A place for new ideas to settle.

10 December 2014

Tofu to the left of me, Twinkies to the right

or, Notes towards a new characterization of bumper-sticker politics in the American mainstream


I've had a reasonably long-running joke that when Subarus accumulate enough bumper stickers, they metamorphose into Volvos.

Certainly bumper stickers say something about the person whose vehicle they're on. This blog post (which I mostly chose because it features a liberal-bestickered Subaru and a conservative-bestickered pickup truck) opines:  
You can tell a lot about a person by their bumper stickers.  I get a kick out of reading what people have branded on the back of their cars.  Some of the stickers are political some are religious and some tell us about the kids or dogs.  If you see a car with multiple bumper stickers one thing about these people who you can count on is, they are passionate and dedicated to what they believe in.
I don't think this is entirely true. Bumper-sticker politics is a derogatory term for a reason, after all. What you can count on, really truly, is this: The owner of a bestickered vehicle is passionate and dedicated to their beliefs, but not necessarily to what those beliefs point to. Sometimes it may not be accurate to say that they believe in any thing except the belief itself.

Since I'm on a remodeling/restructuring/recharacterizing/rephrasing kick of late, why not a new characterization of bumper sticker politics? Not everyone buys bumper stickers, because not everyone owns a Subaru or a pickup truck. But everyone eats food, of one sort or another—let's try a food metaphor!

So: this is what I'm going to call Tofu Leftism. Like the worst-prepared tofu, it's utterly devoid of flavor, not even worthy of being called "bland." And yet everyone somehow agrees that it's left-ish, and therefore basically correct... since—Cthulhu help me, I'm cribbing from neoreaction again—the implicit cathedral of (broadly construed) progressive thought is totally dominant. Gut feelings don't matter, personal taste doesn't matter; hell, even nutrition doesn't matter. What matters is that it's culturally accepted that eating this bland, poorly-prepared tofu is the mark of a Conscientious Person Who Cares About the Right Things.

Tofu Leftism is the left-wing's equivalent of (philosophical) bullshit—statements said with little regard to their truth or falsity, but only for their effect on the intended audience. What matters, then, is their tribal-ideological purity. I should clarify here that I am talking about leftism, not liberalism, here. Tofu Leftist memes are sometimes called "liberal" but this is a confusion. The point is that Tofu Leftism pretends to the edginess, nonconformity and revolutionary character of true leftism, and yet has nothing of that actual content.

Like this piece of hot street trash from Everyday Feminism, via (what else) Upworthy. It's head-to-tail inaccurate: one specific pseudo-fact that caught my attention was their #8 "Thing The History Books Don’t Tell Us About Native People," that Native Americans were also used as slaves. Which, I must have gone to Bizarro high school because we did learn that, so at least some of "the history books" tell us about it. The history books also tell us that many many Native societies practiced slavery yes before the white people came, they were just as capable of being assholes stop with the noble savage myths including, notably, the Cherokee:
What has been described as "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" among the Cherokee, the 1842 event inspired subsequent slave rebellions in the Indian Territory.[1] But, in the aftermath of this escape, the Cherokee Nation passed stricter slave codes, expelled freedmen from the territory, and established a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to try to prevent additional losses.
You'd think that a post dedicated to rounding out an admittedly criminally under-taught history would be a bit more nuanced than "Native people were only the victims of white oppression"—something more like "Native people were just as human, for good and ill, as any of the white people who tried to deny them that humanity." That's maybe less bland though, and doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Oh, but American conservatism gets it worse. They don't produce tofu; they sneer at all that PC lefty crap. For the purposes of this metaphor, the American conservative movement produces Twinkies. Twinkies, as you may or may not recall, are food-like morsels that don't actually match any mortal concept of "food," packed with carefully engineered compounds to elicit a taste response and a craving for more. So it goes with Twinkie Conservatism. Again this is a politically-flavored version of bullshit, but whereas Tofu Leftism works at a pseudo-intellectual level ("I'm pretty sure I remember someone saying this is Good for me"), Twinkie Conservatism works at a pseudo-gut level ("I want more of this... why? Oh who cares"). Recall the feeling when you eat junk food and can fully acknowledge that it's nutritionally void even as you reach for more? It's like that.

I'm going to rely heavily on Rick Pearlstein's article, "The Long Con," from The Baffler, which attempts to explain the nature of modern America's conservative zeitgeist. At the end of his introduction, he observes:
All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party [N.B. the Republicans] chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar [N.B. Mitt Romney, just humor the author for a minute]. What does that reveal about them?
In the body of the article, Pearlstein narrates a sort of shadow history of American conservatism since the 1960s, starting with Young Americans For Liberty (his words: "itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review") and moving on up to Obama-era scare-and-fundraising email blasts. It's fascinating and, if you've ever flipped through a book written (or, ah, "written") by the likes of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, or flipped to a conservative talk-radio station—or picked mailings from the Alliance Defending Liberty out of a drainage ditch, like I have—it's all true. The American right wing is inextricably linked to get-rich-, get-well-, get-free-, and get-tinfoil-quick schemes.

Here's how you can replicate his results. First, turn of Adblock and go to any typical right-wing site, like Newsmax, National Review, Free Republic...

Then click on the ads. (Then scan for malware in the background.) The more ridiculous the pitch, the better! Here's some examples, pulled off the Newsmax sidebar in the wee hours of 10 December 2014:

The Food4Patriots video (yes, that mushroom cloud is merely one frame in a minutes-long video) must be watched to be believed in. (Not believed, because it's wall-to-wall bullshit, but...) Actually, this video has all the components of pure Twinkie Conservatism in just over a minute:
I know it is or was a fad among younger people to make fun of the "ONE WEIRD TRICK" / "DOCTORS HATE HIM!" / "HAS SCIENCE GONE TOO FAR?!?! Y/N" ad-spam on the internet, but it works. It's weaponized stupid designed to funnel money directly from the wallets or mattresses of old white folks and into the off-shore bank accounts of slightly younger, just as white, snake-oil marketing executives. What's the mechanism for the alarming success of American conservatism? Not broad success; even as the Republicans did well in the 2014 midterm elections (though that may have been partially the result of its own sort of con), liberal-progressive values also did well. No, this is deep success, a reliable pool of money rubes shills marks Patriots®™ to be extorted bilked swindled Deputized®™ In Defense®™ of Liberty®™ year over year over year ad mortem:
Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.
Yes, it's a superweapon, only it fires money instead of nukes, and straight into the aforementioned offshore bank accounts.


It's amusing to consider the differences between how these two paradigms are organized (or organized themselves). Tofu Leftism is like the water cycle: it starts on the ground level, among various activist groups, reading circles, Occupy movements (is that still a thing?) or what have you. Novel and succulent ideas are then picked up and precipitate in the upper academic layer, where they are legitimized and distilled. These legitimized ideas then seep down and become eminently shareable but fundamentally undisruptive (except for maybe a few minutes of #feels) listicles or video clips. Maybe someone generates a slightly new, slightly more succulent idea from watching too many of this viral content. And so it goes.

Twinkie Conservatism, on the other hand, starts at the top, with the think tanks / marketing gurus / snake-oil peddlers (according to Pearlstein, they're all basically the same). Then they agitate the people at the grassroots (who have all that loose cash) with folksy scare-tactics carefully engineered to sound both just authoritative and just peer-level to ensure maximum compliance. A simple donation request later, and it's another lifetime revenue stream secured.

I should close by stipulating that Tofu Leftism is very much not the entirety of left-wing politics. Neither is Twinkie Conservatism the entirety of right-wing politics, though my proof of that is much harder and as-yet incomplete. And yet these junk-food versions comprise the everyday political milieu of 99% of Americans, and they're seductive. So it's worth being vigilant, I guess?

I wish I had better advice than that.