Affirming the Negative

Americans live on a knife’s edge – everything is a crisis and someone is always out to take your stuff, or your freedoms, or your precious bodily fluids – and that 1964 Strangelove movie captured what Richard Hofstadter, in his famous 1964 essay, called the Paranoid Style in American Politics:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated – if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

It’s no coincidence that Barry Goldwater was running for president that year, muttering that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and thus moderation is obviously no virtue, and William F. Buckley was a little worried as he built what might be called modern American conservatism. Goldwater was a bit of a worry, and it was clear Goldwater was going to lose – but so be it. There were other things that could be fixed. Buckley told the John Birch Society they weren’t welcome in what would be the new conservative movement, because not everything is an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it communist conspiracy. A bit of fluoride in the public water supply, to reduce childhood tooth decay, was not a communist conspiracy. Actually, that whole fluoride thing was a bit boring. So save the apocalyptic crap for real communist conspiracies, which do come along now and then – you know, deep-cover spies and atomic secrets stolen, or international plots to undermine our standing with old allies and such things. Fluoride just doesn’t cut it. Focus, people, focus!

That worked for a time, and the Stanley Kubrick movie and Hofstadter essay helped too, and it helped that Goldwater got handed his hat in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. That year, the nation seemed to agree that paranoia is tiresome, when it isn’t silly – and it’s dangerous. Those folks who claim to be manning the barricades of civilization need to get a life, before they do real damage.

That was fifty years ago. We forgot it all. We got Fox News, the home of one Brigadier General (Frank D.) Ripper after another, each one of them talking about this liberal conspiracy or that, but not quite settling on Obama’s plans to sap us of our precious bodily fluids. In the years Glenn Beck was with Fox News it seemed certain that he’d end up talking about our precious bodily fluids, but Beck only came close, with the secret plan for those FEMA reeducation concentration camps and telling us all that Obama really, secretly, hated all white people. Obama would, however, take our guns – except he didn’t – and Obamacare had those Death Panels – except it didn’t. And Benghazi turned out to be the tragic result of the CIA and the Department of State having a bit of a turf war, and the IRS scandal turned out to be the IRS doing its job, checking to see which political groups, on each side, actually qualified for tax-exempt status, according to the actual law. And of course Obamacare isn’t a government takeover of all healthcare – just an elaborate system to match those who need to buy health insurance with private sector providers who want to sell it to them, with subsidies for those who can’t fully manage the premiums the private sector providers charge. Yes, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 sets standards for what a basic health plan should provide, but there are lots of food-safety standards no one bitches about, and the Obamacare standards can be adjusted as necessary over time, and will be. And yes, there’s a mandate that everyone get insured, or pay a small fine to cover the costs if they get hit by a bus and end up in the emergency room – but that was a conservative idea from the American Enterprise Institute, originally proposed to make sure there were no damned freeloaders here in America. And anyway, most Americans will still continue to get their health insurance from their employer, as before, but it’ll be more comprehensive and useful than ever before, so none of this has much to do with most people. Yeah, there are new rules – some basic product standards – but people like the rules – you can’t be denied because of a preexisting condition and no lifetime caps and so on. They may hate Obamacare, but they like its features. Go figure.

Nothing here is the end of the world as we know it, and the end of all religious freedom in America, unless you don’t like the whole idea of rules and standards, because you believe in total freedom, and raw cheese. That would mean that you’re one of the Tea Party crowd – the government always does too much and taxes folks too much to do that stuff they shouldn’t do. No one should be food stamps or those unemployment benefits they and everyone else has to pay for out of each paycheck. Social Security and Medicare are fine, but Medicaid isn’t, and they fight to the death over all this, and all the rest. And as for the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, that are not even remotely attainable, with inevitable failure that constantly heightens their sense of frustration, there was the government shutdown last year to end Obamacare one way or another, which didn’t work and only made them angrier. But it’s always something. It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

There are victories however, and this was the day that the Supreme Court really stuck it to Obama and the black folks, striking down all of Affirmative Action, except they didn’t:

In a fractured decision that revealed deep divisions over what role the judiciary should play in protecting racial and ethnic minorities, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.

The 6-to-2 ruling effectively endorsed similar measures in seven other states. It may also encourage more states to enact measures banning the use of race in admissions or to consider race-neutral alternatives to ensure diversity.

States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.

Maybe so, but this was not a ruling on Affirmative Action, one way or the other. It was a ruling on who gets to decide about it. Here, the decision was that the courts should not decide, one way or the other, and then it got hot:

In five separate opinions spanning more than 100 pages, the justices set out starkly conflicting views. The justices in the majority, with varying degrees of vehemence, said that policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the longest, most passionate and most significant dissent of her career, said the Constitution required special vigilance in light of the history of slavery, Jim Crow and “recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws.”

Her opinion, longer than the four other opinions combined, appeared to reflect her own experiences with affirmative action at Princeton and Yale Law School. “I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door,” she wrote in her best-selling memoir, “My Beloved World.” For years, she wrote, “I lived the day-to-day reality of affirmative action.”

In contrast to Justice Sotomayor’s outraged dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s controlling opinion for three justices took pains to say that the decision was a modest one.

“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he wrote, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

That wouldn’t do:

Signaling deep displeasure, Justice Sotomayor summarized her dissent from the bench, an unusual move that happens perhaps three times a term. She said the initiative put minorities to a burden not faced by other college applicants. Athletes, children of alumni and students from underrepresented parts of the state, she said, remained free to try to persuade university officials to give their applications special weight. “The one and only policy a Michigan citizen may not seek through this long-established process,” she wrote, “is a race-sensitive admissions policy.” That difference, she said, violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat,” she wrote. “But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the dissent.

Then it got nasty:

Justice Sotomayor seemed to mock one of Chief Justice Roberts’s most memorable lines. In a 2007 decision that limited the use of race to achieve integration in public school systems, he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Justice Sotomayor recast the line. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

In your face, Justice Roberts! Yes, this was an argument about who gets to resolve these issues, not about the issues themselves, but she didn’t see it that way, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore tries to step back a bit:

In the long and torturous line of judicial precedents governing affirmative action, it’s not clear whether today’s 6-2 SCOTUS decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action will be considered much more than a footnote. It held that a Michigan voter initiative placing a ban on racial preferences in college admissions did not itself violate the U.S. Constitution by creating a disproportionate burden for those favoring race-based admissions criteria. The 9th Circuit earlier reached the same conclusion with respect to a voter ban on affirmative action policies in California; the 6th Circuit narrowly ruled otherwise in a Michigan case.

The decision does not modify existing precedents on the constitutional permissibility of race-based college admissions policies, but simply makes it clear voters can ban them via state constitutional amendments even if the bans do not limit other preferential admissions policies (e.g., for “legacies”).

If an increasingly conservative Court ultimately places new constitutional restricts on affirmative action, perhaps this decision will appear to be a way station in that trend. Otherwise, it is simply a restriction on judicial remedies protecting race-based affirmative action from hostile action by legislatures and voters.

But the folks at the Heritage Foundation are crowing, because this effectively ends discrimination against the real victims here, white people shut out of everything:

The people of Michigan – along with five other states – have chosen to prohibit what they consider to be unjust discrimination. Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer commented that while he believes the Constitution permits race-based preferences, “it does not require them.” Today’s decision affirms the right of the people to debate this issue and determine whether they will permit publicly funded schools to consider race in admissions. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose such discrimination and the Supreme Court has opened the pathway for them to stop state and local government from treating citizens differently based on their race.

That’s the standard line now on the right – history or no history, those black folks should get no special consideration any longer. All that race stuff was over long ago. Everyone is equal now. And it’s about time the world stopped picking on white folks. The despised and oppressed whites are fighting back now.

Back in 1964, Kubrick would have made a movie about these folks, a real “black” comedy, and Hofstadter would have extended his essay on paranoia in politics to cover them, and Buckley would have rolled his eyes and asked them to leave the room. This was a fringe view, and now it isn’t. What changed in fifty years? Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been posted comments from readers on what they think changed, and he calls it the Fox Effect, as in this tale:

I was raised in a military family and despite the conservatism inherent in the military, socially (at least as far as race goes) it has always been reasonably progressive. By the time I was growing up in the 60’s it was fully integrated and my parents’ racial views more or less followed the military lead.

Other than comments about “good blacks and bad blacks” – when comparing MLK to the Black Panthers – race was neither noticed nor much discussed. However, as my parents aged and my father passed away, my mother started reverting back to her 1940s upbringing and racial views.

Once Fox News became a daily fixture then the flood gates were open. She would still be friendly and respectful to individuals of race but any reference to the group included the usual racial epithets. I don’t think the malignant impact of Fox News on the older population can be overstated.

And there’s this:

In my experience people who get submersed in the right wing media don’t just become more racially and ethnically intolerant – they start buying into the whole package.

My step-father was your classic Archie Bunker-type conservative who was also an open atheist who often made fun of people who didn’t believe in evolution. He had a degree in pharmacy and was so into anthropology as a hobby that for years he was a weekend tour guide at a famous natural history institute.

Fast forward 40 years, with 20+ years of right wing media. Now he doubts evolution, and I know several others who have made a similar transition. I’m sure it’s because his trusted news sources all disbelieve in evolution, so he either has to question his trusted sources or change what used to be a core belief of his.

And there’s this:

I have to say, I’ve seen a noticeable shift in my parents’ views over the years as they’ve fallen deeper and deeper into Fox’s grip. Although much more so for my mother than my father. (In fact, virtually every time we talk on the phone, I hear Fox droning on in the background. And when I am home visiting, I make it point to put Fox on mute.)

The vitriol that comes out of her mouth – the seething rage at “illegals,” “Section 8,” and all the other “low life” who, with the government’s blessing, are taking away everything that she spent her life working for – is stunning. I don’t remember her being that angry when I was growing up. It’s really been in the last ten years or so that it’s come on strong, and when Fox has become a virtual addiction.

What makes it worse, though, is the sheer amount of misinformation that she has bought into, along with her adoption of Fox’s reflexive disdain of facts that counter the desired narrative (E.g., death panels, Bill O’Reilly has never divorced). My mother is a smart woman; she taught high school English for 35 years. It pains me to see her this way; it’s simply not healthy to carry around that much simmering anger and paranoia.

And this is curious:

My mother has always been a huge Oprah fan, I think pretty much since she saw the movie “The Color Purple”. She read a lot of her book recommendations and would watch her show religiously. So I was shocked last week when I mentioned something about Oprah and she said flatly “I don’t like her”.

After a moment, I realized that this must have come about from the trashing of Oprah from Fox News because of her endorsement of Obama in the 2008 election. I tried to press her on the issue asking why but she wouldn’t go into detail other than “I don’t care for her anymore”.

It is like she thought Oprah had betrayed her. And that is when I came to the exact same conclusion as your previous commenter. Fox News is absolutely toxic. You take an older generation that grew up watching the new as the be all end all source of information and truth, and now inject the “entertainment” factor of slick talking hosts with a political agenda, and you wind up with people like my mother who can inexplicably turn against someone they have respected and adored for 30 years simply because of the hatred and bile presented on Fox News is taken at face value. It seems the only purpose of the Channel is to drive people to fear and hate that which they don’t know.

And try this one:

I was brought up in a very multi-ethnic working class community where nearly everyone was more or less on the same socio-economic level. I ran around with white, black, Hispanic and Indian kids. We were all always in and out of each other’s houses and all of our parents got along very well. This was the 1970s.

My parents were strongly progressive, pro-integration and not at all racist as far as I could tell. I recall one time my father laid into me because I described a kid I’d had a fight with at school as a “beaner”. Racial epithets were not allowed in our house. Jimmy Carter, Kennedy, LBJ and FDR were the political heroes in our house.

Leap forward to the early 1990s and my father starts listening to Rush for some reason. By the late 90s he was fully ensconced in the Fox world and has remained there since.

The old man, now 70, sits around talking about ‘niggers’ and ‘beaners’, ‘wetbacks’, ‘ragheads’, ‘kikes’ and so on in the most hateful and disgusting way. He blames all of our nation’s ills on minorities as well as diseases like meningitis and for the nation’s moral decay. He has a bunker mentality as if a mob of angry brown people are going to show up at his door any moment. He also hates women, unions, gays and everyone else. The hate and fear that seethe from that man is stunning.

It is a shocking – and to be honest – very painful thing to see your father go from a tolerant welcoming man to an angry, hateful racist. I have no doubt at all that Fox and Rush had a massive impact on him and his attitude towards other people. I watched it happen.

And Josh Marshall himself adds this:

You don’t just stand up a cable news network and suddenly everyone’s a cranky racist sending Obama witch-doctor emails. If only it were so easy. But I also don’t think it’s just as simple as saying that Fox is a mirror of the political journey/worldview of one generation or cohort of the American population. It’s clearly been a driver of political ideas and, for many, political identity, coupled with and growing out from conservative talk radio.

One key in my mind has been to affirm and normalize views that have been considered unacceptable to express or at least express out loud. And that’s no small thing.

The issue is that movements and political consciousness are inherently social:

Here we have relatively isolated people finding communities and media sources that in essence tell them, “No, you’re not the only who feels this way. A lot of other people do to. And you can connect up with them. And then you can do things together.”

And he quotes another reader with a generational take on this:

I think you may be missing an important, if more sinister, point here. The people your correspondents are discussing – usually their parents and older ones at that – grew up at a strange time in American history. The 1930-1960s were decades of shocking and profound changes in America and the world. And nowhere were those changes more evident than in race relations. And while the country has evolved, as one correspondent has it, I am not sure that evolution took with many people from that generation. And I think Fox News has liberated latent anger, dislike and prejudice that simply did not have an acceptable outlet in polite society in the pre-Obama days.

Let’s take my grandmother, for instance. She’s 93, grew up in Washington, DC, where she has lived all her life, and always had what one might term “antiquated” views on race. She wasn’t racist in the Archie Bunker way, but she clearly retained Washington’s Old South views on race relations, though until recently she covered it quite well. Fast forward to the Obama years – and her turning on Fox a bit too much – and the old, suppressed racism is on full display. She is also angry at “immigrants,” conveniently forgetting that she was born in Eastern Europe.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think Fox changed her in any serious way; I believe Fox has changed what counts for permissible rhetoric on race and social ills in this country. And I think that the old, suppressed views on race from the childhood of older Boomers and the remaining Depression-era generation are liberated by that permissiveness. It’s not Fox spewing hate that makes these people hate. They already hated, but for decades it just wasn’t okay to say it out loud, and you saw little of it in the mainstream media. Now, however, it’s okay to say it out loud because the guys on TV say it, and so others must also believe it.

Now what? With this Affirmative Action decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s a free country – if voters want to end the whole business of helping folks who have been shut out of college and all else, that’s their business, and not unconstitutional. And Fox News has normalized views that have been considered unacceptable to express or at least express out loud, the sort of thing Kubrick mocked and Hofstadter analyzed and that, from conservatives, appalled Buckley, so it will be a few weeks of HOORAY FOR WHITE FOLKS on Fox News, until the next outrage. Let’s hope the next outrage is about Obama’s plan to sap us of our precious bodily fluids. That’d be cool. And the last fifty years would have disappeared entirely.

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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