A Cultural Note

While I agreed with many of their positions, in retrospect the anti-Bush movement was poisonous to the level of discourse in this country. At the time, I thought it was healthy for citizens to be vocal and active critics of the powerful. But millions of people, most of them my generational and cultural peers, became accustomed to viewing their political opponents as evil idiots. The battle lines drawn, they are incapable of thinking through a policy issue for themselves, adopting valid ideas from political movements other than their own, or perceiving a debate with a viewpoint uncolored by rank partisanship. Their politics reside at an unfortunate intersection of boring group-think and dangerous, assertive self-righteousness.

Moreover, the fanaticism of the anti-Bush movement fueled the emotional, messianic campaign of Barack Obama, whose Presidency has wiped out any remaining impulse to be critical of power. The smug assuredness professed by young urbanites in the rightness of Barack's policies, no matter how questionable the merit, eerily mirrors the manner of their cultural hero, Jon Stewart. All their critics get from them is a clever, sneering label. Repeat it enough, and the "debate" is won. Repeat it loudest, and receive adulation.

The battle of ideas is never engaged. Why should it be? Their opponents have silly and awful ideas. They know this because they laugh at their opponents and call them names. If they had any ideas worth listening to, then why would they be so widely ridiculed?

On the internet it has become widespread custom, even in places that profess political neutrality, to accept boorish and uncivil behavior towards those who hold incorrect opinions. If you don't believe me, try to say something nice about Mormons or Republicans in a mainstream online community. This author is not responsible for the flamewar that results.

Finally, the attitude has spread into real life. Hoodlums at UNC recently created a disturbance, and even broke a window, to prevent Tom Tancredo from speaking at their university. The irony that students who loudly support diversity and tolerance should act so violently in suppression of "dangerous" ideas is lost in a rush to action. If any in the crowd were to feel the tiniest pang of guilt, perhaps Jon Stewart will crack a joke about Tancredo, and that wonderful tonic of self-righteousness will soothe any doubts and return their minds to a smooth, untroubled state.

The ghosts of the French Revolution stir on our continent. Youths on the internet receive a hundred "up-votes" on social news sites for suggesting that bankers should be slain in the streets, a thousand for suggesting the same of Republicans (who, just to be clear, I don't like nearly as much as bankers). When discussing the morality of this, the voice of modesty that suggests that rich people, Republicans and Mormons have done nothing deserving of capital punishment is down-voted into oblivion. The idea that members of unpopular groups ought to have human rights, too, is met with the contention that they have forfeited their rights by behaving in unpopular ways. A finer group of Robespierres have never been seen outside of France.

The older folks have to tell me - was it always this way?

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Message from an older folk

When I was growing up, there were only three government licensed television news networks and one newspaper company for each major city. Radio news was five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour from AP/Reuters. If you wanted "alternative" news, you got it directly from the government--PBS and NPR. For those motivated to manage public opinion, the task was fairly easy and there was little for the audience to argue about.

Cable TV and talk radio expanded the choices to dozens of viewpoints. I'm wondering if what you are describing isn't a result of dozens of sources being a "sweet spot" for mindless tribalism. If there are about as many choices for cultural identity as there are teams for ball sports, then everyone knows at least enough about each team to know what they are like, and can pick their favorite and wear their colors.

I get all my information today from the long tail. I have RSS feeds from automatic searches and community sites feeding me articles and youtubes. I watch movies from Netflix. I get my music and TV series recommended from friends, then stream them from Napster or network websites. I listen to podcasts when I'm driving.

Occasionally I will come across a television machine (do these still work? I heard they were shutting off the signals...) and feel like it is a window to an unknown culture. If someone were to tell me they were a "CNN Person" or a "FOX Person", I would have to look it up in Wikipedia to see what they meant. If I tell someone that I am a "Distributed Republic" person what reaction do you think I would get? They don't know what name to call me. They have to listen while I explain everything from first principles.

How can you honestly write

How can you honestly write this post without acknowledging the extent to which the divisiveness cuts both ways? You can't elevate honest discourse through dishonest discourse... at least not with transparently dishonest, or at least one-sided, discourse. Yes, plenty of these people exist, and they make a disproportionate share of overall political noise, but they're ultimately a small minority of (largely) twentysomething college kids who will eventually acclimate to the real world. Don't let them get under your skin, because posts like these just amplify the rancor.

I'm not saying the "conservatives" are any better!

I've spent my entire life among "liberal" academics. I started to become aware of politics in the days of Nixon. The "liberals" have always been that way and assume all good & intelligent people are, too.

Ideological violence

The idea that members of unpopular groups ought to have human rights, too, is met with the contention that they have forfeited their rights by behaving in unpopular ways.

I’m sorry, I’m not sure what unpopular groups you’re referring to. Homosexuals? Or physicians that perform abortions? Or ethnic minorities? Or public servants in Oklahoma City?

I must confess that I can’t recall the last time I heard about a Morman or Republican or banker being killed because of his status as a Morman, Republican, or banker. I wish I could say the same about a long list of other groups.

Remind me again, when did the Obama Administration say that it exerts the right to lock people up to be tortured without legal recourse simply on the executive’s say-so? And, more to the point, how many people has the Obama Administration actually locked up on this basis? When I think about individuals at risk of being overwhelmed by a mob mentality, bankers don’t jump to the top of the list of people I’m worried for.

So some anonymous people express outrage, even violence, at the Bush Administration and the various symbols associated with it. And, sure enough, the Unibomber and the Weathermen were left-wing murderers. In the meantime a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota calls for investigations into the un-American activities of her fellow members of Congress and calls for armed revolt, while the governor of Texas calls for succession.

I certainly favor moderate, reasoned discourse. But if I had to place bets on the political philosophy of the next person to kill in the name of ideology, I wouldn’t be betting left-wing.

I don't think Jacob intended

I don't think Jacob intended this to be a left-right comparison, so responses that the right is as bad or worse don't really address what concerns him.

Reminder

Remind me again, when did the Obama Administration say that it exerts the right to lock people up to be tortured without legal recourse simply on the executive’s say-so?

April 10th, I believe.

Whell, shut ma mouth!

Wow, I hadn't seen that. Nice catch.

Kudos

Thank you for this. I'm impressed, doubly so given that you're actually sympathetic to many of the same causes, making this an internal constructive critique rather than Republican whining. You've managed to avoid the temptation to join in the rank partisanship that you describe. You may have overstated the case - talk is cheap and these people have not actually set up a guillotine. But if I'd set out to write on the same subject I wouldn't have done half as good a job at describing and explaining.

The "F" word

Along with the refusal to actually engage political rivals on their own terms, the ubiquitous use of the term "fascist" or "Nazi" to attack opponents of any stripe is really getting old. First Bush was a Nazi. Now Obama is a fascist. It was subversive when Hunter S Thompson called compared Nixon to Hitler, but now it just seems clichéd and off putting. When someone, left or right, starts talking about totalitarian America I mentally shut down. It's a quick and unthoughtful label, and I can't help but think that it links up with your own post as an indicator of the intellectual laziness of current political discourse.

Also, "Worst President

Also, "Worst President Ever".

How do you call a policy

How do you call a policy where young people are forced to volunteer to serve the state by doing "their part" ? The F word.

don't know what fascism is

The problem is that most people do not know what fascism is. So calling present-day fascism "fascism" is indistinguishable, to them, from calling deregulation and tax cuts "fascism". People, not knowing the difference, need to be educated from scratch about what fascism is and why it is bad.

I say pitch the term altogether

I'm not sure educating people will do a whole lot of good since 1)it's been thrown around so much it really has no meaning and 2) many academics would disagree on the precise definition of historical fascism. People use the term fascist specifically because it conjures up Nazi imagery, and I doubt any amount of education will break that emotional association. More to the point, I think this underlines the universal problem with knee-jerk, quick and ready labels. They invite people to view things stereotypically and ignore the nuances. It's far more useful to focus an argument on specific policies and ideas, as opposed to invoking pre-packaged, all encompassing labels.

Besides, to call modern American government fascist belittles the experiences of people who lived under real fascist regimes.

In Haiti...

When I was in Haiti in the mid-nineties, I was amused by the local definition of democracy and tyranny:

Democracy: Getting your way.
Tyranny: Not Getting your way.

Then I observed the American version:

Fascist: Anybody who wants the government to do something I don't want it to do.
Extremist: Anybody who doesn't want the government to do something that I do want it to do.
Moderate: Anybody who agrees with me.

For the record, if I seem

If I seem too harsh on one side, it's because I'm a 26 year old, urban graduate student. I know shallow groupthink exists everywhere, but I'm only surrounded by one particular flavor of it.

I spend a lot of time on right-wing blogs where I also see flippant, unsupported remarks, usually about foreign policy. However, I'm not sure where you have to live to be surrounded by that viewpoint all the time, and nor is it currently ascendant.

Moreover, this post was inspired by the connection I noticed between a particular phenomenon, the anti-Bush movement, and current ideological pathologies which I regularly confront. In my view, the anti-Bush movement was an unusually powerful meme that still effects public discourse.

Lastly, most participants in right-wing groupthink don't read the internet. For the sake of neutrality, the next time I visit an old folks' home in Kentucky I'll make sure to print up some pamphlets to hand out.

Meta-discussion

I certainly favor moderate, reasoned discourse. But if I had to place bets on the political philosophy of the next person to kill in the name of ideology, I wouldn’t be betting left-wing.

I don't think Jacob intended this to be a left-right comparison, so responses that the right is as bad or worse don't really address what concerns him.

If I seem too harsh on one side, it's because I'm a 26 year old, urban graduate student. I know shallow groupthink exists everywhere....

To be sure, I saw a variety of themes in Jacob’s posts. We can put aside the concerns about the left vs. concerns about the right them.

But are we discussing groupthink vs. critical thinking? That’s a toughie. As discussed elsewhere on this blog (especially regarding voting behavior and consensus), groupthink may well reflect an efficient decision-making heuristic. The (answer quality/effort) ratio may be hard to beat.

Or perhaps it’s a passion vs. dispassion thing. I suspect a large portion of the passionate talk we find on college campuses can be attributed to hormones. People of a certain age are prone to passions. They will discharge their passions on some project or other; the precise object of their passions is almost incidental. Today it’s liberal politics. This too shall pass, for better or worse.

(It is sometimes suggested that marriage has a moderating effect on a young man’s passions. Reflect on that as you read about the large disparities in the numbers of young men and women throughout Asia. We’re willing to go to war ‘cuz we’re worried about running low on oil. What would we be willing to do if we were worried about running low on women?)

But at least I find hope in the idea that, in time, people tend to gain greater control of their passions. Indeed, given the general greying of the world’s population, this is arguably one of the hopes for libertarianism: it’s a philosophy that generally counsels official inaction. Even if most people don’t adopt a libertarian viewpoint, they may come to embrace more of the policies that libertarianism would indicate.

Or maybe Jacob is discussing tolerance vs. intolerance? Violence vs. peaceful dissent? Informed, reasoned debate vs. visceral tribalism?

It wasn't my intent to

It wasn't my intent to discuss any particular abstraction. This is the kind of post that would make a rationalist break out in hives - merely stating observations and opinions without boiling things down to first principles.

they're all evil idiots

Ideas don't matter and never have in modern history. All we get for candidates are two socially polarized individuals, diverse in ways that get social-agenda-motivated voter support, but in reality the candidates are always puppets representing the same financial interests.

Everyone gets to vote whether they want abortion to exist. Everyone gets to vote whether they want gay marriage. Everyone gets to vote pro-union or pro-small-business-man, higher taxes, lower taxes, everyone gets to vote on this stuff.

Nobody gets to vote for keeping the US out of entanglements costing tens of billions of dollars a year. You will never get to vote for a candidate who questions the privately owned central banking system's power to create money out of thin air and lend it back to the government (with interest).

Whats my point? I used to be a hardcore republican and the opponents were "evil idiots". Over time and after looking hard enough, I came to the realization that they're all evil idiots.

Maybe someone will disagree with me, they voted with their only motivating factor being to restrict abortion. Maybe their purpose was to get liberally minded supreme court justices, or (insert social agenda here). They got exactly what they wanted, exactly what they voted for. Thats because they never specifically voted for a candidate who would keep their house from dropping to 1/2 its value. That is all you get for your selection of candidates, someone to cheer for and feel like you won when your social agenda gets supported, not someone who will address underlaying issues that caused your home to go into foreclosure.

You may think you have the ability to vote for candidates on fiscal responsibility, but you do not and you never will. How is it the party of fiscal responsibility, small government, yada yada ... ended up taking the legislature and executive branch and ended up being worse than democrats for pork-barrel runaway spending? Was it simply a case of hundreds of republicans changing their mind after they really got in power? Or was it that the powers-that-be expect the US government to continually get itself further into debt - and candidates either comply or they're out.

We just had a major revolution. What changed?

The names of the tax collectors. Big deal! In three years we will reinstall the old tax collectors. Both parties are owned by the same people and we like it that way. An R who did OK under the last administration knows he will do OK under this administration and vise versa. Americans are happiest when complaining.

thank you

Jacob,

I just came across this post/blog and wanted to say THANK YOU for what you were able to articulate here.

Re: the demonization of Bush, I was in grad school for psychology at the time of his re-election in 2004, and barely a class went by where the professor didn't use George Bush as an example for some kind of psychopathology. For people ostensibly invested in understanding the mind, it struck me as ironic how unaware they seemed to be of their *own* thought process.

The low level of public discourse and the unwillingness to engage issues directly (choosing instead to scoff at the other side) is something I find really disturbing, and this culture has only flourished in forums/talkbacks/comments across the internet. It's to the point -- as you wrote -- where people openly, shamelessly state the desire to slaughter their ideological opponents.

It seems to me a fairly urgent priority to try and change this culture, so that at the very least such threatening, hostile voices are marginalized. The first order of business is simply to cultivate some basic civility. Second is to proliferate genuine thoughtfulness as a replacement for knee-jerk opining.

On both of these counts, this blog seems to be a welcome oasis! Thanks again, and keep up the good work.