About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Ned Flanders, Mitt Romney and liberal schadenfreude

"The billionaire donors I hear are livid ... There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do ... I don't know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing," - A "Republican operative," to HuffPo.
In a 1991 episode of "The Simpsons," Ned Flanders opened a store at the mall selling everyday objects for left-handed people.  His next door neighbor Homer, typically, hoped the store would fail.  When it did, Homer's daughter Lisa sought to stretch her father's emotional intelligence a little bit:
Lisa:  Dad, do you know what schadenfreude is?

Homer:  No, I don't know what 'shaden-frawde' is [sarcastic].  Please tell me, because I'm dying to know.

Lisa:  It's a German term for 'shameful joy,' taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Homer:  Oh, come on Lisa.  I'm just glad to see him fall flat on his butt! [getting mad]  He's usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel...what's the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?

Lisa:  Sour grapes.

Homer:  Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!

At times over the past decade, I think my fellow liberals have obsessed a bit too much over the antics and extremism of the conservative media echo chamber.  People like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck spew forth some kind of incendiary bile, twisting the panties of progressives into knots of righteousness indignation...while the plutocrats who actually run the Republican Party (and said media echo chamber) quietly go about their business.

That said, the results on Election Night seem to have turned the right-wing's entire public establishment into a burning ball of incandescent and inchoate rage.  And while Montesquieu is probably right that schaudenfreude is a kind of cowardice, I don't think that applies when the pleasure one takes at the suffering of others is aimed at the comfortable and powerful.  Indeed, one of the most morally repugnant aspects of what passes for American conservatism these days is that its experience of 'shameful joy' tends to manifest itself in a self-righteous and sadistic satisfaction in the struggles of the afflicted.

In an unapologetic elitism, in other words.

Laughing at the failures and foibles of the high and hubristic is (or should be) the very essence of humor in the age of mass democracy.

So, f*ck'em.  If they are stinging from a gigantic karmic bitch-slap, I see no reason for a lefty like me not to groove on the sound.  I'll get back to the thoughtful analysis of what the election of 2012 tells us about our country and its future in other posts in the coming weeks.  But for now, the only responsible thing to do in the face of absurdity -- and the faintest glimpses of an unexpected cosmic justice -- is to laugh your ass off.

And since I'm using funny foreign words in this post, let's pick something in French too, since that'll make them squirm even more.  The phrase 'l'esprit d'escalier' literally means 'the spirit of the staircase."  But in common usage, it refers to the exact moment a person comes up with a clever retort to an embarrassing insult, the sort of thing for which Churchill, Wilde and Parker were renowned.  I don't know about you, but those of us in the 'reality-based' community have had to put up with a wide variety of insults for years now -- to our morality, our patriotism, and our intelligence. 

So what's the clever retort here?

Well, I'm just going to point to the scoreboard.  And give you what's below, for your delectation.  Please note that no mockery or misinterpretation of what follows is necessary.  Just verbatim quotations and images, demonstrating a breathtaking kind of cognitive dissonance, as privileged white males sputter and choke in a desperate refusal to accept the epistemic change that confronts them.

So please know, my fervid conservative friends, that I am temporarily suspending the empathic sensibility that generally informs most of us on the left.  I am not laughing with you, in other words, since you seem capable of neither doubt nor self-deprecation. 

I am laughing at you.  You are welcome to join me.

First, of course, there was the willful denial in the days leading up to the election of the slowly accumulating empirical evidence that Romney wasn't going to have a good night.  This started with the homophobic vilification of Nate Silver.  It continued in the 48 hours before Tuesday, with electoral projections of a Romney landslide by George Will and even Michael Barone, that seemed to be based on nothing but wishful thinking, and the 'conventional wisdom' of others similarly placed and pigmented.

And then there was election night itself, and what followed.

Fox News coverage on election night provided a pitch-perfect peek at the right-wing media echo chamber, and the epistemic closure it seems to foster -- a complete refusal to look at evidence or arguments that don’t come from the like-minded.

The big screens at the Mitt Romney Victory Party at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center were on Fox for most of the evening. When Fox broadcast a positive development for Romney (like the early calls in the deep South), the audience would cheer -- at which point Fox would quickly cut to the party at the ballroom, and the crowd would cheer louder, now seeing themselves broadcast on the screens that were looming over them.  It was, in other words, a gigantic and ideologically re-affirming feedback loop, and a perfect symbol for how detached the most active portions of the Republican Party have become from the country they claim to embody.  That feedback loop finally seemed to unravel when Fox News called Ohio for Obama (and Karl Rove unraveled with it).

The Tory Andrew Sullivan, like me, watched a bit of Fox News on election night.  And he also used the word schadenfreude to describe his motivations for doing so, though as a conservative the alloy had a different mix of shame and joy than mine.  His observations are worth quoting at length:
Yes, I watched for Schadenfreude purposes. These charlatans and money-grubbers have turned the broad tradition of Anglo-American conservatism into Southern Fried Fanaticism - and I wanted to see them crackle in their batter. They have replaced empirical doubt with unerring faith in an ideology that had its moment over thirty years ago and is barely relevant to the world we now live in. That faith has been cynically fused with fundamentalist religion to make it virtually impossible for the GOP to accept that women are the majority of voters in this country, that gay couples are equal to straight ones, that 11 million illegal immigrants simply cannot be expected to "self-deport" en masse by a regime of terrifying policing, that war is a last and not a first resort, that the debt we have is primarily a function of two things: George W. Bush's presidency and the economic collapse his term ended with.
Enjoy the crackle, below.

This one, from Charles A Donovan, echoes the apocalyptic tone found on much of the right Tuesday night: 
We may be on the verge of a new Babylonian captivity for religious conservatives. As we know, the story does not end there.
Some conservatives placed the blame for the evening on Sandy, presumably missing the irony of God's decision to intervene in a way that seemed to boost the fortunes of the 'apostate' President. 

Others blamed my people (college professors, not Jews).

David Gelernter, for example, came straight for me:
We’ve seen an important (though far from decisive) battle in the slow-motion civil war the nation is undergoing: The blue states want to secede not from America but from Americanism. They reject the American republic of God-fearing individuals in favor of the European ideal, which has only been government by aristocracy: either an aristocracy of birth or, nowadays, of ruling know-it-alls — of post-religious, globalist intellectuals (a.k.a. PORGIs)...
You can’t graduate class after class after class of left-indoctrinated ignoramuses without paying the price.  Last night was a down payment.
But we’ve won civil wars and preserved the Union before. We’ll do it again — if we face up to the fact that we need to replace our schools and colleges now; the grace period has lasted a generation, but it’s over. I know we can do it and I’m pretty sure we will do it. Americanism is too strong and brilliant and young to die.
From nationally syndicated conservative radio host Mark Levin, comes perhaps the most revealing and unfiltered response to the election.  If his view is widespread in the Tea Party wing of the party, the chances are not good for a Republican re-boot:
We conservatives, we do not accept bipartisanship in the pursuit of tyranny. Period. We will not negotiate the terms of our economic and political servitude. Period. We will not abandon our children to a dark and bleak future. We will not accept a fate that is alien to the legacy we inherited...We will not accept social engineering by politicians and bureaucrats who treat us like lab rats, rather than self-sufficient human beings. There are those in this country who choose tyranny over liberty. They do not speak for us, 57 million of us who voted against this yesterday, and they do not get to dictate to us under our Constitution.

We are the alternative. We will resist. We're not going to surrender to this. We will not be passive, we will not be compliant in our demise. We're not good losers, you better believe we're sore losers! A good loser is a loser forever. Now I hear we're called 'purists.' Conservatives are called purists. The very people who keep nominating moderates, now call us purists the way the left calls us purists. Yeah, things like liberty, and property rights, individual sovereignty, and the Constitution, and capitalism. We're purists now. And we have to hear this crap from conservatives, or pseudo-conservatives, Republicans.
And then there were those who argued that voters had just placed an iron heel on the neck of American freedom:  
Michael Savage said the election results were confirmation that "our society is being turned into a sort of prison camp."

Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson tweeted, "I can't stop crying. America died."
On National Review Online, Ed Whelan wrote that “the great American experiment in constitutional republicanism is in grave peril, if not doomed,” because the nation has been overrun with layabouts: “As the Framers understood, self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. Instead, we have a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to dependency on big-government spending.”
“At the moment, I am convinced America is doomed beyond all hope of redemption, and any talk of the future fills me with dread and horror.”
—Robert Stacey McCain, writing at the American Spectator 
At National Review's The Corner, meanwhile, Mary Matalin stayed classy in her explanation of the evening's events.  She wrote this about President Obama: 
"What happened? A political narcissistic sociopath leveraged fear and ignorance with a campaign marked by mendacity and malice rather than a mandate for resurgence and reform."
And then there is this:

The Republican Party, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has argued, "has become an insurgent outlier in American politics."  It is ideologically extreme, dismissive of compromise, and "unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science."

While it appears that this may be serving the partisan interests of the more centrist and reality-based Democratic Party, Republican extremism has made it nearly impossible for our political system to properly function.  How can we grapple with something like global warming (or inequality), if nearly one-half of our polity refuses to take policy and governance seriously?
As I will argue in a future post, the nation desperately needs a responsible, respectful conservative faction in our public life.  That faction must be prepared to respect empiricism, process and pluralism.  It must respect the loyalty and good intentions of its opponents.  It must inject a sense of limits into our cultural, economic and civic discourse -- and not least, impose that sense of limits on itself too.  None of these things are incompatible with conservatism.  Indeed, upon my reading, these things embody conservatism.

All of us have a stake in what comes next in the Republican Party, and we on the left cannot be so smug as to think that sinking it deeper into the paranoid swamp in the coming years will serve us or the country well.  The panic of the pale and privileged will surely go the way of all flesh eventually.  Tuesday night tells us, perhaps, that they will not take the nation with them.


Anonymous said...

Global warming is a lie the communists are using to control you and get you to buy mercury-filled CFL's. The problem with liberals is that they are too stupid to see through the lies. They don't ask enough questions.

First of all, how are global temperatures measured? You can't stick a thermometer up the ass of the globe. You have to place temperature guages in different areas and hope conditions around them stay the same, which they don't. If a city is built up around a temparature guage that was there for 40 years, do you think that might affect the data collected? Probably.

Years ago the Scientific American published an article about global warming and how if you look at a small enough piece of the graph, you can make it look like we are about to fry, or you can make it look like we are heading into the next ice age. However, if you look at the big picture, you can see that there really is no trend in either direction for the long term. I think Scientific American got it right.

Also, why don't any liberals care about the fact that Al Gore's data has been proven to be contrived? The media did a quick cover-up on that one. Once again, I just don't understand liberals.

Anonymous said...

First off, what communists? This isn't the 1950s anymore... the last bastion of major communism went down when China decided to integrate into capitalism in the past two decades (where the parts in the computer you are using to read this are manufactured from). So please explain what a modern American Communist is in your view as I’ve been hearing this term float around during the recent elections and I have no clue what their stance is or their domestic policies are.

Secondly, what year did Scientific American publish said article? Because if you look at their most recent publications on climate change, it appears they've drastically changed their tune; institutions have the right to change their beliefs as new information comes to light, just as you do. I recommend you read some of their more contemporary articles (http://www.scientificamerican.com/topic.cfm?id=global-warming-and-climate-change), I know this may be difficult since you have a bias to disagree but try to keep an open mind and use your own judgment as opposed to others.

You seem like a person of faith (as myself), so I leave you off with this: “’Come now, let us reason together,’ said the Lord “(Isaiah 1:18).

Anonymous said...

I am not American and don't live in America, I live in Java, in recent years the weather isn't as like as 8 or 10 years ago, as I reckon in my area ( Central Java) in 2010 we called the year without a drought, it is raining the whole year even when it supposed to be dry season, the result is flood, rampart in plant pest and diseases the next year is extremely long drought in 2011, usually we sees rain by the end of September but the rain hasn't show up until December or in some area at January, this year the rain isn't like it use to be, the rainy season only bring very few heavy rain only minor number of heavy rain and usually follow by strong wind. As I reckon climate by definition is a system of weather in particular area within length of 10 years up CMIIW. So seeing these even makes me wonder the climate really changed

Anonymous said...

Love this post! What I don't see conservatives doing is taking responsibility for creating such animosity and divisiveness in the last dozen years. You cannot condescend to women, asians, hispanics, immigrants, the unemployed, disabled and young people and not expect to have blowback from each of those groups. Yes, I am happy to see them get what they have EARNED and worked so hard for - a bitch slap and a resounding rejection of their policies and hateful agenda. Thanks for writing this!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mark. I really enjoyed this read.

Exactly as you write, I have found myself intentionally turning off my empathic side to indulge in one of the greatest moments of schadenfreude I can recall in recent memory. The conservative denial of reality has been breathtaking, not just over the last four years, but as far back as the rabid attacks on Clinton in the mid-nineties (and perhaps longer). I see this as the influence of the take-no-prisoners warrior class of Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed et al.

Much like Bart Simpson freeze-framing the exact moment when Lisa broke Ralph Wiggum's Valentine heart, the Rove/Kelly footage on Fox is exquisitely delicious. As a psychologist, I often railed in my circles about my despair at those who deny reality (usually about climate change, but also on social issues), and my secret dream has been for reality to bitch-slap them roundly. I was not expecting it to happen so convincingly on this Election Day.

In a sense, progressives can now enjoy a kind of win-win prospect here. Either the Republican party re-constructs into something more moderate, or it can keep handicapping itself against foreboding demographic shifts. But as you conclude, I would much rather see their reconstruction and re-entry into constructive politics. Again taking my cues from psychology, I am not particularly hopeful of much soul-searching on the right. It might come down to the narrative shapers (primarily Fox News) deciding to stop providing oxygen to the Tea Party and the Christian Right. Let's hope it happens.

Anonymous said...

A truly thought out read, thankyou. do the opposition really think that the people would sit back and tolerate their ideologies which belong in the post industrial revolution

Peter said...

Thanks. Great analysis and an enjoyable read .