Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers’ vaporous dowager foil, is an unlikely feminist icon, but somehow she’s come to personify much of the 21st century reactionary left. In 2010, I explored “How the Gray Lady Became Margaret Dumont.” But decades after her passing, Dumont’s influence has somehow spread to the rest of the left, not just their in-house newspaper. In today’s New York Post, Rich Lowry of National Review writes, “To put it in Victorian terms, 2014 had a case of the vapors. It was all aflutter. It needed smelling salts and a fan, and a good rest on a fainting couch to restore its bearings”:
2014 was the year, thanks to the hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for the spoof movie “The Interview,” that even the North Koreans made the “do not offend” list.
It was the year that a scientist made an abject apology for wearing a shirt that offended feminists in a TV broadcast; that Amazon Prime put a label warning of racist content on “Tom and Jerry” cartoons; and that various news outlets refused to say the name of the NFL team from Washington on grounds that even uttering it made them complicit in rank offensiveness.
It was a year when the nation’s colleges and law schools cemented their reputations as places where easily offended children go for a few years to become slightly older easily offended children.
Colleges canceled appearances by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condi Rice (who technically pulled out of her scheduled Rutgers commencement) and George Will for fear students might hear something they disagree with from a figure they object to.
The University of California at Irvine offered grief counseling (“in a constructive space”) for students upset at the grand-jury decision in the Ferguson case, and Occidental College brought in a religious counselor to comfort students who had volunteered for losing Democratic Senate campaigns.
An open letter from law students at Harvard upset at the nonindictments in the Ferguson and Eric Garner cases captured the spirit of the year, and deserves an honored place in the history of the rhetoric of plaint.
Of course, beyond Margaret Dumont’s influence on the left, an even bigger influence was Ben Trovato, whom Robert Tracinski of the Federalist dubs his Man of the Year for 2014:
For those who suspect that Ben Trovato is not a real, literal person, you’re right. But the whole point of old Ben’s influence is that it doesn’t matter whether he’s literally real. Or whether anything is literally real, for that matter.
I first heard of Ben Trovato while reading a curious little volume of unusual word origins. A number of these supposed etymologies, most of the really colorful ones, were attributed to “Ben Trovato.” The name is taken from an old Italian saying: se non è vero, è ben trovato. Roughly translated: if it’s not true, it’s a good story. These were the kind of word origins that you really wanted to be true, but for which there was no real evidence. In contemporary parlance, they are “too good to check.”
I think you can begin to see why 2014 has been the year of Ben Trovato. It has been a year full of things that were non vero, but which had really good narratives. Or at least really convenient narratives.
It may not actually be true that Michael Brown had his hands up and was saying “don’t shoot” when a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot him—the bulk of the eyewitness testimony and physical evidence indicates otherwise—but “hands up, don’t shoot” is still a great slogan because it’s such a good “metaphor” and captures a “larger truth.” Ben Trovato at work.
Like Al Sharpton, Ben Trovato has frequently been invited to the White House, where he spent some time hanging out with the son Barack Obama might have had, before swinging over to the First Lady’s office, where he prompted Michelle Obama to describe how an incident at a Target store shows that she still needs to fear being mistaken for the help because she’s black. Proof of America’s persistent racism. Sure, she told the same story a few years ago with a totally opposite meaning. But you’re missing the point. The point is that the new version of the story is well constructed to convey an important narrative. It has Ben Trovato’s fingerprints all over it.
Of course, Ben doesn’t get much in the way of official credit or acknowledgement, much like Jonathan Gruber, the ObamaCare architect no one has ever heard of before. Gruber didn’t get in trouble for stretching the truth, he got in trouble for being just a little too truthful about the dishonest way ObamaCare was drafted and shoved through Congress. In doing so, he revealed that ObamaCare has been a giant Ben Trovato operation all along.
To borrow from a phrase popularized by Glenn Reynolds, Tracinski’s mythical Ben Trovato is the ultimate Democrat operative with a byline — or in this case, many bylines throughout the country.
Those Democrat operatives with bylines are more than eager to serve their bosses. As Reynolds writes in his latest USA Today column, “Politicians benefit from American tribal warfare,” with tribalism itself being “the default state of humanity”:
The tendency to defend our own tribe even when we think it’s wrong, and to attack other tribes even when they’re right, just because they’re other. Societies that give in to the temptations of tribalism — which are always present — wind up spending a lot of their energy on internal strife, and are prone to disintegrate into spectacular factionalism and infighting, often to the point of self-destruction.
Societies that temper those tribal tendencies, replacing them with the mechanisms of civil society, do much better. But there is much opportunity for political empire-building in tribalism, and if the benefits of stoking tribal fires exceed the costs for political actors, then expect political actors to pour gasoline on even the smallest spark.
That’s pretty much what’s happened in the last few months, and the results haven’t been good. In America, we have both a police culture that is too quick to escalate force, and an aggressive victim culture, embodied by the loathsome Al Sharpton, that seeks to portray every police use of force, at least against members of the wrong racial and ethnic groups, as excessive.
“A healthy society would stigmatize, marginalize and shun the tribalizers,” Reynolds concludes. Instead, Sharpton is given his own TV show, and depending upon his role with Sony, arguably his own movie studio as well. (Orson Welles, eat your heart out.) Journalists — from the New York Times and NBC to high-rated Spanish-themed Univision down to the college level — pledge allegiance to the narrative, not accuracy. If it takes faking the news and hitting the fainting the couch to advance the narrative, the socialist justice warrior is prepared for either option — and as in the case of Ferguson and the University of Virginia, often both.
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Update: Just in under the wire, a spectacular Olympic-level high-dive into the fainting couch, this time from an editor at “Think” “Progress:”
Rejecting the reality of LGBT identities is a form of genocide, an attempt to erase whole communities. Unfortunately, sometimes it works.
— Zack Ford (@ZackFord) December 30, 2014
Dear Holocaust survivors, just so you know . . . https://t.co/4cIO6EeTVO
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) December 30, 2014
Update: From Neo-Neocon, the real history of the fainting couch: “Children, please leave the room now.”