Contagion Narrative — Sanders, Rogan, and Ideological Impurity
“Contagion is the dominant horror of the 21st century, an era marked by epidemics of terror, war, and economic crisis. Just as atomic anxiety infused Cold War-era pop culture, fear of contagion dominates recent pop culture in the form of apocalyptic zombie plagues, viral pandemics, infectious vampires, parasitized bodies, and microbe-caused mutations.”
It really doesn’t matter what the Sanders campaign does, the media and a dispersed company of bitter old sectarians and clueless postmodern puritans will find a way to denounce Sanders now as a sinner . . . as one who is contaminated, one of the infected. The campaign’s enemies latch onto this hooey like hungry little leeches. The latest episode is the endorsement of Bernie Sanders by radio/podcast host Joe Rogan. Oh, the horror! Sanders is now contaminated by the touch of the ideologically impure!
Rogan, who I — in my pop culture illiteracy — had never heard of until I saw him interview Cornel West awhile back, is all over the map with philosophical and political inconsistencies. In other words, he is just like 99 percent of . . . well, everyone. And so he is not tuned into that “woke” one percent’s interpretive melodies. Sometimes he says things that hit the OFFEND button, resulting in permanent banishment from the Realm of Woke Liberals.
Formation v. inhering superiority
Once upon a time, most of us seemed to understand that no one is perfect, including ourselves. One of the most difficult things about life in general is dealing with the fact that no matter how hard we try, everybody hurts someone else sometimes, everyone offends sometimes, and everybody commits little injustices. I hurt other people sometimes. I offend others sometimes. I commit injustices sometimes.
Unless we advocate for a state of permanent war, the only peaceful way forward is through understanding, compassion, acceptance, repentance, and forgiveness. We all need the do-overs.
When I was ten, I had never been exposed to anything except 1950s-white-culture’s casual racism and sexism. I had no other interpretive tools than what were passed on to me inside my little bubble. My parents, white culture, and television were my formative influences. I didn’t have a disease. All of us inherit a world view, one that is seldom, if ever, “consistent.”
Joe Rogan has — by all accounts, because I’ve never listened to anything except his interview with Bernie Sanders and Cornel West — said things with which I disagree, and even committed faux pax that gave offense. But, backing away from this to get some perspective, I think back on all the ways I did the same things. Because, though I now count myself anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-xenophobic, and anti-capitalist (I really upped the anti’s, yeah?), I wasn’t born that way, and my evolution from There to Here was marked by hundreds, maybe thousands, of little experiential dislocations, imperfect reflections, and a lot of patient people who gave me more chances. And guess what? I still find ways to screw this up.
Joe Rogan’s Bernie-love is not even the main topic today; it’s just a way to begin an examination of “woke” Puritanism and its petulant cousin, hyper-moralizing leftism. Regarding Joe Rogan et al, as far as the Sanders campaign goes, this is an election . . . in case folks have forgotten in the heat of their virtue signaling. In elections, one side has to get more votes than the other to win. Now, that can mean two things: (1) we accept every new vote we can find and welcome others into our movement where they can learn new things like we had to, or (2) we can establish purity codes that exclude anyone who has not achieved our level of uber-enlightenment, lose the election, and bask in our own perfection while the world burns. You choose.
As to our contagion narratives, let’s take a closer look at what they are and how they work. A disclaimer, because the Woke Ones will jump like they’ve been tasered and tell me how there are real forms of oppression — as if you or I didn’t already know that — and that this oppression is reproduced in its most granular way through our own complicity and our own lack of understanding. Duh. No one here is saying that we quit criticizing, quit analyzing, quit resisting these forms of oppression. We can even hold each other accountable, though the poisonous and warlike call-out culture I see way too often is absolutely not helpful. It’s just me telling you that I am a superior being and you are trash because you were not, like me, born with sociological tracts built right in to your superior and uncontaminated neural pathways.
Everyone lives in the same swamp
Capitalism is bad. I can prove that. You may accept that. But neither you nor I can do anything at all effective about it, with rare exceptions, through the easy application of virtuous personal choice. Think about virtuous consumption, for example. This is not to say that turning plastic grocery bags into yarn or refusing to shop at (pick your place) is bad. I’m saying personal-choice politics is a form of self-delusion that makes people feel better. Personal ethical consumer choices are not bad, but in themselves, they cannot transform unjust social structures. More to the point, no matter what you or I do, we will participate in and reproduce capitalism whether we like it or not. Did you ride in any fossil-fueled transport in the last day or two?
This personal choice politics corresponds to the demand for pre-perfected virtue, which we are seeing with the Rogan-Sanders kerfuffle (hugely amplified by a Sanders-hostile press). Virtue according to “our own” standards. Virtue signaling and contagion narrative call-out culture are both forms of performative virtue designed to remain inside the inner circle; and with them we have, like any garden variety neoliberal, shifted our critique from the systematic to the personal.
Now to contagion narratives per se, in a one, two, three.
One. Human groups have always been defined by boundaries. Certain people are inside, certain people are outside, and certain people have standing on both sides of the boundary. A chess club will likely not have any members who don’t play chess, so this inclusion-exclusion phenomenon isn’t nefarious in itself. Some boundaries are drawn for protection of the group, or perceived protection of the group. But many boundaries are drawn in the interest of accumulating power. Some rationalize that power by appealing dishonestly to group protection. So it goes.
Two. Boundaries are policed. One of the ways, its origins prehistoric, in which boundaries are policed is through what anthropologist Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger, 1966) called purity codes — systematic ideas about purity as access to the inside and pollution as that which must be quarantined, or placed on the outside.
Three. One of the most effective ways in which boundaries based on purity/pollution are policed is through the cultural formation of disgust in individuals. Professor of psychology Paul Rozin has done groundbreaking research on this. Basic physiological disgust is associated with oral incorporations — the body as boundary, and the mouth as gateway across that boundary. Certain substances, when put into the mouth, have a bad taste which elicits a disgust reaction — scrunchy-face, expelling tongue, a sense of nausea (expulsion of the offending agent). Some disgust reactions are learned, or culturally constructed within the actual person. I’ve seen recipes for tarantula, and watched films of people wolfing cooked tarantulas down like Skittles; and yet most people from this culture have their first disgust reaction upon seeing a tarantula, much less eating it.
Medicalization is treating a previously nonmedical condition or problem as if it requires medical intervention by a credentialed monopoly of professionals. This process is an historical development which corresponds to the elevation of Science — the ideology, not the practice — as an exclusive and ultimate truth claim. One glaring example is the over-diagnosis of ADHD . . . even the diagnosis itself. Medicalization is the (individualized) medical interpretation of problems that actually have social bases. We drug children to go to school — and rarely question whether children should be locked into an institution for seven hours a day and forced to sit still for an hour at a time.
Medicalization is one component of the post-nineteenth century Western episteme. We are no longer sinners (with a shot at forgiveness), but germ-ridden untouchables. Only now the germs are ideas that are un-woke.
Contagion narratives in pop culture — from Walking Dead to Contagion (of course) to 28 Days Later to I Am Legend — redraw the lines in older good-guys-bad-guys boundary narratives, especially in our current age of hopelessness in the face of monstrous problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation, into a boundary between in infected and the uninfected. Which always become warlike scenarios, because we can’t afford tolerance or patience or forgiveness in war emergencies. Everything becomes the tempo task — a fiction convention in which emergencies force all actors to abandon former rules and principles.
These contagion wars are part of our national imaginary, because war is central to the American imaginary. Central to any war is The Enemy. Once a person becomes an enemy, we allow ourselves to strip that enemy of his or her personhood. We expel them into the outer darkness. The Enemy is irredeemable. Nothing we can do to them is therefore unjust.
When Cornel West was a guest on Joe Rogan’s show, shortly before Bernie Sanders gave his interview, he came on the show as “a Jesus-loving black man,” and he established a deep rapport with Rogan within the first two minutes of the show. The most subversive of Jesus’ teachings was enemy-love, because it rendered boundaries porous, threatening the power of those who police those borders.
There was no freak-out about the West-Rogan encounter, because (1) West was not running for President, (2) “woke” white liberals fear attacking black intellectuals because they aren’t as “woke” as they think, and (3) the only reason they are attacking Sanders is to weaponize “identities” (a pernicious idea all on its own) in their quest to blunt the social democratic rebellion for which Sanders provides a strategic focal point.
Postmodern hipster culture — a small sliver of the actual population — with its personalized, identitarian standpoint, has adopted the contagion narrative of the early twenty-first century: zombie war. Joe Rogan is one of the zombies, one of the infected. He has to be avoided, isolated, or put down . . . never ever converted, because touching him would irreparably pollute us, turning one into a filthy zombie oneself.
Postmodernism has been, from the very beginning, in spite of some of the important insights it has developed, a form of political withdrawal that invokes purity codes as excuses for inaction and wraps itself in a cloak of satisfying self-righteousness. Politics is transformed from an instrumental activity into an expressive one. The liberal media — as we are seeing now — have learned how to play the game; and they’ve learned how to make this form of “politics” instrumental again, by weaponizing it against the left. Any attempt to engage and convert — apart from virtue-signaling callouts — now pollutes us.
One way to keep others away from the zombies is to instill in them a sense of disgust.
“Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl.”
So sayeth Mimi Rocah, another obedient talking head for Big Pharma’s favorite network, MSNBC. We can’t simply expel you from our clique; we have to make you anathema to all. We have to mobilize disgust.
Christian psychologist Richard Beck, writing in Unclean, notes that love and disgust exist reciprocally in relation to boundaries, which serve as a kind of policed military perimeter: “As the self gets symbolically extended so does . . . the primal psychology that monitors the boundary of the body. . . . The boundary of the body is extended to include the other.”
The erasure of boundaries is perceived as a threat by the Cartesian subject, the mind purified by mathematics. This reaction-formation is objectification, a term that has grown so familiar in discussions of sex that it is not routinely associated with its philosophical antecedents in philosophy, that is, subject-object dualism and the notion of object-ivity as antagonistic to a perilous subjectivity.
One of the aspects of the Christian story that drew me to Christianity was that Jesus committed serial infractions of the purity codes — by touching dead people, street people, lepers, menstruating women, and by exercising table fellowship with the “unclean.” In Beck’s Unclean, he says two things in the introduction, one psychological, one theological: “disgust is a boundary psychology,” and (paraphrasing) that “sacrifice” inscribes boundaries, while mercy crosses them. For those who did not immediately get the reference, Beck is writing about Matt 9:13, and Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees over “eating with sinners and tax collectors.”
Beck’s focus on disgust psychology aims at overcoming wrongs that pose as rights because they are felt as right based on learned feelings of disgust. Of course, feeling that something is wrong (or right) does not necessarily make it so. Too often, as we all know, the “feeling of rightness” trumps sober reflection and moral discernment.
Disgust is a political weapon that tries to make people experience physical revulsion for the purpose of foreclosing sober reflection.
Regimentation of thought means we can all be catastrophically wrong at the same time.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting for a group I shall not name here, but it was a local leftist group that was being asked for candidate endorsements. One of the candidates that showed up was running for the office of the most powerful law enforcement officer in a well-populated county — prosecuting attorney. His platform, such as it is, included no jail where there wasn’t an imminent threat of something like escalating gun violence, no cash bail, and grant writing to develop a network of non-carceral alternatives for offenders aimed at actual rehabilitation. Then the candidate was asked if he supported prison abolition — a movement with which I agree actually. He said he was 98 percent there, but had reservations about particular kinds of cases. Then he was sent out of the room.
Forty voting members. The rule was he had to achieve the threshold of twenty-one votes to win the endorsement. During the discussion, I heard it. Things like, “My endorsement means something to me, and I just can’t support him if he is not an abolitionist. We can’t be seen endorsing someone who disagrees with us on this core principle.” This came from the identitarians and the strict sectarians alike — two cohorts who have been at war with one another in the past but who share the same exclusive tendencies.
First of all, goddam principles! Principles like these are reified idols. This is aesthetic politics, guaranteed to produce defeat after defeat after defeat. But at least our “principled,” individualistic, virtue-signaling performance is intact.
At any rate, a few people pointed out that he was the best of three options by a long shot, and that the fates of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of those arrested — disproportionately the poor and people of color, by the way — will be affected by who wins this race, and this guy was the glaringly obvious best choice. I won’t commit the error of amplified extrapolation by saying that this little group’s endorsement would make or break his campaign. That would be a postmodern conceit. But for whatever this group’s endorsement might or might not actually mean (he bothered to ask the group for it), the vote was 19 for the endorsement, 15 against, and six abstentions (I have no idea why anyone would abstain). The group’s will was bent to the will of the most sectarian, who never spoke once during their denunciations of ideological impurity about the fates of those people who would be arrested during the next Prosecutor’s term.
Guess what else I noticed at this meeting of forty souls? There was not a single African American in the room. I had seen a few black faces there before, but apparently few to none stayed. Near the end of the meeting, there was a hue and cry about how “we reach out.” I dunno. Maybe put the needs of actual people ahead of your self-limiting, personalized, aesthetic politics.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
I am that wretch. If anyone wants to encounter one of the infected, come by and see me. I was an imperial storm trooper for decades. I can’t even recount how many things I did that were wrong, hurtful, destructive. How is it, then, that I can be accepted on the left? If anyone is contaminated, it’s me. I’m a walking sack of sins, including my old ideological ones.
Speaking for myself, I’m grateful as can be for anyone’s forgiveness, and that forgiveness brought me into the fold.
Purity codes are exclusive. Patience and forgiveness are inclusive. You can’t win without including more people.