Really, it’s not funny

By , 12 November, 2010, 9 Comments

Two weeks ago, I joined much of the young American Left at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I didn’t travel down to Washington for the occasion; I’m not that much of a Daily Show devotee. I had meetings with various sources, a very good college friend to stay with, and my sister to see in Philly on the way back. The timing and location were convenient.

The rally was, to be honest, boring, certainly not as funny or as compelling as the two television shows from which it derived. Given how little effort I put into getting there, that’s fine. But when I think about how many young folks actually traveled to be there, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that the ideas around which young liberals rally en masse are so unsubstantial.

I was not the only person who felt that way. Mark Ames had a screed at The Exiled on the rally, and it’s definitely got a lot of problems [basically, skip the second half], but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the piece that is worth excerpting at some length.

A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit—now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs—but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.

…It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party  for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown… a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid–or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid.

…It was this same lack of ironic self-awareness (or rather, this absence of any sort of mockery-avoidance technology) that led my generation to pillory the hippies and progressives–that’s why we were South Park Republicans before we were Daily Show Democrats: because back then, standing for liberal values meant something, and that made you look lame. Only now, when Liberal ideals have vanished into mythology and all they stand for is “not as crazy or stupid as Republicans” is it safe to camp out with the Democrats. They put nothing on the line ideologically, which perfectly jibes with this generation’s highest value…I’ve come to the conclusion that this has been the Great Dream of my generation: to position ourselves in such a way that we’re beyond mockery.

One of the mistakes Ames makes is to attribute this kind of ironic anti-politics to both Gen X (his own peers) and Gen Y. It seems to me that Gen Y has a slightly different problem. If Gen X avoids the serious issues because they seem lame, Gen Y avoids them by thinking, quite genuinely and quite wrongly, that the unserious issues are of great consequence, that it is more important to protest against the racial and religious rhetoric of the right wing than to address the economic and sociological problems that give that rhetoric weight. We may note that the rhetoric comes from bitterness, but we do so to dismiss it, rather than to alleviate it. Cultural liberalism – the politics of smug – eclipses economic liberalism – the politics of compassion.

As one of my self-aware, ironic friends has pointed out, the major problem with Ames’ piece—and my summary of it—is that it does not address why young people have become so much more concerned with the presentation and appearance of political action than with the content of politics.

One answer that came to mind while I was listening to Jon Stewart is the dramatic disenchantment with the media that we have seen in the last decade. Quite literally, our loss of trust in the sources of news, our focus on seeing the media as a mediator, as a body with its own agency and bias, has drawn up a barrier between the public and the facts. We can’t talk about the facts in the news stories, about the issues, until we’re absolutely certain they are real. And because, being good postmodernists, we can’t ever be certain, we’re trapped.

That is not to deny that the media broke the trust first, with cable theatrics and bungled WMD reporting, but simply to note that in our response, we may have gone much too far. So far that it takes a historic data leak from Wikileaks to make us believe information that the White House press corps has been reporting for three years. So far that in our quest to prevent partisan he-said-she-said from ‘hurting America’, we’ve simultaneously embraced the ideological bubbles of Fox and MSNBC and a silly kind of false objectivity. And so far, that on the Saturday before a conservative landslide, when we could have been knocking on doors, all the young liberals I know were gathered on the National Mall to watch standup comedy. It wasn’t funny. It was sad.

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9 Responses {+}
  • Megan

    But the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear wasn’t about liberalism –it was about disillusionment with politics. Disillusionment from both sides. It was about frustration with the name-calling and fear-mongering from both parties…

    I get your point and I agree that a lot of young liberals don’t have any concrete, policy-based beliefs (and just enjoy being part of the “smart,” non-crazy party) –but I’m not sure the rally is the best example of this.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Megan, I know the content of the rally was about disillusionment with both sides, but from what I could tell from the signs, there was a 9:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives there. So that disillusionment with both sides kind of IS a young liberal belief. And if young liberals are more disillusioned (and therefore more disengaged) than young conservatives, then that’s a problem.

  • Sam

    Here’s a slightly more forgiving take:

    Liberals think their ideas are better. They have logical, well reasoned bases for why this is so. Consequently, making the debate revolve around the merits of ideas instead of hollow emotional rhetoric–that is, making it more reasonable–is the same thing as “winning,” since the progressive outcome is the necessary result of rationale thought.

    I think that approach is a miscalculation simply because politics in this country don’t work that way (never have, never will), but it does have a certain Millian quality that is very appealing.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Sam, that is a more forgiving take, and I think it has merit as a description of how liberals think.

    But I find it pretty unsatisfying, because what it really means is that instead of debating the merits of ideas, we spend our words on the meta-question of whether we can rationally debate the merits of ideas.

    I think you’re right that the Millian answer to this is that if you win the meta-question, the specific (progressive) ideas will follow. I suppose that’s why I’m not a Millian liberal: it’s not simply that I am skeptical about ever winning the meta-question. It’s that I’m not convinced about the inevitable flow from the meta to the actual once the meta question is won.

  • Sam

    Well, arguing the meta-questions is a precondition for arguing the substantive ones. Of course, using rational arguments to convince irrational people to change their ways is an obvious nonstarter.

    I’m also pessimistic about the Millian approach, and for similar reasons, but what’s our alternative? Being loud and angry?

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Sam, a good question. I suppose it’s the notion that the meta is a precondition for the substantive that I differ with. I think it’s possible to change the substantive in small ways, and allow that to influence the meta conversation from within.

    Let say you’re a liberal politician who can’t, for example, convince an irrational nation that a great new idea you have on education will work, in the abstract. Let’s say you can’t even get a rational discussion on education going at a national level. And most lefties are thinking ‘the debate is so irrational that we have to fix it before we can implement this great idea.’

    I disagree. I think you can possibly find a place–one city, one state–willing to let you try try your idea, and show it works, and then present both the results and the moral argument for why there’s a problem worth fixing to a wider audience: say the next state over. I think you can build big policy that way, because I do think people respond to results. Not in the abstract–that requires, as you say, a lot of rationality. But in the specific, where it affects them and they see it. And I think as you do that on more issues and in more places, the meta-game starts to move in your direction.

    I have no idea what famous philosopher to attach that to, but that’s how I think.

  • Sam

    Maybe I’m just more pessimistic (and disengaged, and alienated) than you, but I doubt the efficacy of your “city on a hill” model. Not to be all terrible and PoMo here, but objective truth is largely irrelevant to our political discourse.

    Climate change exists. Unregulated markets have adverse social consequences. We *know* these things. They are empirically and anecdotally provable. But their objective truth doesn’t count for much in a lot of circles.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @Sam, I have my doubts about it too–it definitely might fail–but it seems to me the best option, being as I abhor ‘loud and angry’ and am profoundly frustrated with the Millian meta-conversation. Moreover, the important thing to me about it is that EVEN if it fails at the meta and macro level, it might help some people along the way, which is more than can be said for putting the substance on hold until the meta is over.

    Seeing as I don’t know anyone who’s actually trying such a thing, though, it’s probably untestable.

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