Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Disengaging the Right

Digby over at her blog has a lengthy and interesting commentary on an article by Julian Sanchez, a conservative intellectual who criticizes the right wing takeover of conservatism and its media echo chamber. Sanchez argues that this "hermetically sealed" discourse makes the conservative movement intellectually weak and very vulnerable.
Digby points out that the experience of being proved wrong at best has only slowed down the right wing momentum, but certainly hasn't stopped it. She argues, and I think rightly, that clearly reasoned and articulated ideas have precious little to do with the far right, that they really don't have any new ideas, or any ideas at all. I tend to agree. The power of the right wing movement has nothing to do with ideas. It's about deeply irrational passionate atavistic feelings. It appeals not to reason but to tribal passions, "I want my America back!" As writers from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Hannah Arendt have all pointed out, those are what really drive history and politics. The challenge to Enlightenment liberalism is how to harness those passions and direct them to constructive and benevolent ends. The French Revolution failed in that task. The American Revolution succeeded, but only partially.

I make a point of distinguishing between right wing and conservative. Conservatives, like liberals, are a product of the Enlightenment, though they may be reluctant to admit it. They are the spiritual descendants of Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and of the Classical Economists of the early 19th century. Remember that advocating for free and unfettered market capitalism was considered a "liberal" position not too long ago. Those who do so today sometimes call themselves "Neo-Liberals." Julian Sanchez, and the recently exiled David Frum, are conservatives in this sense. We can argue, and argue productively, with conservatives because we both share the Enlightenment heritage of reason and fact.

Right-wingers are passionate extremists driven by the power of myth and emotion. Like Digby, I think engaging them in rational argument is a waste of time. They only use those engagements as an opportunity to mock and bully. Engaging their notions in debate gives those notions a dignity that they don't deserve. It's like trying to argue with someone who is convinced that space aliens built Rockefeller Center (I'm sure there are a few out there). I think the best tactic for dealing with the right is mockery, and Jon Stewart is a brilliant master of calling their notions out and exposing them as foolish, hypocritical, and selfish. As another famous liberal-progressive who refused to dignify bullshit with argument once said, "against the assaults of laughter no wall can stand" (Mark Twain).

I think the big ongoing weakness of left-liberals is our reluctance, or inability, to recognize the power of myth and emotion in politics, especially in Anglo-American politics. Aside from beating back the right with mockery, liberals are most effective when we claim national symbols (and rightly so since we created a lot of them from the Pledge of Allegiance to "America the Beautiful"). We are always so shocked and surprised when confronted by frothing angry mobs in the grip of passion when we really shouldn't be. What we really should be doing is what George Washington said we should be doing, raising a standard, a flag, around which people may rally. The idea that all people have a share in their town, their state, and their nation, and that their community is not the private estate of any monarch, oligarchy, sect, or tribe, and that they are citizens and not subjects or chattel, is something to feel very passionate about.

Here is Digby's conclusion:

I'm quite certain about the high intellectual quality of liberalism and the notion of a democratic republic. I am extremely uncertain, to paraphrase Franklin, about whether or not we can keep it.

As long as we continue to engage modern conservatives and take their ideas seriously, we continue to provide them intellectual and political status they neither deserve nor should have. Again: you don't argue theology with a Bible thumper who tells you the world was literally created in 6 days. Not even William Jennings Bryan was so ignorant and stupid. You laugh at him. And you most certainly make sure he gets nowhere close to obtaining a seat on a local school board, let alone hold national power. And, as Howard Dean so intelligently understood, you challenge the rightwing and Republicans everywhere.

So what do you think?

UPDATE: Don't ever get in a pissing contest with Jon Stewart:

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rick allen said...

I would say that some people hold a certain political position because they have thought it through, weighed the alternatives, and made a decision, but that most people hold political positions they way they root for a sports team. Somehow historical circumstance made that team my side, and, "Go, team!"

The level of our present discourse is pretty discouraging, but my sense, as a person in his mid-fifties, is that things weren't significantly more discouraging in the past. I think the existence of the 24 news channels and the internet exaggerate the significance of the extremes. I have to admit, my daily habit is to come home and turn on CNN as background sound and occasionally shake my head in disbelief at Sarah Palin's latest enormity. Thirty years ago I might have read about her once a week in a paragraph in Time magazine.

I have always been uncomfortable with the liberal/conservative /right-wing/left-wing labels. By conventional standards I am conservative on some issues and liberal on others. So in what camp do I stand? I don't know. I wonder how many others think of themselves in the same way, or if "conservative" and "liberal" are most peoples' primary self-labels. The import of ideological television and radio seems to be that liberals and conservatives are locked in perpetual war, and "they" must be stopped.

The only comfort that I take is that, though to win the primary one has to take the extreme, to win the election one has to move back to the center. My concern is how the rhetoric can move the center.

Counterlight said...

I suppose it will shock some to hear that on some issues, especially cultural ones, I can be quite conservative (though if they've been paying attention, it shouldn't be a surprise). I would also argue that my conservative views in one area are all of a piece with my liberal to progressive views in another area. I think this is true for most people, even for those who are politically active. Pure ideologues of the right and the left happily are very rare.

I certainly have my passionate allegiances. Some come out of rational decision making, and others were shaped by life, inheritance, and experience. I can be every bit as stubbornly opinionated as my late father. Our opinions happened to differ.

JCF said...

I think it's the mark of a thoughtful person, that they will rationally (if a person-of-faith, then rationally AND prayerfully) discern a position on a given question, APART from labels like "Left" or "Right."

I like to think that my political philosophy derives from "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you": I imagine many, MANY others---rick allen, for example---do the same.

...but then we disagree perceptually, or perhaps epistemologically (A woman w/ an unwanted pregnancy: one "other", or two? People who identify as gay: a God-blessed orientation and same-sex relationships, or not?), and it's off to overly-simplified battle-lines again. Kyrie eleison. :-/

motheramelia said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post. I agree that laughter is the best antidote, but how do you laugh at a 16-year old who tells you she doesn't believe in evolution and creation happened in six days? I had this happen recently. Although I stuffed the laugh in, I know it showed on my face. Instead I asked, how in the light of modern science she could believe this? A brief discussion ensued with her younger sister saying the older one was full of it. I hope our discussion helped make her wonder about what she said.

There is very little humor in people who hold tight to their prejudices. But all in all, laughter is a good tactic.

Counterlight said...

I think there is a world of difference between Jon Stewart lampooning Bill O'Reilly and talking to a still impressionable 16 year old girl. One is an influential public figure, and an adult. The other is not. One of them deserves the laughter and the scorn. The other does not and is way too young.

David G. said...

The Omen works in public ways!!