Scapegoating and Denial

Sunday, December 24, 2006
Mary Eberstadt has a fascinating article in Real Clear Politics about scapegoats, 9/11 and how the world has and has not dealt with that reality.

Political particulars aside, the ubiquity of that word "denial" is worth pausing over. It connotes that we live in an era of unreality, perhaps even surreality, in which what is said in public is at odds with what is true -- a shortfall invoked now more or less constantly as a feature of political discussion. And so to the obvious question: Why do so many Americans apparently share the sense that we are all being misled, one way and another, about political reality -- and not only about reality in Iraq, but about politics more generally....

One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.


She then deals in detail with certain manifestations of scapegoating:

Illegal Immigration
:
In other words, there is something telling about the fact that so far as their critics are concerned, pretty much anything the Mexicans and Central Americans do appears to be a problem. If they work, that's bad because they are taking our jobs. If they don't, that's also bad because they are taking our welfare. Men come to America and live in groups instead of in families: This is bad because men in groups can be frightening and unruly. Men come to America and live in families instead of in groups: This is bad too because it means more Mexicans here. Women come to live with the men: This is worst of all because they are doing it to have what the critics call "anchor babies." Similarly, the workers come here when they're young and healthy and that's bad because it makes them better at physical labor; but they are apparently also full of diseases that make them a menace to a First World community. And so on -- and on and on. One wonders when an environmental impact study of the very air they exhale near the Rio Grande will be waved by Lou Dobbs to show just how far the law-breaking civilization-busters have gone now. Tancredo even manages outrage over the fact that undocumented aliens can apparently use the stacks of the Denver public library by presenting only a driver's license. Mexican farm hands, reading in a library? Dios mio! Will these people never learn to behave like Americans?

In sum, the insistence by impassioned theorists that illegal immigration south of the border is the pre-eminent problem of our time makes perfect sense -- or would, had those been Salvadoreans piloting airplanes on 9/11, Guatemalans bankrolling their efforts, Hondurans plotting attacks on the subways and government buildings of Europe, and Mexicans across the global labor diaspora plotting how to bring down the American government, presumably by poisoning our gardens and toilets. If you do not think that is the way it went down, then Occam's razor dictates this: The sheer volume of emotion on the subject of illegal aliens makes most sense as a manifestation of denial about who would really like to see the end of the American republic -- as it turns out, one form of many now circulating.


Fundamentalist Christians:
In sum, just as the paleoconservative and nativist wings of the right appear to have channeled the anxiety of the post-9/11 years into one relatively safe scapegoat -- largely Hispanic illegal immigrants -- so have the libertarians and some liberal allies fingered their own culprit in the "theocrats," "Christocrats," "Christianists," and "Christian nationalists." At the heart of their case is an obnoxious positing of moral equivalence among "fundamentalists" and "theocrats" irrespective of religious stripe. Accordingly, anyone believing anything based on any holy writ whatever is suspect, no matter whether the message being received is that two hundred babes must die in Chechnya tomorrow or that two hundred trees should be planted in Tel Aviv by Texan evangelicals to hasten the second coming. As with the example of illegal immigration, this rhetoric all makes perfect sense -- or would in a world where Jerry Falwell calls down fatwas on naral, the 700 Club sends suicide bombers into the Key West Fantasy Fest, and Richard John Neuhaus posts death warrants on ewtn whenever he wants the members of Moveon.org decapitated


George Bush:
The author does draw the line between legitimate criticism and scapegoating:
In addition to the ideological scapegoats arising from points right to left, certain other forms of the denial of reality have also manifested themselves in the years since 9/11. Most obvious is the cult formed of disparate theories maintaining perhaps the ultimate resistance: that the towers did not fall because Saudi-born hijackers flew into them, but because of (fill in the blank): an Israeli conspiracy, a Washington conspiracy, a military conspiracy, an industrial conspiracy, a plot ordered by the man in the moon. Of course no one serious -- at least in America -- believes any of this (about some others we shall presently see). Even so, the inside-job men do warrant at least a mention as the most literal incarnation of post 9/11 denial.

But there is one other scapegoat in whom some serious people do believe: George W. Bush -- not the president of the United States, exactly, but his all-purpose totemic doppelgänger.

I think one of the things which has always amazed me about this phenomenon is the seeming amnesia that accompanies it. I remember back in the 90's when Bill Clinton thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ABC was doing specials on Hussein's relationship with AlQaida. It is as if this happened in another dimension. But like other scapegoats, Bush does not fight back.

America:
No, perhaps the anti-Americanism of today is best understood instead as a way of being furious in public with somebody for the insecurities and anxieties wrought by Islamist terrorism in this world, including in increasingly Muslim Europe -- an option made even more attractive by the safe bet that Americans, unlike some other people, are unlikely to respond to this rhetoric, let alone to editorial cartoons, by burning cars, slitting throats, or issuing death threats in places like Paris and Amsterdam and Regensburg and London.

The need to blame
To identify primal fear as the denominator common to the anti-American scapegoating now emanating from some quarters in Europe is not to suggest anything like sinister intent. The same is true of the pundits who have made a different industry of scapegoating in the U.S. All have their reasons, and the overriding reason is an obvious one. There is something deeply human about the desire to find all the things scapegoats can provide: a vessel to bear one's anxieties and outrages, a target that won't hit back, a welcome distraction from the real thing.

Read it all, it really is worth the time.

21 comments:

Seneca the Younger said...

I'll say it again. You're the smartest of the bunch of us.

terrye said...

Now you are just sucking up.

loner said...

Dinesh D'Souza, also a fellow at Hoover, has, it appears, written another book. It's been titled, The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibilty for 9/11. I found it interesting, remembering his early career, that he would be included in a book entitled, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Mary Eberstadt, scourge of both working mothers and contraceptive sex if I can believe what I read, is its editor. Did I miss something—anything?—on the scapegoating of the left?

Ideology is a virus.

chuck said...

Let's just blame Carter.

Seneca the Younger said...

Loner, I've been trying to figure out what the hell you're trying to say. All I can figure out is that either you're saying something to the effect that d'Souza (who I generally think is an over-intellectual dweeb on his good days) and Eberstadt are scapegoating the left --- which completely ignores 50 percent of Terrye's quote and the point of much of the essay --- or else you don't actually have a point and you're once again figuring that if you're pretentious and obscure we'll think you have a point that we're just too dull to catch.

So, on the off chance you actually do have a point, one that I'm simply too unintellectual to catch, could you take another shot at it and this time FUCKING SHOW YOUR WORK AND STATE YOUR ARGUMENT, INCLUDING YOUR ACTUAL POINT ASSUMING YOU HAVE ONE so that the rest of us have a chance to find out what you're trying to say?

And Merry Christmas.

loner said...

Seneca—

Yesterday I gave you an answer. Today, I'm otherwise engaged so I'll ask the questions. You, being you, will no doubt offer no answers while professing to not understand for all the effort you make. Me, being the pretentious twit I no doubt am—I aim to please after all—will smile and continue reading and occaisionally writing things for you not to understand.

Happy Holidays!

I blame nineteen men and their mentors. They exploited a great strength—once—to kill a great many people. Feel free to blame me if it helps.

terrye said...

Hey cut it out you two.

No, loner this is not about scapegoating the left, it is about scapegoats in general and the purpose they serve. I would think the mention of illegal immigration and libertarians would make that plain enough.

So, if it is not about scapegoating... why aren't Clinton or Carter ever held responsible for anything? Why is it all about Bush and the neocons? Why completely ignore all the war mongering rhetoric of the Clinton administration in the last years of that administration? Surely that is some evidence that the situation in the ME is not something that can be rectified with a vote for the Democrats and a return to the good ol days of 98?

terrye said...

Does anyone really believe that if we had not gone to war in Iraq that the situation would be stable or that Saddam would not be free to build, acquire and export wmd? If he did not play by the rules for the decades before Bush came to office, what makes people think he would have been any different now?

He would be laughing at us, killing people, building nukes and making it plain that he is in charge, not the US or the UN or anyone else, and when he died for whatever reason his sons would have taken over and the killing would have gone on and on.

Seneca the Younger said...

"If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line, as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them everywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind
(The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind).
And every one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for ME,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

Seneca the Younger said...

Oh, and Terrye, I'm not neither just sucking up.

terrye said...

Ah.......have a happy holiday seneca, even if you are a heathen.

loner said...

terye—

It's actually very specific. Blame Clinton and Carter all you like. Occaisionally, when you refer to a certain piece of legislation enacted in 1998, I may raise objections, but, hey, that's just the way of things. As I've written before, I wish the President nothing but success in his attempts to get what he wants in Iraq.

seneca—

Your cluelessness is part of your charm.

Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much.

Best.

Seneca the Younger said...

Loner, if asking you to make yourself clear makes me your enemy, ... well, you must have a lot of enemies.

terrye said...

loner:

I am sorry I am afraid I don't understand what you are saying. I point to the Iraqi Liberation Act from 1998 to point out there is a history to our relationship with Iraq which predates 9/11 and it was not good.

The point to the article is scapegoats. Illegal immigrants are scapegoats for well educated Egyptians and Saudis. And the people who are pissy about them are not Clinton and Carter. In fact the names the author mentions in this article are Buchanan and Tancredo.

And the Jews werre scapegaots during the Black Death when they were accused of poisoning the water. That is not in this article, but it would be consistent. Scapegoats are blamed in ways and for things that are fantastic, often beyond reason. The anger is out of proportion. The scapegoat is someone who can not or does not fight back. In other words a safe target.

If you had bothered to read the article you would have noticed that the author is quite critical of Bush and the war and in fact uses Woodward's recent book {State of Denial} as an example of valid criticism and not scapegoating.

The thing that seemed true to me is the fantastic nature of the claims....they seemed out of sync with reality.

Such as, not only did the world think Saddam had weapons, if not for the war it probably still would. And the knowledge of that is what makes people angry.

Just like people refuse to be realistic about alternatives to either letting Saddam do whatever the hell he wanted or invading. Misconceptions have been shattered and people do not like that.

BTW, it would have taken Saddam no more than a couple of years to get his bio/chem weapons back on line and we know he had plans for a bomb, the NYT even complained that the plans were published...so what would have stopped him?

I wonder if Bush would invade today if he knew just what lay ahead, maybe not..but whatever he did these are things that would have been out there to deal with. That is just a fact.

loner said...

terrye—

Why would you think I hadn't read the article? It was an informed question.

One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.

One result of that transposition, the record shows, has been the creation of a world of political scapegoats for the unease and anxiety that are the unwanted companions now of Westerners everywhere. These scapegoats, perverse non-explanations for what really ails us, can be identified by features common to the breed everywhere: The passion invested in them by their antagonists is disproportionate to any real problem the scapegoat represents; they are invoked to explain more about the world than they do; they capture some part of the truth, i.e., have a degree of verisimilitude without which a scapegoat cannot exist; and -- also like scapegoats everywhere -- they pose no threat of retaliation for their overburdening. They are scapegoats in the classic sense: metaphorical beasts seen not in their own right and reality, but rather as communal vessels carrying a political and psychological weight beyond themselves for reasons of communal relief.

In sum, to judge by current intellectual trends, many post-9/11 attempts to diagnose the American soul, both here and in Europe, have served less to clarify reality than to gravitate toward safer and more palatable substitutes. It is a fraught, fascinating spectacle worth exploring in detail -- the more so because a parallel outpouring of books, especially from the contemporary European front, makes very clear what today's obvious displacements of political passion are really about.


"The left" qualifies under that criteria to a far greater degree than do, for instance, illegal immigrants, but then, "the left" is a scapegoat she, given her opinions and friends, may not see as a scapegoat. Do you?

seneca—

The original is gone, but something later remains...

My first memory of Charlie (Colorado):

Now, looking at Mark Garrity's posts, and Goof's, there's a lot of the same coercion-by-shame in that: Goof suggesting in so many words that you "sold your principles"

Me...

What words would those be?

Charlie...

These words:

...how much do you sell your principles for?

Me...

Those aren't my words.

Charlie...

Oh, crap. You're right. I swear to god I looked at that twelve times last night...

Sorry.


My game hasn't changed. Has yours?

The "enemies" quip was an acknowledgment of your last and nothing more. Goof still shrugs and calls it a day.

loner said...

terrye—

I see I misspelled your name this morning. I hate when I do things like that. Sorry.

Best.

terrye said...

She also makes note of the fact that there is not sinister intent.

And btw loner, all Europeans are not the left and all the left is not in Europe.

But given the loud rhetoric of the last three years one would have to be a moron not to take note of the fact that people on the left have been throwing that fascist word around a lot. And people will react to that. I still do not get your point and I am not sure you do either.

In fact I think it is interesting to note, that if one simply points out the things people say or do on the left..it amounts to scapegoating. While at the same time the author can say the same thing about the libertarians and the far right and somehow it does not count.

Once again the left stands apart..above judgment.

loner said...

terrye—

It's all about motes and beams. Your scapegoats aren't scapegoats. They're the problem.

...a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

Enjoy.

terrye said...

loner:

Oh bullshit. So when some moron on the left accuses the government of bringing down the WTC so that they could put a make believe pipeline in Afghanistan, the problem is the government. When some moron like Tancredo acts as if the mere existence of Mexican fruit pickers here in the US illegally is a threat to the survival of the nation, the problem is the fruitpicker.

The truth is that people who think like that have no problem finding a new scapegoat. Take care of one problem and another magically presents itself.

After the Civil War the scapegoat in the south was the black man. Was he the problem too? And to the Arab street the scapegoat is the Great Satan and the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists. No shortage of problems out there.

loner said...

terrye—

No. In that case, they're the scapegoat.

terrye said...

loner:

I give up. Really I do. I must be some dumb uneducated redneck working class hick because I don't know what you are talking about. And I am kind of getting the place where it really does not matter much to me anymore.