On further reflection, I think the argument in these two posts is flawed, and those flaws come from a reactionary chain of reasoning. They take some not-bad impulses, and instead of analyzing them, use them as the basis for far-reaching generalizations. They’re blog posts, in other words, but it seemed a good idea to make a few points about how they went wrong.
The impulses are these: it is really easy and thus really common for anyone left of Karl Rove to have a knee-jerk loathing of the American populist right, i.e. the Tea Party. It is really easy to feel superior by bashing them in public relying on the same condescending assumptions that have been reserved for any large group of people the speaker doesn’t like since time immemorial: they don’t accept institutionally approved forms of knowledge, they’re the brainwashed tools of elites, they’re full of irrational hatreds and prejudices, they don’t know how good they have it, they’re greedy little vermin who just want more, more, more. It’s really easy to let these insults take the place of analysis, or even of considering them as people – that’s what they’re there for, after all. So the first impulse is to, at the very least, reach out to the target of all this vitriol, if only to understand exactly why they should be excommunicated. Why is the enemy of my enemy not my friend?
The second impulse has to do with ‘the spectacle.’ The best theories of how whatever this is works are dinosaurs. The most sophisticated are mostly instrumental — how to collect more accurate market data, neurological responses to visual and other stimuli, vaguely Freudian rules of thumb about who likes what, the politics of content regulation, intellectual property, etc. If they tell you anything useful, they don’t tell you how to gain power (‘cultural influence’) without strengthening the institutions and conventions that make the media what it is, i.e. they have no room for serious criticism. The Marxist theories tend to treat the spectacle (aka the media, aka Big Media) as a Borg-like mass, or an inchoate alternate universe full of vague opportunities for ‘revolution.’ Opposition to the great powers tend to concentrate into boycotts (the spectacle can’t help, only hurt, its misinformation should be resisted by facts and community organizing) or appropriation (insert made-up ‘hacking’ jargon here), both usually poorly thought out.
But mostly it is the uncanny effect of being compelled (via social pressures of all kinds) to make one set of arguments in one direction: anti-elitist, pro-populist critiques of dominant institutions against liberals who, it is increasingly obvious, are too invested in them to enact even modest reforms, and a contradictory set of arguments in the opposite direction: basically Enlightenment-type debunking of irrational bad faith skepticism against a right that’s continually rewarded for not thinking.
And the problem with following these impulses is that the ‘objective situation’ of commodity culture is one of universal ignorance — no matter how distorted or superficial media images get, how misleading their implications, or how interested their uses, if they’re useful they can’t help but matter. Racism, for example, has to be denounced in whatever form, no matter how impossible it seems for anyone to accept its legitimacy. If you’re lucky, you might have time to sneak in a comment about how anti-racism of some low-cost kind can be instrumentalized to distract White People from worse racism, but only if you’re lucky. It’s very eaThere is a very real fog of war in play that can only be passed through with intense, disciplined effort. It’s no good to refute a lazy generalization about the Tea Party with another lazy generalization that cheaply points out the hypocrisy of the first. In war, everyone is a hypocrite. And it can be easy, on a minor little blog — that cheapest of soapboxes — to forget the facts of war.