The Republican Party and the credibility gap

In the screenwriting business, the toughest challenge is pushing plot: writing the expositional dialogue that drives the story forward and keeps the audience up to speed.

It’s a thankless task: if the dialogue is too hokey, the audience will hiss; too subtle, and you risk leaving people behind. Worst of all is the scrutiny it attracts. Exposition freezes the action and the viewer has nothing to focus on save the words being spoken, so they’d better be up to scratch. Credibility is everything.

At this point in the US electoral cycle, the Republican candidates for President are pushing plot. The nation is facing the most crippling financial crisis since the 1930s (economists, in unguarded moments, intimate that it might even be worse), Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, and no one knows (not really, not honestly) how to turn things around. Unfortunately for Republicans, the recession hit in the eleventh hour of the Bush administration, which GOP mythology told us had solved America’s economic problems with the fiscal silver bullet of tax cuts. As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Republicans find themselves in opposition with a Democrat President pouring a pocketful of nickels into the policy jukebox and replaying all the old liberal favourites, ‘Tax and Spend Two-Step’, ‘Big Government Blues’, and ‘That Free Market, She Done Me Wrong’.

Against this backdrop, Republicans need what political consultants call a ‘narrative’. They need to use this period before the election kicks off proper to push their exposition explaining what went wrong and what they want to do to get things back on track. Americans don’t want empathy. They don’t care whether a candidate goes to church or goes huntin’ or what they did in the Vietnam War. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. They want answers. Ideas. Solutions. They want a vision but a vision with trajectory: it’s not enough to say ‘America’s best days lie ahead’. Voters want to hear ‘America can get back on the road to success and here’s how we’re going to do it’.

Republicans should be honing their plot. Financial institutions, with the tacit encouragement of government, gave out too much credit. Individuals, with the tacit encouragement of financial institutions and government, spent too much money that they didn’t have. Government, with the not-so-tacit encouragement of practically everyone, spent vast sums while pretending it could do so without raising taxes. All three fantasies collided when the credit bubble burst in 2008. Now the economy is paying the price of the shared delusion of easy credit, booming entitlement programs, and 90%-mortgages-for-all. Now is the time to return America to fiscal responsibility, reducing the size of government but doing so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the unemployment numbers.

This used to be easy for Republicans. Economic centrism was their métier. Democrats clung to abstruse theories while the GOP took the more measured, suck-it-and-see approach. To the casual observer of the Republican primary process, particularly the televised intellectual circuses that constitute the debates, the GOP has forgotten its role as the voice of fiscal pragmatism. This is why the expositional dialogue coming from most of the candidates isn’t working. It might please the hardcore fans but the mainstream audience are walking out and asking for their money back.

The top billings are as guilty of this as the walk-on roles. When a crank like Ron Paul compares the Federal Reserve to drug addiction, advocates eliminating the income tax (and replacing it with nothing), and shuttering a roster of basic programs Americans rely upon, the average voter rolls his eyes and says ‘Ron Who?’ When poll-leading contenders want to end all federal student loans or  can’t remember which agencies they’d abolish, Mr and Mrs Swing Voter head for the exits.

Glib soundbites aren’t going to cut it (cf. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9) and nor is Fannie and Freddie-bashing (I yield the floor to the Gentlewoman from Minnesota) or a hankering for the salad days of 2004 when pushing social issues translated into a ten point lead (Rick whatever-you-do-don’t-Google-his-surname Santorum).

With a very few exceptions (so few, one can briskly name them: Romney, Huntsman, Johnson), the current GOP field is a line-up of has-beens, never-weres, and dear-God-anyone-buts; a retinue of dogmatists; a demolition squad of political reality; a support group for the economically illiterate; an audition for the next big hire at Fox News; a Hillsdale undergraduate seminar group that clearly hasn’t done the reading.

Contrary to what people like David Frum argue, this isn’t about RINOs vs Tea Partiers. The problem with the GOP’s leading lights isn’t their unswerving conservatism. Ronald Reagan was an out-of-his-tree right-winger – but he was also right. Rick Perry could advocate replacing the Constitution with the Road to Serfdom and the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments and win a 50-state landslide if he had a credible vision for reviving the economy.

And that’s the problem. It’s not ideological obscurantism but the credibility gap that is killing the Republican Party. The mood music is off-key. The exposition is creaky. The audience isn’t buying any of it. If the GOP doesn’t get in some new writers their eventual candidate is going to bomb and Americans will plump for the sequel to Hope and Change.

‘A humble and dedicated man… he was quite simply a gentleman’

Decency. Humility. Kindness.

Those words were repeated endlessly at the funeral service for MSP Bashir Ahmad, who died suddenly on Friday. They were the words chosen – by everyone from imam to first minister – to describe a politician whose friendships and influence cut across parties and communities.

With the shock of his death still fresh, raw emotions were on display from community leaders and politicians who had come to celebrate the man who broke the mould of Scottish politics.

The first minister could not hold back the tears. As he shared grief and memories with crowds of mourners ahead of the service at Glasgow’s Central Mosque, Alex Salmond spoke movingly of the MSP who died suddenly of a heart attack.

He said: “Bashir Ahmad was a history-maker. He became Scotland’s first Asian and first Muslim MSP and when he was elected to the Scottish parliament he made our family more complete. He changed the face of the parliament and that was a very important step forward.

“And when you are the first, character becomes important. We in Scotland were fortunate that our first Muslim MSP was a man steeped in humility and decency and kindness. A man of enormous compassion and humanity, I can honestly say I never met a single person with a bad word to say about him.”

It was the first minister who converted Ahmad to the cause of Scottish Nationalism in 1995. After listening to a speech by Salmond, Ahmad left the Labour Party to join the SNP.

His patriotism was proud but inclusive, according to the first minister. “He was a great patriot,” Salmond said. “He had a favourite saying, which he told me when we first met in 1995. He would say: It doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is where we’re going together as a country.'”

Salmond then joined the throng of mourners who queued outside the mosque to pay their respects.

The service had been scheduled for 1pm but was delayed until 1.30pm to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted to attend.

Once inside, Imam Habib led the Namaz-e-Janaza, the Muslim funeral prayer. The intercessionary verse is recited in Arabic, in line with Islamic tradition.

As the service ended and the crowds filed out, political and community leaders joined the first minister’s tribute to Ahmad. Community leader Bashir Maan was a lifelong friend. He described him as “a humble and dedicated man, who was helpful to anyone who asked for his assistance. Quite simply, a gentleman.”

“He inspired young people to want to become MSPs and MPs,” Maan, president of the Islamic Centre, added.

Labour leader Iain Gray said: “He was a kind and decent man and his death is a great loss.”

Conservative MSP Bill Aitken said Ahmad’s “passing leaves a gap in Scotland’s public life that will not easily be filled”.

Glasgow Govan MSP Nicola Sturgeon paid an emotional tribute. She said: “As a man, Bashir was a unique human being. He was loved and respected regardless of people’s politics because he was a kind, decent and sincere man. His political legacy will be immense.”

Salmond said: “One lad at the service told me Bashir was everything a Muslim should be: human and humane towards other people. He has set the standard for others who will follow in his footsteps. That will be his legacy.”

Originally published in the Sunday Herald. Feature image © Postdlf from w by Creative Commons 3.0

How I became Lizzy Bennet

Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure
By Emma Campbell Webster
Atlantic Books, pp.352

Do you remember the choose-your-own-adventure books that squatted brazenly on the school library shelves?

Those laminated interlopers that enticed you with their E-number colour schemes and promises of author-sanctioned page-skipping privileges? How they mocked the “serious” titles and their obsession with education, improvement and the beauty of language. Literature is always outgunned by populism. 

Emma Campbell Webster’s debut operates on much the same principle of literary debasement, albeit with higher aspirations; it is learned populism. Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure gets in on the Soppy Jane racket, the highly profitable mushing of England’s sharpest wit into sentimental romances for television and cinema. 

You, dear reader, are Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong and observant heroine of Pride and Prejudice, daughter of an ambitious mother, harried by time and tradition to nab a fitting suitor, and locked in a sniping courtship with the abrasive Mr Darcy. 

You must use your judgement to navigate the treacherous terrain of early 19th century polite society. Which paths will you take, which romantic overtures accept and decline, whom will you visit and whom avoid? After every few pages of largely loyal prose, Webster throws up a fork in Austen’s plot and allows you to embark on a course of your choosing, thus altering the destiny of Miss Bennet and her acquaintances. 

To zing things up a little, characters from other Austen novels wander into the Pride and Prejudice story and get involved in the action — like the fond daydream of a dozing postmodernist literature professor. 

“Your mission,” Webster elaborates, “is to marry both prudently and for love, eluding undesirable suitors and avoiding family scandals which would almost certainly ruin any hope of a financially advantageous marriage for you or any of your sisters.” Regrettably, the interactivity principle doesn’t allow you to refuse this modest mission in favour of, say, taking Elizabeth off to Westminster to preempt the suffragette movement, perhaps while attending university and going outdoors without a male companion. 

No, you must remain unassuming and proper and covered at the ankles, that you may attract a gentleman of a good few thousand pounds annually — and then? Reader, you marry him. Webster’s running commentary curbs any more radical life plans. When, in a subplot imported from Mansfield Park, you decline to perform in an amateur production, Webster congratulates your modesty. “There is nothing more immoral than a woman on the stage,” she writes, rather giving genocide, rape and third-world famine an unfair hearing. “Collect ten intelligence points for your superior sense of decorum.” Yes, fair maiden, you are awarded points for your ladylike judgement and for correctly answering questions on embroidery and needlework. 

There is little irony to be detected in Webster’s counsel. You get the feeling she has come down with literary Stockholm syndrome — so giddy to rearrange the pieces on Austen’s chessboard that her critical distance takes its leave. 

Her last-minute inclusion of the option to decline marriage in favour of authoring sardonic novels on the vicissitudes of hubby-hunting seems promising — until it directs you back to page one, locking you eternally in this Goldberg trap of premodern gender roles. This is more than a denial of feminism: it is the repudiation of intelligence. 

The book is nakedly pitched at the post-Bridget Jones market and could be successful, if only as a Christmas stocking filler. That is by no means a shameful ambition, but it does feel like a waste. Webster’s knowledge of Austen reaches beyond that of an opportunist writer out to shift books. The skill with which she introduces other Austen characters into Elizabeth’s story marks an adept writer with a hardy grasp of her subject’s canon. i sense — and I could be wrong — that Webster has another, better Austen title in her, one that demands her understanding and appreciation of the author. 

What a pity, then, that she has chosen to reduce some of the greatest novels in English literature to a middle-market offering of erudite froth. 

Originally published in the Herald. Feature image © Thalita Carvalho by Creative Commons 2.0.