July 6, 2005

Toning up the rhetoric, paying attention.

Hey, Sarah Vowell is the new guest columnist at the NYT. I love her hilarious, never-padded writing. I'm immensely enjoying the audio version of her current book "Assassination Vacation." So it's great to see her here.

A taste:
Seeing [Pat] Robertson in that commercial with Bono - and Bono's hair - is a little like listening to Paul Anka's new recording of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." At first, it's jarring to hear the guy who wrote "Puppy Love" for Donny Osmond sing Kurt Cobain's lyrics: "a mosquito, my libido." But listen hard and you can hear what Anka hears. He doesn't hear the ranting of weirdos. He hears the poetry, the architecture of a justifiably standard song like "Autumn in New York," like "Fly Me to the Moon."
See how there's something to see in every phrase? I love that!

Anyway, tucked away in this piece that's mostly about aid to Africa, she has this on topic of replacing Sandra Day O'Connor:
On Monday, anticipating an epic dust-up regarding his new nominee for the Supreme Court, President Bush said he hoped that special-interest groups on both sides would "tone down the heated rhetoric." They shouldn't, though.

This is about the lifetime appointment of a person who will be making life and death decisions for millions of people for decades to come, not about some petty time waster like - come on, again? - flag burning. It's so important that we should agree to melt together on the slopes of a Kilauea of issue-ad spew.
Here's the front-page NYT story about the request to tone down the rhetoric on the Supreme Court appointment. I disapprove of exaggerated rhetoric myself, much as I enjoy selecting the juiciest nuggets of it for blogging purposes. But I do think it's right to argue about who belongs on the Court. It's terribly good for us to engage with this, especially to learn to detect when we are being played and to grasp what matters and what really doesn't. Vowell is correct to flag flag-burning as one of the unimportant issues that are used to manipulate ordinary people while the powerful jockey to get the things they really care about.

This is an excellent time for everybody to pay attention. The President would like you to calm down, sit back, and believe that he's carefully studying all the credentials and will decide whom to nominate based on the highest of principles, at which point you're supposed to boo anyone would would obstruct the slick path to confirmation. But you shouldn't do that.

UPDATE: I note that the Times let Vowell make a huge gaffe. Paul Anka did not write "Puppy Love" for Donny Osmond. Paul Anka was himself a teen idol, circa 1959, and "Puppy Love" was one of his many hits. Donny Osmond simply did a cover version, years later.

30 comments:

Sean said...

And what are the important issues? Mark Tushnet wrote (many years ago) about how silly it was for Larry Tribe to write about abortion, when the really important issue is socialism. Is that what you mean?

Ann Althouse said...

I think issues that determine where huge amounts of money will flow are extremely important, which is essentially what Tushnet must have met.

Questions of individual liberty, like abortion, are also very important.

HaloJonesFan said...
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HaloJonesFan said...

Someone who writes about yielding to the embrace of Breyer and Kennedy has no business suggesting that we tone down our rhetoric.

amba said...

That's a generational gaffe if I ever saw one.

One thing mentioned passingly in the first NYTimes reports after O'Connor resigned, which startled and shocked me (I wish I'd saved the quote), was that the President was now beginning to study up on potential Supreme Court nominees. What?? He's the President, he has known for a long time that he'd almost certainly get to appoint at least one Supreme - only now he's doing his homework on them? Is that normal? Is that how all presidents do it? You'd think he'd have known them all through and through many months ago. I know he's a busy man, but . . .

Patrick said...

I agree with most of this post, but I don't think the notion that it's good for people to "pay attention" and be engaged in the debate (I agree) is in any way at odds with the notion that overheated rhetoric is to be avoided (I also agree). I don't think the President's request to tone down the rhetoric implies that he wants to squelch honest, civilized debate about his eventual nominee (though there may be other evidence suggesting that such is indeed his aim). Or are you suggesting that the public can be genuinely engaged in the process only if there's a daily dose of overheated rhetoric in the papers to hold everyone's attention?

Ann Althouse said...

HaloJones: Where do you see me saying "tone down"? In my book "up" is the opposite of "down."

Ann Althouse said...

Amba: Presidents delegate the background work. He will have experts to sift through things and do all the analysis and make recommendations and so forth. It would be a waste of his time to do this personally, and he's not enough of an expert himself to do it. His general attitude is well-known and has been for years. In the end, he'll make the final call. This is absolutely normal and the only competent approach to the Presidency.

Sloanasaurus said...

I don't get why flag burning should be considered "unimportant." You make this statement only in a relative sense. There are a lot of people truly offended by flag burning and believe that it should be outlawed as hate speech. Perhaps flag burning is "unimportant" relative to the issues such 2nd amendment. However, is flag burning unimportant relative to gays in the boy scouts...Or prayer in school. I would say no. In fact, you could argue that the whole Supreme Court is unimportant relative to the Federal Reserve Board or the Internal Revenue Service.

Matt said...

Yes, can we establish some ground rules for the SCOTUS Debate under which both sides will be banned from using the following blunt verbal weapons?

Comparisons of opponents to Nazis, Communists, and/or "fascists."
Reference, direct or oblique, to why the other side hates America or freedom.
The use of profanity.

Hell, those are probably good rules of thumb for any political discourse.

Goesh said...

I was looking forward to another high-tech lynching of at least one nominee.

Pogo said...

SCOTUS appointment aside, isn't Vowell a good, intelligent writer? Her second book, Partly Cloudy Patriot is also worth a read.

Matt said...

Partly Cloudy Patriot is her third book. The, first, Radio On, which chronicles a year of listening to the radio, isn't really that great, but the second, Take The Cannolli: Stories From The New World, is.

knoxgirl said...

Sloanasaurus:

about the only bad thing that can happen when someone burns a flag is that it makes "a lot of people truly offended". Should we really be engaged as a nation in passing laws to keep people from being offended? Even if "yes" is your answer, certainly there are tons of issues out there that have more substantial effect on Americans' lives....even the ones you site like prayer in school.

mcg said...

I'm unsure exactly what it says about you that you would label the Paul Anka/Puppy Love confusion a "huge gaffe" :-)

mcg said...

Oh, and if my President, of I am truly fond, tries to tell me to "tone it down", then I will definitely set aside my deference to the office and tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine. :-)

Sean said...

I thought the flag burning cases were about "questions of individual liberty" (and/or appropriate limits on individual liberty). I suspect that there is an unexamined premise here--certainly one shared by most legal academics--that sexual self-expression is more important (or more fundamental, or more constitutive of individual identity, or some such) than political self-expression.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Let the states of the old Confederacy start flying its flag over their statehouses and we'll find out right quick just how trivial flags are.

Scipio said...

Mr. Zrimsek:

Flag-burning as an issue is indeed unimportant; flags, however, are not, nor is the individual act of burning a flag. The only reason to burn a flag is precisely because of its profound meaning, whether done as part of the ritual disposal of a flag that is too damaged to be flown respectfully, or to make some form of protest. Flag-burning amendments, much like Terri Schiavo, and Ten Commandments monuments, are quite unimportant to legislators except as tools for getting re-elected. It is for this reason that they should be rejected by the public, and not because flags are valueless. It's merely the people in Washington who are valueless.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

The upshot, I guess, is that legislators should pass laws only about unimportant things so the important things can stay important by not having laws passed about them.

Ann Althouse said...

Mcg: What it says about me is that I care about the history of American popular culture. (Especially the parts that are strongly intertwined with my personal, emotional life.)

Ann Althouse said...

Sean: "I thought the flag burning cases were about "questions of individual liberty."" Yes, they are, and this is why the cases come out the way they do, offending people, but I say it's ultimately unimportant, because: 1. Almost no one uses flag burning as a way to express himself, and 2. Flag burning is symbolic speech and not very expressive of particular ideas. It's more like shouting an obscenity. If the expression in words of why a person hates America were forbidden, that would be a very serious matter. Flag burning itself, like posting the 10 Commandments somewhere, is a minor matter, not worth fussing over but that can be effectively used to distract a lot of people from more important things. Wise up!

Meade said...

from the Paul Anka link:

In 1974, Paul signed with United Artists, a company known for it's middle of the road music. His first release "(You're) Having My Baby" shot to the top of the charts. Based on feedback from a new feminist movement, Anka began performing the song as "(You're) Having Our Baby."

Looking back, based on feedback from a "new feminist movement" in 1974, I'm surprised Anka didn't perform the song as "(You're) Not Having Our Baby"

SippicanCottage said...

Whoah, there, young fellers and gals.

Bow down before the majesty of Paul Anka.

He wrote the Tonight Show Theme. In your wildest dream, you can't imagine cashing that check every week.

mcg said...

What it says about me is that I care about the history of American popular culture.

A very commendable thing, IMO. My comment was geared not toward your knowledge that it was a gaffe, so much as your determination that it was "huge" :)

(Especially the parts that are strongly intertwined with my personal, emotional life.)

Aha! Now that is illuminating. :)

Meade said...

"He wrote the Tonight Show Theme. In your wildest dream, you can't imagine cashing that check every week."

I did not know that!

Meade said...
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Kathy Herrmann said...

I agree with other posters that we should absolutely engage in debate to select the best next justice.

That said, I also have a dream, albeit and sadly an idealistic and therefore unrealistic one, that Congress would seek to do what's best for the republic, rather than what's best for their party or themselves as individuals. It's a sign of leadership sadly lacking today.

miklos rosza said...

I tried to "hear" the Tonight Show theme and I heard something inside my head that was familiar and catchy but somehow wasn't quite right. Then some of the lyrics came to me... "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones..."

Meade said...

miklos rosza:

laughed

out loud !