Some months ago, we took our grandson, Luca, to the Museum of Natural History in Denver, and when we brought him back to his house, it had begun to drizzle. His house has the garage and automobile access in the rear, so we faced the question of how to get in. The conversation went something like this:
Grandma: So how are we going to get into your house?
Luca: Open the garage door.
Grandma: But we don’t have a garage door opener.
Luca: (thinking) Walk around and go in the front door.
Me: I have a better idea. Let’s jump up on the roof and dig a hole in the ceiling.
Luca: NOOOOO! (amused and slightly outraged)
Me: Okay, how about if we dig a big hole in the ground and go in through the basement?
Luca: NOOOOO! (outraged and slightly amused)
Me: (pouting) How come no one likes my ideas?
Luca: (exasperated) Because your ideas are no good!
I’ve frequently heard the claim that “right-wing ideas” are dismissed out-of-hand by people on the left. There are, I think, three basic reasons for this.
One is the following, as a reader responded to one of my recent posts:
I am constantly shaking my head at those who dismiss anyone who has a viewpoint other than their own as evil, stupid, ignorant, racist, or what have you, anything that means that their arguments don’t have to be addressed.
That certainly happens. J.M. Greer calls these labels and phrases “thoughtstoppers” — a shorthand notation that cuts off discussion and rational thought alike. One of his favorites is the phrase, “They’ll think of something.” One of my favorites is, “I’m not a scientist.” Both translate roughly as, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m not about to change my opinion. So stop arguing with me.”
A second reason for dismissing right-wing thought, is that a lot of it isn’t to be taken seriously in the first place. As that same reader noted:
When phrases like “Disaster Capitalism” and “media agitprop that passes itself off as ‘conservative'” are used, it appears very similar to me to the mode of thinking of conservatives as cartoon villains cackling to themselves about how they will destroy the world and get away with it while their brainwashed minions dutifully cheer their own demise.
The problem, of course, is that there are cartoon villains out there, specifically paid to be cartoon villains. They each have various internal rationalizations for playing the role, but the most common excuse is, “I’m just doing my job.”
For instance, I’ve heard, from a friend who knows Anne Coulter, that she thinks it’s fun and funny to bait liberals (whom she considers stupid) and watch them foam at the mouth in response to her outlandish statements. It’s certainly plausible; she gets paid well enough for that kind of coarse entertainment. Rush Limbaugh makes his living by raising blood pressures all around the country, and I doubt he believes even half of what he says on the air. Fox “News” has always had direct ties to tabloid journalism, and a lot of its reports belong in exactly the same category as Bigfoot and Bat-Boy.
A lot of “right-wing thought” in the media sphere isn’t thought at all — it’s entertainment. It’s a coarse joke in poor taste.
On the more sinister side, there are recurring reports of CIA and NSA involvement in both mass media and social media: not merely passively spying, but also feeding all kinds of warped opinion and falsehoods into the data streams, designed to shift public opinion as part of an ongoing social-control study and strategy. Facebook has publicly apologized for its own social research and experimentation along these lines. It’s easy and cheap; there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t do this, especially if they thought they were countering the efforts of foreign governments trying to do exactly the same thing. And there is no reason to believe foreign governments aren’t doing this.
How easy is it? One of the simplest methods is the paid Internet troll, which is someone who is paid to post to the comments section of different (targeted) websites to disrupt discussion or move it in a particular direction. It doesn’t take much: a racist comment written in capital letters, a little name-calling, a few bogus factoids, a slogan, a catchphrase, a cluster of similar opinions posted by the same person with different Internet personas. The cruder forms of this are actually automated, like e-mail spam.
My site doesn’t get enough total hits to merit that kind of attention; I know others with more popular sites, who have to moderate their sites relentlessly to weed out the trolls. One author occasionally lets a troll’s message through and then dissects it so that the rest of his readers can see the anatomy of a paid trolling.
Of course, it isn’t just foreign governments and spooks doing this. We also have all of the deliberate lies and misrepresentations put out by politicians, corporate advertising departments, public-relations firms, and “think tanks.” Any popular site that criticizes fracking, for instance, will instantly attract a horde of industry-paid trolls decrying the idiocy of any anti-fracking sentiment. There’s a long tradition of “science deniers” who are specifically paid to publish contrary opinions — and it goes back a lot further than the tobacco lobby.
I remember a purple mimeographed newsletter in the main physics office when I was an undergraduate, placed there by an organization called DOTGU — Defenders Of The Geocentric Universe — and they were proposing a cash award for anyone who could come up with a mathematical justification for their geocentric beliefs. I found myself momentarily tempted by both the cash (I think it was $100, which was a lot of beer in those days) and a mean-spirited Coulteresque contempt for these DOTGU true believers.
I’m glad now that I didn’t sink to the challenge. Starting down that road is one way to lose your soul.
The people who do this kind of paid propaganda work are like paid assassins: though an assassin commits premeditated murder, there is almost always some internal justification based on a “higher calling,” typically some form of laser-focused patriotism or religious conviction. That may be needed to sleep at night after killing people; “I’m just doing my job” is sufficient for lying about the features of a product, or convincing some fool to pay for the extended warranty, or disrupting a discussion about alternatives to fracking. The banality of evil is one of the more horrifying ideas Joss Whedon played with in his brilliant black-comedy horror film, Cabin In The Woods.
Regardless of internal rationalizations about a “higher calling,” paid assassins are still committing premeditated murder. And paid Internet trolls are still warping public discourse with the intent to warp said discourse. From the outside, they look very much like cartoon villains.
The people who fall for their deceptions look, from the outside, a lot like brainwashed minions, cheering their own demise.
For the record, I’ve fallen more than once into the brainwashed minion category myself. These people are very good at what they do, and they make it a bloody, tiring nuisance to stay ahead of them. Some days, you blink.
But there is a third reason right-wing ideas get discarded. It’s because the ideas themselves, as my grandson so aptly pointed out regarding my suggestions for entering his house, are simply no good.
A lot of conservatives seem to think their ideas are new. They aren’t. Most of them are coming around for the second or even third time during my lifetime. A lot of the better ideas have been field-tested, multiple times, and have failed spectacularly in exactly the same way each time they’ve been tried. For instance, Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of economic theory is nothing but a new coat of paint on the laissez faire capitalism of the late 1800’s, and since Uncle Milt’s ideas gained predominance in the 1980’s, we’ve found ourselves playing out the Gilded Age all over again. Big, feathery surprise.
The point being this: a lot of us are already thoroughly familiar with right-wing ideas, and we’ve already concluded — often after considerable thought and research — that the ideas are simply no good.
As a specific example, I’ve personally done due diligence on Social Security, and what I’ve found is that every single right-wing complaint about Social Security, going all the way back to Alf Landon in the 1930’s, is completely bogus: as in, “factually false and logically deceptive.” I’ve yet to meet anyone from the right who understands what the real problem with Social Security is, and yes, there is one. Worse, as with Obamacare, the right wing has absolutely nothing to replace it with, even if their arguments against Social Security held merit, which they don’t.
It’s like someone who says that we need to get rid of water treatment plants, because they make our drinking water purple and sticky. They don’t make the water purple and sticky — furthermore, if we got rid of water treatment plants, what would we do with sewage?
So any time someone trots out one of the right-wing Social-Security-is-Evil tropes, demanding that “right-wing ideas be given a fair hearing,” I just sigh and feel tired inside. No, I don’t listen attentively to each rant about Ponzi scams. Yes, it’s rude of me. I’m sorry for that. But the “discussion” has lost all its charm.
I’d frankly prefer to have a discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness at my door.
There’s another simple fact that needs to be pointed out. Liberal social democracy has held the public imagination since at least the 1930’s. The four competing (modern) Republican ideals of plutocracy, theocracy, empire, and free-market anarchy, are extreme minority opinions at this time.
Part of the right/left split is, in itself, propaganda that declares a false “balance” between right and left. It seeks to erase our public awareness of the overwhelming majority of opinion favoring liberal democratic socialism over the political structures promoted by the right wing.
As a result of this propaganda, most people on the right seem to think that plutocracy merely means a liberal social democracy where anyone can get rich. Or that empire-building involves preaching liberal social democracy until everyone in the world worships the US for its liberal democratic freedoms and decides on their own to emulate us. Or that a theocracy is just an enlightened liberal social democracy where none of that “gay” stuff is going on. Or that free-market anarchy is a liberal social democracy where taxes are low.
If these ideas were anything but fiction, then certainly, we could have a friendly discussion about what flavor of liberal social democracy we wanted. Would we rather be rich or popular? Ooo… tough question.
There’s a series of stories by Jack Chalker from the 1980’s, one of which involves a naughty wizard who escapes from his magical world and ends up in our world, where he uses magic and television to become a televangelist/political demagogue intent on taking over the world for truly depraved purposes. He is thwarted in the end when his opponents slip a Djinn’s bottle into his podium, and tweak his live-broadcast teleprompted speech slightly to read something like, “I wish you could all truly see the future I have planned for you.” The Djinn grants his wish, and a crippling wave of horror and nausea sweeps around the world, ending his political career.
A real plutocracy is a class-driven society. Imperial growth involves relentlessly killing anyone who gets in the way. Theocracy involves enforced religious observance. Free market anarchy is made up of price-fixing cartels and getting cheated regularly in trade with no recourse.
These are all very far removed from a liberal social democracy where people get together for lunch after church on Sunday, work only five days a week, send their kids to school in the fall. If people had a clear idea of how these right-wing ideas work out, there would be no modern Republican Party.
I don’t want to end on that note, because while the right wing has bad ideas, I think their instincts are more or less sound. The government we have is not the government we need, nor the government we want.
Those who support the plutocrats want upward mobility in society. They want the prospect of inventing a better mousetrap and getting rich themselves. It’s a good instinct.
Those who support the empire builders want the nation to be respected internationally. That’s also a good instinct.
Those who support theocracy want a strong ethical core to the nation. I have no quarrel with that.
Those who support the Tea Party believe the government is too big and far too intrusive in our private lives. I fully agree.
These are all sound instincts, worthy of respect. But when it comes to how to address these concerns … holy cow!
Let me pick just one final example to make plain this mismatch of ideals and methods. There’s the Grover Norquist/Tea Party idea of “starving the beast,” which means to shrink the overreach of government by squeezing off its sources of revenue, through lowering taxes.
Why do we want to shrink the government in the first place? It’s because we don’t trust the government to do the right thing with the money they’re collecting. So we cut off tax money, and now we magically expect this untrustworthy government to cut the right things?
Of course, this also ignores the fact that Congress no longer depends on taxes at all. It authorizes the budget, the Fed prints T-Bills to cover the expenses, and taxes simply pay back the T-Bill investors. If there aren’t enough taxes collected, Congress raises the debt ceiling, rolls last year’s debt into this year’s run of T-Bills, and the federal deficit rises. Low taxes simply means a growing federal deficit. Congress doesn’t care: they get to spend the money either way.
Cutting taxes as a way to force an untrustworthy government to clean up its act is like slashing a drug-addicted counterfeiter’s welfare check to “force” him to get clean and take a productive job. It’s every bit as bad an idea as cutting a hole in the roof during a rainstorm to get into the house.
So I’m personally not interested in hearing any more “ideas” from the right wing. They’re terrible at it.
But I’m not opposed to their instincts, which are not so bad.