Preliminary notes towards a theory of something-or-other.

Were an alien documentary crew to broadcast shows from Earth you could bet their much-antennaed Attenborough equivalent would solemnly intone that “the human is a herd creature“. Whatever system we devise we can’t seem to be rid of the leader-follower dynamic; of uneasy hierarchies. This is just as true of democracies as despotisms and in this prefatory ramble I’ll poke at two examples.

Demagogues

Since the Democrats took office worry-lined talking heads have been musing on a supposed resurgence of populism. They aren’t all that accurate – much of the U.S. right appears to dislike one elite inside their heads, not elitism in general – but it’s true that their pied pipers in the media adopt the style, if not all the ideals, of the old demagogues. They – the good, the many – are being dispossessed by a malign and deviant elite and must unite in staunch defence of their common ideals.

This, as I’ve discussed, is not inherently absurd but the techniques they use – whether by accident or design – ensure that their supporter’s ire is woefully misdirected. Fierce, near-puritanical quote-mining and guilt-by-association – wherein the most baneful of interpretations is accepted as self-evident – drapes lurid narratives about the most flimsy of scaffolding. Values they neither hold nor really understand are endorsed as absolute. In other words, they lead their followers down paths they’ve either yet to tread or are quite aware run over a cliffside.

Moderators

The Moderator is bred from the same unholy union of fallacies as the demagogue. They are the police of discourse; the enforcers of decrees; the watchmen around the borders of the reservation. Whereas demagogues attempt to block the path of progress, the Moderators hurl supposed deadweight from its bandwagon. Thus, they gain their cutesy title through exclusionism and an ostentatiously temperate, levelheaded view.

Moderators share a common crudline with the demagogues. Both lay claim to a tradition that has been or is being subverted: for the latter it’s often a faith-based republic, while the former might try to embody secular ideals – science, rationalism – argumentative norms or just basic sanity. They attempt to inspire their supporters against common foes: for demagogues it’s typically harsh and dissolute elites while moderators rail against proponents of “extreme“, “irrational” ideas. Both appeal to crude emotions: the Demagogue to fear and one’s sense of being persecuted and the Moderator to one’s vanity. Both, of course, are intricately wrapped up with the self.

Exclusionism – to put it weakly – crosses boundaries, infesting bitchy groupuscules and entire cultures. Moderators might police a singular movement, either to shore up its respectability or exclude ideas that they feel would be malignant. David Frum’s attempt to purge the Right of anti-war conservatives – staunchly in the vein of his forebears like William Buckley – is a fine example of the latter, and it’s interesting that he’s now adopted a supposedly “anti-extremist” stance, claiming to defend moderate conservatism through attacking anti-militarist strands. Mainstream liberals who tut-tutted at “shrill” critics of George Bush exhibited the same desire to mainstain boundaries of discourse within which they felt secure.

Attempts to fence off borders of respectable opinion can hamstring a budding culture. The exclusion of “conspiracy theories” is a fine example, or the outrage people can receive for spurning partisanship. Dominant elites or ideologies can render threats to themselves ludicrous rather than alarming: like advising a would-be assassain that he shouldn’t wield that club because it’s made of foam.

Just as demagogues exploit the real and prescient danger of elites and plutocrats, moderators obscure genuine concerns around, say, bigotry or misinformation. Naturally some ideas and sentiments should be opposed but it’s all in the style and method; the Gol’ darn’ attitude. Moderators can be just as strict and humourless as demagogues, using tenuous connections or dubious quotes as clinching proof that their opponent is irrational, extreme or downright nuts. They demand that one meets standards that bear no relation to logic or facts; subjective criteria, rooted in aesthetics or self-interest. This can be to maintain a decrepit status quo – like prohibiting all talk of roofs from a house that’s threatening to cave in – or to shield the premises on which “progress” is being made – like a father ordering his kids to pipe down as they question why, en route to Dover, they’ve just barrelled through Glencoe. One recent example might be Jon Stewart’s unfortunate decree that calling George Bush a war criminal is-off limits. Sure, he is but noting that would contradict some bogus notion of civility and thus is rendered verboten. The best way to avoid this tendency, it seems, is to maintain one’s individual scepticism in collective situations, to interrogate one’s own ideas for bases that provide false comfort and to have a sense of humour about pretty much everything.

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