Life in the Age of Infinite Outrage

People generally quarrel because they can’t argue. G. K. Chesterton is said to have said that, and he was onto something there. Imagine you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, quite lost, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next – to try to head back and see if anything looks familiar, to take the road to the right, or the road to the left, or to just sit and wait to see if anyone comes along who can tell you where you actually are, so you can decide how to get to where you’re going. And then you hear a pretty good argument for one of those options, calm and well-reasoned, and the tension eases, until someone says about the source of the suggestion – “What does he know anyway?” Maybe he was born in Kenya.

You expected an argument about the options, and you got chin-out and chip-on-the-shoulder posturing intended to display dominance. That never helps, as argument is a process for working things out and quarreling is somewhat the opposite. This seems to be a power and domination thing. Quarreling is about ending up looking good, with everyone else looking foolish. But you still stay lost, as what was won and what was lost in the quarrel was quite irrelevant to the problem itself.

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter, but human nature is what it is – defensiveness and feigned certainty may be necessary evolutionary traits, necessary to perpetuate the species. Self-confidence attracts mates or something. Be sure of yourself – that’s the ticket. Believe in something, no matter how foolish, and believe in it sincerely. You’ll get the girl, or, if you’re a politician, you’ll get the votes. George W. Bush knew this. His father didn’t. His father didn’t win a second term as president. He was merely competent and reasonable. He told everyone to read his lips – no new taxes – and then he raised taxes, to keep the government functioning, which kind of had to be done. His son, who got us into two long and absurd wars, and who ruined the economy for a generation, was neither reasonable nor competent – but he was sure of himself. He was the one who won a second term, in spite of the disasters piling up right and left. He believed what he believed. Somehow that was enough, or enough for enough people. Both elections were close.

No one considered him wise – Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives only found him useful – and that was the problem for many voters. That eighteenth-century British fellow, William Shenstone, put it well – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.”

That differentiation is useful. Zealous men do ask that you stand in awe of their sincerity, of the strength of their beliefs, which is supposed to be impressive, in spite of the facts at hand, which will do just fine – but this had led to political discourse where outrage is the most useful option, the default position for respect. It’s the business model for Fox News too – CNN and MSNBC never got it. That made Bill O’Reilly a rich man. The zeal on the right has a home. Judiciousness will have to find a home somewhere else.

The current outrages are obvious. Obama did no more than announce his administrative adjustments, which really don’t solve any major issues with our dysfunctional immigration system, but it was an outrage anyway. They won big in the midterm elections and all the Democrats ran away from him, and lost, so he’s being arrogant in adjusting the enforcement priorities – or downright uppity here. The House Republicans also finally filed their lawsuit, suing Obama for damages they cannot specify – but they are outraged that he is adjusting a few due dates in Obamacare, due dates that they had insisted he adjust – and then, late Friday afternoon, a Republican-controlled committee released the results of their two-year investigation into Benghazi, hoping no one would notice that they admitted that there was no scandal at all. There never was:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

Ah, that’s settled. That matter will now disappear. Republicans had been looking foolish about this for a long time. Now they can quietly drop it and hope no one notices. Americans have short memories. The eighth Benghazi investigation being carried out by a House Select Committee appointed in May will probably mysteriously disappear. It already has. No one has talked about that for months.

That’s not how things work:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday blasted a House GOP-led investigation that recently debunked myths about the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“I think the report is full of crap,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The House Intelligence Committee released a report on Friday evening, which took two years to compile, that found there was no outright intelligence failure during the attack, there was no delay in the rescue of U.S. personnel and there was no political cover-up by Obama administration officials.

After Graham was asked whether the report exonerates the administration, he initially ignored the question, and then eventually said “No.”

And if judicious men show you the grounds of their belief, there’s this:

Graham didn’t clearly pinpoint why he dismissed the report’s findings, but suggested its information was provided by people in the intelligence community who had previously lied to Congress about the attack.

“I don’t believe the report is accurate given the role [former CIA deputy director] Mike Morell played in misleading the Congress on two occasions,” Graham said.

Host Gloria Borger said the report found no one lied.

“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Graham replied.

This is zeal. Perhaps such zeal is admirable, in a George Bush kind of way, but at his site, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan isn’t feeling it:

Isn’t there something quite delicious in the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – scandalous about “Benghazi” apart from what we knew already: that the outpost was poorly protected and that the State Department had been complacent about consulate security?

And as for Graham:

His only basis for saying that is that the report relied on the testimony of Obama administration officials – even though it also sought testimony from a bunch of Republican conspiracy theorists, even though it was packed with Republican ideologues, even though it had enormous reach and subpoena power.

At the Dish, we tried long and hard to find something in the Benghazi story that could really stand the test of moderate scrutiny … and failed. I even jumped the gun and impugned the honesty of [National Security Advisor] Ben Rhodes at one point in trying to be as skeptical of administration assurances as any journalistic outfit should be. But after a while, we decided to ignore the issue unless something striking or new came up. In retrospect, that was the right call.

Sullivan wonders what’s going on here:

When you think of the staggering amount of time and resources devoted to chasing down this rabbit-hole, you have to wonder what is really fueling the GOP. I don’t think it’s a positive agenda to tackle some of our obviously pressing problems: eleven million undocumented immigrants, climate change, Iran’s nuclear potential, Jihadism in Iraq, soaring inequality. I think this is rabid hatred of a president who does not share their priorities and desperation to find some kind of quick and easy way of consigning him to a treasonous asterisk. They’ve failed on both counts.

Fox News reports that Graham doesn’t see it that way:

A leading Republican wants to expand the House investigation into the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack by adding a Senate probe….

Referring to the House Select committee Chairman, and the Democratic ranking member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said the current House investigation should be expanded.

“[Republican] Trey Gowdy and [Democrat] Elijah Cummings have done a good job,” he said. “I can’t imagine the U.S. Senate not wanting to be a part of a joint select committee. We’ll bootstrap to what you’ve done, but we want to be part of discussion,” Graham told Fox News. “What I would suggest to [incoming Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell is to call up Speaker Boehner and say ‘Listen, we want to be part of this’.”

Fox News will provide full on-going coverage, although this is curious:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday said Republicans are partially responsible for not passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that’s national security, that’s cultural, that’s economic” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Senate has passed an immigration bill three times, Graham said, adding that he “loves” his GOP colleagues in the House.

That’s nice, but they may not love him back:

“I’m close to the people in the House, but I’m disappointed in my party. Are we still the party of self-deportation?” he asked. … “Is it the position of the Republican Party that the 11 million must be driven out? I have never been in that camp as being practical.”

They won’t like that, and then there’s this:

“I’m thinking of trying to fix illegal immigration and replacing sequestration. I will let you know if I think about running for president. It’s the hardest thing one could ever do. You go through personal hell. You have got to raise a ton of money. I’m nowhere near there,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Asked if his response could be labeled as a “maybe,” Graham nodded and said, “That’s what it was.”

He probably will run, although he may not survive the first primary. He will offer a mixture of outrage and reasonableness, trying to get the blend just right. That’s an ongoing challenge for Republicans in this age of outrage, but Sullivan is impressed by none of it:

One reason I’ve been somewhat forgiving of Obama’s executive action on immigration deportations is that I see it as a function not of his choice to be an “imperial” president, but as a result of unprecedented Republican obstructionism. It is, for example, jaw-dropping to hear the GOP declare its shock at the president’s refusal to take into account the results of the mid-terms as a democratic norm he should respect. These are the same people who, in January and February of 2009, responded to Obama’s landslide amid a catastrophic and accelerating depression by giving him zero votes on a desperately needed stimulus package.

We now know they decided as a conscious strategy to say no to anything and everything the new and young president, inheriting two failed wars and an imploding economy, wanted or needed. They were nihilist then as they are nihilist now with respect to the practical demands of actually governing the country. At some point, something had to give, and I can see why, after the GOP had again refused to allow immigration reform even to come to a vote in the House, that he might have decided to say fuck it.

Sullivan does note that the New York Times’ resident young conservative Ross Douthat sees things differently:

Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted – as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)

Sullivan:

I just do not recognize this reality. What exactly did the GOP want in 2009? That’s hard to say. But on the issues on which Obama had campaigned – say, the stimulus, healthcare, climate change and immigration – he embraced conservative ideas, as Ross concedes. He packed the stimulus with tax cuts (and still got no GOP votes); he embraced Mitt Romney’s and the Heritage Foundation’s version of healthcare reform over his own party’s preference for single payer (and was treated as a commie because of it); he supported cap and trade on climate change – again a policy innovated on the right (and got nowhere); and on immigration, he backed George W Bush’s formula but sweetened it over six years with aggressive deportations and huge increases in funding for the Mexican border. So what on earth is Ross talking about?

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter:

Yes, Obama does have ambitions to be a transformational president, a liberal Reagan. And, after two thumping victories, he still has a solid shot at getting there. And if we had a reasonable or even feisty opposition party – as opposed to a foam-flecked insurrection against everything – that legacy would have been even more informed by conservative thought and ideas. And the idea that no executive action is allowed is just as silly. The executive branch has a key role in determining things like the level of permissible carbon emissions (via the EPA), or priorities in immigration enforcement (via ICE), or national security (via the Pentagon, NSA and CIA).

At some point, in other words, it was the GOP who made this president more executive-minded, by removing every other pathway for him to pursue what the country elected him to do. Because they never really accepted that he had won big majorities twice for a reason. And that reason was change.

That wasn’t the only reason – that’s far too glib an answer. There may be more going on here, something that goes far beyond politics. We do live in an age of unmitigated outrage. The mechanisms that mitigate foam-flecked insurrection against everything have disappeared in the general culture, as Jonah Goldberg notes:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing – mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting that it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone – a little – but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

Sullivan goes one step further:

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. … When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitter-storm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

In short, the internet has aided and abetted the default-outrage in our culture, or maybe even created it:

Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Outrage is, however, too easy and too rewarding to resist, and now it’s available to everyone. The Republicans have Fox News as a platform for their outrage, and an occasional spot on CNN when CNN needs ratings, but everyone else can blog or Twitter or rant on Facebook, or leave comments here – manners be damned. Of course Goldberg wrote that book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change – so he’s one to talk. When you live in the Age of Outrage resistance is futile.

Kevin Drum continues the thread:

I have not, personally, ever noticed that human beings tend to rein in their worst impulses when they’re face to face with other human beings. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Most often, they don’t. Arguments with real people end up with red faces and lots of shouting constantly. I just flatly don’t believe that the real problem with internet discourse is the fact that you’re not usually directly addressing the object of your scorn.

So what is the problem? I think it’s mostly one of visibility. In the past, the kinds of lapses that provoke internet pile-ons mostly stayed local. There just wasn’t a mechanism for the wider world to find out about them, so most of us never even heard about them. It became a big deal within the confines of a town or a university campus or whatnot, but that was it.

Occasionally, these things broke out, and the wider world did find out about them. But even then, there was a limit to how the world could respond. You could organize a protest, but that’s a lot of work. You could go to a city council meeting and complain. You could write a letter to the editor. But given the limitations of technology, it was fairly rare for something to break out and become a true feeding frenzy.

Needless to say, that’s no longer the case. In fact, we have just the opposite problem: things can become feeding frenzies even if no one really wants them to be. That’s because they can go viral with no central organization at all. Each individual who tweets or blogs or Facebooks their outrage thinks of this as a purely personal response – just a quick way to kill a few idle minutes. But put them all together, and you have tens of thousands of people simultaneously responding in a way that seems like a huge pile-on. And that in turn triggers the more mainstream media to cover these things as if they were genuinely big deals.

The funny thing is that in a lot of cases, they aren’t.

That’s where the confusion begins:

The problem is that our lizard brains haven’t caught up to this. We still think that 10,000 outraged people are a lot of people, and 30 or 40 years ago it would have been. What’s more, it almost certainly would have represented a far greater number of people who actually cared. Today, though, it’s so easy to express outrage that 10,000 people is a pretty small number – and most likely represents nearly everyone who actually gives a damn.

This calls for same statistical realism:

We need to recalibrate our cultural baselines for the social media era. People can respond so quickly and easily to minor events that the resulting feeding frenzies can seem far more important than anyone ever intended them to be. A snarky/nasty tweet, after all, is the work of a few seconds. A few thousand of them represent a grand total of a few hours of work. The end result may seem like an unbelievable avalanche of contempt and derision to the target of the attack, but in real terms, it represents virtually nothing.

The culture wars are not nastier because people on the internet don’t have to face their adversaries. They’re nastier because even minor blowups seem huge. But that’s just Econ 101. When the cost of expressing outrage goes down, the amount of outrage expressed goes up. That doesn’t mean there’s more outrage. It just means outrage is a lot more visible than it used to be.

And that makes this the Age of Outrage. It’s been fully enabled. Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it, and judicious men are pathetic losers. How many “followers” do they have, after all? Republicans get it. Democrats don’t.

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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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One Response to Life in the Age of Infinite Outrage

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    This is excellent, very well said. Nothing to add (or disagree with). I’ll pass around to my tiny “masses” who are mostly left. Of course, it takes work to read all the way to the end, especially when your every thought and bias is one way, or the other. I do think the “masses” have sort of figured this out. They are pretty silent and try to do things quietly and slowly. But they don’t have the tele-screen, etc.
    A young man I recently hear speak on Peace, Paul K. Chappell, (check him out), noted that successful social movements (as civil and womens rights) perhaps had 1% of the people as actual activists. That’s one of 100. A campus minister friend of mine, who ended up in the business during the Vietnam war in California, said the number of activists was 2%. I think they’re both right, and potential for positive change is there, and possibly already happening, but you’ll not hear about it on the ordinary media, which includes CBS et al (wrote my “squeak” on this topic to Scott Pelley last week, about network news use of words like Obamacare, terrorists, dictators and the like.)

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