Wednesday, December 21, 2005
On the production of fresh wingnuts
In “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists,” which veteran readers of this blog will know is one of my very favorite essays, Stuart Hall tries to account for how Thatcherism achieved the kind of hegemony it enjoyed in the UK of the early 1980s. While he takes his distance from Louis Althusser’s structuralist-Marxist determinism (my own distance from Althusser can be gauged here), Hall nevertheless insists that it’s not the case that people simply change their minds like they change their clothes, and that therefore, if we are to understand how former liberals came to affiliate with the New Right, we have to understand the “discourses” and “subject positions” made available to them by the New Right:
Anyone who is genuinely interested in the production and mechanisms of ideology must be concerned with the question of the production of subjects and the unconscious categories that enable definite forms of subjectivity to arise. It is clear that the discourses of the New Right have been engaged precisely in this work of the production of new subject positions and the transformation of subjectivities. Of course, there might be an essential Thatcherite subject hiding or concealed in each of us, struggling to get out. But it seems more probable that Thatcherism has been able to constitute new subject positions from which its discourses about the world make sense.
Those last two sentences are vintage Hall, wittily brushing aside old-left notions of ideology as “false consciousness” and trad-con notions of “essential selves” in one deft motion. When I glossed this passage thirteen years ago in an essay for the Village Voice Literary Supplement, I wrote, “What Hall’s doing here, basically, is disputing the left’s ‘body snatchers’ theory of the rise of the New Right. Think back to the Saturday Night Live sketch in which former liberals, taken over by evil Reaganite pods, sit dazed in a semicircle, playing acoustic guitar and singing a version of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in which the refrain is ‘the answer, my friend, is Ronald Reagan.’ The SNL sketch brilliantly captures that uncanny, chilling late-70s sense of finding out that your closest friends are suddenly closet neoconservatives— but, as Hall points out time and again, massive ideological shifts can’t be explained so easily.”
Well, these days I’m not so sure.
I’ve been wondering about this for about four years now: how is it that when former liberals pledge allegiance to George Bush (because, you know, everything changed on 9/11), they not only jettison many of their former beliefs, but they take on every single last one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Wingnut Faith?
I can understand, to some teeny tiny extent, the way many of these former liberals reacted to the far left’s knee-jerk response to 9/11. I thought the far left’s knee-jerk response to 9/11 was a knee-jerk response myself, and though it was well informed about American imperialism, it didn’t do very much to explain (a) the rise of militant Islamism, the origins of which had very little to do with American anything, or (b) the fact that none of the more immediate victims of American imperialism (from, say, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, East Timor, Palestine, or the Cherokee Nation) were involved in the attacks of that day. But my differences with the far left on that score did not lead me to abandon the American left that fought for the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, the weekend, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Clean Air and Water Acts, unemployment insurance, reproductive rights, gay rights, and universal, single-payer health care. By contrast, when the Charles Johnsons, James Lilekses, Tammy Bruces, and Roger Simons of the blogosphere parted ways with liberalism, they not only pledged allegiance to Bush; they also adopted all manner of traditional wingnut obsessions that predate 9/11 by decades.
It’s really quite eerie when you think about it, and I don’t believe it can be explained simply by hatred of Muslims or fear of another attack. Because these people don’t just go on about the War on Terror and the firmness of Dear Leader; they also go on about Jane Fonda (!) and Dan Rather (!!) and the New York Times and the whole MSM and the United Nations (!!!) and Jimmy Carter and the Clenis® (!!!!!) and Teddy Kennedy and the French. It’s just bizarre. (Roger on the subject of the U.N. is especially unhinged.) It’s like, “Everything changed for me on September 11. I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m outraged by Chappaquiddick.” Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of them go off one day about our giveaway of the Panama Canal or the insidious plot to fluoridate our drinking water. It’s as if the moment they threw in their lot with Bush, they were e-mailed a Wingnut Software Package that allowed them to download every major wingnut meme propagated over the past thirty years.
So maybe Stuart Hall was wrong; maybe some people do harbor in their bosoms an essential wingnut subject hiding or concealed and struggling to get out. Perhaps, for some former liberals, their wholesale adoption of wingnuttery bespeaks the fervor of the convert, like unto the newly-minted Catholic or vegan who casts off his old beliefs with all the energy at his disposal, and whose zeal is a partial atonement (so he thinks) for his years in the wilderness. Or perhaps it’s part of the miracle of the Internets, where new discourses and new subject positions really do come bundled with software packages for downloading new wingnut identities. But in the interest of fostering a spirit of ecumenical inquiry and intellectual diversity, this humble and oft-perplexed blog will entertain alternate theories that try to account for the production of wingnuts.
Except for Intelligent Design. That’s right out.