Intro: What? Why?
Do you like, know Ted Rall or something?
Nah. The first writing I ever did for any kind of audience was for a punk zine called Maximum Rocknroll. Rall contributed there at the same time, though he was already working for more prestigious outlets. There were a lot of battles over political correctness back at MRR too. One guy got fired for saying Asian girls had “the Cadillac of vaginas.” Punk was ahead of the curve on a lot of things, but what we dealt with back then was like the Vespa of political correctness, whereas now we’re dealing with the Stone Temple Pilots tour bus of political correctness. Anyway, it’s like Rall and I went to the same high school and I think we nodded at each other in the hallway a couple times. Seemed like a cool dude. Doubt he remembers me. But, having been introduced to his work in the late 90s, I’ve kept an eye on it ever since.
Was he a jock or a nerd?
Well, the main thing I remember from those days was he decided to go to a “stan” country and wound up, I think, in Afghanistan. Though I opposed bombing people and stuff like that, I was still enough of a self absorbed, middle class college kid that his desire to take a trip like that left an impression on me. I imagined 38 hour bus rides in 110 degree weather and toilets worse than the one in the dorm. I couldn’t believe that someone would be curious enough about some far away people to endure that.
His work is consistently driven by a concern for regular people around the world. He doesn’t like Wall Street to dictate economic policy, even to Democratic politicians. He seems to oppose blowing up civilians in other countries regardless of who is president. Not big on sweatshops or mass incarceration. In general, he’s seeing the world turn into a Dead Kennedys song, where fascism is masked by consumerist distraction and he doesn’t like it. At least, that’s how I feel and his work seems to give voice to that feeling. I’m sure he’s said some stuff I’d dislike over that time, but he seems like my type of guy.
Maybe one day, he’ll let you sniff his underwear.
I’m not saying Ted Rall should be put on a postage stamp. For all I know, the guy has a tool shed full of kiddie porn. I like his work, but he’s not a hero of mine or something. I just know that he has invested vast amounts of time and energy advocating the well being of people of all kinds. For example, he went back to Afghanistan during wartime to provide an alternative account of what was happening there and wrote a book about it. It sounds like a dangerous, difficult experience that I would never seek out.
What happened with Ted Rall and Liberal Puritans?
He drew a cartoon with the same depiction of Obama he has been using for four years and posted it on The Daily Kos. The cartoon was critical of Obama. The people at The Daily Kos decided the cartoon was racist because they figured Obama was depicted as “ape-like.” Once Ted was branded with the scarlet “R,” the internet piranhas entered the scene.
A lot of people, most of whom knew nothing about the guy, took time out of their lives and applied their energy to spread the message far and wide that Rall is a racist. Not the kind of racist who doesn’t like excessive touchdown celebrations in the NFL. The kind of racist who thinks black people are much closer to being monkeys than are white people.
There were some more fair minded piranhas who knew accusing Rall of David Duke style racism was just too implausible. According to them, he was the realization of another kind of caricature: the clueless white male, willfully ignorant of the ways that he constantly bungles into oppressing people. This even included an incredibly lazy potshot published by The Atlantic.
Why do you care?
Well, firstly, it stinks. Secondly, I’ve been meaning to write about the rise of the Liberal Puritan, especially on the internet. And as I’m thinking the subject through, Twitter tells me that a fellow alum of Punk Rock High has been put on trial. It was perfect! Well, not for Rall, but it is a good chance for me to examine the phenomenon.
Part 1: Liberal Puritans
What is there to examine here? Either these people are right or they are wrong.
Rather than try to identify bad logic or factual errors, I want to know what makes these folks tick. Why do we have all of these people who delight in attacking a person like Rall? With no evidence that he is a bad guy and a lot of evidence that he is a good guy, why try to destroy his reputation, damage his livelihood and make him miserable?
And why do that instead of worrying about wars, prisons and stuff like that?
Certainly, Liberal Puritans understand on some level that things like mass incarceration are bigger problems for African Americans than the way Ted Rall draws Obama’s nose. Rather than simply making that point, I want to discover why we have so many people who know and care far more about a faux pas on race by public figures than they know or care about the war on drugs. What is so appealing about combing through the public sphere, looking for something to be offended by?
Liberal, Internet, Puritan piranhas? Does this have to do with Jonathan Edwards?
I don’t really know that much about real Puritans. Apart from ‘internet,’ I’m using all of those words pretty loosely. That includes, ‘liberal.’ But this bunch can be called “liberal” insofar as they want to change attitudes about gays, non-whites and women.
What I’m trying to identify is a kind of false morality. A morality which is driven by heavily adolescent impulses, like the desire to elevate oneself by tearing down others and setting parameters for a kind of coolness that allows you to be “in,” while excluding others.
Are we talking about Puritans, or junior high?
The Liberal Puritan, particularly when manifested in an internet persona, is a mixture of both. I’m just going to talk about the structure of this kind of morality for a second.
Sorry, but I don’t know how else to explain Liberal Puritans. You have to understand that their moral system is roughly deontological.
Meaning they use a morality based on rules. If you want a simple picture of a deontological system, think of the ten commandments. If you want a complicated one, read Kant.
And what makes the system Puritanical?
Puritan types, be they “liberal” or overtly right wing, build moral structures that are separated from a foundation. It’s something like a little shed on an iced over lake. The rules exist independently of any real root purpose. The structure of the shed is pretty rigid. But the person inhabiting the shed can slide it along the ice and move it along with them, wherever they please.
The Puritans slide their shed along the ice, looking for other people so that they can peer out at them and regard them as inferior for being outside of the shed. If the person outside the shed says, “it’s fine. I’m perfectly warm in my jacket,” the Puritans are likely to push him into a hole in the ice.
Thanks, Mr. Miyagi. What the fuck does that mean?
Kant said that the starting point of his deontological system was a moral feeling. Some actions feel right to you and others feel wrong. He tried to figure out a system of rules that would guide you to act on those feelings in the best possible way. The general idea, as it is with most moral theories, was to figure out how you can live the right way.
OK. And that is, what, like a building with a solid foundation?
Yeah. The foundation is something like authentic, moral feeling. Or living in a way that makes the world a better place. Something like that.
And the Puritans in their ice shed?
They discover some rules that appeal to them, like “thou shalt not be racist.” They conform to the rules not so much to do good, as to be good. And they want to be good, so they can be better than you. These rules will be fixed and rigid, like the walls of the shed.
Why make the rules fixed and rigid?
If you’re a Puritan, you want lots of very clear, easy to follow rules so that you have a clear path to superiority. This also makes it very easy for you to characterize others as operating in breach of the rules, and therefore being morally inferior to you. You don’t need to concern yourself with complexities like whether that person does more to improve the lives of others than you do. If they break the rules, they are bad. You follow the rules so you are good.
So “thou shalt not be racist,” as applied by the Liberal Puritan, doesn’t have much connection to stuff like the suffering of people in the real world. It is a game of “I am not a racist. Now let’s go find/invent some people who are racists, so that we can brand them as our inferiors, demonstrating how good we are by comparison.”
Sounds like a lost/saved dynamic is at work.
Yeah. Accept (one, particular interpretation of) Jesus into your heart and set about working on the lost sinners and you get to be in one ice shed. Check your own privilege (in some very specific ways, but not in others) and set about chastising those who refuse to conform and you get to be in that ice shed.
Again, it’s not about trying to help other people so much as submitting to the authority of the group, so that you can share in its power.
Every hero needs a villain against whom to exert that power.
Right. The villainization is about completing a narrative in which the Puritan is righteous, or chosen or whatever. In order for that to amount to anything, they need a great number of people who are unenlightened/unsaved and a good number more who are just wicked.
OK, so why not just go after David Duke?
Well Puritans certainly do that. If they find someone who earnestly represents their version of evil, be they an honest to goodness Nazi in 2013, or a woman who actually worshiped the devil centuries ago, they vastly magnify the influence of the evil doer to create a sense of danger. The exaggerated danger magnifies their own importance, as the fighters of that evil. The Puritan savors these villains. They see these evil ones as their polar opposites, so the farther out the evil pole is, the farther their pole pokes into virtue. Plus, the greater the danger, the greater the measures they can justify to fight it. It’s not so different from pretending to believe Iraq had WMDs so that we could justify a war.
But, on some level, everyone realizes this sort of thing is bullshit. Nobody really thinks that, like, we might have a holocaust denying history professor at Stanford one day or that rape might be legalized because so many people genuinely hate women.
So emerges a competing thrill, which is framing someone for witchcraft. The first thrill, magnifying the danger of true evil, drums up fear. When we make an innocent and perhaps even good person into a witch, that fear is converted to power. The accusations are repeated until they begin to seem true. The target’s every word and action is scoured for evidence of witchcraft. Eventually, the Puritans convince themselves that the target is a witch, just as they had so desperately hoped.
Or, at least, they create a plausible enough narrative so that they can destroy their target as they wish and still describe themselves as the good guys. The target has been dressed in enough description so that they can at least be regarded as a witch. And if they can be regarded as a witch, it is probably OK to burn them. So the Puritans have indulged their desire to exert power over someone, to destroy them, while simultaneously telling a story of their own virtue and superiority.
What’s the target to do?
Well, sometimes they get burned at the stake no matter what. But what the Puritan really desires of their target is capitulation. For the witch to confess to having sex with the devil. For the racist witch to issue a maudlin apology. Jesus Christ, do we love apologies these days.
There’s always a great emphasis on forcing the target to speak certain words, because this is a power trip. The target must allow the Puritans to control them. Even if only for a moment, the target must be their puppet. This is an even greater power rush for them than it might seem, because Puritans have faith in a world where saying is more important than doing. So to force a person to speak their words is a huge power boner.
And if they resist?
Resistance is confirmation of your evil. For Rall to refuse to accept that his depiction of Obama is racist, for example, only proves how racist he is. He’s supposed to say, “oh my God, I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I was enlightened by your righteous authority. Now I can see that I am bad and you are good. Maybe, with a lot of work, one day I can become as good as you are.”
The sinner who refuses to repent, even when they are about to be burned at the stake, must be truly evil, rather than misguided. Now there can be no doubt that they deserve the stake, and perhaps some additional torture.
And how does The Puritan decide whom to target?
The beauty of the ice shed of Puritan morality is that it isn’t anchored by things like logic or real world consequence. Say your aim is to increase the material well being of real people. You have to work hard to make sure your efforts promote that aim. But if your goal is to feel superior and powerful by espousing your own virtue and targeting those who you say lack virtue, all you have to do is go through with it. Pick someone and find something wrong with them. Or just make some shit up.
Saw your husband looking at another woman? She might fit quite nicely into the role of the witch when the next trial rolls around. A cartoonist calls Obama right wing, and you are fighting with all your might to deny that reality? Hey, maybe that drawing of Obama is racist. Maybe the guy who risked his life in wartime Afghanistan to document what was happening there secretly believes that non-whites are half monkeys.
Part 2: The Ted Rall Racism Trial.
What about Ted Rall? The Atlantic and all of that.
Rall spent plenty of time capably defending himself on his site and elsewhere. That’s part of the power of the Puritan piranha swarm. They can litter the public sphere with any kind of accusations they want to and the time and energy they have for doing so seems limitless. So even the stubborn puppet must dance, going to various outlets and trying to explain that he does not believe that blacks are subhumans or that he doesn’t love rape or whatever.
There’s a saying that, “it’s a waste of time trying to explain yourself to people who are determined to misunderstand you.” That’s true. But when those people are trying to smear you to the general public, to see to it that you are widely regarded as a racist (or a woman hater or homophobe or witch or whatever) you have little choice but to spend a lot of time and energy trying to at least make sure you have some statements floating around asserting that you aren’t a racist witch.
Of course, your refusal to repent will only be seen as further evidence of your congress with Lucifer. “Typical. Instead of just confessing to his racism and repenting, the white male thinks it is up to him to set the parameters of what other people can be offended by.” But at least if someone stumbles across the frenzy on social media, they’ll find you saying, “I swear, I don’t think blacks are subhuman.”
So apart from promising he wasn’t a racist, what was Rall’s defense, in case I don’t want to go through his website?
The key point is that he has been drawing Obama the same way for four years, without complaint. Really, there’s no way for his accusers to get past that. Additionally, as a cartoonist, he often draws prominent figures, like The President, in funny looking and unflattering ways. Mainly, as ugly brutes.The elements of the Obama drawing can be found in his drawings of others, including whites like Antonin Scalia (his accusers diligently ignore those drawings). He doesn’t think his Obama looks like an ape. He doesn’t think black people look like apes. It was only when he posted a cartoon critical of Obama in the Kos hive that his racism was “discovered.” Remember, the ice shed analogy. Once upset with Rall, The Daily Kos slid the ice shed in his direction and began making accusations. The frenzy spilled over from there.
Sounds kind of like a midwife who uses the same practices for years and suddenly becomes a witch when the clergyman’s wife catches him looking at her booty.
Something like that. And, of course, most of these people didn’t really know who Rall is. Knowing nothing about a person is not a reason to refrain from accusing them of being a racist witch, of course. Those who did know Rall enough to understand that there’s not much chance he secretly believes blacks are subhuman had to take a different approach if they wanted to join in the fun. This led to excruciating discussions of what counts as an offensive nose.
Anything to add to Rall’s defense?
This should be obvious, but Rall depicts powerful people he regards as advocating war, torture and oppression as being brutish and ugly. He thinks Obama is such a person. He depicts him as being brutish and ugly, just as he does Bush and others. If you scan through all those images of Obama looking brutish and ugly and are looking for racism you are sure to find it. Especially if you think of Obama with veneration, because Rall’s depiction varies so drastically from how you think of The President.
You know the other day, I was wondering. If you added up the young American men, let’s say, 18-30 years old, who have either been incarcerated or seen combat, what would the percentage be? I bet it would be especially shocking for blacks. What if you threw in the number who have been homeless…
Excuse me sir! We were talking about offensive noses in cartoon drawings!
Oh right. So The Atlantic article?
Well, here are some highlights.
Unfortunately, as Daily Kos says, the way it looks is, in fact, as if Rall is referencing, or working within, comics’ extensive history of racist caricature. The nose, in particular, has far less to do with Barack Obama’s actual nose than with the racist fantasies of blackface iconography.
Even this stumbling would have been forgivable had Rall used the Daily Kos rejection to rethink his approach and try to do better. Instead he cried censorship and loudly declaimed the innocence of his intentions.
Racism is a past, a structure, and in this case an iconography, and that history makes demands not just on people of color but also, and especially, on white people. Part of being an artist is dealing intelligently with those demands—by, for example, and at a minimum, not blandly acquiescing to racist tropes simply because you haven’t thought about what you’re doing. By this metric, Rall’s cartoon is a failure.
One, unquestionable interpretation of the situation stemming from one, unquestionable lens for viewing the world?
Check. No need to even ask Rall for a response.
The accused has two options: admit guilt and beg forgiveness, or confirm his guilt by whitesplaining innocence.
Check. And as an aside, Rall is very involved in the contemporary political cartooning scene. He seems to be some kind of cartoon nerd. So he already knows all about the history of it. So the equivocation–that Rall isn’t a racist but is one by accident and won’t admit it, which makes him a racist–doesn’t really make sense. It’s just a slimier way of reaching the same conclusion.
So, even though Rall didn’t mean to be racist, as a clueless white guy, he bungled into racism. He might be an “accidental” racist witch, but after he was accused, he refused to repent and beg for forgiveness. So in the end, he is still a racist witch and his work is immoral. Which, the witch understood perfectly well all along.
Right. Now, I’m sympathetic to some of the reasoning abused in the article. You don’t have the ability or the right to unilaterally decide what someone else is offended by and you should be considerate out of a basic sense of decency. I used to use the word “fag,” without meaning it as a gay slur. Now, I don’t, because I realized it is a usage specifically designed to make gay people feel like shit, which I don’t want to do. But that’s different from Rall’s cartoon.
What’s the difference?
Well the evidence of the difference is that this depiction of Obama ran for 4 years, seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, before the accusations started. This wouldn’t happen if Rall was using the word ‘fag,’ or portrayed Obama as Stepin Fetchit. People would perceive and react to that immediately, not all of the sudden after four years.
Substantively, it’s the difference between words and symbols that have the purpose and function of evoking prejudice and words or symbols that might correlate to some sort of prejudiced expression. In other words, one is a case of using something generally regarded as conveying prejudice, but saying “yet, in this instance, I don’t mean it so you can’t let it bother you.” The other involves an expression that is vaguely similar to a bigoted expression.
An example of the first case would be someone using the term ‘spear chucker’ ironically. An example of the second case would be calling an NBA player who throws up too many shots a “chucker.” Of course, if you wanted to, you could call half the people who talk NBA racists for calling players chuckers. Because historically, blah blah spear chucker blah blah blah. But you’d be manufacturing a controversy where none existed prior to your involvement.
Aren’t you overlooking one critical component of all this?
Who fucking cares about cartoon noses?
Well, there is that. In plenty of other countries, like Brazil, where my wife is from, they would die of laughter if they ever got wind of this “scandal”. Intentional “racist” caricatures are fairly common there in advertising and so forth and nobody gives a shit because they aren’t Puritans. It doesn’t even cross the minds of most people to be offended, because they’re far less inclined to look for things to be offended by.
But that’s not even what Rall is doing.
True. I’m just saying, if nobody is uptight about it and nobody is being malicious then it doesn’t matter because nobody cares.
Which is sort of what happened for the first four years Rall published these drawings, until someone was like, “hey, I just figured out a new way to be offended!” And what exactly is the fear, here? It seems like the Atlantic argument, which is the most reasonable of the anti-Rall stuff, begins and ends with, “these drawings superficially resemble racist drawings from 1930 and someone might conceivably find that unpleasant.” There’s no “and…” there. What is the bad thing that this is going to lead to, other than offending people who want to be offended?
Well, I guess the implied consequence is that Rall might accidentally revive the depiction of blacks as subhuman. Then a large number of people might revert to the views that those old caricatures represented.
We might see a return to slavery.
Well, our mission is to understand here. And no, the Liberal Puritan doesn’t think slavery will return any more than they think we might see a bunch of holocaust denying history professors at universities.
However, we should understand that they live in the world of saying, not in the world of doing. They don’t really care about the prison industrial complex all that much. They’re passionate about whether or not Katy Perry conforms to their rules. These are people who live in and for the public square. They’re much less concerned about what happens in the home, the town hall or the battlefield.
All of this is multiplied on the internet, where what is said pretty much is all of reality. The prison industrial complex doesn’t really exist on the internet. Its victims are nowhere to be found. Katy Perry is all over the place.
Also, remember that the underlying motivation for all of this is to feel powerful and important and to do so easily. Thinking about the prison industrial complex is depressing and makes you feel impotent and marginalized. Because even if you elect a black Democrat who rides a wave of populist liberalism, that sort of thing won’t change a bit.
Part 3 The Internet.
So all of this stuff seems to be greatly magnified online.
Yeah, the internet is paradise for Puritans, liberal or otherwise. Some of the reasons we’ve already touched on.
It’s a world where all that exists, is what is said. It’s a town with a public square and little else.
Right, and this is the preferred mode of existence for the Puritan anyway. Gossip, accusations, naked assertions of their own moral superiority. Rules. Narratives about who is breaking the rules and who is obeying the rules. Stories about who is a hero (them) and who is a villain (whoever they say). Identifying and persecuting, or at least harassing people who defy the rules and refuse to accept the power of the Puritan group. Sitting in judgement as part of that group and feeling powerful and superior.
These activities can comprise the bulk of the existence of an online persona. If you want to, you can do nothing but accuse people of being racist witches without ever having to face them and rarely, if ever, facing any repercussions when you’re wrong. Which is great, since right and wrong aren’t the point.
And your tortured ‘ice shed’ analogy?
On the internet, the ice shed no longer has to be slid from target to target. It can teleport, like the ice shed from Dr. Who. You can write a blog about how any movie with a rape scene is a hate crime in one tab, crucify Katy Perry for dressing up like an Asian in another tab and hunt for racist cartoons in a third.
Doesn’t Katy Perry kind of deserve it?
I have no idea. She could join the KKK for all I care. But that’s not the point of what the Puritan is doing. It’s not that they actually fear the harm that might be caused by some celebrity buying a box of Uncle Ben’s. When some white celebrity is foolish enough to dress in blackface or whatever, do you think the Liberal Puritan feels bad? Do you think it makes them sad, mopey or depressed?
Hell no, they are elated. Fireworks are going off in their brain. It’s the highlight of their year. They can go through all of the rituals described in the first section. Defining themselves as good, setting themselves in contrast to an entity of pure evil. Never is their virtue more clearly defined, and they have carte blanche to tear into the evil. All in a fabricated world that is only connected loosely to reality.
It’s all cream filling for them.
Plus, they can act out the story again and again. Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Friendster… They’re running free through the chocolate factory of self-righteousness with a bottomless stomach.
Want to say the same shit in a different way?
Well, I want to emphasize the importance an almost completely fabricated existence has on all of this. Online, you can just create whatever narratives, incentives and moral structures you want to, then create one or more internet personae to inhabit them. I guess it’s like Second Life, or something, but using carefully chosen events and people from the material world as props. So instead of fighting a dragon, you target a real person and their work.
Do people still play Second Life? Also, do you fight dragons in Second Life?
I don’t know. But it seems like you’re supposed to use Second Life as an example when making this kind of point. The point is that, because these fabricated realities are so loosely tethered to the material world, you can have a lot of control over what they look like just by investing more time and energy than the next person. And, if you are willing to submit to the authority of a group, you can share in that group’s collective time and energy, which translates to a great deal of power because you can make up whatever stories you want to. Most of that power exists in a fantasy land, just as it did for the original Puritans, but you can free yourself from caring about the real problems of the world.
Perhaps more importantly, you can forget about your problems in the real world. Forget your failures and weaknesses. You get to feel powerful, important and superior and occasionally be a big pain in the ass for a real person. Yesterday, Rall might have been writing something that would appear in a bunch of newspapers. But today, he has to do battle with you.
None of that really sounds “liberal” to me.
That’s actually a relief, I think. If you’re the kind of leftist, or rationalist, or humanitarian who is concerned about stuff like civilians being blown up by drones, or non-violent people being imprisoned for life, or factory workers being treated like animals, your initial reaction to Liberal Puritans might be one of dismay.
Because you’ve lost a bunch of potential foot soldiers to foolishness.
Right. But, back to the opening of this rant. We want to understand what makes these people tick. What is their nature?
They enjoy exerting power over other people. They long to feel superior. They’re more interested in narratives that flatter them, than they are the well being of real people in the material world. They want to be part of a group, or groups that they designate as powerful, superior and at least somewhat exclusionary. They want to create these stories, then make them real with deep belief.
Right. They haven’t become Puritans by accident. It’s their disposition. Their motivations and emotionally driven goals are more like those of the fairy tale right, than the idealist left. Instead of needing to believe that they are part of God’s chosen country,doing battle with evil Muslim commies, they need to believe that they are part of a subculture of perfect enlightenment, surrounded by people who celebrate rape and advocate 19th century racism.
And there’s a similar disconnect between their professed “good fight” and what happens on planet earth.
Sure. One group pretends to believe abortion is the same thing as murdering a six year old. But they oppose sex education and social welfare programs that are proven to reduce abortions. Because what really motivates them is a need to feel self righteous and exert power over other people. The other group hates racism above all else, but supports politicians who throw a disproportionate number of black people in prison or combat to turn a buck. What they’re really interested is outing and taking down racist TV chefs so they can feel self righteous and exert power over another person.
But not all Liberal Puritans support Obama or the Democrats.
True. There are different factions. Some are more easily duped by Obama because he is black and will be duped by Hillary next because she is a woman. Maybe some of those at Daily Kos just don’t want to believe that The Democrats favor corporatism in no uncertain terms. I mean, that is pretty terrifying. So they cling to this kind of fundamentalism. Other Liberal Puritans are hostile to Obama. But the general idea is, they’d rather accuse people of things like racism and see them punished for it, than to do things that actually help real people.
And these are not people who would really be of help to anyone anyway.
Right. Lamenting the loss of such people to a bogus left is like the NFL worrying that guys who call into talk shows and complain about coaches have chosen to go that route instead of becoming coaches themselves.
So then America is doomed to perpetual Puritanism, even if we move past being so religious.
I don’t know, maybe. But hopefully once we realize Liberal Puritans are psychologically identical to the people who want Harry Potter banned from school libraries because it promotes witchcraft, we gradually learn to ignore them, except to laugh at them.