Saturday, March 12, 2016

Damon Linker is a real babyman

At the deepest level, psychologists have often understood personal development as a lesson in what one can and cannot control. When we are babies, we come to discover that we can control some things in the world (our bodies) but that some things (say, the chair across the room) seem completely unresponsive to our wants and desires. We enter the world of language when we discover that some noises (such a crying) often elicit predictable responses (getting fed), though not always - and that while we can operate within these rules, we cannot necessarily change them. So it goes through all kinds of stages of development, culminating (Freud argued) in our mastery of the most powerful urge of all: the sex drive. Here we learn that we cannot control other people in order gratify all of our desires - we do not, as Freud famously observed, get to have sex with mom or dad, even if we want to - and if we do not learn this lesson, we are consumed by the Oedipus complex, and destroyed by all kinds of inabilities to reconcile what we want with what is.

Particularly in late capitalism - which is so good at satisfying any imaginable desire, if you can afford it - "no" is a lesson that the privileged only imperfectly learn. The basic psychological mechanisms that help you negotiate your biological drives with the outside world never get properly calibrated or stress-tested.

One extremely common symptom of this, Lacan argued, is that you fail to become properly integrated into the world of language. The world where, among other things, "no" means "no". You are like a baby who won't stop crying because you just cannot accept that it isn't feeding time, or that your mother is trying to sleep. You think that if you make just the right noise, or that if you make it long enough or loud enough, you'll get what you want. The transaction feels more complicated than that once we start using our words, because we think that we are "reasoning with" people or "persuading" them - but the underlying psychological mechanisms are the exact same. When the Oedipus complex goes unresolved, you aren't able to recognize the limits of reason or persuasion; you keep trying to thread the needle, to rehearse a slightly different line, and you fail to recognize that you are not going to get what you want.

It's easy to see how this kind of infantile psychology expresses itself in capitalism. One of the most obvious examples: so-called "pickup artists". Men who use uninterested women to relitigate their failed conquests of their own mothers. By learning just the right turns of phrase, they can get around the linguistic barriers of words like "no"; by learning to escalate physical intimacy in just the right way, they can control another woman's body as if it were their own. There's a reason why the sorts of people who become PUAs are so often middle-to-upper-middle-class suburbanite white guys: they're used to getting what they want.

Here, I'll just conclude by noting that you also see this kind of infantilism in another prominent social group: liberals. Damon Linkers.

Right now, Trump supporters are telling Damon Linker, "No. We do not actually want to negotiate with you. We do not want to work towards a political compromise. We want to take back this country for ourselves, and we will do it forcefully if we have to."

Damon Linker cannot understand this. He does not realize that no means no. Damon Linker thinks that if he cries just the right way, loud enough or long enough, he is going to talk other people into doing things that they quite clearly do not want to do. He thinks this because he is used to getting what he wants and is incapable of understanding a world where he cannot spin and puppetmaster his way into political victory. Because of this, he has a clinically infantile belief in what Freud called the "thaumaturgic power of words", and thinks about persuading uninterested voters like a pickup artist thinks about persuading uninterested women.

Everyone knows that Damon Linker is like this, but it's useful to understand why.