phil agre ruminates on conservatives' slagging

t byfield tbyfield at
Mon Nov 8 22:08:57 PST 1999

[if you don't know phil agre's 'red rock eater news service,' you

can take a look at <> for recent

messages, or <> for most

of what he's written. which falls fairly squarely within the realm

of plainspoken american pragmatism, and as such is subject to end-

less critique for its naivete and reliance on 'common sense' and

other such sins. except--trivial, i know--that he makes lots of

sense on lots of subjects. in fact, i'd even venture to say that

it's sort of enjoyable to read someone who's (a) clever and (b)

not enslaved in the sycophantic/neo-theological procedure of un-

derstanding the task of theorizing phenomena as the process of

bowing and scraping to the masters of the past. herewith a sample.

cheers, t (who is *still* waiting for yoshie to name some names)]

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Date: Mon, 8 Nov 1999 21:30:23 -0800 (PST) From: Phil Agre <pagre at> To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" <rre at> Subject: [RRE]notes and recommendations

More notes about education, design, conservatism, and cheap pens.


A conservative society is a society of orders and classes. It is a culture in which people routinely defer, and are expected to defer, to their betters. This is what conservatism has always meant, and it is what it still means. But you wouldn't know it to listen to the radio, or to read the outpourings of the hundreds of conservative pundits who dominate the media. That's because conservativism has better public relations than it used to. And the key to public relations, in the words of the CPUSA's cultural policy, is always to lead the people by a half-step, not getting too far in front of them. The main problem that conservatives face is that the lower orders have become accustomed to challenging their betters, and have developed a whole elaborate vocabulary with which to formulate such challenges. This is why the public relations directors of conservativism have organized a language war: a very systematic project of taking back words that have gotten out of their control.

The techniques of this war are endless, but one way to slice them is through a distinction between two categories of epithets, transient and permanent. Transient epithets are words that have traditionally been used to criticize conservatives, but are now relentlessly and sophistically applied to liberals instead. These in turn fall into two categories: words traditionally used to criticize the aristocratic rich (e.g., "elites", "authoritarian", "double standards") and words traditionally used to criticize conservative ministers (e.g., "pious", "sanctimonious", "indoctrination"). These epithets are transient because it will one day be necessary to reverse their meaning. You will hear people say things like, "You need some kind of elites, so you should have the ones who are moral." In fact you already hear people saying (if you listen to the right stations) things like, "It's inevitable to have have some kind of indoctrination, so it should be indoctrination into the truth". The transient epithets have several purposes. They serve to portray the rebellious lower sorts and their supporters as hypocrites. Their sophistry tends to discredit the epithets themselves, as well as the people they are applied to. They enable one to engage in projective aggression by directing negative energy at *them* while telling oneself that it is *they* who are directing the negative energy at *us*. And they cause confusion, thus stopping or at least slowing down any attempts to organize a response.

Permanent epithets are ones that are used to stigmatize dissent from the judgements of one's betters. A conservative society requires a bottomless reservoir of these. The permanent epithets always start as stereotypes, constructed for example by adducing a long series of frivolous lawsuits, foolish rebellions against authority, ridiculous objections to stereotypes, overreactions to hate speech, or whatever. They are always vague, so that one cannot defend oneself against them. And they are arbitrary, being applied selectively according to double standards. Thus, for example, people are now labeled "victims" in a pejorative sense of the term, but only if they happen to be victims of conservatives. Victims of liberals, for example those oppressed by government regulation, are still considered victims in good standing. The very accusation is so confusing that most people's minds turn off. Even liberal intellectuals cannot clearly explain what the problem is. Another example is "political correctness", a brilliant bit of rhetoric whose workings would require a whole treatise unto itself. What's so brilliant is that the term is used in two different ways: absolutely any insistence on decent behavior can be labeled as political correctness and thereby assimilated to wild stereotypes of Stalinist political repression, but so can absolutely any *example* of decent behavior. As a result, the very act of (say) recycling trash or avoiding ethnic slurs -- in fact, any good deed at all -- can be made to sound like the worst evil, but only if the person issuing the accusation feels like doing so. In either case, the accusation is so vague and arbitrary that there are no grounds on which one can defend oneself against it.

Here is an example of the arbitrariness. A few years ago I received, as did many others, a long anonymous letter of anti-Semitic filth. Before descending into the usual garbage about Jews casting their lascivious eyes on Gentile children, however, it presented a letter- perfect speech in the idiom of contemporary conservativism, with the Jews being cast as politically correct victims and all that. Take any tirade against "liberals" and simply substitute "Jews" and you would get the first half of this letter. As such it made no more sense, and no less, than any of Rush Limbaugh's monologues. Now, does that mean that conservatives are anti-Semitic? No. What it does mean, however, is that modern conservative rhetoric is completely arbitrary. If conservatives choose not to apply their rhetoric to Jews, that is simply a choice that they have made. Nothing in the logic of their discourse rules the Jews either in or out as targets of abuse, simply because no such logic exists. That is arbitrariness. But it is not sloppiness. It is not an accident. To the contrary, arbitrariness is the central principle of a conservative society, which holds that social order is best maintained by allowing the better sorts to rule arbitrarily over the lesser sorts.

It will be argued that today's conservative movement is more complex, and indeed it is. It is an alliance between conservatives in the traditional sense and a variety of other tendencies, for example the libertarians who have somehow persuaded themselves that their agenda of freedom will be promoted by working with authoritarians. When the votes are finally counted, however, the conservative movement really is conservative. It aims to restore a society of orders and classes. That is how it talks, and that -- and not anything about freedom -- is the only way to make sense of the laws that it is actually passing.


----- Backwarded

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