Meta-Commentary

Narcissism

Posted in culture, media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 21, 2012

Steve Almond, on why “Liberals Are Ruining America,

Imagine, if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved. They would be marginalized in the same way as activists who rant about racial purity or anarchy.

I can imagine that, but that’s all I can do; it’s a fable, and a dangerous one at that.

Political entertainment and political engagement aren’t opposite ends of the see-saw. Consuming more of the former doesn’t crowd out the latter. Contrary to his entire thesis, the kind of low-level engagement Almond laments tends to result in “real” action later on. People don’t engage in a thoughtful survey of current political trends and then decide to go volunteer for a campaign. They feel passionately about something, then take a small action, then a larger one. That’s why campaigns solicit $5 donations as well as $5,000 ones. It’s why Rush Limbaugh is an influential member of the Republican Party.

There’s a vein of narcissism underlying that argument, and it allows Almond to conclude that real problem with “liberalism” is its relationship to right wing chatter. The cycle of outrage and obsession that afflicts Almond during drivetime becomes “the tragic flaw of the modern liberal,” endowing his entertainment choices with a bizarre world-historical importance that’s both undeserved and unproven. Even if you buy what Almond’s selling, it’s still a suffocating definition of liberalism, one that scants both politics and policy by turning the frivolous choices of one man into a disease that plagues an entire ideology.

The same sort of self-regard animates “the Newsroom,” and it’s just as worthless in the NYT as it is on TV. Boiled down, it’s the blithe assumption that everyone is like you, except that they’ve made different (read: terrible) choices and that if they’d just do what you tell them to do the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. Apparently, this rather anti-democratic sentiment is the key to saving Democrats, liberalism, and democracy itself.

It’s not Rush, baby, it’s you.

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Serwer

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 16, 2010

Serwer responds to Chait’s agent-free argument that Obama’s intervention in the Park51 controversy will pay dividends for the Democratic Party, if not for Obama.

Not to pick on Chait in particular, but there’s a liberal complacency when it comes to conservative intolerance that I find maddening.

However, guest-blogging at TNC’s Atlantic digs some months earlier, Serwer offers a similarly structural account of American history:

The American conscience, when it decides to act, is mighty–but it is also sluggish and vain. Americans are crushed by the weight of not fulfilling their own high expectations–so the shameful acts of one generation are often rectified by a subsequent generation unencumbered by their own complicity in such acts.

Serwer’s positions are not contradictory, but they certainly exist in tension with one another. To the extent that the Park51 issue and the fecklessness of the right generally produce any results for the Democratic Party among American Muslims, the proximate cause won’t be either natural affection (per Chait) or the American conscience (per Serwer). In asserting such, they both stumble upon the error at the heart of Democratic politics. To paraphrase Parker/MLK:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it can be bent toward justice.

Political relationships are personal, iterative and transactional, not simply a matter of acquiescence to vast, world-historical forces. Leaders have agency. Additionally, there’s no reason to believe that one group will produce significant political outcomes for another simply because the latter doesn’t denigrate the former in public fora; “nowhere else to go” is a reason not to leave a coalition, not a reason a to enter one. Recent statements from Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama suggest that there’s not a whole lot of interest in building that kind of relationship. There may be an argument that this primal scream by the GOP will help foster an environment where American Muslim leaders can have the sorts of conversations with Democratic leaders that lead to electoral alignments, that’s a predictive argument, and one that’s currently a bit short on support.

Parenthetically, we should also ask what use or value our national conscience holds if we must be absolved of all wrongdoing before it has any discernable impact on our actions. Today, the sort of national conscience that begets real political courage remains firmly in the realm of blue fairies and gold badges–assuming it ever existed.