Thursday, October 22, 2015

Synthetic Outrage

     Virtually everything on any market is available in two or more versions. Furthermore, you may rest assured that one of those versions will promote itself as “the original” and will deride the others as “ersatz,” though perhaps not by using that particular word. Funnily enough, this also applies to political and social opinion.

     Via the esteemed Charles Hill, today we have this Jack Baruth snippet about a venerable left-wing journal:

     Okay, I admit it: I’ve been reading The Nation a lot while I’ve been laid up. I cannot recommend you do the same. The youngest generation of the publication’s writers grew up taking Orwell as an instruction manual rather than as a cautionary tale; you won’t get through any two random features on the site without being lectured that Hillary Clinton’s decision to host classified e-mail in a bathroom closet is a “non-issue” and that race is the only issue of any importance facing America today. Words like “racist” and “racial” appear everywhere with a frequency approximately equal to that enjoyed by “cock” and “wet” over at, and for the same reason: the average millennial is constantly battered with demands that he or she be racially outraged and/or sexually stimulated and therefore they require ever-stronger imagery to get it up for the cause.

     Take the audio from a Sasha Grey porn, overdub every one of her groans with the word “RACISM”, and you’d basically have created a Books-On-Tape version of The Nation.

     That got me laughing really hard, and not because I occasionally write a bit of erotica. (If you’ve read any of mine, you’ll already know why; if you haven’t, it’s a fair distance off the beaten track.)

     Left-wing writing is essentially the expression of a vast, unquenchable outrage at “the system.” It’s blatantly patterned, almost perfectly scripted from a few standard shibboleths: “racism,” “inequality,” “oppression,” “the poor,” “the patriarchy,” and a few others less frequently employed. The patterns are so strong that it can be difficult to tell when a piece was written, or by whom, or about what. But how often is it sincere?

     Reliance on a set of standard tropes gives a piece of writing the appearance of boilerplate. It obscures its origins and its purpose. Ultimately it robs it of impact, even if the prose, analyzed dispassionately, is fingernails-on-a-blackboard screechy. So why would a left-wing polemicist consciously adopt such a style?

     I can think of some possible reasons. Perhaps he’s not sufficiently facile with the English language, and leans on the terminology of his fellows for support. Perhaps he’s too fired by his cause, whatever that might be, to write carefully and tellingly. Perhaps he feels that he’s required to festoon his piece with those shibboleths to “fit in.” (A rag like The Nation might have minimum-occurrence-quotas for “racism,” etc.; they’re certainly not going to tell a member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.)

     And perhaps the outrage itself is a sham.

     Whatever one does will occasion consequences, and it’s a traditional maxim that, to the extent they’re foreseeable, the actor accepts and intends those consequences. It’s certainly foreseeable that boilerplate writing will elicit a ho-hum response. Would a writer genuinely charged with fury about his subject consciously want that sort of reaction and steer for it?

     I don’t think so, and it’s quite possible that the editors of The Nation are similarly minded. A periodical that’s lasted for as many years as that has become, willy-nilly, a part of the cultural Establishment. It will seek to perpetuate itself with the minimum possible disturbance to its norms. Certain conditions will apply to that perpetuation. In aggregate, they’ll amount to this: Don’t rock the boat.

     Maintain the readership.
     Observe the institutional standards.
     Eschew the “big risk,” even at the price of stasis.

     Outrage, be it remembered, is a motivator. Either it burns out the outraged one, or it leads to action of some sort. For an established institution, outrage is the most dangerous of emotions. It threatens to upset the applecart. It practically invites the outraged one to try to solve the problem – and as Bill Moyers has told us, the cruelest thing you can do to a left-liberal is to deprive him of his grievances.

     So the “outrage” typeset into the pieces at The Nation and similar left-wing periodicals is couched in familiar terms and motifs: so familiar that their power to move the reader is essentially nil. He’s been reading about “racism,” “inequality,” “oppression,” “the poor,” “the patriarchy,” and so forth for decades, and nothing has come of it. Why should further invocations of the Left’s favorite phantasms stir his stumps? That way lie effort, probable expenditure, and near-certain disappointment.

     But he’ll continue to read The Nation. It’s familiar, non-threatening, and about as likely to propel him out of his recliner as an offer of porridge for dinner. It’s a sort of intellectual gruel for the fourth-generation Democrat voter.

     One of the signal differences between Right and Left in the U.S. is apparent in the quality of the periodicals they consume. Say what you will about the Establishmentarian tendencies of National Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and The American Spectator; there’s no denying the superiority of the writing therein to what can be found in The Nation, The New Republic, Tikkun, Mother Jones, and whatever other leftist periodicals remain in circulation. Even rightist writers who concentrate exclusively on a single issue are far less verbally repetitious than their leftist counterparts. A reader might succeed in predicting the position George Will, Bill Kristol, Kevin Williamson, or Emmett Tyrrell is about to take, but he’s unlikely to predict accurately how that opinion will be expressed.

     Yet that having been said, the Left chows down on The Nation’s boilerplate prose laced with synthetic outrage, entirely without complaint. Therefore it must fulfill the ultimate premise of the free market: the transaction will only be completed if both producer and consumer believe they will be made better off by it. And therein lie further mysteries to explore on another day...preferably at a later hour.

1 comment:

Andy Texan said...

Leftist boilerplate is to a leftist what a biblical verse is to an evangelical believer or a koran verse is to an isis terrorist. My left-wing friends and relatives can't get enough of the racist or poverty tropes. If you ask them to explain their politics,they will repeat such cliches with the utmost sincerity.