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Conservatives Are Scaredy Cats
"If there’s a unifying theme in these meltdowns, it’s their white-knuckled clinging to the past.”
What a harrowing week. Thanks for all the discussion under the last Webworm. Honestly, reading your comments is like balm for the soul.
If you’re not following journalist and photographer Motaz Azaiza on Instagram, please do. He’s documenting what it is to live in Gaza right now, and it’s about as close to the reality as you can get. His video of an airstrike on a whole neighbor in the middle of Gaza city gives you an idea of what they’re living with. Until they’re not.
As we head into the weekend (soon) I wanted to send out a piece by Webworm contributor Hayden Donnell. All his work is great, and is archived here. He watched the recent general election in New Zealand, and started noticing something — in New Zealand, and beyond.
That thing being…
Conservatives Are Scaredy Cats
by Hayden Donnell.
In August, the pro-housing poster and Jeopardy winner Sam Deutch tweeted a picture of a 10-lane road. “This highway can carry about 10,000 people per hour in each direction at full capacity. A single subway line can carry 30,000 people per hour in each direction, all without tearing a neighbourhood in half,” he said.
“Cars are just fundamentally super inefficient. It’s basic geometry.” He spent the rest of the day fending off conservatives who seemed to think they’d get mugged and dismembered if they glanced in the direction of a train. “My car has 100% fewer assaults and robberies,” said one. A man with the username @Cosmonaut_Mick hallucinated a lawless hellscape at every subway stop. Deutch sent him this picture in response.
The same costume could work with ‘cities’ substituted for ‘trans people’, ‘immigrants’, ‘spicy food’, or just about any other conservative bugbear.
For all the performative faux-machismo in the right-wing media ecosystem, nearly all of its obsessions amount to bed-wetting freakouts at the changing world. When they’re not posting memes about how liberals are snowflakes, conservatives are having meltdowns at the idea of Muslims existing or someone riding a bicycle.
New Zealand just had a general election, and was replete with these sorts of scaredy cats. At a Youth Voters’ Debate hosted by TVNZ in late-September, Shortland Street heartthrob turned logic-deficient political hopeful Lee Donoghue dreamed up a tide of trans people invading school bathrooms to commit sexual assault. “Look at the evidence, mate,” retorted Greens candidate Chlöe Swarbrick.
As it turns out, that evidence shows trans people are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of assault, whether in a bathroom or not, and cisgender men like Donoghue are the most likely group to commit assaults in any location.
Donoghue rejected the unwelcome encroachment of reality into his apocalyptic toilet fantasies. “We are not on another planet, people are concerned about this,” he whined.
When they’re not freaking out over trans people, New Zealand’s large rump of conservatives has been catastrophising about co-governance with Māori. Lately our authorities have been making some half-hearted attempts to actually sort-of honour the nation’s founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), and involve Māori in managing resources like water. That’s prompted an elongated meltdown from people worried Māori will steal their poo pipes.
If there’s a unifying theme in these meltdowns, it’s their white-knuckled clinging to the past and its power structures. The reactionaries seem to want to drag us kicking and screaming through a time portal back to the ‘50s, where trans people weren’t allowed to exist and Māori couldn’t speak their own language without being beaten, let alone ask for some semblance of equality.
On one level, the explanation for their fears would seem simple: they benefit from the status quo, and want to punish anyone that deviates from it. Everyone from the local Nimby to the Christchurch shooter shares the same basic concern: that change – whether in the form of an apartment or a brown person enjoying their life – will cost them some of their status in society.
The mechanics behind that response are more complicated. Some researchers link these freakouts to people’s brain structures. Economic conservatism has been associated with enhanced connectivity in the amygdala, which switches on in response to threat.
Resident Webworm psychotherapist Paul Wilson says conservatives may experience more unconscious death anxiety, which may prime them to cling to tradition as a means of finding certainty in an uncertain world. There’s also plenty of research to say they have greater predilection for disgust:
This wouldn’t be so annoying if conservatives didn’t insist that relentlessly wetting their pants is in fact the toughest thing to do. A month ago, a wad of middle-aged men took turns saying they spend their lives making mental checklists of every potential threat in a 100m radius. The tweets were intended to make them look like real-life suburban John Wicks, always ready to headshot four assassins on their way out of a dental appointment. Instead it gave the distinct impression they’re living their lives in constant fear. It’s not actually that tough to descend into a state of barely contained panic while going out to pick up bananas from the local fruit and veggie store.
This insecurity is evident behind the roided-up hypermasculinity of podcaster Joe Rogan or the anti-woke plank bagging of the sleep paralysis demon Ben Shapiro. Even the conservative right's love for guns must be motivated in part out of a deep-seated fear of their fellow man.
Wilson says conservatives talk tough and accuse others of being triggered in part to mask the shame they experience over their own vulnerability. “They are ashamed of the fact that they have the feelings they do and so they make unconscious attempts to overcompensate and appear hypermasculine by getting angry and performing their aggression,” he says.
“In general terms, social conservatives – both men and women – are often highly triggerable because of their inchoate fears of difference, contamination, or death anxiety, but they project that onto others by calling them snowflakes because it’s a part of themselves they can’t bear to own.”
In return for all this projection, conservatives get a fleeting sense of safety when a progressive change is rolled back, or a trans influencer has to go into hiding because she’s been abused so much over a single beer can. On the platform formerly known as Twitter, X, they get a rabid and increasingly fanatical community of fellow repliers. They get to – as Wilson says – keep the “badness” away and move closer to the centre of what they see as the psychological herd.
Some payoff, I guess. But what’s the point if you can’t even go on a train? Trains are great.
David here again.
I’m spending less and less time on Twitter (sorry for all the links to Twitter/X in the piece above, Webworm will be moving away from linking directly to that place!) because this statement increasingly holds so true there:
If there’s a unifying theme in these meltdowns, it’s their white-knuckled clinging to the past and its power structures. The reactionaries seem to want to drag us kicking and screaming through a time portal back to the ‘50s.
What do you think? What do you make of Hayden’s observations?
Before I wrap things up, back to what I opened this newsletter with: This piece from Charlotte Clymer is really great.
For the past three weeks, in the midst of the murder of innocent civilians by the terrorist group Hamas, I have been astonished to witness a new wrinkle in our social fabric: it has quickly become simultaneously impossible to either speak up or be silent.
When innocent people are being murdered, it’s morally unacceptable to stay silent, of course, but what happens when speaking up means somehow being perceived as taking a side between competing oppressions and their corresponding evils?
There currently exists a hair trigger sensitivity on this issue so pervasive in our national discourse that even so much as acknowledging the murder of an innocent civilian anywhere will draw hostility elsewhere.
It is no longer enough to express basic human empathy toward anyone suffering; it must be accompanied with extensive knowledge on foreign policy and the history of the Middle East, expressed through a litany of caveats, and even then, one risks being accused of condoning atrocities, either way.
I encourage you to give it a read over the weekend, if you have time.
I leave you with a video from New Zealander Jonathan Bree. I was lucky enough to see him play recently (yes, Bree and the whole band are anonymous when they play) and it was golden. I needed it.
Talk soon, see you in the comments,