Monday, November 12, 2012

Seeking Moral Superiority

There are stories that come around - they have a parable feel to them even though they are seldom biblical - of merciful kings.  It is considered a good thing for a king to be merciful; historians note this with approval.  There was a poor man who owed a great deal of money which he could not pay.  His creditors wanted to take his house (or put him in jail, or sell off his fingers one-by-one or whatever; the usual creditor stuff).  They brought him before the king.  The king noted that he had a wife and small, cute children (or maybe had some disease, or had taken many beatings as a child or whatever; the usual sympathetic victim stuff). He forgave the debt and sent the man home, causing poets to praise him for his mercy.  What a guy, our king, eh?  We try to overlook the fact that he just gave away someone else's money, because - well, because we painted them as evil so that the story would feel right. We feel morally superior for having approved this message.

We respond to these things powerfully.  I feel bad for this poor fictitious man and beaming in approval of the king even as I make fun of it.  The fact that some people just got robbed - well, it serves them right for being evil villains who don't care about the poor, doesn't it?

It turns ugly, however, if it turns out that the poor man is a member of the king's clan and the creditors are from a rival clan. In a quick about-face, we recognise that this is a tawdry story of corruption, nepotism, and power politics.  The despised creditors now become honest businessmen who can't get justice in the courts, left shaking their heads as they walk away.  And what about their wives and children, after all?

*            *           *           *            *

In our politics and social values, we like to feel morally superior to our opponents.  Also, we prefer that superiority to come cheaply. Liberals pointed out that "Support The Troops" bumper stickers and wearing flag pins were cheap substitutes for patriotism, and were enraged they had become popular. No, enraged isn't an exaggeration.  One can't read True Patriot without noticing how much the authors hate their opponents. (If folks are interested in that topic in more depth, I covered it around the time of the last election.  Quick Hitters; If You Give A Liberal A Cookie; Modesty, Humility, Understatement; Political Faux Pas.)

Yet they have a decent point.  There is a hint of claiming the high moral ground at low cost with the whole stickers and pins thing. I don't doubt there are plenty of people who just wanted to make a statement of what good patriotic people they are - implication that you might not be - and so gravitate to the visible displays. But I see at least three weaknesses in making that accusation:
1. The idea that it is the armed forces making the real sacrifices comes up pretty regularly among the stickers-and-pins crowd.  They deflect a lot of the moral credit to others.
2. Just because you take on some inexpensive gestures doesn't mean you aren't willing to pony up for the expensive ones as well. People who gave limbs might also wear flag pins, right?  Any implication to the contrary is a little insulting. And revealing.
3. Interpreting the stickers and pins as a sneaky form of supporting the president is so far beyond reality that it is good evidence of projection.  Always hearing dog whistles and people talking in code is pretty good evidence that you believe that's how the world works.

We do not usually choose our tribe because it is more moral.  Rather, we think our tribe more moral and go looking for ways to prove that.  It is cart and horse. What we think of as the issues has a lot of by-product about it.  Sentence first, then trial. 

I bring all this up because I think the shoe has been on the other foot these last elections.  I am likely over-influenced by my uncle's correspondence and my brother's FB posts again, and the sample of liberals who write for money or comment on sites is going to tend toward the True Believer.  And yet...I expect the time leading up to an election to be laden with posturing, and I try to apply discounts as I can.  We are all at our worst.  There are those in my own tribe who seem mere posers and partisans. I am not above this myself.

Yet the anger continues to spew after the elections. Romney et al did not lose because of some faulty technique or bad timing or bad strategy, but because the American people recognise that he and the Republicans are hatemongers.  They lie, and we won, and that proves it.  They hate women.  They hate immigrants, and the legal vs illegal distinction is just a pose. The don't care about the environment. (For example, he Kevin Drum editorial that Sailer linked.)  I note again the importance of social approval in liberal thinking.

(For the record, I don't know what the tone has been in the other parts of the Democratic coalition, the investment bankers, the government unions, the African-Americans, the soft-hearted.  They may not be spewing.)

All mind reading again.  In light of Jonathan Haidt's research that liberals actually don't understand conservative moral reasoning as well as they are themselves understood, it seems ironic that the belief that they understand us should extend to mind-reading.  Perhaps the irony is inevitable.  If you can't follow someone's reasoning, yet you are sure they are evil because they are from the other tribe, then you kinda have to mind-read.  The most revealing stat: one poll had Obama winning under "cares about people like me" 81-18.  I think that number is likely inflated, but still revealing.  We have an electorate that is concerned whether the president cares about their sort of people.  Or more exactly, gives the impression that he cares, because who pretends to know, really?  That's getting into Father Stalin territory, isn't it?  I doubt we'll ever ever go too many steps down that road, but the point is we shouldn't be going any steps down that road at all.


Sam L. said...

Much depends on whose ox is gored; some seem to find that every ox is theirs.

Sam L. said...

Did you hit the 250K point yest?

Anonymous said...

I've noticed this, too. The liberal hate-spewing hasn't stopped; if anything it's intensified.

I'm afraid something very bad is coming.

Assistant Village Idiot said...


Anon, I always worry that and wonder what the tipping point is for some serious government malfunction.

But rereading Barzun does remind me that there has always been anger.

james said...

Tell men of high condition
That manage the estate
Their purpose is ambition
Their practice only hate:
And if they make reply
Then give them all the lie!

james said...

There's another stanza that might be apropos:

Tell potentates they live
Acting by others' action,
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Anonymous said...

cοnstantly i used to read smaller articles
that аѕ well сlear thеіr mοtive, and that is also hаppening with this artіcle ωhіch ӏ аm
reading at this place.
Also visit my weblog ... biore skin care

Anonymous said...

Your link to "Modest, Humility, Understatement" is badly broken. I had to edit it twice to make it work. Look for inappropriate spaces.

terri said...

Coming out of a many month's long lurkdom to comment.

I have nothing to say about the first part of your post. Any story can be radically altered by a few important details, casting the entire narrative in a completely different light.

I would disagree with calling the post-election analysis "hateful...or anger-spewing". Gloating, maybe. Triumphilistic , definitely.

A party that listens to Limbaugh, Coulter and Beck has no superiority when it comes to casting stones.

Glass Houses and what-not.

The right continues to churn just as much "hate and anger" post-election as it did pre-election.

Characterizing Republicans as Hate Mongers, Woman Haters, Blatant Liars, etc. can be unfair and is too broad, but I have seen and heard what Republicans say about their ideological enemies, and it isn't any better.

When election night was happening I was actually filled with fear that Romney might win. I think people who readily identify as Democrats were also fearful, because although Obama supporters look back on their win with bravado and confidence, on election day I think most people in both parties were entirely unsure about what was going to happen.

In the end..the election was still extremely close. The popular vote was almost evenly split and I think that's why this post-election analysis is going on forever and ever. Because, no matter what, there is a realization that this country is still deeply divided.

Romney didn't lose because he wasn't his enough, or that enough, or because republicans are women-hating, racists......though you can certainly find tinges of those elements in the loss.

Romney lost because he, personally, constantly misrepresented and lied about his own positions. His flip from saber-rattling war monger after the Benghazi attacks to a peace-loving, militarily restrained leader in the 3rd debate was the most over-the-top of them all.

There were too many obvious problems of that nature for him to win. Period.

When people can catch audio/video of you saying completely opposite things in the space of a few days...and they can do it on multiple occasions and issues...then you have a huge problem.

Romney lost because swing voters simply didn't trust him. That's where that whole "cares about your problems" thing comes in.

That is not to say that Obama is a truthful, holy saint. The difference is that Obama was mostly consistent on what he was about. People knew what they were going to get with him, whereas with Romney....we'll almost everything was up in the air.

Sam L. said...

terri, I do hope you recover.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm not sure what that crack was about...

terri, I would disagree some, and at specific points, but not strenuously enough to give the appearance of being on the opposite side. Certainly any attempting to sort out whose confirmation bias is greater is a fairly uninteresting ping-pong match for everyone. I am mindful that conservatives and liberals in Florida are different than they are in NH, and that also skews the appearance. I remain an ex-socialist/ Christian Left who defected because of the hatred. I may not ever be able to view conservative evils with equal objectivity, because my identification with them has always been less intense and I don't feel as personally betrayed.

I would challenge your analysis of the voter choices in the middle ground. Not that your statements aren't defensible, but that many factors go into such things. Such as my ideas, which I of course like much better.

I currently am siding with the cynical view that rational decisionmaking only applies to a limited amount of the electorate, and even those not as much as they think. I think Romney lost because he was painted as unexciting to his base and evil to his enemies, and it was mostly marketing. But - I think the same applies to Obama, win or lose. Those who are furious at him may be responding to imagemaking.

To appeal to one group is to offend another, no matter how carefully one tries to parse one's statemtns with each. We vote on which symbols will represent us. Unfortunately, those symbolic figures also govern us in real life.

I am exempting myself, and a few of you, of course.

Anonymous, thank you for pointing out the link problem. I checked them all, and that wasn't the only one.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In support of my idea that image dominates

karrde said...

@terri, @AVI,

What was the response to the Presidential re-election of 2004 on both sides of the aisle?

Do they mirror, or at least strongly resemble, each other?

That might be a strong clue about how much people are being vicious against their political opponents, and how much they are not. It may also give some clue as to how much either side is full of hate, and whether they hate the bad ideas or the bad people on the Other Side.

One point of dissimilarity: I don't remember much of a cult of personality around President Bush...but would I be right? I was strongly in favor of his re-election.

However, I think everyone would remember if Bush's Presidency had produced things like this, a monument to Barack and Michelle Obama's first kiss.

Talk about cult-of-personality!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

2004 would be interesting, as it would be a better comparison.

I do recall a large difference between 2000 and 2008. Obama had 81% approval rating as he took office, and I always interpreted that as people willing to give him a chance, including his opponents. Bush has 59% approval rating at inauguration, evidence to me that his opponents weren't interested in giving him a chance.

But 2004, I don't have anything but memory at present. And that, of course is prone to bias.

terri said...

I don't recall a cult of personality around Bush..but I also wasn't looking for it at the time. However, can all the Republican brouhaha about Sarah Palin be described as anything other than a Republican cult of personality?

I don't think things were quite as close in 2004 as they were in 2000 and there was no Florida drama going on in 2004 it may be that it was simply less memorable in all ways.

I voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. I don't think my views are colored specifically by that. I do recall the generally incensed feeling that many had towards Bush...thus the "Bush Derangement Syndrome" term being coined to describe those who simply hated the man and were quite vicious.

I don't know if I would vote for Bush again. I am deeply unhappy with the legacy of the two wars he gave us and if I could have foreseen those wars and the relatively unsatisfying results of them, I probably wouldn't have voted for him in the first place. But hindsight is always 20/20 and the country was feeling incredibly vulnerable after 9/11. So, I think we jumped into areas that could have used more care and consideration.

I don't know what all swing voters considered their tipping point. For me, I was going to vote McCain in 2008 up until about 2 weeks before the election when he kept rattling sabers about Iran and setting a war-like tone about conflict there. This was also while there was no end in sight in Iraq or Afghanistan and no definite, or even discussed, Republican plan to finally end those wars. At that point, I switched to voting for Obama.

That was also a huge consideration for me in this election.

Our country cannot afford to engage in any more wars. Romney was running around spewing rhetoric about America showing its strength and needing more defense spending and how we need to be leaders...all of which is code for being the policemen of the world.

I will no longer vote for any candidate who thinks engaging in multiple wars is the key to America's strength and prestige in the world.

There are thousands of dead sons, husbands and fathers and billions upon billions of debt incurred by these wars. I can't vote for anyone who so blithely implies that we need to be more militaristic than we already are.

Donna B. said...

terri - I have to disagree with your view of Romney (and McCain) as promoting multiple wars as the key to America's strength and prestige in the world.

I have several offspring (or their spouses) who are still in the military. I have no desire to see them deployed to a combat zone again.

That's the reason Romney was my choice of candidate. I think Obama's mixed messages to the world are much more likely to get us into another war than the simpler message of "strength and leadership" that you interpret as "sabre-rattling".

The above is not necessarily a defense of the way that any past president handled things. I think Romney would have tried to learn from those past mistakes more than McCain might have.

At times I have wondered if Obama actually recognizes what was a mistake and what wasn't. In the long run, I prefer a bit of sabre-rattling over sneakiness, back-stabbing, and bullying -- and that's how I see Obama handling both foreign and domestic affairs.

The other thing that bothers me about Obama is a similarity he has with Carter that I don't see mentioned: he's got a mean streak disguised as morality. Or what I call a rigid, brittle personality.

That's a feelings-based assessment which is supposedly a liberal trait, but it's the one behind my fear that Obama could become trigger-happy.

I hope I'm wrong.

james said...

Libya, 2011

terri said...

Donna...I'll need more context about sneaky/bullying behavior in order to know what you mean. What specifically do you see as "bullying" behavior in foreign policy? is it different than other types of military actions?

My comments are not to defend Obama and all of his foreign policy. I'm not excited by the heavy use of drones or our involvement in Libya in 2011, which James referenced, and I wasn't dancing in the streets when Bin Laden was killed.

Honestly I think that the US has a major problem accepting limitations when it comes to military intervention, and this troubles me more when articulated the way that Romney articulated it.

It seems to me that this continued push for military action and the acceptance of the idea of pre-emptive war is a manifestation of a great fear that the US has of not being in control of the world stage.

We have taken on the role of global policemen, at least when we think it serves our best interests, and I don't see how that is any way realistic, healthy, or economically feasible for the nation.

We enter into wars, trying to bring our allies along, but even when they help us the portion of that help is relatively small in comparison.

WHen you say that you think that Obama is more likely to get us into another war, I'd like to push back a bit and ask how and what's the difference between consciously entering the country into another conflict, or the causing of one somewhere down the line through unintended consequences.

I would also remind people that when we try to interact with the middle east and its conflicts we almost always wind up shooting ourselves in the foot.

We supported Saddam Hussein in the 80's before we went to war with him in the 90's and in 2003 and this was during those conservative "strength and leadership" years.

We are incredibly bad at parsing these things out sometimes.

I am not saying that war is never an option for resolving conflict. On the other hand...we went to war in countries that had almost no resources to fight us. Iraq had suffered severe economic sanctions for years before we attacked in 2003. Afghanistan had no real defenses against us.

Both of those cases are very different than the prospect of entering war with Iran which has greater military strength, much greater financial resources , and a population which doesn't hate its leaders quite enough to take our side if we went to war with them, unlike the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And, even though the general population of those countries were poor and large portions of them despised their leaders...we still had a hard time achieving something we can call "victory".

I'm just tired of war.

Donna B. said...

terri -- I was not referring to any military action when I talked about bullying. And I'm not talking about bullying in the sense of violence or physical damage.

Bullying is about getting away with it. Bullies don't pick on people they perceive will fight back. In foreign policy, Obama bullies England and Israel. He employs backstabbing and sneakiness with Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

On the surface, I agree with you that the U.S. military has problems accepting limitations when it comes to military intervention, but I'd be speaking more of self-imposed limitations once a decision to act has been made. I think it's possible that Obama's willingness to use sneakiness (drones, CIA operations for example) is the result of years of complaints about more openly and honestly using military intervention.

What I don't see is a big change in the goals -- just the methods for achieving them. We are now choosing methods that are, IMHO, less honest and in the long run will be more bloody. The ultimate bloodiness may be an unintended consequence, but the wars are still being entered into and fought.

I do agree with you completely that we are very adept at shooting ourselves in the foot in the Middle East.