Needing it to be true?

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

The political blogosphere is a wondrous beastie for those of us who are interested in rhetoric, argument and the eternal question “Who are these people and why are they saying these things?”

As mentioned elsewhere DPF’s satire on the Green’s climate change policy isn’t all that funny

When Swift made his modest proposal about Irish peasant farmers finding a cure for their problems by eating their children, the target of the satire wasn’t the Irish peasant farmers, but rather the people that were ignoring their plight. That’s pretty much why it was satire and not just an anti-Irish version of the blood libel.

But what interests me is why someone might find DPF’s satire satirical. What’s the point of it?

On one level it could just be what satirist and US Senator Al Franken termed ‘kidding on the square’. This is where you say something outrageous, not minding at all if it gets taken literally, while retaining the defence of ‘just joking’ if challenged. Anne Coulter’s career of accusing liberals of being traitors is built entirely on this tactic.

On this reading DPF’s post is just flat out nasty propaganda, accusing the Greens of having genocidal instincts. Some commenters to the post certainly read it this way, with variants on the “It’s funny/scary because it’s true” routine.

Another reading of the post is that it’s a response to a particular form of psychological dissonance.

As the science around AGW becomes ever harder to dismiss, people who have invested a lot in dismissing it need to find an outlet. It’s not that they were wrong, or blinded by ideology, or that their opponents were smarter than them, or just correct about them in some of the things they said, rather it must be that their opponents are even worse.

Here’s the slacktivist explaining the idea as it relates to certain right wingers in the US at the moment who are convinced, or perhaps just ‘joking’, that ‘health care reform = killing grandma’.

This downward plunge is bound to accelerate. The goal is a feeling of moral superiority, achieved at first by telling oneself little lies about the behavior and motivations of others. But those little lies lead to feelings of guilt. That guilt is legitimate, earned and wholly deserved, but this isn’t about whether one’s feelings are just or appropriate, it’s about whether one’s feelings feel good. So the guilt provokes a feeling of moral inferiority that can, for those addicted, only be countered by telling slightly larger lies about the even-more-inferior morality of others. Those bigger lies carry with them a larger sense of guilt and so the cycle repeats itself again and again with the lies getting larger and larger. And with every downward spiral, the ever-larger lies become ever more implausible, so that it becomes harder and harder to pretend that one actually believes the lies one is telling oneself and the guilt becomes that much more intense and undeniable and can only be staved off, temporarily, through ever more outrageous lies until finally one finds oneself desperately asserting that President Obama’s desire to provide health care for the uninsured is actually a plot to murder your grandmother in cold blood and reinstate the Third Reich here in America.

Consider what the example above means for those embracing it. Even a cursory examination of this claim would reveal it to be false, but they have chosen not to examine it, chosen to swallow it unexamined and to pass it on to others because they need it to be true. They need it to be true because this is what it would take for them to recapture at least the illusion of moral superiority. Let that sink in for a moment.

To be confident of the claim that they are better than some other group, they have chosen to compare themselves to a eugenic Nazi regime that euthanizes senior citizens. That such a regime is wholly a figment of their warped imaginations is less revealing than the fact that they have been forced to imagine such a horrifying scenario in order to find something with which they can believe they compare favorably.


10 thoughts on “Needing it to be true?

  1. I think its interesting how much coverage the Green Party gets in Kiwiblog and the general right-wing blogosphere, keeping in mind the conventional understanding that they are a minor party.

    What does this degree of attention, and the over-the-top/satirical/hysterical(?) type of coverage they receive indicate about how the New Zealand right-wing perceives the Green Party? – 1. As a genuine threat to be marginalised as much as possible, OR 2. As just a bunch of silly hippies to be made fun of?

    I would pick the former.

  2. Bookie, great post. Quote-fest 2009 follows.

    The hyperbolic nature of propaganda discourses, for me, is part self-justification, part arousal maintenance. If ‘it’ isn’t (or ‘they’ aren’t) the Worst Thing Everâ„¢, how can folk be so outraged by it? It is for this reason that, had it been passed, the Therapeutic Medicines Bill would have been ‘the end of civilised life as we know it’ (as agreed by Lindsay Perigo and Bernard Darnton): if it was anything less, what would justify the invective? An excuse to holster one’s faculties of reason in lieu of pure fury.

    And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

    — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

    This fury is what keeps people tuned in. Unless you’re a geek of some sort (by definition, most reading this probably are), it’s pretty tough to stay engaged with political discourses. There are plenty more interesting things out there. But hate – that’s engaging, and for plenty of people depth of feeling equates with truth. In the words of those who do (did) this sort of arousal-maintenance for a living:

    Any statement whatever, no matter how stupid, any `tall tale’ will be believed once it enters into the passionate current of hatred.

    — Ann Coulter, Slander (after Göbbels)

    In any talk format, you have to pound home a strong point of view. If you’re not providing controversy and excitement, people won’t listen, or watch.

    — Bill O’Reilly, Who’s Looking Out For You

    His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

    — the US Office of Secret Services psychological profile of Adolf Hitler, ca. 1942 (declassified 1968).

    [George H W Bush] is ok, he can do his job, he’s just not very interesting. Now Barbara, she’s interesting. She knows how to hate.

    — Richard M. Nixon (as rendered by James McMurtry)



  3. I’ve commented on a number of blogs that DPF’s hysterics on climate change and the 40% by 2020 campaign have been quite bizarre. There was his ignorance (along with Nick Smith’s to be fair) of the difference between net emissions and gross emissions. There was his scaremongering over having to shoot cows, and then there was the post in question – which really ‘takes the cake’.

    I interpreted his attitude as “he’s really worried about the traction the 40% target is getting”, and I still think that’s the case. He knows that the government did a bollocks job in terms of analysing the costs and benefits of various targets (the NZIER and Infometrics studies were misused terribly and deliberately) and is trying to distract us from that fact by getting all hysterical.

  4. An interesting post and perspective.

    I read DPF’s effort. It wasn’t particularly clever, and I don’t agree with the point he was trying to make, but I still think it was a genuine attempt at satire.

    Swift’s Modest Proposal was much, much more outrageous that DPF’s work. And yet it is regarded, rightly, as a work of genius. Sometimes a good satire has to offend. (not that DPF’s satire is any good…)

    Unlike many, I can’t bring myself to get angry or upset about this.

  5. Corey:

    What does this degree of attention, and the over-the-top/satirical/hysterical(?) type of coverage they receive indicate about how the New Zealand right-wing perceives the Green Party? – 1. As a genuine threat to be marginalised as much as possible, OR 2. As just a bunch of silly hippies to be made fun of?

    I agree that it’s more 1 than 2. Or maybe they respond with 2 because of 1. Something like that.

    The Greens are a threat because their ideology regects so much of the ‘right wing’ world view. For all that Labour gets called socialist and so on, Labour shares most of the basic intellectual framework as National, differing only by a few percentage points on tax and redistribution.

    Maybe because L and N are both (small c)conservative parties where the Greens are radicals. N and L disagree with each other quite strongly about a few things, but the Greens disagree about a greater number of more basic things, like economic growth as an end, etc.

  6. I tend to agree with jarbury. Most of DPF’s offensive stuff is attempted deflection. Like a lot of righties, Farrar’s attitudes seem to be informed by a state of arrested adolescence.

    All these conversations around the deflection that is his jeuvenile (rather than offensive) Green’s post show that having a mind set of a play ground tweeny doesn’t stop you from being effective.

  7. Political satire is cutting edge and i spose it must be outrageous to get cut-through. dpf’s post seemed to me to be designed for his audience (Kiwiblog commentators), to generate heat, outrage and indignation. It appears to have worked on both sides of the arguement. It didn’t seem to me to be satire to illustrate a point or offer a ‘outrageous’ view that might expose an angle normally hidden from view. I felt a bit dirty reading it to tell you the truth.

    And i wonder if the juxtiposition of abortion and greens had something to do with it. The more discordant the image, the more cutthrough? I came across political satire/racism about obama – does putting a white face on a black man create the same discordant image or association – thus political satire or is it just racism? Does using the greens and abortion create satire or is it just nasty? I’m going for nasty.

    I tend to agree that the more outraged I get (and i can get pretty worked up), the more I want to read what my opponents are saying. Am I fueling my outrage? Perhaps dpf is very smart indeed, because i cannot stand most of the comments on his blog, yet i feel compelled to go and read them, even though I know they are just rehashed versions of comments I have already read before there.

    Ahhhh the human condition… so complex.

  8. I think your condemnation of David merely illustrates a point in Pascel’s thread. Seeking something/ somebody to be superior to.
    Maybe I’m falling into that here too?

  9. What the right in America is doing and what Farrar is also doing, is to say that the change sought by Obama’s government and the change which the Greens want is somehow dangerous.

    Posing any change to the status quo as a dangerous thing is simply the conservative practice.

    When the change is inevitable and necessary (so that the conservative feels on the wrong side of history), anything to moderate the change and by any means. No argument too puerile, no lie too big, no excuse too banal.

    Thus the line about some threat to life – raising all sorts of national security imperatives and the need to remove the threat of change from society (thus associating certain ideas as those of dissidents who should be seen as projects of the intelligence establishment).

  10. Most of the Aotearoa sites I inhabit are pretty much in unison in their derision about the 10% target put up by the Government of 100% PURE New Zealand. All, except DPF.

    If the various blog sites were sitting in Kiwipolitico’s lounge, DPF would be the one “kidding in the square” but not really getting anywhere and, because no one’s really listening to him anyway, he has to start shouting to get any attention. Meanwhile, Frogblog is far and away leading the emissions discussion bringing in the human face of global warming along with undeniable facts and proof that the government either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know what it is doing; seems to be getting great traction. Rather than argue the facts or consider alternatives or simply just shut up, DPF spills the bottle of red all over the white carpet.

    His behaviour absolutely makes manifest in a sickly way the internal cognitive dissonance of the Right. Good to know they’re feeling the pressure.

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