Tribalistic self-absorption

What animates most right-wing discourse is obsession with one's own group and complete indifference to others.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published June 12, 2009 1:13PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

The most predominant mentality in right-wing discourse finds expression in this form:  "I am part of/was born into Group X, and Group X -- my group -- is better than all others yet treated so very unfairly."  This claim persists -- indeed, is often intensified --  even when Group X is clearly the strongest, most privileged and most favored group.  So intense is their need for self-victimization -- so inebriating is their self-absorption and so lacking are they in any capacity for empathy -- that, for all the noise and rhetoric, the arguments they make virtually always have this tribalistic self-absorption at its core.

Last week, Charles Krauthammer accused President Obama of treating every country in the world so well -- except for one, the one for which Krauthammer bears great love and affection and with which he was taught from childhood to identify:

President Obama repeatedly insists that American foreign policy be conducted with modesty and humility. Above all, there will be no more "dictating" to other countries. . . . An admirable sentiment. It applies to everyone -- Iran, Russia, Cuba, Syria, even Venezuela. Except Israel. Israel is ordered to freeze all settlement activity.

The U.S. transfers tens of billions of dollars to Israel -- more than any other country in the world.  We demand that no country in the Middle East have nuclear weapons -- except Israel.  We fuel Israel's wars with weapons transfers, ensure it is the most militarily powerful country in its region, and loyally protect it from U.N. sanctions using our veto power.  It's virtually impossible to imagine one country that is more favorably treated by another than the various forms of largesse Israel receives from the U.S.  But no matter.  In Krauthammer's eyes, the opposite is true:  the U.S. treats every country fairly except Israel.  That's the country that, to him, is singled out for unfavorable treatment by the U.S.  Israel is the victim of unfair treatment at the hands of Obama.

Identically, in his column today, Krauthammer attacks Obama for daring in his Cairo speech to suggest that the U.S. has done bad things in the past and has contributed to the hostilities between the U.S. and the Muslim world.  As a result of Obama's statement of the obvious -- that the U.S. also bears responsibility for the enmity that exists -- Obama stands accused in Krauthammer's column of "a disturbing ambivalence about his own country."  To Krauthammer, Obama's sins include "transcultural evenhandedness," "moral equivalencies and self-flagellating apologetics" and "creating false equivalencies."

Here again we find the same adolescent self-absorption:  the group into which I was born and was instructed from childhood to believe is the best -- America -- is, objectively, superior.  It is so much better than everyone and everything else that even to suggest that we have flaws comparable to others is to engage in "false moral equivalencies."  To do anything other than emphatically proclaim my group's objective superiority is to treat my group unfairly [leave to the side the irony that the same people who want to suppress torture photos because they don't want to inflame anti-American sentiment apparently want the U.S. President to announce to the Muslim world that we are superior to them, have no serious flaws, have made no meaningful mistakes, and that everything is their fault -- that sort of pompous self-glorification won't inflame anti-American sentiment at all].

And then, finally, we have Jonah Goldberg actually anointing himself as the leading opponent of affirmative action on the ground that it unfairly penalizes and victimizes his group and allows achievement for reasons other than merit.  This is someone who might be the single most compelling poster child for the ability of white males to advance in America for reasons having to do with everything except merit.  His entire career is attributable to his mom.  He was almost 30 years old and was working as the "Vice President" of her tiny company -- with no political or writing background -- when he leveraged his mom's sleazy involvement in the Lewinsky sex scandal and her contacts with the right-wing noise machine into a job with National Review, to which he has clung ever since.  So much of the right-wing pundit class -- which also complains endlessly about the unfairness of affirmative action in undermining "merit-based" achievement -- similarly owe their entire careers to their moms and dads.

Yet this is the person -- Lucianne's nepotistic creation -- who is now prancing around as the Standard-Bearer of merit-based accomplishment and speaking out on behalf of fellow white males and Republicans who are treated so unfairly by our society and our media.  Yet again, it amounts to nothing more than:  my group -- the one I was born into and trained to love -- is being victimized and treated so badly.  These claims of self-victimization persist even when their group historically occupied and continues to occupy positions of power and influence far disproportionate to their actual numbers.  As Atrios put it on Twitter:  so delusional and self-absorbed is the whole debate over Sonia Sotomayor's nomination and related affirmative action grievances that it amounts to nothing more than:  "if only I had grown up a female Puerto Rican in a Bronx [public housing project], think of all the opportunities I would have had."

For all the mockery over empathy, look at what happens to right-wing figures in those rare cases when they become personally affected by the ideology they advocate.  They quickly abandon it.  Dick Cheney objects to the injustice of gay inequality because his daughter is burdened by it.  Nancy Reagan deviates from social conservative dogma to become a leading advocate of stem-cell research because she suffered through her husband's Alzheimers.  Jane Harman instantaneously transforms from Surveillance State authoritarian to raving civil libertarian upon learning that her own telephone conversations were intercepted by the government.  They advocate their views up until the point that it begins adversely affecting not only others, but also themselves.

Otherwise, the only victims they ever see are themselves, the only unfairness they recognize is to their own group, the only perspective they are capable of understanding is the tribalistic ones drummed into their heads from birth.  Anonymous Liberal put this very well when writing earlier this week about the disgusting indifference to the plight of Chinese Uighurs, who have been kept in cages for years despite even the Bush administration's recognition that they did nothing wrong:

That the plight of these men elicits precisely zero sympathy (indeed, it provokes laughter) from most supposedly freedom-loving conservatives in this country underscores the extent to which many conservatives have managed to dehumanize in their own minds the many foreigners whose lives are impacted by our policies. As Jonah Goldberg put it this morning in a post entitled "Enemy Combatants as Toxic Waste":

The more I think about it, the more the enemy combatant "problem" can be understood like a toxic waste issue (and, no, I'm not trying to dehumanize these fairly inhuman people — they do that just fine on their own).

Jonah's right that feckless politicians in this country are treating Guantanamo detainees like toxic waste, but he doesn't seem at all disturbed by this fact and has no problem casually describing all the detainees as "fairly inhuman people."

It's a defining attribute of early adolescence to be incapable of seeing the world through any lens other than total self-centeredness, self-absorption and empathy-free self-obsession.  If you watch for it (principally though not only) in right-wing discourse, you will see that this is really the central theme animating most of what they write:  My group is superior.  My group (political, national, religious, ethic, gender) is victimized and treated unfairly.  The misery and suffering my group inflicts on far less powerful groups is irrelevant and always justifiable.  Even those societies we bomb, occupy, devastate and destroy -- even those we lock in cages without trials -- are the ones victimizing us.  They never advanced beyond the adolescent stage of tribalistic self-absorption and it's amazing how completely that lies at the core of most of what they believe and argue. 


UPDATE:  In comments, Gator90 ponders:  "How different might the world be if Dick Cheney had a Muslim daughter?" 

We can only speculate about that, but there is a similar, real-world example from which we can infer some answers:  Long-time, hard-core movement conservative Grover Norquist has a Kuwaiti-Muslim wife; was a vocal opponent of many of the Bush/Cheney "War on Terror" policies; and has been viciously accused by entities such as Front Page Magazine of pursuing a "wicked project to dress Islamists up as patriotic Republicans so they can infiltrate the government"; by New Republic Editor Frank Foer of having a "strange alliance with Radical Islam"; and by movement conservatives who once revered him as "being in bed with Islamists" and "acting as an 'agent of influence' for groups hostile to American interests."   How revealing that right-wing polemicists abandon their own side when the ideology personally affects them.


UPDATE II:  Here is what Liz Cheney -- who, like Jonah Goldberg, undoubtedly opposes affirmative action because it unfairly allows people to advance for reasons other than merit (such as family connections) -- thinks that Obama should be saying to the world (h/t A.L. via email):

We've now seen several different occasions when [Obama]'s been on the international trips, where he's not willing to say, flat out, 'I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally, unapologetically, America is the best nation that ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today.' Instead we've seen him do what we saw him do in the speech in Cairo, which is sort of, 'on one hand this, on the other hand that,' and then attempt to put himself sort of above it all. I think that troubles people.

Just ponder how psychologically disturbed -- how deeply self-absorbed -- is the need to announce to the world, let alone to believe:  We are not only better than all of you - we're better than everyone who has ever existed for all of human history!!"  Imagine if you heard someone saying that about themselves; wouldn't you conclude that there was something deeply wrong with that person?  And speaking of inflaming anti-American sentiment, do you think constantly announcing that to the world might do so a bit more than releasing some detainee photos?   But -- as is so often true -- Liz Cheney's statement is a perfect distillation of the core right-wing view of the world:  our group is better than every other -- not just that exists now but that ever existed -- and it's terribly unfair to us when our superiority is not recognized and affirmed.  That's just pathological.

Glenn Greenwald

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