The end of the year is a time to step back and decide where things stand, even if the year ended three hours earlier for the folks in New York, and nine hours earlier for Ric in Paris. They would have decided already, in different circumstances. New Years Eve day in Los Angeles was not like this – it was bright and uncomfortably clear, everything in sharp, painful focus, and in the mid-seventies, dry as a bone, with high winds. The red-flag warnings had been posted – Malibu could burn again, or the Hollywood Hills. At the far edge of things people were edgy – hard sun, deep shadows and all that. In such circumstances introspection naturally turns a bit brutal.
So, where did we stand as the year ended? From out here things didn’t look so hot. Old allies in what we call the War on Terror were being ripped apart – Pakistan in chaos and then Kenya. Another suicide bombing in Baghdad, the Iowa caucuses coming up and then the New Hampshire primary – so the war grinds on for no purpose anyone can see, and those who ache to be the next president strut and preen about how humble they are, but competent and full of integrity, and empathy, or something. They say they’ll either change things – but everyone knows that’s unlikely – or do more of the same, only better – also unlikely.
How did it come to this? The last year, the last seven years, have been quite a ride. People are just now assessing how truly strange the times have been. Some of the assessments offer pretty fine step-back-and-think-bout-it-all long perspectives, like, from early December, the widely-read Digby with Populist Monarchs and Subjects:
American right-wing populism is an interesting phenomenon that’s coming to the fore once again in its usual nativist and racist form, but also as smooth misrepresentation of “tax reform”; clever, misleading public relations messaging about fair trade; and some fairly outlandish paranoia about conspiracies to erase the borders. Various permutations of these fairly common right-wing themes abound among conservative politicians and thinkers alike. But conservative populism is an oxymoron.
And it is an oxymoron that has led to no end of trouble. The outlandish paranoia – that the NAFTA Superhighway, as it is called, is just the beginning, the first stage of a long, silent coup aimed at supplanting the sovereign United States with a multinational North American Union – is just nonsense. There is no such thing being built, or even planned. That’s just an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual lack of any sort of grace. The problem is conservatism.
Digby points to an article many have discussed, from Philip E. Agre of Department of Information Studies at UCLA – What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With it? His point is simple – “Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy … [it] is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.”
And Digby points out that modern conservatism’s most successful strategy was to merge public relations and politics “into a seamless operation in which it could use modern marketing methods to convince people to vote against their own interests.” So in that sense, right-wing populism is “just another marketing campaign for the aristocrats.” And she notes that it’s working just fine:
South Carolina has embraced foreign investment, with companies from BMW to Michelin transforming a state once dominated by the textile industry. Another aspect of the global economy hasn’t gone down as well: immigration.
While an influx of money from overseas has made free trade palatable even as thousands of mill jobs have vanished, voters are growing increasingly hostile to undocumented foreign workers, polls and analysts say. As a result, illegal immigration is a top economic issue in the state’s Jan. 19 Republican primary, a key test for the candidates since it’s the first in the South.
“Trade is all right as long as everybody goes by the same rules,” said David Robinson, 65, who recently retired from a job at a Michelin tire factory in Spartanburg and whose son works in a Hitachi Ltd. plant nearby. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, “is a big problem, and that’s one you can get a handle on,” he said.
But South Carolina only has about a three percent Latino population, both illegal and legal, so this isn’t actually a problem at all, much less a big one. Digby notes something else is going on:
The sad truth us that no matter how much “foreign investment” comes into their state, South Carolina manufacturing workers are still on a race to the bottom and they know it. But the conservatives have successfully misdirected them away from the real culprits by stoking latent (and not so latent) racism as an explanation for their insecurity. In a time of rising income inequality, a housing and credit crisis, and the ever more obvious fact of conservative corruption of epic proportions, the Republican party has worked their rank and file into a frenzy over very poor people who work for next to nothing in hot, dirty fields, blood-soaked poultry plants and steaming restaurant kitchen sinks. It’s quite an accomplishment.
Agre offers the broader perspective:
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use “social issues” as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.
That explains the last seven years. And Digby identifies the neat trick involved:
One of the ways that this modern aristocracy gets people to internalize that the aristocrats are better people is by stoking a fear that the “American Dream” is being threatened by hordes of undeserving interlopers. Who’s looking out for the common man? Why, it’s the conservatives, your liege lords, who want to close the borders and keep those people out!
Conservatism is all about hierarchical structure. Liberalism is not.
Digby dives into a discussion of how that fellow in South Carolina thinks that trade is working for him now that foreign investment is coming to a state with low taxes and no unions to manufacture cars and other things for export. And it is clear that the weak dollar makes such things very attractive for those manufacturers, at the moment, but it’s not clear that this trade has been “fair” at all. You can follow the link for details, but it comes down to this:
So these people, like most working Americans, are genuinely threatened, over a long period of time, by economic forces that are making a lot of people rich – but not them. They are, however, inexplicably quite content with that state of affairs, but are upset by an extremely small population of foreigners who are doing dirty work for low wages.
How does this happen? Agre offers an answer:
Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought…
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.
The main idea of public relations is the distinction between “messages” and “facts.” Messages are the things you want people to believe. A message should be vague enough that it is difficult to refute by rational means. (People in politics refer to messages as “strategies” and people who devise strategies as “strategists.”.The Democrats have strategists too, and it is not at all clear that they should, but they scarcely compare with the vast public relations machinery of the right.) It is useful to think of each message as a kind of pipeline: a steady stream of facts is selected (or twisted, or fabricated) to fit the message. Contrary facts are of course ignored. The goal is what the professionals call “message repetition”. This provides activists with something to do: come up with new facts to fit the conservative authorities’ chosen messages.
So we are where we are, as Digby notes, for good reason:
It is no accident that illegal immigration has emerged as a theme at a time of epic corruption among the conservative aristocrats in business and government. Someone must be blamed for the fallout and it isn’t going to be them. This may seem counterintuitive, considering that business also likes cheap labor, but that’s just commerce and commerce is only a tool of the true conservative mission – preserving the aristocracy.
Aristocracy is, by definition, un-American. The question is how many Americans will be “messaged” into believing they are doing the patriotic thing by behaving like subjects and hunting down the foreign invader on behalf of their betters.
The answer is many will. Messaging – PR – works.
The counter-messages are dismissed. Those voices are marginalized. And, along with all the famous people who died in 2007, some of those opposing, marginalized voices were stilled too, like Steve Gilliard, a fellow not much know outside the world of contrarian thought on the web. But he was an insightful fellow who could write up a storm, as he did way back in December 2003 with I’m a Fighting Liberal:
You know, I’ve studied history, I’ve read about America and you know something, if it weren’t for liberals, we’d be living in a dark, evil country, far worse than anything Bush could conjure up. A world where children were told to piss on the side of the road because they weren’t fit to pee in a white outhouse, where women had to get back alley abortions and where rape was a joke, unless the alleged criminal was black, whereupon he was hung from a tree and castrated.
Think of him as the bookish Agre from UCLA on steroids:
What has conservatism given America? A stable social order? A peaceful homelife? Respect for law and order? No. Hell, no. It hasn’t given us anything we didn’t have and it wants to take away our freedoms.
The Founding Fathers, as flawed as they were, slaveowners and pornographers, smugglers and terrorists, understood one thing, a man’s path to God needed no help from the state. Is the religion of these conservatives so fragile that they need the state to prop it up, to tell us how to pray and think? Is that what they stand for? Is that their America?
And he contends that conservatism now plays on fear and thrives on lies and dishonesty:
I grew up with honest, decent conservatives and those people have been replaced by the party of greed. It is one thing to want less government interference and smaller, fiscally responsible government. It is another thing entirely to be a corporate whore, selling out to the highest bidder because the CEO fattens your campaign chest. They are building an America which cannot be sustained. One based on the benefit of the few at the cost of the many. The indifferent boss who hires too few people and works them to death or until they break down sick. Cheap labor capitalism has replaced common sense. “Globalism” which is really guise for exploitation, replaced fair trade, which is nothing like fair for the trapped semi-slaves of the maquliadoras. In the Texas border towns, hundreds of these women have been used as sex slaves and then apparently killed, the FBI powerless to do anything as the criminals sit in Mexico untouched by law.
And the liberals are the bad guys? Liberal has become a dirty word. Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, and Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, back in 2004 kicked around some ideas on how to fix that (the graphic is good):
I was thinking bumper-stickers, which takes the message directly into enemy territory, starting with a message that hits many of them where they live: “THINK ABOUT IT: JESUS WAS A LIBERAL!”
But for two decades conservatives made liberal a dirty word. Gilliard says it just isn’t:
It represents the best and most noble nature of what America stands for: equitable government services, old age pensions, health care, education, fair trials and humane imprisonment. It is the heart and soul of what made American different and better than other countries. Not only an escape from oppression, but the opportunity to thrive in a land free of tradition and the repression that can bring. We offered a democracy which didn’t enshrine the rich and made them feel they had an obligation to their workers.
Bush and the people around him disdain that. They think, by accident of birth and circumstance, they were meant to rule the world and those who did not agree would suffer.
Liberal does not and has not meant weak until the conservatives said it did. Was Martin Luther King weak? Bobby Kennedy? Gene McCarthy? It was the liberals who remade this country and ended legal segregation and legal sexism. Not the conservatives, who wanted to hold on to the old ways.
Gillard argued it was time to get back to spirit of FDR and Truman:
People who believed in the public good over private gain. It is time to stop apologizing for being a liberal and be proud to fight for your beliefs. No more shying away or being defined by other people. Liberals believe in a strong defense and punishment for crime. But not preemption and pointless jail sentences. We believe no American should be turned away from a hospital because they are too poor or lack a proper legal defense. We believe that people should make enough from one job to live on, to spend time on raising their family. We believe that individuals and not the state should dictate who gets married and why. The best way to defend marriage is to expand, not restrict it.
Hell, look at history:
It was the liberals who opposed the Nazis while the conservatives were plotting to get their brown shirts or fund Hitler. It was the liberals who warned about Spain and fought there, who joined the RAF to fight the Germans, who brought democracy to Germany and Japan. Let us not forget it was the conservatives who opposed defending America until the Germans sank our ships. They would have done nothing as Britain came under Nazi control. It was they who supported Joe McCarthy and his baseless, drink fueled claims.
Without liberals, there would be no modern America, just a Nazi satellite state. Liberals weak on defense? Liberals created America’s defense. The conservatives only need vets at election time.
That was from 2003, and it ends with this:
It is time to stop looking for an accommodation with the right. They want none for us. They want to win, at any price. So, you have a choice: be a fighting liberal or sit quietly. I know what I am, what are you?
Okay – things will be different in the New Year.
People need to say things like this:
There has been a definition of “torture” in place for sixty years. We’re now violating that definition. You can tart it up however you like, you can use whatever euphemism allows you to convince yourself that we’re not actually torturing people, but according to any accepted definition of torture, including the ones we wrote ourselves, that’s exactly what we’re doing. All I ask is that, if you support this type of behavior, at least be intellectually honest enough with yourself to call it torture and stop bullshitting yourself with “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
And more people than the attorney-author Glenn Greenwald should say things like this:
And thus we have a perfect oligarchical system in which, literally, our most powerful and well-connected elite are free to break the law with impunity, exempt from any consequences. While exempting themselves, these same figures impose increasingly Draconian “law and order” solutions on the masses to ensure that even small infractions of the law prompt vigorous prosecution and inflexible, lengthy prison terms.
Of course you’ll be called angry, but one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers will have none of that:
I have a hard time listening to Republicans say that the Democrats cannot transcend their anger. They use stupid catch phrases like “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to discredit people (not just Democrats, according to most pundits, you too suffer from BDS, Andrew). There is a special amount of irony in the party that spent over 200 congressional hours investigating Clinton’s Christmas card list and less than 10 investigating how we got into the Iraq war accusing the opposition of being driven by blind hatred.
I now live in a country where the president and vice president have the power to detain an American citizen off of the street, send him to a secret prison, torture him, and detain him indefinitely without him ever hearing the charges against him. We have been lied into a war that was executed with criminal incompetence, our economy has been devastated because of lax oversight of banks giving out bad loans, we have lost a major city and the list goes on and on.
My anger isn’t driven by irrational hatred. In 2000 I considered myself a Republican. But now that party stands as an affront to everything that America stands for. I have every right to be angry.
More of that in 2008 please – and more items like Legal Fictions – Dahlia Lithwick on the Bush administration’s “dumbest legal arguments of the year.” See a first-rate lawyer discuss “The vice president’s office is not a part of the executive branch.” And “The Guantanamo Bay detainees enjoy more legal rights than any prisoners of war in history.” And “Everyone who has ever spoken to the president about anything is barred from congressional testimony by executive privilege.” And “Nine US attorneys were fired by nobody, but for good reason.”
The New York Times editorial board should give us more of this:
Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.
In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.
We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions – and both American and international law – to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.
Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.
The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat – and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could.
The composer Richard Einhorn putting on his political hat:
For what it’s worth, I certainly agree with anyone who says they took up this attitude much too late. Where was this kind of writing in 2002 and 2003 when we really needed it? Still, I honestly don’t recall, even during the heyday of Watergate, that any Times editorial came close to this level of denunciation.
Better late than never… More of that in 2008 please.
And things may change. Here’s a young fellow, twenty-nine, explaining why he likes that Obama fellow. It’s because Obama is conservative by temperament but liberal in his particular positions:
As you know, ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ can mean many things. They can describe complex political philosophies or they can be a grab-bag of particular political positions. But they can also describe the overall attitude with which people approach political problems: very broadly, ‘liberalism’ says, “I have a grand plan to make things better,” and ‘conservatism’ says, “Be careful not to make things worse instead.” In this sense, ‘liberalism’ means thinking in terms of grand plans, great movements, and sweeping revolutions, while ‘conservatism’ means skepticism about such plans, and a preference for incremental, pragmatic change.
Now, I get the sense from boomers across the ideological spectrum, that their approach to political questions is generally framed in grand ideological terms (are you ‘for life’ or ‘for choice’? are you ‘for peace’ or ‘for defending America’?). And because Boomers have been dominating our political discourse for a while now, they have defined the contours of debate on most issues in strongly ideological terms. But in many cases, the facts have moved on, while the debate has remained frozen.
For example, on the invasion of Iraq, I still hear many Boomers talk about Peace v. War (as if you either supported one or the other).
The younger generation just isn’t like that:
We don’t really approach the question from a grand ideological point of view (‘is war good or bad?’) but from a more conservative, pragmatic point of view (‘is this war going to work, or not?’). Obama spoke for us when he said, very early on, that he didn’t oppose all war, but he did oppose “a dumb war”. Obama was moving the debate into a new era, in which people who support some wars don’t have to support all wars, and people who oppose some wars don’t have to oppose all wars.
Similarly, on some social and economic issues, people in my generation often tend to take liberal positions. But we don’t arrive at them from a ‘liberal’ approach to the questions. We don’t support welfare, gun control laws, limits on carbon emissions and so on because we think we can build the Great Society or a perfect world, but because pragmatically, these policies seem like the best solutions to particular problems. Also, on some issues, we grew up with ‘liberal’ policies already in place, and the conservative impulse is not to try and change things too quickly. In his less ideological, more ‘conservative’ approach to problems, and his tendency to find ‘liberal’ solutions to many (though not all) of them, Obama is very appealing to people from my generation.
But we old folks just don’t get it:
He doesn’t grandstand, and his rhetoric often doesn’t fit the categories that Boomers are accustomed to hearing and thinking in. I’ve been amazed to hear some Boomers (esp. the Krugman type) claim that Obama ‘doesn’t take a stand’. He does, but he does it with new language and new paradigms, and they don’t recognize it. Younger people do, and for us, Obama’s a breath of fresh air in a political room that was getting very stale, from constantly refighting old battles.
Ah, the New Year might be better, after all.