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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

We the Aggrieved
October 29, 2012 - 3:00am

Have you heard about the phony Paul Ryan photo-op at an Ohio soup kitchen?

Of course you have. Everyone has. It was the outrage of the moment, just on the heels of Mitt Romney’s “binder” awkwardness in the debate, happening simultaneously with the Republican outrage over “Benghazi-gate.”

Paul and Mrs. Ryan stopped at a soup kitchen, but all the patrons had been served, the food and dishes stowed. Nonetheless, the Ryans aproned-up and pretended to scrub already spotless pots and pans for the assembled press gaggle.

I have no idea where this incident ranks on the all-time pointlessness and stupidity scale when it comes to political photo-ops. My guess is at least reasonably high because while all photo-ops are staged and canned events, usually at least the staging is genuine. If we are at a pancake breakfast there are pancakes to be eaten. If we are judging the Miss Corn Harvest contest, a Miss Corn Harvest is crowned.

The Ryans move at the soup kitchen was like showing up to kiss some babies at an orphanage to show compassion, and finding none, substituting  Cabbage Patch Dolls.

The only thing that kept it from being a full-on Potemkin was that it was an actual soup kitchen and not a three-star restaurant posing as one.

One thing I am confident in is that on the scale of political news that should be dispositive when it comes to making one’s choice in the impending election, 10 being extremely relevant and 1 being “about as important as who wins the next iteration of ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ” this story rates a -3.

Nonetheless, after several major news agencies published the photos without the full context, i.e., “Congressman Paul Ryan sprays water over already clean dishes in a deserted soup kitchen,” the head of the soup kitchen justifiably complained about his organization being used as a prop.

This probably should have ended things, as the record had been corrected, the full story and context now known.

But our story does not end there because in the nation of the aggrieved, outrage is now a boomerang. The head of the soup kitchen was identified as a Democrat, and the soup kitchen’s Facebook page became a troll swamp of hatred and bile and donations to the organization were reportedly pulled.

The counter-backlash soon engaged, and donations began flowing from different sources, which is to the good, but my overwhelming response to the entire incident, including the happy ending that a soup kitchen that utilizes private funds to feed the hungry and homeless would stay in operation, was defeat and sadness.

For me, it looked like just another skirmish in the grievance wars, where everyone has something they can (and will) complain about.

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Victim politics used to be almost the exclusive province of the left, but conservatives have more than given them a run for their money in recent years. While Rush Limbaugh pioneered the practice of conservative grievance, it is Fox News that brought it to the mainstream of the starboard side of our political ship.

The entire network was founded on a grievance, the notion that the “lamestream” media is biased against conservatives and Republicans, and a sort of counter-narrative became necessary. I don’t really wish to litigate the charge of liberal bias in the media, except that the charge, as made, for example, by the conservative Media Research Council, that the media is in the business of “shamelessly advancing a left-wing agenda,” would be met with surprise by actual leftists who instead see a corporate hegemon, invested in making sure we remain well-behaved, consumerist sheep.

Me? I see a landscape where something called Honey BooBoo gets as much coverage as climate change. What kind of bias is that? Stupidity bias?

I’d also note that the charges of bias wax and wane with the fortunes of conservatives’ preferred political outcomes. Now, we’re not hearing it so much, but in September, as Mitt Romney’s fortunes took a blow from the release of the “47% tape,” attention turned to political polling, where a methodological flaw was suddenly discovered, in that there was a systematic oversampling of Democrats, thus inflating President Obama’s standing. Never mind that party identification is fluid and not something pollsters actually control for in sampling (in the way they do sample for race, gender, income, etc…), there’s a conspiracy afoot.

Thankfully, to give us the truth, we now have “Unskewed Polls,” which currently has Mitt Romney in a 54% - 46% lead in the popular vote and a 359 – 179 margin in the Electoral College.

In contrast, Nate Silver’s “538 Blog” forecasts an electoral vote victory for President Obama, 295 – 243.

I’m going to go out on the world’s sturdiest limb and say that while the ultimate result obviously remains in doubt, barring some world-altering event, Silver’s projections will be significantly closer to the actual results.

And yet, the notion that the polls are systematically biased in significant and deliberate ways against Republican candidates has become an article of faith.

Apparently, we are being victimized by an elite media peddling a kind of confidence game to keep President Obama in office.

This sort of narrative takes root because it fits with the dominant right wing theme of the Obama presidency, not that he is misguided, but that he is both illegitimate and dangerous. It’s easy to see how this creates a victim mentality, and leads to grievance.

The man is a Kenyan, but no one will do anything about it! He’s a socialist who wants to destroy America!

The only understandable reaction if you feel this way is anger, and then impotence. In this particular world, we are apparently powerless to stop a fraud.

The resulting anxiety drives you batty.

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Believe it or not, I sympathize.

While it is perhaps politically savvy, and maybe even strategically "necessary," for President Obama’s campaign to focus on a strategy that seeks to disqualify Mitt Romney as a candidate for President, as opposed to a strategy that draws distinctions between the candidates' competing visions for the country, this choice of strategy has disappointed me.

Sure, Romney has given Democrats plenty to work with, considering his history as a master of the leveraged buyout, and his “47% remarks” and the way he seems genuinely out of touch, and how his positions change from moment to moment, depending on who he’s talking to, but this narrative, that Mitt Romney is a heartless plutocrat who can’t wait to get into office because he desires nothing more than to put the poor and vulnerable deeper under the thumbs of the rich and powerful. is, at its core, as empty as the charge that Barack Obama is a socialist who wishes to destroy America.

Now, I happen to believe that Mitt Romney’s stated policy preferences will indeed be bad for the poor and vulnerable, while also doing little to stimulate the economy in a way that will provide benefits for anyone other than the already wealthy, and further exacerbate the debt to boot, but this is not the same thing as believing that Mitt Romney is out to get me and my kind, personally.

Because he isn’t. While I think his policies will be a disaster, I do not believe that Mitt Romney wishes me ill.

If we truly believed that our political opponents held these sorts of nefarious motives, we’d be honor bound to rise up Founding-Father-style and clean house, but given that we’re really just cheesed off and frustrated in general, we take to the comments sections and nurse our little grievance gremlins.

As I’ve written elsewhere, these campaigns, focused on minutia designed to do the maximum to stoke our mutual antipathies and grievances have made me mental.

Every story, almost every bit of political news is small bore, inconsequential (like the failed Ryan photo op) and also infuriating to all sides.

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To whit, a small event from last week.

In a non-surprise, Gen. Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. Under rational circumstances, this would’ve been worth a paragraph in the paper, a blurb on the wires.

Instead, Romney surrogate John Sununu redirected the story to grievance-land by saying, “Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being President of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

Just like that, we’re not talking about Powell’s endorsement anymore. Dave Wiegel, at “Slate” even said, “By muttering that Powell had only weighed in to help out a black dude, Sununu changed the headlines and denied a day of strong surrogate news on the issue the president's getting hit on.”

By reminding everyone that this election is really the battle of our grievances, Sununu apparently helped Romney “win the day.”

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None of this would really be a problem if the battle of the aggrieved was limited to our quadrennial elections. After all, our country was founded on the redress of grievances. If our forefathers hadn’t gotten super pissed about quartering troops and overpaying for tea, we’d be calling Kate Middleton “princess” and preparing for the next Commonwealth Games. To take some time every four years to air out our dirtiest laundry in the form of a presidential election would probably be a healthy thing.   

The problem is that the politics of grievance is omnipresent. Our Congress can get away with doing nothing because they are empowered to do so by their constituents who believe their grievances trump anyone else’s. We hate that nothing changes, but it’s better than the other guy getting something we might deserve for ourselves.

Right?

The other problem is that, at least as I see it, the language of grievance has come to dominate all manner of public discourse. It is as though every day is the Festivus holiday.

It is possible that we’re living through a kind of perfect storm for this sort of behavior. When we feel more insecure economically, our fear that what we do have might be taken away is bound to increase. We also have a world where we can pitch these battles at a moment’s notice within the virtual spaces we inhabit. If we feel like lashing out against our enemies, it doesn’t take long to find them.

Take a look at the comments section at a left-leaning site like “Salon,” or a right leaning one like “National Review,” and you will see an audience that wants nothing so much as to wail about how unfair everyone is being to them, particularly their political opposition.

This pattern is even true of a place like, dare I say it, “Inside Higher Ed.”

Any story with a remotely political angle is guaranteed to be the most commented on of the day or week.

The moment I saw the headline on the IHE article reporting that academics are “Moving Further to the Left” I could already envision the battles opening up in the comments.

And there it was, the broad brush paintings of what liberals and conservatives "want," with each side declaring that the other knows nothing about the “reality,” of being liberal or conservative.

Everybody had a grand old time being misunderstood, I assume.

More disconcertingly, the same pattern played out in the story of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted at Amherst and was failed by the administration in the aftermath of the attack.

One commenter decided it was a good forum to lash out against “Femalists,” who apparently don't merely advocate for equal treatment for women, but wish to destroy men. To my eye, this commenter is essentially asserting that false allegations of rape against men are a larger problem than the actual rape of women.

Several commenters openly questioned the veracity of the young woman, ironically, (and I hope unintentionally) displaying the attitudes that made it so difficult for her to come forward in the first place.

This young woman’s story is tragic. Go to her original statement linked in the Inside Higher Ed article and read it and try to tell me otherwise. In a healthy culture, the only emotions it should engender are deep sadness and empathy. Instead, it is used as just another forum where we get a chance to say, “screw her, what about me?”

Yes, false reports of sexual assault occur, and they are terrible, but that fact does not somehow diminish this young woman’s suffering.

This failure of empathy terrifies me. Call me a liberal squish, but for me, our capacity for empathy is what makes us human. If we cannot express basic human concern over a young woman who was raped and ill-served by her collegiate community without airing our own grievances, we are no better than beasts.

It is the same impulse that makes the Penn St. student body the victims of Jerry Sandusky, or the white male the new oppressed class. It is how Bill O’Reilly can declare that there’s a “war” on Christmas and not have every sentient creature laugh at him.

In the race to the top of grievance mountain, apparently no one wants to be left behind.

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I am in no way immune to these feelings. When things don’t go my way, I often reach to identify my oppressors.

When my book fails to become a best seller, it’s because I’m involved with a publishing industry that pushes crap, instead of substance.

Or maybe the truth is that most books don’t become best sellers, and no one had it in for me.

When my salary is frozen for six years, isn’t it because state governments refuse to appropriately fund their public universities. Shouldn’t I blame conservatives because that’s who controls the state legislature?

Except that it isn’t “conservatives” who control the legislature. The legislature is run by very specific people elected by the citizens of my state. If I meet a conservative from, say, Maine and start ranting about how “you conservatives” are taking food out of my mouth, well, that just doesn’t make any sense.

At the same time, when someone says to me, “You liberals just want to punish the successful,” I don’t know who they’re talking about, because that isn’t me.

Things have gotten tribal. It’s not very “we the people,” if you know what I’m saying. It seems more like, “we the people who agree with me.”

The greatest existential threat to our continued existence as a species is ignored, apparently because it’s an issue that belongs only to one team.

To give in to our grievances is to abandon our most precious power, the fact that we can exert individual choice and act according to our own consciences.

By implying that our failures aren’t our own, and can be blamed on someone else, what does that say about our successes?

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