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February 24, 2011

Right Wing Tricksters and the (Moral) Deficit in Wisconsin

Recently, a friend and former student of mine attended a meeting of the Young Republicans on the USC campus to hear Andrew Breitbart. It was, by her account, a harrowing experience. Breitbart focused much of his tirade on her and her companion since they self-identified as liberal Democrats. And while he seemed to strain at the goal of proving himself to be the passionate-yet-fair-guy-who-only-wants-a-good-clean-spirited-debate-because-he-knows-he’s-right, what he put on display what nothing but pure bigotry directed at her and, she perceived, her Indian heritage. As she wrote on her own blog site:

I have never felt so hated and so disliked. The entire time he spoke it was hate hate and more hate...directed right at us (even if he claimed to just be getting "passionate"). The things he said made me feel so uncomfortable and hopeless. It's like they really see us as a different people. The attacking way he spoke, the self-absorbed audacity to bash other people at the lowest of levels. But the thing was that with every point he made I started to feel more and more that I didn't belong in the room, I can't recall specifics because the whole thing was one carefully calculated reason for why people like me and my family don't belong. Like they really want me to take my family and go back to India.
The point that stands out the most was his criticism of multiculturalism. About half way through I just started to cry...I don't know if I was crying cause I had never felt so hated...or because I realized that our country is never going to be able to solve differences...or because I realized that people like him actually really exist...or that I should really move to Canada...or maybe because of the hypocrisy of what he was saying, the level to which he was willing to stoop to somehow get back at the other side somehow....I don't know why I got so emotional. but I think the main reason is cause there were 40 people in that room that really didn't want me there, people that maybe listen to the same music, or like the same movies, but at their core really see me as some sort of plague to this country. All he could talk about was how Liberals had somehow skewed the course of this country and how they had infected everything from Hollywood to Politics. He claimed to be upset that people like him can't freely speak their minds.

It would be one thing, of course, if Breitbart was a lone wolf, an outlier. But he’s not. He represents a very particular—and peculiar—type in modern American political conservatism; a type that I think defines the entire movement. My own name for it is “Right-Wing Trickster.” The Trickster is a familiar archetype in world literature. They take several forms, but they are often subversive characters who undermine the social order—often felt to be oppressive—through magic or chicanery. In Republican politics they go back as far (at least) as Nixon and begin with deep, very sincere conviction that America has been led astray by Liberals generally, and their ethnic and racial constituencies in particular. But to compound their anger, they also feel frustrated and incensed that their liberal enemies have been able to define the dominant moral narrative (i.e., the evil of racism, the virtue of social cooperation) and enforce it through a shaming mechanism they call “political correctness.” This—they firmly believe—is calculated to silence them politically. (That is, moral strictures against racism, uncivil discourse, and such are really all about disarming political opponents.) Many of them may hate other groups, but they don’t think that hatred should be called racism because racism is, by definition, “irrational,” and they have very “rational” reasons for being angry at those groups who compete with them and theirs—especially when those groups are able to ”unfairly” monopolize government resources

So, what are these right-wing “victims” supposed to do? While they don’t feel at all restrained by the dominant moral narrative—indeed, they regard it as illegitimate, challenging it poses risks. So rather than openly flaunting it—which they know would discredit them—they pay it lip service while simultaneously sabotaging it and those “liberal elites” who “oppress” them. In their own view of themselves, they are like the wily servant who smiles, polishes his master’s boots, and then spits in his soup when his back is turned. These tricksters don’t think of themselves as mean or fraudulent, but clever and righteous.

In the Eighties and Nineties, as these Young Republican pranksters grew up and gained elective office, tricksterism became the Republican theory of government-in-exile. The hostility that had been directed primarily on the liberal moral narrative now included almost all rules, conventions, and mores that structure political institutions and behavior within them. Structural change became the preferred vehicle for advancing their agenda—even when such “reforms” ran the risk of undermining institutional integrity. Hence: Reagan sought to control spending by demanding the line item veto; Republicans thought they could take over congress by limiting the congressional terms; Newt Gingrich skyrocketed to political celebrity by delivering scathing, “bomb-throwing” denunciations of democrats while nobody but a TV camera was around to hear; House Republicans tried to reverse the results of the 1996 presidential election by abusing the impeachment process; Tom Delay managed to get himself indicted and convicted because of his elaborate efforts to gerrymander Texas congressional districts. The list goes on. In Cheney’s famous phrase describing Valery Plame, everything was “fair game,” since rules—whether of decency or order—are always tools of the “liberal elite oppressors.” And when liberals become shocked at the outrageous and hypocritical antics of such tricksters as Lee Atwater or Karl Rove, the miscreants remain unmoved. Moral condemnation means little when those being censured have convinced themselves that they didn’t really do anything, what they did wasn’t really wrong, and besides, they’re only doing what “we forced them to do, anyway.”

All of which leads us to Wisconsin and it’s trickster governor, Scott Walker. The other day a close friend, Spence Olin, circulated a memo in which he rather adeptly underscored the fraudulence of Walker‘s hijinks. It's well worth quoting here.

Good friends,

In advance, please forgive the following rant. Tim Rutten's characteristically fine article in this morning's LA Times has elevated my concern about what is currently transpiring in Wisconsin. IMO, it is quite serious.

As you know, the Wagner Act in 1935 protected the right to organize unions and bargain collectively for many private-sector workers. But it did not cover local, state, or federal workers. This created an inequity that was first addressed, coincidentally, by Wisconsin in 1959 --the first state to enact legislation recognizing the rights of government workers to bargain collectively. Interestingly, Governor Reagan signed similar legislation for California public workers in 1968 (and even when he did battle with air-traffic controllers in 1981, he never advocated getting rid of collective bargaining in government).

Since the mid-1970s, anti-union forces have become increasingly fervent in their actions and have waged a strenuous battle to roll back collective bargaining. This battle has now arrived at the state level, where Tea Party Republican governors are seeking to use the current economic crisis to try out a new and potentially more potent anti-union argument. Namely, we can no longer afford collective bargaining because the wages, health benefits, and pensions of government workers are driving states into deep and dangerous deficits. (This, by the way, despite the fact that state and local employment did not grow rapidly in the last decades and when public employees are by no means "fat cats" when it comes to earnings, most making less than $50,000 a year, as do workers in the private sector -- and also at a time when a majority of state and local employees are NOT unionized.)

Govenor Walker's argument is therefore completely bogus and alarmist -- and must, IMO, be resisted everywhere and by everyone. For there is NO direct correlation between public sector collective bargaining and state budget deficits. For example, North Carolina, which does not allow government workers to bargain, faces an even higher deficit than does Wisconsin. Even in Wisconsin, it is worth noting, the governor recently signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health care policy experiment that lowered overall revenues, thereby turning a state surplus into a deficit. In this way, he has helped manufacture the crisis he now seeks to resolve on the backs on public workers. He and his Republican colleagues now seek to have public workers pick up the tab for their perverse tax-cutting agenda.

The larger goal is crystal clear. Republicans on a national level are trying to undermine organized labor as a political actor, even as corporations have increased their already immense political clout with Citizens United and in many other ways. They are seeking to turn to their own advantage Rahm Emanuel's famous quip, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." In the meantime, they are successfully turning private-sector workers against their supposedly "privileged" public-sector counterparts (as Tim Rutten makes abundantly clear in his article today).

What is going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere has NOTHING to do with puttting Americans back to work. It has EVERYTHING to do with politics. It is part of a larger and on-going effort to "starve the beast" (i.e., the government) so that it cannot function effectively, thereby further alienating the American people from it. So I call on ye to harken unto this message. Go forth into thy neighborhoods and amidst thy relatives and friends to spread THE TRUTH!

In solidarity, Spence

And if spreading the truth does not go far enough, perhaps we can join our voices with those democatic members of the Wisconsin Assembly who, tricked out of their opportunity to vote on the measure, pointed their fingers at the Republicans as they scurried out of the chamber and chanted: "shame!" "shame!" "shame!" "shame!" "shame!"

Posted by stevemack at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2011

Selfhood and the Net

Adam Gopnik’s piece in the current (2/14 & 21) New Yorker raises a pertinent but perennial question: “Does the internet change the way we think?” (It’s perennial because he quickly acknowledges that the real question is whether new media technologies in every age—from Guttenberg to television—change the way we think (and relate to each other)? In digging to the answer he surveys an array of books on the issue, categorizing them according to their relative optimism, pessimism, or historically tempered acquiescence. Ultimately, after leading us through the jungle of naysaying worrywarts and techno-Pollyannas, he chooses not to answer the question but to recast it to suit his own disposition for reasonableness and moderation: it (and all such technology)is only dangerous if we let it take over our lives—as all such media is want to do.

It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teen-ager.)
Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”
It’s actually a smart position. And despite the fact that he gets there by being a little too glib about some very real concerns—such as the prospect that the use of particular technologies may actually effect changes in cognitive structure—he also stumbles upon a very important insight: the erosion of the public/private dichotomy of selfhood.
Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own. (I’ve felt this myself, writing anonymously on hockey forums: it is easy to say vile things about Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the N.H.L., with a feeling of glee rather than with a sober sense that what you’re saying should be tempered by a little truth and reflection.) Thus the limitless malice of Internet commenting: it’s not newly unleashed anger but what we all think in the first order, and have always in the past socially restrained if only thanks to the look on the listener’s face—the monstrous music that runs through our minds is now played out loud.

Most of us, I suspect, grow up with a reasonably firm grasp of the distinction between our public selves and our private selves, our inside voice and our outside voice, the way we talk around the dinner table and the way we talk in school. But never before have we had such an opportunity to expand the scope and reach of that outside self. Whereas once that self might be restricted to school, church, or the workplace—and the purposes, rules, and subject matter that generally attend those places—now we are all enabled to speak on all manner of public issues and be heard (potentially, at least) across the globe. This is all well and good, except that we are also enabled to remain utterly and completely private while doing so.

Posted by stevemack at 01:04 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2011

Egypt the New Turkey

The debate over the degree of comfort the west should feel concerning whatever role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in a reorganized Egypt took an intelligent turn over the weekend with this piece in the New York Times. The augment, essentially, is that the model ought to be Turkey. There, the Islamist prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led a government since 2003 that has apparently negotiated its recent democratic tradition (and secular politics) with policies that advance economic growth.

Posted by stevemack at 12:53 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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