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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Confusing Moralizing for Politics: Notes on the Paranoid Style of Movement Conservatism

In 1964, the year before I was born, the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay for Harper's, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" which opened with the observation that "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." He went on: "In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."

It is fascinating to recall that Hofstadter's classic essay was occasioned by Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican Presidential nomination, a moment that qualifies reasonably well as the inaugural moment of the Movement Conservatism that went on to bring us Nixon's imperial illegalities, Reagan's sunny confiscations, Gingrich's looting spree and polarization tactics, and has culminated in the unprecedented catastrophes of the current Bush Administration.

It's been hard for me to shake the sense these last few days especially that Hofstadter's piece speaks to our own era far more insistently than it did even to his own. The Movement Conservative periodical Human Events has attracted quite a bit of recent attention for an article that propounds a thesis that has been tingling back in America's lizard brain more generally for months, a thesis summarized by the portentious opening of the article itself: “Quietly but systematically, the Bush Administration is advancing the plan to build a huge NAFTA Super Highway, four football-fields-wide, through the heart of the U.S.”

In response, the progressive periodical The Nation has published an article by Christopher Hayes that exposes the thesis as an extreme right-wing conspiracy theory, but more interestingly, analyzes the thesis as a symptom of America's anxious and confused response to the pressures of neoliberal globalization. Since I offered up a summarizing sentence from the paranoid article, it's only fair that I provide a comparably pithy sentence from the response. Will this one do? "There’s no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway."

In a post yesterday surveying all this right-wing conspiracist scenery chewing, the always indispensable Digby offered up this immensely useful observation:
I guess this is the predictable re-emergence of the black helicopter crowd now that the Republicans have lost their power. (These conspiracy theorists always seem to go underground when the GOP is in power. My theory is that they switch seamlessly between anti-government conspiracy to cultlike authoritarian leadership worship depending on who's in office.)

She also connects this observation to Glenn Greenwald's powerful recent exposure and ridicule of the paranoid right-wing panic about an imminent "Islamofascist" occupation of the Mall of America, or what have you (a panic that reproduces the same hysterical discursive contours that suffused the various bomb building civil liberty smashing "Red Scares" the parents of the current conservative crowd were catastrophically cheerleading for the latter half of the twentieth century). Greenwald writes:
Every now and then, it is worth noting that substantial portions of the right-wing political movement in the United States -- the Pajamas Media/right-wing-blogosphere/Fox News/Michelle Malkin/Rush-Limbaugh-listener strain -- actually believe that Islamists are going to take over the U.S. and impose sharia law on all of us…. This is an actual fear that they have -- not a theoretical fear but one that is pressing, urgent, at the forefront of their worldview.

And their key political beliefs -- from Iraq to Iran to executive power and surveillance theories at home -- are animated by the belief that all of this is going to happen. The Republican presidential primary is, for much of the "base," a search for who will be the toughest and strongest in protecting us from the Islamic invasion -- a term that is not figurative or symbolic, but literal: the formidable effort by Islamic radicals to invade the U.S. and take over our institutions and dismantle our government and force us to submit to Islamic rule or else be killed.

To return to Richard Hofstadter (all this is available in a Wikipedia entry summarizing the piece):
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.

What strikes me as particularly relevant here is the observation that the paranoid mindset "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician… what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish." Hofstadter describes this repudiation of compromise as a repudiation of the attitude of "the working politician," and this phrasing might seem to suggest that the piece counterposes the paranoid style as a "popular" or "mass" phenomenon as against, say, a more reasonable "professional," "learned," or "elite" attitude.

But it seems to me that the problem of the paranoid form of so much American public discourse is not its anti-professionalism (Karl Rove has been a consummate professional purveyor in and of the paranoid style, for example) but what might be described as a deep anti-politicism or even pre-politicism of the form. In a proper democracy every citizen is a "working politician," and the embrace of an attitude of compromise in the face of the contending aspirations of the diversity of peers with whom we all share the world defines the inaugural insight that leads us into political consciousness in the first place.

It is no surprise that the "political philosophy" of Carl Schmitt has been so central to the Neoconservative outlook, given the way Schmitt organized his understanding of the political around the foundation of what he described as the "friend/foe" distinction. It is not merely a matter of precious terminological quibbling to insist that Schmitt's "friend/foe" distinction is in fact at the heart of moral life, but that the political imaginary, properly so-called, is organized by the insight that, in Hannah Arendt's words, "Plurality is the law of the earth."

In my view, the instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, and political dimensions of human life each have their own publics, their own ends, and their own reasonable warrants.

And so, the protocols of publication, peer-review, testability, and consensus define the public of instrumental science which facilitates prediction and control. Practices of identification with "insiders" and disidentification with "outsiders" define the more intimate public of moral life which facilitates community, membership, belonging, and the profound sense of emotional and social support. Contingent standards that formally solicit universal assent define the public of ethical judgment (a formal generality of address to the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind," to "posterity," to the "congress of logically possible rational minds," and comparable grandiloquences, typically making recourse to meta-ethical standards like "utility," "autonomy," or "universal right").

The actual force of the morals/ethics distinction in the present day seems to me to be very much a technoconstituted affair, the substance of which derives, for one thing, from our tangible interdependence with radically different communities that seem inassimilable to one another. That is to say, we turn to ethical considerations to cope with our sense of planetary multiculture, a sense resulting in no small part from our immersion in planetary digital networked media, a sense that is especially amplified by the emerging awareness of environmental crises. For another thing, our turn to ethics derives from our inevitable interpellation into multiple, partial, usually somewhat incompatible moral communities that demand ongoing negotiation and reconciliation through recourse to the generality of ethical judgment. This fragmentation of ready-made moral identification likewise arises in large part in my view from our immersion in planetary digital networked media.

It is crucial to insist, however, that whatever the inevitability and indispensability of these turns to the generality of ethical considerations, this does not eliminate the equally inevitable and indispensable edifications of our more parochial moral lives. The one does not supercede the other, the terms of the one cannot be reduced to the terms of the other, the value of the one is subservient to the other only on a case to case basis and never in a generalizable way.

All this matters when we turn to political life and to its distinctive public sphere. For me, politics is the ongoing opportunistic reconciliation of variously contending and collective aspirations in a finite world shared by a plurality of stakeholders or peers. The democratic idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them yields different politics (politics that happen to be my own) than the brutal politics of a slave society organized to frustrate and respond to the permanent possibility of revolt or the politics of cynical incumbent elites in notionally representative societies that manipulate mass media to "manufacture consent" to their practices of exploitation -- but each of these attitudes is a political one, a response to the same awareness of a promising and dangerous political plurality, producing its own calculus, generating unique experiences, and so on.

The paranoid style of American politics delineated by Hofstadter's piece, and echoing down through the epoch of Movement Conservatism into the mass-panic of the "Black Helicopter" crowd, the NAFTA superhighway conspiracists, and the racist apocaloids who rave about rampant "Islamofascism" and a "Clash of Civilizations," seems to me finally not to be a proper "politics" at all, but the amplification of moral considerations and forms into a disastrous substitute for political consciousness.

It is precisely when the parochial forms of moral identification ("we"s which depend, remember, on the conjuration of "they"s, on what are called "constitutive outsides," for their own intelligibility and force) aspire to encompass the field of plurality that one is driven to "see social conflict [not] as something to be mediated and compromised… [but as] always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, [where] what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish."

Digby's observation that Movement Conservatives seem to oscillate between episodes of a rather unhinged and conspiracist anti-government hostility and episodes of utterly docile authoritarian government-worship, depending on whichever partisan faction seems to hold the reins of government (and especially the sovereign-parent figure inhabiting the White House), does not describe -- as it may initially appear to do -- a perplexing inconsistency but perfectly symptomizes the seamless moralizing logic that drives the anti-political and pre-political "politics" of Movement Conservatism.

Each attitude expresses the same parochial panic in the face of an ineradical plurality of peers, and the extraordinary vulnerability inhering in the fact of that plurality (the unpredictability of outcome of all human action, the permanent possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication, exposure, humiliation, betrayal, and so on), the same turn to the reassurances of membership, the authority of canon and custom, the easy legibility of conformity.

Just as I insisted earlier on that the substance of the lived demarcation of moral and ethical life in the present day is conspicuously technoconstituted, it seems to me that the deep confusions occasioned by rapid contemporary technoscientific change -- the undermining of traditional justificatory frameworks by the networked encounter with planetary multiculture, the crisis of human agency rendered at once seemingly impotent and omnipotent by the specters of climate change and WMD on the one hand and genetic and "enhancement" medicine and cyberspatial ecstasy on the other -- also contribute to the re-eruption of pre-political forms onto the scene of planetary politics.

Be that as it may, I think that what is most important for us to realize in all this is that the extremism, the absolutism, and the palpable craziness of belief that inevitably draw our attention when we contemplate the paranoid style of Movement Conservatism are not themselves the key to understanding what is afoot and what is at stake in these curious and furious phenomena, but that they are surface features expressing the underlying logic of a moralizing perversion of political consciousness.

1 comment:

jfehlinger said...

> [T]he extremism, the absolutism. . . of Movement Conservatism. . .
> are surface features expressing the underlying logic of a moralizing
> perversion of political consciousness.

Those who give a very high priority to Moral Strength see it,
of course, as a form of idealism. The metaphor of Moral Strength
sees the world in terms of a war of good against the forces of
evil, which must be fought ruthlessly. Ruthless behavior in
the name of the good fight is thus seen as justified. Moreover,
the metaphor entails that one cannot respect the views of
one's adversary: evil does not deserve respect, it deserves
to be attacked!

The metaphor of Moral Strength thus imposes a strict us-them moral
dichotomy. It reifies evil as the force that moral strength is
needed to counter. Evil must be fought. You do not empathize
with evil, nor do you accord evil some truth of its own. You
just fight it.
George Lakoff, _Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think_,
Chapter 5 "Strict Father Morality", pp. 73-74

Strict Father morality requires that four conditions on the
human mind and human behavior must be met:

1. Absolute categorization: Everything is either in or out
of a category.

2. Literality: All moral rules must be literal.

3. Perfect communication: The hearer receives exactly the same
meaning as the speaker intends to communicate.

4. Folk behaviorism: According to human nature, people
normally act effectively to get rewards and avoid punishments.

Cognitive science has shown that all of these are false.
The human mind simply does not work this way. And it's not
that these principles are off by a little. They are all
massively false.
George Lakoff, _Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think_,
Chapter 22 "The Human Mind", pp. 369-370

Public political discourse is so impoverished at present that
it cannot accommodate most of what we have been discussing here.
It has no adequate moral vocabulary, no adequate analysis of our
moral conceptual systems, no way to sensibly discuss the link
between the family, morality, and politics -- and no way to
provide an understanding of why conservatives and liberals
have the positions they have.

But the problem with public discourse is even deeper than that.
Suppose the central theses of this book are correct, namely:

- Political policies are derived from family-based moralities.

- Those family-based moralities are largely constructed from
unconscious conceptual metaphors.

- Understanding political positions requires understanding how
they fit family-based moralities.

Conservative and liberal political positions are impossible to
compare on an issue-by-issue basis. Instead, understanding a
political position on an issue requires fitting it into an
unconscious matrix of family-based morality. The positions
are impossible to compare because they presuppose opposite moral

There are no neutral concepts and no neutral language for expressing
political positions within a moral context. Conservatives have
developed their own partisan moral-political concepts and partisan
moral-political language. Liberals have not. The best that
can be done for the sake of a balanced discourse is to develop
a meta-language -- a language about the concepts and language
used in morality and politics.

These theses are inconsistent with the very format of news
reporting and political discussion in the media. They are
also inconsistent with traditional liberal assumptions about
political discourse. . .

[N]ews reporting assumes that concepts are literal and nonpartisan.
But concepts, and the language that expresses them, are typically
partisan, especially in the moral and political spheres. . .

[I]t is assumed that the use of language is neutral, that words
are just arbitrary labels for literal ideas. But in morality
and politics, that is rarely true. Language is associated with
a conceptual system. . .

[N]ews reporting is issue-oriented, as if political issues could
be isolated from the moral matrix in which they are embedded.
But political issues are rarely, if ever, isolable from their
moral matrix. . .

[I]t is assumed by the news media that all viewers, listeners, or
readers share the same conceptual system. But that is false.
Even the most "objective" reporting is usually done from a
particular worldview, one that is typically unconscious and taken
for granted by the reporter. . .

In short, public discourse as it currently exists is not very
congenial to the discussion of the findings of this study.
Analysis of metaphor and the idea of alternative conceptual
systems are themselves not part of public discourse. Most people
don't even know that they have conceptual systems, much less how
they are structured.
George Lakoff, _Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think_,
Epilogue "Problems for Public Discourse", pp. 384-388