Last week, Obama moved another step closer to creating the ultimate retro-70s Middelbrow-ocracy when he appointed a loathsome overachieving hamburger-head named Cass Sunstein to a little-known but highly-powerful government post: director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—otherwise known as the “Regulation Czar.” Before the financial crash, we wouldn’t have thought much of how powerful a post like this is, and how it can shape our lives and help decide whether we have retirement money, a home mortgage, and a plutocracy-led society.
Since it’s the behind-the-scenes activity that is defining our lives, I took a trip into the Heart Of Blandness that is Cass Sunstein’s life story, and the men and women who’ve helped define him. Conclusion: a new set of horrible ghouls are moving in to rule us, and it won’t be perty. The best you can say about the Cass Sunstein-ocrats is that they aren’t Bush-era apemen, who were so savage and destructive that it never seemed quite real.
But as the awful memory of the Bush Era fades, we have to face a more immediate threat: The New Elite, who are taking up their places in power and preparing to rule over us. Anyone who has even a faint childhood memory of the 1970s will understand immediately what’s wrong with the new crew moving into Washington. Cass Sunstein offers a perfect, nauseating example of this Man of the 70s returning to America in the new millennium after having been frozen for the past 30 years like Encino Man.
The 70s, in case you were lucky enough to have missed it, wasn’t about whacky mustaches and zany platforms—it was about ponderous middlebrows concealing their old-fashioned pursuits of sex, money and power underneath a new set of secular lies for the secular 60s generation, because the old lies stopped working in America’s big cities.
So let’s up a few years to 2007 or so—and we focus on Cass Susntein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, still happily “partnered” to Martha Nussbaum, a self-described “daughter of the WASP elite” from the east coast, now a philosophy professor also at the University of Chicago.
If you look at Martha Nussbaum’s body of work, what you see is a classic Soviet bureaucrat who hit all the right buttons at the right times, once or twice straying just far enough outside of the current orthodoxy to rate herself as a bit of a maverick—and by “maverick” I mean in the debased John McCain sense of the word. Now Nussbaum doesn’t believe in marriage, you see—at least, she has to make a big public show of it, because her quasi-maverick, quasi-feminist books kind of corner her into pretending she’s beyond something as cliched as marriage. So she always refers to Cass, whom she clearly loved in a very old-fashioned way right up until he savagely dumped her for someone younger, as her “partner.” Which, you know, isn’t at all a cliche.
Martha Nussbaum: Elite-born WASP, feminist rebel with a personal trainer
But Nussbaum’s non-academic life was as ordinary as 70s lives get. Born Martha Craven (no joke) the spoiled rich daughter “rebelled” against her conservative daddy in the 1960s by—get this—dropping out of Wesleyan after two years, then taking up theater acting, and finally by marrying a Jewish student she met at NYU, Alan Nussbaum. And if that didn’t get daddy’s attention, then her conversion to Judaism sure did. Gosh, sounds like a bad Phillip Roth book from the 70s already! But to Roth’s credit, I don’t think he could have possibly imagined his Martha Craven character saying something as clichéd, earth-toned and idiotic as Martha herself wrote as to what drew her to Judaism. It was the sub-species of 70s boneheads, Martin Buber, or “The Boob” as I liked to call him. Here’s Martha, considered one of the great philosophy geniuses of America, on her, The Boob, and a bunch of pronouns:
“I read Martin Buber and understood that virtually every relationship I had observed at Bryn Mawr had been an I-It relationship, involving no genuine acknowledgment of humanity,”.
Yup, that’s how dumb they were in the 70s, folks. And that’s how dumb we’ll be just as soon as she and her crew get settled back in.
Cliches pile on clichés in the life and times of Martha Craven-Nussbaum: she followed her husband Alan to Harvard, where he thrived, but she claims that some people made nasty little sexist comments to her on the side that upset her very much. Whatever the case, after teaching at Harvard for 7 years, she wasn’t tenured—which she blames on sexism, and threatened to sue the school, but settled instead for the horrific indignity of teaching at Brown and then at U. Chicago. Yes, it’s horrible to imagine the cruelty and inhumanity of someone born rich, skipping from one elite university to the next while pissing off her rich daddy, then after all that pain and suffering, surviving the trauma of only getting tenure at U. Chicago or Brown rather than Harvard. You laugh, but to these people, it’s like being forced to live in a tent city outside of Sacramento. No, worse—it’s unimaginable pain. Seriously, I look around my neighborhood here in Spanish Harlem and I think, “You people have it easy compared to Martha Craven-Nussbaum! You don’t know suffering until you’ve grown up rich and spoiled and didn’t get tenured at Harvard! It ain’t easy, I tell ya!” Me personally—I have a little figurine of Martha Craven-Nussbaum pinned between two crosses, because I figure she suffered twice as much as Jesus did.
After getting her tenured job at U. Chicago, Nussbaum started pumping out one chin-scratcher after another, hokey do-gooder books that would have made Martin “The Boob” Buber proud, books with names like “The Fragility of Goodness” and “For Love of Country” and of course who can forget last year’s “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality,” destined to become a classic in home-schooling civics courses from the Smokey Mountains to Yucca Mountain, and all sparsely-populated school districts in between. Yup, this is what passes for intellectual thought in America’s “elitist” universities. If Martha proved one thing, it’s that she has her finger on the middlemost eyebrow hair of Middlebrow America.
Which brings me back to Cass Sunstein, our new “Regulations Czar”—Martha’s former “partner.” In an interview as recently as 2007, Martha told the Guardian newspaper that the greatest love of her life was “My partner Cass Sunstein, and my daughter, Rachel.” In that order, mind you (Rachel is her daughter from her first marriage). To the interviewer’s cheesy question “What was the best kiss of your life?” Martha answered: “Last night, as we celebrated Cass’s birthday.”
Within a few months of that interview, the greatest love of her life and America’s new regulation czar, Cass Sunstein, dumped Martha. And really, what Regulation Czar wouldn’t dump her? After all, Martha passed the 60-year milestone, whereas Cass’s new beau, the famous power-player Samantha Power, was a tender 37. It gets even more romantic than that—Cass and Samantha met while working together for Obama’s presidential campaign.
Cass decided one day that he didn’t want to wake up to a face like this…
One is reminded of Russia’s radical opposition leader/writer Edward Limonov’s “How To Be Mad And Happy At 55”:
In order to stay young, throw away your old wife, never even look at overweight, wrinkled woman. Find yourself a pretty teenage girl and fuck her as often as you can. Young girls have a tight, hot pussies, their love juice is a boiling one, on the contrary, love juice of an older woman is glue-like. Young laugh, their freshness, even their naive stupidity will have a rejuvenating effect on you. Listen to stupid hit songs with them, get them drunk, fuck them and be happy.
Okay, so Samantha Power ain’t exactly a teenager or naïve, but in the stilted East Coast elite world that Cass Sunstein moves in, a 37-year-old Samantha Power is the equivalent of 14 Priscilla Presley years .
So who is Cass Sunstein? Like his former “partner” Martha and like his new love Samantha, Cass has devoted his life to pleasing the guild by stuffing its vaults with the sort of forgettable Beigeist nonsense that it likes to see—because no person with a functioning gag reflex could possibly spend decades of his or her life writing endless articles about law and how to make citizens more citizen-y. Cass, however, is the kind of guy who could swallow a pepperoni stick without gagging—just look at the record: roughly twelve gazillion articles and books on legal issues and behavioral psychology’s relationship to the law. In fact Cass Sunstein is such a prolific Middlebrow in his field that there’s even a joke among his colleagues that Cass is the Kevin Bacon of legal journals. You know, because every legal academic has either done an article with Cass, or done an article with someone who’s done and article with Cass… Seriously, in the lounges, that Kevin Bacon joke really bowls ‘em over. And please don’t mention anything to them about how they’re about three decades late with that joke. They are tenured academics, after all—show some sensitivity, please!
It’s all adding up to a bad 70s East Coast thinking-person’s divorce-drama. I mean the names themselves are earth-toned: Martha; Samantha; Cass. The campus settings; the academic must and competition. The affairs. It’s like a bad Updike book! Which is to say: The Obama Era is a bad Updike book. Rabbit’s Reduxing all over again! And we’re stuck reading it for the next 8 years!
The Obama-Era Elite at play: “Oh Cass!” “Oh Samantha!” “Shall we have a game of squash before we return to saving The People?” “Yes, I believe we shall!”
Anyway, so after Cass dumped Martha in Chicago last year, he moved to Harvard where Samantha teaches. Now, both Cass and Samantha teach at Harvard. Which you know had to hurt, like pouring salt into Martha’s wounds, because, like, they didn’t give her tenure at Harvard. (At this moment, cue the Erik Satie soundtrack. Either that or Billie Holiday…Updike is cursing us from the grave! Burn his bones, someone!) Samantha Power is the third segment of this horrible Middlebrow Love Triangle. For Samantha, however, she had a “defining moment” in her biography. That defining moment was Bosnia—the tragedy that attracted hordes of defining-moment-tourists from the West’s top academic and struggling-journalist institutions. Every Orwell-swooning middlebrow secretly cursed under their breath that they’d never be able to duplicate his moral outrage and moral courage without a perfectly defined cause like his—so when Bosnia presented its tragedy on a bloodied platter, Samantha, along with all the David Rieffs and Peter Maas’s and you-name-‘em-if-they-read-Orwell-they-were-in-Sarajevo’s all entered the “watch me being morally outraged on behalf of humanity” competition in Bosnia, then took the “lesson” that “defined” them there, and came away with this: in the future, if America sees slaughter going on in some part of the world we don’t understand, we should bomb the bad guys and save the good guys. Now, don’t get Samantha wrong—she ain’t no George Bush. No no no, she’s totally, totally different. I mean sure, both went to Harvard and all, but really—Samantha Power is soooo smart, and George W. Bush is sooooo stupid.
How smart is she? Samantha wrote a “landmark” book, a book that really bowled over Team Obama, about genocides in the 20th century. Because genocides are really bad, she wants us to know. Not all genocides, mind you—just the genocides she chooses to focus on. She didn’t include in her book the genocides that might muddy up her Dubya-brained moralizing about genocide—anyway, it’s sexist to criticize her for omitting American-led genocides in the 20th century that led to millions of deaths in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Central America, and elsewhere; or Britain’s genocide-guilt in about 2/3 of the globe. Those aren’t officially “genocides” in Samantha’s classification, because that’s not playing by the rules. The rules say very clearly that these are genocides and those aren’t—so for example, when America financed and armed the genocide in East Timor, Samantha writes that America “looked away.” Well, you get the point here.
The only interesting thing about Samantha Power is that she once called Hillary Clinton a “monster,” which caused such a hullabaloo that she had to resign from the Obama campaign. But it’s clear that was a moment of petulant indiscretion on Samantha’s part, not something she would repeat if given a second chance. No, Samantha would only repeat that again and again if she was the type who an ounce of genuine integrity. But that’s not Samantha—the Samantha of Cass’s eye, the Samantha of the Obama Era is little more than a motherboard of careerist ambition, Tracy Flick with entitlement.
Speaking of that, Samantha’s new husband Cass put out his most popular book yet last year, called “Nudge.” See, he’s a “paternalistic libertarian” who thinks the way to make America work is not to tell people what to do, but to–yes, that’s right–”nudge” them to the right thing. (Sort of like how Cass “nudged” his wizened ex-partner Martha out of his life for the tight-skinned Samantha–supposedly, in keeping with the retro-70s horribleness, Cass and Martha and Samantha are all pals still.) Anyway, Cass’s big breakthrough, the thing that got Obama’s attention, is that Cass believes that government should nudge The People gently, and that way, The People will make the right choices but feel they’ve done it on their own. Because deep down, Americans will do the right thing if you just show them the way without pushing them too hard. Reverend—I mean Dr. Sunstein uses examples like 401Ks and organ donor cards to make his example. (You have to wonder if Sunstein stole this brilliant theory from a third grader’s civics class report.) Like his wife Samantha, Cass has to make exceptions for just about every horrible thing that human beings do in order to make his theory work. So he makes those exceptions, and voila! Everyone agrees that it works! It’s a hit! Now Cass and Samantha are a Washington Power Couple. Wow, I just gotta get their cards!
The return of the worst of the 1970s: here it is. Tracy Flick in earth-tones set in an endless tape-loop of ponderous middlebrow tripe of the sort that brought us The Seduction Of Joey Tynan. Put another way: imagine if Jonathan Livingston Seagull was written by Milton Friedman, which was then adapted for the screen by the makers of Kramer Vs. Kramer, and there you will find the Zeitgeist of the looming Obama Era nightmare.
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