Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Politics of Taking It Personal

Anger. There's a lot of it out there, these days, particularly as concerns politics and the Federal elections. One could argue that anger propelled the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, leading to near-historic results in the 2010 mid-terms. One could also posit that anger was the impetus for the OWS movement and its various spin-offs. And I guess, by and large, this is nothing new. Anger has driven various social and political movements--the good and the bad--across history.

In that regard, such anger usually has a target or targets. Most tea party types--that were on board since the get-go--will tell you that the target of their anger was and is expansive government and those entrenched politicians who help it along, who use their political power as personal power, who assume they have a right to the office they hold, even though they hold it in the name of the citizens they supposedly represent. Such politicians--in the minds of tea party folks and others--have been shirking their responsibilities for a long, long time and need to be called out for this, removed from public office, regardless of the letter by their name.

Opponents of the Tea Party will sing a different song: they'll agree that anger is behind the movement, no doubt, but they will insist the target is Barack Obama, alone. According to such people, the Tea Party movement is a thinly disguised reaction to the Presidency of an African American. It conceals racism--whether overt, covert, or subconscious in nature--and is about simple hatred, nothing more. Moreover, many of these opponents will also insist that the Tea Party movement is largely a product of the Religious Right and is under the control of this group, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

When it comes to the OWS movement, the same sort of dichotomy exists: the initial founders of the movement had somewhat clear targets: big money financial firms with political connections who were--in the minds of OWS-types--essentially screwing over the common citizenry. People who thought the whole thing was largely silly--like yours truly--argue that the real targets were the "rich" period, that OWS was simply a populist-spawned class-warfare event, with no real set of policy objectives, with no real set of anything, just pointless raging against "the man," to borrow a term from the past.

There are arguments to be had here, different points of view based on how one sees current conditions and historical ones, and based on ideological assumptions. Still, everyone--I think--can recognize the role of anger in service to a cause.

It's actually another manifestation of anger that I wish to discuss, though I'm not entirely sure how to phrase my description of it. Ever disagree with someone about politics? Of course you have; pretty much everyone--who is at least minimally engaged as a citizen--has had such an argument. Ever get angry during the course of such an argument? I certainly have; political issues can be emotional issues, even personal issues so anger is hardly an unexpected thing.

But how often do you get angry on someone else's behalf? There is--in my opinion--a growing tendency among the most ardent supporters of President Obama to take any perceived slight against the President personally. Say something about the current administration's policies or actions and you are met with not just disagreement, but angry, vitriolic disagreement. And in fact, it's no longer limited to just the ardent supporters; it's spreading like an ugly virus.

Hey, I understand the occasional emotional outburst; I have those, just like everyone else. The current pattern goes way past that, however. For years, we've been told that the divisiveness in Washington was because of the Right; we've been told that long-term GOP politicians were retiring because they couldn't take it anymore, that things had never been this bad before. Personally, I think that's all a bunch of ahistorical nonsense. And demonstrably so. But this interpersonal animosity evidenced by Obama supporters? New thing. Seriously.

Social media plays a role here, I think. All of those mindbogglingly stupid FB pages and posts draw thousands upon thousands of "likes," even when the content is, at best, questionable. But there's also the celebrity status of the President coupled with the fanboy-ish attachment of the media to him; this has created something of a monster, a President who is--for no particular reason--untouchable, who cannot be legitimately questioned or criticized. Taken together, there is a real Cult of Personality at play.

We're seeing this with regard to Libyan attacks: an inept response by the Administration--evidencing the self-destruction of a naive foreign policy--was initially ignored by most of the media. But as that became untenable, the media fanboys switiched gears, acknowledging the specific failure of the response, but downplaying any further ramifications. Active supporters of the President on social media followed suit, almost as if they had been given orders, by quickly steering the criticisms towards Romney.

The lone voices that dared to object were ridiculed, marginalized, and mocked. And this pattern in throughout the entire media pours over into the general discourse of the actual public, particularly among those who believed they are "enlightened" and knowledgeable. With the background of such support, they play the same game in their daily lives, unable to recognize valid criticisms or even the existence of "another side to the story." People who persist in saying negative things about the President consequently have no justification in doing so, thus deserving no respect and getting none.

Thus a disagreement about a specific policy or action becomes personal, it is taken--by these Obama supporters--as an actual insult to their own selves and they naturally respond in kind, or what they think is in kind. It goes something like this:
"Mitt Romney's tax plan is designed to give tax breaks to the rich and raise taxes on the middle class!" 
"No, that's not actually true. That's propaganda being put out by the Obama Campaign. Romney's plan actually calls for a tax cut for the middle class." 
"Bullshit! I read an article by Smart Guy who said the same thing as Obama!" 
"Smart Guy--like Obama--is using a study to make the point, a study that changes Romney's plan. So, it's not Romney's plan, at all. The Obama Campaign's ad is dishonest." 
"You're the dishonest one! I bet you just don't like black people. And you probable believe Obama was born in Kenya and is a communist, right? That's all just a bunch of right-wing lies, attempts to slime the President, who is way smarter than you or Romney or anyone else! Bastard."
Sound familiar? Granted, it's not true of all Obama supporters, probably not even most Obama supporters. But it's true of far too many, in my opinion. Far too many. And it's a dangerous path, that of the Cult of Personality. It creates malleable truths, not subject to objective analysis, but only to emotional response. All disagreements become personal affronts, challenges to one's own dignity, and are therefore undeserving of recognition, much less of a reasoned response.

The spectre of Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps over-invoked, but if there is one aspect of such a dystopian future that should always concern us, it is the transformation of political power into personal power and the means through which this occurs. The un-reasoned idolization of leaders--especially current leaders--is the starting point.

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. Well, some people (*cough*me*cough*) were warning about dangerous signs of the Cult of Personality before the '08 elections :-)
    But I think it is more than that. You see it in the Global Warming debate, for example. "Right Wing" had become an anathema for some people. The "right wing" are evil, and hence, you can safely dismiss their views, their analysis etc. And when your opponent is not just a political opponent, but an evil person, a shill for special interests etc. it is justified to shout him down, insult him and whatnot. And what is even more strange, the same people would never talk this way about real enemies, not just political opponents. And this is not limited to the Left, but since I am somewhat on the right, I see more of it coming from the other side.