Freepers As Modern Peasants

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006 · 2 Comments »

A Freeper (photo courtesy of
Al Gore gave a thoughtful, well-crafted speech yesterday, decrying Presidential lawlessness and calling on Congress to defend the Constitution and restore the balance of power. He quoted Orwell, and Jefferson, and Locke. He mentioned the Federalist Papers. He noted in passing that the modern political scene, which is dominated by 30-second TV ads, is “as different from the vibrant politics of America’s first century as those politics were different from the feudalism which thrived on the ignorance of the masses of people in the Dark Ages.”

What he didn’t say, but might have, is that the modern political scene is in some ways closer to the Dark Ages than to our own revolutionary beginnings. Not in terms of information flow, of course – medieval Europeans suffered from an extraordinary lack of data, in outstanding contrast to our plethora of the stuff. No, the similarity I’m thinking of is in the mentality: the mentality of peasants.

The peasant is mulish, resentful, suspicious. The peasant hates learning and anyone who has it. As H.L. Mencken memorably wrote, the “inferior man” has a “congenital hatred of knowledge,” and a “bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life.”

Over at Pandagon, Pam has waded into Freeperland and brought back the following quotes:

“Boy oh boy I scrolled down and scrolled down and it just kept on going down and down! Longwinded screed. Whew, this must be what they call the Al Qaeda Bill of Rights. Our U.S. Constitution isn’t half as long.”

“You lost, get over it.”

“Is that White Noise I hear???”

“Abu al Ghore?”

“soreloserman, yada, yada, yada….yada, yada yada, yada, yada, yada. His yearly tirade. Was he wearing earth tones? Did he know what channel his speech would be carried on? Did he kiss Tipper at the end of the speech? Was she even there? So maneeeeeee questions……”

The Freepers vastly prefer the monosyllabic bumblings of Dubya, with his “bring ‘em on” cowboy rhetoric and seeming ignorance of anything outside a Texas ranch (or pig farm). I’m convinced that it is Gore’s very intelligence – as it was Clinton’s – that infuriates the wingnuts so much. This “hatred of superiority,” as Mencken called it, is the same dynamic behind the fundamentalist Christian impulse to outlaw everything they fear. In fact, Mencken was specifically talking about fundamentalists in his essay on “Homo Neanderthalensis”:

The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters…Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it, would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. But Mencken was, I think, only partly correct in locating the origins of this peasant mentality:

The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex — because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious.

That’s true to an extent, but there’s a mulish resentment of the elite that is less about failure to comprehend and more to do with class and power – or rather, powerlessness.

Willful stupidity, insolence, stubbornness – these are the weapons of the peasant. In an agrarian society, peasants are the host body upon which their parasitic overlords feed. They exist to till the land and generate the surpluses that enable the aristocracy and the merchant class to function. They themselves are forced to subsist on the bare minimum. They are, by definition, inferior. They are excluded from power and denied education.

In such a situation, resentful ignorance become both response and resistance: a response to being excluded, and the only tactically feasible resistance a peasantry can muster.

But what, you say, does this have to do with freepers? Aren’t the keyboard-wielding wingnuts the very antithesis of the powerless, muted peasant? Aren’t they, in fact, political actors in their own right?

The answer, I think, is a qualified no. True, freepers are not peasants in the economic sense. They’re not hovering at the edge of starvation. Taxes are minimal compared to ancient and medieval rates. The modern freeper can vote, get an education, be heard.

Yet psychologically, they are peasants still. The fulcrum of their mental world is, I think, powerlessness – impotence in a world greased by money and connections, incomprehension in the face of science and culture. Their power is the power of the mob – which is the only way a peasantry ever exerts direct political action. When they “freep” a poll, it is the technological equivalent of a lynching.

The modern freeper is not the spiritual heir of those 18th century patriots who read the Federalist Papers in coffee houses and debated constitutional points. Today’s freeper is the dupe of demagogues – propaganda merchants like Fox News and Free Republic itself – who stir up the mob, just as demagogues have always done. And, like peasant mobs throughout history, freepers want to smash clever things and the clever people who made them. Mencken again:

Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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2 Responses to “Freepers As Modern Peasants”

  1. belledame222 says:

    It’s hard not to agree with that assessment, although the better part of me wants to be more uhh spiritual about the matter than Mencken. At any rate the key for me is the *willful* ignorance. It’s anti-intellectualism; it’s also fear of change of any sort. And, it’s a remarkable lack of empathy and imagination. I think for me that’s the bottom line. I mean, much as I value the book larnin’, it isn’t everything: witness William F. Buckley, or “Bookie of Virtues” Bennett. Bork is supposed to be a brilliant, if insane, guy.

    I think the powerlessness actually begins at home, for a lot of people, although certainly the personal is political and both tend to stem from the same old shibboleths. anyway I’m finding Alice Miller (“poisonous pedagogy,” the authoritarian family as the root or at least miniature of the authoritarian society) very lucid these days.

  2. Infidel says:

    It’s like that show, either the Honeymooners or the Flintstones, I can’t keep ‘em straight…anyways, there’s Ralph(or Fred) and he’s being initiated into this fraternity and he has to say “I sir, am a wiggly worm sir and a wiggly worm sir is the lowest form of life” Over and over he has to say it. And this English guy with the accent keeps telling him to repeat…”You sir, are a wiggly worm sir, and a wiggly worm sir, is the lowest form of life.”… like that.