Thursday, November 30, 2006
Does Obama pose a threat to the United States?
In recent days I’ve heard about Freepers and Foxsters trying to make much of the fact that Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein. At first I didn’t see the point of caring about this, because I figured that Fox and the Free Republic had already cornered the market on the mouthbreathing vote, and I thought it would just be a matter of time before some professional contrarian took to the pages of the New Republic to chasten progressives for being unduly dismissive of the deeply held, if deeply mistaken, beliefs of Mouthbreather-Americans. But after hearing this entertaining and deeply dispiriting series of interviews (h/t: Julia), I wonder whether the right has, for once in its collective life, thought too much about how to demonize the junior senator from Illinois. For it appears that you don’t have to mention Obama’s middle name to get Americans to associate him with Our Terrorist Enemies! Just that last name will do.
Note that the final interviewee has a doctorate and is skeptical of Bush.
There is no hope, people, and that is why I urge you to join the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party. Only the WAAGNFNP has an adequate understanding of our historical moment—and of the threat Obama poses.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Redeeming Violence: Scarier than Hillary
Readers of this increasingly humble blog know that I don’t spend much of my time going after garden-variety wingnuttery of the ClownHall.com variety. I mean, why bother, when the doughty crew of the S. S. Sadly, No! and the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony do it so much better?
But when it comes to dealing with wingnuttery about the Modern Language Association—a minor but important branch of Wingnuttia in general—I figure I’m your guy. So, dear readers, feast on this scrumptious item, beginning with its title, “Fighting a Movement Scarier than Hillary.” How can literature professors be even scarier than Lady Hillary Macbeth and her lesb***n Islamexifascist hordes? Let Tom Landess and Elizabeth Kantor tell you how!
Most conservatives are preoccupied with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the coming deluge on Capitol Hill. A few of us are more concerned with the current Reign of Terror in our universities. When Pelosi and Reid are little piles of forgotten dust, the consequences of political correctness in the academy will still be evident to the naked eye.
You tend to forget about this problem until you read a book like Elizabeth Kantor’s “The Politically Correct Guide to English and American Literature” (published by Regnery, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company). In it, she reminds us that classrooms in almost all our universities have been commandeered by leftist ideologues, whose chief goal is to purge from the nation’s memory the rich content of Christian civilization, to discredit our free-market prosperity and to substitute a simplistic set of Marxist-feminist-homosexualist platitudes that are more likely to promote radical ignorance than an understanding of the world.
Landess is right: curriculum longa, little piles of forgotten Pelosi-Reid dust brevis. But he’s wrong about how the left plans to purge the rich content of Christian civilization from the nation’s memory. We do, in fact, plan to teach your children about the Inquisition, while adapting some of its innovative pedagogical techniques. Cardinal Greenblatt! Have you got all the stuffing up one end?
And what Marxist-feminist-homosexualist platitudes do we have at our disposal, you ask? Well, “We’re here, we’re always queerly historicizing because sisterhood is powerful, get used to it,” for starters! By the time we’re through with your kids, their ignorance will truly be radical!
But you know what bugs me about these MLA-bashing screeds? Two things. Factual inaccuracy and ambiguous syntax.
Note that these teachers of English are no more interested in literature than a litter of house cats. They are obsessed with furthering the leftist agenda—attacking traditional sexual morality, prettifying communism and trashing Christianity. To drive home this point, Kantor reports that the program for the 2005 convention of the Modern Language Association (the professional organization for literary scholars) included the following topics: “Redeeming Violence,” “Marxism Now,” and “What Video Games Can Teach Us About Literature.” No mention of Wordsworth, Coleridge or Keats—dead white males.
OK, what’s with “these teachers of English are no more interested in literature than a litter of house cats”? Is this supposed to be some kind of clever play on “literature / litter”? (And if so, why house cats?) Because the ambiguous syntax kind of gums up the joke. Is Landess saying that we have no more interest in literature than we might have in a litter of house cats, or is he saying that we are no more interested in literature than a litter of house cats would be?
Everything depends on this. Everything, I tell you.
And as for the factual inaccuracy: it is simply not true that there was no mention of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats at the 2005 MLA convention. The ban on discussion of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, proposed to the Delegate Assembly in 2005 by the Even More Radical than the Radical Caucus Caucus for the Distribution of Violent Marxist Video Games, does not take effect until 2007. I don’t understand why Mr. Landess—whose bio describes him, somewhat confusingly, as “a former professor of English and at the University of Dallas” (English and what? Video games?) who “has ghost-written more than 35 published books, two of them by conservative congressmen”—would just make things up.
The ambiguous syntax and factual accuracy aside, though, Mr. Landess is a capable reviewer. He closes his essay with an appeal to the highest of intellectual standards:
This work is light reading, a book you can put down and pick up again without feeling guilty. With sidebars and subsections, the television-trained eye is never intimidated.
It is also a very serious book that explains why what is going on in our colleges and universities is scarier than Hillary and more dangerous than a Democratic Congress.
Kewl. I may have to ask for a joint appointment in the Department of Scarier Than Hillary Studies.
In other, perhaps more consequential news, it’s good to hear that Iraq is not yet experiencing civil war, because, as Tony Snow explains, “you have not yet had a situation also where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power, but for territory. What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy—which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy.” I’m sure that’s a relief to Iraqis who were worried about conditions in which they see “on average, 40 to 50 tortured, mutilated, executed bodies showing up on the capital streets each morning” and “thousands of unaccounted for dead bodies mounting up every month” or who were concerned about “the list of those who have simply disappeared for the sake of the fact that they have the wrong name, a name that is either Sunni or Shia, so much so that we have people getting dual identity cards, where parents cannot send their children to school, because they have to cross a sectarian line.” At least it’s about power and not territory! Thank goodness these groups are merely expressing differences! I’ve got nothing new or insightful to say about this, but I did catch the first hour of Apocalypse Now Redux on cable last night, so I thought I’d just unearth a little item I wrote for this blog one year ago today:
“Die Hard” Diehard Catching Flak for Epic Iraq Flick
Variety, May 1, 2008—According to insider reports, action star Bruce Willis is drastically over budget and cannot decide on an ending for his pro-war Iraq film, Mission Accomplished.
“He’s spun completely out of control,” said one member of the crew, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’ll spend a month filming the ‘democracy’ ending, but no one knows what that’s supposed to look like, and then he decides it’s ‘too boring anyway.’ So we’ll spend another month on the ‘fighting terrorism’ ending, where we wipe out an entire city, then another month on the ‘civil war’ ending, featuring a bunch of Shiite death squads, then another on the ‘revenge’ ending with these incredibly gory Abu Ghraib scenes, then another on this bizarre ‘call in the bombers’ ending that reads like it was written by Sy Hersh. And then he’ll just spend days alone in his trailer, blasting this turgid crap by The Doors and painting his body from head to toe.”
Willis has assured his initial backers, Passion Media, formerly known as Pajamas Media, formerly known as Open Source Media, formerly known as Pajamas Media, that he will finish the film “when it is done,” but has refused to set any timetable for its completion. Lead screenwriter Roger L. Simon defended Willis’s refusal, issuing a terse press release, “cowards yell ‘cut’ and run, action figures never do.”
Industry analysts note that the cost of Mission Accomplished now exceeds $200 billion, but few of the cast or crew are willing to speak on the record, fearing reprisals from Willis, who demands complete and unquestioning loyalty from everyone working on the film. “It’s way beyond what happened with Coppola,” said one of the film’s producers, “not that there are any parallels with Vietnam or anything. But I think we’re past the worst moments of last fall, when Bruce was insisting on doing this Twelve Monkeys in Iraq bit where he travels back in time to find weapons of mass destruction. Honestly, most of us wish that Bruce had stuck with the first ending, where Bush lands on the aircraft carrier in a flight suit. Everything tells us that’s the ending with the biggest box office.”
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Babe and bbq
Before Jamie and I went golfing yesterday, we had a serious talk. It wasn’t on the agenda; it just happened.
We were dining at one of our favorite lunch stops, Fat Jack’s Barbeque. Suffice it to say that we don’t go there for the decor or the ambience. We go there to chow down on some serious meat (he takes the pulled pork, I do the brisket) doused with Mississippi Mud bbq sauce. This time, Jamie brought along the quite wonderful animal encyclopedia he bought last year at the AAUW booksale (he went with Janet and picked it out himself). It consists of a looseleaf binder full of information about various animals—their habitats, their diets, their mating practices, and so forth. While we waited for our animals to arrive on plates, Jamie asked me to go over some of the animals in his book, and I insisted on reading some of the fine print of the entries. Jamie usually resists this, but I managed to convince him that some of the fun facts on display were really kind of fun: who knew, for example, that the nine-banded armadillo is the only species of armadillo that can swim? or that they always have babies in litters of four? Jamie understands the difference between animals that lay eggs and animals that have live babies, and knows that it marks the distinction between most mammals and most reptiles/ birds. He also knows the difference between animals that have litters and animals that usually give birth to babies one at a time.
But after we’d discussed the Bengal tiger, the gorilla, the African elephant, and the nine-banded armadillo, it was the vampire bat that really got things going. I explained what the book meant by saying that the vampire bat is a “threat to cattle” because it can “infect them with the deadly disease of rabies.” Jamie has heard of rabies before, and because we fought to have him included in regular seventh-grade science class last year (and because his science teacher was so receptive, and so inventive in finding ways to adapt his tests to his skill level, so that, for example, he was responsible for knowing only about half the components of a plant cell), he knows what a virus is. So he understood when I told him that rabies is a dangerous virus that can make an animal go crazy and die, and that you can treat it if you catch it early (or vaccinate against it) but that there is no cure once it reaches an advanced stage. And that’s why we take dogs to the veterinarian to make sure they have their rabies shots. Why, I said, even Lucy the Dog has had a rabies shot.
“Like in Babe,” Jamie said.
“Babe?” I replied. “I don’t think there’s any rabies in Babe.”
“No, the doctor says, ‘it can’t be rabies.’ He says to Mr. Hoggett.”
“Oh! You mean when Rex bites Mr. Hoggett!”
Right, exactly: in Babe, Rex the sheepdog has become increasingly furious with his partner Fly, whom he sees as complicit in Hoggett’s heretical scheme to train Babe to become a sheep-herding pig. Finally, when Fly approaches Rex to try to convince him that there’s no need for all this trouble just because Babe is helping the boss, Rex calls her a “traitorous wretch” and attacks her. When Hoggett runs out to break up the fighting dogs, Rex bites him on the hand.
“No, not the hand,” Jamie corrected me. “On the wrist.”
Right, on the wrist. So, then. Why would Rex bite Mr. Hoggett when he knows perfectly well that the dogs are never, ever allowed to bite Mr. and Mrs. Hoggett?
“Why?” Jamie asked. “You tell.”
“Well,” I said. “You know he is very angry at Babe, and very angry at Fly for helping Babe.”
“Because Rex thinks that only dogs should herd the sheep. He thinks it is wrong for a pig to do the job, and he thinks—as Fly says to her puppies at the beginning of the movie—that pigs are definitely stupid. He doesn’t want Babe to do the job that he, Rex, is supposed to do.”
Jamie and I have been over this ground before, usually when he asks, “what does Ferdinand say about Rosanna?” For when he asks what Ferdinand says about Rosanna, he’s referring to the scene in which the farm animals watch the Hoggett family as they carve up a duck for
Christmas holiday dinner. When Ferdinand joins the onlookers, the cow remarks, “if you’re out here, then who’s that in there?”—to which Ferdinand replies, “her name is Rosanna. She had such a beautiful nature.”
About the eating of Rosanna, our routine goes like this: Jamie asks me what Ferdinand is feeling, and we take turns enumerating the emotions. Angry. Confused. Sad. Frustrated. Worried. Ferdinand is consumed (you might say) by the belief that he will not be eaten if he simply demonstrates that he is “indispensable,” as he mistakenly explains to Babe upon enlisting Babe in the project of stealing the Hoggetts’ alarm clock so that Ferdinand can go back to crowing at the dawn—one of the two activities, besides having sex with chickens, that keep roosters from being eaten. Or so Ferdinand thinks. “I tried it with the hens, it didn’t work,” he sighs. “But I begin to crow, and I discover my gift!” Upon witnessing the family dig into Rosanna, however, Ferdinand is beside himself. “It’s too much for a duck,” he cries. “It eats away at the soul!” “The only way you’ll find happiness,” replies the cow, languidly, “is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.” “Well, the way things are stinks!” snaps Ferdinand, and he vows to run away. Which he does, leaving Babe to overturn the way things are by demonstrating that a clever and compassionate animal need not succumb to the forces of animal destiny.
So Jamie and I have had numerous discussions about the eating of animals. (You might recall that we’ve also had a talk or two about whether animals can think, as well.) We acknowledge that poor Ferdinand is driven to distraction by the realization that humans eat ducks, and we admit that it is unjust for poor Rosanna, who had such a beautiful nature, to become
Christmas holiday dinner. “But Jamie,” I point out, “you love to eat ham and pork chops and sausages and bacon, and all of that comes from pigs.” “And hamburgers and steak that come from cows,” he remarks. “Right,” I say. “And chicken,” he adds, conscientiously. “Right, chicken too. So you know there are some people who think it is wrong to eat any animal, and they eat only vegetables and fruits. Some eat fish and some don’t. Some people won’t eat milk or cheese, either.” “From cows and goats,” Jamie says. We have reached a tentative conclusion about this: we will continue to be omnivores. But we would prefer that the animals we eat not spend their entire lives in factories being shot up with antibiotics (which is, you’ll recall, precisely where Babe opens).
Anyway, this shouldn’t be very surprising. Ten years ago, if memory serves, there were indeed reports that Babe had led some children to rethink their love of hot juicy strips of bacon. Instead, what was notable about Jamie’s invocation of Babe this time was that he’d remembered—with that amazing memory of his—the film’s one mention of rabies.
Now, back to Rex. It just so happens that one of the reasons Rex hates sheep is that they are the cause of his disability, and his disability, in turn, has prevented him from becoming a champion sheepdog. You see (as Fly explains to Babe), one night during a terrible storm, Rex tried to save a bunch of sheep from a flood, but the sheep were “too stupid” to follow his directions. The sheep perished, but Rex, faithful hound, stayed with them all night—and became terribly ill as a result, permanently losing much of his hearing. (Narrative twists like this are what make me argue that disability is ubiquitous in film, even if only as plot device, as in the premise of Garden State. Really. Go check: why does Zach Braff’s character return home in the first place?) Jamie and I have discussed Rex’s deafness as well as his anger at Babe, and the deft way these come together at the end of the film, when Rex decides to help Babe by asking the Hoggett sheep for the secret sheep password “baa-ram-ewe”—a scene in which he not only has to speak nicely to sheep for the first time in his life, but also has to admit to them that he’s “a little deaf.” All so that Babe can speak to the foreign sheep, guide them through the sheepdog trials, and take Rex’s rightful place as a champion sheep
So after Rex bites Hoggett, the vet rules out rabies. “Hormones,” Jamie says. “What?” I ask. “Mrs. Hoggett says ‘hormones,’” Jamie replies. Ah, right, exactly. Again with the memory! I ask Jamie if he remembers about hormones from seventh grade, when we talked about his pituitary gland and how hormones work in the body. “And remember when the doctor says, ‘I could always snip, snip’?” I ask. “Right,” Jamie says. “And does Hoggett want to do that?” “No,” Jamie says. “Because he says Rex is a breeding dog.”
Well, I’ll be damned. I knew that Jamie had seen the movie dozens of times, and has replayed scenes (especially the ones involving Ferdinand) hundreds of times, but I didn’t realize how deeply he’d thought about things like this. “That’s right, Jamie,” I explained. “The doctor is wondering why Rex would be so mean and aggressive, and it can’t be rabies, so maybe, he thinks, it is testosterone, and maybe he should snip, snip Rex’s testes with surgery.”
At this point the owner of Fat Jack’s is giving us a puzzled look.
“But then Rex couldn’t have any more babies, and you remember that Mr. Hoggett sold Fly’s children—with that sign ‘pups for sale, by Rex, out of Fly’—to people who wanted sheepdog puppies. So Mr. Hoggett might want to sell more puppies, and keep Rex as a breeding dog.” And yes, Jamie and I have already discussed the moment at which Babe, seeing how depressed Fly has become by the sale of those puppies, goes over to Fly and asks her if he can call her “mom.” Jamie knows that’s one of the reasons Fly likes Babe so much—because he knows when and why other animals are sad, and he tries to help them. (See also the vastly underrated and widely misunderstood sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, especially the pivotal scene in which Babe saves the life of the pit bull who’d been trying to kill him. Back in 1998, this scene was the first thing in Jamie’s life, to my knowledge, that led him to think about why we need to breathe to stay alive, and why it is good to save someone from dying—as Babe does later with the much less problematic goldfish whose bowl has been broken by careless animal-control police.)
“Sometimes doctors do surgery so that animals cannot have babies. Think of Lucy. Before we got her at the pound, doctors removed Lucy’s ovaries, and that’s why she cannot have babies—because the doctors were afraid that maybe she’d have babies and she would have no place to live and no place to take care of her puppies. But with Rex, the doctor thinks that maybe he has hormones that are making him too angry, that his testosterone made him bite Mr. Hoggett. They don’t understand that Rex is really angry at Fly and Babe because he doesn’t want Babe to herd the sheep.”
“Ohh,” Jamie said. ”That’s why they give Rex a shot.”
See, the thing about the classics—like Babe—is that you can go back to them time and again, and keep rereading them with fresh eyes, so to speak. You can look at Judith Halberstam’s queer reading of Babe, in which Babe and Ferdinand demonstrate the fluidity of categories of identity, or you can listen in on me and Jamie as we discuss how Rex’s deafness deepens his disdain for sheep and fuels one aspect of his opposition to Hoggett’s training of Babe (only one aspect, because although he and Fly disagree about Babe as sheep-pig, they agree, on anti-Habermasian grounds, that dogs should not speak to sheep in a way that invites reciprocal recognition). Most of the time, when Jamie and I talk about Babe we talk about whether animals have feelings, and whether one animal can behave like another, and whether it’s OK to eat some animals (and if so, which ones and why). But this time, the bit about the vampire bat had led us back to Babe to talk about rabies and Rex and deafness and hormones and “neutering.”
What a great movie. What a rich text about what it means to be human. Jamie and I will talk about it for years to come, I’m sure.
And then our pulled pork and beef brisket arrived! It was delicious.
Monday, November 27, 2006
The last time Jamie was in school was November 17. All last week he had Thanksgiving Break; on Monday we met with his eighth-grade teacher, and on Tuesday Janet informed me that he was signed up for the YMCA in the afternoon. Unfortunately, what with all the comings and goings around here in the past six weeks, it somehow escaped our notice that Jamie was not signed up for the YMCA that afternoon.
So the question is not, “how come you did almost no real blogging last week?” The question is, “how the hell did you manage to write that 3500-word response to Jodi Dean in one morning?” And the answer is, I dunno. Thankfully, many of the words in that post were not mine, and all I had to do was copy ‘em. But I’ve barely even peeked at the blog since then.
This year’s Thanksgiving was a lot like last year’s, except that we only had seventeen guests last year, and this year we had nineteen. Twenty-three people for Thanksgiving dinner! It was great fun, especially during post-dinner cleanup when we broke out this fine CD and began a half-hour Tito Puente Rhythm Jam in the Kitchen including Nick and his friend Brendan on congas and me on roto toms. Roto toms! I hadn’t unearthed those things since 1991 or so. But it turns out that they sound pretty decent as makeshift substitutes for timbales, at least for the purposes of a post-dinner Tito Puente rhythm jam in the kitchen. (I’m especially fond of track four, “Sacata.”) After a while Janet kindly pointed out that Nick and I hadn’t done any cleaning up. “But we performed an important service,” said Nick. “Quite right,” I added. “We also serve who only sit and drum.”
Last year it was all about the water:
The most critical thing, of course, is plumbing. Our house is about eighty years old, and its plumbing leaves something to be desired—like, for example, water pressure. Water doesn’t flow out of our shower heads so much as ooze, and that can be a problem when large families want to take showers one person at a time. The “indoor plumbing” thing was further complicated, this year, by the fact that one toilet had come loose from its moorings (oh, don’t ask), one shower stall was leaking to the floor below, and another shower/ bathtub had lost much of its caulking. Fortunately, Todd’s boyfriend Hayward knows everything in the world about How Things Work, and better still, everything in the world about How to Fix Them. So while Hayward replaced the toilet, recaulked two showers, weatherstripped a doorway and repaired a door, fixed an air vent behind the stove, and placed a jack under our bowing porch, I did what I do best, namely, sitting around making remarks about stuff.
This year it was all about the ceilings. Hayward replaced that porch jack with a series of braces, thereby keeping the porch from collapsing and the house from rolling down the hill; he also compounded and reattached (don’t ask) the ceiling in Janet’s study before he and Todd repainted the room two or three times (experimenting with color and texture and paint quality), and, let me think, installed a couple of new light fixtures and kept everyone entertained with wacky and daffy downloads from the Intertubes. Which, by the way, seemed to be horribly clogged and backed up with Ted Stevens’s email all weekend long. I continued to make remarks about stuff, since last year’s remarks about stuff seemed to go over well. Oh, all right, I admit that I did some painting and cleaning and air-conditioner removing and lawn-mowing too. In fact, three years ago I did a pretty good job repainting my own study, solo. But mostly I sat around and made remarks about stuff. I tried to watch some football, but I don’t believe I have ever seen such a dismal season of football as this one. My only interest now lies in seeing just how bad the NFC can get, and I thank the hapless Giants and McNabbless Eagles for taking the East to new depths of ineptitude this weekend.
But we didn’t let those sluggish Intertubes slow us down! We had many fun games to play in analog space, including one I’m going to say more about, in an arbitrary way, this coming Friday. Indeed, we did so many tasks and played so many games that by Sunday Janet and I had forgotten that we have “jobs.” Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a profile of me yesterday, so on our way to Lowe’s for the eighteenth time (this time for switch plates and obscure varieties of halogen lights), we picked up a copy of the paper and reminded ourselves that we have to get back to work and be dangeral again. Also, the mysterious Talking Dog just posted his interview with me this morning. Merci beaucoup, le chien qui parle! Your blog is very likely the most important fount of wisdom currently available on the planet, and I am honored to be interviewed on it.
However, I can’t say anything more about fun or work today, because today is the first day of deer season, and all the schools are closed here in central Pennsylvania. So Jamie’s home for the tenth straight day, and because his desire to play golf with me yesterday was thwarted by that trip to Lowe’s (“maybe we can just play nine,” he said helpfully. The kid’s a golfer already!), I’ve promised him that we can play today. They say the high will be 62. We should be fine, so long as we don’t run into any deer hunters.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Last year at this time, you may recall, I offered these holiday wishes:
We have so much to be thankful for this year! First there were the indictments of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney this past summer. Then the Democrats’ massive victories in the House. And now, of course, Speaker Pelosi’s “Clean Government Initiative,” with its three special House investigations—the Waxman Committee, reviewing the Bush Administration’s manipulation of prewar intelligence; the Evans Committee, conducting hearings on Jack Abramoff and his many friends in the GOP; and the Murtha Committee, looking into Halliburton’s overbilling and fraud in Iraq and the Gulf Coast. And that’s just for starters! I’m telling you, it was so smart for the DNC to take my advice on the “Clean Government” thing—it really resonated with voters, especially in the Southwest and California, where we picked up sixteen . . . uh . . . say what?
Oh, right, my mistake. This is next year’s Thanksgiving post. Sorry about jumping the gun, everyone. Never mind! Have a happy turkey day anyway.
OK, so I didn’t hit it exactly in the sweet spot, but you know what? I’m better at this kind of thing than I am at prognosticatin’ foot-ball games. The phrase “Democrats’ massive victories in the House” and that “Speaker Pelosi” bit really jump out at you, don’t they? So. What would you like me to be proleptically thankful for this year? Think about 2007, and then think about 2008 while you’re at it!
And happy Thanksgiving to all, except those of you in other countries where they don’t have a word for “thanksgiving.”
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Liberal Thursday Meets Theory Tuesday
Jodi Dean generously reviewed What’s Liberal? two weeks ago, both at her own blog, I Cite (which is much more cleverly named than mine, I must admit) and via cross-posts at Long Sunday and The Valve. It’s one of the more stringent reviews the book has gotten, and one of the very few theoretical discussions of the book to date. But like the cliché says, on most points we’re simply speaking different languages. And so I’ll have to say a few words about incommensurability.
In Dean’s terms, “liberalism” is a bad thing because (a) it is synonymous with reason and therefore (b) marks all kinds of insidious and pernicious exclusions—exclusions that are especially insidious and pernicious because liberalism is so blithe and arrogant in its ascription of reason to itself that it doesn’t even realize it’s excluding anyone—or at least anyone who counts. In fact, at one point Dean even says that I replay precisely those aspects of the Enlightenment that I explicitly criticize in chapter six (e.g., on pages 221-24, for those of you with a copy of the book ready-to-hand):
It’s also hard to see what makes it reasonable other than the fact that it claims to be reasonable and sees everything else as unreasonable and immoral. In fact, Berube’s description of liberal rationality retains from the history of liberalism (I have Locke in mind) the dissociation of reason from the habits of mind of women, savages, and imbeciles. It’s as if this “reason" can only appear in the space it establishes through a set of attacks and exclusions. This is really no surprise (return to Foucault refrain, that’s why we call it power/knowledge).
You heard it there first: I retain from the history of liberalism—uncritically, mind you—the dissociation of reason from the habits of mind of women, savages, and imbeciles.
And I don’t want to sound too . . . ah, reasonable in replying to this review, because I don’t actually think that liberalism is synonymous with reason or that it necessarily excludes things like affect. So I’ll just admit that I found Dean’s bolded refrain, “that’s why it’s called/ we call it/ they call it power/ knowledge,” which appears three times in the review, kinda annoying. Not merely because it names the obvious thing of which people like me are supposedly ignorant, but also because its appearance in boldface and its repetition—Dean twice calls it a “refrain”—gives it the character of something like a cross between a chant and a taunt. It is thus not only something obvious but something to be re-cited by the chorus, the chorus of people who know precisely what is wrong with these liberals who are ignorant both of Foucault and of their own enabling suppositions. But you know what? As I hope to demonstrate, I was pretty explicit about my enabling suppositions and the inevitability of incommensurability—which entails, among other things, the realization that liberals can’t always come to terms with people who disagree with them. At least not terms that those people would agree with.
About those women and savages and imbeciles: I think Dean’s alignment of me with the most illiberal features of the Enlightenment tradition is unreasonable. But that’s why we call this kind of thing an incommensurability.
Now for the more serious problem. Jodi Dean’s review relies on one central misunderstanding; it is the fount from which all other misunderstandings flow, and it even sets the terms for how we are to understand “misunderstanding.” Additionally—because we’re dealing with an incommensurability between her understanding of liberalism and mine—this misunderstanding insists that it is not a misunderstanding at all, but, rather, an insight into liberalism’s constitutive misunderstanding of itself. And it goes like this:
My basic claim: Berube demonstrates quite clearly what is liberal about liberal arts. But instead of recognizing liberal arts and liberalism as formations of power/knowledge (and hence as in combat with conservativism and leftism) he views liberal thinking as reason (and hence as a universal norm) and dismisses those who disagree with him politically (those on the extremes of left and right) as irrational. . . .
So, for Berube a particular kind of politics (liberal democracy) requires a particular way of thinking, a kind of deliberative thinking. Or, more flatly, liberal politics depends on liberal thinking, which is taught in liberal arts. Typically, liberals refer to liberal thinking as reason. So, liberal politics requires reason.
What can I say but no, I don’t and no, it doesn’t? Because I simply don’t equate liberalism with reason, and I don’t claim that the former has the lock on the latter. (Dean also claims that I engage in that foolish liberal game in which one “displace[s] one’s enabling suppositions onto another,” and here I’m simply reduced to the childish reply, “no I don’t, you do: your entire review is driven by your own enabling suppositions about what liberals believe.”) And I don’t construe everyone who disagrees with me as irrational, either. Some people seem perfectly rational (according to the world as I construe it), and some people don’t, but both groups contain people who disagree with me on any number of things. Dean’s claim that I equate liberalism with reason tout court is simply unsupported by What’s Liberal—which is why, when she points out that I sometimes disagree with people to my left, she excises the actual reasons I offer for those disagreements. For example, she declines to discuss whether, in deciding to chair the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, Michael Parenti was in fact acting as “an apologist for fascism and ethnic cleansing.” But one would have thought—if one were, say, me—that the ordinary protocols of intellectual exchange on such matters require a substantive discussion of the reasons for one’s positions. I certainly provided mine in What’s Liberal. And those of you who are curious as to what I mean when I refer to the “Monty Python Left” might take a look at this post, in which I note the similarities between a certain scene in Life of Brian and Ward Churchill’s claim that he meant his “‘little Eichmanns’ characterization” to apply “only to those [World Trade Center workers] described as ‘technicians.’ Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by.” Not everyone to my left is a member of the Monty Python Left; in reality, very few are—namely, those hardy few who are willing to comb through Churchill’s self-justifications and explain to us whether the cheese-makers of the WTC deserved to die on 9/11, or whether Churchill was referring to WTC dairy producers in general.
As for the impasses between secular and religious forms of thought, or, in other words, the conflict between reason and faith: I don’t understand why Dean or any of her readers would think that I am unaware of this “exclusion,” since I discuss it repeatedly in the book and insist that it cannot be mediated by reason.
For the record, then: if you disagree with me, I will not construe you as crazy or defective. If you argue from faith in one or another religious tradition, I will note that, and I will acknowledge that your premises are incommensurable with mine. If you argue from different secular premises than mine, or if you argue from similar premises but to different ends, I will note that too. I won’t always do it with patience, either! Sometimes I will use mockery and satire and the good old reductio ad absurdum. And I will even note that we may be unable to agree about how to characterize our disagreement. But I will not be quite so crazy or defective as to claim that I have a monopoly on reason and its uses.
Finally, I don’t think you really need Lacan or Zizek or Foucault to get at these Hidden Truths about liberalism. Actually, I thought my book was partly about the limitations of liberalism, and how (for example) the injunction to “challenge unreasoning prejudice of all kinds,” insofar as “it places additional moral burdens on certain kinds of conservatives whose opposition to homosexuality stems from deeply held religious belief,” can appear to those conservatives as “a form of prejudice in itself” (23). I thought I said in so many words that “this conundrum, forged in the gap between procedural liberalism’s openness to debate and substantive liberalism’s opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia, seems to me one of the most difficult moral and intellectual quandaries any liberal teacher has to face” (23-24). And that’s why I argue that although we cannot resolve incommensurabilities, we should try to understand what is at stake in them: because, as I’ve said before on this blog,
one of the purposes of the liberal arts—golly, but I thought this argument was as clear as a mountain stream—is to teach people how to think about fundamental disagreements in human affairs, and how to conceptualize fundamental disagreements without coming to the conclusion that the people who disagree with you must be expelled or exterminated.
I honestly don’t see how any of this involves an evasion of power/knowledge. But then, the charge is that I am blind to the workings of power/knowledge, so I would say this, wouldn’t I.
The rest of my disagreements with Dean’s review have to do with examples rather than principles. One involves what I think is a little sleight of hand, in which Dean notes my political “paranoia”:
A possible indication of the problem of displacing one’s enabling assumption onto another is the paranoia that results. Berube writes:Liberals and progressives tend to be suspicious of people too far to their left, because those people, like the religious right, have a bad track record when it comes to devising policies for fostering pluralism and decentralizing decision-making authority in civil society (288).
It’s weird that progressives would be suspicious of, say, those who fought for the 8 hour working day, unemployment insurance, health insurance, regulatory oversight over the enviroment and workplaces.
As it happens, I’m not suspicious of any of those people, so there’s no weirdness there. Rather, what’s weird that Dean would try to pass off the claim that I consider the US labor and environmental movements too far to my left. For what were these movements if not progressive? The people too far to my left, of course, are Leninists, Maoists and Stalinists, from Lenin, Mao and Stalin right through to their heirs and avatars in the present. The people who fought for the eight hour working day, unemployment insurance, health insurance, regulatory oversight over the environment and workplaces are perfectly OK with me. In fact, they’re my political forebears. You’d have to be crazy to think otherwise. (That’s a little liberal joke there.)
Another disagreement involves—oddly enough—something called power/knowledge.
This designation of extreme as illiberal appears in Berube’s odd criticism of Campus Watch. He says that he finds Campus Watch’s claim to respect freedom of speech disingenuous because it created a list of apologists for terrorism. Why is their claim disingenuous? It’s as if free speech were not risky or dangerous speech, speech that would incite and outrage—and incite an outraged response. But Berube advocates a liberalism premised on exclusions—so he can’t advocate a kind of speech that is outraged.
Ah, no. I explained pretty carefully why I considered Campus Watch’s claim disingenuous, and Dean’s decision not to quote or acknowledge my explanation is what one might call an “exclusion.” So in the liberal spirit of inclusiveness, here it is:
when, in 2002, I learned that Campus Watch had created a list of Middle Eastern Studies scholars in order to (in their words) target professors who “actively dissociate themselves from the United States,” and that they had named twenty U.S. colleges that “fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance” by having Middle Eastern Studies programs that contain professors who are harshly critical of Israel, I wrote to them to protest what I called their Stasi-like tactics, as did over one hundred professors and graduate students across the country. In response, Campus Watch created a webpage—since discredited and taken down—which they titled “Solidarity with Apologists” (the “apologists” in question being the Middle Eastern Studies scholars Campus Watch had now deemed to be “apologists for terrorism”), and they included my name on their short-lived blacklist. At the same time, Campus Watch insisted that their organization “fully respects the freedom of speech of those it debates while insisting on its own freedom to comment on their words and deeds.” I found (and still find) this claim remarkably disingenuous. It is as if Campus Watch were to say, we respect these scholars’ freedom of speech—we simply call them “apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam” on our website. We’re not to blame if people call for their firing, imprisonment, or death.
And that’s why it’s called power/knowledge: people who claim to respect freedom of speech in this way are not, in fact, respecting freedom of speech. They are demonizing dissent from U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel, as apologism for suicide bombings and militant Islam. I find Dean’s characterization of my criticism of Campus Watch as “odd” to be rather odd, and I am at a loss to explain why her understanding of power/knowledge fails her here. For the people at Campus Watch was not just making any ordinary claim about their opponents: they were appealing to a real live disciplinary apparatus in order to rule their opponents out of court—at a time when Bush/Cheney had already begun to circumvent actual courts in their prosecution of “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror.”
Finally, there is Dean’s characterization of my “true core”:
I think that the true core of Berube’s view of liberal arts and liberal politics appears when he refers to the “true purpose of an elite education” (56). The training in reason he advocates is an elite training, a cultivation of habits of mind that steer clear of extremes, that in fact are only known in relation to these extremes. Does this mean that the masses, the non-elites, are a mass of extremes, of appetites and aversions easily thrown by the rhetorics of right and left, easily drawn to fascism or communism? And does it mean that the liberal elite are the proper steerers or governors of the mass, the ones capable of avoiding extremes, perhaps because of their love for critical reason? Or, are they just an elite trying for political control from a particular power base in the educational ideological state apparatus?
Return to refrain—and that’s why they call it power/knowledge.
This one involves a minor misunderstanding about who refers to the “true purpose of an elite education” and why: the phrase is Martin Kramer’s, not mine, as I’ll explain in a moment. But as I point out in Kramer: Toward a Minor Misunderstanding, some minor misunderstandings are critically important, especially when they lead to a series of (mis)leading questions like those with which Dean closes her review. So I showed up in the comments section to try to straighten out the textual record. I pointed to the passage in What’s Liberal from which Dean draws the phrase “the true purpose of an elite education,” and noted that I was quoting this Martin Kramer essay:
The United States doesn’t need a lot of new grads to explain ‘why they hate us.’ What it needs are people who are so persuaded of its mission in the world that they are prepared to undergo some hardship and risk to advance it. I happen to think that calling that mission ‘empire’ just gets in the way. But whatever the mission is called, its bearers have to be persuaded that it is the worthiest of causes. That demands cultural self-esteem and self-mastery—the true purpose of an elite education. It doesn’t require a working knowledge of Arabic.
And here’s my reply in What’s Liberal:
Kramer is right, of course: if you’re interested in establishing American university graduates as proconsuls in Iraq or Syria, knowledge of Arabic is superfluous. Still, it is strange to hear right-wing partisans speak so glowingly of “cultural self-esteem” as the “true purpose of an elite education.” It seems like only yesterday that they were mocking African-American students and faculty for talking about bolstering the self-esteem of American minority groups. And it seems to me that they had it right the first time: the true purpose of an elite education is not the fostering of cultural self-esteem and the hardening of the conviction that one’s nation has a unique mission in the world. The true purpose of education is to try to foster in students a kind of critical cosmopolitanism, such that they learn, among other things, to question any notion that one’s nation or tribe is favored by God or destiny. Not every form of education seeks to realize this “true purpose,” I admit. Come to think of it, there is a word for educational institutions that foster students’ cultural self-esteem and sense of self-mastery, and that graduate a cohort of people who are so persuaded of their mission in the world that they are prepared to undergo some hardship and risk to advance it. We call them “madrassas.”
Dean replied here, I replied to her reply here, and she replied here. Other commenters, acknowledging the (minor) local point at issue to varying degrees, nonetheless complain that I failed to engage the central argument of Jodi Dean’s review. They were right: I didn’t have the time or the energy to do that two weeks ago. So I’ve given it a shot today. Not that it’ll settle the dispute between liberalism and its discontents, but it might clarify what’s in dispute and what’s at stake. Because the fact that I see Dean’s premise as a basic misunderstanding of my premise suggests to me that we’re not really going to come to agreement by explaining our premises further.
By contrast, Ophelia Benson (to whom I have not been able to reply, for the same time-and-energy reasons) seems to me to have put her finger on one of liberalism’s most vulnerable pressure points, and to have called out one of my book’s “lurking unacknowledged tensions” in terms that go directly to the question of how to think about incommensurability. First, Benson quotes a passage in which I try to disentangle the project of universal human rights from any theory of universal reason:
I don’t think I’m asking for all that much in the way of intellectual conformity, consensus, or (gasp) tyranny. The version of universalism I’m proposing does suggest that it might be good and useful to say, “No matter how or what you think, you fellow human, you are entitled to food and shelter and health care and education and political representation.” You can be a Christian Scientist, a secular-humanist professor, or an avant-garde poet/sculptor/dancer, and we can let all those language games flourish. But underlying that commitment to parlogy and dissensus, let’s imagine provisional agreement about human entitlements. (260)
Yes, let’s, but there’s a problem there, an unacknowledged tension. It’s helpful of Michael to have placed the Christian Scientist so close to health care in that passage, because that’s the tension. We can say “No matter what you think, you are entitled to health care,” because that doesn’t amount to forcing health care on the reluctant Christian Scientist. But what about the Christian Scientist’s minor daughter? That’s where the tension bites. We can tell the Christian Scientist “you are entitled to health care” without being coercive, but we can’t tell the Christian Scientist “your daughter is entitled to health care” without being at least potentially coercive. The Christian Scientist, if she is a dedicated Christian Scientist, won’t want her daughter to get health care as commonly understood—she will in fact want precisely to deny her daughter the entitlement to health care that we have in mind when we talk about entitlements to health care. And that’s a problem. That’s the problem.
Because of course it applies to a lot of cases. Not just the Christian Scientist who doesn’t want her daughter to be entitled to health care, but also the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to education, the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to freedom, the parents who don’t want their daughters to have the right of refusal in marriage, and so on. It also applies to men who don’t want their wives to have various entitlements; it applies to men who don’t want their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers to have any entitlements. It applies to people who have power over intimates and dependents, because such people generally do have both de facto and de jure power to deny entitlements to said intimates and dependents, a power which it can be anything from difficult to impossible to interfere with, especially without coercion—without what the people in question would indeed see as tyranny. That’s the problem. That’s the problem and it means that saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled to [various things]” won’t untie this knot between universalism and difference.
What can I say but unfortunately, I agree with this characterization of disagreement? Well, I can admit that when I juxtaposed the Christian Scientist with the entitlement to health care, I did it deliberately. But, as Benson says, that’s a problem. That’s the problem. And the complaint that my book doesn’t address it adequately seems to be perfectly (cough) reasonable, especially when, as Benson notes, the proposition of universal human rights and entitlements bumps up against dependency and surrogacy—as it always will, as long as the human species includes children and people with disabilities. This is especially vexing for someone like me who predicates universal human rights on the recognition of dependency and surrogacy, and it marks (yet again, with emphasis) one of the limits of liberal thought.
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