Saturday, September 10, 2011

Transgression

Oh look, Ann Coulter said something stupid and offensive (this time, claiming that being a kindergarten teacher was not a "real job", whatever that means). This is not news, nor very interesting. There are many blogs (like the link target) who make a business of being outraged at this sort of thing, and others who do a good job of mercilessly mocking it. But I usually don't bother posting in this area, although I read plenty of those who do.

However, this time I started thinking about why the hell am I clicking on that link and watching a video of this harridan, when I know exactly what to expect, and that I will not be any wiser or otherwise improved afterwards? Indeed, I'll feel rather nauseated. So what's the attraction? Do I enjoy being offended and outraged for some reason? I tell myself I read right-wing blogs for of the intellectual challenge of trying to wrestle with a differing world-view, but that rationale seems less and less credible, and with Coulter it doesn't work at all. Or I tell myself its a form of amateur oppo research, but that doesn't really fly either.

No, something else is going on. Despite her superficial hideousness, there must be something attractive there. It may be the same sort of attraction found in horror movies, or the way we learn to like certain kinds of rottenness found in strong cheese. The very qualities that make her repulsive also make her attractive, on some different and largely unconscious level.

I think what attraction Coulter's shtick has for both me and her right-wing fans is based on its transgressive qualities. She's violating the rules of decency, while appearing (sort of) charming and amusing about it. That puts her opponents in the position of moralistic prigs, who believe that they are in a position to dictate what's right to the rest of us. She's a rebel! A truth-speaker!

So much of modern conservatism seems to be based on this need to transgress against what is supposed to be the dominant moral order, let's call it boomer liberalism. According to this ethos, you are supposed to be compassionate, tolerant, responsible, sensitive, cosmopolitan, educated. You are not supposed to be explicitly competitive or aggressive, except in certain approved and highly constrained ways.

Now, I don't really have too much against this moral order, which on the whole is an improvement on what it superseded. It suits my cultural biases. But like any other moral order it can be stultifying, and like any order it creates its own status hierarchies and winners and losers. Not everyone can easily conform to these norms. The result is a strong resentment at liberal elites, coupled with assertions of masculine brutality against what is seen as a feminized ethos of niceness. Coulter is a master of playing with these resentments, of giving voice to the part of the world who doesn't particularly want to be nice, of packaging them up into something outrageous enough to get her in the news while not being so outrageous as to get her banned (eg, she's careful not to veer into explicit racism, unless it's against Arabs).

Thus the entire basis of the conservative movement appears to be almost the opposite of what conservatism is supposed to be about. It's not about the preservation of an aristocratic elite, but the attempt to unseat one, one that is felt as illegitimate. (Whether they are pawns of the older more traditional elites who are trying to regain the power they lost is an interesting question, but not relevant to this particular train of thought).

At some level, I too feel the dominant moral order to be an imposition, and at some level I resist it like I would any externally-imposed authority. I can feel and share in the resentment even though the alternatives being touted appall me. Any political group seeks to impose a moral order, and I say screw 'em all, which is why I often feel more truly anarchic than the anarchists. And yes, this attitude is immature and being mature means joining up with and helping maintain a moral order, one way or the other, which I've done as best I can. But the old feelings remain; advanced middle age has not cured me of them as one might have hoped.

So I read these right-wingers for the little tingle of transgressivity they supply. It's a form of intellectual pornography I suppose.

[a previous post on a similar topic.]

6 comments:

jlredford said...

Plus your brother is a friend of hers! Much to your dismay, as I recall. I'm a little surprised she's still around - I thought that the need to constantly up the ante of the transgressive shtick would be as destructive to her as it was for Glen Beck.

mtraven said...

Yeah I wasn't going to mention that little fact (and that as a result I've actually met the woman -- she was at his wedding) in this post, but the cat's out of the bag now.

Actually my brother's case is very relevant to the post; he always seemed to be in rebellion against his liberal upbringing, and reaching for ever-more-extreme forms of wingnuttery in the process. I guess he was more pissed off at our parents than I ever got.

Her continued presence in the media is a bit of a mystery. A month or so ago she appeared on Fareed Zakaria's Sunday morning show, which until that point I thought was one of the more intelligent news/talk shows around.

scw said...

You write: "...the entire basis of the conservative movement appears to be almost the opposite of what conservatism is supposed to be about. It's not about the preservation of an aristocratic elite, but the attempt to unseat one, one that is felt as illegitimate."

The liberal elite are secular Puritans; they are illegitimate, in the same way as Cromwell was illegitimate. Conservatives do not believe merely that they are illegitimate, but also that they are not an aristocracy. A nomenklatura is not, after all, the same as an aristocracy.

The ascendancy of this nomenklatura, and its regnant orthodoxy - political correctness - have had an effect comparable to that of Cromwell's Roundheads. In the words of the old Cavalier song, "old Christmas is kick'd out of Town," and much more with it.

If conservatives in this country do not look forward to the day "when the King enjoys his own again," at least they do to the day when the secular Puritans - the "moralistic prigs" you have so rightly identified them as being - get their come-uppance, and something resembling a traditional order can be restored.

Moral priggishness is part of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the left. John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir) wrote the following passage in his autobiography "Memory Hold-the-Door" (1940) about Britain's once-formidable Liberal party:

"Its dogmas were so completely taken for granted that their presentation partook less of argument than of a tribal incantation. Mr. Gladstone had given it an aura of earnest morality, so that its platforms were its pulpits and its harangues had the weight of sermons. Its members seemed to assume that their opponents must be lacking either in morals or in mind. The Tories were the 'stupid' party; Liberals alone understood and sympathised with the poor; a working man who was not a Liberal was inaccessible to reason, or morally corrupt, or intimidated by laird or employer. I remember a lady summing up the attitude thus: Tories may think they are better born, but Liberals know they are born better."

Of course leftists enjoy being offended and outraged. It's how they reassure themselves of their moral and intellectual superiority. Coulter is not a serious commentator, but she succeeds very well as an entertainer. All she has to do is to tweak that liberal sense of being "born better" to provoke howls of moral high dudgeon from the left. And she'll go on entertaining as long as the howls continue.

TGGP said...

scw, that raises the question of what distinguishes an aristocracy from a nomenklatura.

mtraven said...

scw: legitimacy is an interesting notion. From my distant perspective, it's hard to see what made King Charles any more legitimate than Cromwell; or Tsar Nicholas more legitimate than Lenin, for that matter. All rulers spin fables about how their power descends from God or from the will of the proletariat or whatever mythos suits their needs; it's all the same bullshit underneath.

I'd like the believe that the American democratic myth of legitimacy -- that the government rests on the will of the governed -- is somewhat less of a bullshit legend for the rubes, but it's increasingly hard to hold onto that.

scw said...

Refer to Aristotle on what distinguishes an aristocracy from an oligarchy. The American nomenklatura lack the virtues of aristocrats, viz., aretĂȘ and philotimia. They properly belong to the class of oligarchs. I use the term nomenklatura to describe them because of their resemblance to the Soviet apparatchik class. In the 'thirties, soi-disant liberals excused communists as just being 'liberals in a hurry'; applying the same reasoning, liberals must just be slow commies. Poison is poison, whether it be quick- or slow-acting.

Long usage and the acquiescence (if not the consent) of the governed blesses forms of government with legitimacy. The British monarchy had both; the Puritans came along and upset matters, as a vocal minority often will do; but everyone soon got tired of their hectoring, and they fell. Charles II was restored to the general relief of just about everyone.

It seems to me that the secular Puritans of the present are just about as trying to the patience of the governed as the original Puritans of Cromwell's time were; and they will as surely wear out that patience and be sent packing, if they don't ruin the country first.