Bully For Them (part 2)
As I write, Ukraine is resisting an armed invasion by Russia. Today, Ukraine is the underdog standing up to bullying by a larger, more dangerous country: the little kid getting pushed around by the big kid on the playground.
Those of us who are cheering for Ukraine are members of the ABP (the Anti-Bully Party), and those who are cheering for Putin are members of the BP (Bully Party). That’s how it seems to me. So I am surprised that some Americans are so surprised that their own countrymen who are fans of Donald Trump, are also fans of Vladimir Putin and cheering for the invasion.
Bullying is a universal language, the Esperanto of politics. Donald Trump was, and is, the Bully Party candidate.
We all really need to just wrap our heads around this and sit with it for a bit: some people genuinely like dictators. Some people admire bullies. Some people do not cheer for the underdog — they despise the underdog for being smaller and weaker. They cheer when the bully curb-stomps the underdog. They would root for Goliath and hold his coat while he drop-kicks David.
Do, please, sit with that a few moments. Because, as I said in Part 1, it’s what all politics is fundamentally about. Politics basically comes down to the Bullying-is-Good Party and the Bullying-is-Bad Party and we shouldn’t be surprised when bully-groupies are found in our own countries.
The Germans invented Nazism, and the Bolsheviks invented Stalinism, and the Chinese invented the Red Guard, and European Catholics invented the Inquisition… but they didn’t invent bullying, or Othering, or paranoid ideation or vindictiveness or the appetite for power. Those are human-nature things, and they crop up inexorably, repeatedly, in a certain percent of the population.
So when you see the American Ultras at CPAC and AFPAC cheering for Putin, cheering for white nationalists, calling centrist Trudeau a “Marxist dictator,” it’s not some deviation from normality. It is normality. It’s something about the world that we just have to deal with. There are pro-Bullyists everywhere, and they need to be actively opposed if you prefer living in a democracy. Don’t waste any time on being shocked. It’s like being paralysed with shock that there’s a Himalayan blackberry sprouting up in your garden; what you really need to do is start digging.
Whether they call themselves Fascists or Nazis or Proud Boys or Stalinists or Patriots or MAGAs or whatever the jargon du jour may be… they’re fanbois of armed force, and underminers of representative democracy. They believe that authority comes from the fist and the gun, not from the consent of the governed and the ballot box. They believe that we’re entitled in this world to whatever we can steal at gunpoint — like Putin’s trying to steal Ukraine, right now, as I worry and write and worry.
That is why we humans need to socialise ourselves, from childhood on, to understand that bullyism is a dangerous trait and not good for us. We need to teach kids to use their words, not their fists. We need to teach kids to share, not to grab. We need to limit power and ensure oversight and transparency. We need to defend the rule of law rather than the rule of privilege.
We need to uncool bullying from a very early age and throughout our educational and political system: to promote tolerance, patience, and self-confidence as an antidote to fear, insecurity, greed and vindictive panic.
Human nature’s like a garden: it’s just as ready to grow toxic and invasive weeds as lovely fruit and flowers. As gardeners, societies and governments and individuals may not be able to command, but we can encourage or discourage, reward or deter. We can cultivate our better natures.
The Bully Party is international. It’s actually an International, like the old Communist International. Seems ironic that a movement so fixated on national borders, nativism, and anti-globalism is itself global in scope and internationally networked — but there it is: principles are fluid when all you want is results.
For an introduction to this topic, I recommend “How Russia Became a Leader of the Worldwide Christian Right.”
“In the same sense that Russia’s [anti-LGBT] laws came about in 2013, we’ve seen similar sorts of laws proposed in Tennessee, for example,” Cole Parke, an LGBT researcher with Political Research Associates, told me. “It’s difficult to say in a chicken-and-egg sort of way who’s inspiring whom, but there’s definitely a correlation between the two movements.”
Once upon a time, there was a Communist International, and Moscow Centre was its hub. Today there is an Ultra-Right Revanchist International, and … Moscow Centre is its hub.
Same hardliners, different ideology. The commonality is the cult of personality, the fetishisation of power and authority, the sense of messianic mission, the conviction that their way is the only way, the punitive cruelty… and the readiness to use violence and skip the hard boring work of democratic process to get to the notional Promised Land.
When you look at Stalinism as a “new religion” (aka a cult) then it makes a little more sense. When you look at Trumpism/QAnon as a cult, it makes a little more sense.
I mean, of course it doesn’t make sense, because cultism is one of the weirder things that humans do and makes no sense (as in rationality or critical thinking) at all. But when you look at these things through that lens, at least you can situate them in an existing taxonomy, a known pattern of human behaviour — and they seem less mystifying, less shocking or inexplicable. QAnon, antivaxxism: just Jimmy Jones writ large. Stalinism: just a big-screen version of NXiVM, complete with the sadism and misogyny.
When politics turns cultish it’s always bad news. Putin has been working for years on building his personality cult — beefcake photos, cloying children’s books about the Great Leader, etc. Trump was manufactured into one, rather like a mediocre boy-band that the studio puts together — but mediocre boy bands still attract groupies and sell records.
Whether Putin learned about internet propaganda from the success of QAnon, or QAnon learned its tricks from Putin, or Putin outright owns QAnon… doesn’t really matter. The relevant fact is that cultic techniques of disinformation, mythopoeia and recruitment are now routinely being used by rightwing activist/organisers, worldwide. And they are working.
Cult members are notoriously hard to deal with, because of their deep emotional loyalty to the Leader and their gobsmacking near-imperviousness to conflicting information (aka “reality”). This “disconfirmation immunity” (aka “blind faith”) renders conventional civil politics impossible — because conventional civil politics consists of asserting and defending fact-based positions on a shared playing-field of discourse, trying to change each other’s minds, and forging compromises.
Where we are instead — over every issue in sight, from vaccines to climate science to voting rights to the outcome of elections to the rights of gay and trans and pregnant people — is locked in an existential struggle between opposing philosophies.
One philosophy holds that policy should be based on facts, facts should be established by data collection, empirical method, and peer review, and researchers should not be suppressed or coerced into providing pre-fabricated results (i.e. scientists and analysts should not be bullied). Citizens, including politicians, can then argue about the significance of those fairly solid facts. This philosophy also holds that new facts need to be digested and used to update and adapt existing positions, so that policy keeps up with reality.
The other philosophy holds that policy should be based on the authority of established, unchanging religious texts (which could be Islamic, Christian, Marxist or whatever) and enforced by harsh punishment. That is, truth is what the dominant ethnic or religious group says it is, and anyone who disagrees will be bullied into submission. Furthermore, truth does not change in response to reality. New facts are strenuously resisted if they threaten old paradigms: authority is more important than research, and research is subordinated to authority. (See Lysenkoism, also, the banning of up-to-date climate data by Louisiana policy makers in 2012; history is just rotten with examples of repression of inconvenient facts, these are just two cases that spring to mind.)
One philosophy holds that the law should bind and protect all citizens equally. The other, to paraphrase Frank Wilhoit’s now-classic words, holds that some people should be protected but not bound by the law, while others should be bound but not protected. In other words, one group of people has license to bully the other.
One philosophy holds that the reduction of suffering is the overarching principle and raison-d’etre of social organisation. The other holds that the fundamental purpose of social organisation is to make a handful of people rich and powerful so they can bully everyone else and somehow “lead humanity” to a conveniently-defined glory (such as establishing the Kingdom of God, world conquest, or colonising space, or whatever millenarian vision is in vogue at the moment).
One philosophy holds that stark, extreme inequity is bad because it leads to bullying, and helplessness in the face of bullying. That workers should have legally guaranteed rights, so that their bosses can’t exploit and abuse them despite the localised power that a boss has over a worker. That members of visible minority groups should have protection against bigotry, hatred, harassment and violence from the majority. That the weak, the ill, the disabled, the young, the very old, animals — all life that is ill-qualified to fight tooth and nail against bullies to hold its own — should be protected by tradition and by statute.
The other philosophy holds that might makes right, that losers deserve to lose and this is proven because they are losers, QED. That no person should have to pay one red cent to protect another person. That no one should be obliged to share anything, ever. That the earth belongs to those strong enough to bully their way to the top, and that’s how it should be.
Obviously there’s a continuum between these positions; some people are bullyist on one issue, but less bullyist on another. But these for me are the essential poles of political discourse. There is only, as Wilhoit points out, one fundamental conservatism, and there is its converse. Everything else is noise.
White male supremacists. Gun nuts. Queer-bashers. Trans-bashers. Eugenicists. Immigrant-bashers. Racists. Other-country-bashers. Politicians who vote for a 700+ trillion dollar military budget (so America can bully the world) but not for school lunches. Machine politicians who make clever attempts to suppress the vote in a “democratic” country. Religious zealots who want to criminalise whatever their cult’s Holy Book says is sinful. Anti-taxers. Anti-public-anything activists. “Meritocrats,” and those who think high unemployment is a good indicator. Privatisers. Aristocrats. Ayn Rand fans.
All of them, fundamentally, want to divide the world into the winners and the losers, the punishers and the punished — with themselves, of course, as the tops. They want people not like them to suffer, to be punished for not being like them. They want the power to bully people not like them.
They want more people to be miserable. They are the Bully Party, and they cheer for bully candidates, they vote for bully candidates, they celebrate the passing of bully laws. Let’s call them what they are.
And whether they are “right” or “left”, secular or religious, whatever the pretext they seize to split humanity into castes of Stompers and Stomped… let’s oppose them, in every language, on every front. Let’s wade in to help the underdog, every time. If there is any core meaning to “progressive” politics, surely this is it.
This is the point that Elon Musk so extravagantly misses in his recent tone-deaf tweet.
In the background is a jumble of coloured flags — rainbows, what might be a feminist symbol, who knows what. What he appears to be saying is that empathetic activism (“progressivism”) is just a series of directionless fads, as trivial as any other social fashion; that progressives and “SJW’s” are just a bunch of unfocussed political ADHD sufferers who can’t decide what they’re really for or against. Where’s their cohesion? Where’s the real message? They’re taking up some new cause every year or two! Do they even know what they want?
All right, there’s a little grain of truth lurking in there. Humans are very susceptible to fads and stampedes, and Good Causes do go in and out of fashion over time. We’re tribal, and often Good Causes provide the insignia by which we recognise our tribe. But he’s missing the larger truth about his jumble of coloured banners: there is a tribe, or a party, that spans and embraces all of them.
Each of the flags that well-meaning people have flown over the decades in mass marches for justice, peace, the environment, etc., has been the flag of an underdog that was facing a bully. Whether it was defending women against the millennia-long violent bullying of men, or outgunned Palestinians against a US-armed and expansion-minded Israel, or gay people against homophobic institutions and street violence, or Black lives against police violence, or Iraq against US invasion and aerial bombardment, or indigenous peoples against murder and terrorism by resource extraction companies, or American Black churches and Jewish temples against white supremacist terrorism, or animals against the often-sadistic power of humans… all those apparently chaotic flags and T-shirts meant one fundamental thing: the Anti-Bully Party was in the streets. People’s sympathy and outrage had been triggered by witnessing the big kid picking on the little kid.
Which brings me back to Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is the underdog, and as a paid-up member of the ABP I am delighted to see international support — including volunteers, arms and materiel — for their heroic defence of their country. If Ukraine one day invades a neighbour of lesser might, then I’ll be cheering for the neighbour and booing for Ukraine. When white Ukrainians showed prejudice against brown people and gave preference to white people as their refugees flowed across borders, I booed for Ukraine and cheered for the brown people.
Because it’s not about them being Ukrainian. What “side” I’m on is not about who or what you are (or who you were yesterday). I care about how you are situated and behaving in the here and now. If people are bullies, if they are knowingly increasing misery rather than alleviating or obviating it — then they are in the wrong, and they need to be stopped.
[edited March 19th to add the Elon Musk tweet and a few additional thoughts]