Sunday, November 30, 2008

The long shadow of Tail-Gunner Joe....

... as painted on the ground by the folks who need it to remain there forever.

Being clear: I'm not a conservative, and I'm not a Republican, but I am a historian and I do like it when folks who presume to talk history actually stick somewhere close to the facts.

The meme du jour at Delawareliberal today is cassandra's fascination with Neil Gabler's LA Times op-ed attempting to make the case that modern conservatism doesn't go back to Buckley [whom he ignores completely] and Goldwater, but is the spawn of cynically generated fear-mongering politics that can be traced to the secret god of the Republican Party: Senator Joe McCarthy.

There is so much wrong, from a purely historical/factual point of view, with Gabler's take [I can't dignify it with the word thesis, because it isn't] that I'm not going to bother to deconstruct it all.

I'll just settle for one sentence:

Reagan's sunny disposition and his willingness to compromise masked the McCarthyite elements of his appeal, but Reaganism as an electoral device was unique to Reagan and essentially died with the end of his presidency.

Here, Gabler gets it half right [which is about par for his entire article]. Reaganism as an electoral device was in fact unique to Ronald Reagan, because it was one of the more successful cults of personality in 20th Century American politics, matched only by two Democrats: FDR and Bill Clinton. Nobody could do Reagan, and Reagan remained something of an outsider to his own party throughout his career.

But you've got to love the subtle knife [with apologies to Phillip Pullman] that Gabler attempts to stick in here.

Reagan masked the McCarthyite elements of his appeal.

Mr. Gabler gives us only that one sentence assertion, and slides blithely past, because--wait for it--he's full of shit.

Don't trust me. Ask Richard Reeves, whose President Reagan, the Triumph of Imagination, found many things but nothing vaguely McCarthyite about Ronald Reagan. Reeves, for the uninitiated, is probably the absolute best journalist/historian writing on JFK, Nixon, and Reagan. If you haven't read his books, you should. More to the point: Reeves is a professed liberal quite critical of many aspects of Reagan and his presidency--but he somehow missed that McCarthyism Mr. Gabler seems to sniff. [So did Lou Cannon in Governor Reagan or President Reagan, by the way.]

But, you see, Reagan's conservatism is to Mr Gabler's argument what historians call a counterfactual, this niggling little piece of contradictory information that won't go away ... so we'd just best not talk about it very much.

And therein lies the problem of those, like cassandra, who have constructed a personal narrative [I'd call it a meme, but I try not to give either Dennis Dennett or George Lakoff more influence on the public discourse than they deserve] that requires the following generalization:

Conservatives [by which they mean anybody who is not a liberal or a progressive, which is why this interests a Libertarian like me] can only win by creating fear, paranoia, and hate, from which it is only a short step to Conservatives are cowardly, paranoid hate-mongers.

Now I would be the first to admit there's been a lot of GOP fear-mongering during especially the past decade. But let's not go all pristine and virginal about liberal/progressive Democrats, who consistently reinvent themselves because they have to stay one step ahead of their own fear-mongering examples:

John F. Kennedy's cynical exploitation of a missile gap with the Soviet Union that he knew during the election of 1960 did not exist.

Lyndon Johnson's grotesque slander of Barry Goldwater in his little-girl-with-flowers-being-obliterated-in-a-nuclear-blast advertisement.

The dozens of Democrats in the Senate who consistently voted against civil rights legislation throughout the 1960s.

These are the old examples. For the 1990s version, read Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency and take an inside look at the chilling process by which a master political narrative was hatched in the first Clinton administration to demonize Republicans in order to cover up their own organizational and political failings.

[Oh, sorry. I keep forgetting: I'm actually suggesting that people read footnoted, well-researched, academically accepted books rather than op-ed columns off the internet. Shit, I've got to stop that.]

Every incoming administration and its partisans attempts to rewrite history. That, for better or for worse, is the American way of politics. Unfortunately, what's happened since 1992 is that between the Slick Willie-Dubya years the exercise has gotten so cynical and so craven on both sides that it has become completely divorced from any serious form of reality testing--or accepted canons of evidence for that matter.

Thus, the glop that Mr. Gabler writes [much like the glop that Jonah Goldberg pens on the other side] passes among the appropriate set of partisans as real history, real intellectual work.

Which is then passed further on down the food chain until it reaches the blogs and becomes a mantra for people on both sides who have been taught to see other American citizens with different political and social ideas as enemies to be vanquished and not partners in the ongoing narrative of the United States.

Demonization: it's obviously not just for Rush, Sean, and Ann any more.

he spits, walks away

No damn wonder I'll stick with the crazy Libertarians.


tom said...

"I'd call it a meme, but I try not to give either Dennis Dennett or George Lakoff more influence on the public discourse than they deserve"

Fear not. Those two have no special claim on it, except perhaps among the etymologically ignorant. The term "meme" was invented by Richard Dawkins and first used in his book "The Selfish Gene", although the concept dates back much further, eg. Leibniz's monads and Muwakkals in Sufi philosophy. Darwin discussed something meme-like in his early notebooks, but eventually abandoned it as unscientific.

Brian Miller said...

The thesis that modern conservatism is directly descendant from Joe McCarthy strikes me as the mirror image of the Coulter/Hannity/Limbaugh thesis that modern liberalism is directly descendant from Karl Marx.

Just demonizing by both sides to throw red meat to the illiberal, illiterate base.

(And yes, if I hear one more right-winger describe Obama as a Marxist, I will tear his arms off. Get back to me when Obama is proposing the elimination of all private property, the creation of collective farms and industrial colonies, and the eradication of privately held currency as a means of exchange, OK?)

Steve Newton said...

I'm aware that Dawkins first coined the term "meme," but it was Dennis Dennett who advanced the first serious argument that memes exist and evolve according the rules of natural selection, provided a supposed mechanism for their selection, and posited it as something more than a metaphor (although he has since backed off on that quite a bit).

My point is that Dennett and then Lakoff introduced this to the liberal/progressive hoi poloi as the new "hot" term a few years back, and it is used very self-consciously as a one-upsmanship exercise over those who don't recognize the reference.

Pressed, none of them could actually tell you about the derivation of the term.

tom said...

Ok, I'll give you Dennett (his name is Daniel, BTW, not Dennis) as far as serious arguments go, but as for fringe references, even I was tossing the word meme around pretty casually on the usenet a decade before Lakoff's book and 5-6 years before Darwin's Dangerous Idea though I understand Dennett published his meme theory in some articles prior to the book.

I first encountered the idea of memes having viral characteristics and evolving via natural selection in non-fiction books by Robert Anton Wilson written in the early-mid 80's and novels as far back as Illuminatus and/or Schroedinger's Cat. And though he never uses the term, Tom Robbins certainly explores the theory pretty extensively in his novels, and all the good ones were written in the 70's & 80's.

The first description of a virulent meme I saw (though I didn't recognize it as such until years later) was in a short story written by Fritz Leiber in 1958, and the next was The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson (1967).

But this is going way off-topic.

Delaware Watch said...

"Don't trust me. Ask Richard Reeves, whose President Reagan, the Triumph of Imagination, found many things but nothing vaguely McCarthyite about Ronald Reagan."

To argue from silence.

* * *

"The thesis that modern conservatism is directly descendant from Joe McCarthy strikes me as the mirror image of the Coulter/Hannity/Limbaugh thesis that modern liberalism is directly descendant from Karl Marx."

Was this deliberate irony? Excessive red baiting does descend from the McCarthy era. We saw it again when Obama was called a socialist.

Steve Newton said...

Don't mistake my phrasing for Reeves' conclusions--Reeves explicitly distinguishes Reagan from that type of tactic

I don't deny there was red-baiting in 2008. I don't deny there was red-baiting in the 1950s or in 1919 for that matter.

But the occurrence of the same tactics in different times does not justify drawing a causal link between them without significant evidence (which Gabler does) is no more justifiable than....

...arguing from silence.

Brian Miller said...

Was this deliberate irony?

No it wasn't.

It was pointing out how ridiculous the rhetoric from Demopublicans and Republicrats has become.

Republicrat: Democrats hate America!

Demopublicans: Republicans hate the working class!

Republicrat: Terrorist-lover!

Demopublican: Child bomber!

Republicrat: Bin Laden surrenderer!

Demopublican: Orphan starver!

Republicrat: Communist!

Demopublican: McCarthyite!

And the supreme irony is that after all this witless screaming, Democrats and Republicans work in a "bipartisan" way to invade other countries, hand over trillions of dollars in taxpayer cash to giant corporations, plunge us further into debt in foolish foreign wars, and piss away tens of billions in pork barrel spending.

So yes, those of us who aren't caught up in the whole "partisan to the death" ridiculousness find the entire thing quite tedious -- and only ironic in the sense that after you guys scream at each other, your policies and the results of those policies are more-or-less identical.