Slate: How the Right Won the Hawk Tuah Girl – This is a huge, huge problem for Democrats

Luke Winkie writes for Slate July 3, 2024:

…you tend to wield the internet for the pursuit of pleasure and nothing else—then you will be perceived to be right wing. And frankly, that is not a sustainable electoral model. The Democrat experience should not be a gantlet of soul-crushing fury and anxiety. The party must make room for people who enjoy life and all of its beautiful frivolities, which—if we’re being brutally honest—is the default setting all of humanity should be aspiring toward. We shall all come together at the DNC, hand in hand, and spit on that thang.

In his work-in-progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression, philosopher Rony Guldmann writes:

Medievals were distinguished, not by any generalized amorality or egoism, but by a fundamentally different mental and emotional landscape. They lived in a society where individuals gave way to their impulses and drives with an ease, spontaneity, and openness that is foreign to us today. And so they had emotional lives that were comparatively unregulated and liable to oscillate violently and unpredictably between extremes. The violence, license, and general disorder may have been formally opposed by prevailing social codes. But those codes remained just that, codes, precepts which were known but not at all internalized to the degree to which they are now. No one imagined that they realistically could be. By contrast with the automatic self-control that we now take for granted, the incurable unrest, the perpetual proximity of danger, the whole atmosphere of this unpredictable and insecure life, in which there are at most small and transient islands of more protected existence, often engenders even without external cause, sudden switches from the most exuberant pleasure to the deepest despondency and remorse. The personality, if we may put it thus, is incomparably more ready and accustomed to leap with undiminishing intensity from one extreme to the other, and slight impressions, uncontrollable associations are often enough to induce these immense fluctuations.” Human beings were more animal-like, not only in the externals of habit and self-presentation, but also at the deeper levels of their affective-instinctual make-ups. They were much more beholden to whatever random stimuli emanated from their immediate environments, because much less able to step back from them. This was a consequence, not of ignorance, but of their particular human constitutions and the social conditions that made these adaptive. Self-discipline is now a desideratum of social success and respectability. But things were otherwise within an insecure existence that permitted only minimal thought for the future…

“…a moment ago they were joking, now they mock each other, one word leads to another, and suddenly from the midst of laughter they find themselves in the fiercest feud. Much that appears contradictory to us—the intensity of their piety, the violence of their fear of hell, their guilt feelings, their penitence, the immense outbursts of joy and gaiety, the sudden flaring and the uncontrollable force of their hatred and belligerence—all these, like the rapid changes of mood, are in reality symptoms of the same social and personality structure. The instincts, the emotions were vented more freely, more directly, more openly than later. It is only to us, in whom everything is more subdued, moderate, and calculated, and in whom social taboos are built much more deeply into the fabric of instinctual life as self-restraints, that this unveiled intensity of piety, belligerence, or cruelty appears as contradictory.”

…Norbert Elias: “religion is always exactly as ‘civilized’ as the society or class which upholds it.”

One of the decisive developments in the Western civilizing process, writes Elias, was the transformation of warriors into courtiers. This political transition entailed a set of thoroughgoing psychological changes that would eventually spread beyond the monarchic courts and profoundly affect the identity of the modern West, shaping our basic concept of what it means to be “civilized.” Elias writes that the affects of the independent, self-sufficient feudal lord of old had, like those of medievals in general, enjoyed “rather free and unfettered play in all the terrors and joys of life.”

With the feudal lord’s time being “only very slightly subject to the continuous division and regulation imposed by dependence on others,” he did not develop a strict and stable super-ego through which compulsions stemming from others became self-restraints. But all this changes with the rise of the great royal courts of the absolutist period. Now “his value has its real foundation not in the wealth or even the achievements or ability of the individual, but in the favour he enjoys with the king, the influence he has with other mighty ones, his importance in the play of courtly cliques.” Under these new conditions, “He is no longer the relatively free man, the master of his own castle, whose castle is his homeland. He now lives at court. He serves the prince. He waits on him at table. And at court he lives surrounded by people. He must behave toward each of them in exact accordance with their rank and his own. He must learn to adjust his gestures exactly to the different ranks and standing of the people at court, to measure his language exactly, and even to control his eyes exactly. It is a new self-discipline, an incomparably stronger reserve that is imposed on people by this new social space and the new ties of interdependence.”

This new social space spawned a new personality structure, a new “peculiarly courtly rationality” under whose aegis “the coarser habits, the wilder, more uninhibited customs of medieval society with its warrior upper classes, the corollaries of an uncertain, constantly threatened life” became “softened,” “polished,” and “civilized.” Medieval mayhem and wantonness were now suppressed, as power became less and less a matter of brute physical force and was instead exercised through words and surveillance. This left individuals more socially vulnerable than before, and this changed their relationship to themselves. With the radical heightening of the level of the day-to-day coercion people could exert on one another, “the demand for ‘good behavior’ is raised more emphatically,” and that “[a]ll problems concerned with behavior take on new importance.”

Earlier medieval couldn’t just ignore others’ interests, of course. But now the level of consideration people expect of each other is magnified, as the “sense of what to do and what not to do in order not to offend or shock others becomes subtler”—and also more binding.99Occupying his social position with relative security, the independent knight of old felt no need to banish coarseness and vulgarity from his life. But with the court having become a kind of “stock exchange” in which the his value was being continually assessed and reassessed, he could no longer afford this former freedom.101Gone were the days in which joking could lead to mockery and from there to violent disagreement and violence itself in the span of a few minutes. Gone were the days in which one could leap from the most exuberant pleasure to the deepest despondency on the basis of slight impressions. What mattered now was others’ impressions, not one’s own, and the foremost task became impression-management, which also meant self-management.

A new self-consciousness emerged on the scene, not because essential human nature had been liberated from the confining horizons of a benighted past, but because a new social milieu created inner depths out of outer necessity. Whereas political standing was formerly decided by the sword, it is now “[c]ontinuous reflection, foresight, and calculation, self-control, precise and articulate regulation of one’s own affects, knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in which one acts, [that] become more and more indispensable preconditions of social success.” People now “mold themselves more deliberately than in the Middle Ages” and increasingly “observe themselves and others.” Directly or indirectly, the “intertwining of all activities with which everyone at court is inevitably confronted, compels…[the courtier] to observe constant vigilance, and to subject everything he says and does to minute scrutiny.”

Here is where Western man first becomes “psychological,” because it is here that social self-preservation comes to require “a more precise observation of others and oneself in terms of longer series of motives and causal connections,” a “vigilant self-control and perpetual observation of others.”106With social status now hinging on words rather than swords, “[s]tylistic conventions, the forms of social intercourse, affect-molding, esteem for courtesy, the importance of good speech and conversation, articulateness of language” all assume a newfound importance. “Good taste” acquires a new prestige value, as members of courtly society listen “with growing sensitivity to nuances of rhythm, tone and significance, to the spoken and written word.” Every plebian expression was to be eliminated, replaced by language that was, like courtly etiquette generally, “clear, transparent, precisely regulated.”

All the self-aggrandizing impulses that formerly expressed themselves brutally, coarsely, and openly now assume a more “refined” form. Pride and contempt are now expressed subtly and obliquely, through the manipulation of the intricate shades of social meaning which the peculiarly courtly rationality spawned. Earlier social arrangements unmarked by complicated chains of human interdependence generally encouraged either “unambiguously negative relationships, of pure, unmoderated enmity” or else “unmixed friendships, alliances, relationships of love and service.” Hence what [Norbert] Elias describes as the “peculiar black-and-white colouring of many medieval books, which often know nothing but good friends or villains.” But the extended chains of functional dependencies in which one became enmeshed at court encouraged new levels of ambiguity, contradiction, and compromise in the feelings and behavior of people. These now became marked by “a co-existence of positive and negative elements, a mixture of muted affection and muted dislike in varying proportions and nuances.” The courtiers had to become more calculating and less wholehearted—less “sincere” and “authentic,” we might say. Such was necessitated by the new social interdependence. If people developed a new moral sophistication, this was the product, not of advancing knowledge, but of the gradual introjection of social exigencies, the muting of affect-structure required by the peculiarly courtly rationality.

This new social and psychological sophistication developed hand-in-hand with the lowering of the threshold of shame, embarrassment, and repugnance in the social relations of the European upper classes, as “people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal.’”113There wasan intensification of disgust before the ejection of saliva, which becomes increasingly shunned.114Attitudes toward food, and meat in particular, also undergo a transformation. Whereas carving up a dead animal at table was formerly standard practice, and possibly a source of pleasure, becoming “civilized” meant eliminating any reminders that meat involves killing animals.

…Whereas the subtraction account naturalizes the “the retrained instinctual and affective impulses denied direct access to the motor apparatus” as the ordinary human desire that remains upon the discarding of religious and metaphysical illusions, the mutation counter-narrative reveals these desires as the internalized refraction of specific social pressures. The innerness of the modern self is not an underlying feature of human nature that had been artificially suppressed by illusory teleological hierarchies, but the product of specific forms of social inderdependency. What the subtraction account upholds as plainspoken “fulfillment,” is more thickly described as what Elias calls “a particular moulding of the whole personality,” a molding that “emerges more strongly the more clearly and totally the spontaneous impulses of the individual threaten to bring about, through the structure of human dependencies, loss of pleasure, decline and inferiority in relation to others, or even the ruin of one’s social existence.”154The ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity is merely the introjected reflection of these dangers, a social ideal suited for a particular social terrain.

This is the broader context for my argument last chapter that the self-understanding of modernity is distorted inasmuch as it mistakes the disengaged lucidity of the strategic agent for a primordial phenomenon that simply displaces the teleological immersion of pre-moderns. By contrast, the mutation counter-narrative reveals that the disengaged strategic self is a derivative phenomenon that has been superimposed on that immersion. And so this self remains in its own way permeated by and extended over a “field of social meanings,” which is what structures the concrete shapes the disengagement assumes. Whereas the subtraction account is a story of displacement, the mutation counter-narrative is a story of superimposition. It is the historical record of the social mechanisms, both religious and secular, through which porous selves unselfconsciously accepting of the “Field Theory of Man” were progressively compelled to “turn back” on themselves and assume a posture of reflective disengagement extricated from the fields of social meaning to which they were formerly subject. The extrication is indeed just a posture, the deceptive and self-deceptive histrionic mimicry thereof, because it was itself facilitated by various mutations in a field of social meanings that emerged from the compression of the religious and the secular into the courtly-ascetic ethos, into the buffered distance. We may see ourselves as wholly self-possessed and thus operating in a “neutral environment,” but this environment is in fact structured by these origins and so less neutral than it appears…

Charles Murray observes: “The culture of the new upper class carries with in an unmistakable whiff of a “we’re better than the rabble” mentality. The daily yoga and jogging that keep them whipper-thin are not just healthy things for them to do; people who are overweight are less admirable as people. Deciding not to recycle does not reflect just an alternative opinion about whether recycling makes sense; it is inherently irresponsible. Smokers are not to be worried about, but to be held in contempt.”

… What, after all, is the exuberance of chugging cheap domestic beer at a NASCAR track or monster truck competition but a symbolic proxy for the unselfconscious coarseness of the medieval who, not yet disciplined into a peculiarly courtly rationality, lived in a world defined by squalor, danger, and physicality? And what is the more refined pleasure of sipping white wine or latte at an art gallery but a contemporary variant of the ways of court? The latter’s emphasis on “good taste” and its “growing sensitivity to nuances of rhythm, tone, and significance” would clearly be out of place at the NASCAR track—someplace where the spiritual and the worldly have not been compressed into one another, where ordinary human desire has not been imbued with a new spiritual significance. In identifying themselves with NASCAR, motorcycles, and the like, and identifying liberals with more effete interests, conservatives are simply protesting the disciplines and repressions of the buffered identity, scapegoating those who have most thoroughly internalized this identity as its root cause, which actually lies in historical forces rather than human intentions. As we saw in Chapter Two, Mike Gallagher believes that liberals despise the “power and thrust” of gas-guzzling V-8 engines. In urging environmentally-friendly but impotent electric cars upon their fellow Americans, liberals are asking us “to stop hitting the accelerator—on our cars, on our ambitions, on our appetites, on everything.” Here as elsewhere, what may seem like an empty ad hominem is in fact anything but that. For what is the “power and thrust” celebrated by Gallagher if not a symbol of the unrestrained and un-subdued affective-instinctual structure of the pre-modern self? What is liberals’ break on the accelerator but the muting and subduing of that structure within the buffered identity? This is how conservatism “makes medievalism modern,” as Robin says—by projecting onto the contemporary scene the basic structure of the conflicts through which the modern emerged out of the medieval.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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