Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Behind the mask

'Is there anyone in this rout to treat with me?' he asked. 'Or indeed with the wit to understand me? Not thou at least!' he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. 'It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!'

Among Peter Jackson’s more memorable creations in the film version of The Lord of the Rings was the Mouth of Sauron (played by the inimitable Bruce Spence). His broad, false smile was more a grimace, part of an incongruous mask of civility over a mouth out of which the most vicious things came writhing.

Yet as creep-inducing and vile as he appeared outside the Gates of Mordor, you had the sense that he would be twice as frightening if he removed that mask. (In the film version, Aragorn simply relieved him of his head.)

That's roughly the feeling you gets anymore whenever you come into contact with the denizens of the rabid right: The nasty face they're showing us is only half the story.

This is particularly so regarding the thugs who are creeping out of the woodwork and trying to intimidate anyone they deem insufficiently aligned with their personal ideologies -- embodied by the mouthpiece pundits whose inflammatory, eliminationist rhetoric goads them on. The Coulters, Limbaughs, Savages, and Malkins of the world.

The hate and bile they spew on a daily basis is vicious enough as it is. But you can't help get the feeling that we're only starting to scratch the surface with these people. They reveal psyches so grossly malformed that it's clear they're just putting on a barely civil front for the sake of the audience. Let them loose in a situation where they actually possessed the power to do as they wished and you'd have genuinely monstrous evil on your hands -- not just words, but actions.

Their public face, claiming the mantle of morality and decency, is belied by nearly every action they take. Their real face is revealed in their tolerance for every amoral practice from inhuman sweatshops to the overt advocacy of white supremacism. It's revealed in the incessant insistence that liberal war critics are the enemy itself -- and by their targeting those critics for outright attacks on their personal lives. It's revealed in their unmistakable misogyny. And it's revealed, most of all, in their willingness to abide torture itself, excused by the need to keep "terrorists" at bay.

Coulter, Limbaugh, et. al., are just the names most readily known to most of us. But they are only the most visible component of this growing segment of the population. Many of the leading hatemongers are actually secondary voices whose venom quotient is in direct proportion to their all-consuming desire to be noticed. They try to not only imitate the Coulters of the world, but to outdo them -- which is saying something.

Some of these are generally local or regional pundits, while others are lesser-known figures on the national scene. All of them are eager to make their marks, and the only way they know to do that is to constantly "push the envelope," shoving the national discourse ever farther to the right.

This also has an effect on those right-wing pundits already atop the heap, who have to keep up just to retain their "edge." Thus their whole business revolves around fresh ways to outrage, and as they push the boundaries, eventually even the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

On the West Coast, probably the most noteworthy of these is the Bay Area radio talk-show host Melanie Morgan, who broadcasts weekdays on KFSO-AM, which happens to be a Disney-owned station. (Gee. What a coincidence.)

Morgan recently announced that "We've got a bull's-eye painted on [Pelosi's] big, wide laughing eyes" -- a fairly overt invitation for her audience to imagine someone shooting the new Democratic Speaker of the House.

Spocko's Brain has been dogging Morgan's schtick for some time now, and has a virtual library of her vicious and outrageously eliminationist rhetoric -- all in the name of "pushing the envelope" for the sake of attracting and retaining an audience. Judging by her remarks, it must be some audience.

A sampling of Spocko's audio files:
-- Laughing with Coulter about executing New York Times editor Bill Keller.

-- Agreeing with guest Peter Mulhern as he says, "A great deal of good could be done by arresting Bill Keller having him lined up against the wall and shot."

-- Joking with "Officer Vic" as he imitates Keller being electrocuted.

-- Joking about killing a black man after torturing him. (This clip features co-host Lee Rogers talking about shooting a black man between the eyes and torturing him by attaching electrodes to his testicles while Morgan laughs.)

-- At the end of a shared rant describing their utter loathing for all liberals, her co-host, Rogers, warning that "the day will come when unpleasant things are going to happen to a bunch of stupid liberals and it's going to be very amusing to watch."

Morgan's misliberalanthropy has also been thoroughly limned by Joe Conason at Salon, who noted Morgan's role in the incredibly vicious attacks on the New York Times for its reporting on an anti-terrorism program.

Morgan is hardly alone. Some of the more notable examples of this kind of behavior come from the "Hey! I'll say any kind of crazy shit just to get noticed" bloc of the right-wing blogosphere. Take, for example, the strange case of Pam at Atlas Shrugs; as D at LG&M observes, Pam has been running pictures of atrocities from Indonesia dating back more than a decade and which are mostly related to ongoing sectarian strife (particularly aimed at the Chinese there), while claiming that they're actually part of the supposed current Muslim jihad. Just a little while before this, Pam tried to hamhandedly channel Shakespeare in darkly revealing fashion, suggesting we "kill all the diplomats (before they get us killed)."

Then there's Glenn Beck, whose record as a hatemonger is already well noted. But this latest enterprise -- his supposedly hard-hitting series on Islamic extremism -- tells us next to nothing new, and as Scott Lemieux notes, is nothing more than a stereotype-laden rant against Islam itself. It's the kind of thing, like Coulter's "convert them all to Christianity" remark, that enjoys an extended nuclear half-life in the Muslim world, repeated endlessly as evidence of the hatred among Americans for Muslims. In other words, it's the kind of remark that actually helps our enemies recruit fresh terrorists.

You know, it's really quite simple: If you want to encourage more Muslims to become radical terrorists, spend your time declaiming to the world on the necessity of wiping out the lives of millions of them. It's part of the core dynamic of the recurring cycle of war and violence: Each side names the other as the Enemy, and then sets about acting in a way that justifies that naming for the other side, and simultaneously justifies their own self-perception as heroic.

The other day Roy at Alicublog (via TBogg) caught a prime example of this kind of destructive idiocy from the relentlessly execrable Ace of Spades:
"There are those who shriek in high dudgeon when it's suggested that, at some point, it may be necessary to kill off an awful lot of the Islamic world to secure our own lives." He briefly considers the shriekers' point of view, then decides, "I think what a lot of these people mean, but won't say, is that it's actually about time to consider giving Israel to the Muslims, and let them wipe out most of the Jews."

Only the most perverse kind of illogic would produce a syllogism equating a desire to avoid one kind of genocide with a wish for another kind. Ace would have us believe we have only the choice of one act of mass murder or another. And he obviously prefers the choice that makes us the murderer rather than the spectator -- not that either choice is in any event either desirable or inevitable.

I think a key to understanding this illogic, if such a thing is possible, lies in recognizing that these people conceive of themselves as heroes engaged in a heroic task. Once a person claims that status for himself, at least in his own self-conception, all kinds of obvious contradictions are immediately resolvable, since the blunt force of the hero's moral superiority rub out any such distinctions. They are right no matter what "facts" may argue otherwise.

This was illustrated vividly, in fact, by one of Ace's commenters, whose contribution was picked up by Roy in an update:
Part of my crazy, is that I have VERY vivid dreams. I tend to remember a great many details.

After I left service, and after 9/11 I would start to find comfort in dreams/thoughts that were absolutely horrible in their brutality. I won't go into details, but it had to do with me viewing horror from above and causing that horror.

After a while, my friends at work started to ask me why I looked like hell, and I confided in them. It became a simple statement to explain why I looked like such hell (after all I'm a sexy mother fucker, and for me to look like hell, I have to REALLY look like hell) "The village?" I would nod, and whenever anyone would come at me, my friends, coworkers and bosses would interdict because they understood that I just spent a night dreaming of slaughtering villages, to teach a lesson.

I know, it's just a dream, but that cruelty has seaped into me to the point that I find comfort in believing that grotesque violence might teach these people to stop killing us in the same way.

I usually don't pay any more than passing attention to random anonymous commenters, but this post perfectly captured the operative pathology among the contingent of conservatives who populate places like Ace's, and Little Green Footballs, and Atlas Shrugs, not to mention the whole panoply of Malkinites, Coulterettes, and Dittoheads. All places where, at one time or another, it's intimated that the only way to win the war is to "do what it takes." To "get tough." No one ever says exactly what that means, but everyone has a pretty good idea. It means villages full of slain women and children.

Note, if you will, the generic quality of the fantasy. We don't know what kind of village he's describing -- somewhere in the Middle East? a South American jungle? northern California?

But more noteworthy is the purpose of all this killing: "to teach a lesson." This is the fantasy of instructive wanton violence, delivered by the hero against the enemy in order to chasten them into submission. It is precisely the same fantasy that was being pursued by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, a fantasy that made their own heroic self-conception metastasize into a pack of demonic murderers. This same fantasy is what the mavens of the right would thrust upon us if they could.

Mind you, it's a very American thing, as all our history of eliminationism has been. We massacred thousands of Indians in the 1800s, many in acts of outright genocide that wiped out entire villages in wholesale slaughter, with the purpose of "teaching them a lesson." We set the horrific fury of the mob upon thousands of African Americans during the "lynching era" in order to "teach them a lesson."

The concept of wanton violence as a heroic duty, especially for "instructive" purposes, has been with us a long time, and appears alive and well today -- on both sides of the violence. The rabid American right is now waging war on its mirror image but is incapable of recognizing it.

For the most part, this concept has been closely associated with religious fundamentalism and its tendency toward authoritarianism, expressed in what sociologists call "exemplary dualism," which I've described in some detail previously. As Chip Berlet explains:
"Exemplary dualism" is the term originated by [Dick] Anthony and [Thomas] Robbins to identify a form of apocalyptic belief in which "contemporary sociopolitical or socioreligious forces are transmogrified into absolute contrast categories embodying moral, eschatological, and cosmic polarities upon which hinge the millennial destiny of humankind."

Anthony and Robbins argue that some people who feel their basic identity has been fractured by being buffeted by social and political forces may turn to a "totalist movement" including various "[i]deological and religious groups with highly dualistic worldviews" and "an absolutist apocalyptic outlook", where members are taught to project "negativity and rejected elements of self onto ideologically designated scapegoats."

Anthony and Robbins describe this in more detail in their essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism":
Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded.

Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group.

Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.

What's noteworthy about movement conservatives is that their dualistic fervor is not necessarily religious, though it often is. However, some of these advocates of genocide and eliminationism, such as Coulter, Limbaugh, Morgan, or Ace, are decidedly not religious. For them, the conservative movement itself has taken the form of a religion, and thus is a kind of faith-based system of belief, resistant to logic, reason, or fact. And above all, it's deeply authoritarian.

This is why movement conservatism holds so much appeal for mentally unstable personalities such as Chad Castagana and David McMenemy. As Tom Tomorrow notes, there is actual scientific evidence connecting right-wing authoritarianism with mental illness: people with psychoses and neuroses are naturally more attracted to authoritarian figures and belief systems. That doesn't mean that right-wingers are necessarily psychotic or neurotic, but it does increase the likelihood that right-wing pundits are going to have mentally unstable people in their audiences.

The reasons for this appeal are many, but psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has identified the national trauma of Sept. 11 as a significant wellspring of the "splitting" that Anthony and Robbins describe. For one, as he explained in The Nation, the attacks were a humiliation for a nation that viewed its superpower status as identical to a kind of invulnerability.

More importantly, as he described in more detail in his book Superpower Syndrome, it produced an actual trauma to our psyches:
As a result of 9/11, all Americans shared a particular psychological experience. They became survivors. A survivor is one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death and has remained alive. The category extends to those who were far removed geographically from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, because of their immersion in death-linked television images and their sense of being part of a painful national ordeal that threatened their country's future as well as their own. How people deal with that death encounter -- the meaning they give it -- has enormous significance for their subsequent actions and for their lives in general.

What has distinguished movement conservatives after 9/11 -- including a number of "former liberals" -- is their constant and pronounced insistence that everything they do henceforth is informed by that horrid event. Meanwhile, those who disagree with them have "forgotten we were attacked on 9/11." These pronouncements have the effect of claiming for themselves the hero's mantle. Their task is the heroic task of national redemption itself.

Yet fundamentalist totalism, as Lifton has written elsewhere, is "always on the edge of violence, because it ever mobilizes for an absolute confrontation with designated evil, thereby justifying any action taken to eliminate the evil." Thus, as movement heroes, they are immune from niggling moral considerations and the need to reconcile the demonic aspect of their own actions.

In both Christian and Muslim cultures, the heroic task historically has entailed energetically taking up arms to redeem the world. It also entails creating an enemy and naming him; the heroic warrior, after all, needs an enemy against which to fight, something to give his life meaning. The drama that results is a holy war to drive out an alien darkness or disease, and it is a drama that has played out innumerable times throughout the long history of the West.

What these self-anointed heroes fail to see is their own certain descent into the demonic. However, as they sneer and threaten and condemn their fellow Americans as the Enemy, fit for elimination, the rest of us see it. All too well.
Then the Messenger of Mordor laughed no more. His face was twisted with amazement and anger to the likeness of some wild beast that, as it crouches on its prey, is smitten on the muzzle with a stinging rod. Rage filled him and his mouth slavered, and shapeless sounds of fury came strangling from his throat. But he looked at the fell faces of the Captains and their deadly eyes, and fear overcame his wrath. He gave a great cry, and turned, leaped upon his steed, and with his company galloped madly back to Cirith Gorgor.

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