Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Howler, white racism and the Radical Right

Laura Bush: adored idol of the downhome reglur folks?

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby is easily my favorite media critic. No one is better at cutting through the show-business mystification that has grown up around our celebrity pundits and reporters, especially those on television. On the one hand, it's not hard to see how goofy a lot of their reporting and commentary is. But without some meaningful framework in which to place their dysfunction, it's all too easily to be sucked into their often-bizarre scripts. Conservatives have the Liberal Press Conspiracy framework, which is so little reality-based these days that it's hard to see how that's not worse than having no way to frame the strangeness of our national press. Somerby isn't an ideologue. But he's constructed a narrative that does give all of us outside the Republican Party bubble, where Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are taken seriously as political analysts, a meaningful way to understand the massive clown show our national press has become.

Pilar Marrero of La Opinión gives a good statement of a major aspect of the general problem in Ya está bien de la misma historia 12/08/09. There doesn't seem to be an English version, but she gave this quickie summary on Twitter: "My column. Tired of Tiger Woods, fed up with the White House Crashers, sick of balloon boy, etc" She talks about how it may well be a good marketing decision for an individual news service to give play to such stories that are entertaining but have no particular value in terms of public policy or anything else but pure titillation and gossip. But when all individual news providers start doing it, the market segment that wants substantial reporting on policy issues starts getting undeserved. And the social function of news businesses in informing the public of information we need to be good citizens and informed voters falls away.

But Bob Somerby also suffers a bit from the self-selected purity of focusing on the failures of major media. He's actually been trying for a while to focus more specifically on the more liberal/progressive media, which he sees as the main hope right now for reconstructing a news media based on journalism rather than pure entertainment. But the "purity" part comes out sometimes when he takes liberals to task, usually with good reason, for condescension and arrogance. If those sound like typical conservative buzzwords, that illustrates part of his problem.

Somerby doesn't exactly know how to approach the issue of white racism. And, in a closely related problem, his literalist/positivist approach to evaluating what people say is sometimes inadequate to understanding Christianist religious figures or secular far-rightists, who often use cult-like alternative meanings for common words and often pursue "stealth" strategies of deliberately concealing their conscious political aims. I've e-mailed him a few times about his overly-credulous approach to such characters as John Hagee, for instance. Preachers can be very slick about putting on a benign face for reporters who don't know how to ask them probing questions about their faith claims or their political activities, even if they were interested in trying to ask probing questions.

His columns this week have illustrated how Somerby bounces around the horns of this dilemma. On 12/07/09, he makes the plausible point that the Beltway Village denigrated Clinton and Gore in part because they were Southerners. Plausible - but that doesn't explain why the same crew mostly swooned at the manly manliness of George W. Bush, who played the Good Ole Suthun Boy role to a far greater degree than Clinton or Gore ever did.

On 12/08, he was harshing on Rachel Maddow for seemingly showing class snobbery toward voters uninformed about health care. But in the process, he himself makes the case that white racism is likely behind much of the opposition to health care reform:

Why did European nations pass national health systems in the late 1940s, while the U.S. failed? In The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman asserts (with limited documentation) that our failure at that time represented a racial breakdown—that southern members of Congress balked at the notion because they didn’t want to integrate southern hospitals. We have no idea if that’s true—but it’s certainly plausible. But even now, in 2009, we remain a much less homogeneous society than the European societies which passed national health plans in the late 1940s. Presumably, this can affect the societal drive to extend benefits to all. In a non-homogeneous society, dreams of The Other bloom, killing the generous impulse. ...

In her longer statement, [Melissa] Harris-Lacewell began by focusing on the motives of senators and members of Congress, rather than on the views of voters. But we would guess that her overall picture may well be accurate. It has been harder for our society to achieve consensus about national health care due to its racial/class/ethnic diversity. Most likely, due to its regional diversity as well.
So it's pretty clear here that Somerby is saying that it's very likely that white racism, and particularly the Southern political culture in which white racism has played a distinctive role historically and in the present, plays a major part in opposition to health care reform.

And yet he doesn't seem to think anyone else can say that without being a sinfully condescending liberal snob. And for that matter, he typically savages pundits who make such broad claims as he makes on this issue without citing more substantial evidence.

On 12/09, he was back into outrage mode at snobby liberals who sneer at reglur folks and hurt their feelings and make them vote for Republicans. Okay, I'm characterizing it a little ungenerously, but I'm linking it so you can read for yourself. But he really misfired on this one:

Over the past fifty years, part of the liberal world’s “messaging” problem has involved the tendency among certain liberals to exacerbate distinctions of class and region - elements of fragmentation which make social progress much harder. It was true in the 1960s, and it’s true again now: A certain type of pseudo-liberal has always loved to mock the (white) rubes who live in red-state America. The pattern is familiar: First, we mock their rube-like ways. Then, we marvel at the fact that these rubes won’t accept our own brilliant views! Over the past fifty years, this class condescension has made it harder to build consensus for certain kinds of progressive ideas.

It’s part of the liberal world’s “messaging” problem: A certain kind of pseudo-liberal has always loved to mock the rubes. (Their limbic brains don’t work right, we say. They’re a bunch of redneck racists.) And at present, no one seems to do this more than Rachel Maddow, the host of last Friday night’s program. What’s the matter with (voters in) Kansas? In part, the problem may lie with the type of sneering Kansas voters have long heard from us!
He goes on to chide Maddow for trying way too hard to come up with a criticism of Laura Bush, the former First Lady, for speaking at what was apparently a charity fundraising event. He seems to be making a good point about Maddow's carelessness of her reporting on the story.

But as an example of mocking the reglur white folks as "redneck racists", criticizing Laura Bush doesn't really qualify. Good grief! This is the former First Lady, a woman who has for most of her life been part of the Bush family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families and political dynasties in the United States or anywhere. Sure, it might tick off Republicans to hear Laura Bush criticized. And, if his description is accurate, it probably made a lot of viewers groan at the sloppiness or triviality of the report.

But criticizing Laura Bush is an example of insufficient respect for downhome "redneck racists"? Please.

On 12/10, he seems to be thinking both ways at once, which is a quality I admire but can be confusing. He's talking about blog posts by Digby (12/07/09, 12/08/09 and 12/09/09) and Paul Krugman (12/08/09) in which they speculate about what the emotional appeal of climate change denial may be:

Liberals often seem to have a hard time processing this kind of information. Over the years, we keep failing to come to terms with the nature of the electorate. We keep being surprised by the things the American public believes—and we tend to react with expressions of ridicule. In our view, these expressions may tend to make our political problems worse.

Simple fact: Tens of millions of Americans voters are very “non-scientific.” They don’t believe in evolution; they don’t believe in global warming. They do tend to believe in a series of portraits about society’s sneering elites - the kinds of portraits they constantly hear advanced on programs like Hannity’s. But then, they have heard these portraits advanced, quite aggressively, over the past fifty years.

These people are your neighbors, your fellow citizens. It’s their country too. They vote - and they won’t be going away. Their beliefs are a fundamental part of American political culture, and will be for decades to come. If we want to effect certain types of “progressive” change, we have to work with those beliefs—for example, by trying to change them.

On our side, we constantly seem to be surprised by the things these voters believe. Fun is fun, and there’s nothing like scratching an itch. But aren’t we being a little bit clueless when we keep being surprised?

These people are your neighbors—your fellow voters—and no, they won’t be going away. One final note: If you want to know why someone thinks something, there is a traditional approach:

You sit down with that person. You ask.
Here he's saying that it's silly to not realize that many voters are misinformed, underinformed and/or wrongly informed about some important public policy issues. But then he says that those naughty liberals shouldn't be condescending about it. Which is fine as far as it goes. But if you sit down with a global warming denier and ask why they take that position, it would be gullible to just take their response at face value without getting some idea about their level of information about the issue and what related political and/or religious assumptions they may be bringing to bear on it. Because good old fashioned fanaticism may well be at work.

And while he recognizes that it's part of the conservative schtick to say how all them thar libruls are lookin' down on all us reglur white folks, at the same time he doesn't seem to recognize that they don't need actual condescension to make that claim. As a professional comedian like Somerby knows, there can sometimes be a fine line between respectful mocking and insult. But some level of scorn is also what it will take to get some people to even begin to re-examine their premises about some issues like global warning. If you're stuck with strong beliefs rooted in fear - if I believe in evolution I'll go straight to Hell, if we don't torture Arab prisoners the turrists will kill us all in our beds - it normally requires some mitigation of the fear for people to reconsider. Ridiculing the ridiculous can help mitigate those fears.

I would also say that just humoring people who are telling you crazy stuff to your face and trying to get you to agree with it can also be a form of condescension. What good does it do to pretend that someone who's telling you Obama isn't really an America but Kenyan instead is expressing a position worth considering seriously? They're just lying in your face, even if they happen to believe it themselves. You don't have to call them stupid white trash. But you don't have to pretend you think that claim is just as valid as any other, either.

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