Culture Wars: Fear the People

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“So,” asks Martin Bashir of Chris Matthews today (November 2) during a teaser segment for “Hardball”, discussing Herman Cain’s latest duck-and-cover response to reporters’ questions about his growing sex scandal, “So is it hip to be dumb?”  Well, of course it is, Martin.  That happened back during the Reagan administration.  The sheer Hollywood presence of that obviously limited intellect at the top of the world made ignorance not just acceptable, but cool.  The engaging smile, the pleasing voice, the Just-For-Men hair stifled any demand that he grasp the relevant facts.  And when Reagan could pull off a mildly effective bon mot – “Well, there you go again” – that was more wit than his fans required or dared to hope for.

The presidents who succeeded Reagan either were generally successful at hiding what intellectual acuity they did have, with notable exceptions like Clinton’s “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is”, or, in the instance of Bush the Younger, didn’t have much to hide.  But 2008 produced a quantum leap in the electorate’s joyful embrace of ignorance when my state’s John McCain unleashed Sarah Palin upon the national scene.  Where Reagan made ignorance a charming personality quirk, Palin made it a weapon.  If you weren’t ignorant, you were probably an “elite,” the word changing from adjective to noun and its meaning changing from sought-after quality to badge of dishonor.  Ignorance of the basic facts of the wide world was now nothing less than populist street cred:  Hey, you could run for president too; it’s just dumb luck that I’m here and you’re there.

The current crop of GOP wannabe presidential contenders includes three who are perfectly unsuited to running the country, not ideologically, but intellectually:  the current frontrunner, Herman Cain, and two former frontrunners, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.  These three ignore undisputed facts that don’t fit their narratives and make up facts when their narratives require them.  They are positively unabashed when their ignorance is exposed.  They do not pretend to be smarter than anyone else; their claims on the high office arise from certain arcane and fuzzy abilities – job creation, simple yet marvelously effective taxing systems, the common-sense talent to both cut taxes and provide necessary benefits, the capacity to simplify this crazy, complicated world – and, most important, a moral rectitude that arises, not from their behavior, but from their personae.  We know that they love Jesus, and that Jesus loves them, no matter what they say or do.

And because also-rans imitate frontrunners, a la “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, that simplification and its erosive effect is spreading to the other wannabes.  With the apparent exception of John Huntsman, the also-rans, with varying degrees of discomfort, are also expressing their perceptions of the world in increasingly simplistic terms.  No one of them wants to be the smartest guy or gal in the room, but each wants the audience to believe that she or he has a special, unique – dare we say, magical? – game-changing ability to make things right.  (And this fix is so simple – albeit inarticulable – that we can all feel its rightness and we are left to conclude either that President Obama lacks the requisite moral magic, or that he chooses not to effect the fix, almost certainly for nefarious purposes.)

But this simplification of the world is having an unforeseen and truly nasty effect:  it is eroding the ability to perceive change, to understand the bases of change and to communicate about change.  Herman Cain is the current prominent example here.  He now flounders, unseeing, in the ocean of facts and factual connections that inhere in the world.  He has lived so long in a small, simple world of religion and pizza, created and sustained by performative language[1], that he seems at times positively flummoxed by the inefficacy of his statements to recreate the truth he so strongly feels. He tells us forcefully that he has never engaged in sexual harassment, but the wider world does not change.  He cannot understand that there is, somewhere beneath his feet, a ground in which all of these facts are connected – his earlier history, his statements and behavior, the recollections of others, related paper trails in separate locations, human nature and memory and motivation.  He has lost or rejected the ability to stand on that ground and to represent the world from there.  The wider world has changed beneath him and the simple truths, the slogans, the bumper stickers, no longer describe that change or explain or define the truth.

This is the plight of the GOP candidates (and probably the wider culture as well, but that’s another post):  while there may be simple truths, they are not delivered to our brains, whole and complete, from above; they are derived and built up laboriously from complicated facts.  Truth is bottom-up, not top-down.  And the bottom from whence truth comes is that common ground of facts and relational principles.  If you cannot or will not stand on that ground, you will lose the ability to perceive or represent human truth.

Top-down truths can only work as long as the audience accepts the presumptions upon which those truths depend.  Religious truths are the obvious example; religious audiences accept the presumptions that make the simple, top-down religious truths work, and none of the candidates challenges such presumptions.  But when a wider, more diverse audience does not accept the presumption – won’t presume from Cain’s known congeniality and love of Jesus that he couldn’t have been a sexual harasser, e.g. – the only alternative is to seek out those bigger truths that emerge from that common ground accessible to us all.  Cain seems oblivious to the inevitability of this, lurching from one ineffective verbal formulation to another in the apparent belief that one of them will recreate the top-down truth he feels and needs.  He represents his memory of unusual and important personal events as a series of darkened rooms in which, suddenly and for no apparent reason, the lights go on.  He seems unaware that our own life experiences immediately and firmly contradict such a representation of human memory.

He does not know how people work.  He floats above the common ground of human nature in a fog of bumper stickers and slogans.  As, more or less, do the other candidates, of whom the most desperate seems to be Mitt Romney.  In his tireless search for a top-down truth that will fit the presumptions of his audience, Romney forgets that today’s audience will probably know what he told yesterday’s audience and he thus appears more and more cynical and inauthentic.  Staring at the growing Occupy throngs and the swelling national restiveness, they all[2] anxiously wonder:  Will the old top-down truths still work?  Will we again be able to cut taxes for the 1%, cut benefits for the 99% and still get their vote with the top-down truths of god, guns and gays?[3]

And now the effect of this long-used decoupling of truth from the common ground of our shared reality is fear, fear of change, fear of the people.  The candidates no longer know what the people want.  And they don’t know how to find out.  They have gone all-in on the top-down truths – tax cuts for the rich create jobs; human-caused climate change is a myth; homosexuality is a life-style choice; America is exceptional just because it’s America; intercessory prayer works.  If they fold now they will lose everything.  But the people are stirring; they are questioning the presumptions, and the truths begin to crumble.  The candidates, with no Plan B, feel fear.   Fear the people.

ARC – 11/5/11


[2] Including the majority in Congress.  On this day (November 2) of economic desperation, rather than taking any real-world step to help the citizens of this nation, the House took the time and effort to draft and pass a divisive and empty resolution affirming a top-down truth, “In God We Trust”, as our national motto.

[3] The mechanics and success of this strategy are usefully exposed in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004).

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One Response to Culture Wars: Fear the People

  1. Jess says:

    I really like the conclusion. I thought you were going to a different place with “fear the people” when I read the beginning of your column – ie., I should fear the people because of their general ignorance. The politicians should fear bottom-up truths because you’re right, they have no idea how to find out what they are, the system won’t let them the way it stands now. Bumper stickers and 10-second sound bites are all they think they have. Life is complicated. Governing a country as big and diverse as the U.S. is complicated. There are no easy answers.

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