Since the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich and his para-parliamentary faction initiated its take-over of the Republican Party, I’ve struggled to describe (or identify a lucid framework to help me articulate) what sort of pathology had infected the GOP, its rhetoric, and its attitude toward the liberal left, the nation’s media, and our government itself.
With help from the Washington Post, I think I’ve finally stumbled upon the words to describe this larger framework: I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK.
Refugees from the 1970s will perhaps recognize this reference to Thomas Harris’ 1969 pop-psychology treatise, “I’m Ok — You’re Ok”, whose title refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates Harris’ coinage, but they go together: One cannot treat his/her neighbor well if one doesn’t have a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.
There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK — You’re Not OK), and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK — You’re OK).
It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Let me describe why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that support it.
You’ve probably heard tell of the recent failed frame-up of the Washington Post, whereby a right-wing “media watchdog” group called (ironically) Project Veritas was caught red-handed trying to feed the newspaper a false story re. Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate, Roy Moore. The intent of these dirty tricksters at Project Veritas (PV) seems pretty clear and undisputed: WaPo — which has led the reporting on Moore’s sordid, cradle-robbing past — knowingly publishes the fake story; Project Veritas calls out the paper for its lack of reporting acumen borne of liberal bias; WaPo is then discredited, in the narrow context of any further reporting on the Alabama U.S. Senate race, but also in the broader context of all its political reporting.
The whole thing backfired, of course; WaPo’s reporting process (a fact-based process) proved to be anything but the partisan exercise PV would like to have alleged.
But PV’s strategic thinking here is yet another example of a longstanding dynamic — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, as the WaPo example and hundreds more would capably illustrate. But the underlying rationale behind this behavior and attitude from the right, this I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK sociopathy, has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing media bias for 30 years. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to tilt media coverage (to favor or otherwise advance the right) surely will do so — in large part because he/she alleges counterpart, left-leaning media types are operating on the same mendacious level.
This charge that fact-based media (known colloquially on the right as “mainstream media”) are themselves movement soldiers, are themselves equally in the tank for left-wing causes, has led to an extraordinary perversion of the right-wing journalistic ethic, one with larger political goals. Listen to Breitbart.com editor Matthew Boyle speaking to this phenomenon during an event held this summer:
“Journalistic integrity is dead. There is no such thing anymore. So, everything is about weaponization of information. Both sides are fighting on the battlefield of ideas and you know, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, Associated Press, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, the whole alphabet soup — they’ve all thrown in together with the institutional left.
“Our viewpoint at Breitbart has always been that we’d rather be open about our personal biases. We’re openly conservative. We don’t hide it. We’re very honest with our audience. We told people we all wanted Trump to win last year. If you’re open with your audience about that, I think you’re honest with your audience.”
The mainstream media, he continued, “claim to be objective. They claim that they don’t have a side. And many of them actually believe their own lies. So, a lot of these people are decent human beings who are working in a broken institution. We’re getting past these guys… We’re winning this war and we’re outnumbered. So the more people that get involved, the more people that stand up and fight, the closer we are going to get to a total victory.”
For any media outlet, there’s a big difference between being open about an organization’s political leanings (something fact-based media routinely do, in their editorial/opinion pages) and openly admitting that said media organization would actively, knowingly fabricate or distort a story in order to fit a desired narrative.
But read Boyle’s reasoning more closely: Breitbart claims to have gone this direction because the mainstream media (the “opposition media” in this perceived war of ideas) is deploying similar tactics already. This is not the case and never has been the case. Nevertheless, this sort of cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism has informed right-wing media for 30 years now, and today we see the result, the right wing’s desired result: huge swaths of the American public perceive all media-delivered information as strenuously biased, and so it has all been devalued to the point of castration.
Sorry to get all dramatic and pointed here, but this is yet another tried and true tactic deployed by fascists and authoritarians. Hannah Arendt explains:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
Note that there was no pretension on the part of Project Veritas to determine whether Roy Moore’s accusers are actually telling the truth. The bumbling dirty tricksters at PV don’t care about truth. To them, it is beside the point. Like religious zealots, they care only about furthering the narrative, spreading the gospel, which, as Boyle makes clear, centers on destroying the credibility of competing, fact-based media.
Would-be fascism of this ilk brings with it an entirely new set of language and tactics, which, though shocking, offensive and nihilistic on many levels, isn’t inscrutable. Here’s a benign example: When our president says, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” what he’s really saying is, “I just found out how complicated health care can be.”
The WaPo sting attempt speaks symbolically, but with fulsome clarity, to the intentions of right-wing media. PV’s chosen target and tactics communicate quite clearly that PV itself believes in the veracity of Roy Moore’s accusers — otherwise, PV and its lame-brain henchmen would be out there trying by hook and crook to puncture holes in their allegations, their characters, their credibility as accusers.
But Project Veritas clearly believes these women. That’s why it sought instead to discredit the media outlet that has broken many of the stories re. Moore’s predilection for underage girls. PV and the alt-right don’t care about Roy Moore any more than they care about ferreting out the truth. They believe they have more to gain, in the long run, by neutering this pillar of fact-based media. By doing so, they stake out their position and self-worth quite clearly:
“We’re fake; they must be fake.”
Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”
In other words, I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK.