Monday, January 03, 2022

The Abject Gotta Go Because They Will Fight Rather Than Eat Insects...,

NYTimes |  You may remember a 2019 story about how Senator Amy Klobuchar once ate a salad with a comb. According to the article, an aide purchased a salad for Klobuchar at an airport. Later, when the senator wanted to eat her salad on the plane, she discovered that there were no utensils available. After berating the aide, Klobuchar retrieved a comb from her purse and (somehow) ate her salad with it. When finished, she handed the comb to her aide with orders to clean it.

The comb story was part of a larger narrative about the senator’s treatment of her staff, which Klobuchar bravely tried to spin into evidence of her exactitude. You have to admire the effort, but the senator’s defense was useless. Nobody came away thinking that her mistake was in having high expectations. Her mistake was in doing something gross in front of multiple witnesses. That image was indelible. You couldn’t read the story without imagining the comb, a hair perhaps still caught in its teeth, plunging into an oily airport salad. Like all disgusting stories, it had a contaminating effect. Now the anecdote was in you, the voter. The taste of the comb was upon your own tongue, and you had no choice but to resent Klobuchar for putting it there.

The episode belongs to a list of disgust-related political scandals: the pubic hair on the Coke can, the stain on the blue Gap dress. On a recent weekend I passed a truck in Queens with a giant bumper sticker that said, “Any Burning or Disrespecting of the American Flag and the driver of this truck will get out and knock you the [expletive] OUT.” This was a perfect Haidt litmus test. A liberal might walk past the truck and think some version of: This guy — and it’s definitely a guy — has an anger problem. A conservative might walk past the truck and think: This guy — and it’s definitely a guy — must really love our country. As Haidt put it: “There are people for whom a flag is merely a piece of cloth, but for most people, a flag is not a piece of cloth. It has a sacred essence.” If a person views the American flag as a rectangle of fabric, it is unfathomable to be disgusted by its hypothetical desecration. If a person views the flag as a sacred symbol, it is unfathomable to not feel this way.

These two types of human — which broadly map onto “liberal” and “conservative,” or “relatively disgust-insensitive” and “relatively disgust-sensitive” — live in separate moral matrices. If it seems bizarre that disgust sensitivity and politics should be so closely correlated, it’s important to remember that disgust sensitivity is really measuring our feelings about purity and pollution. And these, in turn, contribute to our construction of moral systems, and it is our moral systems that guide our political orientations.

To ward off disgust, we enact purity rites, like rinsing the dirt from our lettuce or “canceling” a semipublic figure who posted a racist tweet when she was a teenager. We monitor the borders of mouth, body and nation. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler described Jews as like “a maggot in a rotting body” and “a noxious bacillus.” Another category of humankind consistently deemed repulsive is women; to take one of several zillion illustrations, one reason long skirts were a dominant fashion in Western Europe for centuries, according to the fashion historian Anne Hollander, was to conceal the bottom half of the body and by extension its sexual organs. Mermaids aren’t just a folkloric figure but the expression, Hollander argues, of a horrified disgust at the lower female anatomy, which is seen as amphibiously moist and monstrous.

But purification rites may also be healthful (washing your hands) or ritually significant (baptism). We will never disentangle ourselves from the instinct to purify, even as we name different reasons for doing it: justice, patriotism, progress, tradition, freedom, public health, God, science. Beneath it all will be a confused omnivore, stumbling upon a dewy mushroom in the forest — with no clue what will happen if she eats it.