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A Plague of Pundits

A virus unsettles the nation … and, no, it’s not swine flu. Rather, it is a plague of pundits currently hardening our national arteries with a vast over-supply of ill thought-out yet deeply felt positions. Written, spoken, broadcast, blogged or tweeted, these messages are delivered by Americans who believe in their God-given right to express themselves, often at a decibel level inversely proportionate to a lack of understanding. Along this “pathway to punditry,” things have taken a turn from the merely annoying to the truly preposterous, witness Fox News’s feature, “Kid Pundits” as an exemplar of our mania to talk rather than listen.

“Pundit,” you may know, is a Sub-continental Indian term like “avatar,” “cheetah,” “coolie,” or “dinghy,” intellectual “loot” (another one) appropriated by British colonialists, and adopted into American English. “Pundit,” also written as “Pandit,” (as in Nehru) is an honorific for the learned Hindu advisors to judges during the British Indian Raj. “Pundit” grew to have a meaning similar to “maestro” of which America has had too few, our “maestro pundits” including Henry Adams, Walter Lipmann, Richard Rovere, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley, William Safire, Daniel Schorr, George Will and few others. Except for the final two, all are pundificating from some far more literate place.

Today’s “pundi-monium” began early in the ‘00’s, as cable news networks began to saturate the TV screen with a hail of tyro-pundits. These “experts” were multiplexed, often Hollywood Squares-style, across the screen waiting their chance to out-elucidate their rivals to win the coveted opportunity to climb the “pundit pole,” garnering precious additional square inches of the television screen, until, finally, they are pundificating solo with Keith, Chris, Sean, Bill or Larry.

An important characteristic of what we might call, “The New Pundocracy” is the acceptance of the unalienable popular right to sound off on any topic, any time, and any place. The result of this rampant and ubiquitous punditry is that in a world of unedited, un-reflective, and ultimately self-cancelling blab, very little gets accomplished. Worse, it is now politically inopportune to question the “right” to say or write anything that flits across the brain-pan, leading us to the point where “freedom of expression” perhaps the Enlightenment’s greatest legacy, is now wrongly conflated to “all opinions are created equal.”

Television news has provided a rich soup for miasmatic pop punditry. Instead of reportorial heavy-lifting, today’s TV journalist often seem content to poke their microphone under the nearest nose, and ask the sina qua non of innocuous news coverage; “how does it feel?”

Innocuous question leads invariably to flaccid answer, like; “It’s a good experience for me,” “My family taught me to do the right thing,” “I’m here because I want everyone to know that my classmates are not criminals,” etc. These are the building blocks of personal punditry designed to turn the conversation away from any actual issue to the self-referential. In confessional America it is simply not enough to live a moral life. We also need to be a “role model” most especially for ourselves.

This “me model” of personal punditry comes clear during call-in radio shows or live forums where actual questions are simply bad form. Instead, the presenter is greeted by a personal manifesto in which audience members expound on how they personally experienced the book or movie in question.

It is television advertising that has done the most to establish this “Everyman a Pundit” era through what we might call “manifesto commercials.” Early among these was a series of ads by British Petroleum in which “average” Americans pundificate on their prescription for solving the environmental crisis. The question is asked: “What do you think cars will be running on in the future?” A woman in a shapeless orange t-shirt suggests “grass, leaves, trees, garbage.” “Hydrogen fuel cells” propounds a bike-toting earth-mother. “Give me that solar car and I’m there,” adds a twentyish Asian-American. “We really need to be conscious about what we put in our cars, just like what we put in our bodies,” states a college student, ponytail exiting back of baseball cap.

The BP ads set off a rash of “people as pundit” advertising that spread, like Mad-Ave H1N1. In ads for American Express, Aleve, DanActive, J.G. Wentworth, ScottTrade, the National Guard, Verizon, Gold Bond Powder, Bayer Aspirin, Playtex, and others, pundificating “real people” became star product pitchers. The irony is that these ads pretend that American consumers are the stars of their own television series, when real control and authority is evaporating faster than mom’s 401k.

Most recently, Internet-based social networking has struck a blow in the name of popular punditry. The inclusion of space for public commentary permits every bit of content on the web to chase its own tail, with ongoing, real-time commentary, often simply semi-illiterate rants that become permanently attached, like a malign conjoined twin, to the text of a story. Worse, the notion that everyone has a right to their own opinion has morphed into the notion that everyone has the right to their own facts.

There are several possibly remedies for America’ current Plague of Pundits. We might consider creating a “Pundit-Cap-in-Trade” market where opinions could be bought, sold, swapped and out-sourced. India, which gave us punditry in the first place, might be a particularly good market. We might also find ways to provide material for overworked TV pundits by pairing them with seasoned, out-of-work print journalist. These could fill in the news gaps at the same time reminding their charges of CBS’s Eric Sevareid’s 1977 sign-off in which he urged his fellow pundits, “to retain the courage of one’s doubt as well as one’s convictions.”


Richard Rapaport is happy to pundificate at the drop of an opinion. He can be reached at

Posted on Categories Rap Report

Time to Ditch the Nazi Porn!

“If you want to see jackbooted Nazis, watch American movies,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino conceded recently to NPR’s Teri Gross during a discussion of his new film, “Inglourious Basterds.” Tarantino is right. It is three-quarters of a century since Germany surrendered to the Allies, and Americans still seems unwilling or unable to pass the calcified stones of what you might call “Nazi Porn” out of our cultural maw.

“Inglourious Basterd’s” is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of depictions fascistic; the propensity, at the seeming drop of a clacker, to put out more swastika’s, the bigger, blacker and redder, the better. Check out Tom Cruise’s recent Nazi epic, “Valkerie” Worse yet, tune into the Nazi-related fare on the History Channel. You can spend an entire week watching shows like “Nazi Prophecies,” “Nazi America, a Secret History,” “The Nazi Expedition,” “Nazi Spies in America,” “Nazi UFO’s,” “Hitler’s Britain,” “Hitler, Tyrant of Terror,” “Nazi Guerillas,” “Tracking Nazi Gold,” “The Rise of the Nazi Occult,” “American Spies Inside Nazi Germany,” “Saddam and the Third Reich,” ad – truly -nauseum. It really is enough to make you hurl, or at least insist that the History Channel properly identify itself as “The Nazi Network.”

Nor is this endless parade of Germanalia just a middlebrow activity. Recall earlier this year when the haut-literary world went gaga over the publication of Jonathon Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” a perverse, Zagat’s for the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” To whatever banal hell Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, Heydrich, and Eichmann are consigned, we can now send two fictional Nazi Everymen, Littell’s malign Maximilien
Aue and Quentin Tarantino’s sleek Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa. When it is made into a film, as it inevitably will be, “The Kindly Ones” will spend as much time as does “Inglourious Basterds” focusing lovingly on the ephemera of fascism; the crisply ironed black shirts, the crook’d cross armband, the deaths-head and SS lightening bolts. The popular appeal of this fetishistic proclivity towards Nazi Porn is a point unwittingly underscored in the New York Times review of Inglourious Basterds, in which Manohla Dargis waxes poetic about the film’s “gorgeously saturated colors, one velvety red in particular.” You can bet your totenkopf in which flag this particular red resides.

What I would really like to know is why these accursed symbols are still so damned arousing today? For Tarantino it is a weird and unconvincingly simpleminded alignment between the genocide of the American Indian tribes and the genocide of the European branches of the Tribes of Israel. But schoolboy rhetoric aside, what is the attraction? Is it some sort of infantile infatuation with the bogeyman? A Goth fashion statement? Or is it the dark thrill of surrendering to a leather-jacketed supermen in hobnailed boots trampling across your night-time dreamscapes?

I can tell you one thing, Nazis, dead or alive, never troubled my dad’s dreams. To him the subject conjured up images of pathetic, shell-shocked boy-soldiers passively herded onto the troop transports in Tangier, Casablanca, Messina and Naples. These were the lucky ones on their way to POW camps in the blessed USA. There was a different fate for the haughty Waffen SS fanatics, who were often hauled behind burned-out farmhouses in Italy and put out of their wretched misery. Dad would be slightly amused, and a little bit sickened at the ongoing fascination with the accoutrements, no matter how glittery, of such a pathetic bunch of historical losers.

In 1965, two decade after the war’s end, we sat in temple, listening to Rabbi A.J. Feldman, the leader of Beth Israel, Hartford’s largest Reformed Jewish synagogue, give a sermon that shocked many of his congregants. Feldman, with the canny timing of the politician he was, understood that it was time for the horrors of the past be interred … in a fashion. “Forgive, but don’t forget,” Feldman proposed, and while Dad could never bring himself to buy a German car, he was inclined to applaud Rabbi Feldman’s missive. He, like Feldman, had grown to understand that the deep, dark secret of the Nazi nation was that it was made up of people not very different from ourselves.

It seems to me that it is past time for a moratorium on all things Nazi. Take the malign stuff from that Dark Age and stuff it in the back of the drawer marked “Enough.” Turn off “Valkerie.” Forego Hitler Night on the History Channel. Ignore the latest deconstruction of the films of Leni Reifenstahl in the New York Review of Books. While we’re at it, why don’t we also take up a collection to send Quentin Tarantino and “Inglourious Basterds” back to eighth grade to learn how to spell, if not how to read and interpret history. And if you want to talk about George Santayana’s chestnut about remembering the past or repeating it; given the exuberant gravitational pull of the symbols of evils past, we are likely condemned to repeat performances whether we remember or not.

I will concede Santayana’s point, but with a caveat. Why not simply try to take the swastika and all the accompanying trappings of evil, and deprive them of the light of day. We might be amazed at how quickly the luster fades and with it, any perverse intrinsic power. Consign Nazi Porn to the historical dustbin where it deserves to be. A tip of the hat to Rabbi Feldman, but maybe it’s finally time to forget and not forgive.

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South Carolina: Too Big to Be an Asylum?

Richard Rapaport

Throughout its history, South Carolina has been America’s agent provocateur, a political troublemaker out of scale with its ranking as the nation’s 26th most-populous state. In 1861 lawyer James L. Petegru, possibly the last sane freeman in antebellum Charleston, commented about his state’s secession from the Union. “South Carolina,” he sighed, “too small to be a republic, too big to be an asylum.”

Petegru’s judgment is as relevant today as it was at Civil War’s start. It accounts for the hubris, arrogance and sheer stupidity that are such key motifs for such modern-day South Carolina politicians as the romance-besotted Governor Mark Sanford, the extremist Senator Jim DeMint, and most recently, the boorish Representative Joe Wilson.

Never let it be said that South Carolina’s politicians are under-reachers. Despite the state’s rank of 47th in both ACT and SAT scores, its leaders hang stubbornly to the belief that they have something important to teach the rest of us. Perhaps they do, but in quite a different way than intended. South Carolina’s mistaken sense of manifest destiny began in colonial times. It resided in such proud achievements as being the British/American penal colony with the highest percentage of slaves, over 40% of the population. Throughout the 1700’s, Charleston was America’s wealthiest city, buoyed by the plantation economy and slave trade. So important was slavery that in 1740 the colonial legislature passed the “Negro Act,” actually forbidding owners from freeing their slaves without official concurrence.

At the start of the Revolution, South Carolina informed the Continental Congress that it would refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence unless slavery was recognized. South Carolina even demanded the right to disregard an embargo on trade with Great Britain agreed to by the other colonies. It was an exemption that allowed South Carolina to maintain its lucrative rice trade and remain among the richest colonies throughout the Revolution.

Particularly chilling about Congressman Wilson’s recent outburst on the House floor was its recollection of a May 1856 incident that foreshadowed the death of civility on the road to Civil War. Several days after Massachusetts’ abolitionist Charles Sumner gave a speech denouncing slavery, he was beaten unconscious on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks of – where else? – South Carolina.

South Carolina proudly refers to itself as “the birthplace of secession,” the first state to depart the Union following the 1860 Presidential election. Throughout those dark days as one after another Southern State left the Union, a bell christened “Secessia” tolled the news in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. It was in Charleston that Civil War hostilities actually began when hotheaded South Carolina secessionists shelled Fort Sumter in April 1861.

In many respects, the Civil War has never ended for South Carolina; the State at the same time celebrating its role as the heart of rebellion, and insisting it is the innocent victim of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the West. To this day many South Carolinians blame “Uncle Billy” Sherman for the thoroughness of his army’s arson. Sherman’s response was as tart as it was righteous: “Though I never ordered it, I have never shed many tears over the event because I believe it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the War.”

Reconstruction followed War’s end, and then came the darkest times during which South Carolina enacted the “Jim Crow” laws making life hell for former slaves and their descendants. The sheer inventiveness of segregation in South Carolina was fiendish; in 1915, for example, the legislature passed a law barring white and black textile workers from occupying the same factory spaces. The Klan operated in South Carolina, which practiced American apartheid under the tutelage of arch-racists like Senator Strom Thurman. As late as 2000, the Confederate flag flew over the state capitol in Columbia, its status protected by whom? Then State Senator, Joe Wilson.

With such a malign history, it is downright weird that South Carolinians like Representative Wilson seems convinced that they have some special messianic truth to publicly share with America’s first African-American President. If they do, the message must be a variant on James Petegru’s epithet, something like; “South Carolina, too small to be a Republic, just about the right size for an asylum!”

Richard Rapaport is a Bay Area writer. He can be reached at