Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

Neera Tanden And A Cultural ‘Obsession With Hierarchy’

Over at his blog, Corey Robin details an interesting Twitter spat with Neera Tanden–“the person who many think will be Hillary Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff….the head of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party think tank that works closely with the Clintons.” Tanden is an arch-defender of Hillary Clinton–which is unsurprising given the passions political allegiances can inspire. But as I’ve observed her interactions on Twitter with those she considers foes, something about her defenses of HRC, the Democratic Party and its many shenanigans during the primary season, her own brand of ‘progressivism,’ her obsequious fawning over heads of state as contrasted with her snappy, brusque, interactions with journalists and bloggers, struck me as familiar, possessed of a distinctive and recognizable style. I finally realized where I had seen it before–in the Indian manifestations of the universal phenomenon termed ‘sycophancy.’ That in turn is rooted in a particular and peculiar Indian understanding of, and relationship with, social and political hierarchies.

In Being Indian (Penguin, 2004, pp. 7-21) Pavan K. Varma writes:

Indians are exceptionally hierarchical in outlook, bending more than required before those who are perceived to be ‘superior,’ and dismissive or contemptuous of those perceived to be ‘inferior.’ Understandably, notions of self-esteem and personal image, in conformity with perceived ‘status,’ are of great importance to them….the obsession with hierarchy, and the symbols that project it, is not a monopoly of officialdom….The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but ‘for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative–(and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’¹  This acceptance of the hierarchy of power gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.

To an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status, one has to be seen to be above those below, and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations.

Tanden is Indian-American, the child of immigrant parents, and in her political identity–which like good anti-essentialists, we would expect to be a hybrid of sorts–she seems to have found a pitch-perfect blend of stylistic elements that are most relevant to the achievement of her personal and career objectives. In particular, from the Indian cultural predilection for deference to power and hierarchy–one reinforced by the Indian family structure with its overbearing emphasis on respect for ‘elders’ and essential conservativeness–Tanden has drawn on, and found, a fecund reservoir of political behavioral patterns.  Those–defer to superiors, defend your position in the hierarchy at all costs, smack those down below you–should help her in her steady ascent through these lower orders of being. The ruling class will settle for nothing less.

Note #1: Here Varma cites the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar‘s The Indian Psyche: The Inner World; Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors; Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p. 138.