Thursday, May 19, 2011

Politics vs. Religion - Looking for Converts

One of the oddities of the G.W. Bush era, it seems to me, was the number of celebrity political conversions (or claimed political conversions) following 9/11. Many of the full or partial conversions seemed reactionary - Ed Koch and Ron Silver, and to some degree Dennis Miller, seemed to be excited at the idea of going to war with the Arab world, with Koch's embrace of Republicans as the only party willing to fight a war on Islam seeming to be consistent with his past statements on the Middle East.

I've never really understood why you would want to trumpet conversions such as these. To the extend that you're talking about a person who understands the issues, a more intense examination is likely to reveal that the conversion is largely limited to a single issue or is nominal. In the former case the conversion is likely to reflect a knee-jerk reaction, not a thoughtful response to changed circumstances. Otherwise you should see a shift in political thinking across the person's spectrum of beliefs, not just an announcement to the effect of, "I'm still liberal on everything else, but I'm a Republican because only they'll pursue this war to its bitter end." If it's the latter, the relabeling doesn't carry much significance. "I'm switching from Team A to Team B, but my opinions haven't actually changed."

Dennis Miller seems to fall, to some degree, into both categories. He's generally regarded as a bright guy, and he historically has included any number of obscure references into his humor in order to both convey that impression and to appeal to a more educated audience. He also had a caustic element to his humor that held no sympathy for the far left, and often seemed to take positions that were fundamentally conservative - did you ever get the impression that he favored a progressive tax code? But if you saw his monologues during his final year on HBO, it was hard to miss the fact that he had spent very little energy learning about, and even less thinking about, the Middle East. He also qualified his political conversion by insisting that he remained liberal on a wide range of social issues, such as reproductive freedoms and gay marriage. So the actual conversion was pretty narrow, and on a subject for which he had a new and shallow understanding, and that shallowness was evidenced by the new, shallow, Manichaen position he took on that narrow issue.

Not that I want to be cynical... (want doesn't actually enter into it - I am cynical)... but you sometimes also have to "follow the money". The counterpart to Dennis Miller would seem to be Arianna Huffington, although her claimed political conversion was much more broad-based. Both Miller and Huffington capitalized on their political conversions, Huffington more successfully than Miller. And with Huffington's recent sale of the Huffington Post to AOL, and her associated announced plan to try to harness as much free labor as possible to fill AOL's coffers with cash, some who previously accepted her conversion are taking another look and asking, "Was it sincere?" You could start by asking if her conservatism was sincere. Frankly, in politics, being able to fake sincerity is a valuable commodity. I suspect that if she possessed that talent, Ann Coulter would presently be a self-professed liberal - her ranting doesn't get her much face time on television and, no matter how absurdly titled, her books don't sell like they used to. Coulter does indignant, self-righteous anger quite well, and certainly there's a crowd that finds such displays to be appealing, but at best that's preaching to the choir. But it is interesting to see how these conversions have boosted (most often temporarily) the public profile of celebrities whose careers are on the wane.

The thing is, even though I see lots of evidence that high profile converts think highly of themselves and their insights, and by virtue of their celebrity they manage to get face time on the television to advance their brands, there's not a one of them whom I would point to and say, "That person gave a really good explanation for their political conversion and why their former positions were incorrect," or even for the single issue conversions, that such an explanation was offered for the one issue that supposedly pushed them over the edge.

Celebrities can be strong advocates for specific issues. Some celebrities are smart, informed people in their own right, and can be respected on that basis. But I'm not seeing the appeal of trumpeting the supposed conversion of a celebrity from one political column to another, and even less so when the celebrity's explanation for the conversion reflects that they remain weak, uninformed (even if self-impressed) political thinkers.

At The American Conservative, Clark Stooksbury recently questioned the political conversion of David Mamet,
Now he has a book coming called The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture— in which according to the the publicity material provided to—Mamet will “take on all the key political issues of our times, from religion to political correctness to global warming.” That sounds distressingly like the sort of right-wing tract published several times a year by conservative talk radio hosts, politicians and teenagers.
Stooksbury accepts that, as described by him, Mamet's liberalism could fairly be characterized as "brain dead" but that "His conservatism doesn’t sound particularly compelling either". Initially, Mamet claimed that his conversion to conservatism was driven by exposure to Thomas Sowell (who at least used to make interesting and thoughtful observations); now he claims that he "doesn't read political blogs or magazines. 'I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,' he said. 'Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.'" Ouch? But far from a surprise if you remember the column in which he explained his conversion.

From the publisher's description of Mamet's new book,
In 2008 Mamet wrote a hugely controversial op-ed for the Village Voice, "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'", in which he methodically attacked liberal beliefs, eviscerating them as efficiently as he did Method acting in his bestselling book True and False.
I can't speak for his arguments about method acting, but the only thing left excoriated by Mamet's village voice essay was the idea that he should be taken seriously as a political thinker. If the publisher's strongest endorsement of Mamet's credentials remains that editorial, it's reasonable to infer that this is a "follow the money" situation - that Mamet, perhaps a few years too late, is trying to cash in on his political conversion. I wouldn't be surprised if his M.O. remains the same, "I was brain-dead in my political beliefs, but the wisdom and insight of Thomas Sowell Glenn Beck has set me straight." Authors pitching to a common audience frequently exchange endorsements; I suspect that Mamet his hoping to get his favorite right-wing radio hosts to endorse his book.

Is the problem that there aren't enough strong political thinkers available, such that people see it as necessary to pretend that a little league player is qualified for the All-Star team? Are we so far into a culture of celebrity that, on the whole, we can no longer tell the difference? Or is the problem that, as compared with the most brilliant stars with which they compete, celebrities with half-baked, high school level understandings of politics actually are thinking at the same level as the professionals? ("Hi, I used to write speeches for a President but other than that have no apparent qualification to write on political issues." "Congratulations, welcome to the op-ed page of the New York Times.")

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