A Brief Interlude of Seriousness in My Pants

I have been struggling with organizing my thoughts into a concise fashion, so I will be more brief than I usually am with these to be uncommented on opuses.

I have been thinking recently of the asymmetry of the health care debate and how it highlights the innate advantages of extremism and those that exploit extremism. In a game of one-upmanship, there are advantages for those that go for broke, because societal rules, once they are allowed to be broken by the arbiters of those rules and mores- the public at some level, but media at the more important level- no longer operate in the corner of those that feel compelled to abide by some sort of supposedly group-agreed rules.

I think throughout history, societies have all felt like they were detecting inevitably downward motion because of this societal envelope pushing. It simply is the only way things will ever work. The question is what side are pushing and to what end? Do we end up with an authoritarian, reactionary state, or do we have a revolution of the social order?

Front and foremost in my mind are those that exploit or encourage the pushing. The themes here are narcissism, exploitation, and perhaps cynical manipulation. I think the worst part is that the cynical manipulation and some sort of true-believerism can exist side by side in some of these personalities in an illogical mix of ideas and motives.

Thinking about the reactionary side and the exploiters fanning flames, I noticed a parallel with George Sodini aerobics class killing spree. This man seemed almost an archetype for the mix of feelings and resentment, emotional entitlement, externalized blaming, etc. coming out in the health care debate, and that an entire industry exists around nurturing and catering to these feelings (the Pick Up Artist community). The people running these shows may very well have bought into their own bullsh*t, but at the same time, they likely know or can admit to themselves, they are running a scam, and the best way to build the scam is to ratchet up the message. This ratcheting, this emotional salesmanship, is where I see a kinship between the new American reactionary Nihlism and little-f fascism for mens’ penises.

My last point is that I both agree, and disagree with Bom Somerby when he discusses here the following:

“I don’t understand why the wingnuts are so angry,” Steve’s e-mailer said. Incomparably, we posted this reply:

REPLY TO STEVE’S E-MAIL: Maybe they’re mad about getting called wing-nuts. Tea-baggers can be like that, of course.

Translating: Citizens have believed the things they hear from Rush and Sean (and the like) for decades. Yet on our side, we still seem surprised by this fact! We have formulated no real attempt to push back against these public idiots—to warn those citizens that they’re being played by these big stupid hacks. Instead, we tend to call those citizens names. Then, we wonder why they won’t accept our own views about such matters!

“Conservatives will be better off if reform becomes law,” the e-mailer said—thus stating his own view of this highly complex matter. He then wondered why the “wing-nuts” refuse to accept his wisdom! In part, the answer is fairly obvious: By and large, people don’t take advice from other people who keep calling them names. But this has been the dominant “liberal” approach to this phenomenon for the past twenty years.

No, there are no “death panels” in that House bill. Yes, you have to be fairly gullible to believe such a thing. But we humans are very gullible—propaganda notwithstanding, we really aren’t very smart—and we tend to listen to other people who aren’t calling us names. We liberals have been fairly gullible too—for example, in all the bad-faith we’ve agreed to swallow from our own “leaders” during these decades. They have played us for fools, all through this period. Perhaps if we can bring ourselves to see that awkward point, we will develop a bit of compassion—dare we say empathy?— for rubes on the other side.

We might even grasp a key point: It’s one thing to go after Palin and Limbaugh. It’s different to name-call the millions of voters who get fooled by these famous old types.

Sorry. We human beings just aren’t very smart. Our own surprised side keeps proving this point. Is our side a bit like theirs?

Emphasis mine. Essentially Bob is discussing here a notion of framing. That is a dirty word in parts of the world, but in messaging it certainly is important. Bob, I don’t think intentionally, elides how fine a question this actually is. When one side sees no rules, or where dissonance isn’t really a detriment to what are emotional and ad hoc arguments, no matter how crazy, they are definitely attached to strong emotions. These emotions may be attached to what I view as clear narcissism, issues of self-esteem, and over-developed tribalism, but they are exactly the emotions that are ripe for exploitation. I know that of course you can’t win by calling someone a moron, because even if they aren’t very bright, their feelings will be hurt, and they’ve already been acutely inoculated with hypersensitive pride, because this emotion is the easiest to exploit. So how do you keep from hitting yourself in the face?

You can’t simply go after Palin under any circumstances because her most efficient method of exploitation is encouraging others to identify with her. Even attempting to claim she’s not one of whomever she nurtures as being one, this argument backfires in that it renders “being one of” a criteria for governance (we’ve see it so many times). You call her stupid, and the transitive property comes into play, as she further accentuates that she is really “we.” This transitive property is giant land mine threatening the architecture of Bob’s argument here. Only in calling the exploiters liars is there any chance out of this mess, because there will always be a line that they will cross and you won’t.

Bob is right to point out the insanity that has always been tolerated in regards to the Democratic party in recent decades, but what he gives short shrift to is the fact that just like the “wingnuts” have reached the boiling point of perceived and real insults, those on the Left have endured much more offensive treatment- for example, constant and unceasing lies. This exact debate is raging in the “New Atheist” community and the science blogging community concerning arguments of framing, the feelings of the “illogical” class as trumping those of the shrill and insulted “reason” class (see a huge pile of here). I think Bob is being more pragmatic about things than some aggrieved Liberals would like, but he needs to allow for the humanity of both sides not just one. I think he likely does do this, in that he points out many cases where Liberals fall down on the job. Deep down in my heart I think he’s probably right, but he needs to make the case better that part of being Liberal is that Liberals based on inherent Liberal principles are graded on a steeper curve, and that steeper curve is due to an asymmetry in the playing field- the differential accepted behavior of each side- and the intense personal investment in these issues that is the hallmark of the veins of behavior on one side more than the other. The bad guys want to convince you to go all-in with your self-esteem and personal identity at the earliest possible point in the debate. This cleaves you to their tribe and enforces your identity in the tribe. It is really tough to go against that.

Aside: If you read the last line of 500 Steve Benen posts in a row, I fear the slope of your esteem for him will be negative.

15 Responses to “A Brief Interlude of Seriousness in My Pants”

  • Allow me to be the first to recognize the unmentioned sad irony of the transitive property working against Bob’s great work in that, in this case, he is the aggrieved party who gets shrill at times, and his frustration with the “Liberal” media bubbles into very insulting territory. Those for whom the scales have not yet fallen identify with these Liberal heroes and of course are shocked to hear them discussed this way, then they of course feel personally insulted. So going after Josh Marshall “I Still Have Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus on my Blogroll and the only person I’ve Ever Kicked Off Has Been Marshall Whitman”, he’s pissing off a bunch of people that he doesn’t want to, because they’ll take it personally. A worse person would say “Frame thyself, Framer” but that would be a cheap shot. It is a difficult problem.

  • Ja und nein. I think there are a few problems with Bob Somerby’s argument. For instance, I’m not even sure if the liberal bloggy establishment has been played for fools. They may actually have not very many choices in the first place, because the choices have already been circumscribed. I have never seen anyone provide a cogent argument for an alternate strategy.

    The big problem has always been that there is a vocal but very large minority of Americans who strongly oppose progress from which they—and most everyone else—would largely benefit. And they’re largely willing to drag everyone down. I don’t think anyone including Somerby has offered a strategy for dealing with this problem. If Sarah Palin can get them to identify with her, how do you get then to identify with Barack Obama? Or should the Democratic Party resign itself to running white moms to cater to the fragile feelings of this group? Is it a dichotomy between racism and health care? Making fun of the lumpenproletariat seems besides the point.

  • It’s the over-identification that is the problem. This particular tribe can adopt any idea including multiply contradictory ones, it is primally us vs. them for them with little cartridges that can be exchanged at any moment, and because of this, there simply are no rules because the argument isn’t between ideas- one side is defined as contrary to the other- purely reactionary. There may have been an initial germ of understandable thought on the Right, for example anti-Communism, but has been so warped and derived it is just a runaway train. A non-sensical amalgam selected only for its ability to propagate. It uses the same fertile insecurities, but now there is a disconnect between A and B.

  • We are clearly needing plover. *cheep*

  • Pinko Punko just wants to euthanize bloomers.

  • By the way, I’m also working on a serious pants answer. I read Somerby, and I’ve got mixed feelings about that Somerby “ivory towered elitists are turning off the lumpens” argument.

    But it takes me longer to generate serious pants answers, and often I’m not happy with the result.

    Here is a start. (Comment at M.B.’s place.)

    Here’s a picture

    And here’s a thought: The Civil Rights Bill of 1968 didn’t get passed because the segregationists got hugs and understanding and people sat down for beers.

    It was because their behavior was outrageous, and finally enough of the country said “F You, you fucking bigots!”

    Of course, that wasn’t the end of that, but for the most part, the overt part of “it’s OK to be a blatant racist” was replaced by “now you have to be a but subtle about it”.

    Now, we have many of the same forces in play. This time, the dog whistles have been tuned to even higher pitches. “We’re taking our country back!”

    This time, our media is far more concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy corporations. And those corporations don’t want the status quo changed.

    And so you hear things like “Obama Death Panels” being evaluated on how the idea is affecting the horse race…not how insane it is to let the same crowd that dishonestly shot down health care reform back in 1993-1994 do the EXACT SAME THING again, with even more ridiculous arguments.

    We’ve got a DLC centrist (pardon my reduncancy) proposing something that isn’t that radical (not radical enough for me, at least). And we have the corporations that run this country saying, “Your role, Mr. President…Let us show you it.”

  • But the point is that it’s *not* a nonsensical amalgam, to use Pinko’s phrase. Back in the day, the fears of the white proletariat were exploited to stymie progress on black civil rights etc, even when black civil rights necessarily meant a reduction in the use of black cheap labour to drive down white working-class wages as a whole…

    The birther thing and the “death panels” thing are connected. Yes, it’s been carefully constructed by corporate media. But it’s not an arbitrary, nonsensical amalgam.

  • I mean it is non-sensical in terms of consistency of argument- the same people that argue against welfare and other social programs based on some Randian ideas of merit now project that grandma will be killed because she lacks societal merit. Also, many arguments regarding law enforcement are not internally consistent- it is OK for cops to tase the shit out of hippies, but of course different rules must apply to right wing extremists, whose anti-order stands are pure and patriotic. I realize these things can all be straightened out through the racism filter, but the nonsensical aspect of the amalgamation of all conservative stands put together seems to be clear to me, as it is founded on a reactionary premise.

  • I don’t really have anything to add – I just thought I would relay all of the anger I see in my family:

    Dad – a ‘Dick Cheney’ Republican. Spent his lifetime working in aerospace defense industry. Full of anger and hate towards JFK and the left. To this day he thinks JFK, RFK and MLK all got what they deserved and that the country is much better because of it.

    Mad that we haven’t nuked Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran (He is absolutely serious about this!). He thinks we are too soft – that we need to start teaching people lessons so nobody messes with us.

    Mad at OPEC. We aught to just roll the tanks from Iraq into Saudi Arabia and keep the oil fields for ourselves.

    Mad that women are working and have more of a voice (he is divorced twice and no plans to marry again). He wants to return to the way it was in small town America back in the 40’s and 50’s, like when he was growing up. Women stayed at home and they shut-up when they were told to shut-up if they dared speak up at all.

    Mad at all of the taxes he has payed. He thinks all of his hard work is just going to pay for a bunch of lazy hippies that took drugs and didn’t work and didn’t save up any money.

    Mad about illegal immigration.

    Step-Dad – Also a lifetime in aerospace defense industry. Born-again evangelical christian. Thinks the world will end any day now. Loves, loves, loves Sarah Palin, hates Obama. Because the world will and any day now he went ahead and got three mortgages on his house and has a huge amount of credit card debt.

    Mad that the ten commandments don’t trump the constitution.

    Mad that probably sometime next year he is looking at foreclosure and bankruptcy.

    Sister and her husband – born again christian evangelicals. Strong 2nd amendment supporters who talk all of the time about opposing an oppressive government that they see as not upholding their values and meddling in their lives.

    Mad about laws requiring schooling standards for children. Wants to home-school, but has to meet a certain set of state guidelines that she doesn’t like.

    Mad that their kids have to get vaccines in order to participate in many group activities such as camp.

    Mad that gays can marry, that abortion is legal, etc.

    Mad that their choices as a christian does not automatically give them greater standing and respect in our society.

    Brother – a self-described red-neck.

    Mad at the government and the banks. He has gone through one bankruptcy, and is likely to go through another as soon as he is eligible next year. Furious that his tax dollars went to a bank who has hired creditors to call him demanding payment on an overdue credit card bill.

    Mad because back in 2004 Rush told him on the radio that Kerry and all the democrats want to take his guns and crossbow away.

    Some of this anger has been there for decades, some of it is more recents – but Obama symbolizes everything that is wrong with America in their eyes. There are 10’s if not 100’s of millions of people who in one form or another are just like each of these members of my family. These members of my family were, and still are, strong G. Bush supporters (they believe Bush is a rightous man, and that he was just surrounded by the devil’s workers in DC who blocked and twisted his attempt to do God’s work in the Whitehouse). They are all angry about different things, but this multi-faceted anger is all focused very much on Obama. I think many of the people yelling at town hall meetings are not necessarily angry about healthcare, it is just a forum for them to get their anger out.

    I think all of us getting a chance to see this anger in public is important. It helps us to understand who we really are as a nation. I hope the displays of anger will rattle people on the left – reminding us that any advance we think we might have made as a country can be reversed in short order.

  • Thank you for sharing that, ???. It seems to be very familiar to me.

  • And it is deeply depressing. Somehow, some segment of the USA has been persuaded to draw a Line in the Sand, a line that cuts across the Civil War and the so-called Culture Wars. Put like that, talk of class solidarity from self-critical liberals seems like so much smoke.

  • I think that the “tribal” view is the right one, though. Once there has been a decision about two sides, and a kernel of anger and pain to nourish, there won’t be a need for arguments based on any consistency or logic. Fundamentally, there is a deep frustration from some people about how the world is versus whatever order they think it should take instead.

  • Once upon a time, there was a Righteous, and that designation of Righteous related to how you appeared to be and look and how you appeared to live. And long after that Righteous started to erode, people—like Chinese Symbol’s family—spent their lives building up their Righteous, only at long last, and once and for all this year, to realize that the rug was yanked from under their feet. Chinese Symbol’s dad’s life of work does not entitle him to the services of a woman, his sister’s faith does not entitle her to respect.

    I think tribalism is a misnomer. You’re right about the fact that the frustration comes from the realization that the world is no longer ordered as it “should” be—but the problem is, to placate their anger, so many others now must pay the price.

  • Like-minded individuals will band together over their shared mindset- this is the tribe, they need not be affiliated in any particular way- part of the mindset that drives people to frustration at the way their worlds gets also loves validation.

  • I just saw a poster who called himself “bob somerby” saying something Bob Somerby would say:

    I would only say this:

    It’s politically smart to go after the leaders. It’s politically dumb to name-call the people who get fooled by the leaders.

    It’s also hard to defend on the merits. We liberals get fooled by our leaders all the time. How many people really believe that our leaders are currently trying to address the fundamental lunacy of our health care “system,” including the vast wells of profit which make our level of spending so crazy?

    I don’t believe that our leaders are trying to do that. But our leaders keep saying they are. Most of us implicitly believe them. Does that mean that we’re stupid too?
    bob somerby | 08.15.09 – 12:40 pm |


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