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August 17th, 2009


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04:13 pm - Culture Shifts & Manufactured Culture Wars
There's a fair amount far-right nuttiness on-line and in person. From the massively homophobic screed by SF author John Wright to far-right activists shouting about "death panels" at public discussions of healthcare, public discourse in the US has gotten rather more strange and extreme than usual. In reading about both the various incidents and also several excellent analyses of what's going in, I see two patterns.

The first is culture shift. The US has been a fairly comfortable place for social conservative white people for most of the last 30s years. Starting with Ronald Reagan embracing fundamentalism, bigotry, and social conservatism, a great deal of US public rhetoric was quite reassuring to such people. However, underneath all that changes were occurring.

Gay rights received little or no federal recognition, but made slow strides locally, and now we have 6 of 50 states where same-sex marriage is legal, and there are almost certain to be a few more in the next year or two. Also, while racism and especially anti-immigrant rhetoric have been a major aspect of right-wing politics for the last 30 years, the US is now a nation where the percentage of white people is declining and is likely to go below 50% in a few decades . Add to that the fact that the public face of the US government is now a black man, and the world of socially conservative white people has been shaken up quite a bit.

SF author Charles Stross examines the post made by SF author John Wright and maradydd takes a more general look at the attitudes and belief structures of social conservatives in
this excellent post. Both focus on the fact that a moderate percentage of the human population are exceptionally authoritarian in their psychology – some psychologists talk about degrees of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), which is characterized by three traits
  • Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  • Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
  • Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
US right-wingers are naturally far from the only examples of such people, and I've certainly encountered similar people (in admittedly far smaller numbers) on the extremes of the radical left. However, at least in the US, the majority of these people have found there place as socially conservatives.

As psychologist Robert Altemeyer (author of the 2007 book The Authoritarians (and who started writing about RWA in 1981)) wrote
RWA scale scores correlated highest with attitudes against same-sex marriage, abortion, drugs, pornography, women’s equality, unconventional behavior and free speech, and with support for the Patriot Act and America’s “right” to spread democracy by military force.
Unsurprisingly, many of them feel exceedingly threatened by current changes. Since fear seems to play a larger role in the psychology of high-RWA people than in others, this can be especially problematic.

However, the social changes that are now occurring doesn't explain these people gathering to shout about death panels and similar issues. It's worth noting that with the "teabagging" rallies and the "death panel" rallies, the issues involved are all in large part economic. As Dr. Altemeyer points out in the 2nd half of the paragraph that I quote above:
In contrast, the relationships with economic issues (taxation, minimum wage, the public versus private sector, free trade) proved much weaker. The data thus indicate, as do a lot of other findings, that high RWAs are “social conservatives” to a much greater extent that they are “economic conservatives.”
So, what's going on.

Here's an excellent segment by Rachel Maddow about who exactly is behind the various anti-healthcare rallies Unsurprisingly, the answer is the same people who have been behind the Republican party for the last few decades, a small number of exceptionally wealthy people who have found that using the fear of high-RWA people has been an excellent path to maintaining and increasing their own wealth and power. Some of these people are themselves socially conservative high-RWA types, many others are clearly not, they merely find such people to be exceedingly useful tools. What we have is a small group of people pushing for a full-blown Culture War.

Thinking about this leaves me unsurprised, but also puzzled as to what to do. Clearly, the people behind efforts like the anti-healthcare rallies are exceedingly dangerous & evil scum who should be stopped. From my PoV, the best solution would be to find a way to greatly reduce the political and social power of the people pushing the economic conservative agenda by finding a way to separate them from the social conservatives and then wait out the social conservatives – their views are considerably less common among younger people and that fact combined with demographic changes in the US will render them largely powerless in less than 20 years.

However, engaging with high-RWA social conservatives on any point is very difficult for people on the left. While they might not be antithetical on economic policies (failed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee looks like an example of a high-RWA social conservative who was not an extreme economic conservative, which is almost certainly part of what killed his campaign), attitudes like those of SF author John Wright or the various people making exceptionally hostile comments about the Newsweek article about polyamory are quite honestly not particularly subject to change. As Charles Stross and many others have pointed out, arguing with high-RWA social conservatives either accomplishes nothing or serves to further their dedication to their ideals by making them feel embattled, while compromise and negotiation with them on social issues is similarly doomed to failure. Also, such people are not inclined to trust anyone with social attitudes antithetical to their own, which make it very difficult to discredit the right-wing media machine in the eyes of the social conservatives. There should be a way of breaking this manufactured social conservative/economic conservative coalition, but I'm not certain what it is.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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Comments:


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From:maradydd
Date:August 18th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
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This is kinda why I feel like I'm in an interesting place, as a gun-toting liberal who has "separation of corporation and state" as one of her biggest political issues. There are actually a lot of things I agree with conservatives about (horrors!) -- but I've also seen firsthand how a "socialised" health care system can work really, really well, and I can make sound economic arguments for why we should have one. And since I can walk into a conservative space and cherry-pick my discussion topics so that they end up feeling like I'm on their side -- because on some things, I actually am -- it's a little easier for me to speak and not immediately be blown off as one of those frothy-mouthed left-wingers.

I should really do one of my wall-o-text posts sometime soon about what a negative good is, and why the free market doesn't work for negative goods such as health insurance.

Edited at 2009-08-18 12:10 am (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:August 18th, 2009 12:20 am (UTC)
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I should really do one of my wall-o-text posts sometime soon about what a negative good is, and why the free market doesn't work for negative goods such as health insurance.

I'll definitely be interested in seeing it. Your point about negative goods is well made. However, from my PoV at least, a similar problem applies to any scarce immediate necessity of life - the market price of any such good is essentially whatever the seller wishes to demand. That's why I see the "free market" as only being useful for the distribution of luxuries (which is first world culture at least, is thankfully, most goods).
[User Picture]
From:maradydd
Date:August 18th, 2009 01:40 am (UTC)
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It's why I focus my efforts on figuring out how to eliminate scarcity by creating abundance.
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From:kynn
Date:August 18th, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
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From:derekcfpegritz
Date:August 18th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
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There is one and only one way to properly deal with extreme right-wingers: declare them to be enemies of society, round them up, and take them to the "showers." Liberals need to lose this "let's treat everyone with kid gloves because we don't want to offend anyone" and start slamming the Michael Savages and Ann Coulters of the nation up against the wall. Societal change does not need to be violent, but it NEEDS to be firm, dedicated, and--above all--ruthless. This is why conservatives have the advantage in this country: they are not afraid of breaking a few bones and offending a few people. Liberalism needs to adopt that same bloodthirsty hunger--but whereas conservatives hunger for the past, liberals must hunger for the future...an era of change and greater social equality. Equality enforced with an iron fist.

I want to start gathering up fellow-thinking "liberal fascists" together so that we can finally start giving liberalism a cutting edge.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:August 18th, 2009 03:28 am (UTC)
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I wish I disagreed with you more than I do :)
[User Picture]
From:maradydd
Date:August 18th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
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Irony: I had to read this, walk away from the computer, read it again, walk away, &c a couple of times to get over my initial horror, because it honest-to-pete read to me like you were talking about actually rounding people up and offing them. And I'm the one who just posted an enormous pro-RKBA essay. I must really be an anarchist after all. :)

Anyway, now that I'm reading what you're actually saying, I take your point and encourage you to have a read through Altemeyer's book if you haven't done so already. He does a fabulous job of dissecting the perfect storm that a cadre of amoral, authoritarian-minded people bent on social domination to some extent created and to some extent simply took advantage of in the United States.

I understand the weapons they used a bit better now, but understanding them doesn't make me find them any less distasteful or want to use them. The neocons built their empire on suspicion, divisiveness and fear, and they're taking it all the way to the bank. They don't give two shits about all this religion nonsense; the religious right are useful wolves because they have money and vote, gays and PoC are useful because you need something to throw to the wolves every once in a while. And I just don't see how anyone can build a truly tolerant, progressive society on fear.

ETA: not, mind, that I think this is something you want to do -- only that, as the saying goes, you cannot dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. It's going to take a great deal of thought, time and hard work to figure out how to build up a force that can take on a juggernaut of sociopathic authoritarians leading an army of fanatical followers.

But, then, I'm old-fashioned; all I really want is a society where everyone, full stop, is free to live as they choose, love as they choose, and be who they choose, without fear or hatred or want.

Edited at 2009-08-18 04:04 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:August 18th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
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Well said indeed.
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From:siderea
Date:August 18th, 2009 04:40 am (UTC)
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But, then, I'm old-fashioned; all I really want is a society where everyone, full stop, is free to live as they choose, love as they choose, and be who they choose, without fear or hatred or want.

The fundamental problem of civilization -- the very problem to which civilization attempts to be an answer -- is that what some people, even a large number of people, really want, is to be able to prey on their fellows. Total freedom is self-extinguishing.
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From:rjgrady
Date:August 18th, 2009 01:20 pm (UTC)
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The answer is to give the aura of legitamacy to social progressives. That, my dear, is the reason Obama draws so much hostility. He is completely threatening to the status quo. Fromm examined a similar phenomenon in "Escape From Freedom." Hard core teabagger types combine authoritarianism with a low tolerance for cognitive dissonance.
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From:krinndnz
Date:September 1st, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
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That, my dear, is the reason Obama draws so much hostility. He is completely threatening to the status quo.

While I like Mr. Obama, I can't help but ruefully laugh at that statement. He is likely to make America a very slightly more humane empire (notice that there's only token withdrawal from Iraq, escalation in Afghanistan, no substantial reduction in torture, no reduction in worldwide military bases, no prosecution of Bush-era traitors and war criminals - on and on). That is hardly "completely threatening to the status quo." As usual with the right-wing authoritarians, their fever dreams about the dangerous to the status quo are only distantly related to pragmatic reality. Also as usual, I sometimes find myself wishing that milquetoast centrist Democrats actually were the towering, fierce, unstoppable juggernauts of socialism that they're portrayed as. It would be refreshing.
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From:rjgrady
Date:September 1st, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
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Radicalism is not threatening to the status quo because it will not be implemented. Moderate progressism, however, has been known to become law under the right circumstances. Hence, Obama is dangerous. He looks like a regular, centrist, fairly conventional politician, and yet he is not stricken by horror by gay marriage, regulation of key industries, protecting the rights of the accused, and so forth. By the definitions proposed by Red America to define a "Good Ol' American," Obama cannot exist.

Similar phenomena underlie such oddities as Catholic-Baptist hostility, inter-sect violence in the Islamic world, ruthless persecution of the religious-humanist-monarchist flavoured social democratic Tibetan government by the atheist-humanist-despotic flavored social republican Chinese government, Coke vs. Pepsi, and the senseless hostility of Sufis to the Bahai religion. The alien does not threaten to reveal itself to be a part of the self.
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From:waterfire741
Date:August 18th, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)
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Imagine how social discourse will evolve post-Singularity; with silicon AI interfaced to human loud-mouthery, we'll be able to have arguments faster than the speed of sound, and people will show how big a bunch of jerks they can be at speed c.
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From:mungojelly
Date:August 19th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
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I think it will only be a few years until the Singularity begins to have a powerful effect on our discourse. It's not the physical transformations that will catch the people's attention-- if they can sleep through laptops and the internet then surely they could sleep through the whole thing-- but the topic will shift states from "fringe" to thinkable as it reaches a critical mass which it's approaching. Almost all of the dialogue in the first few years of mainstream attention will be of the form, "no, they're wrong, it's no big deal, nothing's happening," but still, it will be loud enough that everyone will start thinking about the question.

It will be some time before the old squabbles can be resolved, probably not until we are deep into augmentation. But meanwhile, we will rapidly adopt a world consciousness and begin thinking in new ways about global concerns, which I think will leave these arguments looking quite provincial. In just a few years we will have to deal already with the first serious waves of augmentation, while at the same time becoming unavoidably aware of the reality of world poverty. In that context, while the old political lines may not have moved much, something like "US health (iow sickness) care" won't seem like an especially relevant conversation-- it will seem both old-fashioned and astoundingly isolationist.
[User Picture]
From:krinndnz
Date:September 1st, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
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The more people I see spreading Altemeyer's work, generally, the happier I am. Thank you for this post.

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