The Bully and the Nerd

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker

Wed Jan 05, 2011 at 08:00 AM EST


Pardon me for repeating this metaphor for the third time in a week, but here goes...

Picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground.  C'mon, you know this story.  The bully makes demands, and if he doesn't get his way, there's hell to pay.  The nerd thinks about good solutions and has some great ideas about what the playground could look like.  We could all take turns on the merry-go-round, and make sure that everyone gets a seat on the swings.  But the bully reigns supreme on the playground. He feels like he owns the place; like he's entitled to have the whole playground reflect back to him his dominance and worldview. When challenged by the nerd - which doesn't take much - the bully throws a violent temper tantrum.  He punches and kicks and hits and bites and name-calls and spreads lies about the nerd all around the school.

From my recent post The Centrality of Fear in Right-wing Hegemony:

It's not a winning equation for the nerd and all his smart reasoning skills. The bully commands fear. We feel the need to respond to him and accommodate him because when he doesn't get his way he'll hit us and kick us and bite us and pinch us (yes, he fights dirty) or call us a terrorist-lover or a Muslim or a communist.
Jonathan Matthew Smucker :: The Bully and the Nerd
Then I said, "We need a better story than the story of the bully and the nerd."

But I've changed my mind.

Upon further reflection, I think the story of the bully and the nerd is a great story.  I mean, just watch Back to the Future. Nobody like bullies (okay, actually some people do, but I'll discuss that some other time).  In terms of who we would rather hang out with, have over for dinner, date, sleep with, have children with, have as neighbors, and on and on - most of us strongly prefer nerds to bullies.  Bullies suck.  And nerds can be infinitely interesting.  The story of the bully and the nerd doesn't need a different title or framework.  It needs a different ending.

And our character needs more depth.  Our nerd needs some power to go along with her smarts.  Superpowers would be fun - I'd love our nerd to be Peter Parker or Clark Kent - but that wouldn't make for a very instructive story.  Our story isn't going to end in a dramatic shoot-em-up scene where V blows up Parliament or Neo magically decodes the matrix and makes the dreaded Agent Smith explode from the inside out.

Our nerd has mostly to learn to not be afraid.

That's the simple way of putting it.  We have to learn not only how not to be afraid ourselves, but how to pull others out of the debilitating headspace that fear induces.  We have to use our nerd skills to study the science of fear and anxiety; how it stupefies and makes people make very bad political decisions.

Fear is the primary tool of the authoritarian leader (that means the bully).  When people are afraid, they bow to bullies. When people are not afraid, they open to ideas.  This arrangement means that the battle between progressive and conservative ideas is asymmetrical.  Things that we think should work - like the power of reason and rational debate, for example - do not work when the scene is saturated with the toxicity of fear.  We need to better understand how fear works as a tool.

And we need to realize that the bully is not just a big stupid dummy. Sure, maybe some of his followers are.  But when the bully sounds like he's not making any sense and is spewing irrational blather (e.g. Newt Gingrich), it is often on purpose.  The bully is a very good story-teller.  His stories have villains (gays, immigrants, terrorists, gay-immigrant-terrorists, even black socialist presidents), victims ("I want my country back"), and heroes (often himself, or he can happily appropriate others for this purpose).

Like James Carville lamented on Meet the Press after John Kerry lost the 2004 Presidential election, "They produce a narrative, we produce a litany." Sociologist Francesca Polletta expounds on this in It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics:

The Republicans gave voters villains and heroes; new characters in age-old dramas of threat, vengeance, and salvation. The Democrats ticked off a dry list of familiar issues.

In the bully's story, fear (e.g. of terrorism) is stoked and then branded onto us (progressives are "terrorist sympathizers" or "weak on national security") to inoculate people against our ideas and our leadership.

We need a narrative that captures enough people's imaginations and that inoculates against the bully and his fear-mongering tactics and messengers.  We need to peg his mission, messengers and tactics with labels that carry our frame and story - instead of reinforcing the Bully's story and power.

This is the main reason I was impressed with Obama the candidate, and my biggest disappointment with Obama the President. Obama the candidate seemed to really get - and put his oratory skills in the service of - the need to tell a progressive hegemonic story that reaches past people's fears to connect with their best selves and most positive values. He ran on a People's History narrative, retelling the story of America from the perspective of challenger movements (Civil Rights, Abolitionists, Women's Suffrage, and Labor) - framing them as the heroes and shapers of the best of America.

I didn't expect much in terms of progressive policy from this administration, but I expected a better narrative. Somewhere along the way President Obama seems to have forgotten that you can't feed fear.

Now we're back to this for the status quo (me on a recent thread at Open Left):

Republicans stoke fear.  Democrats try to counter their arguments by speaking to those fears - rather than re-grounding and reaching past the fear to connect with people's better nature - and consistently come out the worse for it.  One wonders how many Democratic politicians today truly understand FDR's admonition that, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Despite this reality, I think that progressives still have a lot to learn from the narrative strategy and skills of Obama the candidate. Real progressives are always ready to stand up to fear.  But Obama the candidate had a style of bucking fear - and connecting past it - like nobody's business.

What was that all about? And what do I mean by "progressive hegemony?" Stay tuned...

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