Sunday, April 24, 2016

The rise of the smug

Smug’s The Word

As distasteful as the 2016 political campaigns have been, some on the right and left have finally caught on to one important thing: Big Thinkers have treated most of their constituents with contempt. This is true mostly of the left, but the right is not absolved completely of this failing.
At Vox Emmet Rensin observes of the left in an essay I urge you to read:
There is a smug style in American liberalism. It has been growing these past decades. It is a way of conducting politics, predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence -- not really -- but by the failure of half the country to know what's good for them.
In 2016, the smug style has found expression in media and in policy, in the attitudes of liberals both visible and private, providing a foundational set of assumptions above which a great number of liberals comport their understanding of the world.
It has led an American ideology hitherto responsible for a great share of the good accomplished over the past century of our political life to a posture of reaction and disrespect: a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason. [snip]
Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. 
Rensin notes the weaknesses of the smug thinking:
The smug style leaves its adherents no other option: If an idea has failed to take hold, if the Good Facts are not widely accepted, then the problem must be that these facts have not yet reached the disbelievers.
That they have reached the disbelievers but failed to persuade them of the rightness of those policies is unthinkable to smugsters. In fact, Rensin informs his audience that Republicans are not stupid:
The Republican coalition tends toward the center: educated enough, smart enough, informed enough.
The Democratic coalition in the 21st century is bifurcated: It has the postgraduates, but it has the disenfranchised urban poor as well, a group better defined by race and immigration status than by class. There are more Americans without high school diplomas than in possession of doctoral degrees. The math proceeds from there.
He admonishes them that you cannot help people you disrespect and ignore.
His point to the left is to cut the supercilious attitude and concentrate on honing their powers of persuasion.
Perhaps undercutting his fine work, John Sexton at Hot Air notes Vox certainly played a role in this smug approach to political debate.
It really does need to be said that Vox was founded by people who helped perpetuate the smug style of American liberalism. Yes it was launched with a feint at escaping the pitfalls of partisanship (aka cultural cognition) but it also promised ‘explanatory journalism’ the whole premise of which was that Vox would better explain the wisdom of progressive policy preferences to the unenlightened. So it’s a bit bizarre to have Vox publish this piece which to some degree undercuts the site’s reason for being. Still, they did publish the piece rather than refuse to do so. Perhaps it is better to applaud the occasional candle of self-criticism than curse the smug darkness.
Over at Just One Minute, Tom Maguire sees a parallel with a post by Jonathan Chait
I would say this smugness piece is sailing in similar waters to those charted earlier by Jonathan Chait in his piece on the return of PC culture and the progressive thought police:
‘But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.’
Lest you on the right smugly believe that you are better than the left, feel more empathy and are less likely to disrespect the suffering people at the bottom of the economic heap, you should disabuse yourself of that notion.
Maguire cites Romney to make this point: “Just off-hand, the "makers and takers" dichotomy alluded to by Romney in 2012 is not a particularly empathetic way of thinking about the large numbers of people for whom the American system of schools and jobs has not working.”
Peggy Noonan, who admits to being discombobulated by this year’s events, notes of the Big Thinkers on the right:
I was offended that those curiously quick to write essays about who broke the party were usually those who’d backed the policies that broke it. Lately conservative thinkers and journalists had taken to making clear their disdain for the white working class. I had actually not known they looked down on them. I deeply resented it and it pained me. If you’re a writer lucky enough to have thoughts and be paid to express them and there are Americans on the ground struggling, suffering -- some of them making mistakes, some unlucky -- you don’t owe them your airy, well-put contempt, you owe them your loyalty. They too have given a portion of their love to this great project, and they are in trouble. 
While she gives no examples of those on the right who express their smug contempt for the white working class she might well have meant people like the National Review’s editorialist Kevin Williamson, who opined in October that "people en masse aren't very bright or sophisticated, and they're vulnerable to cheap, hysterical emotional appeals." He has repeated his contempt for those working class whites, suggesting that, instead of voting for Trump, they should just move away from dying communities.  
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs.
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. 
To be sure, I think the failing has largely been on the left. My online buddy Alex Bensky explains why he thinks that is the case: “It's one reason why they will not generally engage in genuine debate. The position they start from is that any disagreement is ill-informed or malevolent. In any case, progressives tend to be very insular so they aren't used to dealing with disagreement.”
Why has the chattering class adopted such a distasteful view of their fellows? I’m sure it’s possible to conceive of several reasonable explanations. To my mind, the biggest factor is their own insecurity about the wisdom of their deeply held beliefs. Like the climate measures which are inconsistent with the models used to promote the expenditure of billions of dollars to combat “climate change”, the economic and social policies they espouse might not match the anticipated results. With so much of what they believed going topsy-turvy, they fail out of conceit to examine what part their own ideas played in the disasters and to look at other possibilities to deal with social and economic problems. Like whacked-out conspiracy theorists they look for a simple answer -- in their case, those who question them must be stupid and made to just shut up and listen to their betters.

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