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?
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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.