Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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October 22, 2004
The Bad Seed

Timothy Burke has another useful post, further evidence that he is among the very few that I am aware of that are making valuable contributions to society at this time. He employs his considerable rhetorical skills to breathe life into insights that deflate the irrational exuberance of stridently politicized positions, and leave the reader better balanced rather than chuffed up to die fighting infidels. (What fun is that?) But by alternately fluffing both sides of the argument he keeps it interesting and perhaps more effective, softening hard heads so that insights can penetrate and creating a little space for them to lodge and perhaps grow. He's a teacher as well as a thinker.

His subject is the class war, or perhaps culture war, currently raging in the US. His take home point is that both sides have sinned and that we are diminished by the polarity. This may seem to be an obvious insight that many have voiced before but he makes it so well that it may be understandable by some who have not yet grasped the point, and may increase the comprehension of some who thought they already understood.

Everyone’s agog at some choice quotes in Ron Suskind’s interesting piece about the Bush White House from this past Sunday’s New York Times, and rightfully so. I suppose you could write off the most damning, frequently cited comment from one staffer that basically embraces a half-postmodernist, half-fascist conception of social reality as the views of a nutty outlier, but it seems to me to be of a piece with the neocon faith in the transparency of other societies to the application of power, the belief that unyielding will and force alone can conform history to all our desires.

I’m more interested in the views of Bush associate Mark McKinnon, who Suskind quotes at length. McKinnon confirms the accusation that the Republican Party under Bush’s leadership has developed a balls-to-the-wall, scorched-earth commitment to class warfare, to pitting a lumpenbourgeosie from Middle America against the bi-coastal elites and chattering classes. It ties in nicely with Thomas Frank’s analysis in Who Lost Kansas?, except that I think Frank doesn’t make nearly enough of the contradiction between the business elites in the Republican Party and what McKinnon calls the “busy working folks who don’t read”. I think they’re cutting their own throats with this strategy: they are not going to be the masters of class warfare, but mastered by it.

This moment is the bitter fruit of two decades of efforts by liberals and radicals to capture the institutions of civil society not through persuasion, but through a kind of pseudo-Foucauldian or Gramscian conceptualization of those institutions as capable of remaking consciousness, identity and practice, of doing what many on the left had realized the state was unable to do. The hue and cry about “political correctness” is often miscast, exaggerated, or mislocated, but there is something real at the bottom of it, something more complex and pervasive than tangible institutional manifestations like speech codes.

It’s the spark behind the energies that inform “South Park Republicanism”, a reaction to the domestication of the counterculture by educated Baby Boomers into something rather resembling early 20th Century social reformism. The social reformers of the early 20th Century were often people who can be found in the progressive family tree, like Margaret Sanger—but whether they have that pedigree or not, they were part of general project of middle-class intervention into the intimate lives of other Americans. There is much of the cultural left’s approach to civil society between 1970 and 2000 that echoes that moment, that sought to domesticate and civilize the practice of various demonic Others: white men, the rural, the religious, the housewife.

No baby with bathwater here: many of the transformations in American culture and everyday practice since 1970 are entirely good and productive and have even had some of the predicted effects on consciousness and social relations that their chief proponents envisioned. But the slide towards the replay of early 20th Century social reform gave too much authority and capacity to our own generation of Carrie Nations, to a censorious, intolerant, self-righteous streak which was all too easily—and often accurately—identified with or the provenance of elite social classes or constituencies. ... Political labors within civil society for many progressives in the last three decades really was an intrusive, controlling, and often remarkably graceless affair, and small wonder that it was easy for the class warriors of the Republican Party to first cynically and then increasingly confidentally characterize bicoastal elites as the enemies of the Middle American lumpenbourgeoisie.

Timothy is a Democrat, even a Dean supporter, and so the attempt at self criticism and above-the-political-fray analysis has blind spots. For example, the Suskind piece that he finds interesting is seen by many as extremely weak, a typical partisan hit piece devoid of insight. The comment that has "everyone agog" (everyone?) which Timothy dismisses as "a half-postmodernist, half-fascist conception of social reality" sounded to me like a casual explanation of the principles of netwar, Boyd's OODA formulation of conflict that recognizes that each act changes the situation so that a new cycle of analysis is required to determine useful future acts, and that those who observe, analyze and act more quickly freeze their opponents in place, spectators to their own defeat. It also resonates with elementary insights about adaptive systems; agents alter the environment with every act, requiring them and all other agents in the environment to adapt to new circumstances. In this sense the "reality based community" is unrealistic, fully deserving of the ironic quotes, since they are fantasy based, acting as if reality was not a fluid thing continuously altered by the acts of every agent.

It's not clear whether the staffer that made the comment had any of this in mind but it is possible since this has been the strategic stance of the US military for several years and military thinking is probably pervasive in the administration since we are at war. The crusty old military establishment is in the throes of modernization, not always willingly, as could be seen in some of the disputes about the Iraq strategy, whether to mass overwhelming force and grind the opponent up or to use speed and targeted force to disrupt and demoralize the opponent. History shows that the latter course was chosen and that it worked a treat, the opponent stood rooted to the ground watching itself be dismembered, unable to act for lack of comprehension. A netwar clinic.

This isn't just military arcana, the equivalent of geeky neeping about kernel hacks or baseball statistics, because netwar isn't just about bullets and bombs. The techniques also apply to bucks and ballots. You'll hear analogous discussion in the board rooms of industry and the back rooms of political parties. You'll hear it in activist cells in Chiapas as well as top gun pilot schools. It's not completely new, scholars find precursors in Sun Tzu and many martial arts systems, but it is on the lips of an ever wider audience now, of increasing significance because world events now move so much more quickly. Reality is no longer static. The fluid nature of the playing field can no longer be ignored as being too glacial in pace to matter in strategic decisions. The acceleration of transportation and communication has thawed the glacier.

The incredulity of Democrats at the staffer's statements, seeming to mock their considered philosophical stance and as Timothy characterizes it, voicing a "half-postmodernist, half-fascist conception", wildly misses the point. It has nothing to do with either postmodernism or fascism. Those who are still fighting those ancient battles (yes, even postmodernism is ancient at this point) are not reality based, they are history based. The misperception is pervasive and clouds comprehension of the class/culture war that interests Timothy. It isn't just the younger, hipper, sexier vulgar South Park counter insurgency against the rag-tag remnants of greying boomer chic, and it isn't bicoastal elites against rural rubes. It isn't WWI trench warfare.

That was the mistake of the boomer generation. They still had a steam age conception of conflict - lynch mobs surging against one another. It's still what we see in the unenthusiastic parodies of old fashioned street demos. It's still what we see in the pathetic misapplication of ICT to meaningless flash mobs. The most important attribute of progress, inclusion of an ever larger fraction of humanity in the social mind, was rejected. They were not progressive, they were just another gang striving for power, seeking to dominate others.

Timothy sees this too.

The point ought to be, and ought always have been, that we recognize with all Americans that being born again in an evangelical baptism stands equal to having sex with someone of your own gender--not in meaning, not in essence, but as manifestations of the freedom we all share.Watching The 700 Club stands equal to watching Tales of the City: we are, or ought to be, united in our freedoms. As soon as somebody regards their own sexual choices as a transgressive attack on the sexual choices of another, as a transformative project, they’ve chosen another path. Yes, yes, the other team did it first and still does it now: that’s important to remember. Every time I see someone screaming about how the left politicized the academy, I’m astonished by the historical dishonesty that requires. Every time I see someone talking about how homosexuality impinges on their own sexuality, I have to ask: why can't you see how that looks on the other side of the mirror? Civil society has always been a site of repression and politicization: it was not made that way by the post-1960s left or counterculture. But the move that we made in the domain of culture and consciousness was a tit-for-tat strategy. We have been repressed; we cannot be free if we do not remove the repression. How do we know repression? It is that which we are not. We like diversity, as long as it's our kind of diversity...

McKinnon is right, in the end, as was Nixon: there are more of “them” than of “us”, though at the same time, there are still more who watch both The Sopranos and Lawrence Welk, or who in various ways refuse categorical choices of this kind. In philosophical terms, it was even worse: it was what Jonathan Rauch has argued is the classic sin of the post-1960s Western left, to choose the creation of equality over the defense of freedom.

But I don't think he sees it clearly.
It handed one group of Republican conservatives a loaded weapon, and they have fired it with cheerful abandon, first at their enemies and now, increasingly, at their own temples. They are now captive to class warfare, having walked in the cage, sniffed at its corners, turned the key on the lock and swallowed it into their own gullets.

The only real hope at this point is that most Americans will remember that they are neither Hutu nor Tutsi, neither Red nor Blue, neither politically correct nor ogrish bigots, neither bicoastal Times-reading elites nor Middle American jest-folks. The trope of class war has been spoken before in America, and it’s rarely met with an understanding audience, even when it was spoken with some justification. Now is another time when Americans have to unsympathetically look on and let the children who want to play with fire burn themselves up.

While there are battles between bicoastal elites and Middle America, the war is between progressives and regressives. Unfortunately, the bicoastal elites are regressive. They betrayed the spirit of progressivism by being exclusive, by seeing themselves as elites, and failing to expand full suffrage, a piece of the action, to an ever growing percentage of society. They not only hobbled society, they hobbled themselves by closing their minds to things that squicked them out. They are the problem not the solution. The "so what" attitude of a newer generation is precisely what is needed. They aren't just vulgar, they are inclusive, comfortable with a wider range of behaviors and attitudes, more concerned with freedom than equality, and so far more likely to build an egalitarian world.
Posted by back40 at 03:48 PM | culture

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Great post. Terrible contrast for hyperlinks, you just can't see them at all on a notebook. Recommend letting hyperlinks be underlined in the stylesheet, or switching to a color that will stand out.

Posted by: Joe Katzman at October 27, 2004 12:01 AM

Hi Joe,

Others have said the same. I darkened the text and lightened the links. Does it work on low res displays now?

I lack test environments. I use a nice, big, monitor driven by a screaming adapter in a room with controlled lighting so what I see isn't at all what others see. Bad taste is a problem too.

Posted by: back40 at October 27, 2004 12:56 PM