Friday, July 16, 2004

Scourge Me, Baby 

Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler and author, most recently, of What's the Matter With Kansas?, here explains why right-wing strategists chose to open their campaign against gay marriage by proposing a constitutional amendment, "the one method where failure was absolutely guaranteed — along with front-page coverage." Is failure a bad thing? The shared experience of humiliating defeat can be a potent motivator: just ask any Southerner still smarting over that War-of-Northern-Aggression bidness from 140 years ago. Or better yet, check out the grosses for the recent Mel Gibson opus dei and ask yourself what, exactly, resonated so strongly with all those millions of put-upon Christers: the teachings of Jesus, perhaps? No; Mr. Gibson, who is nothing if not a canny showman, didn't trouble his viewers with those. Instead, he gave the people something they could get down with -- 126 minutes of sheer, unremitting persecution:
The amendment may have failed as law, but as pseudopopulist theater it was a masterpiece. Each important element of the culture-war narrative was there. Consider first its choice of targets: while the Senate's culture warriors denied feeling any hostility to gay people, they made no secret of their disgust with liberal judges, a tiny, arrogant group that believes it knows best in all things and harbors an unfathomable determination to run down American culture and thus made this measure necessary . . . .

Our age-old folkways, in other words, are today under siege from a cabal of know-it-all elites. The common people are being trampled by the intellectuals. This is precisely the same formula that was used, to great effect, in the nasty spat over evolution that Kansans endured in 1999, in which the elitists said to be forcing their views on the unassuming world were biology professors and those scheming paleontologists . . . .

Then again, what culture war offensive isn't doomed to failure from the start? Indeed, the inevitability of defeat seems to be a critical element of the melodrama, on issues from school prayer to evolution and even abortion.

Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers; it mobilizes the base. Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party's all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat — especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated — is the culture warrior's very object.

The issue is all-important; the issue is incapable of being won. Only when the battle is defined this way can it achieve the desired results, have its magical polarizing effect. Only with a proposed constitutional amendment could the legalistic, cavilling Democrats be counted on to vote "no," and only with an offensive so blunt and so sweeping could the universal hostility of the press be secured.
For useful commentary on the above see Digby, who detects a similar psychology at work among the generation of young Islamic fundamentalists driven to jihad by "perceived humiliation."

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