The Language of Adrenaline Addiction
I just have to start this month’s commentary with a pet peeve. Why do liberals so often echo the loaded language of the partisan right? Do these people never learn? It continues in the post-SOTU address stories about Social Security and Medicare. No, these are NOT, repeat NOT "entitlements." And privatizing either, even partially, and increasing the age at which benefits begin are NOT "reforms." Both programs are modest-return, safe and stable insurance programs that virtually eliminate risk because they are tied directly to the U.S. Treasury, the world’s most secure and stable source of currency. They do away with winners and losers because, modest as the interest rate on your payroll tax is, it is the same for everyone. When Republican politicians use the term “entitlement,” it is to suggest that you haven’t earned that SSI check you start collecting (as long as you’ve paid payroll taxes into the system — oh yes, that is “skin in the game”) between ages 62 and 70. The media and, all too often Democratic politicians then repeat that skewed language. A single word turns the country’s most popular public program on its head.
Rick Lowe, “Black Wall Street Journey #2,” 2020. Courtesy ©Rick Lowe Studio and Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Thomas Dubrock
Lowe pays tribute to the building of Black wealth, painting the metaphor of dominos to represent the city of Tulsa,
Oklahoma's Greenwood neighborhood, known as "Black Wall Street." It became the target of the 19821 Race Massacre
Some voters naturally drift into the fantasyland notion that their own SSI and Medicare coverage is well earned, but that unnamed others are getting a free ride. Some partisans on the right get even further carried away, calling the whole system a “Ponzi scheme.” I’m looking at you, Ron Johnson. They are both fucking insurance programs that working Americans pay into. At a certain age we each then receive a good old fashioned ROI based on a common capitalist model, but one that is deliberately kept pretty much even across the board, based on a social democratic model. What makes it so fair and so popular is that we all get that same return. It is not a bonanza for some, a partial or total loss for others. There is nothing entitled, let alone Ponzi, about them. But this is true: private financial service companies of various stripes can only dream of additional billions in profits every year. That is money they would love to get hold of, and there are always Republicans who are eager to represent those interests. But the only way to serve such corporate clientele is to mis-characterize the programs from top to bottom, and deny their vast social good. These are corrupt partisans who know exactly what they are doing: throwing jabs in search of a knockout punch.
Warren Neidich, “Pizzagate Neon,” 2023. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Fuhrwerkswaage, Cologne, Germany
Republicans such as Rick Scott and Mike Lee feign outrage when called out for their history of hostility to these insurance programs (say it: insurance programs), and in a way you have to admire the performance and their persistence. That entire segment of the SOTU had to be such an emotional rush for many on that side of the aisle. President Biden came prepared to manipulate the lot of them. The gazillion-term former Senator is quite familiar with the routine, so he used it to elicit that now famous pledge from the Republicans to leave both popular programs alone. For now; the coyote pack will be back soon enough. But the weird energy in the House was palpable, compared by many observers to the routinely and famously raucous sessions of the British Parliament. The late night shows began running clips of fisticuffs that occasionally take place in various foreign governing houses where one-party dictatorships do not rule. It seems to me that the stale, recycled energy that the posturing and lies produce attracts adrenaline junkies such as Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene to run for public office the way that light draws moths. Such people may be electable with the MAGA majority of voters in their nice, safe home districts, but they are little more than caricatures of democratically elected representatives.
I admit that much of what passes for political debate frustrates me for the simple reason that it is electioneering masquerading as policy discussion. So many voters go along with — no, demand — the emotionally loaded language, blatant and repeated lies in its more Trumpian manifestation, that has become the irrational, dyspeptic mainstream of Republican “thought.”
Rank and file voters demand party leadership to lie to them deliberately because if they do not hear what they wish to hear they go elsewhere to find it. (Such deliberate manipulation hasn't even a grain of truth; and the leaders get away with it with sufficient regularity with a broader public, though by no means all or even most of the time) The tension and release of the exercise is gratifying to both leaders and led alike. For their base, seeing folks who they would like to bring down a notch squirm is an immediate reward: they call it “owning the libs.” Their satisfaction is far less a product of an honest difference in moral perspective and far more the result of "getting even" with people whom they believe and are told look down on them, but whom they known little or nothing about. The least among reasons for their reflexive buy-in on the privatization of Social Security is that doing so will lessen (or even eliminate) the national debt.
When mainstream media and Democrats swallow and then repeat language like “entitlements” or “reform,” they not only validate the dishonesty, they dismay and even compromise many of their allies and voters. Most Americans do not experience a pleasurable rush of emotion when getting away with a lie, or a cheat, or the ruin of fellow citizens. They empathize, and that feeling of empathy biases them towards actual policy — in functional terms, problem solving, in aesthetic terms beauty. For Republicans, especially MAGA Republicans, the debate is no more about policy than it is about ideal form. It’s about getting theirs.
Mark Bryan, “The Reckoning,” 2019, oil on canvas, 44 x 70”
Jon McNaughton, “The Masterpiece,” giclee print
Fox News provides as clarifying an example of this disconnect as I can recall since the shutting down of ACORN back in 2010. Google it kids. Much of the media, along with Congressional Democrats, swallowed a single piece of deliberately manipulated video evidence to pre-judge ACORN before the court of public opinion, leading to the defunding and demise of an admirable voter registration program. That supposed fraud was discredited the following year. Planned Parenthood was set up in similar fashion after this “success,” but the reprise did not work for the obvious reason that the element of surprise no longer existed. But here we are a decade later with baseless assertions of voter fraud as a central tenet of right-wing theology, right along with generations-old tropes of liberals being communists and socialists — enriched with QAnon fantasies of baby killers busy grooming impressionable middle schoolers for a transgender adulthood. What makes the rush of trying (more often failing than succeeding) so attractive? Money. The recent court release of deposition material from Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox made crystal clear the deep moral and intellectual corruption of that not-a-news organization.
Now turning our attention just a tad to the Georgia Special Grand Jury that last week concluded its hearings, at this writing criminal indictments appear on the verge of being issued, and the now standard Big Lie of election fraud has once again been debunked. At the same time, the governors of some states strive to stifle the robust telling of our own national history in order to secure the vote of the most bigoted Americans. Educators in those very states and around the country contemplate their own course of action to ensure that our kids learn the full story and are given every opportunity to think for themselves and discuss it openly. In other words, however toxic this litany of false narratives may be, there are a litany of truthful responses.
We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that these responses, however effective and honest they may be, will put an end to such conduct. The impulse to fabricate on a social scale is too tempting for people who are moved by the personal acquisition of wealth and power, particularly at the cost to others (not despite that), as their first principle. This is not an intellectually driven debate rooted in competing notions of the public good. Some simply have it built into their DNA that the suffering of others in service to themselves is perfectly acceptable, indeed a source of pleasure.
Edward Sorel, “Richard Nixon as W.C. Fields,” c. 1970, pen, ink and collage on paper, 17 1/4 x 15 1/2”
For such predators the most convincing proof of an enterprise’s success is when a shoddy or destructive product (or service, or policy) attracts support. There is a long and extensive enough history of this practice that it has a name: snake oil. Its purveyors comprise only a small fraction of the human family, but that is still a large number, and such people do not suffer shame from the suffering they cause. Far from it. To borrow from W.C. Fields, they will never give a sucker — their marks, their voters — an even break. And there remains, sadly, a plentiful supply of those.
A small but crucial detail of our biology is our adrenalin system, a hormone produced by a gland that rests atop our kidneys. Physical activity and stress cause the adrenal hormone to be released into the bloodstream, the general effect being to add energy to our normal level of exertion. For most of us this back-up system kicks in when we need it to boost our performance. For some the hormone is insufficient to make much of a difference. For others it functions like a drug, providing what we call an adrenaline rush. Many people that enjoy what are called extreme sports do so because of the pleasure that rush gives them. And for a certain group the risk of having dishonesty or abusive conduct exposed provides a similar rush. Absent guilt, shame, or remorse these people are properly termed sociopaths (or in a yet more extreme form, psychopaths). They take pleasure in getting away with their misconduct. Their numbers probably do not vary substantially from era to era, but their impact on the rest of us ebbs and it flows. It has long produced its own language and techniques, along with wars and genocides. Please let’s not be taken by surprise yet again. And please, please, let’s resist the lazy trap of adopting the very language they use to sew doubt.
Senators Rick Scott, Mike Lee, and Bill Cassidy yell as President Joe Biden delivers the State of
the Union address on February 7. Photo Courtesy Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/APF Gallery Images