Raging Against the System

It’s a strange thing. Over the last ten years or so political commentary was opened to the masses. It seems that the internet was not just for shopping and amateur videos of that cat playing piano or whatever, and for free porn and scanning newspapers you were too cheap to buy, or couldn’t buy in your town, and then for Facebook and all that social networking stuff – mainly gossip, posturing and, for the old folks, shared rather hazy nostalgia. The internet was also where you too could be Thomas Paine and rail against the system, or specific politicians, or policies you thought were boneheaded. You could scan the news and say you smelled a rat, and explain what you thought was going on. And there were all sorts of blogging tools – most of them free – where you could choose a template and have the software take care of the formatting and stacking post in reverse chronological order and archiving and cross-referencing and linking to your sources, and these all provided a way for readers to leave comments, which you could approve or not, and offered a search function so anyone can find out what you once said about what, and you could upload photos or embed video clips and all the rest. It was all pretty nifty – and you could be David Brooks without the New York Times, or Andy Rooney without 60 Minutes. Everyone got their say.

And then a good number of people hid – they used pseudonyms. Insightful things were said, backed up with a careful run-through of the logic involved, along with links to all sorts of sources so you could verify the facts of the matter, or drill down through the links and see if you too came to the same conclusions. Much of this was far more substantial than you’d ever find in an eight hundred word op-ed in the New York Times or Washington Post, and it was far from the rants you’d hear on AM talk radio. Why wouldn’t you take credit for that sort of work?

But people hid. The Henry R. Luce Professor of Bioethics and Moral and Political Theory at Johns Hopkins – that would be Hilary Bok – used to blog as Hilzoy. She said she wanted to keep her academic work separate from her political commentary. The composer Richard Einhorn blogs as Tristero – his music has nothing to do with his political views, after all. He’d rather people didn’t confuse the two. Perhaps he was thinking of Wagner and all that Nazi business.

But others just hid. Go to Daily Kos and look at the bylines – almost all the posts are from unidentified folks using clever aliases. You sometimes see that on the right too – folks indentified as this or that kind of true patriot or whatever. Of course it’s a bit of an affectation – it doesn’t matter who speaks the truth as long as some noble truth-teller says what no one else dares say, and the truth is so hot that the guy naturally speaks anonymously, to protect his wife and children from the political goons, who are everywhere, waiting to take out the good people. Yeah, right. It’s more likely they’d rather not have their employer have a way to find out that they were a flaming bleeding-heart liberal, or a kill-all-the-Muslims or send-’em-all-back-to-Mexico-or-Africa white supremacist militia sort of person. You cover your ass with a pseudonym. Political speech is one thing – this is America and everyone has the right to say what they think, and as good citizens should exercise that right – but your job is something else entirely. These are tough times. You don’t take chances. Someone else said that. You didn’t say that. You have nothing to say, really – never had and never will.

And of course many use pseudonyms because they are basically flamethrowers. The posts are short – Look at THIS! I’m outraged! Everyone should be outraged! And no, they don’t explain their logic – if you have to ask, well, you are useless tool of the right – or a tool of the left, as the case might be – you just don’t get it. And they offer no way to verify the facts of the matter, or any array of possible alternative ways of looking at the matter, and what might be right or wrong with each of those. It’s just a short blast of outrage, for which they’d rather not take responsibility. They know if someone were to ask them questions about what they were saying they’d be in deep shit – they couldn’t explain any of it. You might say it’s arrogant and irresponsible and just plain lazy all rolled up into one. It’s kind of like normal political speech.

And there’s a ton of it – millions of political blogs right now. And no one reads much of it. Political junkies and policy wonks have bookmarked the sites that they think are worth checking each day – all sites with real names attached, the names of people who take responsibility for what they say, and back up what they say. We all have our list – and know where there is a shortcut or two to plug into the current dialog. So it did work out that everyone now has his or her say – political commentary was opened to the masses – but twenty or so sites get ninety percent of the traffic. There’s a lot of rage against the system, but most of it is what they call inchoate rage. And the anonymity of the internet is what allows that rage to continue to be endlessly inchoate. When you put your name to something things change. You are responsible for what you say.

But there are exceptions, Consider Digby and her site Hullabaloo – everyone reads her and cites her – she’s insightful and thorough and forceful and backs up what she says – and all anyone really knows is that she’s a woman down in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Times profile of her revealed not much more than that, just this – “I’m extremely private. And I feel my ideas should stand on their own without the authority (or lack thereof) of my own story.”

And there’s only a bit of self-revelation:

I went to high school in Alaska and met my husband there, so I do feel a bit of kinship with Palin. But she’d have to disavow every political stand she’s ever taken, denounce McCain, quit the Republican Party and become a pro-choice advocate for me to endorse her. I do enthusiastically endorse Alaskan king salmon.

That’s nice. But those who read her daily are willing to give her a pass on the pseudonym thing. Some of us have met her. It’s fine. Digby takes responsibility for everything Digby says – it’s all well-argued. Digby’s rage is not inchoate. And everyone, including the woman who pretends to be Digby, is entitled to some privacy. Not everyone is an all-out-there Andrew Sullivan kind of person, or managing a slick brand, like Arianna Huffington.

And now appearing at Hullabaloo is someone who calls himself (or herself) Batocchio – also known as The Vagabond Scholar – from over the hill here in Studio City. That’s it. That’s all you get to know. It will have to do.

And Digby has been cross-posting items from Batocchio – probably because rage against the system, well-argued, can stand on its own. And the issue is conflicting political views in America. You might have noticed we have those. And Batocchio thinks a good way to consider why we have such conflicting views is to look back at a David Brooks column from the New York Times early in the year, The Populist Addiction. Batocchio calls it “Brooks’ cute plea not to scapegoat poor Goldman Sachs.” But Batocchio keys in on this passage:

So it’s easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.

That’s because voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time: First, that the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor; and second, that simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country’s problems.

Political populists never get that second point. They can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

Now it would be easy to be outraged by this, if you fancy yourself a populist, or nod in sad but wise agreement if you fancy yourself a scholarly conservative on the supply-side end of things, but Batocchio suggests one look at the underlying logic, and the message for the lower classes – “You’re getting screwed, but it’s really in your best interest.”

And there is the implicit secondary message for the Keynesian bleeding-heart political theorists – “You populists can’t win – you can’t change the game.”

Batocchio adds this:

Real Americans don’t want a living wage, after all. Those silly populists mostly want to complain about the wealthy, not, say, tax them more heavily and invest that money in the middle class and poor. (And we’re spunky America the Exceptional, which is why we can’t have nice things, like great social systems and public transportation.)

Batocchio asks you to think about this. Brooks actually admitted the game is rigged:

He often uses some planned concession to pivot to some more ridiculous point, something like, ‘Yes, Bush should have worked with the Democrats more, but the Democrats should be better than that…’ (And enact conservative policies.) In this column, I think Brooks overshot on his calculated concession and gave up the game. Still, I’m utterly unsurprised by the other stuff. Almost every column Mr. Applebee’s Salad Bar writes makes one or more of the same basic pitches: I’m a man of the people, you’re better off with me and my class/party in charge, know your place, real Americans are center-right, the Democrats are just as bad, who is this Bush fellow you speak of, and have you kissed your aristocrat today?…

If you go to the Batocchio column you’ll find links to Brooks, over and over, pretty much saying just that – know your place, let it be. And Batocchio suggests glancing at Matt Taibbi with Populism: Just Like Racism! And Taibbi also finds Brooks a tad strange:

What’s so ironic about this is that Brooks, in arguing against class warfare, and trying to present himself as someone who is above making class distinctions, is making an argument based entirely on the notion that there is an lower class and an upper class and that the one should go easy on the other because the best hope for collective prosperity is the rich creating wealth for all. This is the same Randian bullshit that we’ve been hearing from people like Brooks for ages and its entire premise is really revolting and insulting – this idea that the way society works is that the productive “rich” feed the needy “poor” – and that any attempt by the latter to punish the former for “excesses” might inspire Atlas to Shrug his way out of town and leave the helpless poor on their own to starve.

That’s basically Brooks’ entire argument here. Yes, the rich and powerful do rig the game in their own favor, and yes, they are guilty of “excesses” – but fucking deal with it, if you want to eat.

Batocchio notes that Brooks – that nice and reasonable and pleasant mild-mannered conservative – is actually saying that the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we all benefit from this:

That’s in huge contrast to the liberal view, which normally goes something like: Of course the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but they benefit from this, other people get screwed, and we can build a better, fairer system for everybody. (Those few “social contract” conservatives buy parts of this, too.)

Members of Congress with a compromised, corporatist bent have a stance closer to: Sure, the game is rigged for the rich and powerful, but we can’t change it that much, so we won’t mention it too often – and let’s try to get in on some of the action.

Further to the right, whether Democrats or Republicans, there’s even less ambivalence. It’s considered a breach of etiquette to speak of the game, let alone acknowledge it’s rigged for the rich and powerful. Behind closed doors, the attitude is: Why would you even want to change the game? Give me my piece!

And the press reinforces this:

Some Beltway denizens, especially journalists, really do seem to think: Of course the game isn’t rigged! I got here (and stay here) solely due to my talents!

Other Villagers may or may not think the game’s rigged, but what really gets them angry is if anyone denounces it. (Don’t trash their place!) The Very Serious People are establishmentarians, and like their pal David Brooks, they know their ways are the best ways, and that things are the finest when they’re on top. (How could it be otherwise?)

The Randians are similarly convinced of their superior talents, and have their own ideas about the game, but the defining attitude for them is simply: I got mine, screw you!

Batocchio goes on to discuss the estate tax stuff – let the Bush tax cuts expire and let the Estate Tax come back, or not. But the whole thing comes down to this:

Generally speaking, liberals are focused on being fair while conservatives (movement conservatives at least) are focused on power. They’re simply not playing the same game. … This can make for some serious misunderstandings and cross-talking, most of all when liberals try to be fair-minded with people seeking their destruction. (Offering the olive branch is fine, Dems, even admirable, but after they smack you in the face with it, wise up.) While reasonable, wonky conservatives do exist, if you can’t tell that Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove are hacks and extremely dishonorable men, it’s time to recalibrate your bullshit detector.

And there is this:

Liberals generally embrace a cooperative paradigm, while conservatives are more likely to see things as a zero sum game. There’s a huge difference between trying to make the game more fair for everybody and trying just to win it personally (or trying to control it completely and rig it further for your side). Movement conservatives are further likely to see things in terms of dominance, submission and humiliation. It’s one of the reasons that trash talk is so important to them, and why they’re such bullies when in power yet so ridiculously whiny when criticized. Check out Rush Limbaugh or any of the far right for long and you’ll encounter that weird mix of asserted superiority alongside deep victimization. Reagan supposedly regretted calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” but the far right loved it, just as they loved Bush saying “axis of evil.” The language might have been juvenile and hurt international relations, but for the far right, insulting one’s opponents is itself a victory. They see diplomacy as the failure of war, not the other way around. … Remember, Sarah Palin became a right-wing darling overnight, not for any cooperative, inclusive vision for America or command of policy (hahaha), but because she delivered a single attack dog speech at the RNC in 2008.

In contrast, while “foul-mouthed” liberal bloggers may swear and insult their conservative counterparts, they generally don’t seek their destruction.

And so it goes, if you examine the logic of it all. One should do that now and then, even if anonymously. And one might come to conclusions like this:

It’s been astounding to see the petulant rage that’s erupted from conservative politicians and their far right base in reaction to Obama’s election and presidency. After ignoring or even cheering on all the abuses of the Bush administration, suddenly under Obama they started attacking even those policies more conservative than Eisenhower’s or Nixon’s or of the Republicans of 10-20 years ago as socialist. It may be because Obama broke the biggest unspoken rule of the game they thought they owned: You’re not supposed to win.

A similar dynamic drives all the reflexive hippie-punching and “center-right” blather from Beltway reporters. Liberal activists are very familiar with this rule, and have unfortunately seen plenty of it over the years, including during the current administration. Sensible policies have been denounced as too radical or “liberal” over and over again, watered down or completely eliminated.

The conservative critique of Obama is that he’s radically changed all the rules and is rigging the game against them – which might be poetic justice, but isn’t true. The liberal critique varies, but it’s generally that Obama has made some changes and improvements, but also has been too timid about changing the rules of the game, too accepting of how badly the game is rigged. The more sympathetic would argue he simply can’t change things that much with an obstructionist GOP and other obstacles. The more critical think he’s happy with a rigged game, or is making it worse, or is just too establishmentarian by nature (as with his economic team).

Now THAT is a rant. But it’s also well-argued. Can you have both? Can we have a name?

But never mind. The irony is that everyone is enraged by the system. See Kevin Drum:

But there are rules and regulations we should put in place purely because they represent the way we think people should be treated. Potential employers shouldn’t have access to my credit record because that’s something I think we should treat as private. Banks shouldn’t be able to retroactively raise interest rates on credit card balances because that’s something I think is fundamentally unfair. Pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t be allowed to sell drugs that don’t work (even if they’re safe) because I don’t think sick people should be treated that way. Restaurants shouldn’t be allowed to run filthy kitchens on the theory that an occasional outbreak of food poisoning isn’t worth the cost of prevention. Farmers shouldn’t be allowed to pay migrant workers two dollars an hour in scrip because I think adult human beings deserve better than that even if (or maybe especially if) they’re desperate. I can’t necessarily justify any of these things on purely economic grounds, and even if I could I’m not sure I’d want to – because that’s not truly why I believe them.

But why do you believe them? That’s the challenge. Everyone has a forum now – even if no one reads what they write. And you don’t even have to use your own name. But you might want to think things through anyway.

And don’t worry. It’s good for you. You don’t want to be inchoate after all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Political Blogs, Political Discourse, Political Posturing, Politics of Grievance, Populist Rage and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Raging Against the System

  1. katherine says:

    your list has many familiar links / i would like to suggest http://www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates/ the black blogger who took Matthew Iglesias place at the Atlantic.

    He is a must read for me (as are you) with comment threads the best in the business.

    • justabovesunset says:

      I shall add him to the list. I do read him, and I do cite him now and then. That links page needs work anyway. Tomorrow morning, after strong coffee, I’ll get to it.

  2. katherine says:

    i forgot to mention that Ta-Nehisi-Coates has guest bloggers this week / they are worth reading too.


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