Spectacles of Conservative Amusement: A Caution

In the 1980’s, Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death about the narcotizing effect of television news becoming a form of infotainment that distracts from the issues being reported on. Fox News has long been thought of as engaging in conservative entertainment to promote the Republican Party and right-wing propaganda more generally. Laura Ingraham has a 10pm nightly show on Fox News entitled The Ingraham Angle and delivers steady ridicule of President Biden and the Democrats, formulations and reformulations of core white conservative values, and a more cohesive version of a GOP campaign platform than most Republican candidates can deliver on their own. With her Fox-blonde hair, late-50’s white attractiveness, and a steady stream of video around which she organizes her commentary, and the Fox chyron concentrating the message, Ingraham provides the kind of attractive, propulsive conservative messaging that Postman warned about in relation to the news media in general. She tells white conservatives who they are, what they think, and how they should experience life in a multicultural, socially liberal America that’s far from reflecting the views of white conservatives.

That brings me to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. My understanding of last week’s flying Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts stunt is that DeSantis was trying to up his status among Republican politicians by providing broadcast content for Fox News. Last week in San Antonio, Texas, a woman working for the Florida state government and known as Perla engaged in deceptive recruitment of newly arrived migrants in San Antonio, promising to fly them to Boston and offering them a range of housing and employment benefits. According to the pamphlet being passed out, the migrants were promised things like opportunities to apply for social security cards, “eight months cash assistance, food, job training/placement, help with housing” and other fictitious benefits. Because of the false information given to the migrants, there has been talk about prosecuting DeSantis and Florida state government under human trafficking and other laws. It’s likely that human trafficking laws do not apply because the migrants were not being transported for purposes of sexual exploitation or labor. However, former federal attorney and MSNBC personality Glenn Kirschner believes that the migrant flights were “kidnapping by inveiglement” and ridicules DeSantis for his initial defenses against criticism.

Unlike human beings with ethics, the DeSantis people did not coordinate with anyone on Martha’s Vineyard or in the state of Massachusetts before just dropping off the Venezuelan migrants. However DeSantis did inform Fox News of the flight and there was consequently a Fox crew on hand when the plane landed. The conservative political point DeSantis wanted to make was that Martha’s Vineyard was full of “rich liberals” who would somehow panic at the sight of DeSantis and Fox News bringing the border crisis to Blue America. It’s all nonsense. El Paso, San Antonio, and big stretches of the Rio Grande Valley are already Blue America. Not that that matters to TX. Gov. Greg Abbott, Fox News, or the elderly white conservatives who watch Fox News. What these Republican voters want is to be entertained by the ridicule of white liberals and Ron DeSantis was able to market himself to Republican constituencies by delivering a new form of conservative entertainment through the Fox News television apparatus.

Much like Neil Postman worried about television as a metaphor for reality, it is also possible to worry about Ron DeSantis substituting the creation of conservative media content for the traditional governing functions of a big state like Florida. But I also wonder about the effect of government produced partisan entertainment on white conservative audiences. Postman followed Aldous Huxley in viewing the threat of modern totalitarianism more in terms of its narcotizing effect than the kind of tyranny seen in 1984 but I’m more inclined to see this kind of right-wing entertainment as addicting in the sense of requiring constantly bigger and more sensational spectacles of liberal humiliation.

It can’t be a good thing.

Conservative Activism II: Safe Spaces!

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Conservative Safe Spaces: Conservative campaigns against Critical Race Theory (CRT) have the defensive dimension of creating safe space for white conservatives as American institutions become more multicultural and socially liberal. “Critical Race Theory” is a mostly a law literature that is studied in law school and focuses on the problem of white supremacy continuing in the law and society beyond the passage of Civil Rights legislation during the 60’s. Before being known as “Critical Race Theory,” much of this literature was known as “Critical Legal Theory” and I scheduled the Critical Legal Theory collection and several of the essays for my political theory classes at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Some of the essays like Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property” were daring and innovative, but the underlying premise that white supremacy had continued beyond the Civil Rights Era was hardly a revelation and I stopped using the text for lack of contemporary interest.

However, much of the sentiment behind the anti-CRT legislation is to make public education safe and comfortable for white conservatives.

A reference to one of the authors of the Texas bill banning CRT, Rep. Steve Toth, in a KERA television story on the legislation, explained the issue:

Toth’s legislation takes on CRT without ever naming it. He says the new law is aimed at teaching complex subjects like slavery and racism without making white children feel guilty.“ You can’t teach that one race is better than the other,” Toth said, describing what’s outlined in HB 3979. “You can’t teach that one gender is better than the other. You can’t discriminate either… and say that one race or one gender is responsible for the ills of the past.”

The key to the Texas anti-CRT bill is on page 5 where it mandates against requiring or making part of a course anything that leads to a result that “(vii) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual ’s race or sex.” The bill also mandates that slavery not be taught as anything other than “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” This formulation also mandates against the concept of “systemic racism” accepted by the Democratic Party, liberals, and racial minorities and lashes out against the 1619 Project in particular. But the strictures on “discomfort, guilt, anguish, and distress” speak to an important motivation for conservatives–their discomfort at living in a society where white conservative views have been widely condemned and marginalized despite the fact that white conservatives are still more than 40% of the population. That sense of marginalization isn’t resolved by the anti-CRT education bill either. Outside the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers, there’s very little on which white conservatives can hang their hat in the history offerings cited in the bill. Whether it’s Frederick Douglass on slavery, Martin Luther King on segregation, the Declaration of Sentiments, or Chicano sources like Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, a very large chunk of the recommended curriculum is arrayed against the heritage of conservatism and white domination. The Texas anti-CRT bill huffs and puffs, but they still can’t get away from the fact that white conservatives in the United States have no honorable history.

The Herrenvolk Right

The Insurrection Flag

Trump voters are creating a “herrenvolk” political culture where white conservatism has a symbolic anchor in “simple” and “authentic” patriotic gestures like the Flag, the Pledge, and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Like conservatives everywhere, Trump voters have a hunger for tradition as a guarantee of their moral rightness, but conservative political traditions and historical figures have come under such intense attack in the post-Civil Rights era that conservatives have had to either give up on or de-emphasize Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the Old South, the Confederacy, pioneers, McCarthyism, and other badges of conservative honor. Unable to identify with liberal political movements and figures, conservatives have more or less retreated to George Washington as the sole guarantor of the conservative version of national honor.

But that’s not enough and conservatives have been working overtime to shape Donald Trump into the kind of mythic figure who functions on such a monumental scale that he can substitute for almost 250 years of the honored historical traditions to which conservatives are so poorly connected.

They are also creating a set of cultural rituals in which displaying flags, re-enacting the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing songs like “the Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” that identify them as “simple,” “authentic,” “patriotic,” and thus superior in virtue to the liberal coastal elites and Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, LGBT, and feminist activists who condescend towards them as “bigots.” Real “patriots” practice and revere such rituals while all the enemies of conservatives ignore, disdain, or rebel against them.

Thus revealing themselves to be “enemies of the people” just as much as the mainstream media.

At the rally for Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate last night, the Pledge and Flag ritual was made extra special by the American flag flown at the Jan. 6 Insurrection. But herrenvolk conservatism need not be limited to political rallies. As is the case with Trump reverence, all segments of the religious right, gun culture, and the conspiracy world can rally around herrenvolk patriotism and feel a sense of identity in opposition to the rest of the country.