The Age of Scrutiny.
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By Moe Lane Posted in 2008 | Barack Obama | Democrats | John McCain | Republicans — Comments (13) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Let us start with this clip:
...which is undoubtedly going to be brought up quite often, in light of Senator Clinton's anticipated concession speech tonight. As Ed Morrissey noted: "Has Obama become safely complex since February?"
The problem for Hillary is that these statements stick because they have a great deal of truth in them. The RNC has a library of these comments ready for ads in the fall. Every time she hits the road for Obama, the Republicans will remind voters of Hillary’s real opinions of Barack Obama. She’ll either have to say she was lying then or come up with ridiculous rationales to pretend that Obama has overcome these gaping liabilities — and with Obama making gaffe after gaffe, those rationales will look very weak.
But that's not actually what this post is about. This post is about what Neal Stephenson called "the Age of Scrutiny," back in 1995.
This quote is from Neal Stephenson's & J. Frederick George's novel Interface. One character (Cy Ogle, a pollster) is explaining to another character (Aaron Green, a techie) what the new rules are for politics:
"So what's it about now?" Aaron said.
"Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media," Ogle said. "The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval sh*thole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex that foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate's fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute, deconstructing his use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations - whether his hands are held open or closed, toward or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws.
"I paint a depressing picture here."
...and then Ogle goes on to flatter Aaron into joining his scheme with the usual 'us against the illiterate masses' appeal, but that's not important right now. Read the book: it's good, and still relevant 13 years later. But contra Stephenson (who was writing a political thriller, after all) the Age of Scrutiny is more amoral than he had his character put it. Not 'good' or 'bad' so much as it simply is, and people and groups need to take it into account - not that there's much evidence that this is happening.
At this point there's a supporter of, say, Senator Barack Obama piping up about how his guy is on top of this. Sorry to disabuse that person, but no: he's not. He's actually peculiarly vulnerable to the Age of Scrutiny, because he's consciously chose to run a Great Man campaign. Senator Obama is emulating the William Jennings Bryan or James G. Blaine style (style, not politics), with the added wrinkle of identity politics to hopefully damp down enough formal criticism to ensure that McCain fails where McKinley and Cleveland succeeded. As many people have noted: politicians that spawn this sort of commentary are not exactly avoiding irrationality in their campaigns.
But the problem with a Great Man campaign in the Age of Scrutiny is that evidence that one is not a particularly Great Man becomes disproportionately powerful. This is not because that evidence has mystically become more potent; it's because it has become easier to find and disseminate. Let me note something that many of you may not have yet fully internalized: you know Youtube? The biggest and most common video sharing system? The site that's everywhere, that's ubiquitous, that helps define the Internet? It was founded in February 2005. Which means that Bush/Kerry was the last American Presidential election in history where a politician's contradictory statements could not be disseminated by his or her opponent across the country instantly, comprehensively, and for free.
This Presidential election will be significantly different, in other words - it will be interactive in a way that we will only really understand after it's over. But there are things that we can probably guess at: a YouTube election will be unfair. It will be cruel. It will be fickle. On the other hand, it will have one powerful compensating virtue: YouTube elections will be utterly merciless to those who cannot stand their ground when pressed, and will reward those who can. In other words, in the Age of Scrutiny it's better to be defiant, instead of hypocritical. Defiant gives you a chance to survive your feet of clay.
Hypocritical merely drives home the point to everyone that you were trying to hide them.