Saturday, September 01, 2007

Just A River In Egypt

--by Sara

It's been a hell of a summer for social conservatives. Their religious and political leadership has been caught with its pants down -- literally or figuratively -- at the rate of about one per week for the past couple months now. David Vitter. Bob Allen. Glenn Murphy. Larry Craig. (And that's just on the sex front: we're not even getting into the financial improprieties of Ted Stevens and his gang from Alaska.)

Glenn Greenwald's Thursday piece describes the predictably self-serving and tortured twisting and turning that's going on as the right-wing blogosphere tries to reconcile their cherished "moral values" with the requirement to support Republicans at all costs. After all, there comes a point where denial just doesn't work anymore -- and some of them, at least, apparently realize they're just about there.

But for quite a few conservative subgroups, that point is still way off in the distance -- and denial is just a river in Egypt. I'd like to talk a bit about how that's shaking out.

News Flash: Hypocrisy Is Morally Wrong
Those of us in the reality-based world have a very clear and logical response to hypocrisy. The comments thread in Dave's post below on Larry Craig showed this reaction in full bloom. We expect people to walk their talk. People whose actions don't square with their stated moral code cannot, and should not, be trusted. We understand that people of good will can have moments of weakness where they miss the intended mark (I'm talkin' to you, Bill Clinton); but when people have built their entire careers demonizing people in public for the exact same stuff they're doing themselves in private, we reserve the right to call them out as hypocrites.

Beyond that: We actually think hypocrisy is morally wrong. The right-wing bloggers seem to be having a real hard time with this idea; but out here on our side, we're quite clear about it. Hypocrisy bespeaks a lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge -- a loose relationship with objective truth that's unacceptably dangerous in anyone with power. A person who can lie to himself that blatantly can reasonably be expected to lie the electorate as well. A person who lets their ideology blind them to the honest truths of the human condition cannot make good policy for the rest of us to live by. A person who carves the rest of the world into "good" and "evil" based on criteria they refuse to apply to themselves is completely incapable of understanding, let alone enforcing, equal rights under law. Hypocrisy is the enemy of wisdom and compassion; and, no matter what your form of government, it leads to disastrous decision-making and epic folly. A continued history of overt hypocrisy with no evidence of subsequent growth should, all on its own, automatically disqualify anyone from public office.

This is what "moral clarity" looks like on the progressive side. But, as I said, out on the right, they're really struggling. This struggle is playing out in three different ways -- at least two of which are non-intuitive, and all of which have implications for what could happen next.

By their strategies shall you know them.

No Conscience, No Hypocrisy, No Problem
Longtime readers may remember that I once wrote a taxonomy of authoritarians that separated them into three groups. The smallest group, as Bob Altemeyer told us last year, is the high-social dominance (high-SDO) leaders -- the handful of amoral tyrant wannabes who think equality is for suckers and other people are there to be manipulated out of whatever they can be taken for. In his 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean guessed that most of the people now being caught with their hands in the cookie jar would fall into this category.

These people aren't going to feel genuine remorse for their actions...mainly because they're constitutionally incapable of feeling remorse at all. While most of us -- left and right -- feel tremendous internal tension when our actions don't square with our personal beliefs, that's not a problem these guys have. Because that dissonance requires that one actually have personal beliefs in the first place. And they're simply not burdened by that issue.

Being untroubled by a conscience makes it easy for them to tell people whatever they want to hear. If what people want to hear is "God hates fags," they'll sell that line with the required conviction -- even when they're personally cruising public restrooms and paging pages in their off hours. There's no dissonance there to be felt. Their lives are governed by one consistent and unwavering interest: to manipulate others in order to get their needs met. Since that's the only real priority there is -- and all their actions serve that end -- there's no conflict in their minds at all.

I've written before that we need to get a whole lot better about identifying high-SDO types early, and keeping them away from the levers of power. Unfortunately, they're obsessively drawn to both political and religious leadership -- so the rest of us need get lightening fast at knowing 'em when we see 'em, and act swiftly and surely to end their careers before they get too far along. (Some pointers for how to do this are here.)

A high SDO's first instinct is to defend anyone with power...right up until the moment that his own interests might be furthered by betraying his erstwhile friends. Right now, you can hear their voices loudly and clearly in the right-wing conversation: they're the ones trying hardest to minimize these scandals. "It's not so bad," they say. "After all, Clinton was a pervert, too" -- an attempt at moral equivalency that reveals their complete incompetence at moral calculus. Since most high-SDOs have personal lives that don't brook too much examination, they're also very eager to change the subject. "Um...uh...oh, look! Mexicans! Terrorists! Iran!"

Our Leader Said It. I Believe it. That Settles It.
The second group is the hard-core right-wing authoritarian followers (RWA followers, for short), also identified through Altemeyer's work and described in Dean's book. Because their first impulse is to follow their high-SDO leaders implicitly, they can be expected to discount the truth of the allegations and savagely blame the victims -- all while wrapping themselves in the mantle of their own victimhood.

For these people, it's all about denial. The allegations were bogus. Craig's taped confession was faked. They also get to work their cherished stabbed-in-the-back meme: the Democrats set these guys up -- you know they're always out to get us. The subtext, now as always, is: our leaders can do no wrong. And besides, however fucked up they are, they're still moral paragons compared to those scheming libruls. The logic of high-RWA followers is essentially tribal, and more than a bit paranoid. Anybody who believes like us gets a pass. Anybody who doesn't is out to get us.

Those of us on the progressive side who think that this wave of scandal is finally going to bitch-slap these people back to reality are doomed to be very disappointed. Just give it up now, because it's not gonna happen. The only kind of assault these people register is direct, personal, deep betrayal that creates an obvious, tangible loss for them. Politicians and preachers can (and routinely do) rape their daughters and swindle their mothers' fortunes away; but even that's not quite close enough to home for most of them. Until there's a betrayal that creates a quantifiable personal hit to their own well-being, they'll almost always find ways to wave it all off.

Even more frustrating: among the Christianist RWAs, these kinds of troubles generally tend to raise a leader's stock, not tank it. Fundamentalist Christians know in their bones that all humans are essentially depraved. They can't possibly cast stones at these guys; because there, but for the grace of God, go any of us. Their entire religion rests on stories of humiliation, loss, and redemption by faith. Such testimonies are the staple of every fundamentalist worship service, and they never fail to move people to tears.

Thus, a political or religious leader who succumbs to temptation is typically made more credible, not less, by these events. He's now made a personal sojourn into the deepest abyss -- places few Christians have ever gone -- and met the Devil face-to-face. After a suitable period of rehabilitation (it only took Ted Haggard three short weeks) he'll be able to share his powerful new testimony with others -- for a hefty speaking fee, of course -- for the rest of his life. It's perverse, but true: the worse the depravity you can describe, the better and more marketable the tale.

Voters, of course, are less forgiving. Politicians like Craig and Vitter probably won't get elected again; and Allen and Murphy have probably worked their last campaigns. But they all stand to make out quite handsomely as a direct result of their troubles: the wonderful world of wingnut welfare and the fundamentalist talk circuit will soon provide enough money and ego candy to salve whatever disgrace they may feel now. (Access to that generous and accepting audience is one reason so many disgraced public figures "find Jesus" in the aftermath of scandal. It's the only market that will still pay up to buy their story.)

For both of the above groups, these scandals will create exactly zero long-term consequences. The high-SDO leaders will either return to the bosom of the faithful, or find other groups to exploit. The high-RWA followers will forgive and forget, as they always do. We could have another scandal every week until the 2008 election (and, the way things are going, we very well might) -- but it won't change a thing for any of these people.

Just Tell Us The Truth. Please.
But authoritarians comprise something less than one-third of all Americans; and the above two groups are only about half of that. Which means that there's a third group -- maybe 12-15% of the country -- that's looking at this moral meltdown, and may actually be taking the right lessons to heart.

In the posts linked to above, I've called these "soft-core authoritarians." They're usually people who didn't start life on the far-right; but somehow over the past 30 years ended up there. Hippies scared them, but they liked Reagan. They think the Democrats will tax them, and give their money away to people who don't work. They listened to Rush and Billo, because they were all that was on the radio and TV. Their friends at the bar, the community center, or the seniors home were all conservative. Very often, they hit a bad patch in life, and found the support they needed at a fundamentalist church. One way or another, they got pulled into the orbit of authoritarian religion and politics, and have stayed there ever since.

But, even though they're roused by the powerful emotional rhetoric and imagery of the far right, they also retain enough of a functioning conscience to know hypocrisy when they see it. And those people are taking serious notice of this growing mountain of malfeasance and scandal, as this discussion on Daily Kos makes evident.

It's not going down well. Across the country, there are decent, modest social conservatives who don't like folks who say one thing and do another; and have nothing but contempt for people who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. (If you ask them, they'll tell you it's why they became Republicans in the first place.) Against the backdrop of Iraq and Katrina and the parade of lying Bush Administration officials, and against the failure of the promises they've been hearing from the GOP for 30 years, they're finally looking at the whole lying mess and wondering: "Who are these guys? And why should we continue to believe anything they say?"

Greenwald's post includes some of these voices, too: prominent right-wing bloggers whose remaining attachment to reason was finally strong enough that they could no longer ignore their faction's flaming hypocrisy problem. When the radical right's own spokespeople start fessing up in the face of mounting evidence, it's a good sign that this endless wave of scandal is making at least a small dent in the wall of IOKIYAR denial.

These are the people the progressive movement needs to be talking to -- and this moral meltdown is a tremendous opening that's making more than a few of them more open to hearing our side of the story. But we also need to bear in mind that there are limits to how far this can take us. We may be horrified now at the sheer volume of the hypocrisy. But we're probably going to be even more horrified later as we realize, in the weeks and months to come, that there are vast numbers of people who are still, in the face of everything, perfectly capable of denying that any of this matters at all.

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