gender, language, other topics, politics

The Logic of the Primary Process


Ruth Wodak has sent me a thoughtful, and disturbing, article from the Guardian. It makes perfect sense, suggesting what to say to the Sanders fans who are refusing to even consider voting for Clinton, and some of whom are declaring that they would actually prefer Trump. The writer’s arguments are thoroughly persuasive – to me.


It is disturbing on two grounds: first, that Democrats even have to worry about how to persuade presumably rational people to switch to Clinton rather than Trump (this would seem to be a no-brainer, so why isn’t it?). But more disturbing is the fear that the article’s rational arguments will be of little use in accomplishing that goal. The real reasons those voters find it easier to move from Sanders to Trump, rather than Sanders to Clinton, are not rational, and therefore logical arguments against them will fall on deaf ears.


The diehard anti-Clinton position of these Sanders supporters is not about what it purports to be about. If you take each of the claims they adduce to support their argument, it falls apart under examination. This would be true in any case, but when those arguments are used to justify voting for Donald Trump, they become positively, bizarrely, crazy. Unless, of course, they are rationally crazy, or crazy like a fox, not unlike the Donald himself.


Take two examples:


(1) Clinton is too hawkish – she voted for the Iraq war. OK, it is easy to agree with that now, with 20/20 hindsight and without trying to understand what Clinton’s situation was in 2002. I can say, with all due smugness, that I was on the right side and marched against the war, but then I was not a new and very prominent senator from a major state who was contemplating a run for the presidency. Since Clinton is female, it was important for her (whose voting was being closely scrutinized) not to look too dovish, probably more than she would have reasonably worried about being too hawkish. And few of us, even those already opposed to the war, could have had any idea then about what a total unmitigated disaster it would turn out to be. So yes, Clinton voted expediently, as ambitious politicians will. But did that vote represent her true feelings – did it show she was and is a genuine hawk? We just can’t know.


For that matter, what is a reasonable position on war these days, when the world keeps shifting in dangerous ways? I have always said that peace should be the default, but now we’re faced with the whole Middle East mess, Syria and Isis and what’s left of Iraq. Perhaps, as the then-pacifist Illinois state senator has come to learn during his presidency, hawkishness is not always the greater evil.


(2) Clinton is a “liar,” she’s “untrustworthy.” When people voice this opinion, they are seldom asked the essential follow-up: what lies has she told, exactly how is she untrustworthy?


Well, there’s Benghazi, except that 11 hours of testimony and much investigation keep vindicating her and showing that the accusations are based on malicious politics. The same would appear to be true of that “e-mail scandal” that the media gurus are so fond of. That “misuse” of e-mails, the argument goes, makes her “untrustworthy” – unlike the liberals’ new fave Trump, who is so very open and honest about everything.


I have written before about Clinton’s unique problem: she has been in the public eye (and ear) for a quarter of a century, for all that time subjected to the most minute and biased scrutiny. So yes, over that interval of time she has said things that might not meet one’s high standards of truthfulness. But the next time someone makes this argument, try this reply: Over the last 25 years, can you say with certainty, and with full candor, that you have never, not once, said the thing that was not? Never, you say? Then you’re a liar – or an oaf.


And why does Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail server make her “untrustworthy”? What exactly, does this word mean? Some synonyms of “untrustworthy” bear inspection: unreliable, undependable, irresponsible. Among the semantics these lexical items share is this: they all imply the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the actor (the “untrustworthy” person), and the victim, the one affected. Trust is an interpersonal relationship.


So how does Clinton’s use of e-mails compromise anyone’s “trust”? They never were the recipients of any of her e-mails, or even if they were, how they were sent in no way made them, or their contents, fraudulent. So Clinton’s use of an unorthodox e-mail server might (at least in 20/20 hindsight) have been inadvisable, but it is absurd to claim it made her “untrustworthy.” But a power-seeking woman is ambitious. An ambitious woman is not a real woman, or a real anything else. So she is not trustworthy or reliable – she doesn’t conform to the comforting ancient definitions. But it is risky to make that argument, nowadays (I’m happy to say). So Bernie’s gang has to find a “valid” reason for their mistrust. That’s what it’s all about.


Clinton has proven herself to be not a good woman – not one who would conventionally be worthy of “trust.” She is ambitious. She speaks up. Good women do not behave this way. Good men do, naturally.


Until a couple of centuries ago, that distinction was clearly represented in the English vocabulary, in the use of the word “honest.” An honest man, back before the nineteenth century as well as today, was one you could trust in all the usual ways: he wouldn’t cheat you financially or at cards; he represented himself as he actually was. Used about a man, “honest” had no sexual implication.


But an “honest” woman was something else: a chaste woman. If married, she had sex only with her husband; if not, with no one. The other senses of “honest” did not apply to women. And an honest woman was a trustworthy woman, one who behaved like a proper, stereotypical woman.


Too many people (including quite a few liberal Democrats, who might be expected to know better) are still stuck in eighteenth-century modes of thought when it comes to women. (I include women among them.) The special sense of “sexually chaste” no longer applies to “honest,” but too many people are still making use of an implicit lexical double standard. What counts as “trustworthy” behavior for a male politician is much more flexible and amenable to context than what is considered trustworthy for a woman – as with sexual behavior, a woman’s communicative behavior must be much more rigidly orthodox than a corresponding male’s. So here as so often, Clinton is being judged by a unique and newly minted set of rules.


And this is why the Sanders-Trump fans are not arguing about what they purport to be arguing about. If they were in their right minds, it would be crystal clear to them that the distance between Sanders and Clinton is infinitely smaller than that between Sanders and Trump; and that a Trump presidency would threaten everything they, and Bernie Sanders, hold dear. And yet, their position makes a perverse sort of sense, at least to them.


For more people than we would prefer to think, the election of a woman to the U.S. presidency is a source of existential threat. If it were to happen, it would shake the complacent belief in male superiority and the male right to power. Both men and women, conservatives and liberals, would have to rethink their place in the cosmos. And, at least as they perceive it, they would come out the losers. They would lose perhaps the last reliable Other – the only group they can safely despise and scapegoat in public.


This was the case in 1930s Germany, a scared and humiliated nation facing (as voters saw it) existential annihilation. They looked for a savior and a scapegoat, and both were conveniently provided, the latter of course in the form of an age-old object of fear and loathing, the Jew, and the former in the guise of a man with a weird haircut. And we know what happened next.


This was the case in the American South in the 1950s and ‘60s, still smarting from their loss in the Civil War and feeling that they were falling behind the rest of the country, when they were forced to submit to integration. Many Southerners reacted with violence and acts of terrorism. Arguably, the existential fear desegregation imposed on them is what is still operative there today, though the targets (the convenient Others) have shifted. Rather than African Americans (not polite), the focus of their terror has shifted to the LGBT community. But it’s the same thing. In both of these cases, while purportedly “logical” arguments were provided and too often given credibility, the real argument was about something quite different and tacit. The primal fear was and remains about acknowledging the full personhood of a historically othered group.


The argument on which the Sanders-Trump faction is currently relying is based on that same fear, but about women. Since male supremacy over women goes deeper, and has gone on longer, than religious or racial fear, questioning it is bound to produce deeper angst and a less rational but more stubborn response – even among liberal Democrats, who should know better.


The nature of the Sanders/Trump faction’s fallacious reasoning is, therefore, best understood in terms of what psychoanalysts call the primary process, and psychiatrist Silvano Arieti has termed “paleologic.” This is a mode of thinking typical of young children and psychotics, but which also can manifest itself in otherwise rational adults in psychological crisis. While this form of thinking seems logical to those who use it, in fact it is a kind of parody of true logic – it uses superficially logical forms of argumentation in the service of nonsense. It substitutes analogy for identity; the wish for the reality; metaphorical for literal; and is fond of all kinds of overgeneralization. So the wish that Clinton lied about Benghazi becomes, in the desperate mind, the reality that she did; the shaky analogy between non-adherence to the rules of the State Department’s e-mails becomes a ”crime” (according, for instance, to Donald Trump). Clinton is not a good woman, so she is not to be trusted in any way. A New York Times article notes that many of these Sanders people actually rejoice over Clinton’s e-mail problems and hope they get worse. For a liberal Democrat, this thinking represents an extreme of irrationality.


Thinking of this kind is infantile and pathological, but very attractive in existential crises. This is why so many of Sanders’ adherents are so loath to abandon it, and why presenting them with adult forms of reasoning is unlikely to affect their beliefs or their actions.