Wednesday, 25 January 2017

How Exceptionalism Destroys Democracy

Wendy Cockcroft
Exceptionalism is the overarching theme of the week so far. It's the engine that drives the hubris of the political pillocks whose misbegotten ideologies are making our lives a misery. It's gone into overdrive lately and I think it's time we had a look at it, then called it out for what it is. This is why.

I've seen a right shower of numbnuts making fools of themselves lately. Many of them are pushing idiotic policies that might possibly work if it wasn't for human nature while others seem to think that because they believe they're superior everybody else does too. Still others believe they're immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, citing the dollars and cents of their outrageous fortunes, not to mention good looks and great health as evidence. That'd be fine if they weren't in a position to give their opinions the force of law but that's where the problem is: we can't just point and laugh, we need to duck and run as the consequences begin to bite. I've identified three main areas in which exceptionalism is causing problems, along with strategies for pushing back. These are:

  • Affiliation
  • Nationalism
  • Moralism

Let's take a closer look at these.

1. Affiliation

One of the reasons why "fake news" was trumpeted by the liberal/progressive alliance as a right wing phenomenon was the proliferation of the notion that truth has a liberal bias. It actually doesn't. Truth is that which stands, and now that many of the wild assertions about the Russians hacking the US elections (they're accused of hacking into the Democrat's servers and releasing emails to Wikileaks, thereby tilting the election in favour of Trump) it seems that truth is gaining a conservative bias.

Facts are in the eye of the beholder

So what happens when news or events don't fit a liberal/progressive frame? They dismiss it as fake news, of course. So Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Trump addressed empty rows of seats, etc. — if you believe their news. If you believe t'other side, the TV viewing figures for the inauguration were yuuuge, so whatever, you lib'rul whiners. Basically, public turnout at Washington may have been a bit low but that's because the world and his dog was watching the event on telly.

If you believe the liberal/progressive factions' news (which now comprises anything not overtly affiliated with the right), the executive order to end the regulatory and financial burden imposed by the Affordable Care Act is going to cause millions of people to lose their health insurance — and perhaps their lives — if there's no legal obligation to make insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions since that is a regulation imposed by "the law known as Obamacare." If you believe t'other side, Trump hasn't gone far enough; Americans can only be free and have the best possible access to affordable healthcare under the benevolent invisible hand of the "free market." The crux of the argument is that you're either your neighbour's keeper (and vice versa) or you're (and they're) not. If you are, it'll cost you even though you might never even get as much as a paper cut, and chances are you'll be funding an inefficient system run more for its own benefit than for yours. But hey, it saves people's lives, right? So that's okay.

Affiliation chauvinism

The above examples give a rather brief glimpse into my thinking process here — and hopefully explain why I don't take sides in the culture wars. One commenter on G+ decried my refusal to join in the party games because "nobody is on my side." They're right; neither extreme really works for me because they're both extreme. I fear extremism and extremists mostly because I can't take them seriously and that's because they're selective about the truths they tell. The worst aspect of affiliation chauvinism is that, while they're being flat out dishonest about what's going on, they're making plans on your behalf without bothering to consult you about it because they believe they know what's best for you because they're {$on $team}.

Libertarians believe the market knows best and because they're so idealistic about it, and have immersed themselves in libertarian ideologies (and are therefore more knowledgeable than you are), they have the right to dismantle tax-funded services, leaving a vacuum for the market to fill whether this works in practice or not.

Tories like Liam Fox will sign us up to FTAs like CETA without bothering to go through the Parliamentary process on the grounds that the plebs are too damn thick to know what's best for them.

Liberals bash President Trump for withdrawing America from the Trans Pacific Partnership on the grounds that President Obama had wanted it to go ahead, forgetting that the ISDS and IPR provisions had made it toxic in the first place.
Can we please agree that no one team or group has a monopoly on truth or on providing the best outcome for everyone? Can we also agree that this applies to either having a religious faith or not?

2. Nationalism

Nationalism as a word is fairly new; it first gained traction in the late nineteenth century. The concept itself is much older. It arose from tribalism and confederations of people who shared the same language and culture who wanted to a) differentiate themselves from others and b) establish their place in the world and make their mark on it as a distinct discrete group whose allegiance was foremost to their homeland and their people.

It can be healthy

Liberal melting-pot cultures like Europe and America can and do produce a form of nationalism that isn't harmful to anyone. When all you have to do to be a citizen of {$nation} is to speak the main language and adopt the most common customs and it doesn't matter what you look like or who you worship (if that's how you roll), nationalism can be a bonding experience to share with your neighbours as you celebrate national holidays, etc. This all depends on whether or not people are happy with the whole "liberal melting-pot" thing; the spanner in the works of nationalism tends to be racial or religious exceptionalism. Ignore that at your peril — that is where the terror and the violence comes from.

It can be scary

It can be a positive or negative force; in extreme situations purges may take place to eliminate those who are seen as contaminating agents. Russia's pogroms and the Armenian, Nazi, Bosnian, and Rwandan genocides are examples of nationalism gone mad. This is more likely when "nationals" are described as belonging to a particular "race" or ethnic group. When that is the case, extremists fear dilution or domination by other groups; their attempts to "purify" their countries drives the violence against other peoples. That their notions of "ethnic purity" are mostly bunk based on intellectually dishonest ideology is not the point; the point is to create and defeat the boogeyman in order to gain and hold power over their people. A reign of terror generally precedes the massacres until order is restored but tensions among the survivors can linger for generations. Racism is the most extreme form and has no value in a civilised society. I believe that if paranoia, dishonesty, cruelty, and violence are endemic to your culture, it's the wrong culture.

It can be overbearing

When nationalism takes affiliation exceptionalism to the next level there is only one way for it to go: to a village near you in a flippin' tank. The Project For The New American Century planned out exactly how this was going to work; the idea being to maintain American domination of the globe via hard and soft power — military and economic might and keep all other nations in abeyance. This is where FTAs such as NAFTA, TPP, and TTIP come from; that's what it's about. That local Western economies are increasingly reliant on the defence industry and its affiliates to provide employment is symptomatic of the evil of imperialism; most of our "enemies" are countries we have either colonised or ruled by proxy. While Our Glorious Leaders love to whinge about the horrors of socialism the truth is that Russia is doing the same thing Britain did when it owned about a quarter of the globe; the USSR was basically the Russian Empire and Vladimir Putin is all about getting that back on track by hook or by crook. Mostly by crook, as it happens.

It can be downright weird

The strangest thing about national exceptionalism is not the whack-a-doodle things individuals and groups get up to when displaying their awesomeness for the world to see, it's actually the way some people, even if they're ideologically opposed to a particular nation, nonetheless insist on their superiority. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek socialist rock star economist, or something:

Never before have so many powerful people understood so little about what the world economy needs in order to recover. Never before have history’s actors been so painfully absent.

...once more it is the United States that must provide, perhaps for the last time, the missing agency.

...While emerging countries like China, Brazil, India, South Africa etc. must contribute important building blocks in the construction of this brighter future, America must nevertheless lead. - Why America still matters, from Yanis Varoufakis's blog

Erm, whut? Apparently it's America's "tradition in mould-breaking at a global scale" that makes it the front-runner for bringing about a glorious revolution in which kittens, rainbows, and unicorns will dance in flower-filled fields singing Kum Ba Ya or whatever. Yes indeed, America will wake up, smell the coffee, and recognise the deficiencies of the neoliberal world order (this is what he means by "the Global Minotaur") because, while they may fantasise about living in a Max Max dystopia, they don't actually want to. Do you want to tell him, or shall I? He's not the only example, but his is particularly funny.

3. Moralism

Religious exceptionalism is so complex a theme it would actually require a whole library of books to fully and completely describe it in all its dubious glory. Suffice it to say that every time some militant atheist proclaims that religion is the cause of all the trouble in the world, what they actually mean is "religious exceptionalism." If you try to point this out to them, they counter with "But the whole point of religion is exceptionalism! You lot think you've got a lock on morality," etc., etc., ad nauseam. Needless to say, people of faith dive into the thread shouting "Squirrel!", i.e. "Here's a list of atrocities committed by atheists," etc., etc., ad "Are we there yet?" I get sick of it. And up and down the see-saw goes. Let's stop choosing between "see" and "saw" and call it what it really is: moral exceptionalism. For the record, I don't believe that any particular group has got a lock on morality.

It's about confirmation

Moralism depends on a general consensus of what constitutes morality, even if the moraliser is in a minority. You can't be holier than thou if we can't all agree on what holiness is supposed to be. So your moraliser will decide on a "holy" path, then take it to the limit. This is why pro-life zealots don't see a conflict between "Protecting the unborn" and murdering an abortionist; the way they see it, that's how protecting the unborn is done. How else do you stop someone killing a baby before it's even had a chance to draw its first breath? And their supporters agree with them so that's okay. It's the fuel that fires internet mobs of great justice that hound people on and offline; #Gamergate began over an alleged infidelity, then turned into a "debate over ethics in game journalism." Note the use of the word "ethics." The contention was over whose ethics get the top spot — conservative or progressive? Note also that whoever garnered the most support was perceived to be in the right, which is why the argument went viral; each faction was trying to gain enough support to dominate the narrative and claim the moral high ground as their own. This is why moralists feel such a drive to convert other people to their cause; if "everyone" agrees that they're right, they must be.

It's about control

Whether you're a person of faith in the traditional sense, i.e. you worship a deity, or you're deeply invested in non-religious ideological considerations, if you're an exceptionalist about your particular creed you will sooner or later try to impose it on the rest of us for our own good. Exceptionalism only allows for two kinds of people; those who conform and those who don't. There's nothing in between, as you can see in this Atlantic thread on their global gag story. On t'other side, you've got professors afraid of upsetting their students in case they attract complaints for holding the "wrong" views. In each of the two examples, creed is incidental to the drive to "Make them behave;" the problematic belief is that the strength of conviction that they have a monopoly on all righteousness where the subject at hand is concerned is sufficient to justify attempting to impose controls on dissenters. On the liberal/progressive side, "Hurting people's feelings is a form of murder!! 111One one one eleventy-one!!!" and on the religious right, "If you can't control yourself don't whine when we make it harder for you to get away with it. Ladies pinch, whores use rouge, etc."

Pick a side

Moral exceptionalism requires two opposing sides from which we are obliged to choose. There are no other options. The factionalism that results creates a wedge that drives the two sides further apart and causes them to become more extreme as they seek to differentiate from each other and attract support.

There's no room to manoeuvre

It's interesting to note that what moralists of any creed always seem to have in common is the very small and narrow world in which they live. There's no room at all for people whose lives and circumstances fall outside the parameters permitted them. It is this, more than anything else, that stops me taking sides in the culture wars; it's not so much that I don't want to conform to either side, it's that I can't. I epically fail at conforming completely to the demands of any particular creed. I'm a community-minded rugged individual — what chance do I have?

The threat to democracy

The trouble with exceptionalism, as I've pointed out, is that exceptionalists believe they know what's best even — and sometimes especially because — they haven't got a clue because, to their narrow minds conviction trumps understanding. The authority they arrogate to themselves as a result of this mindset denies us the right to participate in the democratic process on the grounds that we're too damn stupid to know what's good for us.

Womens' rights to life trumped by Trump

I'm not even joking. The Global Gag Rule was, in principle, supposed to deny funding to any organisation that provides information about abortion "as part of family planning." Yeah... in practice this means that organisations providing reproductive health advice and assistance were denied the funding they needed and women will suffer again as a result, and all because the "pro-life" faction believes that sex should have a consequence, even if you're a child victim of rape or continuing a pregnancy could kill you. Remember Savita Halappanavar? I've not forgotten her. Cases like hers require swift intervention and since there's no way the foetus could have survived, I'd be hard put to object to her having an abortion to save her life. But Savita's cries for compassion went ignored. I presume it's because self-righteous staff considered her a would-be murderess and protected the rotting sac inside her because its heart was beating, despite the fact that this was a reflex due to being connected to her, not because it was actually viable. Women protest against this kind of thing but until we can swing a quorum, expect more stories like this.

Brexit - the facts and the farce

Judges threatened and monstered in the press for enforcing the rule of law in the courts by deciding (again!) that Article 50 can't be triggered without Parliamentary consent... I'm sorry, is this Britain I'm living in or a third rate banana republic? What next — re-education camps for dissenting justices? The way the right wing press goes after these people is ridiculous and all because they believe that their national exceptionalism puts them in a place to condemn those people who fall short of their ideals. We must respect the rule of law or we risk anarchy. There must be order upheld by the rule of law enforced as and when required, otherwise we'll have mob rule in which whatever is most popular gets done. Lynchy McLynchface, if you will. No thanks.


Beware of exceptionalism. It's easy to get suckered into a sense of moral outrage that demands that you Make Them Behave. It's just as easy to believe that because you're a member of {$team} and "everybody else" agrees with you it's obvious that you're in the right so everyone else needs to suck it up and accept your leadership. And it's easier still to believe that being patriotic means that your country (or the country you wish was yours) should dominate the global order (for its own good, off course!) than to imagine a world in which true equality means protecting the weak from the strong.

I'm a Christian. I'm Irish.  I'm a Pirate. I'm conservative. I'm an administrator and a bit of a nerd. I'm creative. And I live in the UK, so naturally all of the above puts me at a massive advantage over many other people (did I mention that I'm of northern European heritage and privately educated?) but does any of that make me better than anyone else? Of course not. I am conscious of my privilege, I admit I make the most of it, but I don't use it as a stick to beat other people with. And believe me, I'll be sure to call it out where I see it. Exceptionalism doesn't mean you're the best of the best of the best. It means you are an overbearing prat. Get over yourself.

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