Conservatives are outraged that members of the Service Employees International Union were allowed to attend Representative Russ Carnahan’s town hall, but conservatives were turned away. Similarly, liberals were outraged when they were denied entry to Representative Kevin Brady’s town hall, but the ninety conservative doctors whose hospital sponsored the event were allowed in. I would link to those outraged liberals, but I invented them. While I’m sure many liberals would complain if the sponsor of an event had seats reserved for its members, I can’t find them. I can, however, find many conservatives who know that the SEIU is sponsoring these town halls, but still write that “the [SEIU] union thugs had already been quietly ushered in through the back door, and had already taken seats that were reserved for them in the front.”
They are upset, first, that the sponsor of an event reserved seats for its members; and second, that when protesters prevented members of the group that sponsored the event from reaching the seats reserved for them, the group sponsoring the event might resort to ferrying its members to their reserved seats by an alternate route. Even without the excessive italics, that much should be obvious—only it isn’t, and while the quality of mainstream political discourse has never been that high, rarely has it been this low.
My standard for quality is not based on civility so much as the that of forensic debate. The rule to which all debaters abide is, plainly but multitudinously, “Never say anything they can use against you.” If you lack the reflexivity required to know whether your words will return to haunt you, you will lose often and spectacularly. That’s why, when the stakes are high, it’s best to be attacking what you believe or defending what you don’t. Your beliefs only impair your argument, because what matters is not what you know, but what you can prove. The last thing you want to do is hand your opponent the ammunition they need to accomplish your execution. In the 1990s, mainstream conservativism understood this well enough: it distanced itself from the Foster dramatics and focused on an affirmative offensive, be it about a Contract with Certain Americans or marital infidelities.
Absurdity mattered less than strategy, because as frustrating as those absurdities were, they sat well in the stomach because we knew that they were merely strategic: the machinations of Newton Leroy Gingrich were clearly machinations, and although we could and did call the man who married his high school math teacher two days after he turned eighteen a hypocrite, we never doubted his ability to excuse our dear Aunt Sally, nor did we care how exactly he pleased her, because we understood that no matter how or where he chose to do so, he knew order of her operations—uterine surgery in ’78, another in ’80, and four-hundred and forty dollars a month to provide for an ailing woman, his two children, and a dry cleaning bill for one. Whether or not he ever said his wife was neither “young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a President, and besides, she has cancer,” we never doubted that he was capable of such a calculus. He was a pure political animal, predictable, and when he spoke stupidly, he did so to inflame his enemies into breaching super-dense patches of stupid that corrupted their every communiqué: “We are approaching bluster tape,” their communications officer would relay. “Permission to canister the light and holder the cup with scrap medicine?” As soon as the words left our lips, we understood the nature of the con in which we had cast ourselves as marks.
Strategic hypocrisy we understood, could compartmentalize, and proffer rejoinder—but the New Stupid is different. It is an unstrategic stupid emboldened by an unselfconscious hypocrisy, meaning we face an opposition who hands us their rifles and implores us not to fire them; offers us bullets on the condition that we not load those rifles; then they take their place against the wall and proceed to taunt us. “You may have rifles and bullets,” they shout, “but you don’t know from loading guns. Even if you somehow managed to load the bullets we provided into the rifles we also provided you,” they continue, “you lack the character required to shoot them. If you don’t believe us, we will hector you mercilessly until you acquire it, and then you will shoot us with a cold smile on your face and we will die, even though we expressly told you we didn’t want you to shoot us when we handed you the rifles and the bullets.” Knowing how it will end, the temptation to butt them senseless as soon as we secure their rifles is almost impossible to overcome; but we must remember that we are not dealing with savvy political operatives here, nor even with the toadies who absorbed tactical hypocrisy on their bouncing knees.
We are dealing with a lowest common denominator that bootstrapped itself into relevance on the bent back of technological innovation. The super-dense stupid that Gingrich once goaded us into breaching now houses the headquarters of our political opponents, from which they beam their new brand of stupid to the masses:
The Service Employees International Union sponsored this meeting, but I am outraged, I say, outraged that the SEIU reserved seats for its member at it, because that is wrong, because this is America, and I will not stand for any seating arrangement in which money means access, unless it happens to be a baseball game, in which case I will pay outrageous sums for a seat that lets me see sweat gather, bead, and roll down the line of Derek Jeter’s jaw—because that is capitalism, capitalism is American, and America is awesome.
Without the faith we once placed in the operatives of zero-sum politics, such statements can’t be dismissed as self-interested calculation: they emanate from the emo core of the New Stupid, which was created by the two historically unique broadcast systems born in the 1990s. The first of which, talk radio, came into its own with the rise of Rush Limbaugh; the second is the internet generally and blogs in particular. Although both were around before, they had yet to acquire the political prominence they would in the wake of Lewinsky (radio) and the build-up to the Second Gulf War (the internet and blogs). Consider this: if you were 18 years old in 1992 and a conservative, your knowledge of political discourse would amount to Limbaugh’s campaign against the Clinton administration and the defense of Bush policy he and online conservatives mounted. You would be about the age of the average political blogger, but for the first time in your adult life you are politically impotent.
Granted, there were those two awful years (1992-1994) in which Clinton worked with a Democratic Congress, but that was almost two decades ago and is but a distant memory. For the past seventeen years, conservatives have framed every issue however they pleased; moreover, for the past nine years they have dominated the narrative so thoroughly that liberals were forced to oppose preemptive invasions, insist that American soldiers would not be greeted as liberators, and denounce those who willfully lied before, during and now in the dénouement of a suspect war in which no American soldier was greeted as a liberator. Those conservatives who came of age during this period have never been out of power—and those who came of age earlier have forgotten how it stung—and try as they might to harness the fear this doggedly centrist regime instills in them, all they can muster is a stampeding panic. They are like cattle on the open range who, having heard horror stories about wolves their entire lives, trample themselves silly at the sight of this dread beast.
Of course, by “trample” I mean “soldier on,” which is exactly what the right-wing radio that sustained them through the 1990s and the conservative blogs by which they cudgeled the narrative into shape in the 2000s are doing. But absent the men in powerful places required to authorize their specious interpretations of suspect facts, their conversations increasingly resemble idle gossip in a endless game of telephone amplified over the airwaves and through a series of tubes: before leaving for work, a conservative communicates his displeasure about some milksop Obama initiative to his neighbor; when he returns home, his wife informs him that the gay Kenyan in the White House wants to kill grandma. Exactly how his complaint was corrupted—from Rush to some blog, some blog to Fox, Fox to Rush, Rush to Hannity, Hannity to some blog—is less important than the inevitability that it would be.
These conservatives in their 30s and 40s are willing to believe anything because, for the past two decades, they have been in the business of making things believable. What liberals see as a game of telephone being played by idiots with crap reception, conservatives call “reporting.” Only without an Administration to accommodate their pretensions to reality—to interrupt the game with a reminder of the original statement—their message is running away from them so quickly that their latest champion is a guy whose hurt shoulder put him in a wheelchair. (Not that it’s impossible to suffer grave bodily harm and seem fine at first [as Kenneth Gladney did in the video]: I got hit by a car and walked home because adrenaline works wonders. But being drugged into speechless the day after you made the right-wing rounds for ten hours is mighty suspicious.) Kenneth Gladney claims he was kicked and punched mercilessly and says the video backs him up. Conservative blogs concur and Rush and Fox agree:
The tape clearly shows that Gladney was beheaded by union jihadists personally selected by the Kenyan himself. Pass it on.
That Hannity will say this while interviewing Gladney demonstrates why he would never win a formal debate. Not that he has to—the New Stupid will say he did no matter how he performed. Rush will concur and conservative blogs will agree:
Sean Hannity brought Gladney back from the dead with two toothpicks, a bottle of antifreeze and the power of Christ. Pass it on.