Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

11/30/2008 (11:31 pm)

Slander Gene?

I’m frequently appalled at what passes for analysis on the left, so I guess Neal Gabler’s unbelievably vapid analysis at the Los Angeles Times, claiming that conservatism was really started by Joe McCarthy, and that what we’re seeing from conservatism is a “McCarthyism Gene,” is no real suprise.

As political science, Gabler’s article is simply incoherent. He liberally switches between “republican” and “conservative” in his descriptions of his targets, but really means neither; when he’s done staggering from pillar to post, he arrives leaning on the pillar of “paranoia in American politics” — the tactic of winning elections by scaring people.

If his criteria included populism and anti-intellectualism, as he suggests at first (before abandoning those), he’s on good ground connecting Ronald Reagan to Joe McCarthy; both led populist movements that were rejected by Washington elites, Reagan with greater success. But surely he understands that those are not sufficient criteria to define a political movement, doesn’t he?

“Use of scare tactics” is hardly a more robust criterion. By the time he lands on “scare tactics” as the common thread of conservatism (or is it Republicanism?) he’s tied McCarthy to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin.

He accuses Nixon of “fueling resentments as McCarthy had,” without a single word explaining who resented what, or for what reason. It’s a meaningless assertion. Nixon probably won the 1968 election because the Democrats were hobbled by the Vietnam war and by the riots at the Democratic convention; the Democrats’ position that year was not very different from the Republicans’ position this year. He won the 1972 election because George McGovern was a blithering idiot and everybody knew it; nobody expected McGovern to win, and nobody really wanted to run against Nixon.

His sole reason for including George H.W. Bush in the list is the Willie Horton campaign ad, which was hardly the reason Bush was elected; he won because he was a Republican following one of the most popular Presidents in modern history. Michael Dukakis was an unapologetic liberal in an era where the American people identified “liberal” with social policies they detested. The elevation of the Horton ad to the role of chief identifying mark of Republicanism, ignoring every other factor in the election, strikes me as nothing but convenient cherry-picking (I would have said the same about his assertions about Nixon, except that there were not any cherries for him to pick, so he simply asserts his point without support of any kind.)

The anti-intellectual political science continues with George W. Bush. He includes George W. Bush in the list because of his success in tarnishing John Kerry’s war record, skipping right over the 2000 election because it does not fit his narrative. It’s to no avail. Tarnishing Kerry’s record is not even anything George W. Bush did. The Swiftboat Veterans for Truth were a private organization who advertised in only 3 states, and their message was carried by talk radio and the blogosphere, not by the Bush campaign. Ultimately, though, Kerry’s dishonor on this topic is the fault of John Kerry, who acted as the public face for the military anti-war movement in the 1970s, complete with false accusations of military atrocities. The opposition of Vietnam veterans to the Kerry candidacy was the most predictable political event of my lifetime, and to blame this on Karl Rove (who probably was not even involved in it) is the worst sort of infantile whining.

Palin, finally, earns inclusion in Gabler’s Hall of Shame merely by insisting that the link between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama contains relevant information. Readers of this blog know that that link goes a lot deeper than anything Sarah Palin said about it, and that Barack Obama cannot be defended as anything but a wholehearted neo-Stalinist who has adopted centrist policies just within the last 2 years in order deceive the public and win an election; readers who are new here should begin here, here, and here for background information. Be that as it may, however, one finds it hard to imagine that Gabler could possibly be serious when claiming that simply thinking the Ayers connection is important constitutes the primary criterion linking all conservatives — except, he really is serious.

This is truly the ultimate in slander politics; the mere mention of a negative characteristic of liberalism makes one a “conservative,” and thus a “genetic McCarthyite.” It’s political science without any attempt to assemble relevant facts. There’s no rebuttal for this level of silliness; one simply shrugs one’s shoulders and mutters, “Whatever.”

Absent from this analysis, of course, is any consideration of whether there’s anything to be scared of, or (to put the matter more objectively) any problem to be taken seriously. He simply asserts indirectly, without even making a positive claim, that everybody knows there were no communists in US government, that the Soviet Union was not an Evil Empire, and that radical Islam is not a real threat. He’s provably wrong on all points. The Venona project has settled the question of whether there were communist plants in the US government; we now know there were hundreds, and beyond that, McCarthy’s primary claim was simply that government personnel policies were irresponsible, which they provably were. The millions killed in the Gulag, and the murderous communist revolutions around the world that ceased for some reason after the fall of the Soviet Union (odd coincidence, that) stand as testimony to the evil of the Soviets, and their collapse vindicates Reagan’s policies. I’ve already pointed out that Kerry has nobody to blame for the reaction of Vietnam veterans aside from himself, and that Palin actually had a point about Obama.

Of course, it’s pretty difficult to listen to complaints about a proclivity for “scare tactics” or the “politics of resentment” from the political party whose most successful theme for the past two decades has been “soak the rich,” that has the government buying up the banking industry over an imminent credit freeze that nobody seems to be able to substantiate, that wants to turn American productive capacity over to a central economic planning organization in order to prevent a global warming crisis that is increasingly imaginary, or that insisted on electing a man with an empty resume’ on the dubious thesis that the only opposition to such a candidate arose from a sort of racism that the US has not exhibited since the 1960s. If Joe McCarthy were, in fact, guilty of scaremongering over a chimera (he’s not), his most direct political descendants would be Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barney Frank, not Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. I suppose Gabler excludes Gore and Frank because leftist intellectuals, for no reason having anything to do with facts, still think they’re right about a few things. It’s not a great reason.

I do think Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin have in common that they announced reason to be cautious and take sane measures against real threats. I think Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Barney Frank have in common their cynical opportunism based on illusory threats. But I don’t think any sound political science could associate them on this basis alone. This is the stuff of bad freshman Poli Sci papers, the kind that earn the sea of red ink in which they invariably swim.

If Gabler wants a genuine recent instance of an anti-elite populist, he should visit Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions project. The only problem is that Gabler would then have to admit that America really is a center-right nation; Gingrich produces copious polling data suggesting that politicians could easily draw 70% or more popular support on nearly any political subject by adopting a center-right policy line. His “Drill Here, Drill Now” theme (yes, that came from Gingrich, not from Michael Steele) arose from the poll suggesting that more than 70% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, think it makes good sense for the US to develop its own internal oil sources.

In the end, Gabler’s “analysis” amounts to an unthinking, whining complaint about how unfair it is that when Republicans are on message, the American people find what he calls “liberalism” abhorrent. He’s disturbed that so many people think he supports policies that are just, plain bad policies. Tough. They’re bad policies nonetheless, and if saying so makes me a “genetic McCarthyite,” then I’ll be one proudly. Only, of course, it doesn’t; it just makes me Gabler’s political opponent, somebody he’s more comfortable calling names than he is engaging in anything resembling cogent discussion.

The impulse to character assassination of this sort does, in fact, run in political parties; only, he’s got the wrong party. Character assassination is the singular, unifying theme of every Democratic party initiative of the past 70 years; it’s the only thing they do well. Just ask Joe McCarthy. Or Dan Quayle, Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin…

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December 1, 2008 @ 3:17 am #

Slander is not a gene for the leftists. It is a tactic — a tool. As your last paragraph reminds us, it has been an effective one for them for a long time.

I think conservatives make a big mistake when they take the apparent looniness of leftists, as in this case with Gabler, as a perverse flaw of intelligence. “Crazy like a fox” comes to mind.

In the same vein, the left’s apparently vapid criticism of Bush for the last eight years was not a failure of intellect. It was a success of political warfare. In trashing Bush during many years, they trashed the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. Perhaps they didn’t move a lot of voters with this tactic. But every little bit helped. Was the left’s trashing of Bush dumb? Only if it’s dumb to win elections.

Was it anti-intellectual? Perhaps. Did the voters care if it was? No, they didn’t.

December 1, 2008 @ 8:09 am #

I think they are also pretty good at projection; complete refusal to take any blame, ever, when they fail; demagoguery; and taking unearned credit when something they vehemently opposed previously turns out to work. And often, they are very capable of using several of these tactics at once.

December 2, 2008 @ 4:44 am #


It’s not that I don’t see the power of the tactic, it’s that so many leftists I know exhibit the honest rage of the True Believer when articulating this sort of drivel. They genuinely believe they’re spouting truth from On High, and they’re morally incensed by it. Sometimes it comes from individuals who are simply too intelligent to be saying such things.

Consequently, to explain how they get there, I have to posit two levels of leftists — a small, influential, top-level group that understands the tactics and cynically generates the sound bites, and a mass of lower-level drones who take the sound bites and recite them. This almost seems too conspiratorial a system to believe, but I can’t explain it any other way. Is it possible that the guys who cynically generate the phrases actually come to believe them in time, and forget that they cleverly invented them to gain effect?

The drones are morally culpable for reciting drivel, because a lot of them are too intelligent to excuse, and should be completely capable of discerning errors for themselves. There has to be some powerful psychological process going on that makes them willing to operate using sound bites in place of thoughts, and willing to call that mindless process a superior mode of thought.

I’m thinking about a very close relative of mine here. He’s probably got an IQ around 150, or did when we were in high school, anyhow. Yet, I’ve heard the most incredibly vapid things coming out of his mouth — things that he claims he thought of himself, and thinks are profound. I remember how shocked I was when I heard him explain to me — completely sincerely — that he knew Ronald Reagan was an habitual liar, because Reagan was an actor, and actors make their living by lying. It turns out he was talking about the concept of marketing creating mental images that are unrelated to the characteristics of the product (like attributing sex appeal to pineapple,) but when I explained it to him as a marketing concept, his response was “at least you see what’s going on,” as though I was somehow deficient in not making the “actor” connection — and as if by explaining the concept, I agreed that Reagan was doing it. That was in the 1980s, and his political opinions have been increasingly empty of anything resembling reason ever since. He thinks in leftist sound bites. It’s pretty scary.

So, RL — do you think they actually know they’re engaging in a tactic? Honestly, I don’t think most of them do. I think most of them think what they’re doing is engaging in cogent intellectual discussion, incredibly enough. I think there are a few at the top who know what they’re doing, and I think they hold their own echo chamber in genuine contempt for the fools they are. I find this almost too incredible to believe, and I’m eager to find a better explanation for intelligent folks reciting sheer nonsense, word-for-word, unthinking, but asserting that they all know the tactic doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

December 2, 2008 @ 1:35 pm #

Phil, actually I didn’t disagree with your post. My comment was more a “yes, but in addition …” sort of thing. As you do, I hypothesize that there are some lefties at the top who know what they are doing and many at the bottom who are reciting nonsense.

As you do, I recoil from the word “conspiracy.” Part of the reason for me is that people who go on about conspiracies are usually marginalized from the get-go, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. But I also think we have a problem with the word “conspiracy” because it is usually associated with illegal activities. And we’re not talking about the left doing illegal things, necessarily. So we hesitate to use the word “conspiracy.” (Ironically, and as a matter of ideology, many people on the left are not bound by such considerations of ends and means.)

Anyhow, perhaps we could hypothesize that leftists at the top are acting in a way that is knowingly, collaboratively, cynically, dishonestly, and very usefully manipulative. That avoids that nasty conspiracy word. Next question is: how do we test the hypothesis?

You mentioned your 4-sigma friend who was convinced Reagan was a liar. Perhaps your friend had first been convinced on an emotional level that Reagan was evil. Then it would have been easy for him to believe any sort of nonsense about the man.

So I think it is important to confront untruth with honesty, with facts and data, and with sound, dispassionate analysis. There is no substitute for this, and it must be done. But here’s my working assumption: Many, perhaps most, people of the left will be unmoved by honesty, facts, analysis, etc., etc. Some are dupes, some don’t care, some are emotionally or financially invested, some are immature, and some are cynically dishonest.

December 2, 2008 @ 2:19 pm #

Hey, RL,

I didn’t think you were disagreeing, and I hope you didn’t take my questions to you as confrontation. I’m really trying to figure this out, and it’s puzzling and very troubling to me.

By the way, the issue wasn’t that my friend thought Reagan was a liar. It was that he thought Reagan was a liar because he was an actor. Reagan did lie to us a few times, but it had nothing to do with his having worked as an actor. Yes, I’m sure he was convinced Reagan was evil. The same fellow told me recently that he thought John McCain and Sarah Palin were insane. The circumstances did not permit me to ask why, but that struck me as a remarkable claim. Why “insane?”

Here’s another problem: if the hoi polloi are simply dupes reciting lines they’re fed, how does one graduate to becoming a feeder? If that model is accurate, then at a certain point somebody has to clue them in on the game, and I would expect a common reaction to be dismay and disgust, followed by book-length denunciations. We don’t see many of those. The closest things I’ve read along those lines have been Tammy Bruce’s books (The Death of Right and Wrong and The New Thought Police,) Christina Hoff Sommers’ deconstruction of feminist myth (Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys,) Bernie Goldberg’s Bias, and Harry Stein’s How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace). In all of those cases, there’s no deliberate “feeding” going on; the distortions of fact and research are being produced by highly-placed true believers.

This suggests that there’s really no “fixer” level, but supports instead another notion I hate being associated with: Michael Savage’s thesis, “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.” I genuinely dislike Savage, but I think there’s something to this.

I was actually pondering it this morning, after answering your message at 4 AM (couldn’t sleep. Bleah.) I think the process begins with a conscious decision over some moral issue. There’s something the individual wants to do that’s morally wrong, and he/she can’t justify it without dismissing the moral rule somehow. The process requires a violation of reason, at the end of which the moral rule has been disabled and the desired behavior condoned. The conscious act of eviscerating the moral rule gets buried in the subconscious, where we choose not to remember it. The problem is that the dismissal of reason is cumulative and corrosive, and once it’s been performed on one topic, it spreads to affect others. The end result of a life of sin is not just a complete deterioration of moral sense, but of rational processing as well.

I’m fairly sure the process goes like that. However, it’s too simple. It’s not the case that all sinners are liberals and all saints, conservatives. There are other factors that affect the model.

I’ll let you know when I’ve solved the world. :-P.

December 2, 2008 @ 4:00 pm #

Interesting stuff. Maybe the “progressive” mechanisms that have been put in place are self-perpetuating. Isn’t that the definition of a successful culture? I need to learn more about Gramsci and the “long march through the institutions.”

I also need to do a little introspection. When I was much younger, I was pretty leftish myself. I’ve thought about how I got away from being a liberal, but not thought much about how I got there in the first place.

So, get some sleep. Let us know when you have it all solved. 8>)

December 2, 2008 @ 4:38 pm #

For what it’s worth, I’ve long felt that leftists practice liberalism much as a religion, while conservatives (speaking for myself) see conservatism as a set of beliefs with a rational basis which they try to live by.

These are obviously generalizations. However, I think it partially explains why liberals often get so angry when you disagree politically with them. You are not taking issue with their political positions based on the merits, you are attacking their core belief system.

I had a very interesting conversation in college many, many years ago with a very religious friend. She told me she knew for a fact that when she died she would go to Heaven and be with the Lord. I asked her how she could know such a thing for sure, with absolute certainty. She said, “I just know. If you are a believer, you know this and it is totally clear to you; if you aren’t, you simply can’t understand it. But I know it as surely as I know the sun will come up in the morning.”

I think this is how many liberals view liberalism. If you take issue with their politics, it is almost as if you are challenging the essence of them as a person.

You can tell me we should not have ever gone to Iraq. I may disagree, but I’m not emotionally vested in this; and I’ll listen to you make your case with respect, acknowledge your points when they are valid and agree that reasonable people can disagree on this.

But if you tell most leftists that there was indeed at the very least, a reasonable case to be made for going to Iraq, it is very rare to not get an extremely emotional and heated response. You will generally get no concessions, whatsoever, no how, no way.

Now how it is that they get so vested, that I’ve never really understood. I think part of it is that liberalism simply is easier, and feels better at face value. If gas goes up to $4 per gallon and your 401K drops by 30% in two months, it’s very tempting to simply join the rage at big business and beat your chest that “they should do something to these people”. Now I’m all for accountability, but it goes a little deeper than that and it can be tiring to think it through. Heck, there are times I wouldn’t mind if people absolved me of personal responsibility once in a while.

There is a lot to this topic.

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