Highlight Reel


Barry Blitt
When the great Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton scored a touchdown, he never performed an end-zone celebration. He merely handed the ball to a lineman so his blocker could slam it onto the turf. It was in much the same spirit that President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden. As Obama walked toward the microphone, the country was burning to hear him say something memorably jaunty—you know, “We got the son of a bitch.” Instead, he talked sensibly, but here was an occasion that called for more than good sense. Even when crowds thronged outside the White House fence chanting, “USA! USA!” Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan would have done—step outside, however briefly, to share this moment of joy with the public. No doubt, he would have found such triumphalism tasteless. (“We don’t need to spike the football,” Obama replied when asked why he wasn’t releasing photos of bin Laden’s corpse.) But as S.J. Perelman said, there’s such a thing as too much couth. Especially in politics. As Obama heads into an uphill re-election campaign, his TV ads could use some inspirational footage of him standing outside the White House waving to the delighted, patriotic crowd and reminding the country that, after the failures of Bush and Cheney, he was the one who nailed Osama. The Gipper would never have let such a galvanizing pop moment slip away.

2. OWS, OMG!

Forget the jokes about drum circles, comparisons to the ’60s, and demands for specific policy proposals (why don’t they just take their suggestions to that agreeable Mr. Cantor?). Occupy Wall Street has achieved something all but impossible since the fall of the Soviet bloc. Highlighting the chasm between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the movement has found a rhetorically shrewd way to question the sanctity of capitalism. Naturally, this has unsettled much of the media—not just the mouth-breathing dudes on CNBC. Treating the market economy as if it were the medieval church, even liberal New York Times columnists have felt the need to genuflect before the one true faith, perhaps fearing that their criticisms of our economic mess would get them burned as heretics. “I’m as passionate a believer in capitalism as anyone,” intoned Nicholas D. Kristof in an October 26 column decrying cronyism. “My Krzysztofowicz cousins (who didn’t shorten the family name) lived in Poland, and their experience with Communism taught me that the way to raise living standards is capitalism.” Maybe so, but these aren’t the only choices. For instance, my Bergstrom cousins lived in Sweden, and their experience with democratic socialism taught them that they liked a system that guaranteed education, health care, generous unemployment benefits, and secure retirement.


Whether it’s true that the Obama White House is a “genuinely hostile workplace to women,” as ex-staffer Anita Dunn is quoted as saying in Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, there’s no denying that the president has been far happier taking advice from Timothy Geithner than from Main Street advocates Elizabeth Warren and Sheila Bair, who offered him a far more reliable moral—and political—compass. Nothing Obama has said in office has made his case as lucidly, or resonantly, as the viral video of Warren’s riff on Republican complaints about class warfare: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” In two minutes, Warren demolishes the so-called philosophy of Ayn Rand, although, to be fair, this had already been done pretty thoroughly by John Galt’s apostle Alan Greenspan.


Remember back in the Bush years when you could turn on The West Wing and bask in the fantasy of a liberal president whose staff was forever pondering questions of principle? In 2011, that show’s vision of politics seems as quaint as Aunt Bertha’s doily. In the Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire, the only question of principle is whom city Treasurer Nucky Thompson should pay off—the feds, other gangsters, or maybe the voters. Of course, that show does take place during the Harding administration. In the Windy City of Boss, Mayor Tom Kane is such a power-mad caudillo that the only question of principle is how to placate him (at one point he gets someone’s ears in a box). Of course, that show does take place in Chicago. But even if you leave planet earth, the cynicism is no less corrosive. In the Seven Kingdoms of Game of Thrones, the only question of principle is how your family gets power. Innocence and morality? For saps. Indeed, the second most shocking TV moment this year came when the show’s apparent hero, Lord Eddard Stark, publicly declared fealty to a new king he thought a usurper—only to have this new sovereign capriciously behead him. The most shocking, of course, was watching the debt-ceiling debates and realizing that many new GOP congressmen believe the U.S. would be better off with a government as stripped-down as Congo’s. Nucky Thompson and Tom Kane may be corrupt, but at least they know how the world works.


It’s hard to know for sure when it happened—perhaps in 1984, when Iacocca: An Autobiography became a best seller—but American culture has spent the last quarter-century celebrating moguls, from bullying creep Jack Welch to self-parodic Donald Trump to avuncular Warren Buffett, who’s admired as a philosopher king because he’s willing to pay slightly higher taxes on his billions. But none has been so beloved as Steve Jobs, whose death unleashed a level of mourning topped only by Princess Di and Michael Jackson and prompted the classic Onion headline: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” Of course, what made Jobs different from other tycoons was that he was about more than just making money (although he was rich, ruthless in business, and far less generous than Bill Gates). He grasped the great cultural truth of the last 50 years. In a world increasingly defined by “lifestyle” choices, people care less about art than about consumer products (crowds line up to buy the new iPhone as they once lined up for concert tickets). Jobs’s brilliance was to wed an immaculate sense of design with the knack of building what buyers wanted before they knew they wanted it. Puritan liberals will grumble that he “manufactured desire,” and doubtless they’re right. But like fellow control freak Martha Stewart, Jobs liberated millions from the tyranny of being surrounded by ugly, shoddily conceived goods—he taught them new kinds of beautiful. In the process, he joined Stewart, Oprah, and Alice Waters in redefining how ordinary Americans live their daily lives. That’s more than you can say for any artist I can think of and, for that matter, more than for most presidents.


Audiences need handkerchiefs the size of sails when watching The Help. This smash film about civil rights in early 1960s Mississippi leaves viewers weeping, some with genuine sorrow—Viola Davis gives a wrenchingly soulful performance as the maid-cum-nanny Aibileen Clark—others with fury that, once again, Hollywood has turned hard historical truth into the softest of soap. It’s not only that the movie implies that heroic whites spurred the civil-rights movement (which surely would have come as a surprise to Rosa Parks as she got on that Montgomery bus in 1955) or that the big crowd-pleasing comeuppance—the villainous Hilly eating (and enjoying) a shit-laced pie baked by her ex-maid, Minny—jollifies how dangerous things were then. Bake a pie like that for a white woman in ’60s Mississippi, and you were dead. Even as it offers a glimpse of a cruel historical reality Hollywood usually ignores, it lets the white audience off the hook. It encourages us to identify with Skeeter, the young white woman who writes up Aibileen’s and Minny’s stories, and to feel superior to Hilly and her circle, who are cartoonishly vicious. Why, if we’d been in Jackson, Mississippi, back then, we wouldn’t have been bigots. We all would’ve been Skeeter. It’s a neat piece of alchemy to take the lives of ill-treated black servants in the segregated South and turn them into a story that lets white viewers feel good about themselves.


Countless politicians love the camera, but the camera loves only a few back. Just think of the bounteous coverage of Sarah Palin’s One Nation bus tour, which made itself especially seductive to the “lamestream media” by pointedly holding back her itinerary, forcing reporters to scramble to keep up with her movements. What movements they were—turning up in Boston to garble the story of Paul Revere’s ride, whooshing to New Hampshire to upstage Mitt Romney’s announcement speech, and, after a two-month hiatus, arriving in Ames just in time for the Iowa straw poll in which she was not participating. All of this was followed as if it were news. It’s easy to see why. Like her or not, Palin’s got charisma. Plus, she’s the only national politician with a good pop sense, which isn’t a matter of quoting Lady Gaga like clueless Tim Pawlenty but saying vividly entertaining things—“How’s that hopey, changey stuff workin’ out for ya?”—that stick in the mind. Naturally, this terrifies the left, which, ever since Palin’s 2008 convention speech, has frittered away endless hours parsing her every tweet, scrutinizing her poll numbers, and generally behaving as if she were a beast slouching toward Bethlehem. I hate to dampen anyone’s paranoia, but Palin’s not a lesser Eva Peron. She’s a greater Kardashian. Her decision not to run for president was all business. If only she could have sold her wedding ceremony to TV for $17 million!


From the beginning, Hollywood had terrific comediennes—Mabel Normand went mug-to-mug with Charlie Chaplin—but sometime after Animal House, studio execs decided that women weren’t funny, at least not in a way that anyone would pay to see. So, for the past 30 years, movie comedies have nearly always been about men, or perhaps I mean overgrown boys. True, women could mortify themselves in chick flicks where the joke was on them, but the big comedy stars were all guys—Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler—who sometimes scored by playing parodies of women. In 2011, things changed. The tipping point was Kristen Wiig’s hit comedy, Bridesmaids, which, without making a big deal of it, did something radical. A riposte to the man-obsessed, shop-till-you-drop ethos of Sex and the City, it showed that women could take supposedly “girly” themes (weddings, BFFs, low self-esteem) and whip them into a comedy every bit as brash as anything by Judd Apatow. At the movie’s center are two actresses—the gangly Wiig and the chubby Melissa McCarthy—who can do more than just deliver clever lines. They’re brilliant physical comics who can make you laugh merely by walking across a room. In the movie’s most memorable sequence, the bridesmaids get food poisoning and rush to the ladies’ room for dear life, with McCarthy’s character desperately hoisting her rump onto a sink to relieve herself. There’s never been a more unladylike scene in a Hollywood movie, and what makes it a cultural breakthrough isn’t simply that it’s women being gross. It’s women being fearless.


It’s part of our national mythology that the robber barons may have been bastards, but they did build modern America. Nobody has shown any better what that actually meant in practice than Stanford history professor (and MacArthur Fellow) Richard White, whose Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (W.W. Norton) is passionate, witty, superbly researched, and possessed of a timely sting. Far from being a triumph of American civilization (the golden spike and all that), the westward expansion of our railways is a case study in the irrationality of unfettered capitalism, complete with corporate chicanery, political corruption, ecological damage, financial panics, and exploitation of labor—all in the service of maximizing profits rather than building our railway system where it would best serve the country. Such bleakly comical wheeling and dealing created riches for a lot of businessmen whose names wound up on hotels, parks, and universities, including White’s own (old Leland comes off as a lazy bungler). As Railroaded shows, these titans were far from visionaries, lacking even “the brutal competence” made notorious by Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus; rather, they were “the unsuccessful and incompetent [who] not only survived but prospered and became powerful.” In short, they were the forebears of today’s high-flying CEOs whose bonuses go up as their company’s fortunes plummet.


Tragedy, it is said, moves us to pity and fear when a noble soul falls owing to his or her own flaw. But what if the soul isn’t so noble? Then the whole world gets the pleasures of schadenfreude—cackling as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the old horndog, gets dumped by Maria Shriver, or LeBron James stinks up the NBA Finals, then alienates his fan base by sneering at the petty little lives of those he’s disappointed. To be fair, neither inspired as much public glee as the saga of everyone’s favorite billionaire Socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. His story had it all: a powerful man charged with raping a powerless maid, a perp walk that got Bernard-Henri Lévy in a swivet, accusations of other sexual assaults, the end of his hopes of ever becoming president of France (where he’s also involved in a prostitution scandal), plus the ruination of his reputation as a lover; in the most lenient possible view of his behavior, this vaunted ladies’ man made Anthony Weiner look as suave as Warren Beatty. In a normal year, DSK would surely be the winner of our annual Schadenfreude Prize. But 2011 also brought us the ever-ramifying News Corps scandal, opening Rupert Murdoch to international contempt for his newspapers’ scuzzy practices, forcing him to throw his pet editors under the bus (that’s what flunkies are for), scuppering his attempt to take over British Sky Broadcasting, getting him pied as he testified before a parliament committee, and revealing this international power broker to be either a clueless old duffer or a scheming Machiavel who will pretend to be slightly gaga to get himself off the hook. Of course, none of this is a hard enough fate for the Dirty Digger (as Private Eye dubbed him years ago), whose sole positive contribution to world civilization has been broadcasting The Simpsons. Still, it was a joy to watch him squirm.


Enlightened social policies that take centuries to create can be killed in a single night. Consider Wisconsin. The state that gave us Robert La Follette and Russ Feingold (OK, OK, Joe McCarthy, too) has elected some of the country’s most shock-doctrinaire right-wingers, from queasy-smile Paul Ryan, so zealous and dumb that David Brooks thinks him a serious man, to Koch-head Governor Scott Walker, who doubtless laments that Christianity doesn’t have its own version of Shariah law. Walker used the state’s budget woes to ram through an unpopular, ideologically driven law limiting the collective-bargaining rights of state employees. Rather than take their medicine with the eerie passivity so common since the Reagan years, tens of thousands of marchers rallied to the wintry streets of Madison to oppose him, even demanding recall elections. This inspired a similar activism in Ohio, which, on November 8, overwhelmingly voted to strike down anti-labor legislation pushed through by Governor John Kasich. Although their mass protests weren’t as revolutionary as the ones in Tunis or Cairo, or as volatile as the ones in London and Athens, the protesters showed that their thoughts had bodies. Coming in the year of the Arab Spring, the European riots, and Occupy Wall Street, the Wisconsin demonstrations displayed something the American left has been needing: the old-fashioned fighting spirit that won workers their rights in the first place. Even more of that will be needed to slow down, let alone reverse, the 1 percent’s increasingly hostile occupation of our country.

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