"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)
I woke up Monday morning to a changed America. After a month of news coverage focused on an extremist and dysfunctional Republican Party that shut down the government and brought the nation to the brink of defaulting on its debt, the media had found its new scandal: the troubled rollout of the website where uninsured Americans can purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
You might have heard: I wrote a piece asking liberal critics of the ACA’s Web problems to take a larger perspective, and not rush to join the clusterf*ck of conservatives declaring the entire program a failure. I mentioned two writers I admire, Ezra Klein and Ryan Lizza. Both had offered smart and sober criticism of the Web troubles; both also took to Twitter to get a little bit silly. Lizza suggested the ACA’s Web glitches might be a bigger disaster for Democrats than their default-hostage crisis was for Republicans.
That seemed to me to be a pretty clear example of “false equivalence” that erodes media credibility. One party brought us to the brink of a constitutional crisis and almost precipitated a global economic collapse. The other party rolled out a complicated and apparently poorly designed website with insufficient testing and a screwed-up procurement process. Those seem about equal, right? Of course not. There’s no comparison.
Klein joined “Morning Joe” to rail against “management failure” at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is fine, even if complaining about President Obama’s incompetence is kind of a coals-to-Newcastle endeavor. But again, I found myself set off by a Klein tweet complaining about “the lack of hold music” when he called the exchange by telephone.
Live by Twitter, die by Twitter.
So I wrote a little piece. It got little attention – until a day later, when Klein read it and tweeted:
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) October 22, 2013
And then all hell broke loose. This is the story of what happens when you gently criticize an icon of liberal Web journalism and suggest maybe the media ought to take a broader view of the ACA rollout. You’re derided as a purveyor of “agitprop” (thanks, Andrew Sullivan) and you’re an “Obamabot” (that’s pretty funny given my many wrangles with the president’s most ardent defenders).
Oh, and if you’re a woman? You’re also a cunt, a bitch, a hag; you’re old, fat and ugly, with bad teeth, chicken arms, 12 cats and a big unrequited crush on Ezra Klein.
The truth is, I have a labradoodle, and while Ezra Klein is lovely, he’s married and, besides, he’s not my type.
* * *
The inspiration for my rant wasn’t mainly dumb tweets by writers I like. It was watching the entire media establishment turn on a dime from covering the real-time implosion of the Republican Party, and the collateral damage it’s inflicted on the country, to obsessing over troubles with an admittedly important website that will almost certainly be fixed, and soon. What accounts for the absolute lack of scale and proportion in the coverage of these two very different sets of “partisan problems”? That old devil false equivalence – and the way it’s abetted by even some liberal pundits.
I tried, and maybe failed, to make a bigger point. I compared the rush to be the first liberal to identify and deride a big Democratic government screw-up with the way the Democratic Leadership Council colluded in the trashing of government in the ’80s and ’90s, because I’m keenly interested in whether and how Democrats’ eagerness to compromise with their enemies has somehow emboldened the GOP and enabled its insanity over the last 20 years.
I should have written more about that – so I will here. I once felt the way I think Klein and Lizza do. I was one of the reasonable liberals, driven by facts, not ideology. I flirted with Bill Clinton-style “Third Way” politics in the ’90s. I covered welfare reform and the charter school movement skeptically yet sympathetically, believing that liberals needed to be ready to admit when government programs either fail or merit sweeping reform. I remember being praised by the Wall Street Journal editorial page for a sympathetic piece about a controversial San Francisco charter school. I thought that was a sign of my intellectual honesty. With a child in public school I discovered teachers’ unions weren’t always right (duh). Writing about urban poverty I saw that the left’s correct instinct to defend welfare programs ought to have been accompanied by rigorous efforts to help people find work, because our welfare system left people isolated and irrelevant, or worse, to the larger society.
I engaged in all of those debates mainly out of curiosity and, yes, I would also say, my own sense of intellectual honesty. Some of it was self-consciously political: I hoped liberals could find common ground with conservatives to move forward on these issues. And who knows: Maybe certain market-inspired solutions would work better than government-driven ones.
Maybe they would, but the now-ascendant crackpot wing of the GOP won’t let us find out. What did Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama get for their own willingness to work with Republican ideas? What happened when Clinton said, OK, Republicans, we know you don’t like welfare, so we’re going to impose strict work requirements, and a five-year lifetime limit. And we’re going to take this nifty Milton Friedman idea, the earned income tax credit, and expand it, to reward people for working rather than staying idle. What happened when Obama said, OK, Republicans, we won’t push a single-payer plan or even a “public option” in our healthcare reform initiative. We’ll work through the patchwork of flawed and uneven private insurance companies already out there. We’ll even include a Heritage Foundation idea, the individual mandate, to encourage individual responsibility, not government freeloading.
We know what happened. Serial adulterer Newt Gingrich and his right-wing buddies impeached Clinton over his personal conduct, continued their race-baiting about welfare, and turned Milton Friedman’s EITC into a socialist giveaway to “takers.” The free-market-friendly Affordable Care Act, based on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts model? That’s now “socialism” too, and a growing fringe caucus talks about impeaching Obama just as it did Clinton. One of our two major governing parties has decided it will no longer accept election results that go against it – and we’re going to have wall-to-wall coverage of troubles rolling out a component of the ACA?
So, yeah, I was kind of pissed off. And I didn’t get any less pissed off after I wrote my piece. The reaction to Klein’s mildly aggrieved tweet about it set off a shit storm. Lots of people found it easy to misrepresent what I’d written. There was a little bit of dudebro-ism afoot, as I watched my young white male blogger friends high-fiving one another for their intellectual courage and honesty, as contrasted with my venal hackdom. Of course I didn’t preach censorship or agitprop; I preached context and perspective. “The problems with Healthcare.gov are real, and disturbing, and must be fixed asap,” I wrote. “It’s important for Democrats to acknowledge when government screws up, and to fix it … Fix the website, Mr. President, but don’t stop talking about what the ACA is getting accomplished while you do.”
Many straw women were hastily built and burned down. Someone at Philadelphia magazine declared, “Joan Walsh Is Wrong: Liberals Should Criticize Obamacare Problems.” Actually, Philly magazine is wrong; Joan Walsh didn’t say liberals shouldn’t criticize Obamacare problems. Joan Walsh questioned whether it was time for liberal hysteria over them.
A tedious Atlantic Wire piece harrumphed “Of course liberals should report Healthcare.gov’s problems,” and complained that “Joan Walsh found this trend of reporting and discussing a high-profile story alarming.” No, Joan Walsh did not find the “trend” (?) of reporting and discussing a high-profile story alarming.” Joan Walsh did feel that complaining about the lack of hold music on the ACA help line was maybe over the top.
Even on Salon: My colleague Brian Beutler claimed I argued “that attempting to determine and accurately depict the nature and scale of the problems enables ‘completely unbalanced and unhinged coverage of whatever the problem may be.’” But that’s not what I argued. I have no problem with “attempting to determine and accurately depict the nature and scale of the problems.” My problem is with jumping to conclusions and inaccurately depicting the nature and scale of the problems.
So many of the critics (not Beutler, by the way) depicted me as an irrational woman, arguing that emotion and ideology should trump fact and reason. Clearly, I had to be punished. So while my wonky liberal friends went back to arguing about what the latest job numbers meant, and the latest update on ACA tweaks and whether red state Democrats were panicking yet (of course they were), I was being savaged by right-wing nutjobs in the ugliest terms. See above; no need to repeat them.
That women are treated badly on Twitter is not breaking news. But the depth and scale of the personal cruelty and wanton misogyny weirdly confirmed the point I was trying to make in the original piece: The “unhinged right” is well-organized and dangerous, and a lot of people, including liberals, don’t seem to be taking that in completely. The election of our first black president unleashed primitive reactionary forces. Open expressions of racism and misogyny are now a form of political protest, and if you complain, you’re the oppressor. Uppity black people and uppity women especially must be put in their place.
The difference between my Twitter experience and that of my white, male liberal friends and critics reminded me once again how relatively insulated even many liberals are from the insanity. As a white person, I don’t always take it in fully myself. Every time I’m ready to blame President Obama for his political troubles, and yes, he deserves some blame, there’s a story like the one about Rep. Pete Sessions telling the president, to his face, “I can’t even stand to look at you.” (The White House is now saying this story is based on a misunderstanding. Stay tuned.) I can’t even stand to enumerate the ways in which this president has been insulted in ways unknown to white presidents, Sessions aside.
I know that good conscientious journalists, even some liberals, believe that when Democrats have such deadly enemies, they can’t afford to hand them weapons, and a badly designed ACA exchange website is a weapon. And I wish Bill Clinton had kept his pants up, too. But now Barack Obama, whose only known personal weakness involves Nicorette, is being treated even more viciously than Clinton. So you’ll excuse me if I argue that we ought to focus on the sickness that’s taken hold of the Republican Party, rather than the fact that our last two Democratic presidents haven’t been able to cure it.
As late as a year ago Obama seemed to think he could cure it, that his reelection would break the “fever” of his opponents. Now, after five years of this madness, I think he knows he can’t break their fever, he has to break them. I applaud that new attitude and that’s why I applauded his defiance on Monday. He took responsibility for the ACA website troubles, he promised they’d be fixed – and he made the case that the ACA is way more than just a website.
I made the case for context and proportion in covering the ACA’s troubles, and the president’s. It shouldn’t have been controversial, but it was. Thanks to everyone who defended me (even if they disagreed with my argument, or especially if they did), and particularly to Michael Eric Dyson, Zerlina Maxwell and Lizz Winstead, who discussed this with me on “The Ed Show,” and Chris Hayes, who hosted a friendly debate between me and Ezra Klein. Thanks also to the many people who reached out with stories of getting through the ACA website glitches to finally have insurance after many years. You made me realize Web glitches are a whole lot less inconvenient than going without insurance. For your sake, I hope they get the whole damn thing fixed, and fast.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)