Sunday, January 22, 2017

Achieving America

Richard Rorty’s Achieving our Country has been getting attention lately, because of his prediction that an authoritarian leader would eventually exploit the vacuum created by a fragmented, hieratic and recondite Left.  Rorty's book was, in part, a response to Identity Politics, and one might think that the recent attacks on Identity Liberalism by such as Mark Lilla are the logical follow up to Rorty's argument, now that the philosopher's prediction about the rise of a strongman is a reality.  But it's not quite that simple, so we should be cautious about the scalpels we bring to the autopsy of this election.

There is indeed a difference between the Old and New Left, but Identity Politics was never a purely academic phenomenon, nor did it operate on the same exclusionary basis as the historical White Anglo identity politics that ruled our history until people like Randolph Bourne started arguing on behalf of multiculturalism.  It may be time for us to make the case again in terms that are compelling and clear, because it seems that, like the phrase “Political Correctness,” the politics of identity has become a catchphrase for everything that is bad about “progressive” ideas.

So while we remark on Rorty’s prescience, we mustn’t jump to conclusions about the putative failures of the New Left.  With that in mind, I think Rorty’s little book still has some worthwhile ideas to offer, particularly concerning how our imagination of the past—the narrative we push—affects our view of the present and future, which in turn profoundly affects the way we go about our politics.  The New Left provided us with a much needed reassessment of our nation’s sins; it countered the heroic epic we all learned in grade school with a much darker dystopian story about imperialism and conquest, mass murder and bigotry and white supremacy.  This new narrative, sometimes contrite, often angry and disillusioned, eventually hardened into a rather narrow article of faith among Leftists that has inhibited a more generous imagination of our past and future, and by generous I do not mean forgiving or consoling, I simply mean larger, more comprehensive.  Contrition is not absolution.  We can never forget the bloody conflicts that have been a central, persistent theme of our history.  “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  Neither can we forget that history is a process that involves many currents, and while, as Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past,” it is not exactly a given either—it’s not written in stone but in water.  We have ended up with only two narratives these days: The Right tells us America is the source of all greatness; the Left tells us that America is the source of all evils.  Both stories are fantasies that inhibit the political imagination, either by clinging to an idealized past or by repudiating it altogether.

Anyone who scans social media can see readily enough a constant reiteration of the dispiriting theme that “this country was actually built on genocide and slavery,” as one latter day Leftist graduate of an elite university recently wrote to rebuke those who are marching on Washington because they are aghast at Trump’s attack on immigrants.  Against their idea that “our country was built on immigration” this critic would have us remember the “actual” truth that it was built on slavery and genocide.  And that is certainly true, as anyone who reads Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1493, A People's History of the United States, or any number of slave narratives can see.  There are endless sources.  But this is not the whole story.  Mention Columbus and you are likely to get a lecture about genocide.  And that’s it.  Yet the New World is a tragicomic drama of hubris and humanism, encomiendas and communes, delusional fantasies and utopian vision, oppression and democratic innovation, with Calibans and Prosperos, invaders and resisters, dreamers, castaways, refugees, slaves and slavers.  Out of this mix has come a vital mongrel society that redeems to some degree its bloody origins.  Even so, “there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism,” and there is no halt to the bloodletting, no happy ending, no final redemption; there is only the dialectic of history, the conflict of antinomies, the perpetual struggle for justice, a struggle that itself, as Heraclitus argued, is Justice, a fundamental Order.  History’s cunning passages and contrived corridors require a thread that only the most imaginative of Ariadnes can weave.

Slavery and genocide, emigration and reinvention—both stories can coexist, so long as neither one is used to eclipse the truth of the other.  As Thomas Mann wrote, “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.”  The problem lies in how we qualify the idea—the moment we insist that there is one single truth about our past, one “actual” narrative that supersedes or invalidates all others, we not only degrade the past but we also diminish our future.  Such single-mindedness does no one any good.  The challenge for 21st century Leftists lies in acknowledging the sins of the past while not allowing such knowledge to become paralyzing; we need to enhance our imagination, thicken our descriptions (to borrow Geertz’s famous phrase), resist monocausal schemes and straitjacketing labels.  Unfortunately, the dystopian narrative in vogue these days has enabled a kind of naïve cynicism that is proving to be politically disabling.

In this regard, Rorty offers a valuable lesson.  He recognizes that the country we envision is a process, not a product; and that is why he chose the present participle for his title.  As a remedy he recommends a return to the pragmatism and secularism of the Old Left.  Yet I don’t quite buy Rorty’s neat scheme, whereby the New Left infected us all with shame while retreating into their ivory towers and forsaking the practical labor of politics; even so, Rorty’s view is already dated because the Left has been going through a lot of changes, and this election is perhaps the catalyst that was needed to bring those changes all into focus.  What was once the province of rarefied Academic debate is now common currency:  theory and criticism are no longer an entirely elite discourse carried on in seminars—with the rise of social media it seems that intellectuals and activists are finding new ways to connect to audiences.  The secularism that Rorty recommended is becoming a reality once again.  On any given day I can find the ideas of Rebecca Solnit, Fredric Jameson, Lorgia García Peña, Arundhati Roi, Chris Hedges, John Berger, Theda Skocpol, Thomas Piketty, Maurizio Lazzarato, Anne McClintock, Wendy Brown, Naomi Klein, Saskia Sessen, and so many others flowing through my newsfeed.  And after this election it’s likely that the practical labor of politics will become an even more urgent vocation for most of us who find ourselves at odds with the prevailing order of things.

The path forward lies not in rejecting the New in order to revive the Old Left, but to alloy the best from both and forge a new set of ideas and strategies.  The pragmatism of the Old and the revisionism of the New need not be antithetical.  Pragmatism and Imagination are not strange bedfellows; they are polymorphous obverse partners.  Our imaginations should be large and ecumenical, our pragmatism worldly and less puritan, less finicky.  As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in the Guardian, “We’re going to have to build alliances—that means working alongside people with whom you agree about the big things and not quibbling about the little ones.”  The price of solidarity is tolerance of differences.  Is that not the whole premise behind multiculturalism?

Randolph Bourne penned these words back in 1916, but they might just as well have been written today: “America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.  To seek no other goal than the weary old nationalism, belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding, the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe, is to make patriotism a hollow sham. . . .”  That can serve to rebut not only weary old nationalisms but any account that suffers from a poverty of imagination.  We could use more of Bourne’s visionary cosmopolitanism just now, to combat both the “romantic gilding of the past” that breeds a provincial “fear of bogies” and the dyspeptic tarnishing that breeds cynicism and apathy, or just petty bickering.  Perhaps if we think hard about the future we want, the past will no longer be grounds for complacency or despair, but a goad to spur us to achieve something better:

“All our idealisms must be those of future social goals in which all can participate, the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community. No mere doubtful triumphs of the past, which redound to the glory of only one of our trans-nationalities, can satisfy us. It must be a future America, on which all can unite, which pulls us irresistibly toward it, as we understand each other more warmly.” (Bourne, Trans-National America)

Saturday, September 17, 2016


Marx famously wrote, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Das Kapital I, 1).  And there is no stranger commodity in the history of capitalism than that which drives the economy of the Information Age—Opinion.  Opinions function mysteriously because they have no intrinsic exchange or use value.  You cannot fix a price on an opinion, and yet whole industries profit through their exchange: the press, social media, pollsters, webzines, television.  Even the Use Value of an opinion is disputable, which may seem counterintuitive, given that opinions are believed to be a guarantor of Democracy—the Voice of the People; the free exchange of ideas is practically sacrosanct, underwritten by the First Amendment.  And yet, traditionally, opinion has never been highly regarded.  

Plato derided opinion as mere doxa, unexamined collective beliefs, which Socratic inquiry serves to dispel.  Hippocrates distinguished between science, which begets knowledge, and opinion, which begets ignorance.  Ben Jonson wrote that “Opinion is a light, vain, crude, and imperfect thing.”  And JFK pops up on Facebook in memes bearing this nugget: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  Opinion in this guise is merely prejudice; but it wears others.  In bourgeois society, opinion became the arbiter of social class and conduct.  Machado de Assis characterized it as “esse olhar agudo e judicial”—that sharp judgmental stare—and an effective solder (“boa solda”) for society.  And with the rise of mass media, it became a means to shape consensus and manipulate the masses, as Walter Benjamin noted: “It is precisely the purpose of public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Defenders of opinion like to make a distinction between knee-jerk and informed opinion; but the distinction is moot: and not just because an informed opinion is something more than mere opinion, and thus deserves a separate category; the distinction is moot because it fails to take into consideration the means whereby opinions are generated and disseminated.  In the Information Age, Opinion’s Medium is the Message.  Opinion is not simply a message; it is an environment.  And the purpose of this environment is only ostensibly the free exchange of ideas.  Its fundamental purpose, the reason for the existence of the media that govern its exchange, is its function as markers of trends, tastes, biases; in short, opinions function as statistics, which are plotted in order to serve markets—or state security apparatuses.  Thus, opinion is a signifier whose connection to meaning and value exists as a kind of displacement; like any metaphor, its meaning is manifold, and the tenor is to be found not in the immediate thought being expressed, but in its oblique reference to a feature, a trace, a clue that forms part of a consumer (or suspect) profile.

For the capitalist, silence is not golden.  CBS’s president, Les Moonves, made that quite clear when he told all of us that constant commentary on Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”  Your comment is his profit.  So, instead of feeding the media machine, should we all keep silent?  What about the way in which opinion can mobilize people and bring about change?  These days social movements seem to spring out of a meme, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  Sometimes Opinion shapes history even more than policy.  Surely the real value of opinion inheres in its power to move mountains?  Those who have such faith are henceforth obliged to live with a contradiction; for the capitalist, there is no contradiction.  Because its function as a mode of free speech does not necessarily subvert the commodification of opinion; on the contrary, that function guarantees its commodification: In the Information Age, free speech is the ideal commodity, because it is infinitely renewable and minimally regulated.  Yet another theological nicety that beats easy understanding . . .

Friday, June 3, 2016

The First Stone . . .

Lately my newsfeed has been full of threads expressing outrage over the unfortunate death of Harambe, with everyone howling for the blood of the mother whose child slipped into the enclosure.  Without knowing the full circumstances, the virtual mob has set itself up as judge and executioner while consoling itself with its display of moral superiority and outrage.  My newsfeed is a hail of stones with no Jesus to intercede.  And the death of the gorilla is only the most recent instance of social media’s lust for vengeance.  The primaries have been one long stream of stones being hurled from Left and Right, because social media encourages the expression of self righteous outrage rather than ideas; and the prevalence of ad hominem arguments, the preference for invective, the laziness of brief retorts, the circulation of misinformation, and the constant resort to angry resentment have eclipsed civil discourse and rational analysis to the point where fewer and fewer people are capable of exercising it.  Critical thinking requires practice, and the necessary skills will disappear along with the civil attitudes if we continue to indulge these bad habits—habits, by the way, that profit the demagogues, the Super PAC funders, the NRA, ALEC, the social media moguls, and the press.  Politics is a rough and tumble business, and a bit of piss and vinegar is often a bracing element of any good debate, but when all you have to offer is vitriol, the debate serves no purpose other than to give you some cheap personal catharsis and provide massive profits for those who run the media.  As the president of CBS observed, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, . . . The money’s rolling in, this is fun.”  Let’s face it, we are being played by these ringmasters of orchestrated resentment, just like the Roman plebs filling the Coliseum.  What’s worse, it’s all circus and precious little bread.

So many people disparage Trump for his schoolyard tactics, but so many critics of such behavior behave just like him.  Yesterday, on a thread I posted dealing with a typical webzine article—long on rhetoric, short on substance—about the schism in the Democratic Party, an outraged Clinton supporter referred to Cornel West as “Brother house nigger West.”  Pretty illiberal language for a person whose biography page leads with this self-definition: “Liberal.”  West himself has gone in for plenty of invective and ad hominem attacks, and it’s a damn shame; but that doesn’t mean anyone should follow suit and call him a nigger.  No one in this media circus is free of blame, whether the stone is thrown from the Right or the Left.  The obvious misogyny behind much of the criticism of Clinton from both Parties is reprehensible; if you don’t like the candidates there are plenty of substantive points on which you can task them—and that goes for all the candidates, Sanders included.  (After all, these people are politicians, not saviors, so let’s not idolize them either.)  The illiberality and incivility that rule social media discourse are turning all of us into petty, querulous Trumps, utterly convinced of our own moral rectitude and disdainful of substantive discussion.  Everyone is anxious to throw the first stone at whatever new offender appears on the horizon of the newsfeed, regardless of whether we actually know anything about the matter.  And nowadays there is no end of stones.

Criticism in a democracy is necessary but, like any weapon, it needs some control.  There’s a big difference between legitimate criticism and puerile, Trump-style condemnation.  If you are disinclined to be tolerant, then think of it as a question of self-preservation.  If no one among us is without sin, then no one is safe from the stones, and heaven help you if the collective wrath of the virtual mob turns on you.  But even if your immediate well being is not threatened, your social well being is inevitably degraded when our discourse is dominated by the groaning and shrieking of trolls.  Who wants to live in an uncivil society? 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Polymathematical pondering . . .

We are all polymaths by nature, though few of us ever develop all our faculties. We are compelled to ignore or rank all our interests in favor of one overarching endeavor which, we are told, will lead to "success." As a result, other faculties atrophy. And imagination withers; its abundant energies are narrowly channeled and lose much of their vitality. We become near-sighted and must wear the spectacles of social convention. We fit ourselves in and we adopt a label, we make a name for ourselves, so we can answer the question, "what do you do?" And we worry constantly whether we are doing enough, and life becomes a grind . . .

But for the polymath, life is never a grind, it is an open field of natural marvels and tantalizing questions; it is a playground where curiosity is given scope and imagination is empowered. The attitude of the polymath is the greatest tonic for melancholy that I know of. 

People say, oh but you must specialize if you are going to get anywhere -- without stopping to think where it is one must go and what makes for a worthy destination. Of course, if you want to be a great musician, for example, you must practice five hours a day, as Artie Shaw once told a fan who said he would like to play the clarinet as well as Artie did. But scratch a genius and you invariably find a polymath. Part of the genius of being a genius is knowing that imagination does not function like a one-track mind. What gives you vision enough to be great at any one thing also gives you eyes to see a whole lot more . . .

Robert Heinlein once wrote, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose American Life?

What is it about Sarah Vowell that makes me cringe when I hear her voice scratching like chalk across the board?  Is it the peculiar dissonance created by her little-girl, monotonous nasal whine and the precocious humor of her observations?  Is it that she never really manages to get beyond that precocity, the precocity of an odd little darling performing for the grownups?  Is it the compulsive reaching for the next flip quip to keep the interest in her rambling and glib essays alive?  Or is it the deceptively broad range of cultural allusions, mixing high and low as every hipster must who would write for the self styled edgy webzines, belied by the callow understanding of human experience which is the inevitable result of her inability to understand anything except through the lens of her own self absorption?  This is a person whose understanding of politics and history is achieved through minor epiphanies bestowed on her via the miracles of yuppie consumerism:

            Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.

That is Vowell to a T  (pardon the pun).  The history of post-Columbian globalization is reduced to a clever aperçu capped off by a glib punchline.  Sarah Vowell is the reductio ad absurdum of the New Journalism that arose just before she was born.  Instead of the punk prose of deranged reporters like Thompson or Herr, who were intent on looking deep down the abyss, we get the urban hipster staring into the froth of her extra grande café mocha and lamenting the unquiet spirits of those who died so that Starbucks customers might live – and pay too much for their overhyped coffee.  In the end the thing about Vowell’s American histories and her sympathies for the downtrodden Other whom History has stomped and kicked aside, is that they are, ultimately, relentlessly self referential.  It is the boomer bourgeoisie at its most annoying – cosseted, precocious, eagerly identifying with whatever Other is in fashion but never actually spanning the gap, a bit guilty about its privileges, but too comfortable to do anything about it, except contemplate its own disquiet.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mad as Hell

Watching the news on TV is to subject oneself to a constant stream of fear mongering. Ebola is here! Illegal Immigrants are threatening our Border! Black people are rising up in Ferguson! Terrorists are beheading people!

The appearance of a few cases of Ebola within our borders is a non-story, but the TV news stations obsess over it, filling airtime with flatulence, forcing it into importance. And why? There are plenty of real stories out there that go unreported. But the media's purpose is not to report news, much less analyze it responsibly. Instead, its purpose is to inculcate beliefs, well worn beliefs that through their reiteration resist interrogation -- right wing, left wing, it comes to the same end, because the Tube reduces all points of view to a continuum of "information" that merely reaffirms what you assume you already know or fear. The pernicious consequence of this fear mongering is that it works to disarm the population by undermining its belief in the power of its agency. So instead of working toward change, we change only the channel, and watch yet another rerun of The Terminator.

It might be a good idea to inscribe on all television sets these words: "The only thing to fear is fear itself."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Your Reward in Heaven

Wonder is the basis of worship
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (I,10)

You are all stardust. 
You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded . . .
The stars died so that you could be here today. 
Lawrence Krauss

The ancient enmity between science and religion hides an impish affinity.  The awe that inspired simian beings, cowed by the immense vault of stars above them, to develop theology was also implicit in the nascent science postulated by the likes of Democritus, Anaximander, Ibn Yunus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Zhang Heng, and others whom we are just now beginning to recognize, such as the unnamed Africans who developed the use of fractals.  Scientists are among the greatest heretics, but they are also Nature’s greatest acolytes, faithfully interpreting the mysteries of the oracle.  The awe that science inspired, however, posed a threat to the theology governing our thinking for centuries, because it offered no obvious niche to house human aspirations, no reflection in nature’s pool to assuage our vanity.  The terrifying, vengeful and imperial god of the Old Testament was still less terrifying than a universe in which he played no part.  Because even a Sky God, aloof, sublime, capriciously malevolent or beneficent, provided mankind with a kind of mirror in which the human scale was confirmed as a measure for the universe – this god after all was just man writ large.  The order of things remained consolingly anthropocentric.  But Science has displaced Man and God.  Its arguments gradually acquired such force and cogency that by the nineteenth century the philosophers pronounced God’s death.  The twentieth century simply provided an extended autopsy.  The twenty-first century, perversely zealous, has busied itself with reviving the corpse, setting the resurrectionists at each other's throats.
Entrenched beliefs don’t die along with the objects of their genesis.  Nietzsche’s übermensch, the new Adam who would recreate our values and reinvigorate culture, has indeed appeared among us, several times, but we have been slow to grasp their meaning.  What apostles can compare with Darwin and Einstein?  What gospel is more compelling than the great news of Evolution, the Curvature of Time and Space, the perpetuity of Energy, the infinitude of the universe, and the creation ex nihilo of the Big Bang?  The human imagination never conceived anything as marvelously intricate, terrifyingly vast, richly paradoxical, or fantastically sublime as this universe, of whose magnificent dimensions we have come to learn but a few.  In the wake of such ideas, one would think that religion could be regenerated, placed on a solid foundation, endowed with a new scope, and charged with a renewed respect and even adoration of Nature; but instead mankind persists in its slavish idolatry of paltry anthropomorphic schemes of creation, Intelligent Design, and, for the more secular minded, technological utopias like the Singularity.  The result is a persistent belief in the instrumentality of all Nature, with Man the Creative Brain as its motive force – not Woman, notice, because this would threaten the patriarchal norm of the anthropomorphism that animates all these schemes.  (Pachamama nonetheless bides her time, expecting her ritual recognition.)

Through us – and no doubt countless other beings scattered through the galaxies, as well as some of the species who ride along with us on this tilting ball – Nature becomes conscious of its laws, which seem to provide little quarter for our selfish aspirations, and therein lies our tragedy – and our comedy too, for we all slip on the banana peels that fate litters about us.  Yet even if the means whereby Nature achieves consciousness are ultimately inconsequential to its ends, we should not despair.  We are happy accidents, the astonished beneficiaries of a bit of Nature’s grace, heirs to a fortune whose riches were not intended for us.  The great good news here, the true gospel of Nature, is that Necessity is not so iron a law as we suppose: just as the Big Bang heralded a universe in which Chance converts Causality into its playfellow, so too each life is a playing field in which possibilities and improbabilities abound.  Error is not so much a sin as a signpost pointing a different direction.
And this is, perhaps, where Science falls short and betrays its inability to accommodate religious feeling.  Occam’s razor whittles Nature down; from a great tree, it carves a divining rod (the capitalist has his own sort of razor: with a power saw he whittles old forests into lumber).  The crude Darwinist sees nothing in the plumage of a bird but evidence of a generalized will to survive and pass on its genes.  The redness of a poppy is merely bee bait.  In this the scientist is no different from Wilde’s cynics, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Nature is perhaps an artiste manqué, whose palette of colors has fascinated philistines for the wrong reasons. 

There is nothing so valuable as unnecessary things – tribal rug weavers knew this, as they toiled on crude looms over their engsis and asmalyks.  The true value of those objects lay not in their function as rugs or coverlets, nor in their value as a dowry; – no, they were, simply and ultimately, the patiently woven dreams in wool of the woman’s sense of beauty, and beauty, like art, is quite useless. That is its saving grace.  Their use as rugs was simply a dodge in order to assert the supremacy of beauty in the lives of nomadic people whose love of gardens sanctified their desert existence.  And yet, it would be a mistake to think that the luxury of beauty and the aesthetics of Nature are mere excess, an inconsequential by product of more exigent and important processes.  Is the mockingbird a mere ventriloquist, or a jazz player riffing on birdsong?  Or both?  Who is to say that the mockingbird does not delight in his mockery?