This is more of an aside than a follow-up to last week’s post on the Right’s addiction to violent rhetoric.
My point in Blowhards. Part One is that Right Wingers tend to use words for how they make them feel rather than for what those words mean and that because power and domination define the way the world works in their minds and most of them don’t have power or dominate over anyone, at least not to the degree they feel they should, they’re always reaching for words that make them feel as if they have that power and are fighting to hold onto it. They need to feel tough, strong, brave, and scary in order to feel they are powerful and dominant, and in that context only fightin’ words will do the trick.
Their language is combative, belligerent, violent because their feelings are violent.
I don’t mean that they feel the need to commit violence, necessarily. I mean that the surge of feeling within them is violent. Frustration, anger, fear, and hatred are not feelings that just sit there inside you.
Using words for how they feel instead of for what they mean is not just a habit of the Right. For most people, words are the sounds their feelings make. Ideally, we would all use the words that both sound right and mean right, that express the feeling and identify it and give it the shape of thought. That’s the job of poets. Most of us aren’t poets. We grab at whatever words we can and hope that people listening will understand what we would have said if we were poets.
I’m repeating myself.
But people don’t use words only for how they feel. We use them to make us feel. We can talk ourselves into feeling most anything. Usually, what we talk ourselves into feeling is right.
It’s astounding, and sometimes amusing, to hear someone tell an obvious lie using the most trite, cliched, and inappropriate words and realize that while everyone in the room clearly knows it for a lie and is not even bothering to hide their derision, the liar himself seems to believe himself absolutely, even to the point of tearing up at his totally fabricated emotions.
But we aren’t the audience. He is. He is talking to make himself feel right.
He is using words that make him feel that he is not what he is, that he didn’t do the bad, stupid, mean, or otherwise wrong thing he did.
Even when no real wrong has been done, at least not by them personally, people will talk to make themselves feel better.
This is the attraction of gossip. Talking about other people’s failures and mistakes makes us feel better, better than the people failing and making those mistakes. All gossip has a single them: “I am better than that.”
The need to feel better, to feel good, to feel right is human, and liberals and progressives have a rhetoric of self-righteous congratulation too. Forget politics. Listen to us talk about books, about the movies we like, about music. Especially music.
But over the last couple of generations the American Right has perfected a Politics of Feeling Virtuous.
The Right believes in power and domination as the measures of all things. But wanting power and domination and fearing that you don’t have it or are losing it are not pleasant ways to feel.
For one thing, it’s the way villains and cowards feel.
The right thing to do would be to resist those feelings, to recognize them as belonging to villains and cowards and look instead for, as Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature. But the human, as opposed to the angelic, thing to do is to indulge those feelings while pretending they’re something else, to dress them up with words that mean the exact opposite of those feelings but carry powerful feelings of their own, feelings belonging to heroes and saints.
It also helps if you can use words that make you feel that those other, less noble feelings are justified. It’s ok to want power and domination if you deserve to have them, if God or Nature has intended you to have them and that your having them is a sign of your moral superiority.
But it’s also human nature to find our goodness in comparison. Maybe I can’t be sure I’m right, but I can be damn sure you are wrong.
Which is why demonization is such a key trope in Right Wing rhetoric. They can’t be sure they’re right, but they can make damn sure they feel that we are wrong.
Of course, the less right they feel---and since they measure everything in terms of power and domination including rightness and righteousness, and they feel themselves losing power, they feel themselves losing rightness and righteousness, not to mention legitimacy---the more wrong they have to feel we are.
Losing is both a sign of weakness and a punishment for it. It is also a sign of the withdrawal of God’s favor. But God wouldn’t do that to us! (Would He?) And we aren’t weak or deserving of punishment! (Are we?) Of course not! Then, the only way this could happen, the only way we could lose the power we’ve been granted by God is if it’s being stolen from us by a side that is not of God. The side taking it must be of the Devil. The other side must be supernaturally wicked.
And words get chosen that make that wish feel like the truth.
And it goes on. If I am good, and you are bad, there is no way that I can do or say anything bad or you can do or say anything good. Consequently, if there are still racists in the country, then they must be on your side. If violence is being threatened and committed in the name of politics, then it must be coming from your side. If anything I do or say can be construed as violent and threatening then I must be doing it in self-defense. I must be doing it because you pushed me to the wall. I must be justified in retaliating.
The publishing industry has long known how profitable is to sell people the notion that they are right. Gossip and self-help advice are the two most obvious niche products marketed directly to our vanity. Politics is a fast-growing market though. There are books written to shamelessly flatter liberal vanities but the fact is they are mostly unnecessary and not worth the money to print them. You can make a liberal feel good about himself just by giving him the facts.
Now, it is a fact that the facts have a liberal bias, but what liberal vanity loves about the facts is that having them makes the possessor feel smart. Liberals live to be able to say, “Did I tell you what I read last week?” and to then tell you. We don’t need what we read to justify what we feel because we feel justified by having read, period. Besides which, we assume that whatever the facts are they somehow justify our liberal feelings, so we’re open to anything as long as it is substantiated, that is given the intellectual seal of approval by accredited experts. Trusting to experts is a feature of liberal vanity. There’s no need to sell us a liberal view of history or a liberal view of science.
But whether or not the facts are as strongly on our side as we like to believe, they are decidedly not on the side of the Right.
What the Right needs are alternative facts. It’s hard to feel you are right, and in the right, if the facts are against you. The easiest and most natural way to deal with this is to deny the facts are in fact facts. Believing that college professors and scientists are spreading lies is helpful, to a point. Another helpful dodge is to convince yourself that it’s liberals who don’t know the facts, not just because they’ve been taught lies, but because they believe things that are obviously crazy. And from Dave Noon at Edge of the American West I’ve just learned that there are conservative historians and college professors who are willing to sign their names to the notion that liberals believe and teach lunacy instead of the truth, as in a book called 48 Liberal Lies About America.
Here are three examples of those lies:
- “John F. Kennedy was Killed by LBJ and a Secret Team to Prevent Him from Getting Us Out of Vietnam”
- “Ronald Reagan Knew ‘Star Wars’ Wouldn’t Work but Wanted to Provoke a War with the USSR.”
- “September 11 Was Not the Work of Terrorists. It Was a Government Conspiracy.”
I can’t wait to read the other 45.
The author claims that these notions are endorsed by history textbooks, thanks to the efforts of liberals. I didn’t know Oliver Stone wrote textbooks.
As Dave says, the author, “must be confusing ‘liberal US history textbooks’ with ‘amateur videos I found on YouTube.’”
Read Dave’s post and be sure to follow the links.
Related: The McEwan reacts to another variant on the Right’s love of the It’s Not Me Who Thinks What I Appear to Think, It’s You Who Thinks It method of feeling right, Mrs Doctor Instapundit on the Left’s lack of empathy for the poor, misunderstood Right.
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