Moral Artifacts of the Shutdown

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.  The government shutdown is making life miserable for federal employees and government contractors, but it’s the greatest show on earth for students of human nature.  Ingroup/outgroup behavior, first described in formal academic terms by Sir Arthur Keith, Freudianized by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and probably the most important “root cause” of human warfare throughout the ages, can be observed in its crudest forms on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum.  As Keith put it,

Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior.  At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.

To judge by the partisan political blogs, Keith’s early humanity was quite successful in passing those traits along to later humanity.  Typically, commenters in such forums are firmly convinced that the “others” are not just misguided and mistaken.  They are perceived as disgusting, stupid, and deliberately evil.  For example, from the comment section of the left wing Talking Points Memo in response to an article about who’s to blame for the shutdown,

The hillbilly homegrown terrorists know what they’re doing, and the whole point is to shut the country down and cause pain for the people they don’t like (aka “other Americans”).

Republicans don’t believe in polls.  Or science.  Or math.  Or medicine… I’m not really sure what they do believe in besides the “invisible hand” of the market and the concept that an “invisible man in the sky” has chosen them specifically to spread gun-love and lecture poor people, minorities and women on why they are inferior.

Republicans hate the black man in the White House and that hatred trumps everything else.  They will force default just to spite us.

…and from an article on the shutdown on Powerline, a similarly partisan blog on the right wing of the spectrum,

170 years ago it was whether a certain race of people should be enslaved; today it is whether our entire population should be shackled and softly enslaved by an overly oppressive government.

My (grand)father’s Democrat Party didn’t have Marxist garbage like Van Jones nor feral types like Alan Grayson.  Since I would never answer to such garbage we’re back in 1850’s America.

I do think a tipping point has been reached when you have the specter of the federal government literally barricading (a deliberate solecism on the right, playing on the President’s name) state roads, to prevent people from getting a view, a corrupt attorney general literally stepping into states, to disallow them to institute basic voting safeguards.  A labor department literally blocking the gates of a company in South Carolina, because they didn’t pay proper respects to another political group.  This government is harming real people now, for no more reason than thin skinnedness and spite.

Notice the symmetry?  As usual, both sides can see the other’s spite and hatred, but not their own.  For example, from the Powerline comments,

Conservatives think that liberals are wrong, but liberals think that conservatives are evil.

Readers of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind will recognize his “inner lawyer” at work here, busily rationalizing moral emotions.  As usual, Haidt’s “rational tail” is hard at work wagging the “emotional dog.”

We are less than a year away from the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, and there are some interesting commonalities between the shutdown and that conflict.  Since humans were/are involved in both conflicts, it is not surprising to find the human traits associated with status seeking and dominance figuring as important factors in both.  Students of history will recall that the relevant suite of emotions went by the name of “honor” in World War I.  Prior to that conflict, Austria-Hungary had directly challenged Russia by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.  Russia, recently weakened by the 1905 Revolution and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, had been forced to back down, and was perceived, both by herself and others, as having acted weakly.  In 1914, Austria challenged Russia again, mobilizing against her ally, Serbia, and shelling Belgrade.  This time, however, Russia was determined not to lose face.  Her leaders imagined all sorts of dire consequences if she backed down again, ignored the immeasurably more dire consequences of not backing down, and ordered their own army to mobilize.  That got the ball rolling in Germany, and the rest is history.

In the last government shutdown during the Clinton Administration, the Republicans also backed down, in part because of polls showing the public blamed them for the mess, and were humbled just as the Russians were in 1908.  Now the Republicans face their own 1914.  In what they probably perceive in more or less the same way as the Russians perceived the shelling of Belgrade, their political enemies forced through a program they bitterly opposed without a single Republican vote.  Now they, too, refuse to back down, and the Democrats are just as determined not to lose face.  One must hope that the outcome won’t be quite as drastic for the Republicans and Democrats as it was for Russia and Austria-Hungary.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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