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March 15, 2011

Rush Limbaugh: I Don't Get the Criticism of Palin; It Must Be a Shibboleth of the Educated Class

You know, I've lived my whole life not knowing the actual meaning of shibboleth. I could sort of understand it in context -- sort of -- as a blip-word, a word you sort of blip over. I knew it was used in the context of liberal shibboleths and conservative shibboleths but I just sort of read that as "bromides" or "dogma."

Rush explains what it means in this clip about Sarah Palin.

What a perfectly outstanding and interesting word. It turns out I've been writing about shibboleths for years -- my constant re-working of the same basic idea of people signifying to each other the tribe they belong to (or aspire to belong to) by adopting the manners, biases, and received wisdom of that tribe -- without ever realizing there was such a genius that-is-exactly-what-I-mean word for it.

How come you doofuses never alerted me that I was missing such an awesome word? I know a lot of you guys know the Bible -- why wasn't this brought to my attention immediately? Why you gonna hold out on your buddy Ace like that?

(Apologies if you tried and I missed the comment or email.)

That part aside -- Thanks, Rush! -- I disagree with Rush -- in part.

There is no question that something like a shibboleth may be at work here. Since it turns out I am a huge believer in the idea of shibboleths, I can't argue too much that that sort of thing doesn't happen.

But there's something that's going on a lot lately that I sort of hate.

One of the biggest sources of frustration in arguing with a liberal is that the liberal refuses to take your stated reasons for your beliefs as your real reasons for the belief. If you say "I don't support quota or racial-plus-factor-based affirmative action, because I think it's unfair to discriminate against white people, too, just as it's wrong to discriminate against anyone based on their race" they almost reflexively offer up the secret motivation they assign to you: "You don't like black people, that's what your problem is."

If you state you want to keep taxes low because the private sector flourishes under a low-tax regime, and it's the private sector that creates wealth while the government merely transfers it (and destroys part of it in the process), they of course ignore that stated rationale, and decide, in the twinkling of an eye: "You hate poor people. Also, you probably hate black people too. In fact, you probably hate poor people in the first place because you hate black people and many of them are poor."

It's a rude form of argument (in both senses of the word "rude") and is unproductive, because, of course, the moment this card is played, it's no longer a fair exchange in which people's actual arguments are offered, criticized, and responded to, but instead essentially a series of insults disguised, very superficially, as an argument.

I mean, when someone takes a perfectly reasonable and respectable argument in favor of capitalism and immediately turns that into the straw-man insult You're a racist, what is the sense of arguing any further? Once one party decides it's fair to simply make up secret motivations and put them into your mouth (or head, really), and then argue against not what you are saying but the convenient bugaboo strawman they've created, how do you respond?

Well, you say I'm not a racist, maybe, and then you throw in a You're the real racist for good measure, but that's pretty much as far as that particular argument is going to go. The well is now poisoned; no real argument remains to be had. The argument (in the sense of "reasoned exchange of ideas") now turns into an argument (in the sense of "bitter quarrel") and then one or both parties walks away.

I do this myself a lot. Hell, everyone does. It doesn't work out well, at least not if you're attempting to persuade a would-be ally. It's really a technique to be used only against those you've decided are unreachable opponents, because once that card is played, that's it as far as a genuine exchange of points of view.

Obviously I do this a lot with liberals (my whole argument about shibboleths is this type of argument, which doesn't make it untrue; it does, however, make it very, very unlikely to be greeted by liberals with an open mind). I often, far-too-frequently slip up and begin doing it with conservative would-be allies, too, which is when people start advising me to 1) walk away from the thread and 2) stop being such a complete asshole.

Like I said, it's a dangerous form of argument. It's perceived as dismissive and condescending for the simple reason it is dismissive and condescending -- all offered arguments are immediately dismissed as lies (in favor of the unspeakable truth of racism or other bias) and of course claiming to know what is really in someone's head or heart -- and to know this far better than the actual person you're arguing with -- is the height of condescension.



I know in personal life, when a woman says Why don't you tell me more about what I think!?!?, well, that means the argument has taken a bad turn and we're probably not really discussing the subject that began the argument any longer. Now begins the always-enjoyable part of the evening called Recriminations.

My problem, then, is that many of Palin's supporters seem to dismiss, as so inconceivable as to not be creditable, the possibility that someone might not prefer Palin as a candidate based upon the reasons for this disfavor actually offered.

Just as a liberal cannot, seemingly, conceive of any argument in favor of limited government and federalism as motivated by anything other than racism, many (not all) of Palin's supporters are very, very quick to dismiss any stated argument against her, instead postulating that all reservations about Palin are motivated by:

1) anti-woman animus

2) a desire to prop up the Old Boy's Club

3) tribal concerns about the current power structure (the "elite," the "establishment") being displaced in favor of a new power structure in which the "outsiders" and "ordinary people" are on top; as Palin is purported to be the vanguard of this new ruling class, it is postulated that the Old Guard has a strong, self-interested reason to stop her at all costs. (By the way-- do most people consider themselves "ordinary"? I always wince at this formulation. Apart from a few people who are a little sub-ordinary and aspire to actually rise to the level of "ordinary," I tend to think that most people do not consider themselves ordinary. Or maybe ordinary in several ways, but not-quite-ordinary in important ways.)

4) a need to fit in with the liberal media elite and the so-called conservative intellectual elite which shares many of the shibboleths of the liberal media elite

Again, as I said, I can't wholly dismiss any of those as possible subconscious reasons that I'm not in favor of Candidate Palin. Given that we're talking about the subconscious -- who knows? Maybe I am, subconsciously, anti-woman. Maybe I am, subconsciously, so invested in a credentialed conservative intellectual elite to tamp down on not-quite-our-class-dear populist arrivistes.

Still, what I do know is that I never offer these reasons as the reasons for my tepid-to-antagonistic response to Palin. But these reasons are often offered back to me as the real reasons I oppose Palin.

My actual reasons are often addressed by Palin supporters (many of them are fair and perfectly willing to engage in dispassionate fair argumentation) but a minority of her supporters tends to make up their own strawmen and argue only against those. And even though they're a minority, one tends to remember the insults; that is, they tend to dominate one's memories, out of proportion to their actual incidence.

I tend not to remember the arguments I've had with fair-minded supporters because there's no emotional charge to them; they were just fair, pleasant arguments as are often had about drug legalization or gun rights.

But I do remember all the RINO, Old Boys Club, liberal-dinner-party-circuit you-just-hate-girls stuff.

It's just unproductive, really. Even if you know that someone does harbor secret or subconscious motivations for his beliefs, it's rarely actually persuasive or helpful to point them out. (Assuming your goal is persuasion.) Like I said, I do this all the time with liberals, and will keep doing so -- but that's because I've written them off as far as persuasion.

There are offered reasons to not be on Team Palin. Some of them are mentioned in that Politico argument. These are, I feel (as I share the belief in many of them), fair, reasonable, legitimate, and respectable arguments.

When George Will says that Palin is placing far too much emphasis on a "creedal" appeal, well, I think that's a fair criticism. I've made that argument myself, that a successful politics must be evangelistic and convert-hungry like Christianity, instead of rooted in born-to cultural belonging-by-birth mode like Judaism. (I realize I am pigeonholing Judaism and not acknowledging there is a conversion/evangelical component to it-- but for purposes of this analogy, please allow me my simplification.) An evangelistic faith which requires only that converts believe in a series of plausible claims can gain many converts, whereas a faith based largely in born-to culture will tend to have a sharply, sharply limited upper bound of possible growth. And to many (myself included), Palin seems to frequently be attempting a politics based upon the latter mode -- self-identification in particular born-to cultural traditions.

Where do the converts come from, then, if large chunks of the populace seem to be excluded, by birth or self-identification, from the club? If Palin makes an explicit pitch, for example, about "ordinary Americans," what about all those Americans who don't consider themselves ordinary at all?

Why limit the club like that? I'm not even talking about "fairness." I'm just talking pure political math. A candidate whose message can be accepted by the larger portion of a population will tend to be more successful than a candidate whose message, being more narrow-cast, can only be accepted by a smaller portion of it.

I don't see why George Will's statement on this point is dismissed as "not what's really going on." And then the search begins for plausible secret motivations, because of course his stated reason couldn't be the real one.

Why? Why not take him at his word?

As a conservative, I hate with the heat of the desert sun my reasons for believing x, y, and z being dismissed as being secretly based on prejudice and hatred. Why would I be any more receptive to such a mode of argumentation when it comes from other conservatives instead of liberals?

At any rate, I think that's a genuine and legitimate question about Palin's appeal and its ability to appeal to anything more than a minority of the country. I think that that can and should be corrected by Palin, if she actually has any desire to stand in an election in which she needs to receive at least 50% of the vote.

I don't think it's unfair to say so. Rather, I think it's necessary to say so.

Limbaugh keeps saying he "doesn't get" the animus against Palin. But it's not for lack of Palin-critics and Palin-skeptics attempting to explain the reasons for their reservation. We keep trying to explain the why behind it, but too frequently these offered reasons are dismissed as false in favor of imputed secret reasons.

If you're going to keep dismissing someone's stated reasons for believing in something, of course you'll wind up "not getting" the reasons for that belief. "Getting it" requires, as a first step, taking the offered reasons as genuine and true and examining them to see if there's anything to them. But to keep dismissing them as false... well, in that way the Great Mystery of Palin Non-Enthusiasm remains a Great Mystery.

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posted by Ace at 02:52 PM

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