Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Lasch on Identity. Identity in the psychosocial literature has come to mean something that is an arbitrary construction defined either "by the social roles an individual performs, the 'reference group' to which he belongs, or, on the other hand, by the deliberate management of impressions or 'presentation of self,' in Erving Goffman's phrase," writes Lasch.
There's no there there in the individual's identity understood in this way. It's changeable, shifting, and chamelon-like. It's Woody Allen's Zelig on the one hand or Madonna's inventing and reinventing herself on the other. In this understanding of personal identity, we are either subsumed into the group and its group think or we make ourselves up as we go along. And such reinvention is possible because neither is there a there there when it comes to the social world that is over against the individual. It has lost its solidity; it has become whatever we want it to be.
The psychosocial meaning of identity, which has itself passed into the common usage, weakens or eliminates altogether the association between identity and "continuity of the personality." It also excludes the possibility that identity is defined largely through a person's actions and the public record of those actions. In its new meaning, the term registers the waning of the old sense of a life as a life-history or narrative--a way of understanding identity that depended on the belief in a durable public world, reassuring in its solidity, which outlasts an individual life and passes some sort of judgment on it. Note that the older meaning of identity refers both to persons and things. Both have lost their solidity in modern society, their definiteness and continuity. Identity has become uncertain and problematical not because people no longer occupy fixed social stations--a commonplace explanation that unthinkingly incorporates the modern equation of identity and social role--but because they no longer inhabit a world that exists independently of themselves. Minimal Self, p. 32.
I think that this is an accurate description of identity formation in a choice-driven world as contrasted with a given world. In a traditional society, everything is given, and you just accept that this is the way it is because this is the way it always was. In a consumer society, very little is given. And what is given can be easily rejected as one moves on to live a life with little reference to what was given to him as a child. When the social worlds we live in are chosen or rejected as the whim seizes us, we experience our social world as temporary and interchangeable with any other social world and any other group of people. Even if we stay with one group for a long period of time, we know that we can leave it at any time. In fact if you stay in one place for too long--like a job--you are perceived as stodgy or lacking in ambition.
There's a freedom and an exhilaration in knowing that we can always keep our options open in that respect, but we pay a price: The world no long maintains its solidity; its quality of being over against us and pointing to something unfathomable and unconsumable has collapsed. And the people and objects in our world lose their ability to be anything more than what makes them useful to us; we keep them in our world so long as there is value in them to consume, and we toss them as soon as they lose their consumable value. We get into relationships with people to "get our needs met," and we get out of them when it's clear that they are unable to give us what we have become convinced they or someone else should give us. There is an objective world of things, but there is no longer an objective world of meaning or value, because the things, including the people, are simply the value we project into them, and this has mostly to do with their usefulness to us, how they meet our needs.
This is reinforced by the therapeutic values of much of the human potential movement which has vulgarized the idea of self actualization into another consumer commodity. Think about how commonplace it has become, even when we are encouraged to volunteer for some social service. We are never "sold" on the idea because it's the right thing to do; we're told instead about how fulfilling the experience will be, and how much you get back when you give. Well, maybe/maybe not. This approach links doing the right thing to the false expectations, and it makes of volunteering another experience we treat as a consumable object. We go into these experiences and stay with them only so long as we get something out of them.
I understand that things are not universally as bleak as I depict them here, and I don't want to come across as a sanctimonious scold. My goal is not to shake my finger at the world as if to say, "How dare you be what I think you ought not to be." My goal is simply to see our predicament with as much clarity as I can, because I know that I'm as implicated in all of what I describe here as consumer culture as anyone else. As I've said before, we're all neck deep in this historical current, and I do not propose that we remove ourselves from the stream, only that we keep our head dry, and to make the effort to navigate in this stream rather than simply allow ourselves to swept away by it.
Monday, March 28, 2005
Quote of the Day.
Unless the idea of choice carries with it the possibility of making a difference, of changing the course of events, of setting in motion a chain of events that may prove irreversible, it negates the freedom it claims to uphold. Freedom comes down to the freedom to choose between Brand X and Brand Y, between interchangeable lovers, interchangeable jobs, interchangeable neighborhoods. Pluralist ideology provides an accurate reflection of the traffic in commodities, where ostensibly competing products become increasingly indistinguishable and have to be promoted, therefore, by means of advertising that seeks to create the illusion of variety and to present these products as revolutionary breakthrough, breathtaking advance of modern science and engineering, or, in the case of products of the mind, as intellectual discoveries the consumption of which will bring instantaneous insight, success, or peace of mind.
Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, pp. 38-39
The exercise of freedom is meaningless unless we're willing to live with the consequences of our choices. Do we make bad choices? Of course we do. But the test of our character is how we respond to the consequences of these choices. The consumer culture in which we live reinforces a mentality that would have us look at these choices as if they were poor purchase decisions for which we have the option to either return or discard what we've bought.
We're all of us involved in this kind of thinking--it's the air we breathe. But I don't think we have much a sense of how this creates a kind of solipsistic hell in which we all find ourselves. It's a Hell that 's created by the illusion of choices and by the continuous message that reverberates throughout the consumer culture, your happiness is measured by your capacity to consume--goods and services, people, experiences. Whatever--we swallow them like junk food, defecate them, and move on. We are not nourished by such consumption, and we're not changed by it, except for a kind of temporary bloated feeling that they cause. We soon forget about them and the sum or our lives is so many forgettable moments.
In the gospels it says that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. This is not the platitudinous condemnation of economic injustice, but rather a shrewd observation about human psychology. The point is that those who have wealth have the ability to create a world that is exactly how they want it, and this world becomes a prison which filters out anything that would intrude into it from the world outside. They have the power to choose not to deal with anything that is unpleasant or that will cause them discomfort.
It's a prison designed to keep the inmate safe and comfortable and moderately well entertained. And the more wealthy the person, the more resources he has to construct an impenetrable delusional world, and these delusional worlds are the very definition of Hell. They never have to deal with the world as it is; they live in a world of their own construction in which they are self-sufficient and isolated from "reality" in a way that the poor are not. The poor, who certainly find ways to live in other kinds of hells, nevertheless find it harder to live in self-created delusional worlds because they have fewer resources to block out the real world, and so they are of necessity more vulnerable, and in their vulnerability more open to the movement of grace in their lives.
I watched the movie version of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation over the weekend. And it struck me that this was the story about how rich people live in such self-created prison/hells and of how not-rich people, like the insane Paul Poitier character, long to live in the prisons that these rich people have created. It's also the story of how one of the inmates, Ouisa, wakes up to her condition and escapes. She's the camel that somehow found a way out through the eye of that needle. Her path out derived from her "imagination" of how she is connected to people outside that prison she realized she was living in, and in a curious way, Paul, the person who wanted in, became for her the way out.
I'm not quite satisfied with what I'm saying here. I'll try it from another angle tomorrow if I can find the time.
Friday, March 25, 2005
Bloody Messes. In a post yesterday, I wrote about why the GOP is becoming the party of big government and the Democrats the party seeking to limit the influence of the federal government. The key point is that neither party stands on principle; each makes arguments based on political expediency. All the pundits and commentary and eloquent defenses of principle are meaningless unless they are understood in the context of the power game that is the animating principle governing activity in the political sphere. There are exceptions from time to time, but the exception proves the rule. It's naive to think otherwise. And the most important thing to understand, especially for people who are conservatively inclined, is that conservative principles are being extolled to achieve political results which could not be more opposite to what traditional conservatives value. Don't listen to what politicians say; watch what they do.
A lot of what I've been writing over the last year has been an attempt to unravel all the twisted strands of contemporary political thinking when it comes to defining what conservatives and liberals really stand for. And in doing so, I have been making the argument that my stand against the Bush administration has a stronger kinship with principled conservatism than it has with conventional Liberalism. I think this because what I seek to conserve is a tradition of principled small 'r' republicanism which I think both the corporate cronyism of the GOP and the elitist cultural Liberalism which is the soul of the Democratic Party have in their different ways severely undermined.
At the same time I'm aware that it's not possible to conserve what no longer exists, so it's hard for me to claim to be a conservative except for my holding principles which at this time have no social or political context--certainly not in the Republican or Democratic parties. I have no illusions that the retrieval of the kind of republicanism we have lost is not something that can be easily accomplished in the near future. But you have to stand somewhere, and at this point I cannot stand with either the Dems or the GOP. My only hope regarding the two parties is that they will cancel one another out to prevent one or the other from doing too much damage. And for this reason, I think that all Americans, no matter whether their values are traditionalist or liberal, should be alarmed at the unbalanced power structure we have in Washington at this time.
The GOP has undermined traditional republicanism in their blind promotion of corporate interests and a free market that has led to the destruction of traditional communities and livelihoods that are required if a republican culture is to flourish. Republicanism requires strong local communities and local organizations in which every citizen learns what self-governance means. It cannot flourish in a culture in which people have been hypnotized into bread-and-circuses passivity. Republicanism cannot thrive in a culture dominated by by consumer values in which the main consideration is the self-indulgent caprice of the individual citizen to do as he pleases without consideration for the common good.
For this reason traditionalists in the GOP haven't been able yet to connect the dots. They can't bring themselves to believe that all the things they hate about the coarsening of American culture into this orgy of self indulgence is economically driven. Our economic well being depends on developing a culture of self indulgence. The more self-indulgent we become, the more money there is to be made, and the more money there is to be made, the more resources we have to indulge ourselves, and so the vicious circle continues to do its thing. The kind of traditional republican virtue required to resist this kind of thing can be found in individuals here and there, but they are not in the culture's driver's seat.
Traditionalists who support the GOP in my view cannot be taken seriously because their positions are contradictory and incoherent. The laisser-faire, free-market economic policy of the GOP is the hallmark of classic Liberalism, and leads everywhere and always to the destruction of traditional ways of life. You can't be a traditionalist and an exponent of laisser faire at the same time and make any sense.
Liberals in the Democratic Party, despite conservative accusations that they are unprincipled and wishy washy, are at least more intellectually coherent. They stand squarely in the Libertarian thought stream as it has evolved since the Renaissance. They are for individual freedom, the protection of basic rights, and oppose any form of traditionalism or custom that abridges those freedoms and rights. This Libertarian tradition when confronted, for instance, with the traditions and customs of the south that suppressed the rights of Blacks argued that the rights of those Americans had higher value than the preservation of the traditions that southern whites sought to preserve. They were right to do so.
And the same is true for the rights of women and sexual minorities. Their rights are more important than the preservation of the customs and traditions that have abridged them. If we lived in a culture with a vibrant living, republican tradition, it would have been more open to absorbing these changes. American traditonalism is not living and vibrant; it is rigid and brittle, formalistic and soulless. It does not adapt, evolve, or absorb. Something has to be alive to do that.
But the Libertarian impulse has also had a significant destructive effect in the breakdown of the traditional republicanism that I espouse. Liberalism has been destructive when it has imprudently stepped across a line to go beyond the protection of rights to the creation of social engineering projects that create more problems than they solve. I think that programs forcing integration like busing were disastrous in their negative effects on both working class white and black neighborhoods whose preservation is essential for a flourishing republicanism.
Forced integration was a disaster. I have no illusions that such neighborhood communities can be bastions of primitive, tribal wrongheadedness. But it's one thing to protect rights; it's another to force attitudes to change. I think that the government should be aggressive in doing what it can to defend the rights of individual citizens, but it should not be aggressive in trying to change the attitudes of those who would abridge the rights of fellow citizens. That's not a competency found within the political sphere. The real business of effecting cultural integration should have been left to actors in the cultural sphere. People have to find their own way to liking and respecting one another; they cannot be forced to do it. It should have been left to institutions like the churches and to integration within the military and police, sports and entertainment worlds to effect change in an evolutionary way. Politicians and judges should have stayed out.
The biggest flaw in Liberalism (as contrasted with Libertarianism) is its impatience to achieve through legislation and social engineering what can only be accomplished by a slow conversion of attitudes. Liberalism is, in this respect, psychologically obtuse and clumsy. It operates on a level that is too heady and abstract with little understanding for the rhythms of the soul. This abstracted idealism and the psychological obtuseness associated with it led to the French Terror of the 1790s, the Soviet purges of the 1920s, the Cultural Revolution in China and to the debacle in Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Iraq.
It's always the best and the brightest, in their "Liberal' overly rationalist arrogance, who create these bloody messes. That's why, as I have argued elsewhere, these neocons driving foreign policy in the Bush administration are not conservatives; they are Liberals. Liberals are too impatient to let things evolve, and so they develop social engineering projects, like nation building, to hasten what they cannot wait for.
So between the market forces driven by consumer capitalism and the the social engineering projects driven by Liberal impatience, we find ourselves in a society that has cut itself off from its past and has lost any sense of living tradition. We are in a situation in which all of us are diminished. We have become deracinated and atomized, where we have no roots, no intellectual clarity, no moral ballast to hold us steady when a stiff wind blows. The breeze is picking up, and I fear for our future.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Schiavo Politics. Much is being made by conservatives about Liberal hypocrisy in its being upset about federal intervention into the jurisdiction of the Florida state supreme court in this Schiavo circus. But since when is politics ever about principle? Politicians operate with the same amount of principle as lawyers do in defending a client, whether guilty or innocent. The goal for such an attorney is to promote the best interests of his client--in other words, to win--and he will propose any argument that will advance his client's cause, even if it's the opposite of an argument he used in another case. Their personal ethics or personal principles are eclipsed by their duty to do whatever it takes to promote the cause of their client. To do otherwise, attorneys argue, would be malpractice.
That lawyerly habit of mind seems to carry over for many if not most politicians into the legislative domain. It's not a matter of principle; it's a matter of doing whatever it takes to promote the party's (or their own) causes. And Republicans are as inclined to do it as Democrats. I think it's a corrupting, ends-justify-means habit of mind, but that's just the reality.
But what interests me is how there seems to be a huge shift going on not unlike the shift that occurred when southern black Republicans became Democrats for the same reason that southern white Democrats became Republicans--the Democrats' sponsoring of civil rights legislation in the mid-sixties. Just as that shift had nothing to do with principle or even with party traditions, this shift has nothing to do with principle but with power alignments. Now that the Republicans are in control of all three branches of the federal government, they seem to be quickly forgetting their traditional small-government principles. And now that the Democrats are out of power, they are looking for any way to leverage their diminished power, and if it means appealing to the sovereignty of states vis a vis the Feds, so be it.
The point is that neither side is concerned with principle; they are concerned with the exercise of power for the achievement of their respective agendas. The Republicans are now the party of Big Government, and they will use federal power in whatever way advances their agenda.
Back Again. I was without an internet connection for the last three days, but I'm back again.
Schiavo Case. I can't say I've been paying that much attention because I just haven't been that tuned into the mainstream media lately. And I have an knee-jerk aversion for these kind of media circuses. But I'm with the parents. Good article today in Slate that explains why better than I can.
I'm not a black-and-white kind of guy, but prescinding from any consideration of the legal issues and the politics, the moral principle here seems pretty clear. She's alive and you don't kill people who are inconvenient. There might be some debate about keeping people alive by extraordinary means as with the Karen Quinlan case. Remember, she was on a respirator, and when they decided to turn it off, everyone thought she'd die, but she didn't. She lived, I believe, for another nine years. Her family never considered to stop feeding her. Keeping the respirator on indefinitely is extraordinary means; feeding and hydrating a living human being are not.
Update: E.J. Dionne is good on the grandstanding politics of this which has more to do with GOP posturing than it has to do with any moral principles that require putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to issues about the right to life.
Saturday, March 19, 2005
Liberals Dug Their Own Grave. Liberalism has always been the ideology of the modern project, and the modern project has always been about the emancipation of the rational individual from the constraints of custom and tradition. Liberalism is about the rejection of the superstitious, feudal, premodern past and the embrace of unbounded future possibilities engineered by human brainpower. And it's for this reason that Liberalism as a worldview is mostly responsible for the fix we're in--more so than anything conservatives have done.
Principled conservatives are content to let things grow organically. Liberals are impatient to get results, and they engineer ambtious systems to achieve them. It's for this reason, as I have argued in previous posts, that our adventure in Iraq is a classically Liberal project and not at all a conservative one. The neocons are not conservatives by any meaningful definition of the word, and that we think of them as such is symptomatic of our intellectual confusion and historical ignorance. They are conventional imperialists, but they are not conservatives.
Since Liberalism is the soul of the modern project, and since the modern project is about brainpower replacing the power and authority of tradition, Liberalism has been the ideology of the the "forward-thinking", educated elite Americans who saw themselves as superior to the hordes of mostly Catholic and Jewish immigrants washing up on America's turn-of-the century shores with their premodern, traditionalist mindset. And for similar reasons they see themselves now as superior to the premodern, traditionalist mindset of Islam.
The neocons are not traditionalists by any stretch of the imagination; they are power elites who manipulate tradtional American symbols to generate support for their Liberal project. The elite have always sneered at the Calvinist American traditionalism of the rural areas, with its fundamentalism and its blinkered patriotism; its rejection of science and education and its embrace of guns and racism. But the elite has also been clever enough to manipulate popular sentiment by appealing to traditonalist ideals to gain support for their projects. The liberal Walter Lippmann in the 1920s approvingly called this propaganidistic manipulation of public opinion "managed consent," and it was first used in the propaganda campaign to induce a reluctant American electorate to support American entry into World War I.
Liberal arrogance has always elicited populist resentment, a resentment we recently saw on prominent display by Zell Miller at the Republican National Convention. And I do think that any attitude fueled by that kind of resentment deserves to be called moronic. But Liberals have to understand how their arrogance and populist resentment are part of the same system, and how they have contributed to the creation of the mess that we're in at the moment.
In my opinion Liberal arrogance over the long term has had a more destructive effect on American culture than anything red-state rednecks or urban ethnics have done. And the latter's resentment of the Liberal elite has some basis in truth that has to be better understood by people today who consider themselves to be progressive, if any real progress is to be made. Progressivism and Liberalism need to be separated out, and the first has to establish itself on different grounds than those upon which the liberal project was founded. The argument I've been making since the inception of this blog is that Liberalism is a problem that must be dealt with if we are to find a way forward. The choices ought not to be limited exclusively to the power conservatism of the neocons (Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz), the naive traditionalism of the cultural right (Zell Miller/Fallwell), the anemic liberalism of the cultural elite (Gore/Clinton/Kerry), or the secularism of the radical left (Chomsky/Nader/Greens).
Admittedly, most of what I have written since I began this blog has focused on the threat that we are now facing from the power right. And I think that threat is real and its looming in the American future is oppressive. But Liberalism has set the stage for the power elites who have now shoved them aside and taken their places on it, and it's important to understand Liberal culpability in setting things up in such a way that we are now so vulnerable. And for this reason and others I do not think that the opposition proffered by Liberalism can be an effective counterweight. Liberalism is in disarray. It neither offers intellectual vigor and a compelling imagination of the future, nor does it any longer command a power base that can effectively counter the growing power of the big money, power right. If some alternative to the oppressive future that the power elites behind George Bush would fashion for us is to be found, it has to have a power base and a compelling unifying theme that animates its resistance.
If Liberalism is indeed an impediment to real progress, we have to isolate its essential characteristics in our understanding. At this point it is enmeshed in most progressives' minds, and they think of themselves as Liberals for want of anything else to shape their resistance to the threat posed by the right. In future posts I want to lay out why I think Liberalism is a failed project and why it is no longer useful except in a secondary sense, and I want to begin to think through some ideas about what an alternative imagination of resistance might look like. It's not that I have anything already clearly set in my mind about this. But its basic outline lies in some ideas I have already briefly presented when I wrote about 'first and second naiveté' and 'retrieval'. I know these ideas seem abstract and unhelpful now, but my hope is to bring them down to earth and to make them work in a way that can help us, at least in our imagination of the task, to break this impasse.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Social Security Politically Secure? For now, it would seem so. My take is that the ideologues behind this failed attempt have gotten careless in their cockiness, and so their campaign was a kind of parody of earlier, more successful attempts to manipulate public opinion. Their swiftboating of the AARP, for instance, was ridiculously clumsy in their apparent assumption that they can just apply that smear formula indiscriminately.
You'd think that the poltical lesson here is that you don't mess with whatever makes Americans feel secure. But I doubt it's over. These guys think that they can remake the entire world in their image, and so this kind of thing is small potatoes. The business of the private accounts was just the opening skirmish. They'll regroup and come at it again. Or they'll start undercover operations in which they'll start chipping away at it in ways that won't be given much media coverage. Too boring, too complex. Implications not clear.
Monday, March 14, 2005
The Dark Side of Heroism. The other day I posted a piece that attempted to frame a way to counterbalance the soul-eviscerating effect of consumer culture on masculine and feminine identity. I proposed a retrieval of republican virtue, the virtue of the independent, self-reliant citizen who refuses to be sucked into and flattened by the system, someone who has a developed sense of masculine or feminine virtu. That's what defines for me a much-needed retrieval of republican idealism, an idealism which is needed as a counterbalance to the leveling forces that are turning us all into Last Men too easily manipulated by would-be oligarchs who could care less about republican ideals.
Now the problem lies in that this idea of striving to realize what is excellent is often confused with egomaniacal or megalomaniacal projects. At first glance Nietzsche's hero, the uebermensch, is a noble imagination of the the striving, self-transcending human being in the most heroic sense of the ideal. At second glance, it becomes the ideal of fascists in Germany and Italy who see themselves as heroic superhumans who need not be restricted by law or custom, who live beyond good and evil, and who make up the rules as they go along as it suits them. Such heroes are in their own self-perception gods, but everyone else sees them as brutes.
But there's a difference between naked, individualistic, "unilateral" heroism of the Nietzschean sort and the kind of heroism which is shaped by republican ideals. The first type leads to a society that is ruled by bulls, by the dictatorial strong man who reigns until he is overthrown by the next bull. The second type leads to a society in which laws developed by self-governing citizens prevail in an open, multi-lateral process. It's a society in which no individual, no matter how superior or talented he may be, is greater than the law. And if the laws are unjust, he can disobey them, but then he must stand trial in the hope that his civil disobedience will provoke awareness of the injustice which will lead to their eventual reform.
The difference between the Nietzschean hero and the republican hero is that the latter's ideals inspire him to strive not just for what is in his own self-interest, but for that which is beneficial for the whole society. This is why republican idealism is not a liberal project. Liberalism is uncomfortable with the idea of heroism or of virtue for different reasons. In part because it is based in a radically individualistic understanding of society. Its focus is on rights, not on virtues. Its focus is on developing systems that protect those rights, not on encouraging the individuals to realize any ideals about virtue. People in the liberal scheme are free to be heroic or virtuous if that's what they want to be, but liberalism itself is not into promoting such things.
The stress is on freedom and in allowing individuals to decide for themselves how they want to exercise that freedom to pursue their own individualistically determined ideas about what happiness means for them. Liberalism makes no judgments about immoral behavior, so long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. Freedom is the central value; what people do with it is their own business.
And I think that this right-centered liberalism should be the defining principle for how things work in the political sphere. The strength of liberalism is in its providing this empty structure whose main purpose is to protect basic human rights. I don't think that the government should be in the business of defining virtue or enforcing morality. The problem I have with Liberalism is its tendency to extend beyond the political sphere and to assert its jaded, anything-goes, rootless cosmopolitanism as normative for anyone who doesn't want to be thought of as clueless boob. I am against what might be described as the "Emma Goldman social libertarianism" of the cultural left. Goldman, the Great Mother of the avante-garde left in the early 20th century, was liberating everything and abolishing anything that might interfere with personal freedom. The avante-garde is the reductio ad absurdum of the Enlightenment project, at least insofar as the Enlightenment sought to free the rational individual from any constraints imposed by tradition or custom.
I'm fine with people who hold radical libertarian views; they have a right to their opinions, and many are worth considering seriously. But I think that anybody with any common sense ought to reject it as a "complex" because its politically naive worldview leads to political and cultural dead-ends. The libertarianism of the cultural left has become linked in the American imagination, especially since the 1960s, with any legitimate opposition to the the agenda of the corporate right. In other words, any opposition to Big Money has become delegitimated by its association with the flakey left, and as a result Big Money does what it pleases. All opposition has become radioactive. No one can mount a credible critique that would be acceptable to anybody outside of certain culturally elite and politically impotent circles.
There's more to be said about this, but at the very least it should be clear that the radical individualism of the cultural left celebrates choice to such a degree that the society becomes so fragmented and the individual citizen so atomized that it becomes more and more difficult for any of us to find common ground, and this plays right into the hands of the forces we need to fear the most.
It's not about choice; it's about freedom. They are very different things. Choice is a red herring and the multiplication of choices is an ennervating distraction. We have lots of choices, but we have lilttle freedom. Our flat-souled, depressive, dull spiritedness is the proof of it. What we need now is unity of purpose and clearly defined goals and the will to develop a renewed sense of public virtue and willingness to sacrifice, to pay a price, that will enable us to work together for the achievement of those goals. We are unfree so long as we sit back and accept this fraud.
This is what sensible people in the middle have to understand; the threat does not come from the dithering, disoriented, solipsistic left; it comes from a well-organized, extremely well-funded and highly focused right. Those in the power right want you to believe that the threat comes from the left as a way of deflecting attention from themselves and their agenda.
And divided as the rest of us have become as we pursue our individualistically determined freedom regimes, we set the stage to be conquered by those who have been slowly acquiring greater concentrations of wealth and power. No credible, robust opposition seems capable of developing. The cultural left is playing right into the hands of the power elites who need them to effect their divide-and-conquer strategy. They are being played against the red-state patriots in the same way that southern elites played poor whites off of poor blacks. There are doleful historical precedents for this kind of thing that we should all find disturbing.
That's the danger--as most of us dither doing our own thing, forces on the right are being marshaled to put an end to all of that. And they have much more political will, discipline, and a clearer picture about what their objectives are than the unfocused, disorganized flakes on the left. Some other credible basis for opposition--some new vision--has to be found. I'm lookin' but I'm not seeing anything, and that's what's so discouraging.
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Framing vs. Fencing. If you haven't seen this piece by Hudson at The Daily Kos already, be sure to check it out. (Be patient--it takes a while to download into your browser because of the huge chain of responses discussing it.) His point is that Democrats are way behind in the arms race when it comes to the development propaganda weapons.
The Republicans have practiced what George Lakoff calls "framing" for over twenty years with good effect, and now as the dim-witted Democrats are catching on, the Republicans have moved to the next level, which Hudson calls "fencing." While the Democrats are still figuring out how to string that bow and notch that arrow, the GOP is mass producing crossbows.
Here's an excerpt:
Lakoff's insight was that in any debate, the side which spends more time crafting clever "frames" to define each of those issues has a major advantage. One of his oft-repeated examples is the right's clever invention (and endless repetition) of the phrase "climate change" in place of "global warming," to make that urgent and potentially devastating crisis seem more natural, just part of a gradual trend, rendering the public more apathetic.
Therein lies the problem with the Democrats' late adoption of framing: it assumes that people always want to hear from more than one side before taking a position.
This is where the increasingly common and infinitely more insidious Republican strategy of "fencing" comes in. As we Democrats play catch-up on the framing of specific issues, the Republicans (having largely mastered framing already) have refocused and redoubled their efforts to fence voters off from ever contemplating Democratic and progressive frames.
While still holding up their end when necessary to frame a debate, the Republicans are spending more and more of their time browbeating the public into blocking out our arguments altogether.
In the Bush-Kerry campaign, "fencing" mostly took the form of playground insults and other humiliations: Kerry looks French. Kerry spends a fortune on haircuts. Kerry is vain and pompous. Kerry has funny hair. Kerry's voice is funny. Kerry reminds people of Lurch on The Addams family. Kerry wears Lycra--fluorescent-striped Lycra. Kerry rides a fancy European bike. Kerry looks fruity when he windsurfs. Kerry wears expensive suits, ties, sunglasses, shoes and belts. Kerry asks for French mustard when he orders a hot dog. Kerry falls when he skis, then blames it on the Secret Service. Kerry hung out with Hanoi Jane. Kerry threw his medals over a fence. Kerry faked his war wounds. Kerry only marries rich women. Kerry's latest wife is a rich, loudmouthed foreigner whom he can't control. Kerry is a phony. And of course, Kerry flip-flops.
Almost all of these jibes--which most sixth graders would be embarrassed to say--were also accompanied by photographs or video.
The goals of these juvenile but relentless attacks was obvious: To make Kerry into a ridiculous figure. To put the very idea of taking John Kerry seriously out of the realm of possibility. To make people dismiss Kerry's candidacy no matter how much sense he made. Don't listen to the French-looking phony. Whatever he says, it can only be an absurd lie, coming from such a pompous, traitorous, pampered Lurch-like gold digger.
Though you'd think that most Americans would resent such below-the-belt and immature jabs at a serious politician, the effect over time is to build an edifice of humiliation that does effectively fence a significant number voters off from the opponent. This further enabled the Bush campaign to focus narrowly on turnout and winning that slim margin among undecideds--while Kerry was still innocently trying to run a 1959-style campaign.
You could say that Kerry was an easy target for such a strategy--as was Gore four years earlier. But the point is well taken--the whole strategy is designed to prevent any kind of serious debate. It's meant to make anything people opposed to the GOP corporate power agenda say appear to be radioactive. The logic goes something like this: Kerry and Gore are sissy posers, Kerry and Gore care about the environment, if you care about the enivronment, then QED, you're a sissy poser, too. The listener to this "argument" thinks: Since I don't want people to think I'm sissy poser, it is not possible for me to care about the environment. I support the president and his policies because he is no sissy poser. He's a real man.
This is idiotic middle-school thinking, but hey, whatever works. It's all about getting to 51%. And despite the purported condescension that Liberals have for rednecks in pickups, I don't think they ever thought Americans would be dumb enough to be manipulated so easily. It's the GOP elite who really has understood how gullible its constituency is. Liberals in their own kind of naivete have had much more faith in the ability of the democratic process of honest debate and deliberation to develop sound policy. To think that majorities in American electorate are created not by real debate but by clever media manipulation is not a matter of condescension; it's a matter of seeing clearly how things work. And the GOP elite has had a much more accurate perception of the manipulability of the American public than liberals have had, and they have exploited that knowledge very effectively.
But what really disturbs me is that more sensible, principled conservatives who can see that this is what's going on aren't nauseated by it. They are ok with being complicit in this fraud.
Friday, March 11, 2005
Bully or Hero? Last week I put up an excerpt of an interview with Stephen Ducat in which he convincingly described the kind of crude masculinity that seems to be at the heart of GOP identity. But I've been thinking about it since, and there is an issue here that needs a more in-depth look. While I think the macho idea of masculinity is the coarsest way of imagining what it means to be a man, there are not very many alternative images that define for young men that to which they might aspire. And the result is a kind of mushiness that I've been lamenting when using the Nietzschean vocabulary of the Last Man.
There is something in every spirited young man's soul that aspires to an ideal of noble manhood, but there are very few men in contemporary American society who can model that for them. There are lots of nice, decent men, but few heroic men. I was lucky enough to have met or to have known many fine adults in my young manhood, and I am grateful to them, but none modeled for me what I longed most deeply to become. And so I have become what I have become for better or worse, but now I think about the whole process as my fourteen-year-old son is about to go through it in the next ten years or so. We always want something better for our children than we had for ourselves, and so it's a pressing question for me. What would this better be?
For many young men entering the military has been a traditional way to realize this ideal. I have students, soldiers, in my classes who exhibit such a nobility. They are good kids, really good kids. There is a certain naive idealism in their attitudes, but there is a more important element, a noble element. These kids are not bullies; they are heroes sent to do a bully's work. The problem they face, though, when they come back from their tours to normal life is the same as that faced by other young men, a system that seeks to redirect their energies toward objectives that are not worthy of them, and as R.W. Emerson said, "Every hero becomes a bore at last."
We have seen or heard of many extraordinary young men, who never ripened, or whose performance in actual life was not extraordinary. When we see their air and mien, when we hear them speak of society, of books, of religion, we admire their superiority, they seem to throw contempt on our entire polity and social state; theirs is the tone of a youthful giant, who is sent to work revolutions. But they enter an active profession, and the forming Colossus shrinks to the common size of man. The magic they used was the ideal tendencies, which always make the Actual ridiculous; but the tough world had its revenge the moment they put their horses of the sun to plough in its furrow. They found no example and no companion, and their heart fainted. (Emerson, "Heroism")
Our culture provides no trellis upon which these young souls can grow to realize the greatness that lies within and which longs to be realized.
A lot of women are unhappy in their marriages because their husbands, despite their early promise, failed or shriveled in the way Emerson describes. And the men feel the shame of it, and yet don't quite know how it happened. But if it were true in Emerson's day, it's even worse now-- there are precious few models for young men to emulate or to inspire their aspiration. In other words, there is no living tradition in which young people grow up and in which they encounter living examples of virtue and heroism. And I would also argue that men once they reach adulthood haven't been helped much by the masculinizaton of women. For if women scorn their men for lacking a robust or heroic masculinity, the men also long for robust femininity, which has become almost as rare. They are too often soul-starved by their women who have in their own way lost their souls.
American men and women these days lack a robust masculinity or femininity; they have become rather flat-souled and dull. They lack what might be described as feminine virtue or masculine virtue, which are qualities of soul--not physical qualities or intellectual qualities, but soul qualities. And I've wondered for several years now if the obsessive need for women and men to achieve an ideal of physical feminine or masculine beauty and this whole bizarre focus on sexual performance, with boob size and penis length, isn't a compensation for a culture wide loss of a soulful masculinity and femininity. It's an attempt to manifest on a physical level what is lacking on the soul level. Men think that they are failing the women in their lives sexually, but rather it's their failure to radiate a masculine spiritedness. They think they need to be bulls when in fact what they need to be is heroes, by which I mean exemplars of masculine virtue. Women feel that they need to be cows with abudant udders to be interesting to their men, but what they need is a feminine spiritedness.
I'm thinking about "virtue" in the sense that I first came across it when I was studying the Italian Renaissance as an undergraduate. As I remember what I learned then, the Italian virtu does not have the meaning of being a boyscout in the sense of somebody who is well behaved and who does as he's told. It's a moral quality, to be sure, but not a moralistic quality. The word had more the sense of masculine spiritedness and is related more to the word virtuoso, a man who has achieved excellence as a fully realized talent.
The ideal for the "renaissance man" was to be a man of virtu, which meant to be a man of many excellences--accomplished in the arts of war & politics as well as the fine arts--not as a connoisseur, but as an accomplished maker or creator, as poet, painter, and musician, and in many cases in architecture and natural philosophy. Being specialized or good at one thing was not the ideal. The ideal, rather, was to achieve balanced development and to become fully realized as a complete human being. Specialization requires to some degree the hypertrophying of one dimension of one's humanity while allowing other dimensions of one's humanity to atrophy.
Men in contemporary American society have hypertrophied heads and genitals, and atrophied souls. I call it missing middle syndrome. Women suffer similarly, but not as badly.
Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations, and scornful of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness, and of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is the butt and merriment of heroism.
This is an imagination of heroism that goes back to the days of the Greek and Roman republics. It is completely at odds with the type of avaricious corporate climber, or powerlusting politician. Glory and the immortality that comes with fame were motivators at the heart of this older republican mentality, but they were tempered later by forms of Christian republicanism that developed after the Renaissance and Reformation. It was an ideal that informed the imaginations of the American founding fathers.
Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche were all 19th Century thinkers who hated how modernity was shriveling the souls of men and women and drew on these earlier ideas of virtue and heroism as a counterpoint for the leveling, materialistic forces that was making men into the spirit-challenged humans Nietzsche called the Last Men.
Of course, Nietzsche blamed Christianity for promoting this slavish, weak-souled quality, and there is some merit in the accusation. But that's a theme I want to address in coming posts. Because now more than ever we need an imagination of future possibility that has religious roots and which inspires in us, and perhaps more importantly inspires in the young, an aspiration toward robust virtue. This is not a liberal project.
Thursday Morning, March 9, 2005
A Republic if You Can Keep It. The phrase is attributed to Benjamin Franklin as a response when he was asked after exiting of the Constitutional Convention whether the founders had established a monarchy or a republic. The American republic's establishment was considered then, as it should be considered now, an undertaking that was in no way guaranteed permanence.
Since the founding of the republic we've had two major crises that have threatened it--the Civil War and the Great Depression/WWII. After each the republic was transformed into something very different from what it had been in the period before them. And after each economic and political power became more concentrated and centralized. After the Civil War the basic structure for the development of the industrial state was established; after WWII, the structure for the military-industrial complex.
I believe that since 9/11 we have entered into a third crisis, and that this crisis has all the signs of continuing the long-term trend toward greater concentrations of power in fewer hands. The evidence abounds that this is what is happening to us, but the world is complex and there are too many dots to connect. It's easy to filter out the dots we don't want to deal with and give undue prominence to the dots that support our beliefs. So ultimately it's not about how smart you are, because the cleverest people are capable of erecting the most elaborate structures of self-delusion. (These are the groupthink complexes that I was writing about last week.) It's not about being clever; it's ultimately about one's ability to make good judgments. And that's the big test right now. Who is deluded and who is clear minded in his perceptions about what is going on? Or maybe we're all nuts.
Most Americans don't care that much about what's going on in the political sphere unless it has a direct impact on them. And so most are inclined not to pay attention, and instead to trust the people whom they have elected--or if not the people, the system with its checks and balances--to preserve their basic rights. We're vaguely aware about what's happening to us in Washington, as its being filtered to us through the huge nationwide media conglomerates. And very little comes into our awareness that we find particularly disturbing.
What's the worst that could happen to us after all? That some legislation might adversely impact us in a remote way--like a gas tax. It's annoying, but it will hardly change the way most of us live our day-to-day lives. There are bigger issues, of course. We go to war and we root for our team to win. If things aren't going well, we lose interest, as fans lose interest in their local sports teams when they are losing. Unless we know somebody who is directly involved, we would rather focus on other things.
When you think about it, our political allegiances in general are rather like our allegiances to our favorite sports teams. We're glad when they win, but win our lose, we go back to living our lives which have hardly changed at all. Life goes on. Who cares really about what's going on in Washington, or even less our state houses? It's too complicated and boring to try to follow all the technical ins and outs. Just elect the guy who we think will keep us safe and who seems like a regular guy. And so it's easy to miss the big story about the structural changes that are taking place--and these changes are threatening to destroy what remains of our republic, and over time these will have profound consequences on the way we live with the severest impact on our children and grandchildren. But it's hard to feel them now. And its' hard to see them. They are lost in the all the complexity that surrounds us.
So at the risk of being perceived by many of you as suffering from my own paranoid delusions, let's imagine the worst case. I'd be interested in any quick responses from readers to let me know how many of you see the scenario I'm going to lay out as paranoid or plausible. Because what do I know? I'm not saying that this will happen. I'm saying it could. And what worries me is that things are set up now in such a way that if such steps were taken, I don't know what could be done to prevent them. We're just trusting that the guys in power right now have the integrity not to do it. And from where I stand these people have repeatedly abused that trust, and I just don't know if there is a line that they won't cross. I want to believe that there is, but I can't help but believe that to think so is naive.
The Scenario: The U.S. suffers another catastrophic terrorist attack, and the president with the support of congress imposes martial law.
How would life change? For most of us it wouldn't. We all continue to work and live much the same as we did before. The grass will continue to grow. Our dogs will still be glad to see us when we come home. The baseball season goes on as usual. Kids graduate from their schools and go to their summer camps. Movies are released, and the new fall programming for TV is the same.
There will be intense government pressure on the major networks to make things appear as normal as possible. The Wolf Blitzers, Brian Williams, and Brit Humes of the media world soft pedal the effects of martial law, and tell us repeatedly that the only people who need worry are those who are a threat to public security. And that's what we will want to believe. Hey, it's necessary. They're doing this for our own good, to keep us safe. But everything in fact will have changed.
The mainstream media and its pundits will direct all their public outrage toward the terrorists, and anybody who would protest the imposition of martial law would be filtered out of any coverage. Other more independent-minded journalists would be muzzled or fired. People who dissented in independent media would be arrested for treason or sedition. If violent protests developed, they would be violently repressed.
Then we would start hearing rumors that camps were being built and that Arab American families, like the Japanese Americans during WWII, were being interned in them. Again, there would be a flurry of protests, and they would be quickly suppressed. We'll hear rumors of brutal conditions and about torture, and all of them will be either denied or justified as necessary in the ongoing war on terror.
A good number of Americans would be upset by these events, but would at the same time feel powerless to do anything about it. And for most life goes on as usual. It doesn't impact them in a way that changes their lives significantly. So it's easy not to think about it too much. We're told repeatedly by government officials through a now government-dominated media that these steps are taken to preserve our security, and to prevent future catastrophes. Bad things are happening to "other" people, and, we rationalize, 99% of them probably deserve it. It doesn't affect you unless someone you care about is being hurt.
And then, after some time has passed and we've adjusted to the new order, more Americans start to feel the negative impact of these changes. If it hadn't been already done, a military draft is instituted. The economy takes a significant hit and is plunged into severe recession. Layoffs abound, and employers start wage rollbacks. Any attempt by workers to unionize or protest will be treated as unpatriotic in this time of crisis and would be quickly suppressed by government troops.
I could go on in this vein, but you get the idea. Power is concentrating to such a point now in this alliance between corporate world and political world that there is no counterbalance. There is no way to stop it from complete domination of our national life. Things have become structured in such a way that we are a corporate/military dictatorship waiting to happen. All that is needed is a trigger.
We tell ourselves that something like this couldn't happen because things like that just don't happen in America. They just don't. This kind of thing only happens elsewhere. The system is too complex; the society is too diverse. Information is too readily available. Maybe. That's what I would have thought ten years ago. But events since Gore/Bush 2000 have made me think differently. Why should we be immune? Are we different from any other human beings who have lived?
Look at the history of nations. The founding fathers did. They understood how precarious was the continued existence of a balanced republic. Why should our history be governed by other than the universal rule: Power tends to concentrate in the hands of fewer and fewer people unless concerted efforts are made to prevent it. The founding fathers understood this, and it was just this kind of thing that they worried about, and so should we.
Tuesday, March 8, 2005
Radical Motivation. Most people are motivated to fight against the loss of what they have more than they are motivated to fight for some abstract utopia of the future. Christopher Lasch makes this argument in The True and Only Heaven in describing the sources of the radicalism of the 19th century labor movement. Nineteenth century labor radicalism wasn't rooted so much in a desire to control the future so much as it was a desire to preserve an older way of life:
In the Terre Haute of his youth, Debs said, "the laborer had no concern about his position. The boss depended upon him, and the laborer's ambition was to run a little shop of his own." Shoemakers in Lynn "remembered the self-reliance of the artisan," according to Dawley, "and recalled the time when the tasks of shoemaking intimately intermingled with the tasks of family and community life [and] . . . the journeyman was both shoemaker and householder, whose daily activity followed the intertwining of rhythms of both roles." It was this background of "household independence" and prefactory customs," Dawley argues, that underlay the solidarity of factory workers during the early stages of industrialization." The militancy of the factory worker is hard to imagine without the legacy of artisan protest against the encroachments of capitalism into the sphere of production." . . .
By shifting attention from unionization to the study of working-class culture, the new labor historians have shown that a whole way of life was at stake in the struggle against industrialism. Workers were defending not just their economic interests but their crafts, families, and neighborhoods. The recognition that economic interests are not enough to inspire radical or revolutionary agitation or to make people accept its risks suggests a more sweeping conclusion. Resistance to innovation, it appears, is an important, perhaps indispensable ingredient in revolutionary action, along with a tendency to identify innovation with the disruption of older communities by invasive forces from outside. In the twentieth century, revolutions have typically taken the form of wars of national liberation and something of the same impulse, it can be argued, underlay working class radicalism of the nineteenth century. Workers saw their oppressors, the "capitalists" and moneylenders, as outsiders more often than they saw them as members of their own communities--agents of foreign power, in effect, of a "paper system" or an international money trust that robbed Englishmen or Americans of their inherited rights and threatened to reduce them to [wage] slavery.
The appeal to the past, in other words, also implied an appeal to the local, regional, or national solidarity in the face of outside invasion--something far more substantial than the hypothetical solidarity of the international proletariat. For historians who inherit from the Enlightenment (in the form of Marxism) a belief that moral progress requires the replacement of local attachments and a parochial outlook by successively wider and more inclusive identities, culminating in the Workers' International, the intensely localistic element in nineteenth century radicalism (not to mention the religious spirit that often informed it) comes as a disconcerting discovery.
In other words,19th Century labor radicals were profoundly conservative in their motivation. They saw the coming industrial order as a force that would destroy their way of life and of their hopes to have someday their own small businesses. This was the 19th Century American Dream when most Americans were either master artisans or apprentices working for a master until they had skill enough to go out on their own. These artisans thought of themselves as middle class, and they fought against the forces that they correctly saw were pushing them into the proletariat.
The small-scale capitalism of the early 19th century and the society that supported it was destroyed by the end of the century. Does the problem for those of us who cannot stomach the "new industrial/state order" that emerged after the Civil War lie in that we cannot find the motivation to fight against it because we have nothing left to fight for?
The reason I am not a conservative is because there is nothing left to conserve. The life has been sucked out of the tradition and only the husks remain. I am not motivated to defend the husks. I will gladly fight for the forces of life that once animated them. But those forces are in a state of dormancy now, and that's just the way it is.
Saturday, March 5, 2005
It's All about Domination. I'm excerpting some interesting comments from an interview with Stephen Ducat that I think complement what I've been saying about Powerlust over the last several weeks. When I read people like Charles Krauthammer and some other right-wing commentators, I've been astonished that anybody so intelligent and psychologically sophisticated could not be aware of how his ideas are a justification for the crudest kind of animal aggression. Here's Ducat:
In a culture based on male domination and in which most things feminine tend to be devalued, even if they are secretly envied, the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman. This powerful adult male imperative to be unlike females and to repudiate anything that smacks of maternal caretaking is played out just as powerfully in politics as it is in personal life. In fact, political contests among men are in many ways the ultimate battles for masculine supremacy. This makes disavowing the feminine in oneself and projecting it onto one’s opponent especially important. This femiphobia--this male fear of being feminine--operates unconsciously in many men as a very powerful determinant of their political behavior. It also constitutes a very significant motive for fundamentalist terrorism.
Femininity, for male fundamentalists, is seen as a contaminant, and there is an attempt to repudiate those aspects of one’s self that seem feminine. This is something that fundamentalists around the world share. As I argue in the last chapter of my book, there is a surprising affinity between Christian fundamentalists in this country and the extreme Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere, when it comes to this kind of devaluation, repudiation and fear of the feminine.
In fact, the kind of hyper-masculine strutting that we see on display by right wing males is a defense. It’s a defense against this anxious masculinity, against their fear of the feminine. In a culture in which it’s so important to deny the feminine in men, masculinity becomes a really brittle achievement. It’s quite Sisyphean--you know, you can never quite get there. You’re always having to prove it.
Part of the reason is that this type of masculinity is defined largely in terms of domination. The problem is that domination--either in a personal or a global context--can never be a permanent condition. It’s a relational state. It’s dependent on having somebody in a subordinate position. That means you could be manly today, but you’re not going to be manly tomorrow unless you’ve got somebody to push around and control, whether that is an abused wife or another country. So this kind of masculinity is really brittle.
I also saw the Republican National Convention as essentially a hyper-masculine strut-fest. The real point of the convention was to make John Kerry their woman. That’s what they wanted to do. They had already done that with John Edwards by dubbing him the “Breck girl.” And Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to proclaim that any men who were anxious about the loss of jobs under the reign of George W. Bush were, as he put it, “economic girlie-men.” The inference was that Democratic candidates who were always whining about pink slips may as well be wearing pink slips. Real men, you know, don’t worry about the losers in the new global Darwinian economy.
This theme was echoed by a number of people, including Zell Miller, who said that not only was Kerry suspiciously French [code for effeminate], but he would even let Paris decide when America needs defending. There was the implication that, if Kerry were ever to run the White House, he would imperil the masculinity of all men by turning the U.S. into a kind of submissive bottom in the global contest for supremacy, the deferential housewife in the family of nations.
Cheney basically echoed the same themes, referring to Kerry as sensitive, faint-hearted, weak, wobbly, soft. Since the reign of Bush, even the notion of negotiation or diplomacy, or international cooperation became very suspect. For many Republicans, collaboration raises enormous femiphobic anxieties, even if they’re collaborating--and perhaps especially if they’re collaborating--with Democrats. GOP strategist Grover Norquist once said that bipartisanship is another name for date rape. So that tells you about his anxiety, I think.
In the world they live in, you’re either a top or a bottom. Mutuality, democracy, equality--that makes no sense to them.
Bulls in the animal world bash one another in domination battles to establish themselves as the leader of the pack or herd. Humans are no better than animals when they do the same thing. Healthy, well-developed human beings find a way to work things out and use violence only in self-defense and only as an absolute last resort. For people like Krauthammer, though, working things out is for girls.
I've been saying all along that what drives political violence are issues that relate to identity. It's most obvious in situations like Northern Ireland or between the Israelis and Palestinians. But I've been thinking about it primarily in terms of the way consumer capitalism homogenizes culture and annihilates the traditional communities that supported healthy identity formation.
The republican ideal was to have independent-minded, self-reliant, well-informed citizens--men and women who know who they were and who were suspicious of concentrations of power in governments or in centers of finance. But we have witnessed over the last century a society that has made the development of such human beings more the exception than the rule.
Our society is creating more people who have a weak sense of self, and such people feel powerless, and one effective way to seek to redress the feeling of powerlessness is by bullying. Bullies are people who feel weak and frightened and so attack others as a way to prove to themselves and others that they are not weak and cowardly. They live in a state of constant anxiety about being shamed--for being perceived as losers, as nobodies.
That explains to a significant extent the psychology that drove Timothy McVeigh to do what he did in Oklahoma City, what Harris and Klebold did in Littleton, CO, what Osama did on 9/11. It all starts with a feeling of powerlessness and resentment at those who have humiliated them by their strutting and condescension. There are few emotions that have greater potential to drive men to rageful acts of violence than those that are excited by being humiliated in this way. The U.S has done just about everything it could possibly do to enrage the entire middle east with its humiliation of Muslims. And I'm not just talking about Abu Ghraib.
People who have a healthy sense of self feel no need to prove that they are strong. They know that they are, or at least as strong as they need to be. The reason that people possessed by powerlust can never have enough is because for them there is never the feeling of strength that comes from being genuinely strong. These are all hollow men who have filled their emptiness with a lust for domination. They are a bottomless pit of anxiety, so they have to keep doing things which seek to fill the emptiness. As such they are dangerous, and they need to be grounded and sent to their rooms. Instead last November we gave them the keys to the car.
Thursday Morning, March 3, 2005
It's Complex. Some people have trouble with what I've been saying because they see it as a stereotyping, if not a demonizing, of the Right. Yes and no. Some people are more identified with the groupthink than others, and I think it's fair to say that those who are most identified have become stereotypes. Such a condition is a form of mental illness in which one has lost his mind and has another mind thinking in him. Contemporary psychologists call this other mind a "complex," premodern societies called them demons. Whatever--the symptoms are the same.
Complexes are usually thought of as belonging to an individual, but I think the concept can be expanded to include group complexes. People act in stereotypical ways to the degree that they become identified with a "group complex" and its groupthink. No healthy person allows himself to be completely identified with such complexes, but we all feel their influence. We feel it any time we're in a group and have that uncomfortable feeling that we might be saying something that would be politically incorrect, something that the group would find offensive, even if what we said were perfectly sensible and valid. Insofar as they don't fit comfortably within the groupthink's basic assumptions, some truths are very difficult to hear. Whatever it is that makes certain ideas acceptable and others taboo is what I'm pointing to here as the "complex." Whatever it is in us that responds to something that the other says that we find politically incorrect is a sign of the complex operating in our psyches. Even if we are not controlled by it, we feel it.
Now we all know people whose views are completely predictable--there's an automatic, virtually mechanical quality to them, even if they express their views with passionate intensity. These people have become stereotypes to the degree that they have given themselves up to the complex. We also know people who align themselves with positions that are similar to those intrinsic to the complex, but who are not identified with it. This is more common. The point is this: The complex itself has a stereotypical quality to it, even if different people relate to it in different ways.
With people in the first category, to the degree that they are identified with the complex, no conversation is possible. But it is possible to converse with people in the second category.What I want to hear in the other is an honest spirit struggling to figure something out, and when I do, I want to engage with him or her, even if the other's views are opposed to mine. But when I hear the complex talking, there's no point in continuing unless a way can be found to snap him out of it.
A conversation can only be entered into by two people who are vulnerable to be changed by it, and that vulnerability is possible only to the degree that we are free of the influence of these complexes. I plead guilty to failing to live up to this standard more often than I want to think about. But I know the difference between when I'm on my soapbox and when I'm really listening, really searching out what's most honest in the other. But sometimes you just can't find it in the other; it has become unavailable to the person himself. That's profound alienation, and it's mental illness, even though such a person might be high functioning in his or her daily life.
So then in my attacks on the cultural Right, am I stereotyping or demonizing them? I would say yes, I am, insofar as I'm attacking the complex, because there is a demonic, stereotypical quality to any complex. And you might ask me whether my own attacks are motivated by my own thralldom to the complexes of the Left. It's a fair question. I would say that sometimes they are influenced by the Left complex, particularly its critique of the existing system. But more often I think it's the case that while some of my views align with the critique of the Left, I have tried to make clear that I do not identify with the Left nor do I support its secularist program. And if I felt the complexes of the Left were more of a threat to the well being of American society at this time, I would be attacking them instead. At this time the greater threat comes from the Right.
These complexes swirl around us. Everything depends on where you stand. There are too many people who have lost their footing and have been sucked into one or another groupthink complex on the Left or the Right--or any number of other places as well. The main challenge these days is to keep one's footing.
Wednesday Morning, March 2, 2005
Controlling the Majority Groupthink. Here's how it's done:
The White House and its media allies, echoing a deep-rooted conservative antagonism toward the so-called liberal media, say they are simply countering its bias. But critics charge that the White House, along with partners like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, organizations whose allegiance to the Republican Party outweighs their commitment to journalism, is actually trying to permanently weaken the press. Its motivation, they say, is twofold. Weakening the press weakens an institution that's structurally an adversary of the White House. And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts -- the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.
" Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press," says Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was granted unique access inside the White House in 2002 to report on the administration's communication strategy. "For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it's in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you're able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks. Armstrong Williams and others are examples of that."
Williams, the radio talk show host and conservative columnist who was paid by the administration to write allegedly independent, legitimate pieces supporting Bush policies, was among several pundits who accepted contracts from the administration while at the same type hyping White House initiatives. News in January of Williams' contract was the first of many headlines this year to raise questions about the Bush administration's attempt to undermine the independent press. "It's basically gaming journalism," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It shows withering contempt for journalism. What's frightening is that it's been done with total disregard, or lack of concern, about being exposed."
According to David Brock, author of "The Right Wing Noise Machine" and CEO of Media Matters for America, a progressive, not-for-profit advocacy group, the White House's ultimate aim is to raise doubts about the information independent journalists produce. "Their explicit goal is to get us to the point where there are blue [state] facts and red [state] facts," Brock says. Eliminating agreed-upon facts has obvious political advantages for the White House. The most glaring example is Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD, the rationale for the war. No WMD were found in Iraq, a fact that was widely reported in all the mainstream media, but scarcely mentioned in Bush-friendly media organizations like Fox News. Polls consistently showed that remarkably high percentages of Americans, and extraordinarily high percentages of Bush supporters, believed that WMD were found in Iraq. Another example is the alleged connection between Saddam and al-Qaida; although the connection has been found to be nonexistent, many Americans -- and particularly Fox viewers -- have said they believe the two were connected. In similar fashion, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last December, coming on the heels of the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, found that 75 percent of Bush supporters thought the war in Iraq was going "very well."
Of course, the public's erroneous beliefs could be the result of simple ignorance or its increasing reliance on partisan media outlets, not a conscious plan by the White House. But the two are not mutually exclusive. And the Bush administration's well-documented mastery of cold-blooded political hardball, its record of contempt for journalism, its cavalier willingness to cross ethical lines in dealing with the press, and its arrogant assertion that it alone creates and controls reality, make it difficult to dismiss outright the idea that its approach to the press is strategic, not just tactical.
This is from Eric Boehlert's "Tearing Down the Press" in Salon this morning. It's chilling. When it gets to the point when supporters view any criticism of Bush in the media as liberal bias, then the power conservatives have achieved their goal. They can say anything they want and dismiss any alternative version of what's going on as "biased." They thus create their own groupthink version of reality and all right-thinking, patriotic, idealistic Americans will fervidly believe in it. Did I say, "When it gets to the point . . ."?