Monday, April 09, 2007

Civility Is All About Power

We owe a word of thanks to Howard Fineman, Newsweek's Chief Political Correspondent and a self-proclaimed member of Don Imus's "gang," for making it clear during his appearance on the Imus show this morning, that civility--the value which every true Beltway insider claims to cherish above all others--is, in the end, a function of raw power. It has nothing to do with who is a "good person" or who has "earned the respect" of the Beltway crowd or who shows "integrity" or "honor" or even "knows how to play the game."

As Fineman explained, those who are treated with a modicum of decency in today's political arena are those with the power to demand it and to punish those who insult them. Period.

Here's the transcript, care of Media Matters, that lays it all bare. And here is an excerpt that contains the nub of Fineman's point. Fineman is, of course, discussing with Imus the "nappy headed hoes" comment about the Rutgers women's basketball that has ignited a long-overdue furor about Imus's racism. Here is Fineman's perspective:
FINEMAN: You know, the form of humor that you do here is risky, and sometimes it runs off the rails. Most of the people who listen to this show get the joke most of the time, and sometimes, you know, as David Carr said in The New York Times this morning, sometimes you go over the line so far you can't even see the line. And that's what happened in this case. And I think of all the stuff you've done and do do, and, you know, you make your mistakes--we all make our mistakes. We all make mistakes. This was a big one. And I thought that the way you handled it just now [in offering an on-air apology]--and I'm not blowing smoke here--I believe it, you know, was very heartfelt. And I know you well enough to know that that's the case and you're going to do everything you can to set it right.

You know, I don't know what'll happen. I think--you know, it's a different time, Imus. You know, it's different than it was even a few years ago, politically. I mean, we may, you know--and the environment, politically, has changed. And some of the stuff that you used to do, you probably can't do anymore.

IMUS: No, you can't. I mean--

FINEMAN: You just can't. Because the times have changed. I mean, just looking specifically at the African-American situation. I mean, hello, Barack Obama's got twice the number of contributors as anybody else in the race.

IMUS: Amen.

FINEMAN: I mean, you know, things have changed. And the kind of--some of the kind of humor that you used to do you can't do anymore. And that's just the way it is.
One's first reaction to Fineman's comment is just plain outrage. As the intimitable Digby puts it, "A rich white man derisively calling black women 'nappy headed hoes' has never been acceptable among decent people--never."

But on second thought, I'm inclined to thank Fineman for revealing plainly what only a few extreme cynics have previously asserted: that at the highest level of American society, power and power alone receives respect. Not education. Not achievement. Not service. Not generosity. Not talent. Not dignity. Not hard work. Only power.

After all, how else can we interpret Fineman's on-air assertion--with which Don Imus completely agreed--that rich white men can no longer utter viciously racist remarks about innocent Black women and expect to be lauded publicly for doing so because "the environment, politically, has changed"?--Specifically, because Barack Obama has so much political support that there is a real possibility he may be the next president of the United States.

In other words, the only reason that Newsweek's Chief Political Correspondent can imagine for behaving with a modicum of human decency is because one might be punished for doing otherwise--perhaps by some future Obama administration.

To the extent that Fineman speaks for the Washington media establishment on this one--and I'll be watching to see whether the rest of the "gang" takes a different position--they are completely abandoning any claim to speak on behalf of humane values ever again.

I never want to hear anyone from this "gang" daring to lecture the liberal blogosphere for its rude language, or criticizing a liberal politician for being "shrill" or "extreme," or insisting that liberals prove their "seriousness" by passing ideological tests of "centrism" and "bipartisanship" that their conservative opponents devise. Fineman has exposed forever the phoniness of all these quasi-moralistic demands.

To the members of our establishment, "civility" is not a moral virtue but simply the tribute they pay to the powerful . . . which the powerful (like Don Imus) are under no obligation to return.

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