Barbarians at the Gate

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Bush Administration

This bleak but brilliant post by Billmon exemplifies why we bloggers are either the last, best hope of civilization, or the last, best chroniclers of the end of civilization. The post is so rich it’s hard to find any one part to quote. I guess I’ll start here:

There’s something deeper at work here than just conventional media bias or capitalist economics, although they’re certainly part of it. There’s always been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American politics, just as there is in American life. It’s the dark side of democracy: The pressure to accept what the majority, or the most vocal minority, thinks is true as truth – even when the evidence is entirely on the other side. When Henry Ford said history was bunk, he wasn’t taking about the past but about the present, and his ire wasn’t directed at historians per se but at the revisionist historians of the Progressive Era, who were telling him and his fellow know nothings inconvenient facts they didn’t want to hear. Pump Henry full of Hillbilly Heroin and put him on the radio, and you’ve got Rush Limbaugh, still making the same point.

The difference between Ford’s time and Limbaugh’s is that the political presumption against rationality is now shared, or at least pandered to, even at the top of the political and cultural pyramid. It’s curious that people who are paid to think and write for a living, and who, like Gore, attended the “best” schools, are now nearly as susceptible to the politics of ignorance as your average conservative talk show host, but then the elite media ain’t what it used to be. Like academia, it’s fighting a losing rear-guard action against the spirit of the times and the angry, irrational prejudices that go with it.

But even more than academia, the old journalistic bastions of enlightenment liberalism – the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek – are vulnerable to the growing institutional and commercial pressures to tell the customers what they want to hear. And since conservatives are by far the larger and more economically attractive audience, the gravitational pull is perpetually to the right, which these days means the authoritarian right and the artificial reality it prefers to live in.

In other words, even “serious” journalism – and by extension “serious” politics – is no longer a conversation between educated, largely secular elites, with the unwashed masses free to listen in as long as they don’t challenge the wisdom of their socio-economic superiors. The masses are now educated too, not to mention economically empowered. And while this hasn’t made much of a dent in the American tendency towards anti-intellectualism, it means the opinions and prejudices of the populist right can no longer be ignored or segregated in the fringe world of talk radio.

Sometimes we’ve talked about how to get people to understand the dangers we’re facing, assuming that’s possible. I don’t think people necessarily have to be re-programmed in order to “get it.” A glance at Bush’s approval ratings suggests that people are catching on. And “the top of the political and cultural pyramid” certainly has never been free of prejudices and biases. On the other hand, when culture — which includes mass media — explains the world in a certain way or expresses only a limited range of ideas and points of view, it’s a challenge for most people to imagine the world in another way, or to think outside that limited range. Even if their guts are telling them something is wrong with this picture, they are likely to stay stuck in the same ol’ cognitive ruts as long as culture doesn’t show them other options. And they will continue to respond to the same old spin and talking points they’ve been conditioned to accept as truth.

I think Billmon is right about “a conversation between educated, largely secular elites, with the unwashed masses free to listen in as long as they don’t challenge the wisdom of their socio-economic superiors” being the way things used to be, especially before mass media. When you consider that, once upon a time, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures instead of by popular vote, and presidential candidacies were brokered in the old smoke-filled rooms, you’d think we are more democratic today than ever. But it doesn’t do much good to put decisions in the hands of the people when the people are being demagogued and lied to at every turn.

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Brian  •  Jul 10, 2006 @4:32 pm

    Yes, it is a brilliant post.

    It’s true there has “always been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American politics.” However, the past six years are the first in which I’ve seen ignorance widely celebrated as a virtue. In the 80s and 90s, reasoned analysis may have been considered a necessary evil, but at least it was considered necessary. Now, of course, critical thinking and reasoned analysis are no longer a necessary evil but simply a source of evil.

    You, Billmon, and others provide an essential service by stepping into the vacuum created by the MSM’s decision to go into the infotainment business. If a few more Soroses pitch in and help, salvation might be just around the corner.

  2. Neil  •  Jul 10, 2006 @4:48 pm

    From an futurenet.org article, The Great Divide: Prospects for an Integral Culture by Paul Ray:

    “Today, bearers of Traditionalism, the Heartlanders, are 29 percent of the population, or 56 million adults. Bearers of Modernism are 47 percent of the population, or 88 million adults. And Cultural Creatives comprise 24 percent of the adult population, or 44 million.” (http://www.futurenet.org/article.asp?id=1142).

    Traditionalist premoderns are the bulk of keeping it the same. My hypothesis is that a significant portion of the Modernists at 47 million are so busy making a living, raising a family, and/or are lost in cynicism about politics and the country that they are not paying attention.

    This subgroup will also have likely been raised by Traditionalist parents, grandparents, etc. So the impetus is definitely with the status quo, vested or not.

    The article says something has to give in the next two decades because down we are a spirling’. But lets hope the mental, scientific, intellectual Moderns can be shocked with wake-up calls (another Katrina or worse on Gulf Coast or eastern seaboard, water rationing, whatever) and start paying attention.

    Us creative/progressive/liberal folks are not organized enough yet, but I think we will be. Steady on…

  3. Donna  •  Jul 10, 2006 @7:07 pm

    This post is going to sound awfully sexist of me….but I do not mean it to [or write it to] disparage males.

    If we begin to solve the dilemma for males in our culture, we will start off on a much saner footing to address some of the big problems of our day.

    Males really do believe [deep inside themselves] that ‘everything is on their shoulders’, and that they should ‘perform’ and ‘solve’ and ‘take care of’ any problems that arise. Juxtapose that deep internal set of imperatives with the dog-eat-dog competitiveness upon which our socio-economic system is based….and, no surprise, our western-civilization males learn very early to hide from others and themselves any sign of weakness, whether that weakness is physical or emotional or mental. Ask directions if you’re lost? No way. Admit to not having an answer to a problem? No way in hell….

    It is worth a moment to look at how anyone can learn to successfully hide signs of weakness. The most prevalent mechanisms used are 1] to avoid comparisons by sneering at the strengths of others with whom one cannot hope to compete [like dissing those with strong intellects], and 2] to create a personal identification with a sports team or race-car driver or a tough-sounding screen hero or politician or warrior.

    We live in a patriarchy system, and our mostly male ‘leaders’ do not have the strength to let their weaknesses show. In fact, they have been playing this scene this way all their lives, and just keep on shoring up ‘the old image’.

    Sanest way to tackle a big problem is to say, “I don’t know how or what to do, but I care about it and I want to work on it and I hope I can help. Please help me start by teaching me what you can.” The simplicity of that bottom-line beginning for problem-solving is lost in the shuffle/spin of image maintenance for most of our guys, and is particularly absent in the alpha types who succeed as our ‘leaders’.

  4. Swami  •  Jul 10, 2006 @9:39 pm

    If we begin to solve the dilemma for males in our culture, we will start off on a much saner footing to address some of the big problems of our day.

    estrogen treatments?… Seriously, speaking just for myself, I’ve noticed that the older I’ve become and the less testosterone my body produces the more liberal my mind has become..It’s said you mellow out as you go older and I think that’s due to a lower production rate of the male hormone. I’ve experienced that phenomenon of strength through weakness and victory through surrender. That’s one of the reasons I get so frustrated when I hear the clowns in Congress push their “cut and run” bullshit. It’s such a lie and deception that targets the testosterone and by-passes the brains.

  5. erinyes  •  Jul 10, 2006 @9:41 pm

    Interesting analysis, Donna.
    I’m a male, always worked in a competitive testosterone splattered field (pile driving, deep sea diving, Ironwork). The key to my success was to show a bit of weakness (not by design), a little weakness gives peace of mind to the alpha males at the top and exposes the trench fighters laterally and below.
    A little weakness also keeps you grounded, and in such a profession contributes to a longer life. A little weakness gives one balance.
    Oberman had a very interesting show tonight, an interview with John Dean about Dean’s new book, which dove tails nicely with your Post, Maha. Once again, good work!

  6. erinyes  •  Jul 10, 2006 @9:42 pm

    I know what ya mean Swami….

  7. uncledad  •  Jul 10, 2006 @9:45 pm

    Maha,

    I don’t understand:
    “But it doesn’t do much good to put desisions in the hands of the people when the people are being demagogued and lied to at every turn”
    Does this mean the unwashed masses are too stupid to know they are being lied to? You know they are being lied to. I know we are being lied to. Rush knows they are being lied to. Exactly who is the last best hope of civilization, if not civilization itself?

  8. maha  •  Jul 10, 2006 @9:50 pm

    You know they are being lied to. I know we are being lied to.

    Yes, but we’re unusually smart. :-)

  9. freD  •  Jul 10, 2006 @11:49 pm

    “..sanest way to tackle a big problem is to say, “I don’t know how or what to do, but I care about it and I want to work on it and I hope I can help. Please help me start by teaching me what you can.”

    I dunno.. There are as many sane ways to tackle big problems as there are personalities. The problem isn’t with the method used by western civilization males to problem solve, it’s that western civilization makes it easier for sociopathic personalities to hide their particular kind of problem solving (malignant desires and ability to capitalize on them).

    My belief is that the system used to work, a very long time ago, at least with the humans that got to propagate their genes. Billmon’s saying that the dysfunction in the system – problems in the checks and balances which those “gifted” with the most “will to power” can often find and exploit in todays world – is worsening.

    But he failed to mention that the situation in Iraq (and probably damn near everything that results from this administration) may be helping to create a sort of greatest generation dynamic, you know, traditional values AND a healthy skepticism of the powerful. Hopefully not too little too late.

  10. Donna  •  Jul 11, 2006 @8:07 am

    I was not really focused upon hormonal matters in my previous comment. Those essential differences in the sexes due to estrogen and testosterone levels are sooo pleasurable and just… well worth celebrating! I was focused, though, on a particular conditioning of males, conditioning that ties itself into hormonal identity [and may take fuel from hormones], yet is an ‘add-on’.

    If we weren’t in present trouble ignoring problems [like global warming] in a male-dominant system, I suppose I could have written about the western civ. conditioning of [estrogen-rich] females. Many females have been subtly trained to conflate femaleness with ‘feminine wiles’, i.e., add-on behavior which uses certain manipulations to get results: think crying jags, swooning, nagging, overplaying suffering, sex as coin, and so forth.

    If I could re-write my previously posted comment….I would find a better word to use than the word ‘weakness’. There is a strength in being honest about ‘not knowing’ or in simply being clear and forthright about ‘being mistaken’. The French word for ‘not knowing’ is the word ignorance [pronounced eegnoraaance].

    I see a lot of eegnoraaance dangerously masquerading as macho in the neo-cons, the Bushites, and their ilk, and even in some who want to topple them. John Murtha, by contrast, seems, to me, to be an actual strong male in Washington because he’s shown the strength to be truthful at a time when such reality is very unwelcome.

  11. wmr  •  Jul 11, 2006 @12:03 pm

    IMO the basic problem is people who vote based on one issue.

    More intelligent people realize the necessity for trade-offs and compromise. Those who don’t have the time to do the thinking or who have the ideology which makes thinking unnecessary are ruining this country.

  12. freD  •  Jul 11, 2006 @12:41 pm

    I see cultural conditioning as having an influence on most, but is a useful mask for others. I call these “others” manipulators.

    Except for the martyrs, most great leaders have narcissistic qualities. They want to leave behind a legacy of their “greatness.” IMO many of the neocons in power just plain don’t care. If the prevailing culture was more introspective and sensitive, they’d probably try to cultivate that appearance as well. But inside, they’d still be the same. Manipulators.



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