Monday, June 25, 2018

The Poverty of "Moderation" and "Civility"

The media haven't yet found something to distract them from the horror of Sarah Huckabee Sanders being refused service at a little restaurant in Virginia, and far be it from me to wander away from the fold.

I'd wondered if any of my Facebook friends would have anything to say about it yet, but so far most of them haven't, as far as I've seen.  My Right Wing Acquaintance did not disappoint: he weighed in with a lament about the lack of "civility" in our society today, and the divisiveness we face.  I pointed out that Sanders was treated civilly by the owner of the Red Hen, and that refusing service is not in itself considered incivility by the Right as long as the right people are refused service; in that case, it's objecting to the refusal of service that is uncivil.  I also pointed out a couple of instances of RWA1's own incivility, along with the example of Ronald Reagan: a bigot and recreational liar much like Trump, whose attacks on the poor and other safe targets delighted his base in his day.  We haven't gone beyond that yet.

As for divisiveness, Jon Schwarz tweeted yesterday that the Right "never imagined that their all-out attack on America might one day have the most mild consequences imaginable."  Conservatives have been at war with most of their fellow citizens, sometimes literally, for most of American history.  When Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, tweeted "Breaking up families is repugnant.  But hounding public servants in their private life isn't the right response," among the replies he got were these:

Invoking "consequences" is slippery, though.  It's a popular move on the forced-birth Right, when they say that a woman who has sex needs to take responsibility for the consequences of her sin.  I put it ambiguously there because, though they prefer to forget it, most women who get abortions are married and already mothers.  Just having sex, in their eyes, is the offense for which a woman must be punished.)  It was also popular at the height of the AIDS epidemic: if you engage in dirty sodomitical sex, you must live with the consequences.  They never imagine that their own actions might have consequences that make them uncomfortable.

At the same time, I'm wary of using their own move against them, because it relies on the fallacious assumption that "consequences" are always a natural result of someone's action, rather than something imposed on them by the judgment and choices of others.  (It's a variant of the mind game "See What You Made Me Do," identified by Eric Berne.)  Those who want to impose consequences on Sarah Huckabee Sanders or other Trump team members must remember that they (we) are deciding what the consequences ought to be, and take responsibility for their (our) choices.  I can say, more in anger than in sorrow, that I'm not seeing much of that.

It's like karma, which despite all the caveats and disclaimers, seems always to be invoked for other people.  If I understand the concept correctly -- of course there are many formulations -- it includes not only what other people bring on themselves, but on how we choose to respond to their actions.  If I burn down your house because you're a bad person, I might be an agent of your karma, but I'm also building up bad karma for myself.  One could, I think, make an excellent case that the presidency of Donald Trump is the karma not just of America generally, but also specifically of those Democrats who arrogantly assumed that such a loser could never beat Hillary.

With that in mind, and with considerable fear and trembling, I agree that it's appropriate to put the GOP in the hot seat.  Which doesn't mean I'm approving in advance every sadistic or violent "consequence" liberals and progressives decide is appropriate for the Trump team.  Nor should we forget that Trump and his base will strike back.  That's the trouble with starting a fight: your opponent will hit back.  You need to think about how you'll conduct yourself after that happens, and it seems to me that few people do, especially among those who are nominally on my side.

Still, it's worth remembering that the American Right has been at war, sometimes literally, with most of their fellow citizens for a long, long time.  There are many possible responses to them, but it must be remembered that verbal "combat," even pretty heated, is acceptable.  So are shunning, exclusion, refusing service or fellowship.  I wrote yesterday that if Sarah Huckabee Sanders were starving, I would feed her -- but she's not starving.  If she were homeless and living rough, I would favor giving her shelter and proper clothing -- but she's not homeless; she's all too comfortable.  If Donald Trump were lying in the gutter on fire, I would not piss on him: I would try to put out the flames and call an ambulance -- but he's not (alas?) on fire in the gutter.  I think it's important not to trade in irrelevancies, like mocking people's appearance -- but even if someone did, it's not as bad as separating children from their parents and putting them in cages.  I would deplore fat-shaming Sanders, for example, but I'd still have a sense of proportion in my criticism of the tactic.

And I'm worried about the panicky and yet weirdly complacent irrationality I see among many liberals and progressives, even leftists.  It seems that they feel that Trump's crimes license them to do anything in retaliation, without any bounds.  I've quoted before Walter Kaufmann's paraphrase of Freud, "Not only is the criminal a human being like you, but you, alas, are like the criminal."  I don't have my copy of Without Guilt and Justice at hand now, but that sentence occurs in the context of a discussion of the human impulse to punishment.  The law of talion, "an eye for an eye," not only demands punishment, it limits it: no more than an eye for an eye.  Kaufmann noted that historically and cross-culturally, this limitation has often been needed, that people delight in inventing and executing baroque, sadistic tortures on people as a "consequence," as what they "deserve."  He also critiqued the very concept of "deserving," though not only with regard to punishment.  Given some of the gleeful fantasizing I've been seeing in social media the past few days about what Trump, Sanders, and other people "deserve," I worry about my putative allies' lack of self-awareness and its consequences.  This is not because I believe that we should be nice and give warm fuzzies to the Nazis (the straw man so beloved of many), but because failing to think about what we're doing will result in innocent people getting hurt.  We've had enough collateral damage already, thank you very much.  I can believe all this while rubbing RWA1's nose (figuratively) in the dirt and reminding him that Sanders got (a much milder version of) the same kind of behavior she defends and supports for other people.

It's pointless to squabble about "who started it."  I attack the Right for what they say and do, and I won't let them cast themselves as victims.  At the same time, the Mom's response to "He started it!" is "And I'm ending it."  We also need to think about ending this.  We won't get a better society merely by punishing, trampling, humiliating the Right.  Again, this has nothing to do with warm fuzzies, though there's nothing wrong with warm fuzzies per se: the point is that punishing and humiliating your enemy won't work.  You just get a punished, humiliated enemy who will plot revenge, waiting until your back is turned to restart the fight.  (Paradigm cases: the US Civil War and World War I.)  It's even open to question whether humiliating your enemy will make you feel better in the long run.  But leave feelings out of it -- the real challenge is how to end a conflict without just setting up the pieces for the defeated enemy's payback game.

I also remember that any pushback against our not-so-Shadowy Overlords is unacceptable to them and their lackeys.  Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic is busy chiding the uncivil on Twitter right now: "If civility were more highly valued in our political culture Donald Trump would not be president. If it becomes significantly less valued in the next two years he is a shoe-in [sic] for reelection."  When challenged he replied "on the 'civility works better' side I cite Ghandi [sic] and MLK and Nixon’s re-election. What would you cite for 'incivility gets it done'?"

Friedersdorf is conveniently confusing civility with an avoidance of conflict. Civility is how you handle conflict.  Granted, the Civility Police prefer it that our rulers never face repercussions or any kind of pushback at all, but they shouldn't get their way.  He's also buying into the confusion of moderation of tone with moderation of substance, which is beloved of apologists for harmful policies. E.g., it's okay to kill children with drones as long as you do it politely as Obama did, not nastily like Trump does. Since Friedersdorf's a Christian, he should remember a saying that goes "Because you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth." Or look at MLK's remarks about extremism in the letter from Birmingham jail, addressing white moderates who sounded a lot like Friedersdorf does today.

His citation of Gandhi (why is that name so difficult for many people to spell, by the way?) and King is actually absurd. Both men were radical troublemakers whose activism was seen as extremely uncivil by the nice, moderate public servants they opposed and by their servants in the media.  The civil disobedience King practiced was deplored by reasonable moderates while he lived -- I mean, the sit-ins, interfering with Bidness, so extreme and uncivil!  I feel sure that if he'd been active then, Friedersdorf would have lectured him on it.  King embraced the label of "extremist" in his letter from the Birmingham jail, and his rhetoric there, while free of "fuck" and "cunt," was anything but conciliatory.  It's only in retrospect, with considerable deliberate amnesia, that King and Gandhi can possibly seen as "civil" by Friedersdorf's standards.  It might be possible to make a good argument against the Red Hen owner's ejection of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but so far I haven't seen one.