressing those critiques. Thus, one is “shrill” if one says that George Bush committed felonies by spying on Americans without warrants and torturing people and should be treated like any other accused criminal (rather than saying: “Bush might have circumvented some legal constraints and gone a little too far in trying to keep us safe”). One is “shrill” if one says that establishment journalism, at its core and by design, is principally devoted to serving the interests and amplifying the claims of the Washington establishment (rather than saying: “Journalists could do a better job of reporting some stories”), etc. etc.
“Shrillness” – the first cousin of “Unseriousness” – is the conceptual instrument used to deter and (when that fails) demonize those who view the political and media establishment as corrupt at its core. It’s a way of demanding that everyone just calm down, avoid impetuous and inflammatory language, and stop acting as though there’s anything seriously wrong with our political and media elites:
Sure, they’ve made some mistakes; nobody’s perfect. But it’s not as though there’s anything to get excited or angry about. And fine: there are some narrow disagreements among people of good faith and some small problems here and there that require some modifications — little things like torture, chronic high-level lawbreaking, immunity for the political class (juxtaposed with the sprawling prison industry for ordinary Americans), rampant domestic spying, sky-high walls of government secrecy, full-scale economic meltdown, massive and growing inequities in wealth, endless wars, sleaze and corruption oozing from every Beltway pore, complete media complicity with all of it — but there’s no reason to get all indignant or agitated by it or act as though crimes are being committed or radical changes are needed or anything.
By definition, only people who are “shrill” would do that.
Under these circumstances, and with that definition, there are probably few worse sins than failing to be “shrill.”
UPDATE III: A nice synonym for “shrill” is “liberal legal scold” — the term which Time‘s Michael Scherer applied to me this week. It’s an enduring mystery that those who meekly acquiesced to the events of the last eight years and continue to depict them as nothing to get riled up about actually feel superior as a result of that posture — even as they survey the wreckage that resulted (in comments, Little Brother constructs a short analogizing drama illustrating the purposes for which “shrill” and “scold” and the like are invoked).
Along those lines, I can’t recommend highly enough this discussion that Bill Moyers had on Friday night with Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now a Professor of global economics and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management (and financial scold). Johnson — hardly a radical — explains, in extremely Shrill terms, the still-growing devastation on our country spawned (and still being spawned) by Brooks’ cherished “experts,” and conveys the true depth of the rot and corruption in our political and economic establishment. You can watch the video or read the transcript here.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)