“Two plus two will never make five. That’s not the problem. And George Orwell at the end, Winston’s being tortured, and he’s made to say two plus two equals five, and this totalitarianism makes us all lie. [Hannah Arendt] said that’s not the power. It’s the fact that in a world where people are going to say it is even when they know it isn’t. That is deeply estranging. That’s what creates those conditions of loneliness and despair. That, for her, is the wickedness of the political lie. People don’t believe that two plus two makes five. They don’t believe half of what’s said.”
~Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now
All the time, people say what they don’t mean. Or else it’s not clear what they mean, the actual significance behind their words, what is most fundamentally motivating them. This duplicity has become the normal way of relating. And this is the basis of the identities that possess us. A simple example of this is the often heard statement that American voters get what they want. That is like saying enslaved Africans were happy with their violent oppression. There are endless other examples, and the most powerful are those we don’t notice in ourselves.
Such statements are patently absurd when taken at face value. And one suspects that, at some level, most people know that they are not true, even as they say them. It’s not what they really believe, but it obviously satisfies some need or purpose. Our modern society is filled with such bald-faced contradictions to what we know and feel. This is part of social control. It’s one thing to gaslight others but it’s even more powerful to get them to gaslight themselves. It’s the ultimate betrayal.
Once someone is psychotically disconnected from a direct and personal sense of reality, they become schizoid and compliant. Without grounding in the world beyond rhetoric, people become vulnerable to those who control and manage public perception. Backfire effect plays its role in ideological defense, but that isn’t the underlying force at play. Once identity is solidified, people will defend it on their own by various means. That leaves the issue of how did that ideological identity take shape in the first place.
This is true of all of us. There is something profoundly disorienting and alienating about modern society. We lose the ability to discern what is of genuine value. So, we turn to narratives to offer us an illusion of certainty. Then the reality in front of us is no longer compelling. We believe what we are told. Then we repeat it so often that we forgot it was told to us. Because it confirms and is confirmed by ‘mainstream’ mediated reality, we sound perfectly reasonable and are taken seriously by others.
This isn’t a mere individual condition. It’s collective insanity. Yet the spell it has over us dissipates with awareness. But few will accept this awareness, quickly retreating to the safety of the group mind, of ideological realism. People briefly awaken all the time, only to fall back to sleep, drawing the covers back over their head. Being reoriented to a deeper truth can feel disorienting, in awakening from a deep slumber. It’s hard to grapple with what to do with this knowing. Yet it’s near impossible to unsee after being jolted fully awake. It’s not a state one would choose, to be on the outside of the social world into which one was born.
It forces one to relearn what it means to be human. Rather than being enlightnened with clarity, it’s to become aware that one is in a state of epistemological infancy. Everything one thought one knew is now under question and doubt. A different way of listening is required, to sense what is real and true, what is valid and meaningful. Relating well to others becomes even more challenging. Just because one has glimpsed some flickering light through the rhetoric doesn’t instantly dispel the shadows. The tape loops go on playing in one’s mind, in response to the tape loops in the minds of others. In not knowing how to respond, one increasingly finds oneself falling into silence.
Sometimes a non-response is the only response that remains. In a world full of words, one ever more notices the silence in between, what is not said. All that can be done is to witness it, to hear what others have refused to hear, particulary what they have denied in themselves. One holds a space open. One waits. One listens. In doing so, another voice is heard, only a whisper at first. It’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of self. There is an intimacy in how it speaks. We are not alone and isolated. We are not alienated. The truth was never destroyed. Reality remains.
How do media bubbles work? We often think of this phenomenon in simplistc ways. A media bubble is perceived as a person hearing certain sources of info while not hearing others. It’s an echo chamber where a particular slant and bias gets repeated, a self-imposed state of indoctrination. The clueless victim is so trapped that they never see anything else, don’t realize there is anything else to see.
But I’ve had the thought that this rarely operates through the overt censorship and silencing of total blackouts. It’s not only whether or not something gets reported but also how it is reported, how it is framed and narratized, how it is made to stand out or be obscured, how it is repeated ad nauseum or quickly disappears. Furthermore, it involves which details get included and ignored, who gets interviewed and not.
So often news reporting happens without any context, neither present context of larger events and societal shifts nor the extended context over years and decades of prior news reporting. Typically, so much gets reported in isolation and is only reported briefly, so as to be quickly forgotten again as intended, whereas other issues are blown out of proportion in being repeated constantly over time as an ongoing rhetorical narrative (e.g., culture wars).
An example of this was the federal agents used in the protests in Oregon and elsewhere. It was one of the biggest news stories of the year. The local government opposed their presence and many questioned the legality and constitutionality of the federal government cracking down on civil liberties so wantonly, from kidnapping protesters to harassing journalists. It isn’t the type of story that isn’t going to get reported and it drew plenty of attention in social media.
It was a major point of conflict at the time with Donald Trump defending his use of the imperial presidency. There wasn’t silence about these federal agents and their actions, not even in ‘conservative’ media. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News each had dozens of articles and videos about it. But one suspects they did not receive a prominent position in the reporting of such news outlets.
This reporting, instead, was probably placed in the back pages of the newspaper or website, assuming an article was printed in the physical newspaper at all. And the video pieces on it probably weren’t played on primetime and maybe only ever were made available online. This reporting was most likely used as filler and, even then, most of it would have downplayed its relevance while ignoring and dismissing critical views. After a brief moment, the news reporting disappeared entirely from casual view.
This occurred to me because of conversations with my father, a highly intelligent and informed citizen, someone whose opinion is respected by others and so carries great influence in positions of leadership he often holds. When asked about it, he said he had never heard about these federal agents dispatched to suppress legal protest. So, it wasn’t that he had a biased and misinformed view of the issue but simply did not know about it. He spends hours every day reading The Wall Street Journal, along with a local newspaper, and often will watch Fox News in the evening. He is in a media bubble like most others, and yet theoretically the media buble he is in has included a decent amount of reporting on this news story, however unfairly slanted it might’ve been.
So, how could he not know about it at all? Well, dozens of articles and videos may sound like a lot. But compare it to the total production of material that comes out. These major corporate news outlets pump out hundreds of articles and videos on a daily basis. The smaller stories get buried before they even get seen. It’s highly probable that my father never saw any of this reporting. Even reading and watching the news all day long will leave the individual at the mercy of the news sources being followed. Mostly, they repeat the same news stories, whereas other equally or more important news stories barely get any attention at all.
We are surrounded by more news reporting than ever before and have access to such a seeming diversity of news sources. Yet the average American still only hears those same few news stories repeated over and over again, spun to fit the dominant view or rationalized away with the same set of rhetorical frames and narratives. On the other hand, all of the alternative media combined that would better inform Americans barely has much of an audience at all. It’s not only what Amercan viewers have access to but who controls the main platforms of media that have access to the Amercan mind.
Even constantly channel surfing between every corproate news channel available will mostly give you variations on the same set of themes. Old school censorship is not required, as long as there is the illusion of free choice, like standing before a grocery store shelf full of hundreds of cereal brands that all are owned by a few corporations. That said, there are better sources of info and one can find truly great news reporting. Consider the investigative journalism that Buzzfeed puts out. The problem is one has to actively seek out these obscure alternative news sites. One won’t likely come across it by picking up the newspaper or clickng on the tv news.
There isn’t something so simple as a right-wing media bubble versus a left-wing media bubble. It’s much worse than that. The entire corporate news is part of the same media bubble. There is some variation within the options of this corporate news source or another, but the similarities are greater than the differences. No matter which side of a rhetorical frame is taken, the point is that the frame is basically the same across all corporate media. The failure of a free press is not in quantity of reporting but quality.
For most Americans, far from being limited to conservatives, the reporting on those federal agents will be lost to memory before long. As such, the slow erosion of what little democracy is left will continue apace with little notice. The next incident of civil rights abuse by authoritarian power or other govermental overreach will be reported without reference to the ongoing pattern of thousands of prior incidents across the decades of administrations, no matter which party was in control.
Now we are entering a new four-year news cyclce. Democratic Joe Biden is the next incoming president. The political theater surrounding the Trump administration has already erased what Biden did as vice president not that long ago (e.g., further militarizing the police), much less his decades-long political record. Now that the campaign season is over, the corporate media won’t be reminding you. Enforced amnesia will quickly set in. Whatever incidents of concern in the coming years will likely be reported in the corporate media as if having little or no relationship to anything that has happened before.
What goes without saying is that I’m part of this same system of mass ignorance enforced by a self-serving ruling elite. I have no special insight that extends beyond the muddied water of perception management as social control. I realize that I will remain ignorant as long as I don’t carefully and deeply research these issues for myself. But to be honest, I don’t feel motivated to do so, as I find the entire situation too depressing. The truth, even if discovered, seems impotent under these conditions.
So, who am I to judge anyone else? All I feel that is worth my time and effort is to make note of this collective failure that implicates me as with everyone else. As for a solution, I’m not sure there is a good answer. Maybe, instead of drowning oneself in endless sources, learn to be discerning with a focus on what is most important and trustworthy. Sometimes less is more — so, ignore the quantity and look for the quality. It can be found. Remember that most news is not of any genuine value. There are better and happier ways to spend your time.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted about this topic. But it seems maybe we need to be reminded of it, beyond an occasional opinion piece in the back pages of your local newspaper. I’m not going to offer a complex analysis, as I could. I simply want to throw out some quick thoughts and then gather together some previous thoughts, along with links to the writings of others. The purpose is to give a sense of the many the ways right-wing rhetoric is used as social control. I’ll share a few examples that are representative, if not exhaustive. I wanted to do so because I realized that my previous posts tended to be narrow in focus by looking at specific areas (e.g., climate change denialism). Not that I’m going to presently attempt a survey.
Right-wing rhetoric is an amazing thing to observe, most of all right-wing political correctness. And I’m amazed how rarely others are amazed by it or even notice it, as if we’ve become numb to the constant noise of it. The one thing I’ll give them credit for is that they are highly effective propagandists in controlling narratives and policing allowable language. Sometimes it comes in blunt forms of authoritarian social control, but typically it is much more insidious. Part of why they are so talented is that they know how to manipulate what already so dominates in a society, to such a degree that it is hard for anyone to speak about it openly, what Noam Chomsky refers to as the propaganda model.
For example, identity politics is only directly called out when the powerless and underprivileged challenge those the identities that are well established and given favor within the ‘mainstream’ structures and institutions. And it is often a minority that polices what is allowable, a tiny percentage of whites, Christians, etc who control the platforms of speech in getting heard while the majority of whites, Christians, etc are treated as if they don’t exist (it ends up being social control all around for even most people within the majority aren’t free to define their own identity). Within the systems of control, including the so-called liberal media, certain identities simply are accepted with little question (sometimes in the universities as well, such as when professors are fired or otherwise forced out for supporting the equality of Palestinian rights). It is built into the framework of every public debate and political narrative exactly who are considered real Americans, what they look like, and what the positions they hold.
For centuries, garden variety race realists, fundamentalists, and other varieties of right-wing authoritarians have been so common in the American elite of politics, media, business, etc that they have mostly been taken as the social norm or at least well within it, even when the positions they hold are extremist in only being held by a small minority (e.g., the official NRA position of anti-regulation radicalism that isn’t even supported by the majority of NRA members). Their identity is a given and when it motivates their politics it isn’t called identity politics, much less political correctness when they seek to silence those other voices that have been historically excluded and victimized. And such silencing can be dangerous when it is used in defense of violence, such as denying the long history of right-wing terrorism and oppression… or, worse yet, in using a politically correct false equivalency to pretend its equal on all sides.
Now finally, albeit slowly, society is shifting away from some of the worst forms of bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, and all manners of prejudice. So, yeah, Jim Crow style racism is no longer acceptable. Neither is pinching your female secretary on the butt and then firing her when she refuses to have sex with you. Likewise, giving expression to hateful ignorance through rants in public forums is generally frowned upon and might not be a great career move. There are many things that have become considered morally wrong in respectable society, the kinds of language and behavior that were normalized by abusive systems of power not that long ago, well within living memory.
The loss of power and privilege among certain demographics has been hard for some to adapt to. What they could get away with when younger might entail less than happy responses in their older age. It’s hard to learning new ways of relating to others, especially when it requires admitting that one’s past behavior looks shameful in hindsight. It is hard to save face and, instead of letting the past go, some turn reactionary in wanting to double down in their embrace of crudity and cruelty, as if it demonstrates their strength, but in reality it shows their weakness, their desperation. So, they lash out. And one of the ways they do so is by attempting to enforce old systems of political correctness by projecting their desire for oppression onto those they hope to put back in their places. And so they play games of rhetoric to muddy the waters, such as claiming that the Civil War was about freedom rather than slavery.
It can be a powerful move, especially when the corporate media joins in the attack, scapegoating college students or even the entire young generation for finding it offensive that there has been a consistent pattern of right-wing authoritarians promoting harm to our society and I’m talking about literal harm where people sometimes get killed. To fight against the powerful seeking to do you harm is portrayed as being overly sensitive. And when those on the political left call it for what it is (e.g., those who make racist comments are racist), the political right basically argues that it’s politically incorrect to call them mean names, albeit they never call it political correctness
Even the ‘liberal’ media rarely challenges them on this bullshit. This right-wing strategy, sadly, gets many ‘moderates’ on board in their desire to be fair and balanced. So, liberalism gets once again hijacked to punch left, and it’s not hard to accomplish since liberals have always feared the left-wing more than the right-wing, which is why for generations now liberals have pushed hard right. This is why the liberal class is always prepared to silence left-wingers so as to defend the next right-wing project, such as beating the war drum for Bush’s War on Terror — remember how Bill Maher was attacked all across the corporate media for stating the obvious on a show called “Politically Incorrect”? Yet we never see the equivalent of conservatives attacking the right by policing the politically correct boundaries, this far right and no further. No. Instead, both conservatives join liberals in keeping the left-wing silenced. This has created an open field for right-wing rhetoric to dominate, a pattern that has been seen since before the Cold War. Liberals have always been an untrustworthy lot, capable of turning reactionary in an instant… or were they always reactionary?
This is how we got to the point where the president can attack the press and his supporters can talk about killing journalists, including a t-shirt worn at rallies that said “Tree. Rope. Journalist. Some assembly required.” and for a time was sold at Walmart. The message is that there are some things that the media or anyone else shouldn’t be allowed to talk about and, if they dare talk about them, the offending person should be made to never speak again (Robert A. Vella, Trump allies fear their white supremacist image, and that’s why they’re threatening journalists). This is the extremes to where right-wing political correctness takes us. And then when this is correctly labeled as right-wing authoritarianism, the right-wing authoritarians have a hissy-fit in claiming that accurately describing their words and behavior is unfair, that is to say politically incorrect. No one should state the obvious or else they will suffer the consequences.
Sadly, there are always liberals ready to quickly jump in to say that all sides are equally guilty or, if anything, that the political left is worst in their politically correctness. Well, fuck that bullshit! It is not the political left repeating hate-filled speech advocating violence, as seen with the right-wing media. When Bill O’Reilly repeatedly called Dr. George Tiller a “baby killer” until one of his viewers killed the good doctor, whose speech was silenced? When right-wingers have killed people in hate crimes and terrorism, in a way not seen among left-wingers, why is it the political left that gets verbally attacked for being politically correct in defending against these dangerous people? This is not a time for liberals to pander to the right because of lacking a moral spine. One of these days liberals will be reminded once again, as happened in Germany after liberals backed the Nazis, that maybe, just maybe the right-wing authoritarians are to be feared far beyond the left-wing bogeyman. Free speech is more than a nice-sounding idea. And for God’s sake! Beware of rhetoric of free speech used to undermine free speech. One thing that reactionaries, be it right-wing reactionaries or liberal reactionaries, are talented at is using democratic norms against democracy.
Reactionaries are a dangerous enemy. This is because, as Faceless Men, they can be anywhere in any form and speaking in any voice. You can see this in how the political right has co-opted political correctness and wielded it against the political left, such as denying being racists even as they promote racism and then acting offended by the allegation. The smartest among them know how to say all the right things. They are chameleons. They know how to fit in, when it serves their purpose.
Yet this largely went unnoticed. The media, especially the right-wing media, had little interest in focusing on domestic threats while the foreign “War on Terror” was going on. And it would have been hard for right-wing groups to argue for bias when right-wingers were in control of the federal government. This attitude changed, of course, when Barack Obama was elected. There was right-wing outrage when a DHS report came out in 2009 that highlighted right-wing terrorism, despite the fact that the research for the report began under the Bush administration. This forced a retraction, not because it wasn’t true but because it was politically incorrect.
Explain to me how scientific experts who support scientific consensus are ‘cultists’ because “I’m rubber and you’re glue, what bounces off of me sticks to you”. Besides being inanely stupid, that is false equivalency between the two sides. Why shouldn’t we label as science denialists those who deny science? And how does that justify declaring that respectable climatologists are cultists for simply stating scientific facts? Calling a spade a spade in calling a denialist a denialist isn’t unfair name-calling, since it is a objective description. It reminds me of racists who complain about being called racists and demand they be treated as respectable equals. Why should we play their game?
Conservatives seeing everything in terms of religion is nothing new. To their mind, everything on the political left is a cult, as every other religion is a cult. Their complaint isn’t about religion but that there can only be one true religion to rule them all (religiosity as authoritarian dogmatism by way of Social Darwinism) and all else is cultism. It’s similar to how conservatives deny having an ideology for only people they disagree with have ideologies. The labels of ‘cult’ and ‘ideology’ mean the same thing in the conservative mind. It seems like a whole lot of projection considering how hard conservatives push their political and religious ideologies onto others, including their own preferred versions of political correctness. That is what this comes down to, political correctness in defense of right-wing ideology. The right-wing snowflakes have their feelings hurt by words. And since they can’t win on the facts, they will try to make it a fight over language policing.
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields
In the controversy over Dr. James D. Watson’s remarks in London, some of his defenders charged his critics with a “politically correct” retreat from science, insisting that good science requires a free marketplace of ideas . Researchers must be free, they implied, to salvage the old bio-racist ranking of superior and inferior races, regardless of the collapse as science of its core concept, race. But it is doubtful that those foes of political correctness would wish to rehabilitate that part of bio-racism that once identified inferior white races.
If they took their own position seriously, they would applaud the writings of such eminent American scientists of the late nineteenth century as Edward Drinker Cope and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (dean of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School during the 1890s) on the inequality of races, not simply their work on dinosaurs and the earth’s history. Cope advocated both “the return of the African to Africa” and restrictions on immigration by “the half-civilized hordes of Europe.” Shaler agreed, characterizing those hordes as inferior “by birthright ,” “essentially in the same state as the Southern Negro,” and distinct from “the Aryan variety of mankind.” […]
One of the present authors some years ago tested the limits of the free market in racist ideas. A crotchety yet likable right-wing colleague approached, looking disquieted and in need of moral support. He was “having trouble” with a certain black student in his bio-psychology class. What was wrong, he wondered, with saying that “black people may, or (mind you) may not, prove to be intellectually inferior to white people? In science, you frame a hypothesis, devise an experiment, find out.” The student raised her hand and, when recognized, blasted him. “Do you know So-and -So (the student in question)?” asked the bio-psychologist. (The author did happen to know the student in question, an eighteen-year-old single mother of twins who was as bright as they come and not one to brook insult.) “Why can’t she grasp that there’s a scientific approach to things , blah , blah?” Finally, the author put a question. “If, as you say, there is no hypothesis that science excludes, why not try this assignment ? Let your students pick any white ethnic group and any stereotype commonly applied to it, greedy, mendacious, dumb, drunken, gangsterish, and so on, then formulate a hypothesis, design the experiment, find out.” The colleague’s face froze.
There is still a law on the book that makes belonging to the communist party illegal. In the right-wing media, there is talk about enforcing this law to silence opponents. Some petitions have been started for this purpose, specifically in the hope that Trump will back this attack on the political left. It’s nonsense, of course, and wouldn’t hold up in court. But I have yet to hear of any conservative, right-wing, or alt-right free speech advocate complain about, much less protest against, these authoritarian right-wingers. It’s the same reason why conservative colleges can get away with far more egregious silencing of free speech than can mainstream colleges, even though those conservative colleges also receive public funding.
Censorship of speech was far more dangerous and damaging in the past when it mostly targeted the political left. And censorship continues to target the political left, targeting workers, students and professors. If you don’t hear about censorship against left-wingers in corporate media, that is because corporate media is the mouthpiece of capitalism and doesn’t tend to bend over backwards to create a platform for Marxists, communists, and their fellow travelers (e.g., Palestinian rights advocates).
Those on the political right act as if there is a conspiracy against them, as if they are the only Americans who know oppression. They pretend that white conservatives are the ultimate oppressed minority in a country that is and always has been majority white and majority Christian. They apparently have no clue about the harsh realities that others face on a daily basis or else they are pretending to be ignorant. It’s mind-boggling. How could they be so obliviously ignornant to not know about the prejudices and hate crimes directed at minorities, the difficulty of being a Muslim or Middle Easterner (or mistaken for one), the professors who lose their jobs when they defend the rights of Palestinians and such, the historical and ongoing attack on left-wingers?
Sure, free speech is under attack, as it always has been. But it is a psychotic disconnection from reality to genuinely believe that this is all about the political right. Why the constant playing of the victim card when the tactics the political right has used against others are turned back the other way?
They should learn some history. Even in the past, some right-wing groups found themselves on the wrong side of political and corporate power. The government didn’t only systematically attack communist partisans, anti-war protesters, black radicals, and hippy drug users? The Second Klan was destroyed by the FBI, although the KKK had become quite corrupt at that point and was flaunting its own power through such things as political bribery and tax evasion.
The point is that those in the centers of power will always seek to silence and eliminate any individual or group that too effectively challenges the status quo or otherwise becomes problematic to establishment agendas and interests. That is true of those in power within the private sector. A company like Google would have been misogynistic in the past as most companies were in the past because misogyny was the norm, but times have changed and so all companies increasingly support gender equality because it is all about what is good for business (studies show that diverse companies have higher levels of innovation, profit, etc). Even the University of Iowa has as its president a guy from the business world, not some left-wing political activist. Colleges these days are run like businesses and having an anti-gay group causing trouble on campus isn’t good for business.
We live in a capitalist society, after all. Everything is about the flow of money. That pretty much sums up the entirety of American history.
As for all the protesters and counter-protesters, that also is nothing new. America has a long history of public outrage going back to not just protests but riots and revolts even before the American Revolution. We Americans are a vocal people about our opinions on public matters. And it occasionally turning to violence is even less of a shock. Actions committed by individuals and groups in the past, more often directed at left-wingers and minorities, were far more violent than what tends to be seen these days. If anything, it is amazing how non-violent of a time we live in, at least in the Western world (ignoring the violence we export to the rest of the world).
Besides, the most violent actions in recent history have not come from the political left. There is no American left-wing equivalent to generations of right-wing violence — the bombings, arson, assassinations, driving cars into crowds, etc (if you are unaware of this recent history, just ask some blacks, gays, Muslims, clinic doctors, etc about it and they can enlighten you). Not even the Weather Underground, terrorist bombers as they were, ever targeted people as there bombings were carefully planned to avoid human casualties. The government has officially labeled certain environmentalist groups such as Earth First! as terrorists, despite there never having killed a single person nor ever attempted to do so.
For decades, health clinics and doctors were targeted by anti-abortion militants. Even right-wingers in the mainstream media promoted this violent movement such as Bill O’Reilly’s helping to incite the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and O’Reilly never apologized or expressed remorse, much less got fired from his job. Sure, since Fox News backs this hateful bigotry, then those who spew it have their free speech protected. But what about the free speech of the victim who was silenced with a bullet? And what about all the thousands of other victims of prejudice, oppression, hate crimes, and right-wing terrorism?
Here is another point that gets lost in all of this. No matter how often the political right repeats its ignorance and lies, the conflation of liberals and left-wingers remains false and misleading. Going back to the early 20th century, there has rarely been love lost between these two ideological groups. Some of the gravest attacks on left-wingers have come from liberals or those pretending to be liberals. That is what Phil Ochs was going on about in his satirical song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”. Some of the most vocal and strident Cold War warriors were liberals, having done everything in their power to destroy the political left.
Even though the Cold War has ended, liberals continue to attack everyone to the left of them which is why the right-wing ‘liberals’ such as the Clinton Democrats are always seeking to eliminate and discredit all left-wing challengers, from Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders. Where was most of the political right in defending Sanders’ free speech when Hillary Clinton and big biz media sought to silence him and keep him out of public awareness until late in the campaign season? And that isn’t even to get into how the alliance between big gov and big biz silences all of us Americans, not just outsider candidates… while the corporatists arguing for corporate ‘free speech’. As for campuses, left-wingers are no more safe there than anywhere else.
The only reason that Americans don’t hear more about oppression and censorship of left-wingers is because corporate media in a corporatist society, whether supposedly liberal MSNBC or conservative Fox News, rarely reports on it. But it not being regularly discussed in the mainstream is not the same thing as it not happening. Capitalist realism is the dominant ideology of our entire society and as such is taken as a given with protest against it being almost impossible — in the words of H. Bruce Franklin: “It is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” We can’t have the freedom that we can’t imagine and we can’t fight against the oppression what we can’t see, which is why oppression of the mind is the worst possible oppression. That is what this is all about, the right-wing attempt to suppress all alternatives by censoring public debate, which first requires controlling the frame of allowable debate.
This touches upon the difference between negative liberty and positive freedom, the former allows for censorship of the powerless while the latter promotes free speech for all. The political right in the past advocated the one and dismissed the other, but now they are coming to realize or pretending to care that maybe positive freedom matters after all, at least when they portray themselves as oppressed and victimized minorities (that is why the anti-gay student group at the UI didn’t merely argue for negative liberty to be able to speak freely on campus but a positive freedom in demanding the university and taxpayer support and promote their free speech by giving them an official platform). A genuine public debate about free speech and freedom in general is needed. Unfortunately, that isn’t what the political right wants. It is simply a political game about power and influence, amplifying one’s own voice at the cost of others.
Even more problematic is that the same political and economic elites who own our government are seeking to own every aspect of our society, including colleges that because of loss of public funding have increasingly turned to corporate funding. The right-wingers funding the campus ‘free speech’ movement are also those who operate think tanks, lobbyist groups, front organizations, etc that promote the corporate ‘free speech’ of Citizens United, the neoliberal ‘free trade’ agreements of big biz corporatism, the protection of ‘freedom’ through voter ID laws that suppress voting rights, and the ‘freedom’ of the right-to-work which means the right for workers to have no protections. The whole point is to make ‘freedom’ a meaningless word.
The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education
by John K. Wilson
Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies
by Karri A. Holley
We are surrounded by propaganda, but rarely notice it. This is one the most propagandized populations in history and yet we talk of ourselves as a free society. Some have argued that it is specifically in a democratic society (or what goes for one) that propaganda is all the more necessary for the elite to maintain social control. This is even more true for a banana republic where appearances of democracy have to be carefully maintained. Also, propaganda operates differently in inverted totalitarianism where locus of control is not within the state proper. There is no need for an official propaganda department of the state. That is because the same plutocrats and oligarchs manipulating the political party apparatus, bribing the politicians, and pulling the strings of the deep state also own most of the media and fund the think tanks.
Hacks like Victor Davis Hanson are the pseudo-intellectuals that give the whole propaganda scheme an appearance of respectability and credibility. They are the handmaidens of authoritarianism, the calm faces of evil, and the mundane voices of insanity; the gatekeepers of perceived reality, the orchestrators of spectacle, and the shapers of public opinion. They are the spokesmen of the puppetmasters behind the scenes. They maintain the master narrative and keep the megamachine lubed up and running smoothly. Their role is central. The ruling elite couldn’t rule without these mercenaries.
That is to say Hanson and his ilk are paid well. Yet in the corporate media, someone like Hanson is merely referred to as a historian and often described as a respectable expert. His writing gets published and he gets invited to speak as if he were an independent thinker and scholar — ignore the fact that he parrots the party line and plutocratic rhetoric in scripted fashion. Even the supposed ‘liberal’ media (NYT, WaPo, etc), regularly quote Hanson and review each new book he gets published. It is a show being put on, as if there were many voices in a genuine public debate, and so supposedly demonstrating a well-functioning democracy. But in reality, most of the voices heard are on the payroll of the same powerful interests with deep pockets. Both sides of the ‘debate’ are controlled opposition.
To find the actual opposition, listen for those who are typically silenced or muted in the ‘mainstream’ media, those drowned out by the talking points and excluded by the predetermined framing, those who struggle in between soundbites to articulate what is not to be spoken in challenging the entire system of social control. Listen to what is not said and who is not speaking or else who is never really heard, always dismissed and quoted out of context, misreported and spun back into the official narrative. Look outside the screen of allowable opinion. That is to say don’t be distracted by the chattering class of pundits-for-hire.
On the payroll of big money, typically dark money laundered through multiple organizations, there are thousands upon thousands of journalists, columnists, op-ed piece writers, authors, talk radio hosts, bloggers, social media personalities, academics, researchers, college campus speakers, talking heads, experts, etc. They don’t wear jackets that show all of their sponsors. They appear like normal people and within the system that is how they are presented, how they are sold to the public. Even when the curtain is momentarily pulled back, most Americans are too cynical to care, if they bother to pay attention. We need to remind ourselves why it matters, that politics as comforting entertainment and distraction is not good enough, is not acceptable. We should not allow ourselves to be so easily deceived. As Marianne Williamson said, “Let’s not be naive.”
Victor Davis Hanson punditry credentials rest squarely on supposed expertise as an historian. Since he has decided to put aside any attempt at scholarly objectivity, instead throwing his hat in the ring of shallow propaganda otherwise known as right-wing talking points he has pretty much shattered his credibility as a scholar. In ordinary circumstances, the forces of meritocracy at work, Hanson would be serving up some hot and crispy fries with that happy meal, paying the price for his Pravda-like spin of history for the sake of the Conservative movement. Instead he lives in ConservaWorld where merit means little if anything. As long as he continues to rewrite history to his liking, ignore context and pull absurd analogies out of an unmentionable part of his anatomy, organizations like the National Review will make sure that he is overfed and overpaid,
This is not to say that Hanson’s book lacks value. As a part of a larger phenomenon, it is instructive in its way. Anyone with an iota of historical awareness is familiar with the fact that intellectuals in Europe and the United States lauded Joseph Stalin even as he sent millions to the Gulag and their death. By the same token, Adolf Hitler, one of the 20th century’s other mega-mass murderers, also found his share of admirers in the academy, among them such brilliant minds as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. An entire branch of Western scholarship was devoted to the adulation of the genocidal Mao Tse-tung. Whatever Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, it is a grotesque absurdity to compare him to history’s most terrible tyrants. My point is something else: If such monsters could find admirers among the highly educated, it is unsurprising that our infantile, ignorant leader has found an assortment of professors to sing his praises. Julian Benda wrote The Treason of the Intellectuals in 1927. With legitimate historians like Hanson abasing themselves to write what can only be called propaganda, Benda’s title, if not his entire argument, is perennially pertinent.
But I was eager to see if the book could square two intellectual and moral circles. First, how does the agenda of a man who policy-wise can barely zip his fly provide for the common defense and general welfare? And even if you believe in Trump’s policies, didn’t he long ago reach his Nixon moment, when morally decent believers must withdraw support in the face of the man’s undeniable character cancers?
Hanson’s 372-page brief flunks those challenges by disregarding Atlee’s Axiom.
Mr. Atlee taught us in high school English that any essay hoping to persuade must tackle head-on the other side’s strongest arguments. As in, granted, Trump’s a thug, but [insert superseding point]. Even absolving Hanson for writing before Michael Cohen’s testimony last week, which offered little we didn’t already know, and before Robert Mueller’s forthcoming report, he belly-flops first by ignoring Atlee’s Axiom vis-à-vis Trump’s policymaking.
Except for detailing Trump’s success in boosting the economy, Hanson does not argue these points against obvious objections. Pulling out of Paris? Hanson at one point describes global warming as an “apparition,” but he cites no scientific evidence for this or any justification for abandoning international agreements to limit carbon emissions. Improved relations with allies? What about our European allies? Or Canada? As for the Iran deal, he claims that “most experts had known that the Obama-led Iran deal was unworkable and thus unsustainable,” but by my count the most prominent thought otherwise. I am not saying that Trump did nothing that was impressive — he has definitely gone beyond his predecessors in contesting China’s trade practices — but that many of the things Hanson cites as “undeniably impressive” need justification, at least if Hanson intended his book to be read by people who don’t already agree with its bald assertions.
Hanson, a senior fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, assails the “deep state,” even while acknowledging that Trump’s use of the term is so vague as to be meaningless. He praises the “inspired” and “impressive” Cabinet members Trump has assembled, largely forgetting their high-profile scandals, conflicts of interest, obeisance and resignations. “The Case for Trump” is notable for such omissions. Hanson does not grapple with Trump’s effort to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birtherism lie, his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States or his difficulty condemning white nationalism. In Hanson’s telling, the true force behind America’s racial fissures is Trump’s predecessor. “Much of the current division in the country was deliberately whipped up by Obama,” he contends.
Contrary to those who suggest that Trump sought the presidency for personal gain, Hanson explains that Trump is sacrificing himself for the larger good, like tragic heroes of ancient literature. A scholar of classics and military history, Hanson gazes upon Trump and sees Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’s Ajax. He also glimpses Thucydides, the Roman emperor Augustus, Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, George Patton and even Dirty Harry. Trump contains multitudes.
Hanson’s programme on every page is to downplay and trivialise as many of Trump’s countless aberrant behaviours as possible, characterising them as the kind of trivia only effete snobs could possibly find objectionable.
At virtually every turn, Hanson uses euphemisms and little-kid vocabulary: gross violations of personal and social norms become “ethical dilemmas”; six decades of lying, cheating, fornicating, stealing, defrauding, blackmailing and bullying become “personal foibles”; endless, almost uncountable lies, become “fibs”. […]
Hanson invokes “gentrification and the gospel of good taste” as the foremost engines of Trump criticism and claims they blind such criticism to Trump’s alleged accomplishments: “success in reworking Nafta, in prodding Nato members to keep their budgetary commitments, and in recalibrating long overdue asymmetrical relationships with Turkey, Iran and the Palestinians,” and so on.
It’s a key sign of Hanson’s rhetorical fancy-dancing that Trump himself would hardly understand these descriptions. His “reworking” of Nafta was a carefully presented repackaging of minor details in a working arrangement; his “prodding” of Nato members (over nonexistent slacking on “budgetary commitments”) took the form of embarrassing public gaffes and name-calling; and the “recalibrating” of relationships with nations such as Palestine was also regarded as the haphazard discarding of decades of careful diplomacy without much thought being put into it. […]
Hanson’s The Case for Trump is built entirely on a combination of willful blindness, canny stage-dressing and a weird kind of aggrieved cultural defensiveness.
By portraying hamartia as some kind of practically expedient lack of integrity, moreover, Hanson presents his own master class in Trumpist paradiastolē, a “redescription” of vices as virtues and a rhetorical distillation of our “post-truth” era of neck-snapping political spin. Through this tactic—one that deeply troubled early modern thinkers like Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes—playboy notoriety can be recast as renown, crass incivility as forthrightness, felony tax fraud as financial savvy. This repackaging of Trump’s moral failings as his most laudable qualities permeates The Case for Trump. Through Hanson’s redescription, Trump’s “anti-civilizational” hamartia is rendered as romanticized gunslinger vigilantism. At another point, Hanson says Trump might “be compared by his enemies to the thuggish Roman populist Catiline,” but without even denying the charge he immediately reframes this proto-Trump epitome of sedition as an exemplar of “rhetorical power and directness.” More broadly, Hanson explains the “chaos” of White House staff turnover as a matter of finding “personalities [who] jibed with Trump’s own mercurial moods.” For Hanson, Trump’s dishonest, foul-mouthed Mammonism is a heroic feature, not a bug.
In the end, it is Hanson’s clear aversion to reckoning with Trump’s most prosaic character flaw that is most telling. Since history was first written historians have been rationalizing or lionizing the bad behavior or character of powerful men. And even as American conservatives lament an increasingly coarse and nihilistic culture, one can see them excusing Trump’s licentiousness and impiety as a price of partisan advantage, or comparing, like Hanson, Trump’s elemental “toxicity” to chemotherapy, “which after all is used to combat something far worse than itself.” I can also appreciate that Trump’s intuitive “lizard smarts” is undervalued by the professional classes, or that the shock of political upheaval can be constructively tempered with a bit of Al Czervik–style presidential buffoonery. Even Trump’s shambolic, vote-them-off-the-island approach to administration and personnel might have some logic: revolutions are always messy.
But how does a historian excuse wanton ahistoricism? What would Victor Davis Hanson the professor say of a student who loudly claimed that the Germans had bombed Pearl Harbor?
He would, of course, be horrified. Indeed, in some of his other recent writings Hanson has made it clear that the decline in history as an academic discipline in the United States — according to the National Center for Education Statistics it is now the fastest shrinking undergraduate major — is a tragedy. “Today’s students, like their professors, not only do not possess, but feel no need to possess, familiarity with Thucydides, or Dante’s Inferno, or some idea of the Napoleonic Wars, or the work of T. S. Eliot,” he wrote in National Review six days after Trump’s stunning claim about Afghanistan.
The Case for Trump is ultimately unconvincing because, try as he might, Hanson knows that making a case for Donald Trump is inescapably an act of self-negation, the history professor’s version of a pediatric dentist writing a book called The Case for Cocoa Puffs.
Let us stipulate straightaway: Victor Davis Hanson is the worst historian since Parson Weems. To picture anything remotely as bad as his pseudo-historical novels and propaganda tracts, one would have to imagine an account of the fiscal policies of the Bush administration authored by Paris Hilton.
Mr. Hanson, Cal State Fresno’s contribution to human letters, is the favorite historian of the administration, the Naval War College, and other groves of disinterested research. His academic niche is to drag the Peloponnesian War into every contemporary foreign policy controversy and thereby justify whatever course of action our magistrates have taken. One suspects that if the neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute were suddenly seized by the notion to invade Patagonia, Mr. Hanson would be quoting Pericles in support.
Once we strip away all the classical Greek fustian, it becomes clear that the name of his game is to take every erroneous conventional wisdom, cliche, faulty generalization, and common-man imbecility, and elevate them to a catechism. In this process, he showcases a technique beloved of pseudo-conservatives stuck at the Sean Hannity level of debate: he swallows whatever quasi-historical balderdash serves the interest of those in power, announces it with an air of surprised discovery, and then congratulates himself on his boldness in telling truth to power.
This is a surprising and rather hypocritical pose by someone who reportedly sups at the table of Vice President Cheney. For Mr. Hanson is one of a long and undistinguished line of personalities stretching back into the abysm of time: the tribal bard, the court historian, the academic recipient of the Lenin Prize. Compared to him, politically connected scribes such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., resemble Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Along with his towering contempt for anyone not rabidly reactionary, pertaining to, marked by, or favoring reaction, esp. extreme conservatism or rightism in politics; opposing political or social change. Hanson trots out the entire panoply of conservative catch-phrases, which although wildly inaccurate and for the most part hyperbolic jingoism, are fanatically accepted dogma for the angry right-wing bah-humbug mob who embrace only one single nuanced phrase aside from up and down, right and left, black and white: “Money talks, bullshit walks,” i.e. anything that makes money is inherently good, everything else is just chatter. Anyone who deviates from that one elemental truth is either naive of a Marxist.
Everyone knows the first rule in the Conservative rule book: Deny all reality and create your own. Hanson always works this rule into every column he writes. That is not exaggeration. Every column he writes has it’s own fantasy based motif, declarative statements and world view. In the “Pampered” column he also goes by another rule in the playbook. When Conservatives have money it is because America is the land of opportunity and these industrious individuals have clawed their way to the top through hard work. On the other hand, according to Nurse Ratched Hanson, when Democrats have money it is because they are elitists whose money has magically appeared out of the liberal ether. The subset of this Conservative rule is that all working class Democrats – like actual nurses, police and fire fighters, carpenters, middle-managers, store clerks and scientists are terrorist loving Maoists.
Hanson’s entire opinion piece is an example of the very ‘propaganda’ he accuses the “progressive media” of using. It serves as nothing but a whitewash not only of Reagan’s true record, but of both Bushes as well. And of course he strategically forgets Nixon, who not even the conservative media can rehabilitate.
While Hanson is the grand master of deep intellectual thought for the far right who keeps trying to juggle half truths, flawed analysis, grade school analogies, mangled interpretations of some history all for what? To stay on course, the course that has been proven to be the wrong course by all except the delusional like Hanson who’s loyalties extend to Bush and America be damned. Blinded by partisan politics Hanson refuses to acknowledge the most basic facts. Hanson has sold any academic credibility down the river. In short he is being incredibly dishonest when he claims that the Bush administration has a positive direction and a clear plan that is not being implemented because a few people are saying things that might hurt poor little George’s feelings. I’m not sure what is more absurd, Hanson for saying it, or the National Review for publishing this drivel.
The National Review continues its attempt to qualify for some kind of world record in mindless pabulum. Victor Davis Hanson is billed as an “intellectual” and “historian” by the Right. He writes in a post titled A Curious Insularity
In the world of Barack Obama, inflating tires and “tuning up” modern car engines precludes off-shore drilling. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas prices can be ameliorated by having the average consumer trade in his 8-mpg clunker.
While punditry sometimes involves painting in broad strokes those two sentences are the kind of Stalinist propaganda that has comes to dominate right-wing punditry. Whether it is good policy or not may be debatable, but President Obama has called for more offshore drilling and increasing the number of nuclear power plants. Studies have shown that increasing oil drilling will not decrese gas prices more than a cuople pennies and that would be a few years down the road. That may seem couner intuitive, but such is the nature of the world petroleum market. Hanson could not be bothered with the facts. It would ruin his hack job.
Victor Davis Hanson, the neocons’ favorite historian, goes off on a wild ridethat would surely make for good copy in government schoolbooks:
The United States has ridden — and tamed — the wild global tiger since the end of World War II. The frantic ride has been dangerous, to us, but a boon to humanity.
In other words, peace and trade were not chosen after World War II, but instead the U.S. decided to jump on a fictional “global tiger”. With a Federal Reserve ready to print up as much money as necessary, and a homeland unscathed from the ravages of the war, there was no way the power hungry in the U.S. could resist trying to conquer the world.
Hanson says that the U.S. “tamed” the tiger and that it’s been a blessing for humanity. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but the U.S. empire has killed millions of people throughout the many years. So, evidently Hanson means “a boon to humanity” minus those millions of individuals. Let’s not forget Madeleine Albright’s statement that 500,000 dead Iraqi children were “worth it”.
Thus, you have the celebrated neoconservative writer Victor Davis Hanson writing in the December 2, 2009, issue of Imprimis that antiwar activism and other “factors” that make people “reluctant” to resort to war are “lethal combinations” that supposedly threaten the existence of society. Hanson was merely repeating the conservative party line first enunciated by the self-proclaimed founder of the modern conservative (really neoconservative) movement, William F. Buckley Jr. Murray Rothbard quoted Buckley as saying in the January 25, 1952 issue of Commonweal magazine that the Cold War required that
we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. … [We must support] large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.
“We” must advocate the destruction of the free society in the name of defending the free society, said “Mr. Conservative,” a former CIA employee.
In reality, antiwar “factors” are a threat only to the military/industrial/congressional complex, which profits from war; they are not a threat to society as a whole. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
My neighbor Jeff sent me a “sobering” editorial entitled Goodbye California from Hoover Institute fellow and military historian, Victor Davis Hanson. Hoover is a conservative think tank, funded by plutocrats like the Scaifes and Waltons among others.
Hanson repeatedly assures us he’s not editorializing…and then proceeds to slant his presentation so dramatically that it amounts to distortion in the service of his point of view.
What’s his point of view? Why the smart, handsome, productive rich are victims of poor people who are parasites, and California is going to hell in a handcart, propelled by it’s regulations, liberal bias, Mexicans (Eeek!) and profligate welfare spending. They’re victims! Honest! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
But I know some actual poor people, even some poor Mexicans. I didn’t just bicycle past them, as Hanson says he did in his account.
Hanson’s Op-Ed read “Beneath veneers of high-end living, there are lives of quiet 1-percent desperation. With new federal and California tax hikes, aggregate income-tax rates on dot.commers can easily exceed 50 percent of their gross income.” And it went south from there.
I expect a couple would have to make over $4 million annually to have a chance at 50% aggregate income tax rates, but that’s making the ludicrous assumption that $4m includes no capital gains and ignores deductions. If you define income the way people usually do, as salary plus commission plus all investment income, I think few people below $10m annually pay over 50% in aggregate income tax. And while Romney’s 14% rate was probably an outlier, the vast majority of people making over $10m have lots of investment income and pay very little. This doesn’t include payroll taxes but those become a rounding error when your annual income exceeds $4m, and other taxes are also unimportant unless you’ve chosen a bonfire of vanities lifestyle.
Buffett said he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary, and he seems more accurate about the wealthiest than Hanson.
Victor Davis Hanson’s analysis of the election was representative and equally informative. He wrote that Mitt Romney was an amazing candidate – “a glittering Sir Galahad who, given his impressive horse, armor, and lance, along with his decency and piety, assumed that he could win a joust in a fair charge against the other team’s knight.” Hanson claimed that 47 percent of the population are in fact dependent on government and mocked the idea that the Republican Party might try to reach out to non-white voters. “The only way Republicans can appeal to Latinos,” he wrote, is to “close the border, stop illegal immigration, and allow the melting pot and upward mobility to fracture ‘Hispanics’ along class lines.”
For Hanson and most of his readers, neither the message nor the messenger were problematic; only the pernicious bias of the traditional media prevented voters from embracing the plans Mitt Romney was going to detail right after his victory. Hanson then, without irony, warned his fellow Republicans of the dangers of falling into the comforting “cocoon” provided by the conservative media.
Next up, we have a real tour de force from Victor Davis Hanson. It’s all about the sense of freedom one feels when one is doing back-breaking and sometimes dangerous work while not making as much money as Victor Davis Hanson. I give him credit for keeping it slightly less rambling and nonsensical than usual, while still managing to sneak in some vintage VDH-flavored surrealism. Go ahead, click. You will not be disappointed.
Despite his credentials, Hanson, like so many conservatives in the age of trump, has slipped off the deep end. His racism became obvious during the Obama administration and he now seems to have lost all touch with reality.
If Gottfried is right, the purges seem to have been incomplete. Victor Davis Hanson, a current writer for National Review and a frequent critic of multiculturalism, for instance, published a National Review piece about race and crime a year after Derbyshire’s firing that loudly echoed his offending column without similar repercussions, right down to the paternal recommendation to avoid black people.
I watched the docudrama VICE about Dick Cheney’s life and rise to power. It presents him as being behind promoting ‘climate change’ rhetoric over ‘global warming’ because, in research using a focus group, people perceived it as less threatening. This is probably because it feels more abstract and neutral, not quite real. Everything changes, as the climate deniers spin it, warming and cooling over the millennia. Putting the state of emergency in those terms elicits no profound human response and opens up the field to manipulation by reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominators.
To fight this, we need to be very concrete and viscerally emotional in our language. Maybe even ‘climate crisis’ doesn’t quite capture it. Better yet ‘climate emergency’, ‘climate catastrophe’, and ‘climate disaster’. We need to speak directly of increasing ‘death rates’, ‘property destruction’, and ‘national threats’ from ‘violent weather extremes’, ‘heat attacks’, etc. And we need to make sure the imagery of the damage and deaths gets regularly shown in the media like war footage during the Vietnam War every single time a major weather event happens and simultaneously repeat ad nauseum that extreme weather events are increasing and worsening with ‘global heating’. Burn those images and words in the public mind.
The right-wing partly won the battle of ideology by framing the rhetoric of public debate. Even though people do think that climate change is happening, it isn’t quite real to most of them and they can’t fully connect it to human causes, at least in the US. Most Americans still don’t see ‘climate change’ as man-made, even as they think the government should do something about it — still, the urgency is not there. Maybe we need to go so far as to talk about ‘humanity-wide self-destruction’ and ‘human species suicide’. And we need to be specific about who is our enemy. Corporations with records of environmental harm and externalized costs should be labeled ‘ecological terrorists’ and ‘enemies of the state’. Whatever specific language, we need to develop the structure of ideological rhetoric where a few key phrases are repeatedly drilled into the public psyche. We can’t be subtle and timid in our language.
The right-wing will always go to extremes to win. But the political left, especially the liberal class, has gotten into the bad habit of pulling their punches. This is partly because much of the liberal class (e.g., the Clinton Democrats) are essentially right-wingers themselves in terms of being neoliberal corporatists and neocon war hawks. They have been pushing the Overton window right for decades. Those of us genuinely on the left with a beating heart for justice and compassion need to fight this battle as if it mattered, as if our lives and the lives of our loved ones depended on it because they do depend on it. We have to be blunt and combative in speaking truth to power. We need to inspire respect by demonstrating strength of character and courage.
Our words need to match the horrific dangers we are facing but also give expression to the sense of what can be done about it. We should speak of those powerful interests and ruthless psychopaths who are attacking us, destroying our homes, threatening our children, holding hostage future generations. It should be portrayed as a war because it is a war, a struggle for our lives and survival. Our language needs to be radical and revolutionary, a fight for freedom and democracy and liberty, for a better society and a hopeful future. We can’t be afraid to use the language of religion, patriotism, community, family, or anything else. No tool should be left unused. We must hit them with everything we got and do so with utter passion.
Imagine how Martin Luther King Jr. would speak about worldwide environmental destruction and life-threatening corporate power if he were still alive now. Use the exact same kind of language. He would not back down from a fight, would not hold back from using the harshest and most damning words to evoke an emotional response from the public, to hold the ruling elite accountable. And he would make sure to stage confrontations that could be seen on the news to make it viscerally real. He had a flair for the dramatic.
We need to relearn that skill. We need to remember how to dream big, big enough to meet the challenges before us. But if we are to get others to feel the urgency, we first have to feel the urgency ourselves. We will be able to fight with all our strength when we finally feel in our own hearts what is at risk, that the threat is real and immediate, that this is literally a life and death struggle, that there is no later on — this is it, now or never. When there are leaders who talk the talk and walk the walk, then and only then will the public follow, then and only then will there be political will to take needed action.
The following is an accurate description of the political rhetoric, the labels and language in its use on the political right (from a Twitter thread). It is by Matthew A. Sears, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick.
1. “I’m neither a liberal nor a conservative.” = “I’m totally a conservative.”
2. “I’m a radical centrist.” = “I’m totally a conservative.”
3. “I’m a classical liberal.” = “I’m a neoliberal who’s never read any classical liberals.”
4. “I’m not usually a fan of X.” *Retweets and agrees with everything X says.*
5. “I’m a free speech absolutist.” = “I’m glad racists are now free to speak publicly.”
6. “I believe in confronting views one finds offensive.” *Whines about being bullied by lefties.*
7. “My views are in the minority and aren’t given a fair hearing.”*Buys the best-selling book in the world.*
8. “Where else would you rather live?” = “Canada is perfect for me, and it better not frigging change to be better for anyone else.”
9. “Nazis should be able to speak and given platforms so we can debate them.” *Loses mind if someone says ‘fuck’ to a Nazi.*
10. “The left has taken over everything.” *Trump is president and the Republicans control Congress.*
And, finally, the apex of Twitterspeak:
11. “The left are tyrants and have taken over everything and refuse to hear other perspectives and pose a dire threat to the republic and Western Civilization.” *Ben Shapiro has over a million followers.*
I’d say treat this thread as an Enigma Machine for Quillette-speak/viewpoint-diversity-speak/reverse-racism-speak/MRA-speak, but none of these chaps are enigmas.
I can’t believe I have to add this, but some are *outraged* by this thread: I don’t mind if you’re *actually* centrist or conservative. I just mind if you *pretend to be* left/centrist for rhetorical/media cred/flamewar purposes, while *only* taking conservative stances. Sheesh
Like, I’m pretty left-wing on many issues these days. It would be sneaky of me to identity as “conservative” or “classical liberal” or whatever only to dump on all their ideas and always support opposing ideas. A left-winger or centrist is what a left-winger or centrist tweets.
Possibly, upwards of a third of Americans are a wild card on polling and voting. These people are some combination of politically misinformed, ideologically inconsistent, anti-intellectually reactionary, mentally unstable, disconnected from reality, lacking self-awareness, socially unconcerned, apathetically indifferent, distractedly careless, cynically trollish, frustratedly outraged, generally irritated, etc. They are unable or unwilling to fully participate in the demands of democracy. Or else they don’t believe we have a functioning democracy to participate in.
Any crazy belief or crazy politician that only gets consistent support from a third or less of the public can be set aside, albeit not dismissed, at least in terms of understanding what is the actual motivation and intention. Even most Trump voters admitted that they didn’t like him nor trusted him to do what they wanted him to do. They voted out of protest, or else for shits and giggles; either way, it’s a clear ‘fuck you’ (maybe ‘fuck you, fuck me, fuck us all’, ‘just fuck it’, ‘who gives a fuck’, or something along those lines). Such people don’t form a monolithic demographic of opinion and values. And for damn sure they aren’t representative of any larger pattern in society, any larger trend among the public… beyond how screwed up it has all become.
Across the entire population, there is more than enough ideological confusion and inconsistency to go around. This largely has to do with how labels are used, or rather misused and abused. Liberals label their positions moderate, the very positions that the political and media elite think of as liberal. Either liberals really are more moderate or the elite aren’t as liberal as they think, although I suspect both are true. That leaves conservatives holding positions that these same elites consider liberal, while conservatives don’t see them as liberal, which questions the very concept of conservatism. There are more conflicted conservatives than consistent conservatives, something not found among liberals. To the degree that liberals are conflicted, it is because they mis-label their views right-ward.
Anyway, the average person probably doesn’t give much thought to how they answer polls and vote in elections. Most people have busy lives. Besides, it’s not as if the education system and news media does a great job of informing the public and explaining the issues. And that is on top of the low quality of options typically given. We also can’t forget the constant bullshit, spin, propaganda, psyops, etc. Framing alone sometimes will completely reverse what people state as supporting. When a combative frame is used, most Americans support harsh punishment of criminals. But when a public health frame is used, most Americans support rehabilitation. So, which is the real majority? Well, both are or neither is.
Here is a major point to be understood and emphasized. As data shows, most people who hold liberal positions don’t identify as liberal. And most people who identify as liberal don’t identify many of their own positions as liberal, instead identifying them as moderate. Also interesting is the fact that self-identified conservatives, many being conflicted conservatives holding liberal positions, tend to identify their liberal and moderate positions as conservative. So, every demographic labels their views to the right of where their views actually are on the spectrum, at least for most major issues. This is partly because of the political and media elite who claim to be moderate and centrist while in many ways being to the right of the general public. The narrative of public opinion and the political spectrum is being defined by a disconnected elite that is heavily biased to the right.
Considering this, maybe it’s unsurprising that the crazification factor is so large. This explains all the noise in public polling. And this probably explains why so many Americans don’t even bother voting. Their views aren’t being represented. In fact, the views of most Americans simply make no sense within the dominant paradigm that controls the political system.
Crazification factor (alternatively known as the “Keyes constant”) is a neologism coined by blogger John Rogers to refer to the portion of the electorate comprising the nuttiest of the wingnuts and the batshit crazy.
In popular usage, it is an application of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which you only call attention to data supporting your proposition: you will find endless examples of people online crying “Crazification factor!” when 20-30% of people do something — anything — the speaker doesn’t like, or are even polled as holding an opinion they don’t like.
Rogers later stressed that the phrase was a joke, not some serious statistical proposition.
These errors were things that we lumped into something we called “response style” (psychologists call it response bias). It’s very very hard to observe response style. But I’d say we can make a pretty good guess that Americans – and possibly everyone – do a lot of random responding when it comes to these sorts of surveys.
[M]aybe people just don’t think very hard about how they answer these questions. Maybe some people are confused by the questions. Maybe some are trolling.
Whatever the cause, it seems like you can get 20 to 25 percent of Americans to say any ridiculous thing imaginable. “Do you think eating raccoon poop reduces the risk of brain cancer?” “23 percent of Americans say yes!” “Would you be willing to cut your toes off with a rotary saw if it meant your neighbor had to do the same?” “17 percent of Americans say they would!” Etc.
It makes no sense at all…unless you can get ~20 percent of Americans to say pretty much any ridiculous thing on a survey.
I call this the margin of stupid. Unlike the margin of error, it’s not even a roughly symmetric error — because you can’t have less than 0% of people give a certain answer on a survey, the margin of stupid always biases surveys toward showing some non-negligible amount of support for any crazy or stupid or horrible position.
Whenever you read a survey like this, you must take the margin of stupid into account. Yes, there are Americans who believe crazy, stupid, and horrible things. But dammit, there aren’t that many. Next time you see some poll breathlessly claiming that 21 percent of Americans support executing anyone whose name starts with “G”, or that 18 percent of Millennials believe themselves to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, take it with a grain of salt. It’s a lot easier to give a stupid answer on a survey than to actually truly hold a nuts belief.
Sadly, the margin of stupid also probably applies to voting.
This led screenwriter John Rodgers and a friend to coin the term Crazification Factor–an unpredictable and shifting yet relatively consistent bottom, like the silt at the bottom of a pond: “Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification – either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.”
“Crazification” seems not just unkind but simplistic, though I don’t deny a certain baseline: I’d add ironic voting, protest votes–a vote for Alan Keyes is a resonant protest vote–and even people who want to make a spectacle worse. But it still seems to be a useful theory, in the sense that when I see Donald Trump polling really well (26 percent!), or birthers continuing to emit a low hum (27 percent!), I’m no longer shocked: oh, that’s just the Keyes Constant.
Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.
(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)
Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.
So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”
Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”
Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”
And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.
Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.
I really wish polls like these would include a control question, something utterly implausible even by lizard-people standards, something like “Do you believe Barack Obama is a hippopotamus?” Whatever percent of people answer yes to the hippo question get subtracted out from the other questions.
Poll Answers As Attire
Alas, not all weird poll answers can be explained that easily. On the same poll, 13% of Americans claimed to believe Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. Subtracting our Lizardman’s Constant of 4%, that leaves 9% of Americans who apparently gave this answer with something approaching sincerity.
(a friend on Facebook pointed out that 5% of Obama voters claimed to believe that Obama was the Anti-Christ, which seems to be another piece of evidence in favor of a Lizardman’s Constant of 4-5%. On the other hand, I do enjoy picturing someone standing in a voting booth, thinking to themselves “Well, on the one hand, Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other, do I really want four years of Romney?”)
Some pollsters are starting to consider these sorts of things symptomatic of what they term symbolic belief, which seems to be kind of what the Less Wrong sequences call Professing and Cheering or Belief As Attire. Basically, people are being emotivists rather than realists about belief. “Obama is the Anti-Christ” is another way of just saying “Boo Obama!”, rather than expressing some sort of proposition about the world.
And the same is true of “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was not born in America”.
The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.
Over the last several decades, scholars have noted a strengthening link between ideology and party identification among the public, but the causal direction of this phenomenon remains contested. The ideological realignment thesis holds that ideology now strongly influences party identification, but this position conflicts with literature suggesting that party identification remains the primary causal force behind most important political attitudes. This study examines the causal forces at work between ideology and party identification by focusing on the distinction between symbolic and operational ideology. The methodology involves the use of panel data that span several decades, and structural equation modeling. The findings indicate that between 1982 and 1997, symbolic ideology had a strong influence party identification, but operational ideology had little effect on party identification. The results suggest an important revision to the ideological realignment thesis, as the evidence indicates that symbolic ideology has been the primary force driving realignment.
Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.
This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government? For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle. In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.
But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government. These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics. Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms. Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people. As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.
Ideology has two faces: the labels people choose and the actual content of their beliefs. For liberals, these are mostly aligned. For conservatives, they are not.
Polls have generally showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering liberals, with a recent slight increase in the number of liberals. I have often speculated that this is largely due to the success the right wing noise machine has had in demonizing the word liberal. Americans come out more liberal than would be expected by these poll findings when we look at individual issues.
While the pendulum swings both ways, the trend has been toward more liberal policies over the years. Most people wouldn’t think of returning to the days of child labor. Medicare and Social Security are deeply entrenched, to the point that even when Republicans vote for ending Medicare as we know it they realize they have to hide what they are doing. Recent polls show increases in the number of people who support legalization of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority even supports the individual components of Obamacare when asked without identifying the policy as Obamacare. […]
This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.
[…] The general pattern is not surprising. Symbolic ideology is correlated with the most commonly chosen label for issue positions.
A closer look shows important asymmetries. Across all issues, symbolic conservatives are always more likely to label their positions as conservative than anything else, even when an analyst would label many of those issue positions liberal or moderate. Moreover, symbolic conservatives use the conservative label for their issue positions far more frequently than symbolic liberals use the liberal label for theirs. For symbolic liberals, the moderate label is chosen by a plurality on 10 of the 13 issues. On only one issue, support for gay marriage, does a clear majority of liberals label their position as liberal.
The pattern of labeled issue positions among symbolic liberals is not consistent
with the Ellis-Stimson narrative. In that account, liberals’ unconflicted liberals’
ideological commitments and ideological sophistication allow them to apply the liberal label with ease. In fact, while liberals apply the general label to themselves, they do not embrace the term for many of their issue positions and instead more often choose the moderate label.
As one would expect, a plurality of symbolic moderates used the moderate label to describe their policy preferences—with the exception of social security, where slightly more described their position as “none of these.” For eight of the 13 issues, more moderates described their positions as conservative than liberal. The “none of these” option was chosen by 20-30 percent of moderates across the 13 issues. These results are consistent with research that describes moderates, on average, as less political than liberals or conservatives.
Plainly, the mismatch between symbolic ideology and issue position labels is common and is not limited to conservatives. In fact, the avoidance of the liberal label extends to symbolic liberals, which is consistent with the long-standing argument that the label has negative connotations. It may illustrate that the importance of the framing pathway described by Ellis and Stimson and, in doing so, raises a question of about how much framing accounts for conflicted conservatives for whom Ellis and Stimson emphasize the extra-political sources of ideological identity.
Mismatches between Issue Positions and Their Labels
For some of the most popular causes—such as spending on education—positions (and symbolic ideology) show a weak relationship to issue position labels. In the case of education spending, nearly half of symbolic conservatives considered opposing a cut in education spending to be a conservative position. More than ninety percent of liberals opposed this same cut in education spending, but only about one-third call this view liberal, with most liberals calling it a moderate position.
Mismatches are most common for issues on which there is a consensus view. In fact, across the 13 issues, there is an important correlation between the size of the issue position plurality and the frequency of mismatches between issue positions and issue position labels. For symbolic conservatives, the correlation is -0.81—more popular causes create more mismatches (liberal positions labeled conservative) for conservatives. For symbolic liberals, the size of the plurality and labeling liberal positions as conservative has a correlation of -0.71.
Consistent with findings about mismatches between symbolic ideology and issue positions, we find that mismatches for issue positions and their labels occur more often in the form of labeling liberal positions conservative than in labeling conservative positions liberal. More than 30 percent of labeling responses associated the conservative label with liberal positions, while only about 20 percent associated the liberal label with conservative positions.
Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.
More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.
Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.
So, if most Americans are actually conservative and the Democratic Party is actually liberal, then why does the Democratic Party have higher positive ratings than the Republican Party for more than a decade? Either Americans aren’t so conservative or the Democratic Party isn’t so liberal. I’d argue it’s both.
If Americans are so conservative, then why do they have a decently positive feeling rating toward what they perceive as ‘liberals’? The positive feelings for liberals hasn’t dropped below 50 in several decades. That ain’t too shabby for a supposedly conservative population. […]
The key values of the ideological divide are the basis of the key issues of society and politics. As such, determining the key issues is important in distinguishing liberalism vs conservatism in the American population. Key issues are important because they are the wedge issues that decide elections. What is telling to my mind is that it’s specifically the key issues of American politics that have been strongly moving leftward. I would conclude two things. First, the majority of Americans are definitely not right-leaning in any clear sense and there isn’t any evidence that the center of public opinion is shifting rightward. Second, however one might add up all the various issues, the majority of Americans are progressively liberal or becoming more progressively liberal on many if not most of the key issues.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.
This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.
It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.
Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.
Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.
Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.
Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.
Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.
[…] from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253): […]
It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.
Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).
[…] The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).
It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.
[…] To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?
[…] Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):
[…] But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”
[…] So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:
According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.
The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.
In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.
If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.
If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.
Consider specific issues.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.
That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.
Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?
If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.
In the 2005 Pew poll, the demographic was just called ‘Liberals’. In this 2011 Pew poll, the demographic is called ‘Solid Liberals’. So, I don’t know if it is speaking about the exact same demographic segment of the population. Pew changes the demographic groupings as the data changes. In the new ‘Solid Liberals’ demographic there is only 23% Independents whereas in the previous ‘Liberals’ demographic there was almost 1/2 Independents. Of those Indpendents, they didn’t ask how many self-identified as liberal or something else. Among ‘Solid Liberals’ in general, only 60% self-identified as ‘liberal’ while 31% self-identified as ‘moderate’ and 9% self-identified as ‘conservative’.
What does ‘liberal’ even mean when slightly less than 1/2 of supposed ‘liberals’ don’t self-identify as ‘liberal’? This goes to the heart of the American public’s confusion about ideologies and labels. Given a choice between the two, most Americans self-identify as ‘conservative’. However, when asked about specific issues, most Americans support many liberal positions on key issues. […]
“But the Gallup survey of self-identification of ideology shows that more Americans self-identify as moderates and liberals than as conservatives. Most Americans do not self-identify as conservatives.”
Given a choice between the three, the data I’ve seen shows most Americans self-identify as moderates. So, what is a moderate? They are essentially those who tend toward centrism or at least away from the extreme wings. Considering that, where is the center in American politics? […]
I was looking further at the Pew data. There is another interesting group: Post-Moderns. They are considered Independents and they are the only group to have the majority self-identify as moderates. One would assume, therefore, that they wouldn’t have any bias toward either party. But one would be wrong in that assumption.
Post-Moderns are 62% Independents, 26% Democrats and 2% Republicans. Of the Independents, 19% has no lean, 58% lean to the Democratic Party and 23% lean to the Republican Party. They favor Democrats over Republicans on almost every question, including reelecting Obama. Also, they listen to Fox News less than the average Democrat and listen to NPR at almost the same rate as the average Democrat. They are second only to Solid Liberals in their reading of The New York Times and their watching the Daily Show. They generally seem closest to Solid Liberals on most issues. They are strongly socially liberal. They have the strongest, although qualified, support of the government. They’d prefer it to be smaller, but they see a role for government in many social issues.
Post-Moderns are the only demographic with a majority of moderates which means they are the clearest indicator we have about where the center is right now in US politics. These moderates are more liberal than not. So, the majority of Post-Moderns identifies as moderate even as the majority also supports many liberal positions and policies.
– – –
Here is the reason why the Democratic Party has never been controlled by liberals and especially not by left-wingers.
“The Pew Research poll notes a fundamental difference between “solid Liberals” and the other two groups that lean Democratic — “Hard-pressed Democrats” and “New coalition Democrats”: “both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.” To the extent that cultural issues — such as abortion and homosexuality — dominate political discourse, these groups can be peeled away from the Democratic bloc to vote Republican. In his classic, What’s the Matter With Kansas? journalist Tom Frank detailed how Republicans redirect economic discontent to explosive cultural issues. In 2012, “moral purity” will be a major Republican theme — particularly if messianic Texas Governor Rick Perry becomes the GOP candidate. The Liberal challenge is to ensure that jobs and economic fairness become the dominant political themes, not “How can we make the US a Christian nation?””
– – –
Here is some data from 2004 which I suspect might be even more true in 2011. The article notes that in 2000 the Independents were evenly split between the two parties but by 2004 they were leaning Democratic and liberal. If this is a trend that fits the other leftward trends, this will continue into the near future as OWS seems to demonstrate.
“The bad news for conservatives is that a majority of independents line up on the liberal-to-moderate side of the ideological spectrum. Twenty-one percent of independents in the Zogby poll described themselves as liberal or progressive, while 37 percent called themselves moderates. In contrast, 30 percent of independents describe their politics as conservative, with only 4 percent calling themselves “very conservative” or libertarian.
“Zogby asserts that the polls indicate independents are trending more liberal in this election year as opposed to 2000. For example, fully 70 percent of independents believe the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, a traditionally Democratic concern. “The environment is a Democratic ace in the hole this year,” Zogby says.
“Meanwhile, 82 percent of independents want the federal government to play a major role in protecting individual freedom, suggesting a backlash against the Patriot Act and other attempts by the Bush administration to change the traditional balance between national security and individual liberty. Sixty-two percent feel the government should help ensure that all citizens have economic opportunities, while 60 percent want a dominant role by the federal government in providing social programs to help the needy.
“The liberal bias of independents contrasts sharply with the other elections in which their vote has proved critical. In the 1980 election, blue-collar workers deserted Jimmy Carter and the Democrats to vote Ronald Reagan into office. And in the 1990s, Bill Clinton infuriated traditional liberals but won the presidency twice by appealing to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative instincts of suburban soccer moms. Third party candidates – John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 – attracted disaffected voters who saw no real difference between Republicans and Democrats.” […]
Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.
How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?
Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.
Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.
The news reporting, along with public debate, on free speech has been typical. It’s not just dissatisfying but frustrating. It pushes a narrative that infects many a mind, including more than a few outside of the ‘mainstream’.
I found an example of this, although I’m not in the mood to directly link to the piece. On the individual’s About page, he obviously prides himself on being an independent thinker who looks down upon ‘Puny mortals’ who “come by their worldviews by accepting in good faith what they have been told by people they perceive to be smarter or better informed than they.” He is so anarchist that he doesn’t think other anarchists are anarchist enough. Yet he is basing his own view on controlled rhetoric designed to manipulate public perception and opinion.
I guess he is so anarchist that he has looped back around to the other side of the spectrum, maybe with his anti-intellectualism trumping his anti-authoritarianism. After all, he describes himself as a white working class anarchist, which apparently means anyone with a college degree is his enemy, including working class traitors who decide to better themselves by seeking higher education. Or maybe he is simply yet another example of an ideologically confused American.
In the piece he wrote, he goes off on some weird sociopolitical rant. It has little connection to the larger world outside of an internet echo chamber. He is shadow boxing the phantasmagoric demons lurking inside his skull and apparently finds it to be a gleeful sport where, as he is the referee of this self-inflicted mental pugilism, he always wins. But what interests me is that his demons just so happen to take the shape of the caricatures portrayed in much of corporate media, with a clear right-wing slant of the populist variety. He writes that,
Well, unfortunately, because of recent riots at Berkeley, we can’t really say that anymore. Now, a lot of those involved or allied will say that, because this action was undertaken by a ‘rebel faction’, and not an established power, it’s actually a righteous insurrection, rather than authoritarian oppression. But given the fact that these are the children of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Microsoft, many of whom are ‘Trustifarians’, their proletarian cred is highly suspect. If you can afford to live and go to school in that area of the country, you probably do not come from a poor background.
It’s muddled thinking. This misses so much of the reality of the situation.
The protesters are a small group or, to be more accurate, a mix of small groups. Most of them may or may not be students at Berkeley. Many of them probably are locals or outside agitators taking advantage of the situation, an opportunity for two sides to fight and maybe having little to do with the student body itself. There could even be some agent provocateurs among them. There is absolutely no evidence that they represent most people who are either college students or on the political left. I doubt these people represent a ‘rebel faction’ either, whatever that is supposed to mean. For damn sure, I doubt that many of “the children of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Microsoft, many of whom are ‘Trustifarians’” are involved in political activism of the direct action variety, the kind that can lead to becoming a target of violent troublemakers or else violent police.
I share the words of this particular anarchist only because it captures the dark fantasy created by corporate media, especially right-wing media, although sadly much of the supposed ‘liberal’ media as well. It’s bizarre. And it is highly infectious.
Even if these protesters were all Berkeley students, one should note that a fair number of middle class and even working class people get into college. The majority of Berkeley students aren’t the inbred spawn of the plutocratic elite.
According to recent data: 99% of Berkeley students come from the bottom 99.9% in terms of family income, 96.2% from the bottom 99%, 77% from the bottom 97%, 62% from the bottom 90%, 46% from the bottom 80%, and 7.3% from the bottom 20%. Considering that Berkeley has about 40,000 enrolled, those poorest of Berkeley students number several thousand and there are 4.9% that “came from a poor family but became a rich adult.” Other data shows that, depending on class year and such, 21-32% of students have parents with income below $40,000, which would be around 8-12 thousand students. About a quarter of freshman and about half of transfers are the first generation in their families to attend college. I might add that the vast majority of Berkeley students are minorities, with less than a third of freshmen being caucasian.
It’s possible that the protest disproportionately attracted students from the lower classes and from among minority groups who have had a lifetime of dealing with prejudice, the kind of people more likely to be offended by rich white assholes like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. From the same piece I initially quoted, the self-styled anarchist stated that, “You’re wrong about the working class, I hope they kick your Berkeley ass.” It’s not so clear to me who will be kicking whose ass, considering the demographics of Berkeley students and considering the real conflicts in our society. It is ludicrous to think it is the privileged rich white students who are protesting against these privilege rich white supremacists. As Alex Schmaus explains about an earlier protest, targeted minorities were fighting back against attempted oppression (The far right goes on a rampage in Berkeley):
It was rumored that Yiannopoulos would be launching a campaign to target undocumented students and their supporters on sanctuary campuses like Berkeley. But he and the College Republicans were unable to carry out this plan after they were confronted by some 2,000 or more students and community members chanting, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”
The February 1 protest was inaccurately portrayed in the media as violent because a contingent of 100 or so masked Black Bloc activists carried out their own unannounced action–starting more than an hour after the much larger picket had begun–setting off fireworks and smoke bombs, pulling down police barricades, breaking windows and starting fires.
Reports of small numbers of far-right Yiannopoulos supporters trying attempting to intimidate protesters were ignored in almost every mainstream media account. Eventually, university administrators canceled the event, citing safety concerns.
I have no idea who are all of the groups of people at the various protests. I’m sure they represent a diversity of people on all sides with various ideologies and agendas, along with many innocent bystanders who simply got caught up in altercations that escalated quickly. My point is that most people with opinions about such issues are speaking from ignorance and that includes most corporate media reporters. No one seems to bother to find out. That said, I bet the FBI knows the exact identity and maybe even ideology of nearly every person that showed up, not that the FBI is going to share that info with the rest of us.
Here is what bothers me most of all. The political right is so much more effective in silencing opposition and frustrating free speech. But they do so in a highly controlled and devious way. A conservative college would stifle the free speech of both speakers and protesters. So, there would be no protest because there would be no opportunity. Free speech would be snuffed out in the crib. There would be nothing to report because nothing would happen. The corporate media tends to ignore what doesn’t happen (i.e., the muzzled dog that doesn’t bark) and why it doesn’t happen. The lack of free speech on conservative campuses is accepted as normal, not worthy of investigating or reporting.
Why doesn’t anyone complain that conservative Christian colleges don’t regularly have as guest speakers such people as anti-authoritarian pacifists, welfare statists, proud communists, radical anarchists, secular atheists, intersectional feminists, LGBT activists, moral relativists, sexual libertines, Pagan practitioners, Islamic fundamentalists, and Palestinian freedom fighters? These colleges also receive government funding but, unlike the larger universities, simply ensure nothing that isn’t conservative ever makes it within their walls. There are few non-conservatives and non-Christians in a conservative Christian college, along with few such people ever invited to speak. As such, there is rarely anyone to protest or any event to be canceled. An event that is never allowed to be planned can’t be cancelled, much less protested. It’s exclusion by design and we the taxpayers fund it, as Katha Pollitt put it (The Schools Where Free Speech Goes to Die):
If students are being denied a broad, mind-stretching education at universities often considered among the best in the world, what about the biased, blinkered, partial education that students are receiving at religious colleges? What about the assumption that no changing of the mind shall be permitted? Isn’t education supposed to challenge one’s settled beliefs?
And with Title IX exemptions in hand, colleges are free to ban and expel LGBT students, discriminate against women, use the Bible as a science text, and fire professors who disagree—without putting their federal funding at risk. The truth-in-advertising principle may protect the right of private colleges to do this. But the last time I looked, separation of church and state was still in the Bill of Rights.
Conservatives create an entire echo chamber of institutions and media. They shut out all alternative voices. There isn’t allowed any perception of other views. Their idea of free speech is to allow everyone they agree with to speak freely. Then they complain that conservatives aren’t allowed to dominate all forums and platforms of speech throughout the rest of society.
Yet, conveniently, conservatives don’t seem bothered when leftists are oppressed by suppression of free speech, such as those fighting Zionist apartheid. Howard Schwartz, as one random example among many, lost his position at a university for his lack of groupthink support for Israeli apartheid. Also, consider all of the careers and lives destroyed during the Cold War because of accusations of communism or communist sympathy. If conservatives had the opportunity, most of them would enthusiastically have a new era of McCarthyism.
It’s understandable that conservatives deceptively push the narrative that more than a tiny percentage of people on the political left care about shutting down free speech. The fact of the matter is there are far more people on the right who fear free speech. But we’ve grown so cynical about right-wingers that we assume they always have bad intentions toward a functioning democracy and, as such, we’ve stopped holding them accountable. Instead, even the supposed ‘liberal’ media seeks to silence protesters by promoting this conservative narrative, without much concern about petty factual details.
Why doesn’t the ‘liberal’ corporate media regularly do some genuine investigative reporting? They could research the larger context of what is going on. They could interview people to find out who are those involved and not involved. They could look at all sides such as seeing the role of right-wing instigators and outside agitators in fomenting conflict and violence. They could do surveys to find out what are the actual views and values of various groups, instead of making false accusations and unsubstantiated generalizations.
But if the corporate media allowed that kind of journalism to become the norm, they would no longer be serving corporate interests in a corporatist system that pushes rhetoric to further divide the public, ensuring that actual democracy remains hobbled. And you can see how highly effective is this tactic. Consider again the example of the avowed anarchist who has been pulled into this divisive narrative framing, without even the slightest clue that he is being manipulated. As I often repeat, never doubt the power of propaganda, especially not in the US where the propaganda model of media is more pervasive and subtle than maybe any ever devised in all of world history.
This is similar to how the corporatist Democrats used their narratives of identity politics. Sanders’ supporters were called Bernie Bros, as young women were attacked as gender traitors and young minorities were ignored, as both had been won over by Sanders’ genuine progressivism. Similar to how college students are caricatured, Sanders’ supporters were portrayed as violent radicals who are a threat to the supposed moderate and mainstream ‘liberalism’ of the corporatist ruling elite, despite the fact that the majority of Americans agree with Sanders on major issues.
We Americans are so propagandized that most of us can’t see straight. We are drowning in a flood of bullshit. Fortunately, there are a few voices that manage to get heard, even occasionally in the broader public debate. Yet the dominant narratives never change, as they continue to frame nearly all discussion and reporting.
As Aaron Hanlon argued in the New Republic earlier this week, choosing not to host Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos on campus is not a suppression of their free speech. Academia certainly has an important place in selecting and elevating certain voices to relevance in a broader culture, but let’s not forget that a college isn’t a town hall: it’s a particular community of people engaged in intersecting missions of education. Coulter is not a member of that community and she has no claims upon it. Campus life is curated, and none of us outside of it are guaranteed access to that platform. Aside from safety concerns, that doesn’t mean trying to cancel her appearance was necessarily the right decision—it very well may be true that students should challenge her views face-to-face—but doing so is still not a violation of her rights.
That cannot be said, however, of the Fordham case. As Singal notes, Fordham is a private university, and as such the question of free speech in this case relates not to the Constitution but the university’s own policies. But unlike Coulter, who has a regular platform on television and in publishing, the students of Fordham are truly limited by what their university will and will not allow as protected speech. Those students have been denied the opportunity to engage in the political action they find meaningful. They have been punished for peacefully protesting that decision. At Berkeley, the College Republicans who invited Ann Coulter to speak presumably retain their official club status and likely their budget.
It was only after an ugly riot and arson by non-student anarchists on the night of the Yiannopoulos talk (leaving more than $100,000 in property damage on the Berkeley campus) that the chancellor reluctantly canceled the talk in the interests of public safety.
Fearing a recurrence of the Yiannopoulos violence, the Berkeley administration sought to postpone Coulter’s speech, and in the end asked that in the interest of security it be delayed a week. The administration cited threats it had received against Coulter, which is not surprising given that she is an intemperate nativist. Coulter and her College Republican and Young American Foundation sponsors responded with claims that the administration was trying to stifle conservative speech and that it had caved in to Berkeley’s “rabid off-campus mob” in doing so.
There are very few students on the Berkeley campus who see this week’s delay of the Coulter speech on public safety grounds as a free speech violation. That’s why the lawsuit the College Republicans filed this week against the UC administration had no Berkeley student sponsors other than the College Republicans. Think of the contrast with 1964, when there was a genuine free speech violation and a mass free speech movement; it mobilized virtually every Berkeley student group from left to right and even created a new organization of students, the independents, so that those who had been unaffiliated with any political group could be a part of the Free Speech Movement. In 1964 thousands of Berkeley students marched and hundreds engaged in civil disobedience when free speech was genuinely under threat. Not so today.
No, this is not a real free speech movement at Berkeley today, and that is because there has been no free speech violation by the UC administration. What the Coulter affair really amounts to is a “time, place, and manner” quibble.
These rants in the mainstream press botch the facts of the stories they present, smearing thousands of mostly peaceful protesters as violent thugs, while disregarding the sincere debate on the left about how to confront the right on college campuses.
But that’s not even the worst of their mistakes. Their more spectacular failure is in attributing the crisis of free speech in American universities to the behavior of students.
There is, indeed, a crisis of free speech today, one that is steadily eroding the rights of students, faculty and staff in thousands of institutions of higher learning all across the country. But the blame lies with university administrators and bosses, not the student activists they loathe.
On campus after campus, university administrations are systematically rolling back decades of hard-fought gains for free speech, threatening students with suspension and expulsion for speaking out and clamping down on their right to assemble and organize. […]
THESE CHANGES occurred in tandem with a broader transformation of higher education, orchestrated to better serve the interests of business and the U.S. state, while placing the cost of education increasingly on the backs of students and faculty. […]
THE TRANSFORMATION of the university into a neoliberal regime has intensified the crisis of free speech on campus.
Contingent professors are justifiably afraid to express themselves openly with very little job security and power to defend themselves from their employers. Students, saddled with debt, cannot afford to risk discipline or suspension when their hopes of financial security depend on getting their diplomas and finding employment. To top it off, campuses are now dominated by an army of administrators policing student and faculty activity.
This time, it was conservatives assailing colleges as too “liberal”—never mind that many campuses have already been transformed by the very corporate, capitalist incentives and pressures that most conservatives champion, with disturbing consequences that they’re trying to blame on liberal political correctness.
Some censorious “liberals” have indeed only helped to turn undergraduate liberal education into a dance of careerism, power-networking, and self-marketing. Many rail at glass ceilings that must be broken by women and people of color, forgetting that breaking the ceiling doesn’t improve the foundations and walls unless wholly different challenges are posed to the structure itself. Federal bureaucratic overreach has compounded the problem by enabling campus sexual-assault regimens to endanger the due process that is essential to liberalism.
Still, the accommodations of some left-liberals to the increasingly business-oriented and bureaucratic drift of higher education and of civil society are mainly symptoms, not causes, of our civic decay. Now that the Republican presidential campaign has elevated a financer of casinos and a vulgar, predatory self-marketer whom most of the Party denounces, even as its members asphyxiate free speech and open inquiry in Congress, the rest of us—some honorable conservatives included—are wondering just what kinds of “free” and “robust” speech right-wingers are willing to accept and what kinds of “political correctness” they themselves have imposed.
The students whom Deresiewicz called “entitled little shits” and whom conservatives characterize as coddled and frightened don’t exist in a vacuum. They are products of an increasingly frightening, atomizing society that turns college students from co-participants in universities’ historic scientific and social missions into isolated, heavily indebted consumers of career training. This model of education serves the casino-like financing and omnivorous, predatory, intrusive marketing that conservatives themselves have championed, even as it incubates a racially “diverse” global managerial elite that doesn’t consider itself accountable to any democratic polity or moral code. Absent massive public funding like that of the 1950s and ‘60s for higher education as a crucible of citizenship, students must mortgage themselves to future employers by taking courses and programs that private donors and trustees choose to fund.
It makes little sense to preach civic-republican virtues such as the fearless pursuit of truth through reasoned dialogue when conservative trustees and administrators are busy harnessing liberal education only to facilitate market priorities, not interrogate them.
It’s precisely because conservatives consider themselves so decent and principled that they’re in denial about their responsibility for the transformation of elite universities into training centers for wealth-making, power-wielding, and public relations, and that they’re campaigning so energetically to discredit those who want to keep liberal education somewhat independent of both markets and the national-security state.
As the birthplace of the free speech movement decades ago, the debate surrounding Coulter’s speech put Berkeley in the precarious position of protecting its staff and students while ensuring freedom of speech, especially in a political climate where the possibility of violence between alt-right extremists and antifascist protesters becomes more frequent. Two previous appearances by far-right and conservative speakers have turned violent at Berkeley, including a protest on April 15 that left 11 people injured and six hospitalized. Police arrested 21 people on a variety of charges then.
Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, issued a written statement on the day’s events. Rosenthal warned people not to be cowed by the alt-right’s claims of censorship and noted that the university had two concerns to consider in cancelling Coulter’s appearance — the unequivocal support of free speech and security.
“The situation at the University of California does not conform to the claims of suppression of free speech that conservative politicians and commentators have been trying to tie it to. Neither student groups nor the University administration are responsible for the threats of violence that surround Ann Coulter’s proposed appearance on this campus,” Rosenthal wrote.
Rosenthal also criticized Spencer for “exalt[ing] in the violence,” as he did in a YouTube video recounting the event.
“The deepest significance of the ongoing ‘Battles of Berkeley’ is the attempt by the alt-right to move the country toward fascist-anti-fascist violence,” Rosenthal said. “Conservative politicians and commentators wishing to use the Berkeley situation as a cudgel in the name of the free speech run the risk of enabling the dark goals of the alt-right.”
In a video posted April 15, Damigo was seen talking about Identity Evropa, which he said is “interested in promoting and preserving European culture and values.”
He said his group was at the protest “because we believe that free speech is a European value and there are many people here who are wishing to use violence to silence other people. And so we feel that’s important to be here today to ensure that people are able to speak without having violence used against them and that they’re able to get their narrative out there and just start a conversation, start a dialogue and let people know that there are certain things they disagree with and some things they do agree with and they’re not going to be intimidated when these people come out here to promote violence.”
That was the same day Damigo was apparently seen in a video punching a female protester in the face and then running into a chaotic crowd.
“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”
That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.
My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.
Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.
Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.
Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.
To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.
I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.
Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.
Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.
More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.
I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.
* * * *
As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.
I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.
In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick Shenkman, Paul Bloom, Kenan Malik, Cris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.
My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.
I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.
When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.
This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.
There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.
Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.
This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.
I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.
I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.
Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.
So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.
Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.
Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.
This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.