Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Political is Personal, Too

"There's so much frustration going on right now with people not being heard," Tidrick said. "And we see this country in a spiral downward. People are lashing out in different ways... You take somebody that's had a bad day and sometimes they may say things they regret later. But until things get straightened out, we don't have a lot to hope for."
-from Eli Sanders' interview with a speaker at the Yakima Tea Party rally on April 10
In the above quote, Brad Tidrick is trying to, if not defend, then at least explain some of the rage that might've led Charles Alan Wilson to make more than a dozen threatening phone calls to WA Senator Patty Murray, cluminating in such statements as "Somebody's gonna get to you one way or another and blow your fucking brains out. If I have the chance, I would do it."

Obviously (at least it should be obvious), there's no real defense for such behavior. I'm all for rigorous disagreement in the realm of politics and ideas, but when you get to the point of making death threats, you're no longer debating the issues, you're essentially engaging in terrorism.

But there's a line in there that reflects something I've been thinking for a while, and I wanted to highlight it and tease out some of the implications. The line is "You take somebody that's had a bad day and sometimes they may say things they regret later."

I think a lot of what drives the passion that many people bring to their political views, especially those whose politics is driven by anger and rage, has little or nothing to do with politics at all.

Most peoples' emotional lives are driven, I think, by more quotidian phenomena than ideas. They hate their job, or they haven't gotten laid in too long, or they don't get enough exercise, or any number of other things, both positive and negative, which have much more of an effect on peoples' emotional states than, say, the nuances of health care policy or the parliamentary methodology of its passage.

We are, all of us, a seething welter of often misdirected emotion, emotion that arises in reaction to those aspects of our lives to which we must submit, for whatever reason, and we swallow that emotion, because we cannot reasonably tell our boss to go fuck himself or the credit card company that they are tremendous jerks for raising our rates when we're already just barely making the monthly minimum payment. But it's very difficult to reabsorb that emotion, and most people don't have the tools and techniques necessary to sublimate it or let it go. So it festers, there in your unconscious, and it builds up pressure, just like the magma underneath a volcano, and, like the magma underneath a volcano, it looks for a way to relieve that pressure, a crack through which it can escape. And I think that a lot of what drives the passion and, frankly, anger and rage in American political discourse today has a lot to do with the difficulties people face in their everyday lives, and the frustrations those difficulties engender. When you can't express that anger, can't find a way to release it in a healthy manner, you unconsciously look for something to transfer it to. Basically, you find something else to get mad at, something that often has nothing at all to do with the real source of that anger, and it feels good. It's therapeutic, to let that rage fly, to get it out of your system, even if it's misdirected.

It's one of the right wing's best tricks, exploiting that anger. Stoking it, then offering up the left as a target for it, even though the social and economic policies that actually create the difficult conditions that give rise to the frustration and fear behind the rage come solidly from the right's corner of the ideological universe. They are, after all, basically the enablers and spear-carriers of the wealthy, whose continued screwing of the people of America and the world in general, skewing the distribution of wealth and, in many cases, basic necessities away from where it is most needed, in order to hoard vast piles of economic resources in the hands of those who need it least, is, frankly, the cause of a good deal of this anger and frustration people feel. After all, when you're not sure where the next meal or mortgage payment is coming from, it's understandable that you might be a little edgy, and that if the process continues long enough, the accumulated tension and stress will eventually drive you crazy. It's perfectly natural.

It's a good scam. Perpetuate anger and frustration on the part of the hoi polloi by creating and ensuring economic uncertainty in their lives, forcing them into all manner of compromising positions that cause misery, while also propagating a social and cultural ideology that goes almost completely against the grain of human nature, so that many if not all of the ways that anger and frustration might be positively channeled and dissipated are closed off as legitimate possibilities, which raises that anger and frustration to a fever pitch. Then take that unfocused, generalized rage and point it at straw men who vaguely resemble your political opponents, causing the people you're fucking over to vote against their own economic and psychological well-being and thus ensuring a perpetuation of the cycle. It's absolutely brilliant in its nefariousness. After all, hate sells almost as well as sex.

The only problem is that it poisons political discourse. We have, quite frankly, way too many giant problems to address, as a nation and a people, hell, as a species, for some twenty-odd percent of the electorate to be so blind with negative emotion that they're no longer amenable to reasonable discourse. Sure, it wins elections (though I think they've overplayed their hand at this point, started a fire they can't control), but it's fundamentally irresponsible, because you can't reason with someone who's so worked up that they're willing to make death threats when the time-hallowed and thoroughly American political process doesn't go their way. When legislation righting unsustainable and morally egregious imbalances in the American peoples' access to good, quality health care is a cause for death threats against the legislators who are passing it, making a good-faith effort to do the right thing by the people they represent, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

For what it's worth, I do think this insight offers up a new perspective on addressing the problem. To some extent, there are always going to be raging assholes and idiots who simply can't be dealt with in a reasonable fashion, but if strong action can be taken to improve the lot of the average American, it seems possible that the cycle can be broken. If, for instance, a certain amount of the economic uncertainty that hangs over most households like the Sword of Damocles could be removed (yeah, yeah, I'm a goddamned socialist, I know), then a lot of the frustration and anger that drives this poisoning of the well of the American discourse could be made to dissipate. Once some of that uncertainty is removed, and people feel like things are going better, in their families and communities, I think a lot of this raging idiocy could be done away with, which would be good for everybody.

Just something I've been thinking about.

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