When You Find the Bad Guy in the Mirror
It’s not necessarily all that brave to call out the other team.
Dear Reader (excluding anyone who wants to mark the 9/11 anniversary with a “First Responder Flatbread”),
In the 1993 movie Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays a bitter defense contractor who becomes unhinged. The plot doesn’t really matter, but the iconic moment comes when Douglas is finally caught by a cop and says, in authentic shock, “I’m the bad guy?”
The movie was moderately well received by critics and generated a good deal of controversy because it was too polemical. These were the early days of the “angry white males” panic of the 1990s, which went into overdrive after the Oklahoma City bombing—and Bill Clinton’s attempt to pin some of the blame on Rush Limbaugh and conservatives. Prior to that the long-simmering gender gap had blown up. A Washington Post wire piece immediately after the 1994 midterm election proclaimed, “Polls show Angry White Males helped GOP.” I can’t find a link, but it’s in LexisNexis.
The interesting thing about the article—which, you’ll just have to take my word for it, is utterly typical of the political conversation at the time—is that there’s literally nothing in the piece that supports the word “angry.” It begins, “Two years ago, it was the Year of the Woman. This time around, the election might become known as the Year of the Man, or the Year of the Angry Man.”
The rest of the article just runs through the numbers of how the GOP did better in attracting male votes, in part because the GOP ran on issues like gun rights that appeal disproportionately to men.
Women’s party preferences among these candidates were unchanged from
1990, but the results represent a significant shift for men, a majority of
whom voted for Democratic House candidates four years ago. And they
represent the return to the political stage of the Angry White Male, who
first surfaced in the mid-1980s as a key player in American politics.
Now, I’m not going to argue that some white male voters weren’t “angry”—for good reasons or bad. I’m sure many were, and lord knows plenty of white male voters are downright ornery these days. I’m also not going to wade into a media bias harangue about how the press was never troubled by “angry white females” or that few attributed Democratic success to ugly, irrational, feminine, anger. I will say that “anger” is an utterly amoral descriptor absent context. Surely, its salience depends on what you’re actually angry about. In the Year of the Woman, female candidates did really well in part by fomenting and exploiting anger at the Clarence Thomas hearings. This did not yield handwringing meditations on the dangers of preying on voters’ anger, resentments, or fear.
It’s sort of like when people say they reject “hate.” I dunno, I think it’s fine to hate some things, especially, you know, hateful things. I’m not going to get all scoldy of someone who says, “I hate the KKK,” even if they have a bumper sticker that says, “Reject hate,” or, “Hate is not a family value.” I get—and admire—the Christian admonition to hate the sin and love the sinner. But on a practical, human level, I’ve got no problem with people who say they hate their torturer or rapist. I’d give a lot of slack to any Ukrainian who says, “I hate Vladimir Putin,” while I’d actually think any Ukrainian who said, “Hate the authoritarian warmongering but love the authoritarian warmonger” was a bit off.
Of course, lots of people mean something different when they talk about angry voters or the politics of hate. They mean those people have bad or irrational motives—not like us. For years, I was accused of being a “Clinton hater.” I honestly don’t think I was, but even if I were that didn’t mean the facts or arguments I made were wrong. Love Bill Clinton or hate him, he still played baron-and-the-milkmaid with the intern all the same.
Today, I get called a “Trump hater,” as if saying that somehow erases any merit to my criticisms. Trump certainly subscribes to a version of this illogic. When Bill Barr told him there was no evidence the election was stolen, Trump replied, “You must hate Trump.” Similarly, my emotional state with regard to Trump didn’t make him abscond with classified materials or any of the other facts I point to..
Now, I certainly think that some claims of “derangement syndrome” attributed to Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump detractors by their defenders sometimes have some merit. Louise Mensch, for instance, clearly suffered from Trump derangement syndrome, just as Naomi Wolf suffered from Bush derangement syndrome. But the measure of derangement is in the arguments and claims they make, not in the motives. Disliking Trump didn’t prove Mensch was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Y’know what did? All that crazy talk about how the marshal of the Supreme Court was about to arrest Trump because vests have no sleeves and box turtles smell like elderberries (I may have the details of her claims slightly off, but you get the point).
But there’s simply no transitive property connecting the objectively deranged and the non-deranged just because they share some quantum of animosity for the same person.
In other words, a lot of this is just shoot-the-messenger stuff. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that one of the inventions of the communists and other totalitarians was to dispute facts by questioning motives. While she was certainly right about the totalitarians, I suspect this tactic is as old as politics.
And so is the tendency to work from the assumption that your side is nobly motivated but the other side is not only wrong, but evil in its motivations.
Again, plenty of people have evil motives because evil exists. But even most evil people don’t think they’re evil. Even most Nazis—very bad motives there—didn’t set out saying, “Let’s be villains! Let’s be remembered for centuries as the bad guys and be depicted by British actors in World War II movies as deliberately horrible people.”
It takes a lot of effort to even contemplate the possibility that we’re the baddies.
That’s what always really bothered me about Falling Down. Yeah, I was annoyed by a lot of the heavy handed editorializing and all that. But what really got to me was how easy it is to point at the people you don’t like or don’t agree with and say, “They’re the bad guys.” Just to be clear: I’m not saying the people who do that are always wrong. I’m saying it usually takes precious little moral or intellectual courage to “speak truth to power” to the powerful forces you don’t like.
This is why I hate the perennial political preening at the Oscars so, so, much. Some liberal actor tells a room full of other liberal actors, as well as producers, and directors exactly what they want to hear and get lionized as a hero for saying it. It’s bravery on the cheap.
Years ago, George Clooney proclaimed, “Yes, I’m a liberal, and I’m sick of it being a bad word. I don’t know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues.” Now, we can parse what he meant by “liberals” and “social issues,” but a fair reading suggests he basically means liberals have always been right on at least non-economic or military issues. Without logic-chopping too much, I’d be slightly open to that claim if he meant classical liberals. But given his progressivism I doubt that’s the case.
And that’s just nonsense as a historical matter, unless, of course, you subscribe to the view that whenever liberals do something bad they cease to be liberals. This is the view of Michael Tomasky. I often chuckle at his claim, made in a pathetic review of my first book, that whenever American liberalism “crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”
If this were true, one would think that when FDR rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps, he ceased to be liberal and the history books would be full of tales of “real” liberals resigning en masse from the Roosevelt administration. I must have missed it when Oliver Wendell Holmes authorized the forced sterilization of “unfit” women in Buck v. Bell and all those liberals jumped ship. We all recall when every liberal who knew anything about liberalism recognized the coercion in busing or forcing nuns to buy birth control and did their best to stop it. And who can forget how that baker who didn’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding was defended by every informed and sincere liberal. Don’t even get me started on Woodrow Wilson.
Democrats did what now?
Which brings me to the current moment. Last week, in the wake of a report cataloging the catastrophic consequences of school closures, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre suggested that Democrats did everything they could to get schools open “in spite of Republicans.” Lots of folks have dunked on this ridiculous claim, though fact checkers seem to be mostly MIA. Obviously, some of this is just partisan B.S..
But underneath it is exactly what I’m talking about. Forget Democrats and Republicans for a second. Liberals–good, decent, as pretty as George Clooney on the inside liberals—were overwhelmingly on the side of keeping schools closed. Teachers unions in particular behaved abhorrently and indefensibly—certainly, at least, in retrospect—in their effort to keep schools closed. When Donald Trump and countless others called for opening schools, they were accused of willingly endangering lives.
Now, while I think some teachers unions are literally villainous, I still don’t think they see themselves that way. And lots of liberals who were wrong—coercively wrong!—about shutdowns and school closings were surely trying to do the right thing as they saw it.
But groupthink married to an invincible and unreflective confidence that your side is always right led to all manner of mistakes. Emily Oster was villainized and attacked for dissenting from the groupthink.
Again, I have no objection to calling out the foibles of those you disagree with. That’s a huge and indispensable part of democratic and political discourse. It’s literally how progress is made in a free society. But an essential ingredient for such progress is an openness to admitting your “side” might be wrong. Epistemic closure is a human failing, not an ideological one. And while it can take courage to call out the people on the other side of an issue, a deeper political courage comes from being willing to admit that no one has a monopoly on political virtue—or facts. Sometimes, it helps to ask, “Am I the bad guy?” And – just sometimes – the answer might be, “Yes.”
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Poor Pippa has had a rough couple days. Yesterday, I took her to the beauty parlor, and as I write this the Fair Jessica is at the vet with her (and Gracie) for her checkup. Pippa hates both of those places. We’ll make it up to her, but there was a disturbing development. We’ve counted ourselves lucky that Pippa has been entirely immune to the phenomenon of “spaniel rage” (it apparently affects cocker spaniels the most). Pippa has been essentially the world’s most harmless dog. But very rarely, something strange happens with her when she gets separated from Zoë. When she comes back from a solo visit to the vet or the groomer, she can get weirdly and dangerously aggressive with Zoë. Because Zoë has mellowed it’s usually not reciprocated, but in the spirit of “Don’t pull on Superman’s cape,” it would be a very bad idea for Pip to write a check her wigglebutt couldn’t cash with the Dingo.
Yesterday, Pip lunged and growled at Zoë with a sort of “You we’re supposed to provide security!” anger. We kept them separated for a few minutes and it all went away. But there’s just something disquieting about seeing what’s essentially a stuffed toy get all angry. Anyway, beyond that the girls are doing fine. Pippa looks great and Zoë keeps getting her way. And everybody is getting their fair share of scritches in an eternal recurrence kind of way. That said, Pippa may also be trying to murder me.
And now, the weird stuff.