April 4, 2007

Globalizing the economy may well be necessarya continuous metaphor even – for the globalization of our personal psychology through psychotechnologies. The most interesting question here is: how does the individual relate to such a situation?”

-Derrick de Kerckhove


On Discourse

March 6, 2007


I think that one of the reasons the conservatives are mostly hanging tough with Coulter is at least partially due to what she specifically said. She used the word “faggot” to describe a Democrat. This is the premise that forms the entire basis of the Republican claim to leadership and lies at the bottom of the media’s continuing ridiculous assumption that the Republicans are more natural leaders than Democrats. For forty years the Republicans have been winning elections by calling liberals “faggots” (and “dykes”) in one way or another. It’s what they do. To look too closely at what she said is to allow light on their very successful reliance on gender stereotypes to get elected.

Al Gore needed to be taught how to be an “alpha male.” He doesn’t “know who he is.”
John Kerry “flip-flops” like a flaccid penis.
John Edwards is “the Breck girl.”
Howard Dean was “hysterical.”
Barack Obama is “Obambi.”
Bill Clinton was “a pervert.”
Hillary Clinton is a lesbian.

The underlying premise of the modern conservative movement is that the entire Democratic party consists of a bunch of fags and dykes who are both too effeminate and too masculine to properly lead the nation. Coulter says it out loud. Dowd hints at it broadly. And the entire press corps giggles and swoons at this shallow, sophomoric concept like a bunch of junior high pom pom girls.

Tim Grieve:

Appearing on Fox News Monday — she bailed out on CNN — Ann Coulter said that nobody should have been offended when she called John Edwards a “faggot” at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “‘Faggot’ isn’t offensive to gays; it has nothing to do with gays,” Coulter said. “It’s a schoolyard taunt meaning ‘wuss,’ and unless you’re telling me that John Edwards is gay, it was not applied to a gay person.”

 Glenn Greenwald:

That is just the basic dynamic of garden-variety authoritarianism, and it is what the right-wing, pro-Bush political movement is at its core — far, far more than it is a set of political beliefs or geopolitical objectives or moral agendas. All of it — the obsessions with glorious “Victory” in an endless string of wars, vesting more and more power in an all-dominant centralized Leader, the forced submission of any country or leader which does not submit to the Leader’s Will, the unquestioning Manichean certainties, and especially the endless stigmatization of the whole array of Enemies as decadent, depraved and weak — it’s just base cultural tribalism geared towards making the followers feel powerful and strong and safe.

…Ann Coulter comes in and plays such a vital — really indispensible — role. As a woman who purposely exudes the most exaggerated American feminine stereotypes (the long blond hair, the make-up, the emaciated body), her obsession with emasculating Democratic males — which, at bottom, is really what she does more than anything else — energizes and stimulates the right-wing “base” like nothing else can. …

Observe in the superb CPAC video produced by Max Blumenthal how Coulter immediately mocks his physical appearance as soon as she realizes that he is a liberal. And the crowd finds it hilarious. That is what she does. She takes liberal males, emasculates them, depicts them as “faggots” and weak losers, and thereby makes the throngs of weak and insecure followers who revere her feel masculine and strong. There is no way that the right-wing movement can shun her because what she does is indispensible to the entire spectacle. What she does is merely a more explicit re-inforcement of every central theme which the right-wing movement embraces.


January 19, 2007

Mark Schmitt, on Newt Gingrich:

…the right has never seemed to care who you sleep with as long as you say the right things about who other people should sleep with.

Appearances and Their Effects

January 15, 2007

Erving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” defines “front” as an important element of the self – that is, the (often physical and context-specific) appearance that individuals give off and expect to have received by others in an expected context. He also notes,

“…appearance and manner may tend  to contradict each other, as when a performer who appears to be of higher estate than his audience acts in a manner that is unexpectedly equalitarian, or intimate, or apologeti, or when a performer dressed in the garments of a high position presents himself to an individual of even higher status.”

Once again, I couldn’t help but think of the current occupants of the United States’ executive branch, and the ways in which they repeatedly have violated the expected norms of status and manner. Perhaps the most egregious and direct example was Dick Cheney’s appearance at Auschwitz, but George W. Bush – a man whose image has been perhaps more aggressively managed than any otherPresident – is guilty of his own mismatches between presentation and appropriateness. I speak, of course, of Bush’s penchant for receiving/having designed for him innumerable jackets, hats, shirts, etc. emblazoned with his name and, most especially, “Commander-in-Chief.”

There has been in many conservative defenses of Bush a particular emphasis on how critics must respect (or are not respecting) the “office of the Presidency” or “the Commander-in-Chief.” Many draw on this as a particularly authoritarian line of defense, and while there is some of that, what’s more striking is the yawning disconnect between  these demands for “respect” and Bush’s own conduct. To be blunt: in some regards, he seems to treat the Presidency as an opportunity for souveniers. One could hardly ask for a behavior more demystifying of the United States’ highest office (and more indicting and affirming of the culture’s basest tendencies) than this sort of display of pure materialism. Wearing article of clothing after article of clothing that announces – in the same manner one might announce with a t-shirt from a midway tourist trap – the identity of the wearer is, by any standards: tacky. It’s not a reach to conclude that beneath this particular behavior lies a terrible insecurity – an insecurity over Bush’s deserving-ness of the office, and of the respect that his defenders demand be accorded him by virtue of the office – expressed in the most basic way possible: repeated written reminders that Bush is, indeed, the Commander-in-Chief.

Helplessness and War

January 13, 2007

In her book “Self-Therories,” Carol Dweck describes two broad categories of students – those who display helpless responses in the face of difficulty, and those who display mastery-oriented responses. They are roughly equal in their prevalence and overall intelligence and performance, and together account for 85% of students – these are, it seems, the two basic typologies of self among students and learners. She writes,

“…the helpless response is not just an accurate appraisal of the situation. It is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self and that impairs students’ ability to use their minds effectively.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels to contemporary political discourse in this statement. On any range of issues – and on either and both side of many debates – we see the helplessness response pop up, time and again. Many committed environmentalists regard global warming as “too big” a problem to possibly even address; many Democratic activists before last November’s elections invented scenarios grand and small for why they would never be able to regain power; many social conservatives regard American culture as “too sick” to possibly survive; etc., ad infinitum.

But the blade cuts both ways, and the helpless response can also result in tremendous obstinancy, as Dweck demonstrates with an historical example:

“Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate hearings, was facing almost certain impeachment and conviction. Yet for a long time he refused to give up his presidency, saying, “You’re never a failure until you give up. He was equating giving up not simply with failure but with being a failure.”

The parallels from this particular obstinancy to the present day are also obvious – as Atrios has been saying for a long time (at least a year):

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they’ve decided that leaving is losing.

Is all politics really this simple – is it possible to explain the most important, life-and-death, war-and-peace issues based on a simple typology of childhood learning styles? I’m coming around to the belief that perhaps this is the case.

Culture and Culpability

January 10, 2007

These next few months, I’m going to be focusing especially on culture and identity…because the raw bits of the several thousand pages of reading I do on that stuff is gonna have to go somewhere.

Atrios yesterday pointed out something that’ll probably be getting a lot of play in coming weeks:

Not going to place bets either way, but it will be interesting to see how wingnuttia responds to Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book. From the back cover blurb of the book which showed up in my mail today;

The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.

There you go.

This didn’t come from nowhere, either. It’s a meme that emerged as early as…well, as early as two days after 9/11, when Jerry Falwell said,

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

He apologized, but the die was cast – and it didn’t come from nowhere. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a case of crazy people being crazy, but that in a very important way, this claim – this kind of claim – is true to some people. It’s the same way of thinking that ascribes blame for the United States’ defeat in Viet Nam to the forces of the cultural left, who “undermined the will” of the country to fight, and is already doing the same regarding the debacle in Iraq.

This way of thinking is thrives both on triumphalism – the belief in the inherent rightness of the views and actions of its preferred parties and actors – and martyrdom – the belief that any episodes of failure can only be attibutable to insidious undermining forces from within. Given such a mindset, it is a short step to the next logical rhetorical strategy – eliminationist rhetoric. For if it is only insidious internal forces that stand in the way of eternal success, what option is there but to do away with those dissenters?

This is, needless to say, a dangerous and inherently anti-democratic outlook, superstitious in the extreme and not even acknowledging things like reason and empiricism (indeed, these are often the tools of the undermining forces). But it is nonetheless a major trope in contemporary American discourse, and ought to be acknowledged and addressed as such. That it is also the rantings of the vaguely mad does nothing to change the fact that it holds a powerful sway over our national conversation.

On American Political Identity

December 11, 2006

In a recent column in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson – one of the most prominent voices for labor and civil rights in mainstream American discourse – lets fly with both barrels on the issue of political identity:

…the Southern problem, it turns out, is really the Republicans’. They’ve become too Southern — too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie — to win friends and influence elections outside the South.

There was a time – there have been many times, in fact – when this sort of rhetoric was not uncommon in American discourse. But I only know this because I am a student of history – it has been quite some time since prominent voices were willing to so forthrightly speak of America’s “southern problem.” Meyerson, however, is not content to simply diagnose the specific policy manifestations of the Southern problem – he finishes his column by cutting right to the core:

So: A Southern low-wage labor system is cruising along until it seeks to expand outside its region and meets fierce opposition from higher-paid workers in the North. Does that suggest any earlier episode in American history? The past, as William Faulkner once wrote of the South, isn’t even past. And now the persistence of Southern identity has become a bigger problem for Republicans than it is for Democrats.

This is, I think it is fair to say, stunning. But it’s also encouraging. The more honest we can be about what the real issues are in our political discourse, the better.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the commentary in response to Meyerson’s column – even among liberals who generally agree with the meta-message – tags him as painting with far too broad a brush. The Mahablog, however, seems to get it, and puts the column in the larger context of American identity.

The important thing to understand here is that essentialization is what a successful national politics is all about – and isn’t always a bad thing. Given the wide variation in day-to-day life among the citizens of any country nearly as large as the United States, it’s literally impossible to articulate a politics that addresses what even a plurality of citizens would independently identify as those issues most important to their lives. So mass political movements operate by using heuristics that they can count on voters unpacking in ways that make sense to them.

The Southern Strategy is an example of a particularly noxious set of heuristics; the terror-wrangling of the last few years is another. Until a month ago, these were quite successful heuristics (and one still works in Tennessee); but is there really any doubt that the “knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic” shoe fits? And that it’s no longer so flattering a fashion?