Saturday, May 19, 2012

Your Inherent Goodness Will Not Redeem You

The most widely played sound bite from Romney's tepid 'repudiation' of the proposed all-Wright-all-the-time anti-Obama ad campaign is the part where he said "I stand by what I said, whatever it was". And with good reason: that + Etch-a-Sketch = ad that writes itself.

But there was another bit that leapt out at me, beginning at around 2:06:
The purpose of the President's ads is not to describe success and failure but somehow to suggest that I'm...not a good person, or not a good guy. And I think the American people will know better than that, if they don't already. [emphasis added]
Sound vaguely familiar? Wondering where you might have heard something like that before? I'll tell you: you heard it from everyone who ever thought he/she was being unjustly accused of doing or saying something racist. Or sexist. Or homophobic.

It's a classic dodge, shifting focus from your conduct (which others can observe and evaluate) to your character (which only you know, and what you know is that it's good). The thought process works like this: I'm not a bad person; therefore, I'm not a racist; therefore, what I said can't have been racist. Or in Romney's variation, I'm a good guy; therefore, I'm not a heartless bastard; therefore, I can't have hurt those people. The point being that one's inherent nature far outweighs anything one actually does.

It's not an exclusively conservative tactic--I've seen plenty of liberals (or more often, 'liberals') use it to try to wiggle off the hook (there's even a specifically lefty variant, commonly known as "I can't be racist, I'm a progressive!")--but the underlying worldview ('character' > conduct) is a powerful strain in modern conservatism.

Thus, the President's record of governing as a centrist Democrat is irrelevant, because at heart he's really a Kenyan socialist Muslim anti-colonialist metrosexual. (The Wright pitch, e.g., is 100% about Obama's character and 0% about his actual record.) Nothing Bush did mattered, because he was always the steely-eyed rocket man (until he wasn't, and then it did). I had a lengthy Twitter exchange with Victor's favorite wingnut (more about that tomorrow) in which he claimed the WaPo story about Romney's bullying was a 'smear'--not because he disputed any of the conduct it described, but because he believed it was an attack on his character.

And I think I know where this comes from.

The modern conservative worldview is dominated by evangelical fundamentalism. (Glibertarians and plutocrats may deny it, but the reality is that they've absorbed much of a worldview they like to think of as on the fringes of conservatism.) Evangelical fundamentalism is, of course, hardcore Calvinist. Calvinism preaches predestination--the idea that God decided ages ago who would be saved (the Elect) and who wouldn't, and that's how it is and nothing anyone can do can possibly change that.

So there are people who are saved, and people who aren't. End of story. And if you believe someone is saved, then anything bad they do is an aberration (and won't affect the outcome anyway) while any good is emblematic of their essential character; conversely, if you believe someone isn't saved, any good they do can be dismissed as phony and any 'bad' they do is evidence of who they really are.

That's where we are today. That's the dominant worldview in one of the two parties that rule this country. The country is divided over the issue of whether conduct even matters. And that, of course, is why we can't have nice things.


BH said...

Extra points for "glibertarian", Tom. I aim to borrow & use it at the earliest opportunity.

We can't have nice things, but those who already have nice things have them because, of course, they're The Elect by divine fiat. Being so, they deserve even more nice things, not to mention immunity from rendering unto Caesar. Ayn Rand might have been a nominal unbeliever, but somewhere amidst the amphetamine lurked a fundie. If nothing else, her inability to write decent English prose is proof enough for me.

Victor said...

Yup, Calvin, Hobbes, and "Calvinball."

And it ain't funny, like the cartoon was.

Danp said...

Another corollary to this is, "If I'm rich, it's because I deserve it, unless the government meddles, in which case I might have been corrupt." Of course, I might argue that pouring millions into campaigns designed to create targeted regulation is a form of government meddling. And what Republican donors are pushing is not really deregulation, so much as reregulating. Who benefits from bankruptcy laws? The risk taker (like Mitt), at the expense of creditors, taxpayers and competitors (especially unionized ones). Who benefits from limited tariffs? Traders as opposed to manufacturers. Who benefits from employer-based health care? Large companies. The concept of a free market is purely mythical.

Tom Hilton said...

@BH: wish I could take credit, but it's been around a while (I think Atrios may have come up with it).

@Victor: Heh...yeah, Calvinball is right.

@DanP: Good point...yes, the whole "if I'm rich I deserve it" thing is rooted in Calvinism: worldly success is an outward sign of one's status as one of the Elect. But of course if you know someone isn't saved (Soros!), then you can disregard their wealth...

Ten Bears said...

The irony is that in the authoritarian, dominionist, evangelical fundamentalist worldview there is no Inherent Goodness ... all are born in sin, must accept, must embrace, the christian "lord" and symbolically "wash away the sin" through baptism to be "saved". Having escaped that environment nearly fifty years ago ... I don't think Calvinistic predestination weighs as heavily today as when denominations were far more ... ahhh ... "defined", were far less homogeneous. Less generic.

Speaking of distractions ... I've long wondered what the "Chosen People" think of the "Elect's core view of them. In the authoritarian, dominionist, evangelical fundamentalist worldview before their precious lord and master will float down out of the heavens on a white horse with a thousand sidekicks to carry them (the Elect) all away to paradise two/thirds of "Israel" must be destroyed, two/thirds of the "Jewish" population must die. These people don't "Love" Israel, they want it destroyed.

Magic underpants, polygamy, and post/humous baptisms of a slave population for their "heavenly planet" read from a book of golden pages (in a hat) just isn't all that weird. Of concern, yes ... weird, no.

BH said...

Agreed, TB. The mythology perpetrated by the late Joseph Smith et al. is no weirder than, say, flaming bushes emitting audible ancient Hebrew, or a (pre-artificial insemination) virgin foaling an offspring who later walked on water & out of his own interment, or a One-god-of-em-all picking out a semiliterate tribesman in the middle of a desert and describing to him the precise accommodations available at the Post-Mortem Retirement Lodge. Smith's stuff is just more recent, and so its essential childish absurdity remains somewhat more apparent.

AdamRobertRyan said...

Proving again that secular lefties don't understand evangelical Christians.

Before I grew up and became a secular lefty, I endured any number of Southern Baptist Sunday school lessons on why we don't believe in predestination like our mainstream Protestant friends the Presbyterians. Admittedly, this involved a certain amount of pinhead angel dancing along the lines of "God knows what you are going to choose, but this doesn't mean you don't have a free choice."