Hallmark cards, the NAACP, and a short(ish) phenomenology of government

Posted on June 17, 2010


A new way to "play the race card."

Recently, the NAACP, with the backing of the Carson City Council, forced Hallmark to pull one of its “talking” graduation cards from the shelves because the cartoon characters YoYo and Hoops make rude comments about “black whores.”

The card, which has an astronomical theme encouraging graduates to “take on the universe,” is clearly talking about “black holes.”

You can read about it here, and an amusing column about it here (this one also has a video of the card).

The whole thing is stupid beyond belief.

So why did it happen?

There are several vectors involved in something like this.

The first is government.

We often say that the purpose of government is to protect its people.

This, of course, is nonsense. It’s the kind of fairy tale we tell children, and it’s hard to believe that so many adults continue to believe it.

The purpose of government is to ensure the survival of government.

The populace can’t be ignored, of course. In any civilisation there are always more people outside the government than inside. If everyone were in the government, who would pay to support it?

When you’re outnumbered to such an enormous extent, the first order of business is to protect yourself from the citizenry. This was easier when people believed in the Divine Right of Kings and such, but even then, any monarch who pissed off his subjects too much could find himself beheaded, assassinated, or just plain thrown in a tower. Divine right be damned.

Mussolini found out the hard way what can happen when the iron fist of rule shows signs of weakness.

Brute force can work for a while. But it’s expensive to maintain, stagnates cultural and technological innovation, and if there is a break in the tyranny, the backlash can be distressingly aggressive.

In general, the aim is to reach a compromise between the government’s survival instinct, and its need to convince the people that they’re better off with it, than without it.

In modern times, governments tend towards a policy of appeasement. But an often-fatal flaw in this strategy is that the people can come to expect more and more from it. Meeting these growing demands runs the risk of an implosion — the classical example being the Roman bread and circuses shortly before its collapse.

But the Roman government had many problems already facing it, to which the “bread and circuses” promise was a panicky and inadequate response. Most of the time, governments can attain a relative stability of power because their citizenry shares roughly similar, and sustainable boundaries to their expectations. These expectations may change over time, and may even occasionally result in revolutions, but mostly the changes will be organic, growing from that population’s culture.

A far more serious problem arises when government finds itself trying to meet the demands of citizenry holding rapidly fragmenting expectations. To a degree, this happens with each generation, and can sometimes result in quite drastic changes over a relatively short period of time (consider the social revolution wrought from the ’50s and ’60s). But such changes still have their roots in the underlying culture, and can generally be accommodated without collapsing the regime.

All this becomes far more treacherous, however, when these fragmenting boundaries are caused by sudden and significant immigration from radically different cultures, each with its own idea of what the social contract should entail. The common boundaries of the host culture’s expectations (which are abstract, deeply embedded, and mostly unwritten) break down in random, non-organic ways. The people from one culture expect government to stay out of everyone’s moral lives and simply provide social assistance and education. The people from another culture expect government to play an active role in the morals of daily interactions, but to leave education to the priest class.

And so on.

Even cultures with commonly-held expectations can have very different demands on where the lines should be drawn. Both might agree that government should provide health care, but one insists that it include every aspect of health, while the other believes it should only step in for emergencies.

Trying to meet all these demands makes a government schizophrenic. Basically it has two feasible courses of action: to demand more conformity from its immigrants, or to meet the demands of whichever group is making the most threatening noises at any given time. Demanding conformity alienates the immigrant voters (which, at this point, have become a significant proportion of the voting population), and hence threatens the government’s existence. The alternative is no better. Giving in to one group merely serves to encourage (and often enrage) the others, making stasis impossible. Capitulation follows capitulation, with no regard to their cumulative effect on the nation’s culture.

(As a side note: people in favour of increasingly lenient immigration laws often point out that, except for the Native Indians, everyone in North America is an immigrant. This is true. It’s also a good example of what I’m talking about. Does anyone doubt that the native culture would have survived in a much healthier form had they possessed the ability to enact strict immigration laws?)

Neither option is ultimately good for the society as a whole, but since the government’s only real purpose is to sustain its own existence, it tries doing both at once — but with a stress on one extreme or the other.

In North America, the tendency is to capitulate.

And as governments capitulate, so too does enterprise.

Which brings us to the second vector. (Don’t worry — it’s much shorter.)

So it's settled. We will boycott the English car companies until they agree to our demands.

Companies, whether service or manufacturing, are at the mercy of the majority of their customer base. There are always a few groups with nonstandard demands, but because their members are small, there is no compelling reason to meet them. If every Amish person in North America threatened to stop buying GM products unless they were sold only in black, it’s unlikely anything would come of it.

But when subsets gain the power to force the government to bend to their private, and often idiosyncratic will, enterprise has no recourse but to follow. Canada’s Human Rights Commission is a glowing example of how far government will take the side of lunacy over the rights of a lawfully-operating company or publication.

And that brings us to the third vector.

Do you wanna go there? If you wanna go there then I wanna go there. But not unless you do. Do you?

By and large, people are pack animals. We feel most comfortable as members of a pack, rather than on our own. We are more wolf than cat.

This need-to-belong makes us remarkably susceptible to anything that promises to meet it: family, friends, neighbours, political parties, race, culture, religion, and a near infinite number of other institutions. In many cases, this sense of belonging can be satisfied merely through association with the name of the institution. Sports teams, which have no stable membership, ownership, nationality, or even location (aside from a team headquarters) can gather millions of fans by including the name of a particular city.

So imagine what happens when an institution also proposes to speak on your behalf against any injustice towards you.

It’s pretty irresistible.

Worse yet is the fact that such an organisation, in order to maintain its own survival, must constantly find new injustices against which it can “speak on your behalf.” And so, inevitably, these organisations are going to start going after perceived “injustices” that, to the average eye, border on the ludicrous.

Coupled with this is the unfortunate fact that the pack instinct loosens the restraints of rational thought. Protecting a family or pack member, while leaving an outsider to die, is an action based on concepts of “loyalty” and “honour” — not “logic” or “reason.”

And I’m sure that in many ways we wouldn’t want it any other way.

But it also makes it extremely difficult for us to discern when an institution speaking on our behalf engages in counter-productive behaviour, behaviour which puts not only its own existence in peril, but ours as well.

And the intersection of these three vectors brings us back to the NAACP.

It was easy for the NAACP to “speak on behalf of blacks” back when they were being refused entry to restaurants and forced to sit at the back of the bus. In more recent years it’s been getting more difficult, and their “causes” have become more questionable, such as threatening political action in 2009 if TV shows didn’t start featuring more blacks.

Of course, the Hallmark incident reaches a new low.

It is obvious that the people involved are somewhat challenged in humour, logic, and basic intelligence. The proper response would have been for Hallmark, and the people who do the voices of YoYo and Hoops, to counter-sue for libel and defamation of character, charging that the NAACP has unjustly labelled them as racist. Meanwhile, those for whom the organisation claims to speak should come forward en masse to make it clear that they do not share the short-sighted lunacy of the organisation. The NAACP’s laughable stand in the Hallmark case has already exposed blacks to renewed criticism, not a little of which is horrendously racist in nature. (Sample: “What fucking n***** is out there buying a card for any sort of graduation unless it’s for a n***** that just got out of prison?”)

But it’s highly unlikely there will be much of an outcry from the black community. It’s not that they’re abnormally stupid; it’s that they’re quite normally human. Going against the pack is not something we do well. Especially a pack that is pretending to act on our behalf.

As for Hallmark, without the backing of a government, it simply doesn’t have the ability to fight back. It might have managed to ride out the criticisms with a well-run publicity campaign, but the NAACP’s power over a government intent on appeasement makes it virtually unstoppable, regardless of the bizarre nature of its demands.

And so the cycle continues.