Friday, September 10, 2010

Politics as a Blood Sport

The Economist tells you some stuff you pretty much know:
[A] funny thing is happening on the home front. Where the Muslim world sees just another president, Mr Obama is somehow becoming more exotic to Americans. In August a Pew survey found that nearly one in five, and a third of conservative Republicans, think that he is a Muslim himself. Only about a third of all Americans say he is a Christian and 43% say they do not know what religion he practises. Moreover, both the number who think he is a Muslim and the number who do not think he is a Christian have risen sharply since March 2009.  Mr Obama is in fact a Christian ...
And adds:

 and the reasons for the public doubt are perplexing.

If, by "perplexing," the editors mean that they cannot divine the reason, then I must object: the reasons are not perplexing; they are fairly straightforward, but no easier to deal with therefore.

The reason is this: for some segment of the electorate (exact quantity is open to debate), politics is not about "winning" in the conventional sense; it isn't even about "stealing" (though stealing is always fun).  It's about humiliating the enemy, making him look like an idiot, rubbing his face in the dirt, making him squeal like a pig. There's segment of the political arena--probably any arena of human conflict--that finds this activity of humiliation almost an end in itself.   It's the sensibility of the participant who would like to win dirty or clean but almost rather win dirty because it shows more contempt for the loser.  So also shenanigans like registering the homeless as green party candidates not so much because it will change any election results but precisely because it makes a mockery of the process.

You can see it at work in many places, but in politics particularly when yo see one team catch the other team off guard for a moment, hesitant, as if they feel they have something to apologize for.     "Obama is a Muslim" and its close kin "Obama isn't a citizen" are perfect for this sort of thing because they tap into a bit of unease among Obama defenders with the exotic background of their man.  No matter that many of the attackers have only the dimmest notion of what a "Muslim" is (or where Hawaii is, for that matter). They know it makes the defending team uncomfortable and that is where the fun is.

It's devilishly hard to know how to deal with this attack.  Treating it with the kind of austere disdain it so richly deserves is almost always  mistake: silence is read as an admission.   Meeting mockery with mockery can be helpful but the mockery had better be good.  Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert bring it off most of the time; Keith Obermann, rarely and Rachel Maddow, less and less (her fans will shout that she is smart and well informed; she is smart and well informed but that is almost entirely beside the point--in her attempts at humor, she mostly comes across as a tiresome scold).

Meeting ruffianism with ruffianism is dangerous because you never know in advance who is going to win a war.  Still it is interesting that the right tends to go easiest on the ones who they remember with a frisson of fear: Lyndon Johnson in particular; Jack Kennedy--more, ironically, after he was dead, when we finally came to know what a cad he really was.

At the end, the fact is that the "humiliation" impulse is hard-wired enough that we might as well think of it as part of mainstream culture.  In some circles, it even passes for "Christianity," although I must tread lightly here.  We've got millions of Christian-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our co-workers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?  Why, even our President may be a--nah, bad example, forget it.

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