Political activists are regularly outraged when their opponents mistreat them. Well, I’m shocked that they are shocked. They must not understand their own axioms. But let me back up and lay the groundwork by describing those things that seem obvious to me about political activity, and the personality type of the activist.
Politics is the struggle between two visions of justice, which share the common assumption that force can accomplish the vision. In one vision, that of the political left, injustice is mostly represented by an incorrect distribution of the money. In the vision from the political right, the first group is just a pack of thieves. Both sides think the other needs to be cudgeled.
So all daily tactics are part of a holy war over the control of the coercive power, to control the money. In the end, it’s just a simple brawl over money, but the activists in each camp do see it in stark moral terms. Either the world is broken and we need the gold to make the world right; or the pillaging barbarians are at the gate, demanding the gold.
The political conflict is, for activists, an absolute moral vision, and so it requires victory at all costs. Politics is jihad. There might seem to be an occasional compromise but those are tactical pauses, in which both sides use the calm to reload.
The two visions cannot be reconciled, because visions are rarely formed by argument or reason, and so rarely change in response to argument or reason. They are pre-cognitive, aesthetic constructs, formed in early childhood, and if you believe in them enough to fight for them you constantly select evidence from your environment to confirm your lifelong vision.
On the left, your side looks to you like a band of saints just building an earthly paradise. Just imagine how beatific it shall be; it is the pearl of great price, this just community , and for it a man or woman will sell all. You are on the barricades in Les Miserable, singing anthems and waving flags. Your hair, despite your beret, is swept back by your own intrepidity. Your eye is like a raptor’s, your talon is clenched around arrows, you are gaunt with ascetic devotion. It’s all stronger than heroin.
Visions are also all-embracing. You sincerely think the other side is either crazy or malicious. There is no terrain outside the vision for the conscience to find a critical foothold. So all political activists are indistinguishable from that long-recognized type, the fanatic. Only the dilettante is squeamish. Since your vision of the final state of society has in it all that you’ve ever imagined of justice, even a transient sacrifice of momentary conscience is justified by the equation in your head. This sly word, that hyperbole, this heightening of my opponents wart, that ignoring of his humanity, — these small mischiefs the price of cosmic justice. Done. Misdemeanors only, since you need the gold to make the world right.
So political candidates and nominees in America are routinely slandered and demonized by tactics that all the activists teach their own children are immoral. Each side sees the other candidates or nominees as willing enemy combatants, intellectual terrorists, but they see their own as smart, qualified servants of the just cause. Therefore, the tactics of the other side look devilish, while the tactics of your own side seem fair, given the larger context of the vision. All armies will commit atrocities if the only other choice is slavery; all political activists demonize people on the other side who are better people than themselves. So both sides become devils, and they are all fighting against devils.
Most soldiers on both sides are congenitally incapable of fairly imagining their opponents’ vision, and those who are so capable actually make bad soldiers and get drummed out early, so the army is selected for hysteria. As your comrades get shot, your picture of the other side as demonic gets confirmed, and embedded deeper and deeper into your emotional life. That’s how war works. You start – start! – with the other side de-humanized, and the process of fighting actually confirms and embellishes the gargoyles you see across the wire. People who enlist for either side tend, over time, to subsume their consciences to the victory of their vision. This is how war works. Everything, including the integrity of language itself (cf Orwell), is eventually submerged by the Cause, and the more clearly you see your vision, the more you see your friends wounded, the more quickly and happily you drown your conscience.
Any more sophisticated depiction of a political fight is propaganda, to be consumed by spectators.
Activists find it useful to label themselves something else, because soldiers long ago discovered that if you look like a non-combatant you can knock off opponents easier. So, today for example, we get such amusing labels as ‘advocacy journalist” and “political blogger” and “‘policy wonk” and so on. If you can pretend to be lounging at the side of the battlefield, just writing down what is happening, you can shoot the enemies of your vision, the killers of your friends, when they are not looking. No matter the label, these are killers all, for a vision of who should possess the money.
The side that is losing at the moment bemoans the state of the country, talks about it going to hell, wails about the Eden now lost, and so on. In five minutes, the battle shifts and the wail erupts from the other camp. The wail is a tactic. The political battle is no different now than it was in 1960, 1860, or than it was in Athens centuries before Christ. People behave a certain way in wars.
But what the activists think about their enemies is never true. Political visions, though rooted deeply in personal psychologies, have little to do with what we would traditionally describe as goodness of character. These two things – political vision and personal goodness – seem to run on nearly independent tracks within one psyche. And this lack of correlation between politics and personal goodness is important. Both sides passionately resist this knowledge, because it is structurally necessary that the other side be devils.
You doubt this? You’re a true believer yourself, I take it. Then do a little thought experiment with me.
Imagine you are caught in a natural disaster, like the flood which inundated New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Imagine you found yourself in a band of ad-hoc rescuers, working 18 hours a day for a week, taking survivors off rooftops, all of you risking your lives together to save people you don’t know. Imagine you found yourselves of one mind, exhausted together, trusting each other completely in that crisis atmosphere. It happens, thankfully.
Suppose a year later, someone organizes a reunion, because as the horror wore off you began to remember that week as a strangely golden and precious experience. The foxhole bond needs honoring. You get together in a nice hotel, and this time there is leisure to get to know each other. As the evening wears on, do you think the people you respected the most on those rooftops will be found to agree with your politics? You do realize, don’t you, that political allegiance will be distributed randomly among your heroic group?
So activists of all types are deluded, because they need to be. You can’t shoot people, but you can shoot devils.
Activists are different in private than they are in public. In private, they are jocular about the blood on their hands. In public they behave classier – not for the benefit of the enemy army but for the neutrals. I took all this time to develop the context of political arguments because that jihad context is studiously hidden by both sides, in order to recruit civilians. Activists are known by their public disengenuous voice.
Disingenuous, in the dictionary, means lacking candor, insincere. But this is imprecise, and so throws away a useful word into a tangle of synonyms. The disingenuous voice is not just insincere; it is fake sincere, it is faux-innocent. It is the voice which extracts an assertion from its bloody context and offers it as clean.
Here is what to listen for: the disingenuous voice talks about some moment in this war as if it is not a war. All such statements of the form “our guy is for the children” are intentionally ignoring the larger political fight in an effort to utterly fictionalize the moment.
This is for the benefit of the civilians, who have not enlisted yet, and who need to be recruited to feed and clothe your army. If it looks to them like your army is building bridges and roads — not shooting the other side to get the gold – then they’ll more likely feed and clothe you.
So: imagine a nominee for a cabinet position. Suppose the position concerns health care. Let’s stipulate that he is brilliant, a visionary, a good man, a father perhaps, a husband perhaps (I simply don’t know), understands the American health system better than anyone alive. Stipulate that he tells good jokes, sacrifices for his family, loves puppies, and weeps at every Nora Ephron movie. Add your stipulation here.
He may actually think he is just being asked to fix health care, or however he would express it. The combat engineer thinks he is merely a builder of bridges. The quartermaster thinks he is a merely a feeder of villages. They probably are sincere in their work, enjoy it, are good at it, and so on. All sincere, all good, but all cogs in a killing machine. How war works.
To talk about this or that episode in American politics as if it is any less than a skirmish in the war to own all the wealth in America is to be deceptive. Mr. Nominee, the agency itself, the programs of the day themselves, the use of words like ‘compassion’ and “suffering”, the high-toned arguments about the legitimate powers of the State — these are all instruments in the war. The activist frames the debate. The distinction between the journalist and the activist is that the journalist does not speak in the disingenuous voice. (Note: most ostensible “journalists” on television are activists, and expert in the disingenuous voice.)
The disingenuous voice talks about some moment in the war as if it is a moment about building bridges or feeding villagers.