Saturday, November 06, 2010


Lambert beat me to the most amusing line from Bob Somerby's post election take-down, but there is a lot more to the Incomparable One's analysis than the snark about limbic brains.

What Bob is doing is unpacking the cultural Stevensonian shorthand of "dumb racists" and demonstrating why this narrative does not play in Peoria - Shop of Fools. Focusing on how the phrase "take our country back" is used and abused by various political actors, Bob says:
[Former Pennsylvania governor Ed] Rendell wants to take our country back already! He wants to take it back so much, he voiced the desire three times.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with what Rendell said. This is standard political talk—so standard that it formed the title of one of Dean’s books. But when Robinson hears this language from the other side, he types a hackneyed column, using mumble-mouthed formulations to advance the one political claim modern liberals know how to advance. Is this as dumb as what Bachmann did when she spoke with Cooper on Wednesday? That would be a matter of judgment. But in our view, it reflects the paucity of actual politics in the burgeoning liberal world. This lack of real politics also appeared when Collins blathered at Maddow.

Is race “playing a role” in opposition to Obama? Presumably yes, it is. But Robinson offered a hackneyed approach to this problem, a mind-reading approach which is hard to defend. He found a way to impute this ugliest charge in American politics to everyone in the Tea Party movement; he did so on a day when an electorate which was 78 percent white was heading out to vote. Of course, people should challenge racial animus where such animus can be shown to exist. But for much of the pseudo-liberal world, claims that the other tribe is a gang of racists is a substitute for effective political thought.
Somerby does not give an inch on the political rhetoric and objectives of the Right - they are dangerous to the nation - but he hammers away at the vacuity and self-defeating reductionism of the cognoscenti of the Left. This is, of course, the pattern of argumentation that was used in the 2008 primaries, something those of us who never developed a taste for Obama's brand of koolaid endured for months. We tried to talk about policy stances and were dismissed as racists. This might be an effective strategy within the tribe, where you can bully and shame people with that accusation, get them on the defensive to try to demonstrate they are not, and then offer them the easy way to "prove" their anti-racist credentials - vote for The Precious. This doesn't play in Peoria.

Somerby provides a excerpt of an exchange between Keith Olbermann and Janeane Garofalo, where Garofalo actually tries to argue there is something physiologically damaged about "tea-bagging rednecks" (emphasis in original):
GAROFALO: They don’t know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. That is nothing but a bunch of tea-bagging rednecks. And there is no way around that. And, you know, you can tell these types of right-wingers anything and they’ll believe it, except the truth. You tell them the truth and they become—it’s like showing Frankenstein’s monster fire. They become confused, angry, highly volatile.

That guy caused in them feelings they don’t know because of their limbic brain— We’ve discussed before, the limbic brain inside a right-winger or Republican or conservative or your average white power activist, the limbic brain is much larger in their head space than in a reasonable person. And it is pushing against the frontal lobe. So their synapses are misfiring.
I'm reminded of the news article passed around a few years about the ability (or lack thereof) of a person to handle ambiguity, and that people of more conservative political beliefs were less able to deal with ambiguity.This was seized upon by the blogosphere to prove that we enlightened lefties were inherently smarter than those benighted righties. I commented at the time (sorry, too lazy to go find my post) that one could hold a liberal position yet be rigid and inflexible in your thinking, and end up being just as incapable of dealing with change or even reality. Bob Somerby has been documenting this fact for well over a decade.

Let's look at the structure of Garafalo's argument:  Person X has a physical trait or characteristic that prevents that person from exercising faculties of rational thought and thus I am justified in ascribing to that person the following intellectual shortcomings. This is the structure of the argument that undergirds racism itself and is also the foundation of most misogyny. People with female genitalia are inherently weaker/dumber/more emotional/less logical/inferior to those with male genitalia. People with darker skin tones are inherently dumber/lazier/less logical/more bestial/inferior to those with lighter skin tones. People with large limbic brains are inherently dumber/less logical/more emotional/ inferior to those with with smaller limbic brains. Bob sums up the political problem of this kind of argument very nicely:
Liberals love calling the other side racists; it often seems like the only political play we know. But just how smart was Robinson’s column—on the merits, on the politics? This poses a challenge to all progressives: Can you see the dumbness which may prevail on your side? Or are we so in love with our tribal screams that we too will drive our nation into the sea, meeting the criminal dumbness of the Bachmanns with dumbness which comes from our own?

Final point: Garofalo’s performance came eighteen months before those rednecks with the limbic brain problems kicked the ass of the people with all the smarts.
If you have convinced yourself that your opponent or rival is unable to be won over to your side, then you don't need to take them seriously or change your own approach to provide an appealing argument. Beating the other side up to reinforce your own feelings of superiority may be emotionally satisfying, but if your bogey monster is the constituency you need to win over, you're headed for an unhappy time at the ballot box. This birngs us to the end of Somerby's argument:
Ask a Tea Partyer and they’ll tell you who they think they’re taking their country back from:

They’re taking their country back from the unions; from the trial lawyers; from the gun-grabbers; from the liberal elitists. They’re taking it back from the people who want to redistribute the wealth. None of that may float Robinson’s boat—it certainly doesn’t float ours. But when Robinson can’t even figure out what these people would say, he seems to say something about himself. He seems to say that he doesn’t know the first thing about our politics.

He’s so tribal he can’t even guess what The Others would say.
If you refuse to coldly analyze the actual language of your prospective constituency, let alone unpack it to get to the true fears and concerns underneath, you are not going to change the terms of the debate because you haven't a clue of what the real terms are. In the absence of political realism, you are left trying to read the shape of skulls around you because you don't know what is going on inside their brains.


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