Twilight of the idolatory of proxies
The week ending June 24, 2012 offered a juxtaposition of right wing and centrist attitudes of the disconnect between the electorate and their heroes. From the perspective of the Right wing media, it was perfectly reasonable for the House Financial Services committee to refuse to put Jamie Dimon under oath, yet express support for another House committee to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress in a flap about a Bush administration program that he shut down. The right was standing behind their heroes of Wall Street regardless how disastrous their performance has been towards Right wing goals for the economy. The centrist media reflecting views from the middle of the political spectrum, (let’s call them the Bill Clinton/ Blue Dog democrats) is expressing a different theme. This point of view is that the progressive left is behaving irrationally because it is not responding to the democratic leadership as it did in 2008. One example is the growing disconnect between progressives and the President.
According to Chris Hayes’s book, Twilight of the Elites, both left and right are questioning the legitimacy of their leaders. He optimistically hopes that the Tea Party is an expression of the disconnect the Right feels with their heroes. But we saw none of this in evidence with the treatment of Jamie Dimon. Participants in the Right wing bubble world are just as stable in their world view as ever, being consistently selective with which leaders they feel disconnected with. The reality is that extremists are stabbing the moderates and otherwise circling their wagons around their heroes. At the other end of the spectrum, what the progressives in America, Europe, and in the Arab spring countries are doing is reconsidering their relationship to their customary political representatives- their political elites (proxies). Centrists feel this is at best yet more irrational naivete from the lunatic left. At worst it is betrayal and disloyalty at the crucial political moment that the democratic party needs all the support it can muster.
One centrist theme being floated now is that progressives disarmed the President by not making activist demands that would provide a political counterbalance to the right wing. The attitude is revisionist and counter to the facts about what democratic party political operatives were communicating to the left after Obama was swept into the White House. The truth is that the newly reemployed democratic administration members had as little regard for progressives as the Clinton White House did. Former Obama administration member Van Jones put it this way- that after the election the DC elites told progressives “…You need to sit down and shut up and we will deal with this. And I think it turned out that that was wrong”. (video– skip to 15:50). I watched the demobilization of the progressive base of supporters in 2008. My thought at the time was that Obama had delegated development of his base to people who were clueless, indifferent or outright hostile to this base. It was a mirror of what I saw at meetings of “elites” at the local level in my city. I couldn’t grasp why they felt so anxious about the large crowds of enthusiastic volunteers. It later came to me- this was destabilizing the cozy power balance they understood, and this new situation of sound and fury made them anxious that it would bring unwanted complications to their activities. Perhaps the national party functionaries felt similarly, regarding this group as the lunatic left, but whatever the rationale, there were many other volunteers like me who felt they were squandering the huge opportunity that the massive Obama for America network of supporters represented.
There was something very heartless about how they were treating organizing.
By 2010, progressives understood that the US President’s model of politics was based on idealistic rationalism. It is an old and traditional ideal, one that all of the founding fathers espoused but notably none of them practiced. What became clear by 2010 was that the problem was not just disconnected Dem party technocratic elites. Obama was appeared to have a peculiar philosophical unwillingness to exercise executive power and maximize the impact of his intentions, both towards those close to him who covertly subvert his intentions and towards his opponents who do so more overtly. Towards his opponents, he exercises civility and courtesy rather than force the other party to come to him. Regarding subordinates, he seems to easily dazzled by intellects like Larry Summers, nor does he seem to understand that those he delegates power to must be monitored. His view about his opponents is perfectly sensible according to 18th century ideals- that rational actors treated with civility and fairness will recognize the common ground and come to agreement. His stated theory suggested he understands politics is much more than application of logic. Yet though he professes that politics is the art of the possible, his actions demonstrated profound artlessness- in particular the artlessness of early compromise. Michele Goldberg of the Daily Beast put it this way on “Up with Chris Hayes”: “Obama has constantly underestimated the bad faith of his political opponents.” (June 24, 2012 show).
The mental trap of the enlightenment thinking about politics is that it established a false dichotomy between rationalism and emotionalism. Modern neuroscience now understand that cognition itself is not possible without emotion. As a manifestation of this projection of 18th century models of cognition on 21st century politics, George Lakoff talks about the disconnect between the Saul Alinsky children of the Enlightenment running around identifying interests and in a formulaic cookie cutter fashion, building corresponding political structures to deliver a political product answering those interests. The trouble is that these organizations are a mechanical productization of political activity: all thought and no heart. Volunteer members of such organizations feel themselves to be cogs and mechanical operatives, not part of an organic soulful organism. No one wanted to feel used, and it is why Obama for America was a failure. It is why the Dems’ cynical letters soliciting “grassroots support” and the input of their constituents are so transparently an application of commercialization of politics. The mass mailing hype is more corrosive and dispiriting than the Fox News propaganda.
What I have been advocating and what others such as George Lakoff, Manuel Castells and others are telegraphing movement towards is neither the cold technocratic constructions of the Alinsky types nor the emotional excess of Andrew Jackson populists. Lakoff calls it a New Enlightenment. While his cosmology of political archetypes can be at times as claustrophobic as Jung’s tidy system, at least Lakoff is on the right track of when he points at the primal and central role of the metaphoric thinking operating within issues. At one time I hoped the president’s literary background gave him an appreciation of this level of understanding. This appears not to be the case. The rationalism/ Enlightenment perspective of the 18th century appears to have long ago captured the President’s imagination about how to best approach politics and use his gifts of communication.
Understanding this delusion is key to understanding the delusion of the centrists. What they share with the circle the wagons types on the far right is their attitudes towards their leaders. One of the key mysteries Hayes attempts to get at is behavior of a system towards an elite guilty of misdeeds. He asks why it is that other elites create an environment that enables the perpetuation of recognized misbehavior. Hayes point of view is that the elites are insular and feel greater emotional distance from the non elite victims. Hayes asserts the solution is that people need to be more horizontally empathetic towards others. The trouble is that this is a motherhood statement without any real substance. No one is against “being a kinder gentler nation”. Further, stating some bromide about knowing where we want to be is not the same as knowing the paths we can take to get there, where we are now, or how we got so lost in the first place.
Hayes is utterly confused about the core of the problem. What we need to understand about how we use people and thoughts as proxies for exercising judgement. Elites are proxies we rely on to perform services we value. We rely on them as proxies to exercise good judgement in our place. At times some of them achieve a heroic status in our minds. In a very similar manner, we rely on thoughts as a proxies for thinking. As we do with ideas, we size a person up early in our relationship with them. After this early relationship when we exercise our judgement about them, we settle into a stable relationship with this mental model of the person. What this means is that we interact with the proxy, or mental representation we have rather than the person themselves. When the behavior of that person diverges from the construct as in the case of Sandusky, the cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable for our narcissism. The propensity of subcultures to narcissistically seek information sources that reinforce the tribal view and resist reconsideration of their heros is hardly a new phenomenon. In the field of culture history and sociology, it is an outlier point of view to suggest that is anything other than ancient. Really our narcissism is predicated on establishing a comfort zone free of the cognitive labor of exercising our emotional, intuitive and logical faculties required for making judgements in our daily life.
That’s the level that Hayes misses. Grasping this phenomenon about or use of cognitive proxies explains the resistance, it explains the empathetic distance, and it suggests a path out of this mental trap. It provides avenues more actionable than general leftist pablum about wandering off and loving one’s neighbor in a horizontal, social media oriented sort of way.
There is a great deal of cultural support for the coach potato habit of reliance on mental proxies and resisting the rigor of exercising our full human faculties. Being non judgmental /accepting of others is something laudable both on the left on the right when applied within the circle of the tribe. Outside the group, the world is a morality play painted in harsh Manichean terms. Let’s not mistake “judgmental” proxies for thinking with actual judgement though. What we need is not less willingness to judge the actions of others, but more.
There is no question we need proxies for thinking. Without these placeholders we could not leverage their power of abstraction. In a dynamic situation, we need to challenge some thoughts for authenticity and currency frequently. Yet many need to be reconsidered far less frequently. How big this latter circle becomes in our lives is crucial. The mind yearns for a refuge from the dynamic. We naturally find comfort in a world where we can trust proxy thoughts and proxy actors with the kind of certainty we can place in the Pythagorean theorem. The church, winning football team, and political ideologies are warm blankets people want to immerse themselves in.
What does this mean at the political level. It is horrifying for those seeking stable hierarchies. Around about the time I start advocating that we judging people more, the Alinsky crowd rolls their eyes because the stock formula is that building a movement around common values and judgements is doomed due to the non homogeneous nature of the electorate who will vote for democratic party candidates. In the establishment view, organizing based on common interests is much more practical and politically realistic. From this perspective, the less talk and judgement exercised among the rank and file the better. The more trust in technocratic proxies the better. The role for the members of the tribe is to contribute money and phone bank. When the election is won, we are to shut up, sit down and let the smart guy professional elites execute on satisfying the interests.
The centrist political message is, we don’t care about you or your individual thoughts. You and your volunteer work doesn’t really don’t matter, but your money does. As for public opinion, we’ll statistically identify the popularity of the demands being made and choose the ones that will motivate the largest segments of the electorate to vote their self interest.
This where centrist elitism has carried us. Not taking public financing was judged in 2007 to be the technocratically “smart” move to make. For the progressive base to not commit more than a billion dollars of their severely drained resources for single political campaign is an ill-advised expression of naivete, with misplaced clinging to principle about PACs. Michelle Goldberg’s admonishment in the June 24th Uppers show was that we need to out corrupt the right wing.
The trouble is that this appeal to not exercise good judgement is a race to the bottom that has no end. Eventually we are reduced to settling our differences with street fighting in genocidal battles in an increasingly Balkanized world.
Maybe it is the conventional liberal establishment that is the more naive about where the technocratic path takes us.
Maybe the New Enlightenment involves progressives who insist on engaging the world constantly with our hearts and minds. This mental habit would be a revolt to our over reliance on proxies as a substitute for exercising judgements- whether they are proxy thoughts, or proxy actors (“elites”). Maybe these actors would be better advised to lay down their Alinsky cookbooks and appeal not to narrow self interests, but organize by offering volunteers a way to recover our sense of self worth- to be offered the opportunity to serve together with brothers and sisters in order to achieve something bigger than any of our individual wants or needs. In churches we call it the heart of service that is the heart of the church. It is the heart of movements.
This is something Obama could do with a superorganism of supporters who were there for him in 2007 and who can be called to service in order to deliver the country from the ruinous path of corruption our society has been following.
That is, if he is willing to exercise his gifts with the electorate, is willing to play hardball with his political adversaries, and is willing to embrace the power of social media to identify new heroes who will succeed our current leaders in public service. Not functionaries. Leaders. A new dawn where groups of organized progressives select proxy representatives of their point of view yet subject those proxies to continual challenge and scrutiny. This dawn represents the twilight of idolization of proxies- of referring to them as elites gifted in mind but not heart. It is not the twilight of respect for elected, or expectation that their engagement of the world with a full heart implies an expectation they engage the world without cunning. On the contrary this new dawn represents the high regard progressives have for those who faithfully serve others.
What I am suggesting is not easy. Progressives have been in a 40 year quagmire, and it is time we awaken from our self indulgent slumber.