Random Thoughts: Extremism, Williams, the Inexplicable, Birdman


Thought #1: President Obama and  (Fill in the Blank) Extremism
The President has stubbornly refused to identify the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) extremists as Islamic. His spokesman twisted American English into incoherent knots trying to avoid referring to those 21 Egyptian “citizens” whose heads were cut off by ISIS executioners as Christians.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the one who did such a good job explaining Benghazi, admonished us to keep the terrorism of the Islamist extremists, ISIS, in the proper perspective. It isn’t as great a crisis as the media make it out to be.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf lectured us recently about the “root causes” of the extremist war, which she thinks is economic, not religious, and can be solved over time by economic opportunity. According to Harf, the young ISIS militants would rather start a business than fight a war. When criticized for this, she said we, the intellectually unwashed, missed the “nuance” of her analysis. Included among those not as enlightened are columnists Colbert King and Peggy Noonan, both of whom wrote excellent pieces on the religious complexities of this war—both must reads.

Yet in the midst of all of this secular nuancing, the President condemned the killing of three Muslims in North Carolina, even though it has not yet been determined that they were killed because of religious beliefs. At a recent prayer breakfast, the President wandered off on a tangent about the Crusades. Last Friday, we learned that the official Twitter account at the State Department is asking followers to “share solutions you think are critical to countering violent extremism.”

There are only two conclusions that can be drawn. One is that the President is engaged in some clandestine back-channel, multi-national, geo-political negotiation of a Middle East agreement that is of such labyrinthine complexity it will not succeed unless the attention of the rest of the world is diverted. The President has chosen to do that by making the Administration appear irrational, stupefied, and chaotic. Conclusion two is that Obama foreign policy has become irrational, stupefied, and chaotic.

Whatever conclusion is correct, the American people deserve to know more about just exactly what it is the President is thinking. We get the part about distinguishing between Islam and the extremist movement, but really.

Thought #2: More on Brian Williams Should be Less
The Washington Post recently published a major front page plus two pages opus on Brian Williams. It was very well done, except, well, it was about the wrong subject.

The controversy that has Williams at its epicenter isn’t just about Brian Williams. He’s not the real problem. The real problem is the all-consuming celebrity culture of the news business and what it has done to journalism and to those who deliver the news.

Brian Williams didn’t just ‘conflate’ facts, and ‘misremember’ events. He regularly abused his broadcast with incessant self-promotion and branding of the corporate peacock. Over time that has evolved as the business model for anchors and correspondents. It dates back to Roone Arledge, who began primping and pampering stars at ABC in the early 1980s. Today, in fact, Williams is less an example of it than David Muir, ABC’s anchor. Compared to Muir, Williams is a wallflower. And look, now, at the bombastic, bloviating Bill O’Reilly, the celebrity sultan of cable infotainment anchordom, charged like Williams with exaggerations of his brief career as a CBS correspondent.

Storytelling has become more important in news than the facts. Anchors dramatize the trivial and trivialize what’s really important in our lives. Irreverent and irrelevant political, journalistic, and Hollywood celebrities who have nothing worthwhile to say are quoted more often than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. More young people know Jay Z than Joe Biden.

There is no more evidence of the obsessive nature of this culture of personality than the fact that the Washington Post assigned ten reporters to cover Brian Williams in a time of painfully sparse resources that would have been better assigned to news of substance like common core educational standards, which no one understands, or the crumbling, national infrastructure, the seriousness of which few appreciate because there is far too little attention paid to it.

Thought #3: How Do You Explain the Inexplicable?
There are some things in life that you want to understand but you just can’t. You just don’t get it. We can reason our way through the creation of the universe and comprehend the human genome, or the miracle of procreation and childbirth.

Here is what will never be understood: Why a presumably intelligent couple in their 40s, one a software engineer and the other a professional at the Food and Drug Administration, would spend about an hour in a wine-tasting at a fashionable restaurant while leaving their two young children, one of whom had no shoes or socks on, strapped in their car seats outside the restaurant in 35-degree weather?

As children are want to do in that situation, they were, according to police who rescued them, screaming their lungs out. Police said a man who lived above the street reported the incident, but no one passing the car on the sidewalk did.

The children are okay…physically, according to the Washington Post report on February 2. They are now in the care of DC child services while their parents await trial. There’s just no way of explaining it. Go ahead, try.

Thought #4: Birdman
Something else hard for me to understand is the movie Birdman, starring Michael Keaton. He did an incredible job in the role of an actor/producer taking his last shot at theatrical success. It was an intriguing and in some instances mind-numbing work of art, supported by intense, inspired, piercing performances on so many levels. But there were key elements of it my feeble intellect was unable to grasp, leaving no choice but to watch it again…this time without wine.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.