Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Alabama Gubernatorial Race: Winning the Counter-Reformation One Slain Apostasy at a Time

"Southern Person Does Something Silly About Jesus" is probably the easiest go-to outlet for regional commentary and comedy, narrowly beating out "Dilapidated Northern Industrial City Destroys Itself Celebrating Sports Championship That Won't Improve Anyone's Life." I'm pretty sure The Onion is sitting on dozens of stories about people seeing the image of Dale Earnhardt in a Denny's bucket of eggs, cheese and four kinds of pork. Still, after you live in the south for a while, it becomes a sort of fetish to collect these things. They're just so special.

Recently, the Alabama gubernatorial race got slightly nastier, as a group calling themselves the True Republican PAC ran this ad against GOP candidate Bradley Byrne. It's amazing:

Now, just because these things have a tendency to disappear from Youtube and reappear unreliably later, let's go to a transcript and then break it down on its own, because it's just so goddamned stupid:
PEPPY OBNOXIOUS GUY: Bradley Byrne was a Democrat.
DRAWLIN' IDIOT LADY: Now he's a Republican.
POG: On the school board, Byrne supported teaching evolution, said evolution best explains the origin of life??? Even recently, said the Bible is only partially true.
DIL: Candidate Byrne changed his tune.
POG: Legislator Byrne voted to raise property taxes, income taxes, the sales tax and even tax health-insurance premiums.
DIL: Byrne claims he won't do it again.
POG: Bradley Byrne... another liberal blowin' in the wind.
DIL: Tryin' to look conservative.
The candidates in the GOP primary and journalists in Alabama have already become mired in the politics of this ad, looking past the self-evident fact that it is completely unintentionally awesome. Perhaps this is a regional impairment, which is not to suggest that analysts in Alabama are slow but rather, like anyone else, they probably overlook things they're accustomed to by tradition or immersion. What's immediately great about this ad for the non-native is the drawlin' lady, just bein' folksy, droppin' consonants like they're the quadroons of the alphabet.

Now, I suppose there's a chance that political campaigns in Pittsburgh feature two people talking back and forth, one with a relatively featureless "mid-Pacific" broadcaster's accent and another with a die-hard urban Stillers' fan accent. I suppose it's possible that you might hear something like:
ANNOUNCER GUY: Some people are beginning to think that Adam Lowden is right for Pittsburgh.
STILLERS' FAN: But yinzes would be totally goddamn wrong abaht that dere.
Or maybe you could have the exact same exchange in Massachusetts, substituting the local names and then having the second guy say, "But thahht would be WICKED RETAHHHHHHHDED." I don't know. Somehow I don't think it's likely.

In the south, this happens with every campaign. There's this pressing need to reaffirm the "southernness" of whichever candidate is being featured in the ad, and for good reason. Probably the most famous example of non-racialized campaign southernness came in 1994, when challenger Jeb Bush looked to unseat incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles for the governorship of Florida. Bush was ahead in the polls just days before the election, on the night of a final debate with Chiles. But Chiles was a wickedly charming campaigner, and in the debate put Bush off his game and painted him as a Connecticut/Texas carpetbagging naif who failed to understand the unique clusterfuck of Florida politics. In a buttery-accented comment that baffled Bush, Chiles said, "The old he-coon always walks before the light of day." Chiles came back and won — seemingly overnight — during an election season where Florida GOP candidates clobbered the Democrats.

Thus, ever, the accents. You get formulations like the above ad, or ones where two good ol' boys talk to each other, or two plain wimmenfolk. It's just folk talkin', like folk'll do, about stuff that folk're worried about. Good folk. I'm sure there's probably a muted racial component to it, too, but this isn't the place to discuss it. The overall intent is that, while in many of the ads there is a cleanly enunciating professional-sounding fellow who gives an auditory sense of intelligence and expertise — the business end of the campaign — there are also all these other ads validating how Floridian/Georgian/Alabaman/Whatever the candidate is. Taxes and the base-ten numeral system work differnt in Alabama because — shewt, if I had to tell you, you probably ain't from around here and wouldn't get it anyhow.

This cultural theater nonsense never happens in places like New York because there isn't any oppressive wounded regional pride about being from New York that would make someone say, "Yeah, I want the guy who's endorsed by the two Yankee Stadium Bleacher Creatures that're talking through the vomit they keep belching up to handle billions of dollars." Like most of the rest of the nation, they just pick the rich white guy who sounds least lobotomized. If he says he's from New York, that's good enough, without someone fucking hooting about it and making fun of Boston.

In a sense, then, this ad was great before anyone said words that meant anything, not that any of them especially do to begin with anyway. The point is that half the intended effect comes from the woman just sort of mindlessly affirming the narrator with a linguistic affect like someone slowly pouring a whole jar of Mrs. Butterworth's into a pitcher of sweet tea. She could have made sounds only vaguely like words, like,
Nehhees arublicain.
Cainniate Buwrn chainis tewn.
Buwn clammee wuwn ditagin.
Trynaluwck servive.
which could have been enough. And you can't fault Alabama journalists for not picking up on this. You don't notice the noise when you grow up in the machine.

What you can fault them for not noticing, though, is that this ad marvelously documents the Republican party's commitment to total regression. As a friend of mine noted — a friend who grew up in a southern town that assassinated abortion doctors way before the Tiller killing made it cool again — this shit wouldn't have sniffed the airwaves even 15 years ago, back when people first decided slaughtering "baby-murderers" was getting played out. By now, blogs and mainstream journalists have rightly leapt on the fact that a political group is seriously trying to demonize a gubernatorial candidate for not accepting the Bible as a 100% true geologic and social history. They've rightly deemed it pathetic and sub-intelligent. What's drawn little focus is that it not only represents the regression that began when public figures validated theories like "intelligent design" by the backdoor anti-scientific legitimation of "teaching debate," it's also not even the end of the regression. This is just a step on the continuum.

You can see the regression increase with the climate-change debate, where non-correlative events like volcanic eruptions, cows farting and shitting, and sunspot activity are accorded the same legitimacy as peer-reviewed studies, and where conference papers signed off on by 500 people with BAs in everything but climate science are accorded as much weight as hundreds of actual climate scientists evaluating corroborative data. You can see it in the machinations of the Texas Board of Education's bowdlerization of American history, deracinating Jefferson from the Enlightenment and elevating "American Exceptionalism" and "The Constitution Is a Christian Document" twaddle to the level of respected fact and fundamental elements of the discourse. This is the same some scholars disagree false equivalency that allows David Irving to deny the Holocaust because experts differ on interpretations, and until everyone agrees, we can't reasonably assert that anything is true. We should just teach the controversy. Until students realize that "most Jews killed in WWII died in guerrilla fighting or from allied bombing and only later did the 'International Jewish Leaders' invent this hoax to extort a country out of the European powers" is just as valid an explanation as "they were put in ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Treblinka, etc.," no one can make an informed independent decision.*

* — None of these people ever bother to ask themselves how the Bible can be literally true, when hundreds of christian denominations, Judaism and Islam all dispute its interpretations and veracity. I mean, at that point we'd have to come up with some ridiculous solution where no aspects of the Bible should be mentioned in schools unless as part of a comparative religions course that accords no faith primacy over any other and instead teaches the exegetical disputes. But of course that would run the risk of making the economy collapse because Market Jesus stopped making people create or demand things, in divine retribution for our failure to believe in him.

What should be astounding to anybody is that we've gone from the insistence on the dual "evolution and creationism/intelligent design" curriculum as a talking point, to grasping unquestioned political capital in invalidating evolution altogether, in major elections, in the span of about 15 years. Between 1995 and 2010, we've rolled the calendar back 151 years, divesting ourselves of the weighty hassle of pernicious post-1859 reality. We can no longer afford to win elections with post-1859 thinking. Now look at this horrifying political daguerrotype that will come to pass if my opponent is elected.

At the rate we're going, we can double our rollback of history in another 15 years. By 2025, we will only have to accommodate the trials and irreducible complexities of 1557 science. We'll be closer to the One True Christian Faith if we can just stamp out the Reformation. Better still, we will have skipped all that stupid bullshit about heliocentrism. Can you just imagine the terrible strain on political strategists and thinkers if they had to figure out if Galileo belonged in schools?
PEPPY OBNOXIOUS CLERIC: Galileo Galilei would have you believe the Earth revolves around the sun.
DRAWLIN' VILLAGE IDIOT: But ah think mowst folk know whut thaiy see whain thaiy luwk up ain thuh skah.
POC: They see the Sun traveling around the Earth.
DVI: 'Cuz eet's Jeezusses, en heez in hayiz chair-ee-ut chasin' them dayvils baick intuh thuh naight.
POC: It's called the Empyrean, and it's the domain of the Trinity, as well as a Divine Fire.
DVI: Eeyif yew saiy othurwiyize, yewer a waitch.
DISEMBODIED VOICEOVER: Paid for by Involuntary Tithing.
That sounds great. Let's keep rolling back science like this. They're only facts, so you know they aren't actually important and can be undersold until we drive all competing prophets and profits out of the temple. Then it's monopoly time: nobody has a competing intellectual product to buy.

Under normal circumstances, you'd think that would be the end of it — some laughs and eye-rolling at the south's tentacular cling to the 19th century in both regional nostalgia and antipathy to non-television, non-alcoholic, non-air-conditioning science. That sells the south short. There's no intellectual dog's breakfast it can't fuck up further. For instance, the above video comes from a group called the True Republican PAC. You can go to their website and read their "About Us" section if you want to read a mission statement with a 39:0 ratio of words to information. Typically, as with most PACs, this isn't a group of people or really an agency representative of anything. It's a place where money congregates before being sent to do something ugly that requires money — in this case, demonizing Bradley Byrne in a way that's probably totally superfluous to simply attacking him on the stupid shit he's said on the record that he believes. But it's much funnier than that, according to the Montgomery Advertiser:
True Republican PAC, according to a review of campaign finance documents filed with the Alabama secretary of state's office, has received most of its funding from PACs heavily funded by the Alabama Education Association.

Rudolph Davidson is the treasurer for five political action committees, STA PAC, TOC PAC, Children PAC, Jeffco PAC and TEC PAC.

The PAC for the Alabama Education Association, Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education or AVOTE, gave $100,000 to each of those five PACs on Feb. 17. On the day True Republican PAC was formed, March 11, Davidson's committees gave a total of $250,000 directly to the new PAC.

Those five PACs, all on Feb. 23, also directed money to five other PACs that contributed to True Republican PAC.

The ads paid for by True Republican PAC accuse Byrne of being a liberal trial lawyer who supported Bill Clinton for president and who supports charter schools, which are being pushed by President Barack Obama.

The firm that bought the media time for the ads, Media Strategies and Research, has worked for Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood, Move- and the National Education Associated, according to Byrne's campaign.

True Republican PAC received $572,000 in contributions, and made only two expenditures, one for $219,980 on April 5 and another for $349,980 on April 12 to Media Strategies and Research in Denver, according to disclosure documents filed with the state.

Many Republicans in Alabama, like Obama, support charter schools. The AEA and many Alabama Democrats are opposed to charter schools, which they believe would be a drain on other public schools.
This might seem a little dense, so let me break it down. True Republicans — like True Scotsmen, whatever they may be — supposedly run this PAC, but mostly it's a conduit for monies provided by other PACs. The PACs giving the lion's share of money to True Republican PAC are Democratic teachers' union interests. They have spent these monies on media companies known for promoting Democratic interests. These are the media companies who ultimately designed this appallingly moronic ad, this paint-by-numbers religious exercise that looks as if it were literally MSPainted by numbers. Finally, in advocacy of True Republicans, Democratic teachers unions are going after a Republican candidate because he shares President Obama's interest in charter schools — itself a brainchild of Republican education reformers.

Or, phrased differently: Democratic unions are funneling Democratic union money to the True Republican PAC to oppose a Republican candidate for, amongst other things, being as "liberal" as Barack Obama in advocating a Republican charter school solution to educational reform. If there were some sort of clear endgame here, to poison the well for a GOP frontrunner and make room for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, then this would be fairly clever. But at present it just looks like a bitter — but understandable — union grievance against a school reform proposal. Democratic PACs in Alabama can't very well campaign against the president in a non-election year, and they have less latitude to do so against a president who's a member of their party.

Teachers have a reasonable complaint in that charter schools can siphon money away from school systems and repeatedly reward success and punish failure in a way that creates a feedback loop that destroys low-income areas and under-performing schools without a means of arresting the cycle. Teachers also have a reasonable complaint that charter schools can reward teachers only via test scores, despite the fact that that is not really how teaching works. But, despite all that, there's the fact that this is just a marvelous mess. There might be a master plan here — maybe it's just to fuck over the black candidate, regardless of party — but it's just as likely there isn't. It's the south, so it's not like it really has to make sense. Especially because the story doesn't end here either.

There really wasn't (and isn't) any reasonable standard by which this attack ad was good. It looks like the old "Walnuts" video. The folksiness is troweled on in the same way you associate with makeup on evangelical wives. Speaking of which, the sort of people who would embrace its message uncritically could probably have been reached as effectively with the sort of christian dog-whistle techniques George W. Bush used so well — invoking "wonder-working power," etc. That would have harnessed a voting bloc without inviting the contempt of the privately religious, the irreligious or people who admire craft or subtlety.

This video gave Bradley Byrne a good opportunity to spin himself, dismiss it and continue front-running. Think of all those jolly conservative concepts he could have paid lip service to. Self-determination, liberty, freedom of religion. He could have split hairs while offending few. A brief statement like, "While I accept the whole truth of the Gospel in my personal life, it was my responsibility when doing our best for our schools that I bring scores up, hold teachers accountable to their communities, hold administrators accountable to voters, and make sure to provide an atmosphere where every person could come to faith in their own way, without anyone in government telling them how to believe." Not as simple as praising Jesus, but at least a respectable parsing that isn't incommodious for conservative thought. Instead, he doubled down on the charges in the video:
I believe the Bible is the Word of God and that every single word of it is true. From the earliest parts of this campaign, a paraphrased and incomplete parsing of my words have been knowingly used to insinuate that I believe something different than that. My faith is at the center of my life and my belief in Jesus Christ as my personal savior and Lord guides my every action.

As a Christian and as a public servant, I have never wavered in my belief that this world and everything in it is a masterpiece created by the hands of God. As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school text books. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.
The inerrancy of the Word isn't just a personal guide: it's a curriculum and a party platform. Science and history buzz ineffectually like mosquitoes at the relentless rollback of science and an objective record. The more we incentivize the one true product, the less assailable it becomes. Smile: let's Wal-Mart the shit out of history.