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January 06, 2011

Seth MacFarlane, The Tea Party, & Social Equality

Back in the nineties, Mickey Kaus' great big idea was championing social equality, and suggesting to liberals they reduce their focus on pure money equality.

In The End of Equality, he argues persuasively that the most serious threat to American democracy today comes not so much from the maldistribution of wealth as from the decay or abandonment of public institutions in which citizens can meet as equals. Equality of income, he says, is less important than the goal of social or civil equality.

He points out that foreign observers used to marvel at the lack of snobbery, deference, and class feeling in America. There was "nothing oppressed or submissive" about the American worker, German economist Werner Sombart wrote in 1906. "He carries his head high, walks with a lissom stride, and is as open and cheerful in his expression as any member of the middle class." A few years later, the British historian R.H. Tawney noted that America was "marked indeed by much economic inequality; but it is also marked by much social equality." It is this culture of self-respect, Kaus suggests, that we are in danger of losing.

The trouble with our society is not just that the rich have too much money, in Kaus's view, but that their money insulates them, much more than it used to, from the common life. It is the "routine acceptance of 'professionals' as a class apart" and the "smug content" of the affluent and educated for the "demographically inferior" that poses the greatest threat to civic life, according to Kaus.

His idea never caught on, I think because what he is really discussing is sort of a moral or ethical thing, and only marginally a political one. When we speak of politics, we are usually talking about legislative outcomes, coalitions for and against legal forbiddances and encouragements through subsidies, and he strains to suggest methods of adding the "legal compulsion" element to his idea (hey, let's reinstitute the national draft because it encourages social mixing and a shared egalitarian experience), but mostly what he's talking about is only quasipolitical. He's talking, largely, about just treating people with dignity.

But maybe there's a bigger reason Kaus' book didn't generate much of a movement, apart from some respectful reveiws: Are liberals really interested in that? I'm not suggesting just that social equality is a lower priority for them than Kaus would urge. I'm suggesting that to many liberals, the whole idea of social equality is a bad thing, something they're actively against. Because, I submit, it's particularly critical to many liberals, to their sense of self-valuation, that they are in fact apart from, and above, the Common.

I was reminded of this watching an old Penn Gilette clip on YouTube, discussing a nasty, smug put-down of the Tea Party by Seth MacFarlane. MacFarlane's argument is, of course, that the Tea Party is racist. And how does he know that? Because they agitate against what he claims is their own economic self-interest (poor, uneducated, and easy to command, as the Washington Post once wrote about conservatives), and since they're clearly in need of a government hand-out but vigorously opposed to that handout, what else could possibly explain their truculence but racism?

But that's just same-old same-old. Penn addresses this but that's not his main concern. His main beef is with MacFarlane's next statement, something along the lines of And I should want the Tea Party to succeed, because what they want -- lower taxes, smaller government -- is actually in my best economic interest!

Which causes Penn to explode. "WHAT?" You're capable of rising above your own perceived economic self-interest, and choosing an outcome you feel is better for the nation as a whole while being less good for you yourself, but you will not even entertain the possibility that Tea Partiers are similarly capable?

Skip to 6:23 for Penn's discussion on this.

I mentioned social equality because it's pretty plain that Seth MacFarlane is on the "con" side of social equality. He's willing to talk a good game about giving up some of his money for the public good (although why he can't do that in the absence of a law requiring him to do so continues to elude me) but one thing he's definitely not giving up to his social inferiors is respect. He categorizes them as children, or what the state used to call "morons" -- mentally challenged -- or even as animals; incapable of abstract thought, incapable of even knowing their own true motivations (they're "puppets" of their masters), incapable of even recognizing where their own self-interest lay.

Incapable of thinking, incapable of decisionmaking, incapable of truly participating in the American civic religion of democracy, of choosing political outcomes.

This is important to Seth MacFarlane and, I'd suggest, of many of the nastier, more sneering sort of liberals. Money is less important to a Seth MacFarlane, as he has so damn much of it -- I think once someone gets past $50 million or so additional dollars have a relatively small marginal value. There's only so much someone can spend, after all.

So he's willing to give up some of those extra dollars of marginal benefit to himself.

But when it comes to something he treasures -- the "smug content" of being "a class apart" as Kaus wrote -- that he clings to greedily.

That is what is precious to him; and he will not part with it. You will take his sneering superiority from his cold, dead hands.

If our tax code were capable of quantifying smug self-satisfaction and extracting that from our citizens, you'd find Seth MacFarlane suddenly on the side of small, limited government.

I've long, long contended that much of the social codes and habits of liberals is for the exact purpose of creating a new aristocracy, with aristocratic entitlement and aristocratic privilege and, yes, aristocratic noblesse oblige to help the common and less fortunate; while talking up equality, many liberals do as much as they can to establish and maintain very clear lines of demarcation between the common class and the Overclass.

That's what's important to them, that's what is highest in their hearts, so folks like Seth MacFarlane shouldn't pose as benevolent and magnanimous while actually selfishly hoarding the thing most precious to them, and denying to the "common" class what they actually want the most -- to be treated with dignity and as capable human beings fully gifted to think and choose for themselves.

Until the MacFarlanes of the world start giving that coin up -- the coin of dignity and equal treatment -- I reject their posturing as generous.

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posted by Ace at 01:33 PM

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