Monday, March 26, 2007

DEMS DO LIBERAL VIRTUES

Just to show how far behind you can get, I just caught up with an article by a college professor, Kevin Mattson, entitled “The Book of Liberal Virtues”, an article in the February 2006 issue of “The American Prospect” (http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=10829).

He has news for us: “… conservatives are winning the culture wars”. And with good reason, he goes on: “The right has done a superb job at exploiting certain weaknesses on the left; liberals in the meantime have become gun shy”.

Yes and kinda no. The ‘culture’ is being so ripped apart that it’s anybody’s guess what there’ll be left of it by the time the ‘war’ is won by one side or the other. The thing will have been destroyed in order to save it. Because at the same time that a decades-long ‘war’ has been waged, generations are now grown up who have no way to remember or imagine the ‘culture’ as it was before the war started.

It will be for us as Lincoln observed in 1865: “Each side hoped for a result less fundamental and astounding”. But where that war brought about some good, however imperfectly realized, the present decades-long culture war won’t yield any such ‘good’ result because the very trellis of maturity and citizenship is being pulled apart as the two extremes – left and right – gyrate with increasing violence, preventing the Vessel from returning to any semblance of an even keel.

When a culture wages a war against some ‘other’ it retains its own identity; but when the culture is itself being warred over, then when it’s all over there will not be any ‘there’ there. There will be versions of societal and individual immaturity – ala the right and ala the left – and assorted permutations and devolutions of the same, but that will be all.

Professor Mattson has fears and dark visions, but his nightmare alarm is brightened by one shining clarity: it’s the “right’s” fault; it’s the fault of “conservative postmodernism”. Amazingly, having broached this strikingly dissonant phrase, he says utterly nothing about its unspoken but densely present progenitor: the notorious ‘liberal postmodernism’ that carried the bacillus of Theory’s content and Revolution’s process into the heart of American culture some 4 decades ago.

Comprising the self-sustaining synergy of this conservative postmodernism, the Prof names “anti-intellectualism”, a “popular distrust of professionalism and higher education”, and a popular distrust of “objectivity”. There’s a psychological term for the phenomenon of selectively seeing the best in your own position and the worst in the other guy’s. The Prof seems unaware (or too young to personally recall) the anti-intellectualism of Theory as it was wielded by the early advocates of that early – feminist - revolution, which was all about “men” just “not getting it” and about how objectivity was simply an oppressive tool of the patriarchy and we should all be into our own intuitions and feelings and – flying the pot-whacked inanities of the Summer of Love into the stratospheric heights of Constitutional (not to say God-given) rights – our bodies.

Stunningly (he’s a Contemporary History professor) he proclaims that “for the conservative mind of today everything is political; there is no set of competences that rises about the struggle for political power”. Does he not recall that “the personal is political” was the battle-cry of those early fill-in-the-blank-Wave feminists 30 and 40 years ago? That it was that formally revolutionary conceptualization which destroyed the concept of and respect for ‘private space’ (i.e. personal space the government has no business being in) and, in consequence, a robust and vital appreciation of individual interiority? And can any of all that ever be brought back, do you think? And if not … ?

And he quickly adds (contra the conservatives, of course) that “Following from this there is no real truth”. Let’s assume that the American Pragmatism of such as William James is not ‘contemporary’ enough to be included in his professional purview; but the Theory embraced by the revolutionaries of 40 years ago was pretty hard on ‘objective truth’ even before the x-Wave started flaunting the superior sensitivity of the female as opposed to the brutish, loutish male.

He goes on (again contra the conservatives) that “there are only clashing viewpoints relative to one another”. Apparently he wasn’t around when you either got-it or you just-didn’t-get-it, and if you didn’t then you weren’t worth being listened to.

But he’s either very uninformed or sinisterly shrewd. Cutely he says “A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st-century. The looniest aspects of the far left during the 1960s morphed into the looniest aspects of the far right today”. The far left’s ideas in the 1960s weren’t “looney”; they were destructive in the manner of adolescent simplisticism mixed with utopian impatience and eagerness to impose a revolutionary sidestepping of ‘slow’ and ‘rotten’ democratic process through violence both physical and – against Truth, Objectivity, Virtue – conceptual.

Worse, once the war in Vietnam started to wind down (and the mid-‘60s college freshmen and sophomores graduated) the stereotypical ‘hippie’ and ‘yippie’ antiwar crowds dissolved. But their commitment to revolution-now was there for the taking, hanging in the very supercharged air of a society thick with late adolescents. The Black Power groups and the really fringe groups like the Weathermen deployed actual physical violence. Democracy had failed, in their view – and only revolution would serve to wipe out the infamous thing, if not to bring about a perfect society.

But the Identities – courted by the desperate Democrats – took a far more professional (almost “K Street”, we might say today) approach to matters: their ‘revolutions’ would be effected not by physical violence, but (even more dangerously) by doing an end-run around the slow-witted, insufficiently ‘concerned’ People and its democratic process – talk, deal, betray ideals – in order to bring about if not utopia then the glorious sunlit uplands of correcting historic and outrageous injustices.

So if there has always been an anti-intellectual streak in American politics – as Hofstadter says and as the Prof quotes him – yet that point is greatly insufficient to understand matters today. Prior to the 1960s and early 1970s anti-intellectualism had been embodied by uneducated and under-educated folks who were as much distrustful of mind-and-money allied in the Eastern urban ‘Establishment’, as they were simply uninterested in learning. Indeed, schoolhouses and ‘schoolmarms’ were one of the first concerns of new communities in the frontier era; it was not so much ‘education’ that agitated ‘farmers’ and ‘industrial workers’ as it was so-called ‘professionals’ who allied (for a price) their intelligence and knowledge with shrewd and unsavory corporate interests. Few Hahvuhd law school grads are recalled for their vigorous efforts in favor of the ‘little guy’, and few Hahvuhd business school grads deployed their talents on his behalf. And ‘he’ knew it; all of them.

But in the 1960s anti-intellectualism – embedded in the ‘Theory’ imported from Europe as a convenient tool to help crack open ‘space’ for the newly conceived and hatching Identities – was actually espoused by the universities themselves, and by many of the ‘professional’ truth-nurturers and truth-seekers such as the professoriate and the journalists. It was this awefull turn of events that wreaked so much profound damage to American culture and society. Fortified with the active support of so many of the ‘professions’, the advocates of the Identities – already committed to a non-democratic (hence revolutionary) method – for achieving their visions, went to work substituting their increasingly diverse if not also incompatible visions for any overarching ‘American Vision’, while simultaneously seeking to disable Reason, Tradition, Objectivity, God (as well as religion), and other capital-letter-concepts that might otherwise be deployed to impede their progress.

So there are two variants of ‘anti-intellectualism’: there is the version Hofstader described and discussed so well. Then there is the anti-intellectualism of the Left’s Political Correctness starting in the 1970s: this is not formally anti-intellectual, but rather functionally anti-intellectual: it never disparages thought and intelligence and education, but instead it requires you not to direct skeptical or even inquiring thought to an analysis or evaluation of certain ‘correct’ agendas and programs. Education is a wonderful thing and a mind is a terrible thing to waste; just don’t use it on subjects that we don’t want you to – not if you know what’s good for you.

This duplicity generated a pervasive agitation and a profound if inchoate sense of unease – and not only among the uneducated but among the middle-classes. And with whole swaths of the nation’s and the citzenry’s experiences off-limits to ‘thought’ or expression, then rational and logical evaluation and exchange – the very stuff of democratic deliberation – became derailed. And so the duplicity also dragged the tone and quality of public discourse down, back into the less advanced, more primitive modalities of childish, ad-hominem, visceral venting of unprocessed anger.

The level of public discourse that had been achieved theretofore was lost, and has yet to be found. The ‘center’ that is indispensable for democratic process – a sufficiently matured and socially competent citizenry, respectful of each other and of the deliberation which was their birthright, the alternative to which was dictatorship (‘tyranny’ in the classical usage) – was not only lost but branded as insufficient to the purposes of a ‘sensitive’ and ‘responsive’ society and its increasingly numerous ‘victims’.

The signature ‘emergencies’ and ‘outrages’ by which each successive Identity and advocacy jump-started itself up the ladder of national attention and priority required not deliberation but passion and action (a thoroughly classic revolutionary strategy); everything was ‘political’ and your politics had to be the ‘correct’ politics or you would be deemed – at the very least – insensitive and hateful. And so when the agitated finally organized themselves in later 1970s they did not formulate a ‘response’; they mounted a ‘pushback’. The time, as Jefferson Davis once put it, for compromise had passed.

Not that the righteous herders of the right have been any less proficient than the revolutionary trail-bosses of the left. Indeed, they are even better at it: they watched how the left did it and then improved upon the performance when they set up their own ‘emergencies’ and shaped public ‘outrage’ like explosive charges to blast more holes in Constitutional praxis and then went after international law and treaties.

So ‘intellectuality’ – the simple love (or at least respect) for the power of mind and of ideas – has been hugely compromised in this country. Concomitantly, the respect for and the competence in personal and public deliberation, discussion, and decision has also been degraded.

Mattson’s exhortation to the effect that “liberals need to show that the virtues of education and thoughtfulness are virtues open to all” is betrayed by the performance of ‘liberals’ over the course of decades. And it belies his own insufficient analysis.

And profoundly so. It isn’t that education and ‘thoughtfulness’ (a poorly chosen word: does it have to do with sending Hallmark cards? Perhaps ‘mindfulness’ or ‘concentration’ would be better) have been kept from certain ‘classes’ or ‘groups’. Much worse and a double-whammy: ‘Education’ and ‘mindfulness’ have been doubly derided and gutted in order to prevent their obstructing the agendas of the assorted revolutions of the assorted Identities:1) ‘education’ and ‘mindfulness’ are said to have no basis in the Great Scheme of Things and are merely mental tools of oppression and 2) We are given to understand sharply that they can’t be used on serious matters if they’re the ‘wrong’ matters – and anyone trying to think and discuss ‘incorrectly’ will wind up being labeled ‘insensitive’ (or – once the Republicans took over the game: ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘treasonous’).

And what is a ‘virtue’? Is it simply a nice or a desirable characteristic? What grounds the virtue such that you can rely on it as a shaper of your life and as a reliable guide to a self and a life that – when you get to the end of the road – you can feel ‘good’ about? What makes a ‘virtue’ a ‘Virtue’?

And here’s where Mattson demonstrates – no doubt unwittingly – the plight of the ‘left’ or the ‘liberals’: there’s nothing in their ideal ‘world’ or in their ‘world-view’ that can turn a virtue into a Virtue and thereby make it worth living for (or dying for). To the great human thirst for participation in meaning and Life, they can only offer spectatorship of esoteric public melodramas played out regardless of consequences.

As ‘election’ ‘news’ starts to fill the media now, a lot more is going to be said about What the Democrats Have To Do or can do or some such. And how the mess our civic life is in is the fault of the Republicans (who can remember life 12 years and more ago?) and we only have to put the Dems back in because – during it all – they have stayed ‘normal’ and ‘good’ (but still ‘patriotic’ and ‘strong’). Yah. None of them Dem thinkers have watched ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’, I think. It’s 1946 and the Dems are like Germans who want to blame it all on the now-self-destructed Nazis and just ‘move on’.

Well the Republicans of this age can certainly play the bad-guys role for this scenario; but the Dems are in no position to play any role but that of The Rest of the German People. They helped this monstrosity develop and continue, and the fact that the Party of the Twelve Years is over and gone doesn’t make everybody else ‘good’ by default so that the country can just pick right up where it left off twelve long years ago and proceed happily (and normally and goodily) on.

What can the Democrats do? First, I think, they can recommit to democratic process: too much change has been rammed down American throats with no questions asked or allowed, but merely on the ‘authority’ of the fact that ‘it’s a good thing and we should do it’– and ‘it’s an emergency and an outrage and anything less would be ‘insensitive’’. The process of genuine democracy has been sidestepped and sidetracked, by revolutions masquerading as consumed by a laudable (and un-opposable) zeal for righteousness.

And consequently, the People have been sidestepped and sidetracked. Did Bush tell everyone not to worry after 9/11 and that he’d take care of everything and We should all just go shopping? Well, that’s pretty much what the Democrats told us for decades as this and that huge change became Democratic dogma overnight. We let them get away with it because they were doing it in a ‘good’ cause and who wanted to wind up on the evening news labeled as ‘insensitive’ or ‘hateful’? Did we think that the Twelve Years just sorta materialized out of nowhere? That’s like thinking the 9/11 gang simply materialized out of nowhere. We are too old for fairy tales, if not too grown up for them.

Revolutions have no respect for The People, as individuals or as an entity of Constitutional standing. That was the monstrous danger within the Dems’ “New Politics” that came a cropper as early as McGovern’s shockingly compleat defeat. And yet the Dems couldn’t stop their own stampede by then, and probably couldn’t see any other options. Much like a cavalry charge: after a certain point, you really don’t mind that the horses no longer respond to the reins and just gallop en masse toward the enemy – after all, the closer you get to the shock of armed contact, the less you need your troops having any philosophical thoughts, let alone transmitting them to the horses.

That was the Dems’ undoing: they forsook The People and the democratic process for the sake of votes. Well, to be fair, it was a matter of survival: no votes to replace the Southrons and the fading blue-collar industrial workers and there might well be no Democratic Party after a while. So, since it was a matter of survival (an ‘existential threat’ as might be said today) then steps had to be taken ‘by any means necessary’.

But the Dems have an even bigger problem that they brought on themselves: in a country that is hugely ‘religious’ in some form or other (and in which a large fraction of the citizenry believe the world is less than 10,000 years old) and among a species – the human – where Meaning and Presence anchored Beyond this ‘world’ constitute the abiding and ceaseless hunger of all … in a country like this the Dems – to ease the rise of their new voter-blocs – not only had to impose massive social change, but had to Flatten the ‘world’ of human experience in order to disable those Beyond-things that might be used to ‘judge’ that change.

This is where the Dems abandoned the High Ground, which was thus left undefended when the whackjob Fundamentalists were mustered into Republican service and told to take and fortify the heights in order to cover the low-ground advance of their new allies, the better-dressed but equally whacked-out Neocons. In a country and among a species hungry for Meaning and the Presence of something Beyond, for the Substance and intimation of Things Beyond, the Dems committed themselves to perceptions and appearances and spin.

And yet the Dems also committed themselves to a version of the Straussian ‘Noble Lie’: it’s not true, but it should be, and if we can get them all to believe it, then maybe over time the fact that they believe it’s true will actually help make it come true. Interesting theory – although a tad manipulative for a democracy, but hey – it’s an emergency and these be existential times.

Now we hear and will continue to hear the Dems trying to recover the High Ground – or at least the appearance of it … - without actually admitting that they’ve ever left it in the first place. Sort of a version of the Pentagoon play: Nothing is wrong and we’re fixing it – nothing to see here, folks. As Ward Bond's Irish beat-cop might have said: G'wan home, the whole a'yez!

But although the monstrous failure of the Republicans to decently govern affairs domestic and foreign is undeniable, there is no guarantee that the Dems will be able to make themselves anything more than the default Party. How the Dems will be able to lead without holding the actual High Ground is a mystery to me. And how the Dems will be able to reclaim it without indicting their performance over the past several decades and alienating some of their most implacable new Identities … that’s their biggest problem.

So it’s not to my mind a matter of the Dems reclaiming the authority to ‘lead’. First they have to restore the democratic process based on a respect for all of Us as The People. And maybe they can gin up the courage to do that by relying on strength and wisdom from Beyond. God knows, the ‘wisdom’ of French literary Theory has helped them not at all. And it has helped so weaken this Republic that the Rove-ian myrmidons and this unspeakably awful Unitarium got into power as easily as the Unitarium then let the 9/11 hijackers get to the planes.

Waves washing back upon each other, echoes resounding back against each other, illusions feeding appearances serving lies that can’t clearly be labeled because the Truth they betray can no longer be discerned … “so much remains to be done”.

Labels: , , , , , ,

2 Comments:

Blogger David said...

Everybody must have seen Judgment at Nuremburg last night. It's rippling through the internet. Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Dish has uploaded a copy of Spencer Tracy's closing peroration from the movie. Very moving.

Judge 'Dan Haywood' was actually a relatively unknown American jurist from upstate NY named Robert Jackson whose real words at the trial were even more dramatic than those scripted. They apply today as twin starting points for the retrieval our national honor: 1)Rejection of 'pereemptive' imperial war and 2)acceptance of the rule of law.

"..no grievances or policies justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy."

"..If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the US does them or Germany does them and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us."

"We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well."

These twin principles are a rejection of everything the Bushies stand for and are so self-evidently worthy that men of good will would give their lives to defend them whether they are theists or not.

8:35 PM  
Blogger publion said...

I don’t think we ever thought – watching “Judgment” the first time around – that we would actually ever be applying its blood-bought wisdom to our own country. It was un-imaginable. But then, wasn’t that much of the problem in 1933 and – let’s face it – in 1912 on the bridge of “Titanic”? – nobody could ‘imagine’ that such a wondrous ‘thing’ could ever go-bad or founder.

But ‘thing’ was precisely the problem: nothing is really just a ‘thing’, not a ship and certainly not a nation or a government or a society or a culture. Nor ‘history’ itself. It’s all dynamic – even if not formally ‘alive’ – and that dynamism creates not only the ‘fog of war’ but the ‘fog of life’ and I think also the ‘fog of being’. Against which all such fogs the sturdy mariner, the Master & Commander, must strive.

The wind of the Spirit’s Grace disperses that fog, and the Virtues are powerful navigational aids to help us keep on course in even the thickest fogs. But we have dispensed with those aids – the Flower Children because they seemed ‘artificial’ and ‘confining’ and ‘pessimistic’, the Revolutionistas and Advocacies because they would interfere with this or that agenda and policy objective, the Government because its species acknowledges no restraint or boundaries whatsoever.

This generation has a rendezvous with Consequences, if not with Destiny. We must not fail it. The Republic is far more endangered now than when Nazis and Churchills stalked the earth.

6:30 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home