AT SOME POINT, the Parkland shooting may be seen as the turning point in the struggle to end what can only be termed NRA blackmail of much of the country and its purchase of unquestioning political support from Congressmen and -women. A group of high-schoolers, with the energy and boldness of youth, and the organizational tools of the 21st century, have become the funnel for the frustrations and disgust of millions of Americans at mass shootings. On another level, however, this struggle is again highlighting some of the uglier sides of what passes for discourse in the nation’s politics.
Though the man is really unpleasant in many ways, vulgar and shady — like his spiritus rector and good friend, the late Roy Cohn — I must give Roger Stone his due for a very insightful quote: “It is better to be infamous than never to be famous at all.” It’s his working motto and, of course, the motto of many others who earned spurs and money from the rich and powerful by simply being malevolent. And it is a direct descendant of the famous “There is no negative feedback” idea, which states that any publicity is basically good publicity.
What the impact of Stone and his large ilk is or would be on society at large was and is unimportant to them. They care nothing of values such as compassion, decency, tolerance and generosity. Beauty is to be ignored, gratefulness is a weakness, loyalty lasts only as long as there is something to gain. They are tough in that way, a predatory gang. All that counts is gaining notoriety, and with that, these days, comes power and money.
This is one of the main reasons why American society is so divided. By donning the cloak of infamy, men and women with a total disregard for decency, for civil discourse, have created a society where fake outrage, generally driven by furious invective, lies or bullshit, rules and poisons any discussion. The technique is pernicious and mostly self-interested.
Take Laura Ingraham’s recent tweet about young David Hogg: It was ad hominem, cheap, and geared towards making waves and keeping the Fox tribe angry, focused on a meta-battlefield, and hence happy. No one is disputing Ingraham’s right to say what she wants. Nor can one dispute that she knows what she is doing, because she’s done it before: her “anchor fetuses,” comment, or her “shut up and dribble,” comment come to mind. She blows the dogwhistle in various registers and keys, and it is aimed not only at the “right.” The other goal is infuriating the so-called left, or simply at people who believe strongly that free speech is a right, but comes with obligations if you are in the public eye.
Ingraham herself might argue that the demonstrators were saying some pretty harsh things about the NRA and about those who blindly support gun ownership as a “God-given right” (a ridiculous statement, if I ever heard one, but in tune with the Puritan idea of manifest destiny). On the other hand, the NRA and its henchmen and -women have polluted the debate and made it extremely acrimonious over the past years.*
The NRA’s reaction following mass shootings has inevitably been aggressive towards the victims, the grieving families and friends, and towards those who are getting exasperated at the long financial arm of an organization that apparently makes its money selling weapons. The NRA and its tribe never sought a real dialogue to find a solution to a major social problem, which would have been the proper path. Now they are faced with a reaction powered by decades of anger and frustration at being bullied into silence.
But the weapons controversy is only one of many battlegrounds in yet another fake war which is powered by people with financial interests. Let me repeat that: These wars are driven by people with no real ideology, but rather with financial skin in the game.
The divisive and violent rhetoric is not delivered to further arguments, but rather to deflect attention from the issue and attract attention to the speaker or his or her organization, and hence to make money. A perfect example on this Easter weekend, following the Ingraham Tweet, came a few more nuggets of nonsense, one from Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank (I didn’t know he had a son), and from chicken-hawk extraordinaire Ted Nugent, who as a representative of the NRA, produced this bucketful of verbal trash:
“The dumbing-down of America is manifested in the culture deprivation of our academia that have taught these kids the lies, media that have prodded and encouraged and provided these kids lies. (…) To attack the good law-abiding families of America when well known predictable murderers commit these horrors is deep in the category of soulless. These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.”
The comment is so incoherent, it’d be a waste of time to try to take it apart. But it, like the Ingraham quote, like the strange hallucinations of so many on Fox News and elsewhere, is an example of what has become a rhetorical business model that is having serious repercussions on democratic processes. It is right up there with the scandalous sale of private data by Facebook, by the way. The rules of this model are simple:
Step one: Drop all your scruples about attacking people from some public megaphone, like Fox News, or Twitter, or wherever…
Step two: Mothball your self-respect, because you are about to turn yourself into a rude, trashy, noisy attention-grabber, and will have to say all sorts of things a decent adult person would avoid. I say adult, because as a part-time teacher of young teenagers, I do have to occasionally confront kids whose aim is to draw attention to themselves by being silly.
Step three: Say it: Say something simply outrageous, something without any basis in reality, but that some that goes against what was considered plain human decency not so long ago. Go against everything that would be within the norm, it’s called “being disruptive” these days and is a marketing ploy.
Step four: Reap the harvest, the accolades from the entire spectrum of your own tribe. AND the furious blowback from those who rightfully think you are being a jackass. Reap in the heat and glow of the spotlight, the “everybody’s talking about you” without worrying whether it’s good or bad. You have gotten your moment in the sun, and you can make it to the next step. A disciple of many financially successful bloviators Tomi Lahren, who began by ranting some very provocative but unsupported stuff on Facebook before being picked up by Fox News, where she continues to embarrass herself by acting like a snarky 13-year-old, lots of opinion and little substance.
Step five: Once the outrage machine has been fired up, you have a few options:
First option: the easiest is to let it ride out, never back down. It’s common, because you have the power of the bully pulpit and therefore answering any counterarguments by the author would be a sign of weakness. Besides, your online “surrogates” will be spreading your infamy by their own accord. Fame means never having to say you’re sorry in certain quarters of our political layer.
Second option: Apologize soon after, catching the outraged opposition off guard, but apologize in such a way as to not apologize. This is what Laura Ingraham did after advertisers started pulling their ads from her show.
The third option is the Nugent option: Start complaining about being attacked by those who feel your attack on some fellow expressing an opinion was unjustifiably harsh and vulgar. It encourages your fans, who feel that everyone else is the “snowflake,” and makes sure YOU don’t have to look in the mirror.
By now, it has become almost impossible to break this system, because it is ingrained and financially successful, as long as you have no scruples and no self-respect. David Hogg found the weakness: The advertisers. Boycotts can be very powerful tools, and may be the only ones possible short of imposing constraints on the First Amendment. It even works within the tribe: Erick Erickson, who at first rejected Trump during his candidacy, soon found the fans of his own “conservative” ravings walking away, and then returned to the fold. Here a taste of Erickson’s prose, by the way:
“I assume that Obama’s marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him should he even think about it, but I ask the question to make one simple point: Barack Obama, like Elliott Spitzer, is a creation of the liberal media and, as a result, could be a serial killing transvestite and the media would turn a blind eye.”
Interesting projection: The liberal media were not that friendly towards Obama, but conservative media, including Erickson, quickly lock-stepped behind the predatory, pussy-grabbing, adulterous, haywire Trump. This should give these folks pause for thought.
In the will to power and money, anything goes. Lies become the truth, smears become arguments, and projection onto others becomes the only form of self-reflection allowed. It’s a technique we see literally daily, and the masters of it are squarely in the right-wing camp of the USA, where old-fashioned conservatism has been pushed into the corner. In its place are a generation of people who’ve signed a Faustian contract: Their ethics and self-respect for fame, power and money.
Ingraham’s silly tweet was eminently deconstructible, but in the fast-moving communication of the Internet, and in the pre-masticated opinions of her backslapping audience, arguments pro and con do not matter anymore. What remains is the message and the agitation it generated, the noise, the anger, the spectacle. And Twitter picked it up and magnified the outrage tenfold.
* In 1996, the organization got its fingers into the amendment to a spending bill that stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” As the Washington Post reported: “The National Rifle Association had pushed for the amendment, after public-health researchers produced a spate of studies suggesting that, for example, having a gun in the house increased risk of homicide and suicide. It deemed the research politically motivated.”