The politics of contempt

7 09 2011

Can I steal from myself? ‘Cause I’m gonna steal from myself.

I’ve been yelping and hectoring and despairing and whatevering for the past year on the battlefield that is American politics, on the Republicans’ scorched-earth tactics, and on President Obama’s unwillingness to open the hose on these arsonists.

There is more to be said on this.

My attention is wavering, however, so I’ll let James Fallows (here, here, here, and here) and TNC run a few legs of this race, and, for now, simply steal the comment I posted at TNC’s joint:

I think this [destructiveness] goes back even further—at least to FDR—but it took a different form then than it does now.

My hypothesis: that the sense of the illegitimacy of any kind of left (center-left on outwards) government used to be on the fringes of the polity, but has since edged into some of the main streams of the Republican party.

There were certainly (loud) mutterings that Roosevelt was a communist, but I don’t know that these came from the Republican leadership. The Eisenhower administration was, of course, attacked by McCarthy, and Kennedy was hardly universally mourned; still, even if the GOP leadership thought that all liberals and Democrats (a phrase that only in the late 80s became redundant) were axiomatically illegitimate, they didn’t say so in public.

The attack on the legitimacy of the government emerged as an open campaign theme in the 1980s; the attack on the legitimacy of Democrats to lead government blew open in the 1990s, culminating, of course, with the impeachment of Clinton. These lines crossed and fused in the 2000s, apparent in the various campaigns, and then going nuclear—with the eventual blessing of the GOP leadership—with the election of Obama.

Again, this is just an hypothesis, and I’d guess that a full exploration of this hunch would reveal all sorts of exceptions and wrinkles and significant subdynamics (such as the movement of white southern Democrats into the GOP); I’d also caution that I think this phenomenon has until recently been confined to the national level.

I’ll let this be for awhile—other things on my mind—but the full flowering of this discourse of delegitimization is nothing less than an expression of contempt for democracy itself.

That bears watching.





Don’t get your back up over this

7 09 2011

I’m less clear about how we “get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack”. Online and off it has been my experience that people generally don’t appreciate it when you point out (even if gently with leading questions) that they don’t have much of a basis for their not so considered opinions, they feel certain and righteous about their position and have been told over and over that they have a right to their opinions as if that in an of itself justifies the opinion at hand, they may even have a one-line answer from some undergrad class they took in support of it. Whatever the reason people seem to have a hard time separating judgment of the basis of an idea that they may hold from judgment of their persons, even, maybe especially, with strangers, so how to bring some of the philosophical ethos of pushing the ideas, fleshing them out, and testing them and their implications from the seminar into the public realm. and what rewards are there to share with people who don’t yet have a taste of how such demanding work/research can be.rewarding?—dmf

Just when I thought I was done (for now) with this question, you pull me back in. . . .Ha, no. Really, d, Imma stealing from you to feed my blog.

I think it helps to classify one’s interlocutors. If you’re dealing with adversaries—those who seek to get one over on you and vice versa—then it’s anything goes. If they’re shifters, you punish them by not letting go of a single thing they say and not giving in on a single point they make. You point out all the ways they’re wrong, admit of no wrongs on your side, and go after their credibility. “You were wrong on this, and you were wrong on this, and this, and this. . . why should anyone take anything you say seriously?” Attack attack attack.

Despite my vociferousness on this matter, it’s actually not my preferred way of doing things. I like rules, like the notion of “keeping one another honest”, and prefer not to cheat in order to win an argument. If there are no rules, however, then you’d be a fool to act as if there were. The best you can hope for is to diminish the shifter’s sphere of influence.

Or, if you’re not in the mood, you simply walk away—preferably laughing the whole while. (This is how I deal—or don’t deal—with Objectivists.)

Not all adversaries are shifters, however, so some standards apply. If the argument is “staged”, as in, we both know that the real person we’re trying to convince is not the other but neutral others who are listening in, such questions may take on an edge, and some shortcuts in service to the performance are acceptable, but you can’t go too far in upending your adversary. You can’t get mad and you don’t want to make the other person mad, as that would ruin the enjoyment for onlookers, and you have to know when to shrug and let something go. You want to appear reasonable and creditable to those onlookers, so while light jabs are acceptable, garrotting is not.

But if it’s not a performance, if I’m simply trying to suss something out, I find it best simply to ask questions. My forte in verbal combat is in going after the other person’s argument, so I get as much information as I can about that argument. I ask real, not gotcha, questions, and allow the person a full answer. And if their information is or appears incorrect, I’ll ask about that, as well.

If it turns into a fight, I’ll use their words against them, but a lot of times the mere process of asking the questions leads away from the gladiatorial arena. Because I don’t twist their words or mock them or sneer at their views, if I offer them the benefit of the doubt, they’ll often open up, both in expanding upon their views and in their willingness to hear my concerns. And I don’t try to convert anyone, not overtly, anyway. I just ask questions, ask them to think about x from the vantage point of y, and then let it be.

It’s the soft approach—something which I would have abjured when younger—but now I can see the possibilities, and not just the threat, of such softening up.

The Old Man knew this long before I did:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

_____

(h/t Zoe Pollack, The Daily Dish: Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”)