Monday, July 11, 2011

Bachmann, Sanity, and the 2012 Race

Matt Taibbi has written a piece for Rolling Stone magazine on Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who has recently catapulted to the national scene based on her popularity with the Tea Party movement. Although she has been around for a while, the crescendo in her popularity has hit a new peak as she began an official run for the presidency. In many respects she is emblematic of current trends not just in politics but in the culture at large.

Taibbi writes:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.
That last bit of that paragraph is important. Bachmann comes from the evangelical movement and like many in that movement, from the leaders down to the mega-church goers, she sees the entire world as a cosmic conflict between good and evil. There is no room for equivocation or subtlety; everything is black and white and all conflicts are part of a life and death struggle between the saved and the fallen. This is why otherwise mundane debates about taxes and health care take on such a vicious tone; in the mind of this segment of the public, these debates are really about America's soul.

In the current cultural environment, this kind of thinking has been enabled. The right wing in particular (although the left wing is guilty of this as well) are able to bathe in information streams that are made only of things they want to hear. Facts and opinions are interchangeable. And this provides the raw material for constructing a house and even a village of alternate reality where outside input is viewed as extraneous. In an abundant marketplace of ideas the rants of a person like Bachmann are forced to compete with more sophisicated ideas backed by research and facts. But when Bachmann and people like her are able to create their own space where no outside ideas are allowed in, those ideas live on, they thrive, and they even create their own reality. And subscribing to an alternate understanding of reality is essentially what it is to be crazy.

I'm no fan of Bachmann but it is dismissive and dangerous to call her crazy, even if she is. When we label a movement, an organization, or one of its adherents as crazy (I mean that in parlance, not as a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis), we mean that the group or individual's ideas are so far beyond what is considered normal that they do not deserve to be treated with any kind of credibility. Given some of her statements about economics, sexuality, and anti-American conspiracies, it's easy to label her as insane, crazy, a fruitcake, batshit, et cetera. And even though that dismissive response may be the appropriate retort when identical ideas are uttered by a drunk on a street corner or a patient in a mental institution, when these same ideas come from a politician running for president in this environment, our dismissal plays right into her hands.

As Taibbi indicates, a certain kind of crazy is appealing to voters. Bachmann's rejection by the mainstream is proof of her authenticity in the eyes of her fans, who are similarly suspicious about the broader world. And as her allies grow, Bachmann does not really qualify as crazy. The "right wing nut job" label is only meaningful if she is isolated on the fringe. But she isn't and  even if she does not make the 2012 presidential ticket, her presence in the race and in American culture will shift the conversation enough that the ideas she represents will have to be taken seriously.

Sanity is a democratic process and crazy is a minority opinion. But if we do not take the ideas of Bachmann and her ilk seriously, we may wake one day to find that madness has recruited enough of the gullible and the disillusioned to establish its own reality and those of us who had been dozing comfortably in our sanity are outnumbered and labeled and crazy, insane, or even dangerous.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Freedom is Free, Civilization Costs Money

Today is the Fourth of July, a day in which Americans commemorate the birth of their country and celebrate an abstract value that we like to call “freedom.” This year’s holiday celebration is tinted by recent events that have highlighted the limits to which the public at large have seriously considered what “freedom” actually means. Economic disputes among pundits and politicians, the labor protests in Wisconsin, and the shutdown of the state government of Minnesota have converged this July 4th in a nearly perfect parade of self-righteousness and absurdity. As is usual in the public discourse, the primary issues being discussed are a hustle for the more serious philosophical ideas underneath. At issue here is not really tax increases or spending caps. It is freedom – a word that Americans love to use but seldom understand.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains.” By this, Rousseau meant that man, free of society and in his natural state, has no moral or ethical obligations and he is not bound to follow any rule, edict, law, or principal. According to Rousseau, man gives up a degree of freedom for the benefits of living in society. This kind of thinking was radical at Rousseau’s time (in many ways it still is) and it led to theories of freedom by other thinkers such as John Locke, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Jefferson who provide the basis for the American conception of freedom.

But Americans’ contemporary ideas about freedom are oversimplified and undereducated. We idealize freedom as a concept, embodied by country western songs and bumper sticker slogans like “Freedom isn’t’ free,” as opposed to understanding or practicing it as a way of life. In American fantasies, freedom entails the ability of an individual to rise to great success and fame without the encumbrance of government or other social interference. Lurking unspoken in the background of that fantasy is the darker side of freedom. Often imagined as the pinnacle of personal responsibility, the more extreme or “pure” the conception of freedom, the closer it represents a state of amorality. The freest man on earth has no debts and no obligations. He is also free of morality or ethics, which are imposed on him by society. He is, in essence, what civilized people would call a psychopath.

In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote that there are two kinds of freedom: “Freedom from,” as in freedom from oppression, and “freedom to,” as in freedom to vote. Importantly, Fromm noted that one kind of freedom cannot exist without the other and if one of these forms of freedom is missing, its absence ensures the destruction or surrender of the other. For instance, if citizens do not have the ability to feed themselves (freedom to self-sufficiency) they might well surrender other social privileges (freedom from oppression) to a dictator; this is essentially what happened in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. If citizens have a great deal of wealth and comfort (freedom from poverty), they might surrender privacy or personal liberty (freedom to autonomy); this is an apt description of the culture in China.

Our lack of understanding of freedom has serious implications. The administration of George W. Bush failed to prepare for the rebuilding of Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. Why? Because high ranking government officials believed that all that was necessary for a functioning democracy in Iraq was to “free” the people from a dictator and that a civil society would organically and instantaneously spring up. This is a mistake as was proven by the civil war that broke out in that country in the years following the invasion. A civil, peaceful, democratic society requires, among other things, a culture that values and protects freedom of speech and allows for public dissent without fear of retaliation. This cannot be built overnight.

A functioning society also requires a government that is stable and credible. The riots and other violence that occurred in Baghdad after the invasion were committed by people whose social grid had been smashed. The insurgency was not made of Islamic fundamentalists. It was made of disaffected and disenfranchised Iraqis who were out of work and unable to house, cloth, or feed themselves or their families due to the nonexistent rebuilding plan after the American invasion. The ideas of Rousseau and Fromm were at work right before our eyes.

These ideas can be applied to Iraq but if certain trends continue they could be applied right here in America as well. The right wing, informed by a half-assed understanding of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ideology, have begun an assault on the social safety net but frame the issue in terms of increasing freedom or staving off un-freedom. This is a smoke screen designed to get the masses behind policies that enrich the powerful at the expense of the weak. The powerful cannot and should not be blamed for that priority any more than a great white shark should be blamed for trying to kill and eat as many sea lions as it can. Powerful is what powerful does.

In the face of superior power there are two options: submit to it or try to take it for yourself. How we decide between those options is complicated and involves weighing many factors, both personal and social. But a man is only bound to submit to society’s laws if he receives the benefits of its protection. As those benefits erode away, so do our links to one another. While a totalitarian society degrades our individuality and turns us into one digit among many, a similarly nihilistic idealization of freedom degrades our community by turning each individual into the only number that counts.

And as the social contract erodes, those who have built cathedrals of power on the foundation of society’s stability will find cement turning into sand. The mobs of the hungry and the homeless will not stay confined to the alley forever. The underlying social pact that some of society’s most powerful individuals are attempting to subvert is the very thing keeping them in power. As they continue to subvert it, they weaken the very shield of law and order--and indeed the illusion of morality--that protects them.

And so this is the fundamental choice: what kind of society do we want to live in? Taken to the extreme in one direction is the society that the right wing claims to fear, in which personal liberty is completely overtaken by government. The other extreme is a non-society in which there is no government whatsoever and personal liberty is absolute. This is the freedom of which right wingers and the tea partiers sing. But, knowingly or not, the anthem for this brand of freedom was sung by school children in the pages of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, as they danced around a fire and pledged to kill the pig.

As tonight’s fireworks explode and local bands serenade audiences with patriotic tunes let’s all remember that freedom is free but civilization requires investment. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we surrender freedom on a regular basis for the benefit of security. The ongoing question is how much of one are we willing to give for the maintenance of the other.