Running in Packs

As a rule – or as a bit of symbolism if you’re going to make a movie about such things – conservatives like dogs and liberals like cats. Use it as a bit of visual shorthand – your conservative character has a big goofy Labrador or something. A pit-bull would be too obvious. And your liberal character has a quiet elegant cat.

The audience will get it, instinctively. With a dog you get to be the master and give the orders. The dog happily jumps up and down and says yes boss, yes boss, yes boss. It’s a matter of dominance and control. The dog’s master becomes the de facto alpha-male in some imaginary pack – and all parties are happy. Everyone knows their place. And that’s a way of establishing that your conservative character understands the hierarchical pack nature of all relationships. Everything is based on authority – received authority or imposed authority. And everyone is free to do what they want, once they accept their place in the hierarchical structure. Otherwise there would be chaos. That’s what conservatives seem to believe.

So you really don’t have to do all that backfill in the screenplay about how your conservative character has in the past fought against structural change – once ranting along with William F. Buckley about the 1954 Brown decision that desegregated our public schools, then fighting all the civil rights acts of the sixties like Goldwater did, then fighting, like John McCain did, against establishing the Martin Luther King Holiday. Your character was probably fighting against letting the woman concerned make the decision about abortion, and is fighting these days about letting gays marry, like he must have fought the 1967 decision to let white folks marry black folks, and was recently fighting to let South Carolina fly the Confederate flag over their state capital. You don’t have to cover any of that, or all the issues in between those, where a social structure or norm had been established and a clear majority of Americans were comfortable with that structure and wanted no change at all. You don’t have mention that at all. No back-story is necessary. You just have the character turn to his dog, Homer, anxious to please, and say, firmly, SIT. Homer sits and tries out his little submissive doggie-smile, hoping he’s got it right. Your character scratches Homer behind the ears, to let Homer know that order has been reestablished and all is well. It’s a nifty bit of compression.

The guy with the cat sees things differently. In order to keep a true perspective on one’s importance he doesn’t need a dog that will sort of worship him, just that mysterious cat that will generally ignore him. Cats don’t run in packs. They accept you or they don’t, and seem to see you as an equal, if they’re being generous. There may be alpha dogs, but there are no alpha cats. Authority – received authority or imposed authority – and hierarchical structures – are less than irrelevant to cats. Such stuff is absurd. Who could even think of such things? Cats are essentially egalitarian. And so is your liberal character. It’s live and let live. He happily coexists with the marvelous cat – and each one benefits from the arrangement. And thus you don’t have to fill in any back-story about what your liberal character has fought for, the precise opposite of the same list of issues since the fifties. You just show him at his window late at night, watching the lights of the city and thinking, sipping scotch with Miles Davis playing softly in the background, and his cat, Hodge, jumps up on his lap, unbidden, and begins to purr. There was no asking and no commanding.

So there you don’t need to explain that your liberal character doesn’t believe humans are pack animals, or that he truly believes in questioning authority and progressing beyond the old structures that have been so problematic, and believes in progress in general, not in the old ways. There’s no need to explain why he calls himself a progressive, or for forays into political theory. Hodge will take care of that for you. That too is compression.

Of course the cat guy would be terrible with dogs. Dogs expect structure. Let a dog do what it wants and you get a mess all over the place, and a mean neurotic dog. You need a firm hand. The question is whether people are more like dogs – running in packs and desperate for structure – or more like independent cats, looking for mutually beneficial arrangements entered into by free will, where no one loses their dignity.

And that’s not so farfetched. The Bush-Cheney administration ran a foreign policy based on dominance, on showing just who the alpha-dog was in all matters. That was what those two wars were about, with Cheney and the rest forever saying the one thing that really mattered was that America not be perceived as weak, because when we are perceived as weak we get attacked. The gloves came off. There was torture as official policy. It was time for obedience school for the rest of the world. The elegant cat-like French objected – egalitarian to the last – and we had no idea what to make of that, so we renamed the fries. Dog people are confused by cats.

And on social issues it was the same thing. People need structure and hierarchy, and letting gays marry modifies a perfectly good structure that most people are comfortable with. But you could apply that notion to almost anything else – healthcare reform or even tax policy. After all, not long ago people were sobbing at town hall meetings – I don’t want this flag to change. I want my country back!

And there is the matter of authority – received or imposed. We need structure, so these folks have often called themselves strict constitutionalists. You go back to the source document, always. But now that it seems that document does allow that gays should have the same rights as everyone else, you go back to the authoritative source before that, the Bible, or to established custom, or something. That source document also makes it clear that building the Ground Zero Mosque, which isn’t a mosque and isn’t at Ground Zero, by private parties on private property, and approved by the zoning commission, is not only allowed but encouraged. So the authority becomes public sentiment, or national security, or poor taste, or something. There must be some higher authority.

It’s a mess, but understandable. When your pack is gone you’re lost. We are not cats after all.

And of course Obama infuriates these people. He has always talked about an international policy and a domestic policy based on mutually beneficial arrangements entered into by free will, where no one loses their dignity and everyone gets at least some of what they want. They used to call that diplomacy, but it’s more than that. It’s a fundamentally different way of seeing the nature of all human relationships. It’s like the guy with his cat, Hodge. Cats teach you that all parties are free agents and deserve respect, and they assume they will receive respect. That sort of thing drives dog people crazy, the kind of people who buy a dog for the kid so the kid learns to dominate and demand obedience. Kids need to learn that sort of thing. That’s how the world works – unless it works the other way.

That probably explains the polling released on Thursday, August 19, showing this interesting trend:

Nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009, according to a poll released Thursday. The proportion who correctly says he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent.

The largest share of people, 43 percent, said they don’t know his religion, an increase from the 34 percent who said that in early 2009.

The pack has decided he’s just no one of them – he’s one of those cat people or something. Or as Matthew Yglesias says:

My best guess is that we can just chalk this up to the general dynamic of recession-induced suspicion and incumbent unpopularity. But you have seen some efforts at the elite level to bolster this idea.

And as an example of that he cites Jon Chait noting here Jennifer Rubin at Commentary on the Ground Zero Mosque controversy which involved her saying that Obama’s “sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens. This is nothing short of an abomination.”

That’s pack-talk, and Yglesias adds this:

Chait noted that one ugly subtext here is that Muslims are – as such – not American, which is of course both false and also the kind of thing Commentary would be loudly and rightly objecting to if said about Jewish Americans. But the flipside is an effort to insinuate that Obama has insidious foreign/Muslim ties, albeit through rhetoric that’s a bit less crude than what you find at WorldNetDaily.

Well there is that stuff – many dots oddly connected proving Obama is a Muslim who wants to destroy America. It’s all nonsense. See White House Reminds America President Obama Isn’t Muslim and Pastors Who Pray With Obama Say He’s A Devout Christian. It’s hardly worth discussing. It seems mostly a code word, a way of saying he’s not one of us, the pack, with its established hierarchy.

And now the Associated Press is making trouble:

The Associated Press, one of world’s most powerful news organizations, issued a memo today advising staff to avoid the phrase “Ground Zero mosque.”

The Upshot reported Tuesday that the AP started using the phrase “Ground Zero mosque” in some headlines in late May. The New York Times, for one, has consciously avoided that phrasing.

The AP began using the phrase as the controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan started bubbling up to the national level…. Now the news organization is taking steps to make sure that no longer occurs.

Steve Benen comments:

This would have been even more helpful, say, a few weeks ago, before so many Americans became enraged by a proposal that doesn’t exist, but I suppose it’s better late than never.

I do sympathize with headline writers. “Muslim community center in shut-down clothing store” isn’t exactly punchy. Hell, the accurate description immediately invalidates the basis for the entire controversy, making the argument rather pointless.

But as long as the matter remains a subject of intense national security, and developers are calling the proposed building “Park51,” that should make it easier for editors looking for something easy to call it.

Is this a minor thing? Digby thinks not and cites John Hinderaker at Powerline who noting that AP also says many Americans incorrectly identify Obama as a Muslim:

I love that “incorrectly.” The AP has evolved into an opinion machine, so it’s rare and a little startling to see it stand up so boldly for a “fact.” He’s not a Muslim, dammit!

And Hinderaker also says this:

The second factor, I think, is Obama’s effort to project a post-American, above-America persona. Obama postures as a citizen of the world who has graced America by condescending to be our President and to instruct us. Some liberals accept this posturing gratefully, but most Americans don’t.

Obama is acting like a damned cat?

Maybe that’s it:

Obama has defined himself as literally exotic. Small wonder that some Americans attribute exotic qualities to him. We’re not sure who he is, exactly, but he certainly isn’t one of us. Given the currents that swirl through world events these days, being a Muslim is one interpretation of Obama’s exoticism. Those who construe Obama in this way may well be wrong, but it is not hard to understand why they interpret his aloof non-Americanism in this way.

Digby sees it this way:

Hinderaker is a clever fellow, but this alleged anti-American exoticism is more of a convenient (if thoroughly Neanderthal) excuse for traditional right wing tribalism, which is largely based on the notion that they are under siege by “lesser” people, who are simultaneously tremendously powerful.

And she can see how they feel that way:

Right now that tribe is obviously feeling threatened by any number of things, although I would guess that it’s not only the loss of their white privilege but a sense of tribal failure in general. At some point you have to look around and realize that the culture is radically changed and is likely to stay that way. And, like many people who feel displaced and betrayed, they blame “the other” rather than question their own assumptions and identity.

This reaction is human, but then humans are often stupid and immoral, so that doesn’t excuse it. And when it comes to scapegoating innocent people and making ethical errors of this magnitude, it can’t be sanctioned. Even if you can understand that people don’t want to blame their own tribe for their problems and that their feelings are very raw, America in 2010 simply cannot properly function if these impulses are socially tolerated.

Simply put, it is not an accident or a coincidence that the right is attacking African American institutions, Hispanic immigrants and American Muslims in the wake of the election of the first black president.

And she cites Adam Serwer noting the growing willingness to call Obama Muslim as if it were an epithet – “In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word.”

She adds this:

Indeed. When you rub off the veneer of this very recently formed religious bigotry, you find the same old All American impulses. And catering to those impulses never ever did anyone any good. There is no compromise possible. As Lincoln said at Cooper Union on the eve of an earlier tribal battle:

“What will convince them? This, and this only – cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.”

Think about what it is they really want us to do today. And then recognize that they will settle for nothing less than our complete and total capitulation. We must cease to call racial, ethnic and religious bigotry wrong and join them in calling it right and it must be thoroughly done in acts as well as words. We must place ourselves avowedly with them.

It’s a dominance thing. Who is the alpha dog? We have to give in:

Or we fight it. This time we can assume that it probably won’t turn violent, at least on any massive scale. But these dark impulses cannot be finessed and they can’t be compromised with. It’s the story of our country. It just takes on new disguises to fit the times.

Yeah, we fight it, but just as you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you don’t bring a cat to a dogfight. The cat walks away. It has better things to do, like sleeping in the sun.

But Will Bunch says, after Arizona passed its if-you-look-Hispanic-prove-you’re-a citizen-or-go-to-jail law this is the start of the war on The Other:

Five months later, the American political debate – in a time of crushing 9.5-percent unemployment, record foreclosures and bankruptcies, and climate change linked to catastrophes from Moscow to Pakistan to Iowa – has been hijacked over the arcane question of whether to allow an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. The controversy is stunning – but it should not be. The national brouhaha over the $100 million Muslim Park51/Cordoba House proposal is not an anomaly but rather the culmination of an alarming downturn in America’s mood, its discourse, and even our former ambitions as a beacon of religious and political tolerance. In 2010, a large swath of the American public – led by ratings-mad media mavens and immoral politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin – had declared out all-out war on “the Other” in America in all its alleged forms, from immigrants to Muslims to non-white aides working in the West Wing of the White House and of course the president himself.

And it is threatening to rip America apart in a way that we have not seen in 145 years.

We are becoming a non-white country and that’s the pack’s problem:

In the mid-2000s, an anti-immigration frenzy took root across right-wing talk radio. It seemed largely a matter of entertainment and most likely changing the subject, since the George W. Bush presidency was at low ebb because of Iraq and Katrina. The increasingly paranoid conversation about the threat from brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people grew in a way that was completely disconnected from realities, that immigrants were growing the economy in places like Arizona and Nevada, that crime rates among immigrants were quite low, and that these arrivals were paying more in taxes than they received in services.

But the bottom line was that for many, reports that whites will be a minority of Americans by the year 2050 carried the shill ring of an alarm bell. But this concern about the submersion of a dominant white culture in America spiked prematurely in 2008 with the political rise of Obama. … I spoke with many conservative voters who talked of their “discomfort” the first time they watched Obama speak on television, who said that in particular they were alarmed at the future president’s use of the specific word “transformation.” These voters were egged on by political “leaders” like vice presidential candidate Palin, who didn’t just voice traditional policies differences with the Democrat but accused him of “palling around with terrorists.”

It is no surprise that by mid-2009 I was hearing from the leader of the anti-Obama group the Delaware 9-12 Patriots that the 44th president of the United States “is absolutely not American” while his neighbors were screaming at town hall meetings: “I don’t want this flag to change. I want my country back!” These rank-and-file citizens were often echoing what they heard in a 24/7 right-wing media bubble of ratings-driven irresponsibility – outlandish neo-McCarthyite allegations that Obama had Commies and Maoists working in the West Wing, Glenn Beck’s notorious claim that the president has “a deep-seated hatred of white people” and, perhaps more tellingly, of “white culture,” and most recently radio’s Rush Limbaugh’s bizarre charge that Obama is probably the “best anti-American president the country’s ever had.”

And probably none of the people own cats, although one never exactly owns any cat. It’s more complicated than that. But this seems rather serious:

Let’s face it: This country has long had its Know-Nothings and its Birchers and its McCarthyites, but it never had gizmos like Fox News or Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed to fuel toxic ideas so far so fast. It’s time we admit these seemingly disconnected battles over anchor babies, mosques, and a black man in the Oval Office are all part of the same war against “the Other,” and that we are in the fight of a lifetime.

But how do you win that fight, when each side thinks the other side’s view of human nature is dead wrong? It’s more than fighting like cats and dogs. It’s fighting about whether we are cats or dogs.

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.
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