Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"Why is reality-denial turning out so badly . . .?"

It was a couple years ago that John Quiggin and others were discussing "agnotology", a discussion I joined. Now, a couple years later, and Quiggin wonders why this once-successful strategy seems to be crumbling?
The news that Republican members of the Wyoming Legislature wanted the state to investigate buying an aircraft carrier[1] as insurance against a possible collapse of the US seems as good an occasion as any to signify the final descent of the party into irredeemable loopiness. Add to that the revival of birtherism, the inability to deal with Rush Limbaugh, and the absence of any coherent economic policy except tax cuts for the rich and you have a party that has seriously lost touch with reality.


On any standard political calculus, they ought to be cruising towards a clean sweep in November – the economy is still in poor shape, and enthusiasm for Obama has declined massively as a result of policies in areas like civil liberties[2]. Instead, Republican pundits are already giving up on the Presidential election, and even on the Senate, and are starting to focus on whether they can even retain control of the House.[3]
A couple things about Quiggin's post. In comments, several readers take him to task on points two and three, variously (although few quibble about both; there are partisans for each). I'd rather not dive too deeply in to the well of these two points so much as remark that they are peripheral to Quiggin's main point: the Republican Party, as an institution, has invested so much in such a wide variety of reality-denying, it has ceased to function as a viable institution for organizing real political interests and public grievances. In the run up to the mid-term elections in 2010, with the economy still not doing much despite Pres. Obama's assurances that it should be chugging right along; with the drawn-out fight over the Affordable Care Act still rumbling around, the frenzy feeding the starbursting career of Glenn Beck; some tactical application of agnotology seemed to work. With the Republican victory that fall, however, they paid attention to the wrong investments that brought them victory. It wasn't the successful application of craziness like birtherism or tax-cuts-for-the-rich; it was the many failings of the Obama Administration that brought the spoils of victory their way.

Time, as the saying goes, has marched onward. The Affordable Care Act, with its provisions providing expanded health care for people under their parents' insurance plans and those with pre-existing conditions, has already started to show its many benefits. The economy seems to be yawning and stretching, even though it hasn't quite awakened all the way yet. Most of all, the race for the Republican nomination has shown that a once great political party has devolved to a contest among an ego-maniacal mediocrity, a religious zealot obsessed with other people's sex lives, an aging Bircher, and the ephemeral front-runner who seems to stand for whatever he believes at any given moment might win him an applause line.

Reasonable people can disagree, sometimes with gusto, vehemence, and even a bit of vitriol, about things for which they feel much passion. Unreasonable people, however, paint all existence as a struggle between good and evil, usually with themselves as the White Knights (with the "White" having a double meaning in our racist society) standing athwart the varieties of evil and immorality and demanding an end. Thus, for example, Feodor and I can disagree on support for Pres. Obama and some of his policies, yet still remain on friendly terms. Why? Because we share a fundamental respect for certain things, among which first and foremost is reality. Others, it seems, insist that reality is a fungible concept, open to whatever definition fits best the current moment. Thus, for example, when I observed that real socialists were dismissive of Pres. Obama, opposing much of his agenda, I was told by one right-wing blogger that "socialist" has many definitions, and I was privileging my own; he was using his own, therefore the President is a socialist.

How do you deal with something like that?

You ignore it.

That isn't cowardice. Acting as if something that is not real in fact is real only enables the on-going insanity. I would no more choose to discuss matters with someone who insists reality is whatever he chooses to say it is than I would trust a medical doctor who didn't accept neo-Darwinian evolution.

There is the way things actually are. There is the way we human beings choose to talk about them. The two never - quite - meet up, and there is always a need for a bit of space, some humility if you will, to give reality the room it needs to intrude upon our most cherished beliefs. For the Republican Party as it currently exists, "ideology" - left and right, conservative and liberal - not longer serves to define them. Indeed, voters and many office-holders among the Republican Party, have left politics, the negotiation of power relationships within a society, to one side altogether.

The short answer to Quiggin should be clear enough, regardless of political preference, party identification, or any other identifier: Reality denying is turning out badly because reality always comes around and kicks our asses. We may not like that; we may not acknowledge what has happened as precisely that, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Virtual Tin Cup

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