Coming a bit late to the subject of moral panics, but I wanted to take a look at the deep fear that seems to recrudesce from generation to generation. Orwell described society as consisting of the High, the Middle and the Low. The High wish to remain where they are, the Middle wish to change places with the High, and the Low wish to abolish all distinctions and create a classless society. That’s a pretty nice summary, but it misses one crucial part – the Middle’s desperate fear of falling to the level of the Low.
Of course, historically this fear has been part of the True Right – the ancient Right of Church-and-King, of a hierarchical society, of Thomas Carlyle and Julius Evola. The Middle that bodyguarded the High had a real terror of the Low. This terror can be found in one form or another back through history – the fear of the bloody jacqueries, etc.
One of the bigger voices in this tradition of toryism is probably Charles Dickens. I’ll quote a little from Barnaby Rudge:
If Bedlam gates had been flung open wide, there would to have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. There were men there who danced and trampled on the beds of flowers as though they trod down human enemies, and wrenched them from their stalks, like savages who twisted human necks. There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their heads and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and other who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot, melting his head like wax… But of all the howling throng not one learnt mercy from, or sickened at, these sights; nor was the fierce, besotted, senseless rage of one man glutted.
Orwell commented on this passage: You might almost think you were reading a description of ‘Red’ Spain by a partisan of General Franco. Quite.
What is interesting to me is that today, the fear of the Low is almost exclusive to the Western Left, in particular in the United States.
I quite like Bill Maher, but I have real trouble listening to him whenever the subject turns to the American working class. Whenever he turns to this subject he sounds a certain kind of note. He describes a strange people who come from elsewhere. Who speak funny. Who have odd beliefs. Who have strange cuisine. Who – and this is a dead giveaway – have bad hygiene and depraved sexual habits… Of course, when pressed, he’ll admit that, oh some of them are quite nice, of course, just a bit simple and easily mislead…
This isn’t no better than racism. It’s no different than racism. The worst religious strife is often between different branches of the same religion, and the worst racial frenzies occur between groups that are most similar.
I’m a fan of Slate Star Codex. Alexander is an interesting writer, a good thinker and better able to argue things calmly than, say, I. However, he is somewhat myopic in his left eye. One thing that’s been interesting in his recent stuff is his groping toward the realization that, hard as it may be to grasp, the United States has a class system:
(Something I find amusing is that the US right pretends that race isn’t a thing, and the US left pretends that class isn’t a thing.)
Here he reviews articles written by about ‘White People’ that are all authored by white Americans:
White People Are Ruining America? White. White People Are Still A Disgrace? White. White Guys: We Suck And We’re Sorry? White. Bye Bye, Whiny White Dudes? White. Dear Entitled Straight White Dudes, I’m Evicting You From My Life? White. White Dudes Need To Stop Whitesplaining? White. Reasons Why Americans Suck #1: White People? White.
We’ve all seen articles and comments and articles like this. Some unsavory people try to use them to prove that white people are the real victims or the media is biased against white people or something. Other people who are very nice and optimistic use them to show that some white people have developed some self-awareness and are willing to engage in self-criticism.
I was tickled by a conversation between two doctors I recently heard in a hospital hallway:
Doctor 1: My daughter just got a full scholarship into a really good university in Georgia.
Doctor 2: Congratulations!
Doctor 1: Thanks! But I’m hoping she’ll choose somewhere closer to home.
Doctor 2: Why? Because you want to be able to visit her more?
Doctor 1: There’s that. But the other problem is that the South is full of those people.
Doctor 2: So? Colleges are like their own world. Your daughter probably won’t even encounter many of them.
Doctor 1: I know. But I keep worrying that just by being there, she’ll make friends with them, and then end up bringing one home as a boyfriend.“Those people” is my replacement, not the original term used by the doctor involved. The doctor involved said a much less polite word.
She said “fundies”.
And the realization slowly dawns that ‘white people’ actually means ‘working class people‘.
In the US, of course, populist white working class rage has on occasion been truly ugly. The KKK being the prominent example. However, it should be noticed that this association of the working class, of the Low, with racism is really very convenient for the Middle and the High.
Which brings me to the Tea Party. There isn’t a clever-clogs commentator that doesn’t know that the Tea Party is just a bunch of racist losers spurred on by the existence of a black President.
Except there’s a problem with this. The Republican party is about 2% black in its membership and vote compared with an overall 11% for the country as a whole. The Tea Party is 6% black, and otherwise racially representative.
Moreover, two of the Tea Party’s most supported politicians are Herman Cain:
and Allen West:
This doesn’t change the fact that barrels of irresponsible paranoid nonsense have been flung at President Obama by the Tea Party ranks. Yet it is easy to misinterpret this. ‘Who does he think he is, how dare he talk to us this way, he should go back where he came from’ is certainly the way people talk about race, but it is also the way people talk about class.
Obama’s problem isn’t dark skin so much as it is blue blood. If you just look a his background – the very best schools and Universities, straight into government work and right to the top – it is the very definition of American aristocracy. Conversely, if you look at the backgrounds of Herman Cain and Allen West they are much, much closer to the American blue collar mold. Allen West in particular, the third generation of his family to serve in the military, is practically an embodiment of that type. The Tea Party movement happily lets class trump race in that respect.
The War Nerd once wrote about why Obama got zero credit for whacking bin Laden:
Suppose Samuel L. Jackson was president when the SEALs got Osama; I guarantee you, even the nastiest racists you can find — like, say, a tow-truck driver in SE Missouri — would be man-crushing Samuel L. when he went on tv to do a death gloat over Osama, hugging the widescreen at the vision of a big angry black dude, OUR angry black dude, spitting on Osama’s bloody corpse.
Obama’s from a way smaller and less popular minority: the sane, self-controlled type.
Does anyone remember the huge kerfuffle about Joe the Plumber and Barack Obama? Mark Steyn, whom I have come to think of as the Antonio Gramsci of the American right, wrote as follows:
Joe the Plumber expressed his misgivings about the President-in-waiting’s tax inclinations, and the O-Man smoothly reassured him: “It’s not that I want to punish your success,” he told the bloated plutocrat corporate toilet executive. “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance for success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
In that sentence about you spreading the wealth around, there’s another typing error: that “you” should read “I, Barack.” “You” will have no say in it. Joe the Plumber might think he himself can spread it around just fine, but everyone knows “trickle-down economics” don’t work.
Strip away the right wing fury and what’s fascinating is how closely this parallels Orwell’s description of Charles Dickens.
If there have got to be masters and servants, how much better that the master should be Mr. Pickwick and the servant should be Sam Weller. Better still, of course, if servants did not exist at all — but this Dickens is probably unable to imagine.
Or, translated into modern terms, as American conservative intellectuals would say “If there have got to be masters and servants, so much better that the master should be Barack Obama. Better still, of course, if servants did not exist at all – but this [insert US left whipping boy du jour here] is probably unable to imagine.”
A great deal of US right-wing rhetoric is like this – that is, like that of a lifelong exponent of democratic socialism.
This isn’t to say that thinking with your class can’t make you stupid in much the same way as thinking with your race can (okay, not as stupid, maybe…) Consider the Sarah Palin phenomenon. In reading all of her supporters, I have never come across them ever citing anything memorable that she’s said or proposed or done in a political arena – for the simple reason that those examples don’t exist. What they have focused on isn’t what she’s done but what she is. Granted she may be a know-nothing populist demagogue, but she’s a working class know-nothing populist demagogue. In the same way that many black Americans are not defending Barack Obama, they are defending the first black President, many were not defending Palin, they were defending a working class woman being attacked by snooty elites.
People forget just how hysterical and off the charts the anti-Palin frenzy was. Here’s Nick Cohen (no fan of the Tea Party) writing in The Guardian (ditto):
For once, the postmodern theories so many of them were taught at university are a help to the rest of us. As a Christian, conservative anti-abortionist who proved her support for the Iraq War by sending her son to fight in it, Sarah Palin was ‘the other’ – the threatening alien presence they defined themselves against. They might have soberly examined her reputation as an opponent of political corruption to see if she was truly the reformer she claimed to be. They might have gently mocked her idiotic creationism, while carefully avoiding all discussion of the racist conspiracy theories of Barack Obama’s church.
But instead of following a measured strategy, they went berserk. On the one hand, the media treated her as a sex object. The New York Times led the way in painting Palin as a glamour-puss in go-go boots you were more likely to find in an Anchorage lap-dancing club than the Alaska governor’s office.
On the other, liberal journalists turned her family into an object of sexual disgust: inbred rednecks who had stumbled out of Deliverance. Palin was meant to be pretending that a handicapped baby girl was her child when really it was her wanton teenage daughter’s. When that turned out to be a lie, the media replaced it with prurient coverage of her teenage daughter, who was, after all, pregnant, even though her mother was not going to do a quick handover at the maternity ward and act as if the child was hers.
In the same way that it is one thing to say that Barack Obama is utterly unsuited to the role of President, a basic failure who blames others for his mistakes, and quite another to start muttering dark stuff about his parentage and secret allegiances, it is one thing to dismiss Sarah Palin as an ignorant demagogue and opportunist who might have dragged the US into war with Russia, and quite another to start making the crudest kinds of sexual innuendos about her and her daughters.
For the kind of centre-left liberals of the American middle class, the Tea Party represents a deep terror: the fear that one day, the Low will rise against them.
[I was going to expand this and discuss the UKIP phenomenon, but I’m in enough trouble as it is, so I’ll leave that to another time.]