How to Avoid Mansplaining

All right, mansplaining.

I know.  I’m a guy and I’m about to explain how to avoid mansplaining.  I’m gambling on a few things here.  I’m fairly confident there’s a form of explaining that avoids the pitfalls of mansplaining; what’s not clear to me is if it can work here, or how much (especially given my own history with mansplaining) I’m up to the task.

One strategy I came up with to deal all this is to address this post exclusively to men.  Of course this would be done in full knowledge that women are reading too; the idea is that if I did end up mansplaining (despite my best efforts to the contrary), at least I (a male) would be doing so to men instead of women.

For a number of reasons, I found myself uncomfortable with this approach. It seems itself rather patronizing (which is a lesson in itself!).  Also, I’ve just never been comfortable with excluding anyone from a conversation like this.  Just doesn’t feel right, for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

Thinking about it for weeks, it seems my only option is to be empirical.  That is to say, I could continue playing around with the idea in my head, but won’t find out for sure if it’ll fly unless I actually try.  So here we go.

What is mansplaining?  Most accounts describe it as uniquely patronizing, condescending, or even infantilizing way of men addressing women.  Now while I by no means disagree with this definition, I don’t think it’s quite enough to help stop a lot of the mansplaining that takes place.

I prefer to see mansplaining as a genderized form of hierarchical monologue.  Now I don’t see my understanding as in any way at odds with the previous understanding.  What I do think, and I’ll offer this for your consideration, it that it might be a bit better in terms of helping us unpack what’s really going on inside mansplaining.

Mansplaining is hierarchical in that its primary purpose is to promote power relations.  It’s genderized in that it does so along gender lines, specifically according to the dictates of patriarchy.  And it’s a monologue in that it’s a one-way form of communication.

The end result, it seems to me, is a form of discourse where what’s communicated is a view of men as superior to women, with very specific demands made on the listener.

As an aside, here’s where I may differ from others.  I think conversations like these have been happening since time immemorial across race, class, religion, social, and economic lines, as well as between adults and children.  This leads me to suspect (and I may be on thin ice here) that the genderized piece is secondary to the hierarchical one.

Now you may disagree with me completely here, and your options are far from limited.  You could say there is something qualitatively unique about genderized inequality as a matter of history, and that this makes the gender component primary rather than secondary.  You could also say that situating mansplaining within the broader context of power relations intrinsically diminishes the gender component, thereby relegating it to secondary status.  This could even be seen as yet another instance of simultaneously and covertly masking male privilege while reinforcing patriarchy (ouch).

In defense of my definition, I think it allows us some important conceptual and political flexibility.  It follows from the sketch I provided that while mansplaining is typically and predominantly done by men, it can be done by anyone who identifies with male privilege.  That is to say, in this view mansplaining is (usually but not always) men explaining things to (usually but not always) women in an uniquely condescending, patronizing or even infantilizing way.

Can women do it?  I suppose so, in the sense that oppressed groups often act out among themselves the inequalities, injustices and injuries visited upon them by outsiders.  Have to say, though, the vast majority of mansplaining I see is done by men.  And to anticipate another set of objections, I don’t think that’s completely because of biology or anything essential to the concept of maleness; I think, rather, that it’s largely due to men being raised to think and behave along particular lines.

So while this doesn’t absolve men of the responsibility to cut the crap (instructions provided below), it does suggest powerful social forces are at work in mansplaining, alongside often critical personal and moment-to-moment choices, as well as qualities.

Now I don’t think we have to agree on what comes first or is more important (the gender or the hierarchy) to have an effective dialogue on mansplaining.  I could be wrong here, perhaps even egregiously so. Nevertheless, I still think the key point is that both get mixed up in an interesting way such that what’s being communicated is not so much information but (the importance of) a patriarchal relationship.

So what’s inside mansplaining?  It occurs to me that the mansplainer is attempting to sell you (his target) a number of Very Important Ideas, ideally without question.  I’m assigning them numbers not so much to rank them in order of importance (though some of them do depend on others) as to make it easier to refer to them in case they provoke any discussion:

  1. that they possess something you lack (usually knowledge or expertise, but sometimes also wisdom, maturity, or even moral fiber)
  2. that this something is not just a quality or skill, but a human virtue
  3. that this is not just true of you but everyone in your (let’s say gender) group
  4. that this makes it even harder for you to understand what the mansplainer is trying to tell you (or, in some cases, appreciate his wisdom or brilliance)
  5. that this, in turn makes any difficulty understanding or accepting what the mansplainer is trying to say (or any communicative failure at all) entirely your fault
  6. that all of the foregoing makes the mansplainer qualitatively better than you (once again, along some dimension of consequence), which in turn justifies a number of attendant social, economic, and political privileges
  7. that this is (or ought to be) as clear to you as it is (or ought to be) universally acknowledged
  8. that your primary socially obligations are to internalize all of these Very Important Ideas (e.g., believe them deeply and without question), work hard to promote them, and prove to any and all mansplainers that you have done so to their satisfaction (usually through a display of social deference; professional titles are especially helpful here)

Another thing: while the bulk of the communication is verbal, there are often important non-verbal components as well, such as a sigh or a well-timed eye roll. All these combine to reinforce the “I am better than you and you’d better publicly agree” message.

The sum total of the interaction is to make the mansplainer feel better than the listener at her expense.  That is to say, it’s one of many ways people have of boosting their self-esteem by taking someone else’s down. When this happens in a blatant or egregious manner, it’s easy to see and call out.  However, I think it happens far more often in far more subtle ways.

This brings me to the notion of microaggressions: tiny little paper cuts to the self-esteem that add up over a lifetime to destabilize or even erode the listener’s own confidence in her intelligence, perceptions, virtue, or even adequacy.  It’s saying “I’m better than and in charge of you” or “you are defective compared to me” through a gesture, a tone of voice, an image, an advertisement, a song, etc.

Now it’s bad enough when this happens to grownups, who’ve already had some chance to build up a sense of self as well as self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Here we’re annoyed at best, but our basic confidence in ourselves and our abilities remains intact.  You can imagine the damage it can do when it’s targeted at a group of people from the earliest age.

So that’s the basic process I see at work.  Given this analysis, how do we stop it?

One hope I have is that a greater awareness of the viciousness and cruelty that lies at the heart of mansplaining goes a long way towards eradicating it.  But I’ve also come up with more specific suggestions as well.  I saved them for the end because I don’t think they have quite the same power without a closer look at the power dynamics, psychology, and social role of mansplaining.  Once again here they are, and in no particular order, although some typically occur before others:

  1. If you haven’t already, brush up a bit on gender and privilege (and especially if you have, resist the temptation to think you know all about it already).  Keep in mind nobody’s completely free from the effects of bias, prejudice, and bigotry; specifically, that everyone has biases and is victimized to some degree by inequality.
  2. Be careful about thinking of individuals as representative of particular groups, and privately acknowledge any biases you’ve likely inherited from your family of origin or the larger culture.  As with any belief, keep in mind the all-important difference between having a bias, reflecting on it, and acting on it.
  3. Keep in mind the difference between taking effective responsibility for bias and shouldering blame.  Blame is often an invitation to feel worse about something and can be deflating.  Responsibility, on the other hand, may include remorse but empowers individuals to make bad situations better.  Put another way, it’s one thing to make you or someone else feel bad about having bias, it’s quite another to say and do things that encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it.
  4. When your bias or privilege is exposed without your knowledge or consent, treat it the same way you’d treat falling trousers.  That is to say, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, just smile, realize everyone has a derriere, pull up your pants, try to extract the appropriate lesson, and move on.
  5. If you haven’t already, ask someone who knows and/or who’s studied it about the concept of microaggressions.  Learn about how they can affect the quality of a home, workplace, or relationship.  Learn how they add up over the course of a brief period or a lifetime to demoralize, deflate, and oppress individuals or entire groups of people.
  6. If you’re feeling especially bold, look into the ways we deauthorize people as knowers on a regular basis, often without knowing it.
  7. Before explaining anything, ask yourself if you’re really in a position to do so.  Some questions to consider here: do you really know more about the topic than your listener?  Is this really the best (or even the right) place and time for it?
  8. Ask yourself if you want the explanation to be more of a monologue or a dialogue.  Be mindful of the differences between both forms of speech, especially the different expectations each makes of its intended audience.  Have some plan to handle the frustrations that typically arise when certain expectations aren’t met (in this case, when you set out to have one kind of conversation and instead get the other).  Also beware of taking this frustration out on your audience; if you feel it’s appropriate or useful to share, consider using the most respectful words possible.
  9. Make sure you have at least one way of explaining the thing you want to explain.  Wonder to what degree these different ways of explaining take into account someone’s level of knowledge as opposed to social status.
  10. Consider also any effects your different explanations or styles of explaining could have on your listener as well as the larger audience, especially if there’s a mismatch along any key dimension.  How will you know if your style or mode of explaining is succeeding?  How will you know if it’s failing in some important way?  What adjustments are you prepared to make or willing to consider as a result?
  11. Remember that you are no more your explanation than your listener is their response to it.  That is to say, your explanation can succeed or fail without this saying anything whatsoever about how good you are in any of your most cherished roles (parent, teacher, supervisor).  Likewise, resist the temptation to judge your listener by the success (or failure) of your explanation, or their response to it.
  12. Be prepared to look at your explanation as pragmatically and non-judgmentally as possible.  Also, when listening to feedback, let past experience be your guide here, and don’t dismiss someone’s experience simply because you don’t share it.
  13. Ask yourself if you think the knowledge you’re about to impart makes you a better person than your listener. If the answer is yes, ask it again until you get the right one.
  14. Wonder how useful your information is likely to be to your audience.  Wonder how you might handle it if they disagree with your assessment of its value.
  15. Wonder about hierarchies and emotional overtones.  Will the explanation help empower someone, let’s say bring them up to your level of (not virtue but) expertise?  Or will it keep or even push them down?  Be especially careful here about sharing information that’s designed simply to show off what you know or make someone else feel stupid.  If you suspect that’s happened, ask, and if so, apologize.
  16. If you get into a back-and-forth (and especially if you didn’t set out to), keep in mind the crucial difference between positions and persons.  That is, it’s one thing to say a position (belief, view, etc) is wrong and quite another to say a person is wrong (i.e., don’t say “you’re wrong”).
  17. If you find frustration mounting (yours or your listener’s), take a step back and beware of taking it out on your listener.  One often key mental step is to avoid thinking (and saying!) that your interlocutor lacks certain virtues or values.  While entirely possible, more conversational (and hence more persuasive) opportunities are opened up by assuming the other person simply has values other than yours, however well they’re articulated or even known to either of you.  Put another way, assume everyone acts according to principles and that, for the curious, it’s just a matter of patiently discovering what they may turn out to be.
  18. If things get heated, consider the possibility that maintaining the relationship may now be a greater priority than communicating the explanation.  Be especially aware of threats to the respect of all parties to the conversation, such as the temptation to engage in name-calling and insults.
  19. When you’re done explaining, listen.  Keep an ear open to the possibility you may not have explained well, that you used the wrong words, or that others’ equally valid experience produced complementary or even contradictory information.
  20. Be especially tuned in if you find yourself losing self-esteem or social status if your listener doesn’t agree with you more or less completely.  That’s often a sign, in my view, that what’s at stake here isn’t sharing information but reinforcing power relations.  If so, allow yourself a small chuckle at your expense, go back to the beginning of this list, and start over.

I’m sure I’m going to be revising this list and post down the road, so be generous with your feedback 🙂


History and Critical Theory

One of my most vivid memories of high school was a beloved former teacher of mine saying, citing Thorstein Veblen, that education was a “leisure class activity.”

Whether or nor this is an accurate characterization of Veblen’s views, I remember howling at this statement. Sure, I thought, things like history and philosophy could be idle diversions for some. For others, however, especially (but by no means uniquely) those on the wrong side of a class, racial, gender, religious, sexual, or other divide, they were emancipatory disciplines, to borrow a term from Habermas (whom I didn’t hear about until college).

They weren’t leisure activities, I remember saying back. They were survival strategies. I only remember two other things: my classmates looking at me like I was from another planet, and my dear old teacher smiling at me.

Anyway, tonight I came across a quote that brought back that old memory in a wonderful way. Ostensibly about women, I think the point generalizes nicely across all forms of injustice rooted in inequality, as well as to those choosing the difficult but rewarding path of facing their family or personal history:

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (h/t @sacredflow)

Surveillance is the New Internment

By now, many people are aware that the New York Police Department has been conducting an extensive surveillance of Muslims. This has understandably set off considerable discussion about the legal, civic, and moral questions raised by this practice. Luckily, we have centuries of history, jurisprudence, and political theory with which to raise and address such questions.

What we might miss behind those very important questions, however, are the effects of such practices on individuals; specifically within the minds of those surveilled. To understand and appreciate this, we have to rely on more recent work.

In Surveiller et Punir (the English title is Discipline and Punish, but a more literal translation is “To Keep and Eye On and Punish”), Michel Foucault offers some interesting thoughts on the matter. He uses Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon to illustrate the history of attempts to regulate behavior, from prisons to schools to retail outlets to psychotherapy.

It’s important to note that Bentham proposed the Panopticon as a plan for a modern and more efficient prison. In it, cells are arranged along a large circumference, such that 1) no cell can look into the adjacent one and 2) all cells are visible to a guard seated in a central tower behind a mesh window. This creates a primitive sort of one-way mirror wherein the guard can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard.

The idea is to induce in the prisoner the idea that s/he is being watched at all times, in the hopes that this places some restraint on undesired behavior. This effect is often referred to now as Panopticism.

In case the effects of Panopticism are not immediately clear, imagine using a hotel room, restroom, or dressing room in a department store and not being sure if you heard a noise behind the large mirror. Are you being watched? You’re not sure. What you do know is that the culture is quite ready to pathologize your feeling of being surveilled. So absent clear and convincing physical evidence, you’re some version of “paranoid.”

Parents and teachers also know that at a certain age words like “I’m watching you” or “God is watching you” have a tremendous capacity to modify behavior. Depending on how well some of us internalize the lesson, we may grow up more or less inhibited with regard to what we think, in addition to what we do.

The idea behind Panopticism is to erode an individuals’ expectations around privacy. Needless to say, you don’t need to actually be monitored in order to feel its effects. All you need is the sense that it’s possible and that the means of doing so are hidden from you.

As an aside, there’s an argument to be made here that in a Panoptical culture, exhibitionism may be every bit as much a form of civil disobedience as steganography.

So what does all this have to do with the NYPD and internment? Well, the admittedly cynical answer is that interment is so 40’s.

But more importantly, it’s much more expensive. From the standpoint of controlling a population, what’s cheaper: rounding people up into detention centers (plus the legal costs lawsuits are sure to incur) or simply letting them know they’re being watched? Especially in their schools, colleges, and houses of worship?

Here, panopticism means trying to ensure that whenever and wherever Muslims gather, from now on, each and every one worries about who’s a spy and who’s for real. From the standpoint of intelligence gathering, of course, this is a setback. Less trust means more reticence to speak and thus less actionable intelligence.

But from a political standpoint — let’s say of demonizing a group of people and presenting yourself to an anxious population as their only hope against certain disaster — it’s incredibly cost-effective. You can cut back on the number of agents now that everyone’s watching what they say, perhaps even redeploying them in places and ways nobody’s thought of yet.

By the looks of it, it seems to be working. As with other laws targeted at other minorities, in order to feel comfortable with this exercise of government power one has to feel reasonably confident the power they’re identifying with will never, ever be turned on them.

Twitter Bullies

Well, it finally happened. I met my very first cyber-bully.

Many of us remember bullies from grade or high school. Growing up, we all get more or less solid training expressing frustration with others. Parents are our first model in metabolizing anger, and then come teachers and peers.

What most of us learn, in our earliest years, is how to tell someone that they did something that bothered or hurt us and why.

Along the way, we notice an interesting group of people. These are the people who get furious with you when you tell them they did something wrong. While nobody likes to be told they bothered someone, this group of people responds with particular outrage: how dare you tell me I bothered or hurt you. You wimp! Now you’re really going to get it from me.

And then you get the abuse. Insults, threats, intrusions, unwanted contact…anything, it seems, in the attempt to intimidate you, get you to back off, or show you they are far more powerful and important than you.

So what happened? You just told them they did something wrong or that you didn’t like. Why didn’t they just say sorry, or even “no, don’t think what I did was wrong, and here’s why.”

What happened is you humiliated them, usually but not always in front of a crowd (often a gang) whose regard means as much to them as your parent’s, family’s, or significant other’s love regard means to you.

Here’s a common but by no means exclusive possibility. You didn’t know this (now that you do, you’ll probably be more careful), but when you took them to task for doing something they probably know is wrong, unwise, or ill-advised, you took them back to a horrible place. This is a place they may have long forgotten (or just long to forget) where they were the ones on the receiving end of criticism, yelling, teasing, exposure, shame, intrusion, threats, or even physical violence.

Truth is, many bullies live in deep, close, and intimate knowledge of what it means to feel inadequate, worthless, and powerless. When you cross them, it becomes your turn to find out exactly what it is (or was) like to be them.

For a number of reasons I tried to explain elsewhere, communication here has to be inductive rather than discursive. That is to say, it usually works better in these situations to help someone feel something rather than (just) telling them how they made you feel.

So now you’re going to get attacked, verbally or physically, but always emotionally. You’re going to get picked on, taunted, bullied, harassed, or even assaulted.

The luckier folks with this background learn to put those painful feelings to words, music, or art. The unluckier ones are left with using whatever means at their disposal (usually fists or words) to let you know just how much it hurt them to be told they hurt you.

If you have the presence of mind to say, “whoa, I just told you I take issue with something you’re doing and now you’re calling me an X, Y, and Z,” they’ll invariably say “no, you started it.” In a certain sense they’re right, in that you inadvertently exposed a strong vulnerability. But when you step back and compare what you did with what you got in return, you’re left scratching your head.

Many of us know the eggshell feeling we have around certain bosses, partners, and workmates. We can easily feel controlled by their volatility, but my sense has always been they’re not out to control us so much as stabilize a very vulnerable and precarious self-regard.

Put another way: if the thermostat in your car is broken, and the heat or air conditioning kicks on hard at the worst possible times, you’re going to have strong feelings about a passenger touching the controls, opening a window, or even complaining about the temperature.

Self-esteem is a little bit like the ambient air: when it’s doing its job, we don’t notice it, but once there’s a sudden change in temperature, pressure, odor, or oxygen level, we feel it. And we’ll go to great lengths to correct the situation, regardless of how little or differently the situation seems to be affecting others.

These days on twitter, the cyber-bullies I see the most are the ones who’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to a politician or even another tweeter. When you say something critical of the beloved leader, you threaten the glue that holds the group together.

You don’t usually hear, “hey, you got your facts wrong, and here are the right ones,” or “what you said is inaccurate, unfair, or untrue.” What you get instead is “oh yeah? Well this is what you do that makes you an even worse person!” or just the far more economical “you’re an asshole!”

You don’t typically get engagement on the issues, because that’s not where these folks live. They don’t inhabit a world of issues to be discussed, so much as personalities to be protected: at all costs, against all enemies, foreign and especially domestic.

They may or may not use military or totalitarian language approvingly to describe their paramount virtue: loyalty to a beloved leader experienced as extraordinarily vulnerable to criticism.

My sense is that the leader is question is often far more tolerant (or even welcoming) of criticism that the loyal devotee. I also suspect that loyalty here doesn’t mean fidelity (as in to principles) so much as a promise: never, ever to hurt the beloved, and to gang up as quickly and fiercely as possible on those perceived to be a threat to the cohesion or self-esteem of the group.

Why, you ask. Why is this discussion for you about the NDAA, health care, abortion, or the best ways to get out the vote, and why is it for them about what an awful, rotten person you are? In more general terms, why is this conversation, for you, about what’s being said whereas for them it’s all about you?

Well, truth is, we don’t always know. And that’s something important to say in the context of this article, so let me emphasize it. We can and often do speculate about what goes on in someone’s head, but they’re the ultimate authority with regard to what happened to them, what they feel, or how they think.

Be open to the possibility (if you’re lucky and the winds are right) that someone may inform you that you’ve got your facts or narrative all wrong. Let them surprise you and display some non-bullying behaviors. They may, for example, tell you precisely where and how your understanding is in error, without insults or invective.

You should also be prepared for it to get ugly. For some, the Rubicon has been crossed the moment (they think) you’ve called them a thug or bully, and there’s just no going back from there. Not that you’ve got them all wrong and here is how, no: you insulted them, grievously, and now you’re going to pay.

In general, I think, people who are not (afraid they are) bullies tend to respond with confusion or bewilderment and then clarification when accused of bullying. I also think people who have been accused of this before are more likely to retaliate instead.

Like me, you may have also seen people getting threatened in addition to insulted. It’s important to note that, to my estimation, no political party or other group has (yet) cornered the market on bullying behavior.

My advice if and when you find these folks is much the same as if you bumped into them outside of twitter: leave them alone. This doesn’t mean letting them intimidate you or stop you from speaking out as best you can on things that matter to you. It means give them as wide a berth as possible when they float into your timeline.

If you follow someone who RTs the bully a lot, consider muting or even unfollowing them. If you unfollow, be prepared for some anger if this is perceived as a hostile attack rather than wish for relief. Expect retaliation if the individual in question identifies as part of the bully’s gang.

When a Twitter bully does something you disagree with, consider carefully how directly you want to say so and why. If they engage you, be clear about your twitter rules (mine include no verbal abuse) and politely decline (no matter what you want to say back!) their invitation to make the exchange about persons rather than issues.

Realize that even though you always could have chosen better words, there’s probably little chance you could have escaped their wrath for calling them on some misbehavior.

If you decide to engage them, be prepared for all labels, descriptions and accounts (regardless of their intentions) to become names, and for all names to be hurtful; that’s just their world. They typically blame their anger on others, and you may even be held fully responsible for their choice of words and tactics.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend this.

My best advice is to wish them well, as this is not only the right thing to do but often has the side benefit of disarming them (if you’re extremely lucky, a bully will be touched enough by your kindness to convert their contempt for you to respect on the spot). Most bullies aren’t used to being treated with genuine respect, to say nothing of kindness; by the time they realize you’re not engaging them in the typical way, you already have a great chance to head for the exit.

If they follow you and chase you, consider a firm request to go away or unfollow. Or you can block them.

I’ve rarely seen bullies persist after that, but it’s always possible. If so, consider reaching out to friends who’ve dealt with these exact or similar people before, or have a look at many of the wonderful online resources now available on bullying and cyber-bullying.

Oh, and good luck. Despite the bullying and other inconveniences, Twitter remains an intriguing world for the social explorer. 🙂

Conservative Democrats: The New Right Wing in America

The last two years have been nothing if not extraordinary for students of politics and history. A historic and ground-breaking President, elected through a groundswell of hope in democracy, civil rights for all, and an end to Republican rule:

• remains opposed to marriage equality

endorses signing statements (having opposed them as a candidate)

opposes habeas rights for those suspected of terrorism

• has rounded up, imprisoned, and deported record numbers of people believed to be illegal immigrants where they may languish for years without access to the judicial system

• apparently no longer believes individuals are legally innocent until proven guilty by a court of law or that his comments, as Chief Executive, could affect the ability of individuals to receive a fair trial.

How did this happen? How did Americans, so enamored of the principles this nation was founded on, rally to elect an historic President, then proceed to shrug their shoulders as the work of democracy languishes?


The first echoes of this movement occurred during the Health Care debate, when Obama was presumably trying to advance a public option. As you know, he later expressed his opposition to it. Even later, it was revealed that he had secretly negotiated it away.

That was when defenders of the public option began to take heat from defenders of the administration for being naive with regard to politics, economics, health care, or policy in general. Angry upon learning what happened to the public option behind closed doors, they were scolded for being impractical, unrealistic, and “ideological.”

What was happening is that ideals (such as the ones the campaign ran on) were becoming a hindrance, and had to be dealt with somehow. So they became ideology, and defenders of this point of view became “pragmatists.”

The summer of the health care debate was also the summer of the Tea Party. This was a pivotal one: far more, I think, for the Democratic Party than for the nation.

That was also the summer of the loudest, most obnoxious, and frankly frightening political displays in recent memory.

You remember the Tea Party, don’t you? Yes, they’re the folks who called Obama a socialist. This comes easy, of course, after years of being told by right-wing radio and television that “liberal” is a dirty word.

Now the Tea Party has fallen on hard times, but they’re not gone. They live on, though not in the way you’d think.

Where did the Tea Party go, along with its signs and slogans? To find out, just ask yourself: where and when is “liberal” still a dirty word?

Where do you go to meet, greet, and befriend the kind of good, sensible Americans who just know the country’s biggest threat lies in the progressive viewpoint and its adherents? You know those bleeding heart liberals, the ones always championing causes like social justice, the undocumented, unions, and the due process rights of even the most heinous defendants?

Probably haven’t bathed in years.

Yes, I know, you can find the right kind of American (pun intended) on the radio and on TV. But where else?

Hop on Twitter and look up hashtags like “firebagger” and “emoprog.” Now look at the people using them.

Ask yourself: when did people start looking for newer and better ways to say “dirty fucking hippie?” What kind of person prefers to call their opponents names (like “socialist”) rather than say how and why they disagree?

And why are they so angry?


Imagine being progressive during the Reagan and Bush years. Imagine championing the cause of unions like PATCO, for example, or questioning the invasion of Grenada. Imagine being called every name in the book because you weren’t waving the flag or making racial slurs at recipients of public assistance.

What happens to people subject to relentless criticism? They often feel powerless (because they often are). What do they do then? Well, they can identify with the strongest power around: that of the critic. They can find someone else to criticize.

This is what’s happening inside today’s Democratic Party. The party that championed Social Security and the rights of working families is, in some pockets, fighting unions and excoriating defenders of social spending. Not surprisingly, they’re not too fond of those who criticize the intervention in Libya, either.

Lawrence’s message is interesting in this regard. Social spending cuts are inevitable, he claims (just like conservatives of both parties) and anyone who disagrees is simply not as astute as he is about history or how to win elections. Social spending has been cut before, and this makes such action not only morally defensible, but fiscally and civically laudable.

Democrats Against Liberals.

It’s not Republicans punching Democrats anymore; now it’s conservative Democrats punching liberals and progressives for doing anything they feel threatens the President’s re-election.


To hear conservative Democrats tell the story, a block of people shifted to the far, far left immediately following the election of a centrist President who always campaigned as a centrist. (PS: If you disagree with that, then you’re one of them.)

Conservative Democrats say they and their candidate never moved, they’ve always occupied the sensible center. Everyone knows you have to govern from the center, right?

Oh come on, you don’t stand for a “principle” and try to lead a nation! That’s not how you win elections! That’s ideology!

Now I think Unions, public employees, the poor, and peace have always had their defenders, and that they used to reliably be called Democrats. That started changing with Reagan, who very effectively wooed former Democrats to his side with promises of power, patriotism, and privilege. It accelerated, of course, under both Bushes, continued to some degree under Clinton, and seems on its way again with Obama.

“Don’t be a naive dirty hippie. Be a clean, sensible (ie prosperous and respectable) conservative!”


Yes, the center has shifted in American politics. But not according to the conservative narrative, the political equivalent of the geocentric universe.

I think those Democrats once in the Tea Party’s line of fire got sick and tired of being called socialists, dropped their guns, moved to the right, picked up new ones, then began hunting “emoprogs,” “firebaggers,” and anyone else who has the audacity to criticize their leader.

Now ask yourself: in what system of government do people applaud one another for “taking down” a member of the opposition, rather than convincing them with reasons and arguments?

In what form of government do parties and politicians become the most cherished and defended objects, rather than principles (I don’t know, like maybe the ones a nation was founded upon)? Where and when is criticism of a party or leader experienced as so toxic that it must be silenced, rather than argued against?

In what system of government are the “pragmatics” of winning elections opposed to “ideals?” Where are you most likely to find “pragmatic, sensible, adult” people (projectively, I think) accusing their opponents of being childish ideologues?

If we don’t already know the answers to these questions, we most certainly know who to ask.

The Obamabots

You’ve seen them. You’ve conversed with them. You may have even shouted at a couple. You may even be one, or in a process of recovery.

They’re most certainly among your neighbors, workmates, and relatives. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Obamabot. Depending on how they make a living, they may also be a Twitter Thug.

Now I know there are a lot of folks who identify as Obamabots, using the term endearingly to describe nothing more than a passionate supporter. That’s fine, and I wouldn’t discourage them for a moment; I’m just using the term rather differently here.

What is an Obamabot? For me, someone who:

• reacts with panic and/or outrage to any criticism of Obama or prominent Democrats

• regards any such criticism as a personal attack on Obama, the nation, or people of color (truth in advertising: I’m latte.)

• regards any criticism of Obama or prominent Democrats as an extraordinarily potent threat to their re-election which must be countered by any possible means

• is unable or unwilling to respond to any such criticism without scolding, name-calling, making fun of last names, and/or personal attacks (e.g., “takedowns”)

• lacks the knowledge or skills needed to respond to such criticism with reasoned arguments

• has cultivated indignation over a perceived indignity into an art form

• over-relies on “counterproductive” and its synonyms to discourage any criticism of a Democratic president

• cannot understand how anyone could disagree with Obama on anything and still vote for him (truth in advertising: like me)

• cannot understand how anyone who doesn’t do what they do could possibly think they’re a more effective advocate for a candidate or cause

• regards any criticism of them as criticism of Obama, Obama supporters, or Democrats in general

In short, an Obamabot is a demagogue who masquerades as a patriotic American on Twitter who’s trying to stifle dissent (and thus strangle our democracy) out of blind and fanatical devotion to a beloved leader.

Now why do I care? For an Obamabot, of course, the only thing I care about is destroying Obama.

I care primarily because I think our nation and civic traditions deserve more and better conversation, not less and worse.

Also, I don’t know the man, but I don’t suspect Obama wants Obamabots. My hunch is the man wants passionate people armed with nothing more than convictions and reasons volunteering for campaigns, talking to neighbors, and driving people to polling places.

I’m also impelled to write this by a growing sense that this kind of extremism might be just enough to turn off independent voters, something which Democrats just cannot afford to do.

Twitter Thugs

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Yes, hi, I’d like to hire one of your people this afternoon.”
“No problem. We have thugs for every job and budget.”
“Great. There’s this guy — at least I think he’s a guy — who’s been bothering me a lot on Twitter.”
“What’s the issue, ma’am?”
“I don’t know, it just seems no matter what I say he makes fun of me or something I tweeted in a way that everyone laughs at. And then retweets.”
“So on top of being the butt of the joke — if you’ll pardon the expression — you’re a bad sport for not laughing all this off.”
“Exactly. What can you do?”
“Ma’am, we have a crack team of Twitterers working around the globe 24/7 to make sure nobody has to stand for this kind of nonsense.”
“Oh good.”
“What we’ll do is get some information about the offending Twitterer first, then my associate will get a credit card number, and we’ll have everyone laughing at the obnoxious jerk within minutes.”
“Oh thank you, Twitter Thugs!”
“You’re quite welcome, ma’am. You have a nice day.”

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Hi. Would you folks be interested in buying some ad space on my website?”
“How many unique hits a day?”
“About 50,000.”
“Sorry, not interested.”
“It’s a website for folks struggling with anger management. Hello?”
“I’m sorry. Please continue.”
“Last month we had a guest blogger showing our readers how to raise their self-esteem online by lowering that of others.”
“I’m going to transfer you to our personnel department. We have a recruiting drive scheduled for this spring.”
“We’d be perfect.”
“You might hear a few clicks, don’t hang up.”
“OK, thanks.”

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Hi, we — I mean, I have a problem. This isn’t being recorded, is it?”
“No, sir.”
“Good. I need you to discredit some people online.”
“Sure. Can you give me some background?”
“They’re a group of investigative journalists who are really, really annoying me. Just me. Personally.”
“Of course. Is this a one-time affair or would you like to open an account?”
“Um, can we — I mean me, I — can I see how things go first?”
“Absolutely. If you like what you see we can discount our Credibility Reduction membership fee accordingly.”
“That sounds great.”
“Ok hang on, my associate will take your info.”

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Hey, you guys hiring?”
“Depends. Whatcha got?”
“I’ve been told I’m a total wiseass.”
“OK, anything else?”
“I’ve had my ass kicked throughout grade and high school because my mouth wrote checks my body couldn’t cash.”
“All right, I have a few questions for you.”
“Got a smartphone?”
“Yes. And several Twitter accounts.”
“We provide all our associates with their own Twitter accounts. I’ll need quick answers now, so I know you’re not Googling. Ready?”
“Who’s the current President?”
“And before him?”
“Bush. George W.”
“Good. What do Juvenal and Jonathan Swift have in common?”
“Both noted satirists.”
“Very good. Now, if someone calls you a pussy, what do you say back?”
“I tell them that we are what we eat.”
“Hold the line and someone from personnel will be on shortly to take your information.”
“Dude, that’s excellent!”
“Have a nice day, and thank you for thinking of us.”

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Good morning. I’m calling because I’m just an ordinary citizen very upset over the way my candidate is being portrayed by some on Twitter.”
“We get that all the time. What’s going on?”
“There are folks claiming to be members of my party doing nothing other than reporting complaints and concerns about my candidate and I’m sick of it.”
“I see.”
“As I’m sure you know, there’s a very important election coming up.”
“Politics is a dirty business, you know.”
“Of course.”
“Blood sport. And I play to win, take no prisoners. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Sir, we cater exclusively to the toughest nails alive.”
“Good. Naturally we’re concerned that any negativity directed towards our candidate could affect voter turnout at this critical time.”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘we?'”
“No, I did not.”
“Of course, sorry. May I ask something?”
“Have you tried taking the critics head-on?”
“Every day.”
“I mean, taking on their arguments. Using evidence to show why what they’re saying is false, misleading, or dangerous.”
“No, this is on Twitter. Listen, am I dealing with a professional here?”
“Of course. Let me transfer you to our Dirty Tricks department and we’ll have our team get on it right away.”

“Good Morning! Twitter Thugs!”
“Yes, I need an undercover operation to expose the enemies of a free and decent people. Money is no object, and I’m prepared to pay in direct proportion to the juiciness of the lie.”
“I’m sorry, we’re a Twitter service and we never, ever engage in deception.”
“All right. Fidelio.”
“Please hold, ma’am.”
“Good Morning! Fox News! How can I help you take your country back today?”