Rick Santorum and the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition

Burning kittens is wrong. It is cruel, it is illegal and it is, quite simply, evil. No one should burn kittens.

I am, unambiguously and without qualification, opposed to burning kittens. I am also confident that you are opposed to this too. And that latter point is why I cannot join the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition.

The AKBC, again, is on the correct side of this issue. Its members, quite rightly, are vehemently opposed to something to which they ought to be vehemently opposed. But that isn’t what motivates them. What drives them, their central organizing principle, is the notion that they represent a beleaguered and controversial minority view. They imagine that their stance against burning kittens — sweet, adorable, innocent kittens — is something that separates and distinguishes them from most other people. They imagine that their opposition to burning kittens is a brave and exceptional stance that elevates them above most other people.

In other words, the central concern of the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition is not a defense of kittens, but an accusation against most other people. They are not driven by their opposition to kitten-burning, but by their opposition to a make-believe faction of other people whom they imagine favor kitten-burning. That this vast bloc of pro kitten-burning people cannot be found and does not exist does nothing to dampen their enthusiastic campaign against these supposed monstrously cruel others. It is a delusion, but the AKBC enjoys this delusion.

This delusion gives their lives meaning and purpose. It makes their lives more exciting. And it enables them to bask in the idea that they are good and righteous people — or at least the possibility that they are better than some imagined faction of monstrously cruel other people.

This delusion has become a central defining trait of American politics. Imaginary monsters — other people who are imagined to favor kitten-burning or other monstrous cruelties — are a greater focus of American politics than jobs, taxes, highways and bridges, or environmental protection. Millions of votes are mobilized and cast based on the imaginary fear of an imaginary faction of kitten-burning monsters.

Here, for example, is Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, describing a nightmare of monstrous cruelty that he imagines is now taking place in the Netherlands:

“In the Netherlands, people wear different bracelets if they are elderly,” Santorum said. “And the bracelet is: ‘Do not euthanize me.’ Because they have voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands but half of the people who are euthanized — 10 percent of all deaths in the Netherlands — half of those people are euthanized involuntarily at hospitals because they are older and sick. And so elderly people in the Netherlands don’t go to the hospital. They go to another country, because they are afraid, because of budget purposes, they will not come out of that hospital if they go in there with sickness.”

The happy truth, of course, is that this is all complete nonsense. Nothing like this is happening in the Netherlands. No such bracelets exist. Santorum’s nightmare is entirely false — it’s a fabricated delusion based on a fantasy apparently invented out of whole cloth by the Louisiana Right to Life Federation.

If you had any doubt about that, if you had for a moment perhaps feared that Santorum was telling the truth, then you will be pleased and relieved to learn that he was not. You will be happy to learn that Dutch hospitals are not killing off the terrified elderly because, rightly and understandably, you prefer to live in a world in which such horrible things are not happening.

That’s the difference between you and Sen. Santorum. You both agree that the scenario he described would be a Very Bad Thing. But for you that means you don’t want it to be true while for him that’s reason to wish it were. He believed this story and promoted this story because he wanted to believe it was true. He needed to believe it was true.

Rick Santorum wishes that he lived in a world in which horrible things like this were really happening. If you confront him with the facts and the evidence proving that his Netherlands nightmare is only the figment of a fevered imagination he would not be relieved to learn that this wasn’t true. He’d be defensive and angry, denying those facts and that evidence because he prefers the horrible fantasy.

Why? Why would anyone want such a thing to be true? Why would someone invent monsters and cling, desperately, to the idea of such monsters? Aren’t there enough real problems in the world demanding our attention?

I’ve been studying the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition in its various incarnations for a long time now, and I have a few theories in answer to those questions.

1. It’s exciting to believe in imaginary monsters.

Santorum wants to imagine himself doing battle with Dutch death panels for the same reason that I spent hours as a teenager fighting dragons, trolls, goblins and orcs. It’s exciting to pretend that you’re a brave hero struggling against the forces of evil. That’s fine when you know it’s just a game — an imaginary fantasy conducted with graph-paper and multi-sided dice. But it’s a problem when you lose the ability to distinguish between the fantasy role-playing game and real life.

2. A fiendish foil for self-righteousness.

Being good is hard. If I compare myself to Jesus or Harriet Tubman or St. Francis or Dorothy Day then I can’t help but see a vast amount of room for improvement on my part. But if, instead, I compare myself to Hannibal Lecter, then I come out looking pretty good. If I compare myself to Hannibal Lecter, then I can tell myself that I am a saint and a hero and not just someone largely indistinct from everyone else, stumbling along in a self-absorbed routine of quiet desperation. It doesn’t matter that Lecter is a fictional character who doesn’t really exist, not when he’s so very useful as a point of contrast that allows me to bask in my own self-righteousness. Am I really a righteous saint and hero? Compared to Hannibal Lecter, to the kitten-burners and the Satanic baby-killers, you bet I am.

3. If the monsters don’t exist, the theory isn’t true.

The Big Theory presents an if-then equation to explain how society works. The theory offers a defense of something — “traditional morality,” sectarian privilege, patriarchy, ethnic superiority, cultural exceptionalism, nationalism, etc. — and says that if that something is not defended, then monstrous consequences will ensue. The absence of such monstrous consequences thus disproves the theory, undermining its defense of whatever it is the theorist is defending.

And so monsters must be invented. And anyone who denies the reality of these unreal monsters must be condemned as an enemy of traditional morality, or of the sect, the ethnic group, the culture, the nation, etc.

4. Imaginary monsters give our fears a face.

We’re afraid. We’re afraid of difference, of financial insecurity, of forces beyond our control, of death. Our fears are amorphous, unsettling and overwhelming. We can’t get a handle on them. So we give them a name and a face and thus can pretend that we’re up against something we can fight. Instead of the amorphous fear of something in the dark, we can pretend that it’s a werewolf in the woods. A werewolf is scary too, but now we have something to do. OK, yes, technically there’s still no such thing as werewolves, but if we pretend there are, then we can take decisive action. We can start making silver bullets. We can start locking up those neighbors we suspect might secretly be werewolves. The monsters may be imaginary, but at least they’re specific.

 

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