"The Card Says 'Moops'": A Guide to Right-Wing Discourse
How a "Seinfeld" scene can help us understand a popular debate strategy.
Hey there, Present Age readers. Parker here with a quick intro to this post:
Five years ago, Ian Danskin (a.k.a Innuendo Studios) began a series of videos called “The Alt-Right Playbook.” The series deals with the rhetorical strategies used by the right, how and why those strategies work, and how to avoid falling for them. I’m a big fan of the whole series, but there’s one video I’ve been coming back to quite a bit lately: “The Card Says Moops” (the title comes from this Seinfeld scene).
This video is going to be the basis for some of my writing this week, so I wanted to share it with readers as this week’s first post. Ian was kind enough to let me publish the video’s transcript below. Please check it out (or just watch the video). Also, here’s a link to Ian’s Patreon. Without further ado…
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Transcript of “The Alt-Right Playbook: The Card Says Moops,” by Ian Danskin
Say, for the sake of argument, you’re online blogging about a Black journalist’s commentary on marketing trends in video games, movies, and comic books, and you’re saying how the vitriol in response to her fairly benign opinions reveals the deep-seated racism and misogyny in a number of fan communities, most especially those that lean right, when a right-leaning commenter pops in to say, “Or maybe they just actually disagree with her about marketing trends! For Christ’s sake, there’s no mystery here. People aren’t speaking in coded language. They are telling you what they believe. She had a bad opinion; why do you have to make it bigger than that? Why can’t you ever take people at their word?”
You pause and ponder for a moment. Mmm… Aw heck with it, you’re in a discoursing mood. Let’s do this.
“Mr. Conservative, in order for me to take you at your word, your words would have to show some consistency. Let me just lightning round a few questions about the reactionary web’s positions on marketing trends: Do you believe that having the option to romance same-sex characters in an RPG turns the game into queer propaganda, or do you believe that killing strippers in an action game can’t be sexist since no one’s making you do it? Do you believe that the pervasiveness of sexualized young women in pop culture is just there because it sells and that’s capitalism and we all need to deal with it, or do you believe that a franchise has an obligation to cater to its core audience even if diversifying beyond that audience is more profitable? Do you think words are inherently harmless and only oversensitive snowflakes would care about racialized language, or do you think it’s racist if someone calls you mayonnaise boy? As long as I’ve got your ear: Are you the Party that believes in the right to keep and bear arms because you’re distrustful of all authority and what if we need to overthrow the government someday, or do you believe that cops are civil servants and we should trust their account of events whenever they shoot a Black man for looking like he might have a gun?
“Does optional content reveal a game’s ideology, or doesn’t it? Is capitalism a defense for decisions you don’t agree with, or isn’t it? Is language harmful, or not? Do you hate authority, or love cops and the troops?
Alright, alright, ease off. Add some nuance. “Now, I know the Right is not a monolith, and maybe these arguments are contradictory because they’re coming from different people. We’ll call them Engelbert and Charlemagne. Maybe Engelbert’s the one who thinks any institution funded by tax money is socialist and therefore bad and Charlemagne’s the one who says we should dump even more tax money into the military and thinking otherwise is un-American. But here’s the thing: Y’all have very fundamentally different beliefs, and you’re so passionate about them that you enter search terms into Twitter to find people you don’t even follow and aggressively disagree with them, and, yet, you’re always yelling at me and never yelling at each other. What’s that about?
“And I can’t say how often it happens, but I know, if I let Engelbert go on long enough, he sometimes makes a Charlemagne argument. And vice versa.
“And, I see you getting ready to say, ‘The Left does the same thing,’ but ba ba ba ba ba, don’t change the subject. That’s an extremely false equivalence, but, more importantly, it doesn’t answer my question. What do you actually believe, and why are you so capable of respecting disagreement between each other, yet so incapable of respecting me - or, for that matter, a Black woman?
“See, I don’t take you at your word because I cannot form a coherent worldview out of the things you say. So, forgive me if, when you tell me what you believe, I don’t think you’re being candid with me. It kinda seems like you’re playing games, and I’m the opposing team, and anyone who’s against me is your ally. And you’re not really taking a position, but claiming to believe in whatever would need to be true to score points against me, like we’re in that one episode of Seinfeld.”
Hoo, it feels good calling people hypocrites! Person says B when earlier they said A and you point out the contradiction! You don’t take a position on A or B, and you still “win”! I see why Republicans like this so much.
But that’s the kind of point-scoring we’re here to deconstruct, so let’s get analytical.
There’s a certain Beat-You-At-Your-Own-Gaminess to the Card Says Moops maneuver. “Safe spaces are bullshit, but, if you get one, I get one too.” “There’s no such thing as systemic oppression, but, if there were, I’d be oppressed.” It’s dismissing the rhetoric of social justice while also trying to use it against you. Claiming “the Card Says Moops” does not, so much, mean, “I believe the people who invaded Spain in the 8th Century were literally called The Moops,” but, rather, “You can’t prove I don’t believe it.” Not a statement of sincere belief, simply moving a piece across the board. All in the game, yo.
If they could be so nakedly honest with you and themselves to answer “what do you actually believe” truthfully, one suspects the answer would be, “What difference does it make? We’re right either way.”
This has come to be known as “postmodern conservatism,” a fact I find hilarious, because, in The Discourse, “postmodernism” is a dogwhistle for everything the Right hates about the Left. (…it also means “Jews.”) Postmodern conservatism is the thinking that, at least for the purpose of argument, the truth of who invaded Spain is immaterial. You have your facts, I have alternative facts. What is true? Who’s to say?
Regardless of what you actually believe - what you believe serving no rhetorical purpose - you are at least arguing from the position that material truth does not exist. Truth is a democracy. Whoever who wins the argument decides who invaded Spain.
It would be reductive to blame this pattern of thought on the internet, but its recent proliferation isn’t really extricable from the rise of chan culture (this is borrowed observation #2). 4chan didn’t cause this thinking, but sites like 4chan reveal it in its most concentrated form.
The two most common properties of a chan board will be anonymity and lack of moderation, which means, among other things, that you can say whatever you want with no systemic or social repercussions. People may disagree with you, but it carries no weight. You won’t be banned, you won’t have your comments deleted, and, because there’s no way to know whether any two posts are made by the same person, you won’t even get a reputation as “the person with the bad opinion.”
The effect this has on the community is that there is no expectation, in any given moment, that the person on the other end of a conversation isn’t messing with you. You can’t know whether they mean what they say or are only arguing as though they mean what they say. And entire debates may just be a single person stirring the pot. Such a community will naturally attract people who enjoy argument for its own sake, and will naturally trend towards the most extreme version of any opinion.
In short, this is the Free Marketplace of Ideas. No code of ethics, no social mores, no accountability. A Darwinist petri dish where ideas roam free and only the strong ones survive. If the community agrees Bebop is better than Eva, well, then I guess Bebop is better than Eva, because there wasn’t any outside influence polluting the discourse. Granted, it could just be a lot of people thought it was funny to shit on Eva, but it’s what the community has decided, so it will at least be treated as truth.
This demands that one both be highly opinionated and to assume opinions are bullshit, to place a high premium on consensus and be intensely distrustful of groupthink.
A common means of straddling these lines is what I call the Stanislavski Opinion: the opinion you entertain so completely that you functionally believe it while you express it, no matter the possibility that you will express - and, to an extent, believe - an opposite opinion later. Most of us go through a phase in our youths where we’re online and like the idea of believing in something, but don’t know what to believe just yet, so we pick a position and find out if we believe it by defending it. We try on ideologies like sunglasses off a rack. Most of us will eventually settle on a belief system, and this will usually involve some apologies and some comments we wish we could scrub from the internet, but it’s an important stage of growing up.
But some percentage of people will seek out a space where there is no embarrassment, the comments scrub themselves, and never growing out of the Stanislavski Opinion is actively rewarded. There, figuring out what you believe would make your ability to argue less flexible, and, besides, if you believed anything unironically, much of the community would still assume you’re trolling. Where no one is bound by their word, what, really, is the difference between appearing to have an opinion and having one?
Sincerity is unprovable and open to interpretation. Decide someone is sincere if you want to make fun of them, decide they’re trolling if you want to make fun of someone else. What is true? What do you want to be true? It’s easy enough to start thinking of one’s own opinions the same way: What do I believe? What is it advantageous to believe? Your answer isn’t binding. You’ll change it later if you need to.
The person I’m describing, you spend time online, you’ll meet him a lot. His name is Schrodinger’s Douchebag (borrowed observation #3): A guy who says offensive things & decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of people around him. Any website that lacks effective moderation and allows some level of anonymity will, to varying degrees, approximate 4chan, and be overrun with Schrodinger’s Douchebag.
When this type of person defends rape jokes by saying all humor is inherently punching down because there must be a butt to every joke, he hasn’t thought about it. He assumes it’s true, because he figures he’s a smart guy and whatever he assumes is probably right, but he’s unfazed if you prove otherwise; there’s no shortage of dodgy reasons he might be right and you wrong. He’ll just pick another one. What matters is that the game continues.
The thing is, Bob, it’s not that they’re lying, it’s that they just don’t care. I’ll say that again for the cheap seats: When they make these kinds of arguments, they legitimately do not care whether the words coming out of their mouths are true. It is a deeply held belief for precisely as long as it wins arguments.
So it’s kinda funny, right, how many of these folks self-identify as “rationalists?” I mean, typical rational thinking would say: If I am presented with the truth, I will believe it, and, once I believe it, I will defend it in argument. This? This is not that! This is a different idea of “rationality” that views it not as a practice but as an innate quality one either possesses or lacks, like being blond or left-handed: If I’m arguing it, I must believe it, because I’m a rational person, and, if I believe it, because I’m a rational person, it must be true. You speak assuming you’re right, and, should you take a new position, this telescopes out into a whole new set of beliefs with barely a thought. Stay focused on the argument, and you won’t even notice it’s happening.
You might now conclude the internet reactionary believes in nothing except winning arguments with liberals. And, like Newtonian physics, if you assume this framing, you will get highly useful results. If you enter conversation with Engelbert and Charlemagne believing they do not mean what they say, they are only entertaining notions, and, on a long enough timeline, they will eventually defend a position fundamentally incompatible with the one they defended earlier in the same argument, you will navigate that conversation much more effectively!
But, like Newtonian physics, this framing is lowercase-a accurate without being capital-T True.
In reality, nihilism isn’t that popular. People will tell you, “I don’t care about anything, I just like triggering the libs,” but why is it always libs? It is piss easy (and also hilarious) to upset conservatives, why only go after the SJWs? The easy answer is, well, if you upset a feminist, you might make her cry; if you upset a Nazi, he might stab you, and that has a cooling effect. But the more obvious answer is that they actually agree with the racist, MRA, and TERF talking points they repeat, but would rather not think about it.
So much of conservative rhetoric is about maintaining ignorance of one’s own beliefs. To uphold the institution of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy while thinking you are none of those things. (Well, OK, knowing you’re a capitalist, but thinking it’s a good thing.) Most people have a baseline of fairly conventional, kindergarten morality, and conservatism often clashes with it. You can rationalize these contradictions - “I’m not a bigot, I just believe in states’ rights” - but, as American conservatism gets more radical, it gets harder to square one’s politics with what one assumes to be one’s beliefs. So you learn, when someone challenges you, to cycle through beliefs until something sticks, just play your hand and trust that you’re right, or, in extreme cases, insist you have no beliefs at all, you’re just here to watch the world burn.
But they’re not. They are willing participants in the burning of only certain parts. They don’t care what they believe, but they know what they hate, and they don’t want to think about why they hate it. On paper, they believe in freedom of religion and freedom of expression, but they also hang out in communities where Muslims and trans women are punching bags. And, like a sixth grader who believes one thing in Sunday school and another thing in biology class, they believe different things at different times.
This thinking is fertile ground for Far Right recruitment. I’d say the jury is out on whether chan boards attract Far Right extremists or are built to attract Far Right extremists, but they’re where extremists congregate and organize because they’re where extremists are tolerated, and where they blend in with the locals. They learn the lingua franca of performative irony: Say what you mean in such a way that people who disagree think you’re kidding and people who agree think you’re serious. People who don’t know what they believe but clearly have some fascist leanings don’t need to be convinced of Nazi rhetoric, they just need to be submerged in it and encouraged to hate liberals. They’ll make their way Right on their own. Folks start using extremist rhetoric because it wins arguments with SJWs - usually because that’s the moment SJWs decide it’s not fruitful and possibly unsafe talking to you - and this creates the appearance that, if it keeps winning arguments, there must be something to it. The Far Right literally has handbooks on how to do this.
Those who never consciously embrace the ideology - who don’t transition from participating to getting recruited - are still useful. They spread the rhetoric, they pad the numbers, and often participate in harassment and sometimes even violence.
There’s a twisted elegance to all this. Think about it: If you operate as though there is no truth, just competing opinions, and as though opinions aren’t sincere, just tools to be picked up and dropped depending on their utility, then what are you operating under? Self-interest. The desire to win. You’ll defend the Holocaust just to feel smarter than someone, superior. Think about how beautifully that maps onto the in-group/out-group mentality of dominance and bigotry. Think how incompatible it is with liberal ideas of tolerance. I think this is why we don’t see a lot of these “I’m just here to fuck shit up” types on the Left. Don’t get me wrong, the Left has gotten on some bullshit, but (excepting politicians, whom you should never assume to mean anything they say) it’s sincerely-believed bullshit! We don’t build identities around saying things just to piss people off.
The takeaway from all this is not only that you can’t tell the difference between a bigot who doesn’t know they’re a bigot and a bigot who knows but won’t tell you, but that there is no line dividing the two. When some guy, in the middle of a harassment campaign, says the victims should be nicer to their harassers because that will “mend the rift,” I don’t know if he believes it. But, in that moment, he believes he believes it. And that scares the shit out of me. But, if you’re asking how many layers of irony he’s on as compared with the harassers, nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter.
Borrowed observation #4 is: “We are what we pretend to be.”