Posted by: captainfalcon | January 27, 2012

Narcissism AND Racism: A Reply to Chris

This post by Chris is very interesting, but also off-the-mark. As I understand it, Chris is saying that Newt’s rhetoric — notably his claim that a debate between him and Obama would be “knowledge versus a teleprompter” and his labeling Obama the “food stamp president” — both does not stem from Newt’s racism, and also is not intended as a racial dog-whistle. (Depending on how capacious Chris’s understanding of Newt’s “ideological confreres” is, he may also be saying that Newt’s rhetoric doesn’t even operate as a dog-whistle for South Carolina conservatives.) Instead of arising from racism, Chris thinks that Newt’s rhetoric is a function of his commitment to beltway conservatism’s belief in the power of conservative ideas to demolish liberalism, and also to inspire a virtuous, industrious citizenry. As Chris puts it:

[Newt’s] argument about knowledge vs. TelePrompter is not some deeply coded appeal to his audiences’ suspicions of black people. It is instead a more explicit appeal to a commonly felt belief that the President would be left speechless in the face of the arguments of true conservatives. The silliness about food stamps and paychecks . . . runs along a similar logic. My sense is that Newt and his ideological confreres do not presume that African-Americans and the indigent are dependent on the government out of congenital shiftlessness, but because they have never been exposed to arguments in favor of working for a living (or else why would they still be unemployed and/or Democrats).

Chris’s argument that Newt isn’t a race-baiter rests on a suppressed methodological premise*: that if rhetoric could arise from one coherent view of the world — in Newt’s case, his commitment to the poverty and perniciousness of liberalism — then it probably arises only from that view. This premise is “supernaturally generous.” The overall worldviews of conservative ideologues (also liberal ideologues) are not theoretically elegant; they are a mess. Ideological commitments are supported by a hodgepodge of arguments, each so wholly disconnected from the other that it would be too convenient for them all to work. (See here for a critique along these lines of libertarianism’s willingness to draw from both consequentialism and nonconsequentialism for support.) What’s more, the arguments themselves sometimes become ideological commitments (if they weren’t already infected with ideology to begin with), and it turns out to be impossible to get a read on what is supposed to be support for the worldview, what is part of the worldview (and which part of the worldview it is). Instead, one gets a single, undifferentiated mass of (in conservatism’s case, almost entirely malodorous) sentiment.

There is thus every reason to think that Newt’s rhetoric appeals to a multiplicity of conservative attitudes — including both the comparatively innocent ones Chris identifies, but also those that are more foul. A quick glance at Free Republic — instructive, because it is conservatism’s (albeit non-beltway conservatism) Id — bears this out. I looked at posts mentioning “welfare queen” and “food stamp president.” I included “welfare queen” on the assumption that it is similar to “food stamp president;” arguably a dog-whistle, arguably a point about the perniciousness of liberal ideas. I did not look into the “knowledge versus teleprompter” because it was harder to search, and also, clearly, Chris has a better case that that is less likely to engage racist sentiments.

Welfare queen

The “welfare queen” post — about a woman who has had fifteen children and takes government subsidies — is actually better for Chris than the “food stamp president” post (about which more later). Some of the comments could be read to embrace the view that welfare queens are only welfare queens because “they have never been exposed to arguments in favor of working for a living.”

So, in response to TSgt’s suggestion that the solution to the problem of welfare queens is to sterilize them,** commenter driftdiver writes “Forced sterilization is not the answer. Ending the welfare culture is. Sure some people need help for short times. Career lazy people can learn to work or starve.” It could be then that, for driftdiver, poverty is a function of the indolent’s having never been exposed to conservative principles. Commenter RexBeach, whose style is humorously redolent of Jesse Jackson’s, writes in a similar vein (though note the tinge of racism): “Black folk have been voting for Democrats for 50 years…and the black people are still poor. When are they gonna wake up and smell the opportunities, instead of the gratuities?”

But other comments — notably Lancey Howard’s picture of a seething mass of black people, conjoined with his reference to “Obama’s stash,” and Responsibility2nd’s response: “Heh. I was looking for that picture last Friday. Black Friday. When the reports started coming in from the hood about Black Friday “festivities”” — suggest that “welfare queen” does, indeed, have racist connotations, and so rhetoric invoking it operates on racial sentiment. [As an aside: I think “Responsibility2nd” is a truly inspired handle, and whoever’s behind it could well be a deep troll seeking to undermine gun rights.]

Food stamp president

Conservatives have this same mishmash of attitude toward the “food stamp president.” It evokes simple anger, such as wny’s “this whiny POS gets more pathetic and disgusting every day,” and chris_bdba’s “He is a liar. One can just look at the statistics from his own HHS and see the percentage on Food stamps has risen under his leadership.” Curiously, it also evokes homophobia, with Just mythoughts writing: “[l]ittle history here… the ‘pink mafia’ Foleyzied the ‘values’ voters and the liberals took control of Congress in 2006… so in a manner of speaking the ‘PROUD’ republicans gave us liberal demonrats…. society of survival of the fittest…. on ‘food stamps’. So will Mitt the pro-pervert officiate the Barney Frank-Ready rituals?”

But, certainly, there is also racism. Some of it is implicit. Reddy writes “Why doesn’t he just tattoo “Bush’s fault” to his ugly forehead?” to which max americana (whose tagline, awesomely, is “Buttcrack Obama is an idiot”) quips that “[i]t’s already tatoo’d on his big ears..”. And some of it is blatant. Astronaut writes that “Barry Soetoro is the perfect product of affirmative action. He didn’t deserve to get into Columbia and Harvard, but he was a Negro so he took a spot that a qualified candidate should have had. He got jobs and elective offices because of his race. He never worked for or earned anything; its all been handed to him because of white liberal guilt. Consequently, Barry can never take responsibility for what he’s done wrong. While liberals have taught him all his life that nothing is ever his fault. He’s not going to change now.” Then beaversmom, whose comment is a glorious contradiction (single-handedly proving my point), responds: “Exactly right. He’s a light skinned black that doesn’t have a black accent (unless he’s putting it on for the brothers). The racist white liberals ate him up. He made them feel good about themselves because he’s a “brother” they could support and pretend they are not as racist as they are.”

Conclusion

These comments come from two threads, but the examples can be multiplied. (Another good set.) To me they suggest that phrases like “welfare queen” and “food stamp president” do, certainly, operate as Chris believes — as appeals to a commonly felt belief that conservative ideas are the antidote to poverty and the other ills in liberalism’s product-line — but also engage a mishmash of other sentiments and attitudes, including racist ones. To be sure, this leaves open the possibility that what drives Newt to use these phrases is solely an innocent (almost endearing) belief in the truth and power of his cause. But, like the methodological presupposition at the root of Chris’s error, this too seems a supernaturally generous interpretation of what motivates a 20-year Republican Congressman from Georgia during a South Carolina presidential primary. So, while Chris is no doubt right that whatever young beltway conservative policy wonks he’s observed are too urbane to even think of despising the blacks [and, in a decade, will be too urbane to despise the gays], it is serious inside-the-beltway myopia to predicate that urbanity of either a seasoned Southern pol, or the conservative base.***

 ~~~

* Hey suppressed premises, didn’t see you there.

** No doubt TNC would say this comment is tinged with racism (given the ignominious history of sterilizing black women). I tend to agree. Chris, perhaps, thinks it is simply a joke, untethered from racial undercurrents. The disagreement, I think, turns on a difference in our priors about the extent to which ideology pervades consciousness.

*** As a Washington outsider, I presumptively have my finger more firmly planted on the American pulse than Chris does (:

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Responses

  1. CF:

    Cherry-picking Freeper comments from one thread offers little of merit to this discussion.

    First, it presumes that the individual comments posted suffice as a representative sample of the mindset of the typical Freeper. However, a cursory perusal of the threads you linked to, as well as others that include the words “food-stamp president,” do not justify that presumption.* Of course, both of our assessments of the nature of Freeper commentary are inherently subjective. The subject merits a broader statisical survey, but I am feeling lazy and I am not sure your half-decade education in “learning how to structure an argument” has equipped you to properly answer questions.

    However, even presuming that you characterized the Freeper mindset properly (an assertion that initial inquiries rendered dubious), your argument still relies on the implicit assumption (heh) that, ceteris paribus, the typical Freeper is no more likely to be a racist than the typical Republican. Given that the site in question is frequented almosr entirely by retired white men, lumpen Southern housewives, and douchebag 11-year old boys, I am not sure that presumption is appropriate to make.

    Further, I do not believe you appropriately characterized the assumption implicit in my original piece. You argue that I presume “that if rhetoric could arise from one coherent view of the world — in Newt’s case, his commitment to the poverty and perniciousness of liberalism — then it probably arises only from that view.”

    However, readers with good memories and/or scrollbars will recall I framed my argument as such:

    “While it would not be terribly surprising if Newt had some dog-whistle scheme in mind when he harps on these points, I think another explanation better fits the evidence…”

    Thus the implicit premise that my argument is predicated on is not that possibility implies necessity, but that the best supported hypothesis represents our best estimator of the truth, a premise that undergirds, amongst other things, the scientific method. If this were an LSAT question, you would have lost a point.

    Thus your conclusion is currently unfounded and my explanation for the appeal of Newt’s absurdist rhetoric stands.

    *I did, though, unearth some more hideously racist comments. I had forgotten what a cesspool that place was

  2. 1. Your shitty method. Prefatory invocations of the platitudes of the scientific method are certainly tedious, but they do not inoculate from criticism the methodology you actually employ. Your post (1) gives an explanation of Newt’s rhetoric that is perfectly compatible with — and capable of complementing — Andrew/TNC’s, (2) alludes to a set of irrelevant personal experiences that you do not elucidate to justify the conclusion that it is better than Andrew/TNC’s, and then (3) applies, in an arid and ritualistic way, the forms of the scientific method to conclude that, therefore, your explanation is more probable than is theirs.

    In my post, I quite properly ignored step-3 as empty hand-waving, and focused instead on the methodological premise underlying steps 1 and 2. I argued that the move from step-1 to step-2 is only appropriate on the assumption that the best explanation of Newt’s conduct predicates of him one, coherent motivation from which it follows [either he’s a race-baiter or he holds liberals in contempt]. Somebody with an unsophisticated grasp of Occam’s razor (or, alternatively, an unsupported optimism about the elegance of our doxastic structures) might say, Of course the best explanation of Newt’s conduct will predicate of him the fewest motivations necessary to render it intelligible.” But this methodological premise — that the best explanation of Newt’s conduct attributes it to a small, coherent, even if misguided, set of attitudes — is flawed precisely because it does not fit what we know about the nature of the ideological mind (which is characterized by its tendency to infer premises / arguments from conclusions, not the other way round).

    2. The relevance of the Freepers. I think you will find, as you actually found (see your footnote), that more or less (usually less) subtle racism is a thread — not the only thread, but a thread — running through the threads on Free Republic. I think the right way to find that out is, simply, to read a fair number of the threads and get a sense for the attitudes that are recurrently expressed. I don’t see much of a role for formal statistical surveys here (at least none more comprehensive or meticulous than the survey backing up your original post’s conclusions — “a trend I have increasingly observed . . .”). I am pretty comfortable characterizing Andrew’s worldview [a small groupblog], and also the flavor of conservative ideology on offer at National Review [a larger groupblog], even though I’ve never read any statistical survey of those sites. I also feel fairly comfortable with the assessment that only a ponderous fool would wait for formal statistics — what are, moreover, garbage-in/garbage-out statistics — to tell him what he could read off the face of those records. If, on the other hand, all you mean by a “statistical survey”is that I should read some more threads then my response is absolutely not, I am too lazy, and, anyway, I poked around for two seconds, read only three threads, and came away with a haul of racist bile from each one. That’s enough to raise suspicions that racism’s a common theme in Freeper climes, particularly on threads that are reactions to racial dog-whistles.

    As to the irrelevance of Freeper attitudes to the Republican base, I would note two things. First, I don’t need the typical Freeper to be as racist as the typical Republican; it is enough if he represents a significant, motivated faction within the Republican base. 11 year old doucheboys don’t count (gotta give them three years … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Krohn), but “retired white men and lumpen Southern housewives”? You idiot, Chris, that is South Carolina!

  3. I am not a regular haunter of Free Republic, but almost* any site on the internet which posts about something even vaguely race-related will draw a torrent of slurs. Possibly Freepers are a more honest and less trollish sort than the rest of the internet, but barring that it’s dubious to infer that someone posting a racist comment means they truly hold racist opinions.

    *The Lure’s high-minded discussion here apparently being the exception.

  4. I think the possibility you flag, MM, is on the money. Unlike on the rest of the Internet, nobody feeds the Freeper trolls, so they’re all either high alpine Japanese monks, really really hungry, or not trolls at all.

    On the other hand, if trolls are Japanese monks that would explain why ours haven’t shown themselves — they are on a meditation binge — so Chris’s methodological premise supports that hypothesis.


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