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Oppositional Moralities and Nobel Revisionism

October 12th, 2009 · 15 Comments

According to the narrative that appears to have been in place by Saturday, reactions to the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize were sharply split on partisan lines: Democrats celebrating and conservative Republicans reacting with “outrage.”  Now, between Twitter and my RSS feed, I woke up to a whole slew of reactions from people on both sides of the spectrum Friday morning. And what I found striking at the time—notable enough that I wrote a tweet remarking on it—was that I was basically seeing the same reaction to the news from people who don’t otherwise agree on anything. And that reaction was neither outrage nor celebration; it was mockery. Everyone seemed to recognize that it  was a bit absurd to give the prize to a first-term president who, whatever his potential, and however promising you might find his rhetoric, hasn’t had much chance to do anything really substantive yet. Multiple people—again, conservative activists and professional progressives—said they had thought they were reading an Onion headline. There were countless jokes along the lines of “Obama wins Chemistry Nobel for great chemistry with Michelle” or “Home video of Bo wins best picture Oscar.”

But of course, a couple things quickly happened.  First, the current larger narrative about conservatives is that they’re boiling over with rage. This is not exactly an unfair stereotype—covering the RNC in 2004 I felt some sense of what it must have been like to sit in the audience at the gladiator fights in ancient Rome—but like all stereotypes, it is at best an approximate or aggregate truth. And so now all reactions from the right with any kind of negative valence—angry, disappointed, mocking, skeptical—tend to be read as “outraged.” Since partisans on both sides now seem to regard anything that angers the enemy as ipso facto good, the decision was to be praised and welcomed, less because it was intrinsically defensible because it was thought to have the happy side-effect of driving conservatives to distraction.

Nietzsche wrote at length about the tendency to define the good as whatever is opposed by some hated other. Unfortunately, he called it “slave morality”—a term I’m not going to touch with a ten-foot pole in the current climate—and only some of what he says about it is really applicable in our context, so I’ll use “oppositional morality” instead. Whatever natural instincts we have toward this kind of binary in-group/out-group thinking are probably exacerbated by a political system that ultimately pushes people to pick one of two viable teams, even though this is a poor fit for the variety of worldviews and interests in a large and diverse population. Otherwise incoherent coalitions are bound together by each defining themselves, somewhat circularly, as the negative of the other.

If you go to The American Spectator, for instance, you’ll initially get a popup ad with some prominent conservative praising the magazine and urging you to subscribe.  One of the more frequent ones features radio shouter Mark Levin saying something along the lines of “The left can’t stand The American Spectator, and that’s why I love to read it!” Now, bracket for a moment whether most folks on the left are even particularly aware of the Spectator. Shouldn’t that strike us as a weird form of praise? You should read a magazine because some other group hates it? But of course, it’s not unusual these days. And it leads to an appalling situation where torture becomes, not just a thing some are willing to defend as a necessary evil, but as Adam Serwer argues, a “values issue,” or where Chicago losing the Olympics bid is cause for celebration just on the grounds that it counts as a failure for Obama.

Depending on the reasons for hostility, this may make at least some kind of sense. Liberals dislike Bill Kristol because he’s seen as an influential advocate for neoconservative views they find repugnant. If you endorse those views, that may count as a reason to be favorably disposed toward Kristol. Liberals dislike Sarah Palin because they find her contemptibly ignorant, which seems like a bad reason to make her your standard bearer even if you share her views as well. Of course, insofar as much of the putative ideological conflict in American politics is little more than thinly-veiled class antagonism, that may actually be even more of a selling point. Going back a few years to the Kelo v. New London eminent domain case, there were certainly some progressives who recoiled at the idea that private property could be seized by the government and handed over to some private company whenever it seemed likely to generate more economic value. They recognized that such a rule would inevitably victimize less-affluent populations with little political clout for the benefit of corporations and developers. Now, to be sure, if you have great (I might say “naïve”) faith that local and state governments will mostly use such power to benign ends, you can argue that it’s an unfortunate but ultimately necessary tool for economic revitalization. But it seemed like there were also folks on the left who just recoiled at anything flying the banner of “property rights,” which are apparently the exclusive concern of nasty people who don’t like paying taxes.  At least for some people, it feels like political conflict has come unmoored from any actual policy roots and turned into one of those Hatfields-and-McCoys feuds whose origins are only dimly recalled by the combatants.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology


       

 

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Brian Moore // Oct 12, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I think the problem is that toeing the line is vastly more rewarding than trying to reach out to the opposition. If you say the same things as all of your friends and family, they will applaud you for being so smart.

    If you mention that you think the other side has a few good points, they will wonder about you — but only very rarely will the “other side” stop by and say “good job” because you’re so obviously wrong about everything else.

    The “in-tribe” loyalty sentiments make me wonder if people really have the mental hardware necessary for all this “objective debate” stuff.

  • 2 Ben // Oct 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Yes, politics has become like SEC football.

  • 3 Brian Moore // Oct 12, 2009 at 11:55 am

    We definitely have the mental hardware for that, which is why they wear helmets.

  • 4 Nick // Oct 12, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Another factor is that on issues I’m not particularly engaged with, it makes both intuitive and practical sense to adopt the stances of people who’re likely to support my priorities in other arenas. This doesn’t explain the depth of some things–the absolute hate that some liberals have for guns or some evangelicals for climate change legislation–but it goes some way toward describing the initial reaction.

    FTR, the Peace Prize has been pretty ridiculous for a long time. Kissinger has one, fer chrissake.

  • 5 UserGoogol // Oct 12, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    To some extent, sheer oppositional morality is happening, but what I’ve seen in various circles is something more justifiable.

    Republicans and Democrats agree that this is an odd event, but they disagree as to the particulars. To generalize, Democrats have no problem with the idea that Obama is deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, but maybe we should wait for him to actually accomplish it. Republicans, on the other hand, do not think he will ever deserve to win the Nobel Prize, and may even think he’s been detrimental to peace by being soft against the enemy. Thus, in so far as a conversation about this develops being tweets of “lol what?” they will express these differences, and then the conversation will turn into a back-and-forth on that.

  • 6 Weekly Web Watch 10/5/09 – 10/11/09 « EXECUTIVE WATCH // Oct 12, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    […] Podhoretz).  On a more abstract level, I agree with Julian Sanchez that the initial reaction was agreement between right and left that this was an odd choice.  However, it quickly turned into a partisan litmus test, aided by the […]

  • 7 Other Ezra // Oct 12, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Just a brief note on the Kelo case. I think you are right that some liberals had a knee-jerk counter-reaction to the conservative reaction to Kelo. (Although, as you acknowledge, not all — note the cosponsors of the anti-Kelo bill included, e.g., Maxine Waters and John Conyers.) But there was ample justification to be wary of what the right was up to in that case: (1) Conservatives incorporated Kelo into the larger political narrative of Supreme Court nominations at the time (2005), as in, Kelo was wrong, therefore we need a far right nominee; (2) A number of anti-Kelo ballot initiatives snuck in “regulatory takings” measures, seeming to confirm liberal skepticism of “property rights” talk; (3) The conservative critique of Kelo, in my opinion, missed the mark, both in focusing on the federal Constitution instead of the actual democratically elected wrongdoers, and in hanging their hat on convincing the Court to shift in an entirely new direction in interpreting “public use.” I could say a lot more about the last point, but for now I’ll just add that a broad conception of active government, which is a foundation of liberalism, is not unrelated to a generous interpretation of “public use.”

    None of that is to contradict your main point, though. I think it is well taken, although it seems like you are focused on opinion-makers rather than political philosophers (much less actual consumers of ideology). Pundits and other people playing politics generally have other motives at work than seeking the truth on any particular issue.

  • 8 Random Precision // Oct 12, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Everyone seemed to recognize that it was a bit absurd to give the prize to a first-term president who, whatever his potential, and however promising you might find his rhetoric, hasn’t had much chance to do anything really substantive yet.

    Well he didn’t start any new wars. Is that substantive enough?

    It is not clear there is any kind of standard accomplishment associated with the peace prize other than an aversion to wanton destructiveness.

    Apparently, the Nobel committee prefered Obama over the other candidates, so he won.

    Or, maybe Obama really is the Magic Negro. Suck on that bitches …

  • 9 Nick // Oct 12, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    It is not clear there is any kind of standard accomplishment associated with the peace prize other than an aversion to wanton destructiveness.
    What? No. Kissinger. There is no standard accomplishment associated with the Peace Prize at all.

  • 10 Barry // Oct 13, 2009 at 7:43 am

    Julian: “And so now all reactions from the right with any kind of negative valence—angry, disappointed, mocking, skeptical—tend to be read as “outraged.””

    We on the left watched for 8 years as the right ranted, railed and lied about Clinton – and those are the correct terms. The right then loyally supported Bush for 8 years, as he ran the country into the ground. Even at the end, 47% of those voting in 2008 voted for more GOP.

    Those same people are now ranting and railing against Obama. It’s an incredible turnaround, and not due to any judgement deserving of respect.

  • 11 Brian Moore // Oct 13, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    “It’s an incredible turnaround”

    Well, only if you think they should be loyal to the office of the President instead of to Republicans — if the latter, they’ve been very consistent! :)

    (I’d prefer for people to be “loyal” to neither.)

  • 12 Barry // Oct 13, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Good point, Brian!

    The two things that I think will be seen on the center-left are (a) nobody on the right has any credibility, and (b) accepting their accusations as even a little debatable is both erroneous and foolish.

  • 13 forked tongue // Oct 17, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Republicans, on the other hand, do not think he will ever deserve to win the Nobel Prize any accolades at all, even from people they hold in contempt, and may even think he’s been detrimental to peace eternal war by being soft against the enemy.

  • 14 forked tongue // Oct 17, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Oops, no HTML–I meant “the Nobel Prize” and “peace” to be struck out.

  • 15 r4 ds games // Oct 28, 2009 at 3:11 am

    It is not clear there is any kind of standard accomplishment associated with the peace prize other than an aversion to wanton destructiveness. keep posting. Will be visiting back soon.

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