John Roderick (right) and John Hodgman appear at "John Roderick and Friends," Monday at Showbox at the Market . This piece is part of Reverb
Editor's Note: John Roderick is a musician and the author of Reverb Monthly's Q&A column "Answers & Advice." John Hodgman is a contributor to The Daily Show and the author of The New York Times Magazine's Q&A column "Ask Judge Hodgman." Here, the two cultural arbiters go toe-to-toe on drones, politics, and a really big pork loin.
John Roderick (right) and John Hodgman appear at "John Roderick and Friends," Monday at Showbox at the Market. This piece is part of Reverb Monthly's Election Special, which can be found inside the Oct. 31 issue of Seattle Weekly.
Hodgman: Hello. What did you watch last night?
Roderick: I watched the debate unfold via Twitter. I got the gist of it without having to endure the cringingly awful syntax and false demeanors of the candidates, plus I enjoyed the real-time analysis of hilarious people.
Hodgman: That is how I watched debate one. And look how that turned out.
Roderick: It got so I was commenting along, like I was watching it too. But I was living a lie.
Hodgman: This time I spent the debate eating a steak and discussing Blade Runner, and it seemed to work better for everyone.
Roderick: I ate a whole pork loin, but I'm not sure I feel it played any role in how the debates went. Your actions play a larger role in determining the outcomes of world affairs, to be sure.
Hodgman: Did you watch any of the others?
Roderick: No. I can't stand the way politicians speak.
Roderick: I prefer to read the reviews after the fact. Are you telling me you watch stump speeches?
Hodgman: But the debates are not stump speeches. They are highly condensed moments of real-time history. The dynamics of the election lurched and turned dramatically after debate one. I don't like watching them either, and part of my resistance is feeling that that is too bright a fire of performance anxiety, theater, and real, actual, potential authentic conflict for me to stare into for long. But then I did enjoy the moment in debate two--which was utterly authentic--of watching Romney gloat once he thought he had Obama pinned down, only to have it turn to flop sweat when Candy Crowley fact-checked him. I felt what a basesball fan might when they see a live home goal, or whatever.
Roderick: I'm too sensitive a flower to watch a staged debate. The discomfort and awkwardness aren't worth the occasional joy of a "You're no Jack Kennedy" moment. Also, although I'm very partisan, I take no joy in watching someone lose a contest, even a villain. The media narrative was that the first debate changed the election dynamic, but I'm not sure how much that's actually true. I mean, how many undecided voters are there, really?
Hodgman: I think it's clear that there were a lot of voters who had not decided whether to vote for Romney or not vote at all. And something about Romney that night made them say, "Fine, already, I'll do it."
Roderick: Hmm. Yeah, maybe.
Hodgman: No rational analysis of the data can support your theory that that debate didn't have an effect. Obama went from a national polling advantage of 5-6 points to a deficit of 2, or as much as 4. Almost literally overnight. That's not a media narrative. That's science.
Roderick: Sure, science with a margin of error of 10 points. Polls can only canvas people who answer their phone when a blocked number calls at dinnertime on a Sunday night. Who are those people? Lonely 80-year-olds watching Walker, Texas Ranger.
Hodgman: This election will turn on Texas Ranger Grandmoms. While I agree that it is right to be skeptical, I detect a level of nihilism in your text. (What the children call "nihilexting.") "Politicians all sound the same," "Polls are bogus," etc. Were you a Nader voter?
Roderick: Fact is, as fascinated by politics as I am, I can't escape the feeling that elections are the worst kind of showbiz. Bread and circuses. I did vote for Nader, twice, and reject the accusation that he cost Gore the election. Obviously the "Gore and Bush are two sides of the same coin" argument of 2000 was pretty ridiculously off-base once 9/11 happened, and I renounce it. But the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties have diverged radically over the past 10 years. Romney and Obama are plenty different, but I'm deeply resentful that liberals in America have settled so comfortably into a Clintonian, capitalist, neo-hawkish, defensive malaise. I don't vote for Democrats, I vote against Republicans.
Hodgman: I am sympathetic to your point of view, but I also could not disagree with you more strongly.
Roderick: A paradox!
Hodgman: I appreciate why the lesser-of-two-evils argument is offensive to many. But the reason it is meaningful is because of events like 9/11. Even if both parties are married more to a hateful status quo than you like, nature abhors a status quo. Big and small events conspire constantly against the status quo. We are but a single Supreme Court heartbeat or two away from a dramatically different judicial future. So while it is critical to advocate for causes and candidates that you are truly passionate about, in a presidential election it does come down to a choice of two, or very rarely three, people. Who do you want making decisions when the status quo gets un-quoed?
Roderick: Sure, I'm not saying I'm still voting for the Green Party candidate in 2012. I wouldn't be able to pick the Green Party candidate out of whatever police lineup they are surely in at this moment. Obama is the only choice for a thousand reasons. But the American left has ceded so much of the moral high ground to the right over the past 30 years. I mean, the Republican candidate for president is a straight-up tax-dodger! He keeps his money in offshore accounts to avoid his lawful taxes, and this behavior is accepted as reasonable and even savvy by a large portion of the electorate! No one on the left is confronting this tax cheating and lying on moral grounds!
Hodgman: OK. I'm'a let you finish.
Roderick: The left has completely lost control of the national dialogue, completely squandered the New Deal/Great Society notions that idealism and self-sacrifice are noble attributes. The Republicans characterize social-welfare programs as at best naive and at worst plain graft. The left has no answer except that Republicans are mean, racist bullies. That's not an ideology.
Hodgman: So let's first stipulate that we are both voting for Obama--or in your case, voting against Romney. Do you feel comfortable being so politically uncoy? Even in Seattle?
Roderick: Oh, sure. The Republican Party has been at the top of my list of sworn enemies since I was 6 years old, and no one in Seattle has any illusions about me, I don't think. We don't have to be coy, we're not living in Portland.
Hodgman: Fine. Then yes: I agree with your utter frustration. Though I am a liar and fake-fact peddler by trade, I do believe in objective reality. That Romney is allowed to run an utterly post-truth campaign is maddening. I am not talking about lying per se. But assenting to Romney's essential, Orwellian premise that multiple truths exist as a matter of sheer convenience.
Roderick: That, my friend, is the unintended product of cultural relativism.
Hodgman: Look: I was a literary theory major. I know where this bitter seed was sown. The alliance between Mitt Romney and Roland Barthes is the strangest bedfellowing I have ever observed.
Roderick: The Papillon Effect.
Hodgman: For example: Romney states that 47 percent of the American people are moocher victims who refuse to accept responsibility for their own lives. On tape. Repeatedly. He repeatedly softens, but essentially endorses this sentiment in several appearances thereafter. Then, minutes before debate one, he says that the whole thing was an accident--a "misstatement." That is an utter lie. And yet the whole tape disappears. Believe me. I would like to blame that on the left ceding ground because they are not strong and principled and Alaskan enough, but I think there is something else at work.
Roderick: Our whole political process now resembles a LiveJournal comments feed. I cannot keep this many "truths" in my head at once.
Hodgman: "I cannot keep this many 'truths' in my head at once." First line of Orwell's never-completed sequel, 1986.
Roderick: The whole electorate is Balkanized. They're getting their news from church pulpits, Internet portals, talk radio, and Facebook posts--just as they always did throughout history--but at the end of the day there's no WALTER CRONKITE to spackle it all together into a middle-of-the-road consensus. As technology allows us to expand the franchise to more accurately reflect a popular vote, we will see presidential elections look more and more like Dancing With the Stars. Mark my words: This is what democracy looks like.
Hodgman: You truly are a crank and a scold.
Roderick: You are a Democrat, I presume? In addition to being a Plutocrat.
Hodgman: I am registered as such, though like you, I am not sure what the term means to me personally, or in general. There is part of me that supports very specific issues, such as marriage rights, abortion rights, and fair taxation, that I simply cannot trust even moderate Republicans on at the moment.
Roderick: It's true, what you say. The Democrats have the right stance on almost all the meaningful issues. That's it in a nutshell: I vote for Democrats because of issues, not for leadership.
Hodgman: There is a more diffuse nexus of positions, such as pro-science, anti-superstition, and pro-education, that I find the Democrats more generally aligned with than the opposition.
Roderick: Agreed. Agreed.
Hodgman: And then there are issues where I directly support the president that I suspect you and I will disagree on.
Roderick: Such as?
Hodgman: I believe drone warfare has monstrous and tragic consequences. But I am not as inclined as some--understandably--are to break with the president and the party on this issue. Because I believe unfocused land wars with murky objectives in multiple countries are also catastrophic, and I believe in a leaner, aggressive, and more intelligent approach to national security.
Roderick: Hmm. I'm more hawkish than you might imagine. But drone warfare is ethically indefensible. We've empowered a bunch of 26-year-old Air Force captains sitting in air-conditioned trailers in the Nevada desert to blow up houses full of people half a world away based on some grainy footage taken by a wind-up toy. All the justifications for it are expedient rather than moral. I don't think we're on the right side of history on this topic, and when Skynet becomes self-aware, we're going to be sorry we activated those drones.
Hodgman: It's not horses and bayonets, and I say that grimly, without laughing. I know you have a bunch of sabers in a hat stand, figuratively and literally. But if war was ever chivalrous and gentlemanly, that fantasy is over. No tools of war are ethically defensible, and evil is done in our name and under our flag abroad in so many ways. But only action brings about change. When people use this issue (or any other) as a sanctimony cudgel on the Internet, it is the definition of non-action; and using any moral high ground to justify not participating in the system--flawed as it is--is not something I have a lot of patience for.
Roderick: I wonder if the Department of Defense has looked into weaponizing this "sanctimony cudgel" you speak of.
Hodgman: I was deeply relieved by the finding and killing of Bin Laden in a way that I had not anticipated, and is still hard to articulate. I don't celebrate his killing, but it was deeply meaningful to me, in part because it seemed like so many people--especially the ones calling for endless war the loudest--seemed so prepared to just let him go. It was also a reminder that shit can actually get done, and it's not all hopeless.
Roderick: Agreed. Booyah. And I agree we need fewer unfocused land wars, trending toward none. I'd personally like to see America start developing an all-Special Forces military, just total black-ops all the time. My kind of America is one where our dudes appear out of the night sky wherever evildoers lurk and kill them with poison-tipped umbrellas and then disappear into the sewers. The CIA is so bloated and ineffective now it's a joke. It took us 10 years to find Bin Laden masturbating to Big Butts DVDs in a neighborhood in Pakistan. Seriously. To reform the intelligence community, we need to break the grip of Yale old-boys, starting with you.
Hodgman: Let's not get into your Yale fixation just yet.
Roderick: Basically, America's problems begin at Yale.
Hodgman: Arguably, Yale is to be blamed not merely for America's problems, but the sad sorry state of the whole Secret World Government!
Roderick: When it stopped being secret was the beginning of the problem.
Hodgman: Tell me about it. In some ways I am a Democrat in the same hateful way most people belong to a party--they inherit it from their family like a sports team and a state motto. But that's the worst. It is easy to follow politics as a team sport; and for the media, infinitely easier to cover it as a horsing race, as it's called. But this is sport with actual consequences.
Roderick: I've always been a leftist, also because my parents were, and although I can see the holes and gaps in leftism, I still believe it is a more moral approach to human life than any conservative doctrine. Conservatism is inherently selfish and afraid.
Hodgman: I am personally very selfish and usually terrified, and there are elements of Atlas Shrugged that still really resonate with me. I do think self-reliance is a virtue and profit not a sin.
Roderick: I am sympathetic to a great deal of what makes the Tea Party emotionally resonant, although I think they are 94 percent gas-huffing idiots.
Hodgman: But I am also an adult, and not a college freshperson. The idea that the wealthy are a John Galtian victim class is a toxic, narcissistic delusion. The idea that these fragile financial titans should feel punished is absurd; they already live in a secret luxury valley all their own. What I appreciate on balance in Obama's Democratic party more than the opposition, or for that matter some corners of the left, is that it feels connected first with the reality of the moment, and not first preoccupied with a fantasy.
Roderick: I do not allow that having a philosophical platform is "fantasy" that realpolitik trumps. That's the old lesser-of-two-evils logic again.
Hodgman: I concur. But one of the reasons I resist your "All politicians are crooks/The Internet will make our democracy into Storage Wars" formulations is that it suggests no change is possible, so why try? Whereas I think a great political platform would be: We are prepared to identify these problems and effectively and fairly solve them. I feel confident that this is possible because in the 1960s, conservatives saw one big problem called the Great Society. And rather than just wringing their hands in exile, they methodically and with discipline began to solve that problem almost out of effing existence.
Roderick: Exactly. They have an enemy: the bullying liberal who wants to steal their money and give it away to the undeserving. Whereas liberals are busy being pro-Wall Street, pro-union, pro-management, pro-military, pro-peacenik, pro-unwed mother, pro-family, pro-everything. It's not a philosophy, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet. Conservatives have an intellectual foundation for what they do, grounded in a half-understood reading of a few sacred texts and a reverse-engineered justification for their emotional needs. Liberals are so hamstrung by the desire to support every minority platform, no matter how contradictory, that they can't even back-engineer a justification for it.
Hodgman: So how would you articulate the philosophy they should have? You need to think about this for when you run for mayor.
Roderick: I've traveled overseas, in my capacity as a rock-and-roll ambassador, and have come to believe that, in addition to the Bill of Rights, our bureaucracy is all that separates us from living in the Ukraine. The people who scream loudest about limited government are the ones who are constantly filing affidavits of appeal when their water bill is too high or calling the police when their neighbor's dog barks. Recourse to the law is something Americans take for granted, but in most of the world there is almost no such recourse, and no appeal. Our laws need to be administered, and that occurs when people get hired to sit in offices. Otherwise known as: government.
Hodgman: I think we are in agreement there. I believe government is essential. Any suggestion otherwise--that we can all thrive as independent actors--is playground fantasy. Or I should say, fantasy for all but the bloodthirstiest of playground bullies. Government is intrinsic to civilization; civilization is what allows us to live in something other than constant hunger and terror (though plenty still do, and often at the hands of governments); and for those of us who are sedentary and asthmatic, civilization is what allows us to live at all.
Roderick: Liberals have made some tragic missteps articulating this message by overstepping their mandate in pursuit of utopia. Public-housing projects were mostly a disaster, busing was mostly a disaster, the unions squandered their power on perks and patronage, and the antiwar movement was hijacked by asshole baby-boom narcissists. Projects were identified in the public mind with gang violence, organized labor with the Mob, and antiwar rhetoric with drugs. All these ideas had noble beginnings, and they all now serve as rhetorical punching bags for the right.
Hodgman: OK. But: Please answer the question. As an exemplar of the new leftist who will never again make the mistakes of the '70s, who has a hat stand full of sabers and is ready to govern Seattle properly, what unifying principle will guide the Golden Era of Lord Mayor John Roderick?
Roderick: Liberals need to relearn the rules of persuasion, to lead by example. The decline in the level of discourse in this country isn't the Republicans' fault--they've always been huffy, entitled, thin-skinned, and myopic--it's that the Democrats have given up convincing people to join their cause and decided to just mandate the change. We've grown dependent on the idea that we can speed the arc of history by passing legislation--forcing people to accept our principles rather than convincing them--and we've become incredibly impatient with the learning curve of democracy. Our failure to convince the unconvinced isn't their fault, it stems from a lack of conviction on our part.
It's one thing to outlaw discrimination, an entirely other and much more difficult thing to end discrimination; one thing to raise taxes, an entirely other and much more difficult thing to persuade people that higher taxes benefit them. We have the harder job, and the onus is on us to do a better job. Conservatives base their appeal on greed and fear. If we truly believe that liberalism appeals to people's generosity of spirit, we should be prepared to try harder and set a higher standard for ourselves than just shouting down the opposition. The Republicans own the tone of our national discourse now, and it's a disgrace. High-mindedness is not naive, it is the soul of liberalism: an appeal to reason on behalf of justice. You can't force it upon people at bayonet-point.
Hodgman: You have my vote.