Thursday, November 20, 2014

Stuart Smalley Political Economy

Those of you old enough to remember Al Franken before he morphed into a Skeksis and took his rightful place in the US Senate may recall his SNL character Stuart Smalley, whose flaccid mantra was "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." It was a funny enough pastiche at the time, woven from the unbearable sadness of broken, low-status people shambling their way through the aftermath of trauma (Franken says that the character emerged from his experiences in Al-Anon meetings).

The humor, and I feel a little foolish for having to point this out, arose from the unmanly, servile, wimpish nature of the character. Smalley was constantly trying to rebuild his self-esteem, and that's silly because self-esteem is silly.

Well, it was anyway. Wunca-ponna time. I know this will sound like intergenerational bellyaching, but I'd like you to consider the content of the material Patrick at Popehat has lately taken to lambasting.

See the thing in all its glory.

Young Mr. Zach Traynor flirts with his totalitarian instincts on the dance floor of self-esteem. To him (and judging from an admittedly non-representative sample of people his age, many of his peers), the threat of physical violence is a distant memory of a Whiggish past, gone but not forgotten, rearing occasionally in the periodic school shootings that have become a numbing part of the relentless news cycle. No more swirlies, no more noogies, no more fistfights by the bleachers. We used to knock the books out of your hands. Now we tweet mean things about you. Isn't that still bullying? If you troll me, do I not bleed?

The Straussian reading of Traynor is this: the American public has chosen to move up Maslow's pyramid. Violent crime is way down, particularly from the excesses of the last quarter of last century. Social media has drastically reduced the search costs of ad hoc communities, so that previously outre interests now have gigantic annual conventions in major cities. Honestly, if you would have told me while Franken was still on the air in a pastel sweater that American men would be congregate once a year dressed up as My Little Pony characters, I would have gone all British and accused you of taking the piss. The only frontiers left for bullies to ply their craft is in the rarefied vapor of self-esteem and self-actualization.

And yes, it still sucks. Getting stuffed in a locker sucks too, but assault is a crime. Making speech a crime has horrific consequences that should be obvious to anyone over the age of five.

Still though, making speech a crime is a choice that the public could make. It's possible that given enough time, public opinion could drift far enough into Traynoresque tyranny that we could see a repeal of the First Amendment. He's a Dartmouth student, he and his peers will inherit the keys to the Constitution soon enough. I'd be curious to see if he and his ilk end up successful whether or not the next round of censorious intent will be leveled at the next layer of Maslow, if folks who dare impede personal perfection through criticism or other barrier-erecting will end up tasting hobnails.

Speech is not euvoluntary. Well, at least the speech that most desperately needs protecting. Tender feelings are hurt when people make harshly critical remarks. There's little mutual felicity exchanged when Serrano submerges a plastic Christ in his own urine. But I encourage you, dear reader, to recall that when you petition the state to intervene, you are affirming that in the limit, you are willing to kill to enforce the statute law you wish to enact. Do not forget that in a confrontation with agents chartered to enforce statue legislation, sufficient resistance ends one way: with the perpetrator shot dead.

Mr. Traynor, are you willing to kill American citizens to preserve the self-esteem of others?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?