Sunday, August 9, 2015


Two quotes about campaigns for President of the United States. One from now:

The most common type [of Trump fan] said she respects Donald Trump because he’s willing to say what he really thinks without being afraid of offending people. “He doesn’t know what ‘PC’ means,” one man told me. Of course, “willing to say what he really thinks without being afraid of offending people” actually means “willing to say what I think while offending people I don’t like.” I consider this type of fan, let's call them Trump Type I fans, to be more superficial: they are into Trump because he violates social taboos but not their own political sensibilities.
Elspeth Reeve “This 22-Year-Old Really, Really, Really Wants Donald Trump to Be Our Next President” The New Republic, 1 July, 2015
And one from a little while back:
94.3 percent of the time Obama never really tells the audiences anything uncomfortable though he boasts that he will 100 percent of the time. What he promises them instead is to tell people they don’t like (auto executives and Wall Street fat cats) what THOSE GROUPS don’t want to hear.
John Dickerson “Obama’s Closing Argument” Slate Magazine, 21 April, 2008
Despite what we may have learned (or ignored) in Social Studies classes while growing up, the United States has never really been a land of universal opportunity. Rather, there was a sort of trade-off. Generally speaking, the American “mainstream” (a somewhat nebulous group of people, the boundaries of which have shifted over the years) have enjoyed a certain level of prosperity, advantage and sometimes privilege at the direct expense of some other segment(s) of the American population. And not only has this trade-off, and the fact that it has shifted between being unspoken of on the one hand and actively denied on the other, sparked certain resentments between different demographics, changes to the trade-off also sparked resentments. While they aren’t always correct in their assessment of who’s receiving what at whose expense, Americans are always on the lookout for, and angry about, situations in which they are left holding the bag for someone else’s benefits. And, often times, susceptible to viewing being unable to saddle someone else with their own bills as holding the bag.

The myriad petty resentments of our divided society have long left clear openings for politicians to stump for votes by giving voice to those resentments, and promising to redress them by inverting the hierarchy of bullying that everyone demands to see themselves at the base of. And, as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t an indictment of political process or politically active people; it’s simply a reality of politics in general. Which has, on occasion, left me open to charges of “false equivalence.” I tend to have little respect for the term, which often strikes me as little more than a seemingly erudite way of claiming that “only the other side does bad things,” but, given that, I understand the nature of the complaint. Americans are often perfectly willing to describe the United States as populated by a petty and resentful people - so long as a carve-out is made for themselves, people like them and people they like; and the charge of creating a false equivalence between groups is often triggered by a refusal to make such a carve-out.

For me, the value in avoiding such rationalizations is that it forces all of us to look at the dysfunction in our society as something other than anyone else’s fault. Not that we each need to own every possible flaw that we bring to the table, but when we note that politicians commonly return to the well of promising some or another amount of payback or “othering” their rivals (and sometimes by extension, sometimes directly, the people who vote for them) for minor grievances, it may be worthwhile to understand the underlying dynamic at work, and our own parts in it.
The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward.
Finley Peter Dunne, writing as  “Mr. Dooley” (with some editing for clarity). “Observations by Mr. Dooley
Mr. Dunne's words have gone from a dig at the hypocrisy and self-importance of journalism to being an organizing principle of social justice; with people invoking the idea that religion, art and even journalism have an obligation to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But to the degree that we often view our undeserved (natch) afflictions as a direct result of the undeserved comforts of others, afflicting those we dislike becomes a means of redressing unfairness. Indeed, for some there is no comforting of the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable.

And so we wind up with political figures able to drive popularity for themselves by appealing to our sense of grievance with those we see (correctly or not) as more comfortable than ourselves. And we view this as noble, honest and brave while we wait for those we disagree with to have their come to religion moment, and understand how wrong they are. In the meantime, we wedge ourselves further apart, while wondering why we can’t work together.

No comments: