Gleeful Indignation

From Roger Kimball:

It is curious how close certain seemingly contrary emotions can be. Consider, to take just one example, the feelings of glee and outrage. At first blush, they seem very different. Glee occupies a positive register in the metabolism of human emotions. There is such thing as malicious glee, of course—the German word schadenfreude captures that perfectly. But by and large, I believe, glee is a sunny, allegro emotion.

Outrage, on the contrary, is a dour beast. It glowers. It fulminates. It glories in moral indignation, which it eagerly manufactures whenever it is in short supply.

And it is there, in the manufacture, affectation, the pretense, of moral indignation that that outrage shades in smarmy gleefulness. You can see this in operation right now, today, by the simple expedient of turning to CNN and watching commentator after commentator explode in gleeful outrage over Donald Trump’s alleged comments about the relative desirability of immigrants from countries like Norway, on the one hand, and countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and various apparently unnamed African countries on the other. (I say “alleged” not because I doubt the substance of the report, but simply because the president has disputed some details of the reporting.)

Two questions: Were all those commentators at CNN (and the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other purveyors of sanctimony)—were they more delighted or unhappy about the president’s comment? Think carefully before answering.

Sometimes, the experience of outrage, and its accompanying moral indignation, is essentially a feeling of displeasure—at a wrong done or suffered, an injustice or cruelty observed, etc.

But sometimes, outrage is but a patina of indignation whose chief motive is incontinent delight. Which is it for the talking heads at CNN? Are they genuinely morally offended by the president’s comments? Or are they really absolutely delighted by the opportunity he has given them to say “shithole” over and over again while also running endless chyrons reminding viewers that the president referred to (if he did refer to) Haiti, El Salvador, etc., as “shithole countries” from which we should not seek immigrants?

I think it is the latter, and I believe there are two parts to the delight. One is the natural expectation of a ratings boost in the wake of all that potty-mouthed commentary. The other is the prospect, once again, of being given free rein to lay into Donald Trump and deplore how horrible, uncaring, racist, and vulgar he is. Maybe, just maybe, this exhibition of political incorrectness will turn the tide of public opinion against this most improbable president. Maybe, just maybe, it will administer the coup de grace against a man who is the walking embodiment of everything enlightened progressive opinion loathes.

Maybe. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Which brings me to my second question: Was the president right to question the desirability of accepting immigrants from places like Haiti? Let’s leave his colorful language to one side. That was just a bit of rhetorical salsa on the burrito. The coarsening of language in the public square (and the private hearth) means that virtually anyone not cloistered hears and/or utters much ruder language almost daily.

The real issue is whether we justly prefer immigrants from some places over others.

I would say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Of course we do. Not only was the president correct when, some time ago, he said that we should favor immigrants who knew English and brought with them marketable skills, he is also correct now when he suggests that someone from Norway, say, is more likely to bring those desirable qualities than someone from Haiti, El Salvador, etc.

He is further correct that the Haitis of the world are conspicuously undesirable places: crime- and disease-ridden trous de merde that we may pity and may endeavor to help but that are not necessarily good sources of helpful immigrants.

And here we come to a second curiosity in the preening and ecstatic outrage over the president’s comment. Everyone, near enough, knows that he was telling a home truth. It was outrageous not because he said something crude that was untrue. Quite the contrary: it was outrageous precisely because it was true but intolerable to progressive sensitivities.

In other words, the potency of taboo is still strong in our superficially rational culture. There are some things—quite a few, actually, and the list keeps growing—about which one cannot speak the truth or, in many cases, even raise as a subject for discussion without violating the unspoken pact of liberal sanctimoniousness.

Donald Trump, of course, does this regularly, delightedly. Hitherto, his brazenness has only endeared him to his base and driven his critics mad. Perhaps it will be different this time. Maybe the angry censors will descend en masse in effective indignation and drag him from the stage. Again, though, I wouldn’t count on it. Trump’s Haiti moment is cut from the same script as Trump’s “Rosie O’Donnell is a fat pig” mot. Uncouth. Crude. But was it untrue?

We live in a surreal moment when it becomes ever harder to tell the truth about sensitive subjects. Donald Trump has strutted across our timid landscape like a wrecking ball, telling truths, putting noses out of joint. The toffs will never forgive him, but I suspect the American people have stronger stomachs and are up to the task.

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The Teflon President

From Roger Kimball:

The best line of the day comes from “Obama’s Belated Defense of the NSA,” Andrew McCarthy’s reflection on Obama’s speech about spooks, spying, and national security yesterday. No, it’s not his characterization, toward the end of his essay, of Obama’s behavior as a “toxic mix of passive unseriousness and active harm.” That’s the second-best line of the day, a grimly accurate summary of what this Potemkin President is all about. But the best line comes at the top, at the very beginning of McCarthy’s column: “It is very hard to take President Obama seriously.”

Bingo. The architect of “the most transparent administration in history”; a man who repeatedly promised the public that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it, period”; the fellow who put it about that the slaughter of four Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, was caused by an internet video; the guy who has twice raised his right hand and sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability while also (just last week, for example) announcing out of the other side of the orifice his intention to proceed with his agenda “with or without Congress” — how can you take this man seriously, where by “seriously” I mean, how can you trust him?

The brief answer is, “You can’t.” You can’t trust him. He has willfully and repeatedly lied to the American people about all manner of things touching their vital interests. It’s almost comical, or at least it would be if Obama’s behavior didn’t intrude so blatantly upon issues of individual liberty, economic dynamism, and national security. Think about it. One the one hand, Obama has spent the last five years governing as if he were a dictator. Any time he doesn’t like a law, he flouts it, “waiving” it without authority for groups he likes (Obamacare, for example, is the law of the land, except if you are a member of Congress or belong to a favored union). His Justice Department is dedicated to an agenda of racialist activism.

But, on the other hand, he never seems to be held to account. I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of criticism. There is. I’ve tried to contribute my fair share in this column and elsewhere. But here’s the thing: the criticism never seems to get traction. It bounces around in the echo chamber of conservative angst but never seems to penetrate into the broader consciousness. To me, it is astounding that Obama has (so far) weathered the scandal of Benghazi with only minimal damage. I cannot understand how his deployment of the IRS as a political weapon can proceed without instigating widespread demonstrations, if not worse. How is it, I’ve wondered, that Obama can have blatantly lied about so many aspects of Obamacare without there being a serious backlash? I am really at something of a loss. Perhaps it has something to do with his mastery of the art that Gertrude Stein described as “knowing how far to go in going too far.” He salts his mendacity with dollops of, not truth, exactly, but with dollops of earnest equivocation that might be mistaken as truths by the credulous and unwary. He is aided, moreover, by the inertia of affluence and stupefying national power. The United States commands extraordinary resources, economically and militarily. It takes time to degrade them. And although the middle class is much worse off now than when Obama came in to office, and although the country’s military might has been seriously diminished these last several years, there is still a long way to go before the public at large will sit up and take notice.

By then, alas, the damage will likely be irrecoverable and Obama will be long gone. Much as you might like to believe otherwise, the world is not standing still. It is an increasingly dangerous place, and the United States is increasingly poorly equipped to respond with authority. Whose tocsin is sufficiently clear, and bright, and persuasive to rouse an indifferent public, a complicit media, and a self-serving political elite into action? What we are witnessing is not only a concerted attack on the Constitution (how abstract that sounds) but also an assault on our way of life: our habits of individual liberty and free enterprise, our assumption of national security and global prerogative. The hour is late. Who will recall us from our dogmatic slumbers?

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The National Endowment for the Arts

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
— C.S. Lewis


From Roger Kimball:

Reading through this transcript, I was struck by two things. One was the aroma of self-intoxication. These bureaucrats and artists and activists are utterly besotted by the contemplation of their own virtue. They know what’s good for the country, and what’s good for you, and they’re willing to devote themselves ceaselessly to making it happen.

The second thing that strikes one about this transcript is the aura of menace that floats just behind the talk of passion, pushing the president’s agenda, connecting with “labor unions, progressive groups,” etc., etc. As Yosi Sergant’s pep talk suggests, these people regard legal obstacles not as boundaries to be observed but as impediments to be overcome by “tactics,” a word that frequently appears in the transcript.

There is a German word for what we are witnessing at the NEA and elsewhere in the Obama administration’s effort to push its agenda. It is Gleichschaltung. It means two things: first, bringing all aspects of life into conformity with a given political line. And second, as a prerequisite for realizing that goal, the obliteration or at least marginalization of all opposition.

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