Dr. Dawg

A note on conservative human relations

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Some time ago, I lost my life partner to cancer. Two prominent right-wing bloggers, with whom I had crossed swords many a time, expressed what I believed were sincere commiserations, a genuine reaching across the aisle.

It was much appreciated: I was touched, in fact. One likes to believe that, underneath the hurly-burly of political struggles and the raucous cries they elicit from all sides, there is a well of common humanity from which we all imbibe—at least from time to time. The Christmas Truce during World War I is a well-known example.

But, as in that poignant case, matters did not end there. The blog-battles resumed with the usual fury. For me, that was entirely natural: politics do persist, and with them, division. It shouldn’t get personal, although it all-too-frequently does. Perhaps I have been no angel in that respect myself. But I do like to drill down to the underlying ideological issues and the values that underlie them, and engage in good faith with those of different opinions.

One of my best friends is on the right-hand side of the spectrum, but for us, the issues we debate “robustly,” to use his term, are fodder for engagement and inquiry: we might stray into the personal on occasion, but only after a good dinner and a couple of bottles of wine, and we have no clear memories of those lapses afterwards.

What surprised and disappointed me, however, was that the two bloggers I mentioned, during what could admittedly be considered acrimonious debate on whatever, felt it necessary to revisit their commiserations in consequence, and retroactively withdraw them. It had never occurred to me that some kind of obligation was implied, a return, as it were, for what I had imagined were genuine, spontaneous expressions of sympathy. I like to believe that, had our situations been reversed, my own sympathy would not have been predicated upon the expectation that their politics, and the intense forms those politics took, would be altered in any fundamental way.

This all came back to me after the news that President #45 had made flippant and uncaring remarks about the late Congressman John Dingell and his surviving spouse at one of those triumphalist rallies he loves to host. He was evidently stung by the fact that Dingell’s widow, Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her husband in his Congressional seat in 2014, had been among those who voted for his impeachment.

Hadn’t he given her “A+ treatment” when he died? he asked. Hadn’t he called her with his commiserations, and hadn’t she responded with gratitude? Didn’t he allow the late Congressman to lie in state in the Rotunda? (No, in fact, he didn’t. The man lives in his own alternate universe.) And this is the thanks he gets! “Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty,” he began, and then suggested her husband was in Hell. This was a few days before the first Christmas she would be spending without him in nearly forty years of marriage.

One can hardly be surprised by his crassness: it’s in his very DNA, and his rock-solid base loves him for it. Decency is for betas and soy drinkers, after all. But the specific issue I’m addressing here is the notion that human feelings of sympathy for some are a form of negotiation: the opening position of one side where some kind of a deal is eventually to be struck.

Certainly, emotion is social, and it’s also transactional: it calls for a response. But there is something disquieting in the suggestion that the expression of sympathetic emotion is a mere bargaining ploy, or that it requires a specific form of reciprocation.

Yet, for conservatives, this is what we seem to be left with: a kind of reductive functionalism in which human feelings such as love, compassion, empathy and sympathy are effectively just goods to be traded for advantage.

The limit case here is, of course, the sociopath, although they do not feel emotion the way others do, but fake it. For many on the conservative end of the spectrum, however, while the feelings may indeed be genuine, they are almost immediately transformed into commodities: the expectation is that these must be paid for.

That emotion as commodity is an integral part of the late capitalist economy is hardly news. But the ease with which capitalism can refashion even deeply personal interactions into profit-or-loss calculations is dispiriting for anyone with an optimistic view of human progress. To what degree can an “authentic” social self be rediscovered in this sticky web of bourgeois relations?

And with that, let me wish everyone, without expectation of reward, a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or any other seasonal holiday that applies, and a fulfilling 2020.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on December 19, 2019 3:30 PM.

TPL heebie-jeebies and the Fa'a Samoa was the previous entry in this blog.

Genesis 2020 is the next entry in this blog.

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