October 2, 2013

Identity politics -- Balkanization or normlessness?

More and more you hear phrases like "the gay community," despite the utter absence of community among gays. And no, it doesn't count that they congregate in the same space to get high and jerk each other off. There couldn't be anything more egocentric. They have no sense of belonging to an ethno-cultural-linguistic group that has been around for a long time before they were born and will continue on far after they've died. Hence their profound sense of being social outcasts and cultural orphans, desperate to have the mainstream give them a big hug, pat them on the head, and tell them "I love my dead gay son."

In fairness, it's not just the queer community that has no community -- women, the handicapped, fat folks, and most glaringly, autistics do not have a social-cultural community unto themselves. Women are part of the black or white community, fat people could be Mexican or American, and so on. The closest thing there is to an unrecognized community is the deaf -- they do form enduring groups together primarily based on linguistic separation from outsiders, who they cannot join, and who show little interest in learning sign language to join them.

And sure enough, the community-free groups are the ones we keep getting beat over the head with. Black rights or black power couldn't sound more passé for do-gooders, and when was the last time you saw a national or regional propaganda campaign relating to deaf people? Open borders and immigration are popular causes, but those are more tactics of class warfare than of ethno-cultural autonomy.

And we've only been beaten over the head with these groups since the early 1990s. Political-economic divisions and polarization have been steadily increasing since the later part of the '70s, and no later than 1980. If "identity politics" were about political-economic conflict, then we should've seen a surge of it all through the '80s. Yet it's not until circa 1992 that homo-enablers and feminazis really come out of the woodwork, and somewhat later still for tubbo tolerance and sperg pride.

So, rather than being a case of Balkanization or divide-and-conquer, identity politics looks like it belongs to something else. Specifically, something not political or economic, but more social or cultural. A change in the average person's mindset, and in what they prefer or prefer not to see in their popular culture.

The main change of the past 20 years in that realm has been cocooning. How has that caused the rise of identity politics? Socially isolated folks shouldn't care about other people's issues, after all. But most "supporters" of gay marriage, feminism, etc., these days don't actually care about those issues. It's just a signal they send to let others know I'm on the right side, so don't come after me. They just want to be left alone in their cocoons.

Hence the rise of "South Park Republicans" -- people who still probably make gay jokes, or laugh at them when others make them, but are still officially on the side of homosexuals. It's an ideological quid pro quo -- I won't judge you if you won't judge me, deal? I'll refuse to enforce any norms upon you if you refuse to enforce any upon me, deal?

So it is the grassroots push for normlessness, rather than for cultural autonomy, that is driving identity politics. If I, the cocooner, want to be left alone and not have anyone else pass judgement on me or hold me to any set of norms and standards, then I have to give a blanket approval to all other groups who might have judgement passed on them. The more severe the would-be judgement, the more credibly I signal my commitment to not commit to a group. Like, I'm not just striking a bargain with my neighbor who has his own ordinary problems that could use some community norm enforcement -- I'm giving a pass to the most clearly abnormal groups like gays and autistics, folks with obvious neural dysfunction at a basic level. If I'm that personally involved in social uninvolvement, you can trust me to ignore everyone else's norm violations as well.

Why didn't we see a surge of identity politics during the cocooning mid-century? I think the political-economic polarization plays a secondary role. Folks back then weren't into being into other people's lives, so there was a widespread sense of drift and malaise, but the political climate was firmly toward consensus and harmony. This made it impossible for special interest groups to hijack the process and turn normlessness into a political weapon.

I'm still busy looking deeper into Victorian, especially late Victorian, popular culture, but I think there may have been something more like what we know as identity politics. And it was precisely the two main groups that we've seen in our own time -- women and gays. The Victorian "New Woman," and the homo mafia among the elite that tried to make a political statement out of buggery, a la Oscar Wilde. A decent size of the gay population in large English cities were outright cross-dressers -- as in, enough to be visible and commented on -- while mid-century homos were almost all in the closet. Flamboyant faggots have only returned within roughly the past 20 years -- again, I mean common enough to see how flagrantly they flout our norms in public.

In any event, as depressing as normlessness sounds, I think over the long term it has a better chance for reversal. Again consider how decadent and perverted the end of the 19th century was, compared to The Wonder Years of the 1960s. Balkanization is far less likely to reverse course -- just look at the Balkans.

15 comments:

  1. hey man, I've got a question. I forget if you said this before or not, but do liberal policies cause cocooning(or are they a result of cocooning?) And do conservative policies cause an outgoing culture(or does an outgoing culture vote for conservative policies?

    thanks

    -Curtis

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  2. It looks more like people cocoon first, and then begin to adopt liberal policies. Cocooning is such a personal, immediate decision, whereas political orientation takes awhile to respond to changing circumstances and perceptions. Might take five years or so to really gel into place.

    Cocooning begins in the late '80s or early '90s, whereas resurgent liberalism doesn't get going until about the mid-late '90s.

    On the flip-side, folks became more outgoing in the late '50s, but naive worry-free liberalism still hung around through the early '60s, before gradually becoming viewed as a failure / disgrace / etc. Barry Goldwater was not a New Deal Republican like Eisenhower had been, and he didn't get nominated until '64. And it wasn't until '68 that a segregationist, George Wallace, could win 14% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes.

    One of the greatest misconceptions about the 1960s is that they were a triumph of liberalism, rather than the first clear sign of people's new perception of its reach exceeding its grasp, and so needing to be rolled back. The revival of libertarianism and the fundamentalist religious awakening were two other clear signs.

    And like all else that got started in the Sixties, conservatism peaked in the Eighties.

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  3. I agree with your earlier analysis that present day US "Conservatism" and "Liberalism" have a lot to do with the current division, where the earlier Liberalism of the 60s-80s was more anti-establishment.

    Not sure I'd characterise the politics of the 1930s - 1950s as worry-free Liberalism exactly. More that their relative welfare state and public works friendliness was an extension of their low inequality promoting policies, combined with their low average age and have average levels of health and sanity meaning that payments for retirements programs, etc. were not a very major burden. Technocratic optimism and confidence in science must also seem easy to justify in light of the achievements of WWII and that tech capability was still growing, and growing within living memory (more or less as Greg Cochran has argued).

    I don't see much signal that expansion of the state really rolled back or ceased rolling forward at the same rate during the 1960s-1980s, but there may have been a new naivity about how to finance it (Reaganomics), and a naivity about low inequality and high community cohesion's roles in making liberal, public focused state projects work, which could lead to a sort of Libertarianism and Liberalism that didn't exist before. Can't see any rollback happening without major financial crises (which are more of a present day to immediate future phenomenon) - they're certainly not going to be motivated by any posturing about being an outgoing, self reliant individual.

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  4. your incessant and puerile hostility towards gays mars an otherwise interesting blog, btw.

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  5. Glad to hear it. If losing legions of precious internet followers does even a little bit to slow or halt the slide toward complete normalization of abnormality, I'll be happy to take one for the team.

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  6. "Technocratic optimism and confidence in science must also seem easy to justify in light of the achievements of WWII and that tech capability was still growing, and growing within living memory"

    The World of Tomorrow at the 1939 World's Fair was way before Allied victory in WWII. So was the Streamline Moderne aesthetic, and it's quick degeneration into the International Style (corporate Bauhaus).

    Futuristic optimism also came well before the invention of the transistor (early '50s), or the spread of computers and aeronautics (both post-WWII).

    They didn't have that kind of naive futurism during the 1920s and early '30s. Technocracy and technology were more likely to lead toward the neo-feudal world of Metropolis. And they were fascinated by "backward," Gothic, Ancient Egyptian, and other styles.

    Yet the telephone, car, radio, etc., were contempo or recent inventions. They thought they were cool new things, but weren't tech-worshiping like mid-century and Millennial folks are. Tech worship is independent of the current state of the art, or its trend in recent history.

    Again just compare the 10 years leading up to the World of Tomorrow phenomenon. What dizzying cornucopia of new things had come out between 1929 and 1939? That was too sudden of a shift in the popular mindset.

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  7. "More that their relative welfare state and public works friendliness"

    Liberalism is more than just inequality-reducing policies, though. As opposed to conservatism, there's an ideal of marching toward ever-increasing Progress. And again, technocracy and Corporatism are more shifts in the mindset unaffected by politics or economics.

    We have at least as strong of a faith in technocrats, social engineers, and latter-day Robber Barons as mid-century people did, yet we have the opposite political-economic mood regarding inequality, public works, and welfare.

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  8. "I don't see much signal that expansion of the state really rolled back or ceased rolling forward at the same rate during the 1960s-1980s"

    That's not the fullest picture of what conservatism represents. The ERA got stopped dead in its tracks in the late '70s and early '80s, and feminists went AWOL throughout the '80s.

    Ditto the group identity politics that took off during the mid-century and spilled over into the '60s.

    Although the shrink establishment had earlier taken homosexuality off the list of obvious mental disorders, normal folks at all levels of society grew more wary of queers during the '80s (GSS data shows "homophobia" rising during the '80s compared to the '70s). They may not have all thought that AIDS was karma in action, but they didn't see buggerers as innocent victims.

    The religious revival, especially of more Charismatic groups, was also at its peak during the '80s. Hard to ignore that when taking stock of how liberal vs. conservative a period is.

    The drug war was at or near its peak -- using authority to keep people's minds and bodies free from dangerous foreign pollution.

    Then there was the whole conservationist movement. That may have gotten started in the '60s, but actual practical efforts to save the local Art Deco picture palace don't begin until the '70s. That's one unfortunate thing about architecture in the '80s -- you might have expected Art Deco v.2.0, but they decided instead to devote their efforts toward preserving early 20th-C. buildings, which mid-century people had allowed to fall into disrepair or be razed for sterile strip centers and ugly box buildings typical of their time.

    Even liberals were more into conserving the Ain't-That-America past rather than bulldozing the way toward phony progress:

    "Small Town" (1985)

    The narrow focus on the welfare state also ignores the need to de-trend a series undergoing rapid or exponential growth in its early stages. Obviously the rising-crime and falling-crime mindsets aren't going to be as strong of influences over the expansion of the state right now since there's been a steady surge since the Industrial Revolution.

    What we want to capture are how that speeds up or slows down, relative to the overall skyrocketing trend that has nothing to do with crime rates.

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  9. Those developments may not seem relevant to the "political" realm, but they are -- they show how more socially connected people began to organize and manage much more of their lives at a local grassroots level, with a more informal and immediate code. Not outsourcing so much of life to the government and corporations.

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  10. How much does and ageing adult population contribute to cocooning? One thing that people forget about the 50s is how old the adult population was, not as old as it is now but similar to what it was about 2000.

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  11. Seems like everywhere I go, people have their shades on. Depressing as hell.

    -Curtis

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  12. "How much does and ageing adult population contribute to cocooning?"

    The peak of youth bias in the age pyramid is in the early '80s for America, IIRC a bit earlier for European countries. And you can see signs of emergence from cocooning in the later half of the '50s, while the youth bias doesn't get going until a little later in the '60s.

    So it's a decent predictor, but not a substitute for cocooning. It looks like what it predicts for crime rates -- decent job, but not the majority of the story. Whereas cocooning and crime rates go almost hand-in-hand, with crime following outgoing-ness by a few years.

    Another way to refine the idea is to look just at a specific age group -- disaggregate the population. If it's all about changes in the age pyramid, then you shouldn't see too much change within a youthful age group.

    But young people are precisely where you see the largest changes over the past 20 or so years. Small children used to be out on their own for most of the day during the '80s, and teenagers were managing their own complex social lives. Now they're all locked indoors all day.

    30-somethings used to have more of a life than now (church, dining and dancing, nightlife in general), but the difference isn't as drastic. That group still goes out, just less so, and has their guard up the whole time. They aren't entirely locked up indoors all day long.

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  13. Modifying the idea to look at the ratio between young vs. middle-aged / old groups doesn't change the timing either. The youth-to-old ratio rises, peaks, and falls, more or less when the youth-alone share does.

    That idea does make better sense to me, though -- it's not so much about how big the youth cohorts are in absolute size, or as a share of the whole population. It's about their share vs. the older share -- the force that wants to expand fun-loving-ness, and the opposite force that wants to contain it. The net or balance of those two determines how much youth drives the society.

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  14. "Seems like everywhere I go, people have their shades on."

    Sunglasses on an overcast autumn evening indoors is definitely a uniquely 21st-century thing. The Victorians would have been doing the same thing too if they had them. Along with girls' neo-Victorian bonnets today ("slouchy beanies" or hoodies.

    All they need to complete the burqa look is something going across their lower face. In fact, a week or so ago there was some hipster airhead chick with a balaclava type thing, but with the lower half only... somewhat like a muffler, though more like a tube top for her neck and lower head.

    She did have earbuds in, but could've used some bigger headphones, wraparound sunglasses, and a slouchy beanie to complete the penguin look.

    It was still pretty warm outside, so temperature doesn't explain it. And it's not like there were no cold winters back in the '80s. People just dealt with them in less offensively anti-social ways.

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  15. You've discussed shifts in the lengths of movies here before. This post from Gabriel Rossman is a few months old and so might be old news to you, but in case it isn't the data on lengths of hit songs could also be informative.

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