Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SAM TANENHAUS AND IDENTITY POLITICS

Things continue to get interestinger and interestinger.

No less a mainstream and Correct venue than ‘The New York Times’ has now published an article entitled “Identity Politics Leans Right”.

Well, my first fear was that this would be an attempt to run the now-typical progressive-formerly-liberal play: it was goooood when we did it, but the ‘conservatives’ are baaaaaad when they do it.

But no. They’re actually letting the writer, Sam Tanenhaus, do something more mature with it.*

His concern is that the Right is actually trying to take advantage of the weakening hold of Political Correctness and Identity Politics (the monsters summoned forth by those sorcerer’s apprentices now known as the progressives-formerly-liberals forty Biblical years ago).

I agree with him that such a move is a distinct possibility. And I more than agree with him that this would be a bad (but hardly surprising) development.

I don’t quite get there by the same route, so let me say this about that.

Prompting his thoughts is a recent move by the Texas Board of Education to tweak the History curriculum in that Great State’s elementary school system: the Board wants to make the curriculum more ‘conservative’.

The Board’s definition of ‘conservative’ – as always – is the key here. And that definition is revealed in the Board’s wish to teach students about their right to bear arms and “an individual’s protection of private property from government takings”. (Nor am I great fan of ‘government’ as that life-form has engorged over the past 40 Biblical years.)

In other words, the Board is simply trying to throw its own mud, now that the ‘other side’ has started to run out of mud or at least has started to lose the ability to get its own mud recognized as the pure revolutionary truth. Which reflects more than anything else the frakkulously unhappy fact that the Right was sucked into the Left’s mud-pie game in the 1980s and in doing so left Us with no Party speaking for civic maturity and seriousness in a mature and serious way.

And of course, the religious nature of the Founders is going to be included in the Board’s vision; the Founders were ‘Christian’. Which isn’t and is true.

They were interested in 1787 in setting up the machinery of a government that would be able to withstand the irrational and corrosive whims and schemes that affect all humans and every human endeavor. They were interested in creating a democratic process that would prevent the type of self-serving corruptions of government power that so often in history had not only resulted after the passage of time, but had also led to monstrously bloody and violent revolutionary agitations (in 1787 the French nation was on the cusp of precisely such a bloodbath).

And they were precisely not interested in ‘religion’, in several ways.

First, they did not want the government getting itself mixed up in ‘religious’ matters, since it would only entangle the government in the type of religious rockfights (and wars) that had for centuries rocked Europe.

Second, they did not want the government power to get drawn so intimately into the national life, and into the lives of its Citizens. The Founders had a very clear and limited vision of what role ‘government’ would play in ‘America’: government would be a smallish preserve, playing a vital but not directive or capital role in the nation’s and the People’s life. The limits on the government – the expectations placed upon it and the authority it possessed – would create a fenced-in zone, beyond which was a wide and deep field wherein the activities of the Citizens – mercantile, personal, communal, familial, spiritual and religious – would constitute the genuine and most essential ‘life’ of the nation and the Citizenry.

Third, they did not want government to interfere with religion. Human beings, in the Enlightenment vision, were endowed with the power of reason (indeed, the Enlightenment often saw Reason as some sort of independent force working in human affairs; sort of a ‘God’ without all the churchy accretions); Americans were capable of rationality and had the right to make their own decisions as to religious adherence.

Fourth, the government had no authority to go mucking around in anybody’s soul or mind. This newly forged America wasn’t going to be the Tsar’s Russia or any other monarchical replicant where the government would inherit the Absolute Authority of the Throne, whose Monarch simply took over the power and authority formerly ascribed to the Pope or simply exercised God’s authority as God’s Anointed Deputy.

(You can see how much the country slid backwards in the past 10 years, into the queasy absolutist slime from which the Founders had lifted it.)

But the Founders were also not anti-religious. Indeed, they lived at a time when the afterglow of late medieval Christendom and the Protestant Reformation still warmed and lit the lives and minds and souls of the Citizenry: no matter how much or how little or just how one was ‘churched’ in the young American nation, there was still a wide consensus that there was a God, and/or that one should be a ‘decent’ person. And that ‘decency’ was much defined by the old virtues, theological and practical.

And indeed, the consensus extended to the belief and the ideal that human beings were possessed of a soul, and created by a God (however defined) Whose plan gave humans purpose and meaning, and Whose help assisted them as they made their way through the soul-wracking complexities of this world.

That afterglow was something that the Founders could not only presume, but that they actually needed in their vision. Because if the government machinery they were carefully assembling (in its several Branches – Legislative, Executive, Judicial) was going to be the servant (indeed the employee) of The People, then that People had to retain such sense of confidence in their own meaning that they could sustain not only their own lives but also the government, acting as the ultimate human judge of its actions.

And, for that matter, the Founders assumed that any elected officials of that government would also be governed by their own sense of ‘virtue’ and ‘character’ as well as their sense of responsibility to The People and – as well – to the Ultimate Judge of human affairs and souls.

ALL of that was included in the Framers’ vision of the American polity, and it was only upon that dense and robust foundation that the actual government machinery was formally set up through the Constitutional instrument itself.

Today’s meaningless Rightist blather about the Framers being ‘Christian’ is a useless conversation. That word ‘Christian’ as used nowadays defines out to be the specifically fundamentalist sense of the word, and Fundamentalism is a movement that didn’t gain traction in America until a full century after the Founding. Arguing about it is equivalent to arguing that a particular Founder was a Cadillac or a Mercedes man.

Such ‘fundamentalism’ – with its (soooo highly-selective) ‘literal interpretation’ of the Bible – didn’t exist in the late 18th century, except as an un-esteemed bunch on the fringes of the Protestant fold.

Nor do I disagree with Tanenhaus when he says that “this controversy is the latest version of a debate that reaches back many decades and is perhaps essential to the heterogeneous democracy whose identity has long been in flux”.

But I am suddenly verrrry alert to where that thought might be taken.

His use of “decades” indicates to me that he is well aware of what the past four Biblical decades have wrought. And so, as with Neal Gabler in two very recent Posts, I am wary that Tanenhaus is going to try to soft-sell those forty frakkulent years as just another well-intentioned and mostly Gooooood effort to add some ‘richness’ to America’s self-concept and sense of identity.

Which lets the Beltway, the Dems, the progressive-formerly-liberals and the wild-minded revolutionistas of Identity Politics off the verrrrry big hook upon which they have willfully skewered themselves. And Us.

He starts in down that road, purring about how it occurred to decent folks that “in the 1960s and ‘70s, the concept of a single ‘race of men’ looked outmoded”. He continues: “Didn’t ‘race’ mean ‘white race’? and didn’t ‘men’ exclude women?”

I duly acknowledge that in this paragraph he also refers to the Sixties and Seventies as “convulsions”. Which, however, reminds me of Gabler’s “shocks” – as if they were merely well-intentioned jolts administered like an ER doc with the defibrillator ‘paddles’ to bring life back to a dying patient.

When of course they actually constituted – and were intended to constitute – a sustained, conceptually violent ‘deconstruction’ of not only the current concept of American ‘identity’ but of the possibility of any efficacious American identity at all (Multiculturalism) and of any possibility of any common American identity that transcended this or that difference or inequality, real or imagined (Identity Politics).

Yes, America’s ‘identity’ has always been in flux. Waves of immigrants brought their own particular contributions to it, even as they worked to assimilate themselves into the overall American commonality of belief and tradition.

BUT no wave of immigrants ever came over here intending to sustain a do-or-die assault on American identity itself, a ‘deconstruction’ (not so much a ‘re-construction’) of American identity. Except, come to think of it, the Anarchists who came over here as individuals committed to spreading European excitements of violently overthrowing established authority (they too didn’t have any replacement or reconstruction in mind; they figured that once freed from ‘authority’ then folks would do nicely enough on their own – which sounds queasily familiar, doesn’t it?).**

AND no wave of immigrants every arrived here to face an American culture and polity that had been so confoundingly weakened by 40 years' worth of sustained attack, aided and abetted by its own government.

AND no wave of immigrants ever arrived here to be told that what they precisely must not do is to assimilate to the local American culture. Since, the justification would be given, American culture was not worth their adherence anyway.

So, no, I can’t go along with the ‘moderate’ can’t-we-all-just-forget-it-and-move-on sort of revisionist history-making that is currently the rage among the suddenly-nervous Correct elites. Frankly, I think a little South American or South African or Central-European-after-the-Communists ‘reconciliation’ needs to be carried out here. And that would – I think – require something along the lines of a Truth Commission. Or at least, following the ancient Chinese wisdom, a Rectification of Names.

Because what We have been through in the past 40 Biblical years has not been a slightly bumptious, well-intentioned, liberating re-adjustment and expansion of American identity. It has been a hydra-headed (MIRV-ed, to use the old Cold War term) revolutionary assault on democratic deliberative process as well as – see above – on the very fundaments and existential possibility of any American identity at all.

AND such whackery did not ‘succeed’ on the strength of its own conceptual worth, but rather because it was espoused by the Democrats (and then later the Republicans in their way) and became in effect a government-sustained revolution. A government-sustained revolution against its own national ethos and Constitutional vision.

Oh, and against a rather sizable chunk of its own People.

Surely, somewhere along the line, this shaded into what the Framers would term “treachery”.***

A little too cutely, Tanenhaus tries to cover that base by admitting freely about these “changes” that “some were narrowing and erroneous” – he specifically mentions the black CCNY professor Leonard Jeffries’ 1980s black-studies illuminations about white European “ice people” and African “sun people” … for which higher education-level wisdom individuals or the taxpayers paid hefty tuition fees.

But he quickly tacks back: “Many of the changes were liberating”. Well, some were. To some. But the price of imposing such changes by doing an end-run around wide and deliberate consensus-building has been verrrry high – perhaps more, it may turn out, than We could afford.

He quotes “conservatives” who worried and warned at the time “that attacks on the ‘Eurocentric curriculum’ … were giving rise to ‘the notion that history and literature should be taught not as disciplines but as therapies whose function is to raise minority self-esteem’”.

Well now. So much of American activity has become ‘therapy’ since then.

And rather than ‘achievement’ it is ‘self-esteem’ that has become the pole-star of the awesome task of forming youth for the tasks of achieving maturity and sustaining an adult life and an efficacious communal and civic competence. I recall the line from a recent cartoon: ‘This isn’t a San Francisco youth league – we keep score!”. Which is a plaint for – if I may say – a ‘reality-based’ life as opposed to a ‘consolatory fantasy-based’ life.

Surely, the evidence of such fantasy-based, self-serving consolations has done nothing to improve the achievements of the Service academies. The Navy has relieved almost 20 commanding officers – many of them Academy graduates – in the past months; several hugely expensive vessels have been wrecked through accident or incompetence, including a nuclear missile cruiser and a submarine, both new. One lantern-jawed, butch-cut commanding officer called one of her subordinate officers an “idiot” in front of his enlisted subordinates and on the bridge underway she said to another officer “This is why I hate you!”; at a Royal Navy officer temporarily assigned to her command she threw a coffee cup (ceramic, not paper).

And in the matter of this 'consolatory-fantasy' gambit: things have gotten mightily and dangerously confused in the past 40 Biblical years. You recall that 'framing' has been one of the key insight in the feministical 'deconstruction' of any 'reality' that might stand in the way of their assorted excitements, emancipations, and liberating revolutions. There is no 'reality' out there - and certainly no Reality existing in some other, higher dimension.

No, there is only the outcome of however you choose to 'frame' things that might strike you as connected. So you hold your head however you choose to, see what you see by doing it, and that - for you - is 'reality'.

There is certianly an element of truth to this approach: humans never experience anything directly; like a Starship in space, everything that the captain 'sees' is mediated by the ship's sensor array, which then filters whatever feedback it gets from its scans of space and creates a picture on the view-screen on the bridge (did you think the Enterprise's viewscreen was just a windshield?). So in that sense, humans 'see' patterns that may not really be out there. OR - it has to be added - they may not see patterns that may indeed be out there.

What the feministicals did was to take this hardly-original philosophical insight and erect it into a Law of Perception: humans can never directly and fully grasp what's really 'out there'.

But then they went further and created a (falsely-derived) Law of Being: therefore there is no 'reality' out there and everything is all in your mind. (And therefore whatever the Dems wanted to 'change' in the rotten, patriarchy-filled, racist American culture couldn't be argued about since there is no 'reality' anyway on which anyone could base an objection. Neat. But frakkulously wrong.)

So, continuing to trace out the Great Mistake (or Treachery) of 'deconstruction': you don't have any 'reality' out there; all you have is your 'frame'. And you must be educated into the Correct 'framing' before your input in democratic political process is worthy of notice or even Constitutional respect. Ach!

But then human nature's stubborn reality kicks in: humans are always susceptible to the temptation to take a short-cut: if reality is too painful, the mind draws upon its powers of imagination to fabricate a fantasy that will make you feel 'better' - a consolatory fantasy. So, for example: Although I have jumped off the Empire State Building I really am flying and I will indeed start to pull up before I hit the street ... if you do that you feel a whole lot better.

But of course, as your mind accurately perceives 'reality' and realizes that you are now within 10 stories of hitting the pavement, it will send increasing alarms that will stimulate unpleasant emotions designed to get you to do something to fix this problem. So your consolatory-fantasy will have to kick into overdrive to blot out the alarm signals from your mind and emotions.

One of the skills, therefore, currently required in American politics is to be able to distinguish between a 'frame' and a 'consolatory fantasy'.

And to realize - despite whatever feministical 'theory' and 'deconstruction' insist through the mouths of Beltway and academic elite-bots - that A) there is indeed a 'reality', B) it is 'out there' for sure, and C) it may even be a Reality.

And that even if humans cannot know this r/Reality totally and completely, they damned well better be able to accurately figure out a little bit about it, or else they are going to go through life - to use a Sean Connery phrase from that 1990s Eliot Ness movie - having "brought a knife to a gunfight".****

So much for the ‘liberation of Me’ as a substitute for maturity, competence, and achievement. So much for the maturity of the Totally Free Self.

And of course, the crapulent invasion of a sovereign foreign nation was effected through the lubricating excuse of ‘therapy’ for the American people after the shock of 9-11. (Nor do I hold the late Mr. Hussein in any esteem whatsoever.)

And that same invasion – and several subsequent military misadventures – was undertaken merely upon the justification of the ‘feelings’ of the Beltway elites – with no serious deliberation or careful calculation or even the asking of that prime professional strategic question: And what then?

The foreign policy elites – like their domestic policy elites – “would be greeted as liberators”.

Which brings me back to Tanenhaus.

It’s not enough to gush about the good-intentions and desires for ‘liberation’ and ‘empowerment’. The actual results and the consequences (intended or unintended) have to be looked at clearly and carefully. And should have been from the get-go.

Tanenhaus notes that the Texas gambit may simply represent “the conservative variant of identity politics and this could invite a similar backlash”.

Well, as I’ve said before, “backlash” is just a little too simple, and shades into the simplistic. It should have been clear 40 years ago that so wide and sustained and profound a series of ‘changes’ should be passed through the purifying fire of wide and acute public deliberation.

And that would be even more essential since those ‘changes’ or ‘shocks’ or whatever you choose to call them constituted profound assaults on some of the most fundamental American beliefs and practices and even the sources of national and individual meaning and purpose.

And that these assaults would be successful precisely because they would be imposed by the government rather than achieved through the democratic processes of wide and acute deliberation.

If ANY progressive-formerly-liberal wants to say that nobody at the time (or during those 40 Biblical years) realized just how important a wide and deep programme of public debate, deliberation, and consensus-building would be … well, such an admission is a self-indictment on its face.

And if, in the alternative, any progressive-formerly-liberal wants to say that Yes, at some point that all became clear but by then they were in too deep … well, such an admission is a self-indictment on its face.

And “treachery” seems not so outré an option to describe things.

Tanenhaus nicely quotes Richard Hofstadter, whose 1948 “The American Political Tradition” opined that the tendency to “national nostalgia” constituted “an effort not to understand the past but to evade the present”.

Yes and no.

Yes, with groups as with individuals, a sentimental but uncritical search for ‘the past’ often indicates immaturity rather than maturity. And that maturity reveals itself in a comprehensive and sustained effort to engage the challenges of the present. (The Buddhist wisdom puts it very nicely: the prime goal of a person is to be a full Self in an accurately perceived Present. And both Self and Present are densely defined and capacious terms as used here.)

But no, not all concern for ‘the past’ is escapist. There is, after all, Tradition and Heritage: the never-ending effort to further refine one’s integrity as shaped by the ideals of one’s individual and communal Tradition and Heritage. These were all terms that were jettisoned – along with the dimensions of Reality to which they were portals – by the ‘deconstruction’ demanded by certain Identities that required total autonomy, free of any external commitments, in order to fashion the Totally Free Self (as lethal and frakkulent a fantasy as any era in any part of the world has ever erected).

And the government played along.

Nowadays, of course, ‘history’ is nothing more than what any particular group or interest wants it to be; to say that an assertion is right or wrong, wise or foolish, is to be ‘insensitive’ and ‘intolerant’. To say that an assertion is unsupported by any evidence is to be ‘rationalistic’. To say that an assertion holds many secondary but undesirable consequences is to be ‘un-hopeful’ and demonstrates that ‘you just don’t get it’.

For these reasons, Tanenhaus is on the mark when he acknowledges that the very existence of the Texas gambit “suggests that after so many bitter years of polarization, Americans stand on the brink of a collective identity crisis and no longer share a common set of ideas about the true character of the country and the true meaning of democracy”.

But he is being disingenuous by noting it as if by inadvertence. What influences started all those bitter years of polarization? What influences believed with the revolutionary zeal of convinced cadres that no American identity was possible or even desirable? What influences insisted that ‘truth’ and ‘character’ were “quaint” terms? What influences asserted that the Constitution itself was hopelessly tainted by its (pick one or all: white, male, patriarchal, corporatist, elitist) origins and was at best “quaint” and at worst bereft of any call upon Americans’ adherence?*****

It’s not only the America of industrial primacy that’s irretrievably gone now. It’s not only the America of economic primacy with all that gold in Fort Knox solidly backing up the currency. It’s not only the America with all those resources that made it able to sustain itself and feed and supply most of the world.

It’s the America that actually sensed itself a People with a Purpose.******

The universal solvent of ‘deconstruction’, joined to Identity Politics and its sibling Multiculturalism, has eaten so much away.

If you want to give yourself a serious workout, imagine that perhaps We are now each and all corpses shackled to a corpse. Individuals bereft of Place, Purpose, and Meaning, shackled together and to a government that has itself burst free from any shape, amorphously but omnivorously oozing out over the entire field of American life. We are no longer what We were meant to be, and neither is the government.

Is that enough of a rendezvous with destiny for ya?

NOTES

*He’s actually the Editor of ‘The New York Times Book Review’ and of the paper’s ‘Week in Review’ section (where the article is published). But it still had to get a green light from the higher ups, such as they are.

**Imagine if after that Anarchist blew up his waggon in front of the Wall Street Stock Exchange in 1920 (and then escaped back to his native Italy), the President had decided to consider all the world's Anarchists as 'terrorists' and to declare that since they were 'at war' with the United States, then the US was going to send its military to invade ... and put together a little list. And don't forget: not long after that, FDR was almost killed - and the Mayor of Chicago sitting next to him was - when Anton Czermak (another Southeast European, as they would have said back then) tried to shoot him.

***The noted commentator Leon Wieseltier, a senior Editor at ‘The New Republic’ magazine, shares his thoughts about Washington and the Beltway in the March 2th issue (p.40): “These are shabby days in the capital … for there are no heroes here now … there is almost no courage in the political class right now … everybody is transfixed only by their numbers … the instinct for self-preservation has routed all the finer instincts … there is no longer any dignity in in loss; if you lose a fight for a just cause; if you lose a fight you are merely a loser …”

****I offer this mental exercise to you: How much 'deconstruction' and its pooh-poohing of reality and Reality, and any working competence in dealing with them, has indeed hugely corroded and weakened Our individual and communal and national capacity to deal with important matters facing Us. And not only in matters of 'culture' and domestic politics and domestic policy ... consider that to cap off 30 years of the Left's 'deconstruction's' pooh-poohing of reality and Reality and consequences, the jingo Right (by then merged with the 'deconstruction-liberation' Left into 'the Beltway') went and invaded Iraq. They indeed did bring a 'gun' - most of the Army's available field force, much of the National Guard, and an even larger number of hired mercenaries from Blackwater and such - but they brought the gun to what turned out a totally different type of 'fight'. Seven years later - and with several spin-off 'wars' now raging - you can see what fools 'deconstruction' has made of Us in the eyes of the world; lethal and dangerous fools.

*****Recall Raymond Aron’s excellent conceptualization “democratic conservatism”, which he opposed both to revolutionary-utopian romanticism (from the Left) and to reactionary nostalgia and sentimentalism (from the Right). He realized in the late Sixties that he was starting to see what Tocqueville had called “literary politics” – the tendency of academics and others not responsible for effecting and sustaining actual and workable outcomes to judge societies by utopian standards (which, by their very definition, find all things wanting).

It was this garden-variety lunacy (sleazy when erected into a cottage-industry to effect and sustain professional advancement and popularity) which the vote-desperate Dems deputized as National Policy in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, gleefully joining the Boomers (in both their feckless Flower Child and arrogant Radical Cadre variants) in conceptually sweeping off the board everything that had gone before (which, nicely, included the Dems’ frakkulous expansion of the Vietnam fiasco that by 1969 Nixon had committed the Republicans to continuing on the pretext of ‘national honor’).

******And to repeat what I’ve said in prior Posts here, I would define that purpose in Lincoln’s words in his Second Inaugural: “to achieve a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations”.

ADDENDUM

Let me toss this at you. We have seen ‘humanitarian intervention’ frakkulously expand since the Clintons’ Administration, from the Left, in the name of Rescue. We have seen that expand to blend with some concept of ‘self defense’ in the Iraq War and the further ‘wars’ that it has spawned.

Now We are seeing ‘empowerment’ and ‘liberation’ of ‘women’, of entire peoples from patriarchy and oppressive traditions, folkways and – face it – from an entire culture, with all its heritage and traditions. (Nor am I here implying that all the folkways, cultures, heritages and traditions of all the peoples and sovereign nations of the world are all Goooooood.) See my Post here.

Is it at all inconceivable that as the Beltway further panders to the advocates of Big Pain and ‘empowerment’ and ‘liberation’ by trying to export the entire agenda overseas … that as this starts to speed up, then rather significant chunks of those other nations and peoples are going to resist having themselves ‘deconstructed’?

After all, even if they do ‘oppress’ – and given the elasticity of that term, which is about as much a play-clay term as ‘sex offender’ is over here nowadays – they will be sharp enough to realize (as the French did half a century and more ago) that to start playing with the Universal Corrosive of ‘deconstruction’ is to guarantee their entire cultural corrosion, a fundamental undermining of the entire Heritage, Tradition, and the fundaments - however imperfect - of such civilization as they and their ancestors have managed to achieve.

And if 'reconstruction' of such profoundly core structures is something to be undertaken only with the greatest care and prudence, the 'deconstruction' of them can only be infinitely more so. Especially since the results observable in America have been - to be more polite than those foreigners would be in their assessment - decidedly mixed if not worse.

And what will We do then? Send the Marines (or their super-drones and ‘bots) to ‘liberate’ and ‘empower’? Dead, white European males realized long ago that humans don’t like ‘armed missionaries’ – and I doubt that the fact that the US military version will come under the auspices of the secular illuminations of feministical dampdreams rather than bearing the Cross is going to make much difference to the ‘locals’.

They – to borrow the thought of Flannery O’Connor – can still tell a freakish danger when they see it. And they will resist. By whatever means necessary - to borrow the ominous phrase so favored by the Israeli State.

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