Notes on Notes on “Notes on Hype”
April 22, 2012

Rob Horning in The New Inquiry:

Hype already presumes that no one completely buys into it; the passive dope who just responds to hype with naive enthusiasm is obviously a straw man, the creation of which is hype’s chief achievement. Hype creates this stooge that makes us feel smart in being jaded about hype. Advertising generally works by trying to make audiences feel smart and insecure at the same time; it flatters us but makes us know that the flattery is conditional. Hype says: yeah, you are probably smarter than to fall unreservedly for this obviously overhyped thing, but still you better know about it so you know just why you haven’t fallen for it. As Powers notes, Through our engagement with hype “we are at once too savvy and not savvy enough.”

Rob’s talking about the private sector here, but is there any better way to describe avid campaign trail watchers than, “at once too savvy and not savvy enough?” It’s amazing, for example, just how closely Rob’s account of the life of a hyped product maps onto the arc of the “Obama ate a dog” meme. That meme doubtless enjoyed such a long time in the sun because the people who first hyped it wanted everyone else to buy it — but the savvy onlookers who mocked its insignificance and wove increasingly elaborate dog-eating puns surely extended the meme’s lifespan. In their hurry to show how smart they were for not falling for such a dumb story, they hyped it up some more.

But in that case, what’s actually being hyped? I would argue that what’s actually being sold — unbeknownst to the people doing most of the selling — is not one particular campaign meme, but a general assertion about the value of that genus of campaign memes. When Democratic pundit X tweets, “This Obama eats a dog story is really stupid and trivial” as if that’s news, they’re reinforcing the implicit assumption that it could have ever been anything but stupid and trivial. The dog-eating story is trivial, but Romney putting the dog kennel on top of the car is significant. George W. Bush clearing brush is trivial, but Hillary Clinton in sunglasses is an important reminder of how cool she is. And so it goes. When you hype a particular team, you’re also hyping the whole sport.

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Decision Points
November 22, 2010

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 09:  Former U.S. President G...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In his review of Decision Points, George Packer writes that former President Bush “has no toleration for ambiguity”

he can’t revere his father and, on occasion, want to defy him, or lose charge of his White House for a minute, or allow himself to wonder if Iraq might ultimately fail. The structure of “Decision Points,” with each chapter centered on a key issue—stem-cell research, interrogation and wiretapping, the invasion of Iraq, the fight against AIDS in Africa, the surge, the “freedom agenda,” the financial crisis—reveals the essential qualities of the Decider. There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back.

No wonder, then, that Fox News continues to function as his in-house PR firm. The whole right-wing noise machine is oriented towards one thing: the promise of a wholly unambiguous world, with the evil elites on one side and the salt-of-the-earth forces of good on the other. Why, in a world like that, would historic decisions ever be difficult?

Torture Without Torturers
November 21, 2010

Via Andrew Price’s Twitter feed, an article on the psychology of the great American torture debate:

2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.

“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”

Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”

It strikes me that there’s another dimension to this as well, though. I don’t have the research to back this up — though hopefully Carlsmith and Sood, or others, might do some further studying — but the people I’ve encountered who defend America’s torture regime either deny the amount of pain inflicted or categorically refuse to classify it as “torture,” or both. There’s also a distinct separation and depersonalization at work here, not just with regard to the detainees, but also to the torturers themselves. For all the talk about “giving the military the authority to do what they have to do,” and so on, we lose the main point about whose responsibility this is: ours. This is still a republic, and if we sanction members of our government to torture others without legal consequences, then the onus falls on us.

I think this changes the context of the debate significantly. Defenders of torture are willing to stand alongside authority figures who, presumably in the interests of their safety, commit unspeakable acts. But are these defenders willing to assume responsibility for the acts themselves? The less we allow them to hide behind abstraction, the better.

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