'Hardball' and Dumbed-Down US Politics
This past week, grappling with the twin top stories of Haiti's earthquake tragedy and the Massachusetts Senate race, MSNBC's Chris Matthews personified the strange mix of puffed-up self-importance and total lack of self-awareness that has come to define America's media punditocracy.
During "Hardball" programs of recent days, Matthews has veered from pontificating about how the killer earthquake in Haiti might finally cause its people to get "serious" about their politics to explaining how Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley deserves to lose, in part, because she called ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling "a Yankees fan."
Not only did Matthews's remarks about Haitian politics reflect a profound ignorance about that country and its history, but he seemed blissfully clueless about his own role as a purveyor of political trivia over substance in his dozen years as a TV talk-show host in the United States, as demonstrated in his poll-and-gaffe-obsessed coverage of the important Massachusetts Senate race.
Indeed, Matthews may be the archetype of what's wrong with the U.S. news media, a devotee of conventional wisdom who splashes in the shallowest baby pool of American politics while pretending to be the big boy who's diving into the deep end.
When the United States most needed courageous journalism in 2003, Matthews hailed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, declaring "we're all neocons now" and praising the manliness of President George W. Bush's flight-suited arrival on the USS Abraham Lincoln to celebrate "mission accomplished."
And today, if Matthews's interest in political "hardball" were genuine - not just an excuse to position himself as a relentless front-runner - he might have used some of the hours devoted to the Haitian crisis to explain how real "hardball" politics works. He also might have discussed the true merits and demerits of Coakley and her Republican rival, state Sen. Scott Brown, not just the atmospherics of their campaigns.
Instead, regarding Haiti, Matthews detected a silver lining in the catastrophe that may have killed more than 100,000 people. He said the horrific event might finally cause the people there to cast off their supposedly frivolous attitude toward politics.
In a stunning display of racial and historical tone-deafness, Matthews compared Haiti's alleged political fun-and-games with those of Louisiana in its supposed tolerance of corrupt machine politicians who left New Orleans vulnerable to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Whether he intended it or not, there was the creepy implication that descendants of African slaves were at fault for their own suffering in both cases.
While not quite as weird as the remarks by right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson - blaming the earthquake and other natural disasters that have hit Haiti on the Haitians supposedly striking a two-century-old deal with the devil to drive out their French slaveowners - Matthews's commentary may have been even more troubling since it reflected a more mainstream U.S. media viewpoint.
Matthews might have shown a touch of seriousness himself by examining some of the real history that has put Haitians in their wretched condition. He might have talked about the ruthless efficiency of the 18th Century French plantation system that literally worked enslaved Africans to death for the enrichment of the pampered French aristocracy.
Or he might have delved into the hypocrisy of French revolutionaries (and some of their U.S. sympathizers, like Thomas Jefferson) for advocating equality for all while rejecting freedom for African slaves; or Haiti's remarkable slave rebellion that defeated Napoleon's army and how that victory forced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana territories (ironically to President Jefferson).
Or Matthews might have taken the story through the 19th Century, describing how the hostility of France and the slave-owning United States combined to devastate Haiti's hopes for a better future. The French used military coercion in 1825 to force Haiti to agree to indemnify France 150 million francs (about $21.7 billion in today's value) while the United States embargoed Haiti and denied it diplomatic recognition until the U.S. Civil War in 1862.
Or the "Hardball" host could have described how bloody U.S. military interventions in the early 20th Century were rationalized to "restore order" but in reality protected American economic interests. U.S. Gen. Smedley Butler later wrote of his role in crushing a popular Haitian uprising as making Haiti "a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in."
Matthews also might have explained how the United States backed the brutal Duvalier family dictatorships from 1957 to 1986 when Haiti was considered a frontline state against Washington's Cold War fear that Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba might spread across the Caribbean.
Or how Haiti's nascent moves toward democracy through the elections of popular ex-Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide were undermined by Republican distaste for "liberation theology," which called on the Church to follow Jesus's teaching and align itself with the poor versus the rich, a position that the Reagan administration viewed as akin to communism.
Aristide's elections were overturned by coups in 1991 (during George H.W. Bush's presidency) and in 2004 (with George W. Bush in the White House) while the U.S. government either tacitly or directly sided with the coup plotters.
In 1993, when Democratic President Bill Clinton was seeking to restore Aristide to office, I was in Haiti working on a PBS "Frontline" documentary. Part of my job was to spend time with operatives of right-wing paramilitary groups supporting the dictatorship of Gen. Raoul Cedras.
Some of these operatives told me about faxes and other messages they were receiving from Republicans in Washington advising them how to frustrate Clinton's initiatives for restoring Aristide to power. Those efforts, in fact, were turned back by a violent confrontation at the Port-au-Prince docks when the USS Harlan County tried to land, humiliating Clinton and the United States.
Now, that was real "hardball" politics: Republicans undercutting the foreign policy of a sitting U.S. President to make him look ineffectual and feckless.
A year later, Clinton saw no choice but to oust Cedras through a U.S. military invasion. Aristide was restored to the presidency but his final months in office were tightly restricted with him serving primarily as a figurehead.
When Aristide was elected again in 2001, he faced renewed hostility from the Haitian elite and from the second Bush administration, which helped engineer his removal from office in 2004, airlifting him against his will to the Central African Republic.
Yet, Chris Matthews summed up this extraordinary history as a situation in which the Haitian people just didn't take their politics seriously enough.
Days later, without a blush for any inconsistency, Matthews was discussing the pivotal Massachusetts Senate race in the most frivolous terms, dividing his coverage between the latest poll numbers and commentary over the campaign gaffes of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley.
Beyond noting the obvious impact on health-care legislation, Matthews shed little light on the experience and policy positions of the two candidates. Instead, watchers of "Hardball" got to hear Coakley's brief confusion over Schilling's allegiance in the Yankees- Red Sox rivalry and learned that Scott Brown is a photogenic guy who travels around in a truck.
Matthews dispensed with the serious stuff. He had little interest in mentioning Coakley's history as an aggressive prosecutor, her central role in winning settlements from contractors of Boston's infamous Big Dig project and from Wall Street firms that engaged in deceptive practices, including $60 million from Goldman Sachs to settle allegations that it promoted unfair home loans.
Coakley also backs President Barack Obama's decision to try some terrorism suspects in civilian courts and his proposed tax on financial institutions to recoup taxpayers' assistance that bailed the banks out of the crisis of 2008, two of Obama's positions that Brown opposes.
Plus, Coakley has taken some more progressive stances than Obama, opposing his troop build-up in Afghanistan and seeking to overturn the federal legal definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
For his part, Brown favors more Reagan-Bush-style tax cuts, supports the near-drowning interrogation method called waterboarding, and opposes same-sex marriage, even voting for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
However, Matthews's "Hardball" was more absorbed by the populist celebrities that have stumped with Brown, including Schilling, Massachusetts football hero Doug Flutie and actor John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Clavin in the TV show about a fictional Boston bar, "Cheers."
As the U.S. government sinks further into dysfunction - incapable of addressing the nation's worsening economic and social crises - as it wallows in a debt deeper than any Third World country could dream of, historians may look back on some of the empty-headed commentary of programs like "Hardball with Chris Matthews" for clues as to why the United States failed.
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