Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Over at Left2Right Kwame Appiah wonders at the treatment supposed liberal condescension receives in conservative circles. There is almost certainly an asymmetry here: Rush Limbaugh regularly refers to liberals as "a bunch of brutes"; Neil Boortz, another very widely syndicated conservative talk show host, calls liberals "pack animals"; conservative pundits publicly accuse Democrats of treason. All of this is a more-or-less daily occurrence one can witness by tuning in to Limbaugh or Boortz while driving to work, or picking up the latest Coulter book at the local bookstore, and it passes without as much as raising an eyebrow on the left. By contrast, condescending speech far less inflammatory than this is remarked on quite often by conservative pundits and bloggers.

Why is this?

Appiah engages in a bit of amateur psychology, wondering if perhaps conservatives tend be less secure in their beliefs and thus more sensitive to perceived contempt by others.

I don't think this is it.

Rather, I think something quite different is in play here: many conservatives seem to define their identity primarily by contrast to liberals. Sneering at liberal condescension is not at all related to the facts of life, or the conviction with which conservatives hold their beliefs: it is a ritual to be engaged in for the sake of constituting identity ( much like public protests are a similar ritual for the far left).

There are some good reasons to think about the conservative fixation on liberal condescension in this way: it seems to be a trait of virtually all conservatives, from libertarian types to evangelicals to pro-business types; it seems to represent a deliberate effort to go out and find objectionable rhetoric from liberals speaking to liberal audiences, while going out of ones way to avoid mentioning similar rhetoric from conservatives speaking to conservative audiences. In short, it is something that is actively engaged in, rather than merely being a response to the rhetoric encountered on a daily basis.


At 9:07 PM, Blogger angela said...

there are liberals out there whose beliefs are fairly reactionary. im sure youve met liberals whose political motivation is making sure bush cant advance the agenda of the religious right or the war hawks, etc. american politics in general is reactionary.

i wouldnt dismiss the insecurity thesis right off the bat. i think conservatives do worry that the media and academics are more liberal than they are since those two institutions are quite effective at disseminating ideas (or sophistry, if you must) and they have authority in terms of research and whatnot. edmund burke, the father of modern conservatism, was always bemoaning the 'literary cabal,' the 'nay-saying men of letters' etc...

so maybe the "liberal condescension" is more a conservative perception than reality because liberal ideology is endorsed by many people and institutions with intellectual authority.


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