Fulton Greenwall: The chief says that unless the sacred bat is returned before the marriage of the princess, the Wachati tribe will meet their death.
Ace Ventura: What type of bat are we talking about?
Fulton Greenwall: The great white bat, of course.
Ace Ventura: <clearly struggling with his words> Crepuscular Chiroptera?
Fulton Greenwall: Yes. But to the natives: Shikaka! <locals immediately assume a kneeling posture>
Ace Ventura: Shikaka. <kneeling> SHEEKKAAKAHH. <more kneeling> Shikasha! <An interrupted kneel> Uh…shishkebab…Shawshank Redemption…Chicaaago! Alright, you’re out of there. Go on, you’re gone.Ace Venture: When Nature Calls (1995)
Back before Jim Carrey completed his transition into a slightly unhinged version of my grandmother, he really was very funny – one of our country’s better physical/slapstick comedians. It’s a tremendously difficult style to pull off as long as Carrey, Benny Hill and Jerry Lewis were able. The short shelf life isn’t really a hazard of the trade, although Belushi and Farley did both die from drug overdoses (of the same drug, as it happens) in their prime. The more typical problem is that slapstick must adapt more quickly than other forms of humor if it is to stay fresh. It shocks, it sparkles, and then it bores.
The Ace Ventura movies haven’t aged especially well in this regard. If you didn’t watch them at the time, and perhaps if you weren’t the 13-year old demographic for whom they reached their nirvana, you’ll struggle through them today. But for the modern political observer, they have everything: symbols! Opposing factions exploiting those symbols! Sophisticated outsiders expertly manipulating those symbols to create conflict! A man literally talking out of his ass!
In the last two weeks, US political observers will have seen the powerful emergence of two great white bats. Both have the dog whistle and obedience collar features Ben discussed in his classic note, Always Go to the Funeral, and the rage and mirroring engagements in A Game of You. Both issues are almost completely without substance.
So of course both are just about the only things anyone wants to talk about.
I’m talking, of course, about The Wall and the 70% Tax.
The fundamental substance of The Wall as an issue – the reality – is really quite boring. Border fences and walls are not uncommon. They are not inherently hateful. They are also not particularly effective. Border control is pretty clearly within the mandate of the government, so there’s not much jurisdictional debate. There are no data indicating much change, or any new crisis in illegal immigration, except data that would indicate a decline. There does appear to be a sharp rise in asylum cases and a lack of resources to handle them, but that is a different issue. The cost of a wall is meaningful, but a rounding error in context of the federal budget. In short, it’s a fringe issue that should be consigned to policy wonks.
The fundamental substance of a 70% Marginal Tax as an issue – the reality – is similarly boring. It won’t raise much new revenue. It really won’t change the effective tax rate of almost anyone, since it will just cause the creation of new deductions and loopholes and exceptions, as such tax rates have since the beginning of time. There’s reason for concern in that the wealthy are not equally well-equipped to access such loopholes, which ironically means that the plan would have little impact on well-entrenched asset owners and more impact on lower asset, higher income creators of new wealth. The net effect of all this is that it would have practically no impact on income inequality. Still, in substance, this is an issue for tax and budget wonks.
Except it isn’t the wall. It’s a meme of The Wall! It isn’t a proposal of a higher marginal tax rate. It’s a meme of The 70% Tax! Each is a symbol meant as obedience collar for its native audience and as provocative dog whistle for the opposition.
To a Trump-supporting conservative, The Wall! is an obedience collar and an opportunity for mirroring engagement. It stands for a willingness to defend our borders and the integrity of our nation in the way prior presidents have not been willing. It stands for a commitment to the rule of law and enforcement of existing statutes. It stands for putting the interests of tax-paying American citizens first. And yes, for some it stands for keeping a (white) America from changing too quickly. But more than anything, it stands for standing by Trump in the face of constant opposition from the media and opposing politicians who just want to see him lose at any cost.
To the Trump opponent, The Wall! is a rage engagement. It stands for white nationalism and nativism. It stands for hatred and mistrust of foreigners, and an abdication of America’s founding principles. It stands for unjust anti-immigrant policy and sentiment more broadly. Most importantly, it stands for Trump, and the one thing he said most confidently and frequently that he would do during his presidency.
Now, a wall isn’t really any of those things. It’s some cement bound together with more cement and water, or in this case, it’s a row of steel slats, I guess. They’re really normal and boring things for countries to build that cost a bit of money, don’t hurt anybody, and don’t work very well. The abstractions from this boring reality are not inherent features of it, except inasmuch as some topics inherently permit memes to be more easily conjured. They are constructs of the widening gyre of our politics.
Same with the 70% Tax! meme. To the progressive, especially one looking to move our society much further left, it stands for a willingness to finally do something about wealth inequality. It stands for the belief that the poorest in our society shouldn’t be struggling to get by while the wealthiest select new layouts for the galley in their yacht. It stands for workers. It stands for single parents. It stands for funding the policies and programs that would support them. It stands for equality and fairness. And yes, to some, it stands for sticking it to some rich people we don’t especially like.
To the opposition, the 70% Tax! meme is about encroaching influence of central planners and socialists. It is about those who would take economic freedom from us to implement their own idealized view of the world. It is about institutionalized hatred of the rich and successful. It is about crippling economic growth, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit in favor of making everyone poorer, if more equal.
Except it isn’t really either of those things. It’s a policy that isn’t going to happen. Even if by some miracle/nightmare it did, it’s a marginal tax that doesn’t raise much money, which after new and existing deductions probably won’t end up costing rich people anything, which won’t fund a single program, which won’t stop a single new venture from being formed, and which won’t change a thing about wealth inequality.
Like The Wall!, the 70% Tax! is an abstraction and a symbol. It is important to realize, even if you care about the underlying issue, that the debate isn’t about the thing. It’s about the abstraction, about all the things that we are being told that each policy supposedly stands for. Those things will feel very real to us, because that’s what the widening gyre does to our brains. It drives us toward the beacon of Good and Right Policy and away from the cesspool of Evil and Wrong-Headed Policy.
What to do?
Clear Eyes. Mind how our side’s obedience collars are calling us to the defense of principles not really under attack. See how the other side playfully shouts “Shikaka!” to raise our hackles and diminish us. Be honest about whether some of the abstractions we find ourselves attracted to are, in fact, unjust or hateful.
Full Hearts. Be patient with those who attribute the foul features of the abstractions they have created to us. Be longsuffering in defending our intent, and believing the intents of others.
And God willing, when politicians and other missionaries start talking out of their ass and driving us into the widening gyre by promoting these abstractions, we stop voting for them.