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Friday Frank blogging

Well, Thomas Frank Week is almost over on this humble blog, and it’s been a blast.  Even more fun than PBS Pledge Week, and twice as lucrative!  It was great having Britney stop by, as well, though next time I wish she’d leave the snake in the car!

Today, for my last installment, I will take up the question of whether Frank advances a theory of “false consciousness.” Now, in cultural-studies circles, it’s true, asking this question is tantamount to asking whether Frank is guilty of thoughtcrime. False consciousness?  You mean he thinks that the people are passive dopes?  That is ignorant and reactionary!  He needs to read my three-volume study, The People are Not Passive Dopes!! But we have to ask it anyway-- after all, Frank does open his book, on the very first page, by remarking that “people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about” (1), and this does sound like someone knows what those fundamental interests are, and it ain’t the people who are getting ‘em wrong.

Full disclosure: Mr. Frank himself wrote me a nice little letter to accompany my publisher’s copy—what, you think maybe I buy my books?-- in which he said that he knows that it’s not “fashionable” to speak of false consciousness but that someone’s got to point out just how much damage the right has done, or something like that.  The proper reply, I think (aside from “hey, thanks for the free book!"), is to point out that “fashion” isn’t the problem here.  The reason that lots of cultural-studies people stopped talking about “false consciousness” at some point between Raymond Williams’s 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” and Stuart Hall’s 1986 essays “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” and “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees” wasn’t that it became “unfashionable.” Rather, it was because it began to look as if, in trying to understand why the dominated classes participated so eagerly in their own domination, left cultural theory was simply inventing the same wheel over and over again, and worse, it was a weird kind of triangular wheel that didn’t actually work on the road.

HAVING SAID THAT, though, I should get to the damn point.  I don’t think, in the end, that What’s the Matter with Kansas? relies wholeheartedly on a theory of false consciousness.  There are moments when it sounds otherwise-- say, when Frank speaks of Kansas conservatives as “deranged” (and conservatives in the media were, for some reason, quick to pick up on this)-- but I actually don’t mind these moments: it seems pretty clear to me that Frank is addressing this book to other liberals and progressives rather than to the Kansas Cons themselves, and you know what, I too think some of the Kansas Cons’ political senses are just deranged.  (Ordinary economic libertarianism combined with cultural conservatism I can understand; people appointing themselves Pope or conducting searches for the bodies of all the people Bill Clinton killed with his own hands I do not understand.)

So yeah, there are times when the book sounds as if it’s always the economy, stupid-- as when Frank insists that for the New Right, “cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends.  And it is these economic achievements-- not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-- that are the movement’s greatest monuments” (6).  But his own work shows that for many heartland conservatives, it really is about the cultural anger; it’s a cultural anger that is marshaled to cultural ends, and they don’t mind being impoverished by the economic agenda of Bush’s crony klepto-capitalism.  On the contrary, for them, their immiseration is but another sign of their Election: they understand that they must live in poverty and tribulation on this earth, because they are serving a higher calling, namely, protecting unborn babies in the womb and/or protecting the sanctity of holy matrimony.  Let those weaselly Europeans have health care-- we guide ourselves, instead, by what Jesus would do.  And Jesus would surely bomb an abortion clinic.

That isn’t false consciousness, folks.  It’s true consciousness-- the true consciousness of a theocratic right wing in which people really do think that their “fundamental interests” lie in prosecuting those never-ending culture wars . . . right until the day they end.  And for all his many virtues, and they are many, Stuart Hall never had to account for a fundamentalist right so virulent or so entrenched as ours when he was analyzing the popular appeal of Thatcherite “authoritarian populism.”

ONE FINAL POINT ABOUT THOSE CULTURE WARS.  For a guy who tends of think of them as a mere distraction from the real issues, Frank does a pretty damn good job of describing them.  But when he says

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate.  Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won.  This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history.  Abortion is never halted.  Affirmative action is never abolished.  The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.  (6)

-- he’s right only to a point.  Never mind the culture industry cleaning up its act; that was Wednesday’s argument.  Think about abortion and affirmative action, instead.  Frank’s right that they haven’t been stricken from the laws of the land, as the right so desires-- but he underestimates, I think, just how much damage the right has done and might yet do on this score.  These “cultural” issues aren’t just smokescreens for the repeal of the estate tax; lots of people actually believe in them on their merits. Planned Parenthood v. Casey really did represent a rollback of abortion rights, and anti-abortion terrorism has had a profoundly chilling effect on the lives and livelihoods of family planning providers.  (And let’s not forget the many many dimes’ worth of difference between Democratic and Republican presidential administrations when it comes to family planning organizations overseas.) Likewise, court decisions like Wards Cove v. Atonio (1989) really did do enormous damage to affirmative action-- in that case, by gutting eighteen years of “disparate impact” theory following 1971’s landmark Griggs v. Duke Power Co. decision and basically whacking the knees of most claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  (The civil rights bills of 1990 and 1991-- the second a badly watered-down version of the first, but the only thing the Democrats could get Bush I to sign-- represented Congress’s attempt to restore the status quo ante Wards Cove.) And never mind the Fifth Circuit decision in Hopwood v. Texas (1996), which sent college affirmative action offices into freefall for seven years (until last summer’s rulings).

Again, Frank is right to suggest that what’s going on here is a kind of shadow-boxing in which the right plays at winning these battles outright but always seems to come up just one vote short. But how many of you are willing to bet that nothing important will change in these forgettable, never-ending culture wars if Bush is elected in November and appoints two or three new justices to the Supreme Court?

HERE ENDETH THE SERMON.  And I should close by saying again what should have been obvious all along but (to some readers, so far) apparently wasn’t: I really, really like most of What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank’s wit and smarts are considerable (rare and valuable commodities, ahem ahem, in the serious-pundit class), and his analysis of right-wing populism is just indispensable-- most of all for Frank’s account of right-wing populism’s substitution of a “cultural elite” (as the cause of working-class conservatives’ marginalization / victimization) for the economic and political elites (or what C. Wright Mills rightly called the “power elite") who are really doing the dirty work.  I’m also happy to see Frank’s increasing “crossover” success, and I’m not the least bit jealous of any of it.  Really.  Except that I wish I’d written a book that got a blurb from Janeane Garofalo.  Maybe next time.  Hmmm, let me think, no, not much chance there either.  OK, never mind.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

UPDATE:  Almost forgot!  Go get your own copy of the book right here (no, you can’t borrow my copy).  Now’s a good time to read it!

Posted by on 09/24 at 09:34 AM
  1. But it’s *good* to be Pope! --Or antipope, rather.

    Yes, I agree that it’s very weird that not only is there an antipope, (actually there are three that I know of) but there is an antipope in *Kansas*, apparently living in a PO box.

    This, which I discovered while researching my anti-Mel-Gibson megarant, was a bit of a shock to me. An antipope in France, that would be traditional, and since Spain was the original stomping-ground of the Borgias, the Spanish antipope (annointed by heavenly apparitions, iirc in a vision) could be said to be reworking an old theme.

    But a Great Plains antipope seems like something out of A Canticle for Leibowitz, not RL…

    --Irony is dead, vive l’irony!

    Posted by bellatrys  on  09/24  at  03:37 PM
  2. Posted by bellatrys  on  09/24  at  03:42 PM
  3. This has been a great discussion, and I will agree with Michael here that Frank is hyperbolic in his insistence that the Right is willing to lose on the cultural front in order to win on its economic agenda. In fact there is more censorhip and less affirmative action: abortion rights have been undermined. But there has not been a concerted attempt on the part of the left-- to defend things public institutions, public discourse and political participation. See the recent extensionof the Bush tax cuts in the House and Senate. This is deplorable, disgusting and has passed largely uncommented.

    In fact, what he deplores along with the state of Kansas is the state of dissent on the left. This I think is a good tonic against the enforced consensus of academics that has celebrated “transgression” over dissent. 

    As for my brush with ‘false consciousnness’ in this discussionI mean something more abject that Williams or Hall’s versions. I think it arises precisely out of what has been identified by Michael and others on this blog as a reaction against secular modernity. Under this category, you could include the fundies of all stripes as well and degrees of convictions. They are for a false notion of “tradition.: The right exploits this abject state of mind. The left does not.

    Posted by Catherine Liu  on  09/24  at  03:51 PM
  4. "But there has not been a concerted attempt on the part of the left-- to defend things public institutions, public discourse and political participation.”

    The left doesn’t have the media tools/weapons at its disposal to fight this insidious onslaught.  We now live in a truly fascist state where the matrimony of corporate interests and the state is almost complete.  Four more years will seal the deal.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  05:55 AM
  5. David: I once saw an exhibit about some ordinary species of microbes that live in ponds. People didn’t think they were interesting: they were common, not glamorous, and thus not studied carefully. Then someone decided to observe them with an electron microscope, and discovered something amazing.

    In times of environmental hardship, when food was scarce, some of them would morph into creatures that were all mouth, so that they could eat each other instead of their usual prey. Thus the uber-microbes started demolishing the population, apparently triumphant.

    But after a bit, the remaining ones did not morph into large mouthed ones too, they instead grew large spikes. The large-mouthed organisms had to stop eating their bretheren, and the internecine war stopped. Eventually they all went back to being plain monomorph microbes.

    Why some of them are genetically programmed to morph into Eaters and some not to, I don’t know if anyone has since figured out - I was mostly just amazed at the exhibit photographs (if these were the size of bass, no one would go into the water.) But it was a lesson against assuming that one knows what is strength, what is determined, and how things will play out.

    Posted by bellatrys  on  09/25  at  06:38 AM
  6. Posted by Jimbo  on  09/25  at  10:39 AM
  7. OK, Jimbo, I admit that the term “true consciousness” isn’t any better than “false consciousness”—but then, that was part of my point.  To understand the right-wing theocrats and their following among the rural poor, you’d have to understand just why they consider themselves Elect—and you’d have to frame their beliefs in something other than the language of “self-interest” (which Frank, for all his fine work at describing these folks, doesn’t quite do).  They really think they’re serving a higher purpose, not self-interest.  And so, as Frank shows, when the politicians they support wind up contributing to their financial immiseration, it all kind of makes sense to them in the end.  They weren’t in it for the money anyway.

    On that note—as one of my e-pen pals in the DC labor left put it—the important point here is that one’s worldview (and the “culture” that informs them) is more important than one’s calculations of financial self-interest.  After all, some wealthy liberals support a steeply progressive tax code not because they will reap its rewards in some direct way, but because they think it’s the right thing to do.  And last but not least, appealing to a notion of “false consciousness” is never a good way of trying to persuade someone she’s wrong; when you say, “you’re misrecognizing your fundamental interests,” she says, “you liberal elitists don’t understand my fundamental interests—I guess Rush was right about you all!”

    Oh, and one more thing:  it’s good to be the Pope!

    Posted by Michael  on  09/25  at  11:33 AM
  8. So “false consciousness” might be useful from the perspective of analysis but utterly useless from the perspective of politics?  I can buy that.  And I concur that telling people they are deceived, even telling them why they are deceived, won’t persuade them.  Hell, it rarely persuades me, or at least it gives me little inkling as to how I should act.

    I myself wouldn’t define “self-interest” solely in economic terms.  But a good question to ask, I think, is: What is the calculus of the self proposed by the right-wing theocrats?  Once we had a clearer picture of that, we might be able to make better headway. In any case, I definitely need to go read Frank’s book.


    Posted by Jimbo  on  09/25  at  12:30 PM
  9. Posted by  on  09/25  at  12:35 PM
  10. You miss Franks point about vulgarity which is not only politically astute but fundamental. Disney’s Lion King and Calvin Klein’s pedophilia tell people in Lawrence that they are trash and everything they hold dear is worthless. The right has deflected this anger to gays, “liberal elites”, and college professors. And the college professors and “liberals” have enthusiastically accepted their roles for a couple of reasons - one of which is actual scorn for dumbass trailer-americans. Democracy depends on a widely shared belief that most people are capable and responsible. The rightwing economic elites and the leftwing cultural elites have joined together to oppose this theory - to the political benefit of the right. However, this is a weak point for the right. A strong left in the US would try to make “citizen” a prestigious title, instead of a synonym for “rube”.

    Posted by  on  09/25  at  04:48 PM
  11. Render unto God that which is God’s,, and to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. 

    I think Frank’s analysis is over-simplistic, and is based on wonderful liberal elite stereotypes (being in the liberal elite, I like them, but acknowledge they are stereotypes nonetheless).

    Number one with a bullet reason people vote for party X: their Mommies and Daddies voted X.  Kansas is a Republican state… little has changed politically since Alf Landon on that count.  It’s a far cooler state, btw, than Frank gives it credit for (I believe it still has no death penalty, for example). 

    BUT… it’s also a whiter state than Frank would give us reason to believe.  Rightly or wrongly, rural white people believe that social programs are for the benefit of urban poor-- i.e., dark skinned people.  Its not true; most of our government expenditures tend to prop up rural White people, who feel their subsidies are because of their God given human worth, whereas the much more paltry subsidies to dark skinned urban people are undeserved handouts.  Further, these people (falsely) believe that their own efforts will contribute to their advancement-- the American dream (so named, of course, because its… a dream; reality of American advancement occasionally involves talent and effort, but more likely involves luck, accidents of birth, dishonesty if not outright thievery, and cronyism).

    Contrary to Frank’s view-- the folks in Kansas think that the Republicans ARE acting in THEIR self-interest.  True, the Dems piss them off by shoving the cultural agenda in their faces, but mostly, the Dems have failed to convince the people in Kansas that they do NOT want to impose neo-Bolshevism and take away their American dream (worse, for the benefit of those swarthy urban people), and worse still, want to take away the opportunity to become filthy stinking rich, which we all know, is the purpose of existence… God said so.

    Look at it this way: when the NY lottery had, oh, 20 winners of a $1 million prize, but decided instead to go for 1 prize of $20 million, its ticket sales went up several fold.  This is what motivates people; they think that benefitting the rich BENEFITS THEM. 

    Worst of all, the GOP knows its agenda: its simple.  Hurt the dark (and gay) people-- economically, socially… and lower taxes.  Its not nice… but its EASY TO UNDERSTAND.

    The Dem message is far more scattershot and skewed.  And the Dems are hopelessly undisciplined and disorganized-- oddly enough, its the right wing with the discipline to hold to an agenda.  Its the left that is more… selfish, on this score. 

    Much work needs to be done, including a fundamental rethinking by the left of (1) the message, and (2) what the message means.

    Posted by the talking dog  on  09/26  at  12:02 AM
  12. Citizen K’s point should be amplified—Frank goes on at great length to talk about Moderate Republicans --inditing them as a true elite who believe that as the ‘better’ right wingers, they deserve to rule their less privilged and more benighted Republicans.

    For Frank’s Cons—the class warfare within the Republican party takes place as a sharp turn to the Right because the fundies feel rightfully that they are condescended to by their own elite. This is the populist uprising that has spurred the far right of the Republican party to wreak effective revenge upon its own Mod elite. The fact that there has been no equivalent insurgency on the left is telling—but Frank wrote his book before the Dean phenomenon.

    Now this is one aspect of Frank’s argument that has not shown up in the present left/right division of the culture war debates.

    Posted by Catherine Liu  on  09/26  at  12:36 AM
  13. Hey, Citizen K (no rube, I know), you’re right about how the right has deflected that anger, and you’re right about how left-wing elites are playing into the game.  But when Frank suggests that conservatives’ distaste for “vulgarity” can be properly channeled into a distate for the corporate entities who, he thinks, are ultimately responsible for it ("If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it!”—his words, not mine), then he’s delusional.

    Frank’s argument about the substitution of a liberal “cultural” elite for the real power elite is what’s fundamental.  His argument about vulgarity is really wrongheaded.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/26  at  08:51 AM
  14. Taking up the point about identity, it seems to me that because we don’t in this country identify ourselves by class, that that makes it impossible for us (on both sides of the political spectrum) to be swayed with appeals to economic self-interest.  I’m not even sure that most Americans know what their economic status is; one study showed that 40% of Americans think they are in the top 20% of earners, and another 20% think they’ll get there one day.  More than that, I think that culture fills the identity vacuum left because of the widespread belief that we live in a classless society.  Of course, as Michael has noted, it’s not necessarily the case that in a more class-conscious society like Britain, that people necessarily vote with their economic self-interest in mind--although race is a complicating factor in both the American and the British case.

    My step-uncle, who is a Republican, sent me an email forward which re-wrote the parable of the grasshopper and the ant such that the grasshopper asked Tom Daschle and Jesse Jackson to hold a press conference detailing his plight, which resulted in the ant being forced to turn over his house to drug dealers.  The moral of the story was that we should vote Republican.  It was a fascinating insight into the Republican mindset and similar to what the talking dog is arguing.

    PS to Michael: I studied with Modhumita Roy at Tufts, she always spoke very highly of you.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  11:30 AM
  15. I’m just not impressed with your composer and his faux-tough guy “fuck that”. The argument: “Bush and Powell gave monopoly control of our public airwaves to the people who think models eating cockroaches and 12 years old prostitutes are good entertainment” is a strong argument that resonates even in conservative kansas. The real false consciousness is that of liberals who have not realized that “epater le bourgeois” is a reactionary response to the revolutionary middle class values of democracy, rights, and human dignity. The vulgarity of our culture is anti-humanism, not some cool edgy thing. Lefties defending vulgarity is like that stupid ACLU lawsuit defending the “free speech rights” of Nike to lie about sweatshops.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  04:00 PM
  16. Well, when the bipartisan campaign against vulgarity is finally underway, I won’t miss the cockroach-eating and the Calvin Klein ads.  I won’t miss Maury Povich or Mancow either.  But I will miss Tony Kushner, Samuel Delany, and Laura Kipnis, I might as well admit that now.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  04:09 PM
  17. Posted by Catherine Liu  on  09/26  at  04:11 PM
  18. You think that Tony Kushner and “Survivor Part 9” are similarly vulgar? I don’t define vulgar as plain language or sexual content, and there is no equivalence between an artists work and a vast multi-national deliberately pitching crassness. You don’t have to argue for censorship to argue against corporate sleaze. Just as the right has convinced dumb crackers that huntin-fishin-an-jesus are under attack from gay-liberal-elites, the corporate p.r. folks have convinced dumb academics that art-and-free-expression are under attack from trailer-trash. Like death and gravity, false consciousness doesn’t care if you believe in it.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  04:57 PM
  19. That was me writing under the nom-de-wrong-field “Vulgarity and truth” instead of my regular pseudonym.

    Posted by  on  09/26  at  05:05 PM
  20. Michael,

    It’s not about vulgarity --or culture—that should occupy a cetnral place in our formulation of politics.  It’s the economy that should be our preoccupation—that’s Frank’s point.

    Survivor is Robinson Crusoe by other means—and I think Adorno and Horkheimer have shown after Marx that Robinsonades are lessons of capitalism disguised as innocent entertainments. So on that level, Survivor should be denounced, but not for being vulgar.

    Although I’m no admirer of Dave Hickey, he had a great description of reality television—it shows people how to behave in a bureaucracy—the mediocre bond together to get rid of the strong, then they get rid of the weak.

    Posted by Catherine Liu  on  09/26  at  05:11 PM
  21. Well, now, K, before you go postin’ about dumb academics under any pseudonym, you should find out what some of those heartland fundamentalists have actually said about Tongues Untied—or Lolita, which they tend to think of pretty much the way you think of those Calvin Klein ads (and never mind those 12-year-old prostitutes in Taxi Driver and Pretty Baby!).  Really, I hate to break the news, but when the cultural right talks about “vulgarity,” they do include, under that heading, a great deal of sexually explicit representation (say, statues of women with breasts in the Department of Justice) and all representations of gay and lesbian sexuality.  Angels in America is even more toxic to them, of course, because of that cute gay Mormon fellow, Joe Pitt. 

    Now, you and I probably agree about the relative merits of Tony Kushner and Survivor 9.  But if you think a campaign against vulgarity is going to zero in on multinational corporate crassness and spare the true artists among us, and if you really think all this talk of “art-and-free-expression under attack” is a corporate PR campaign aimed at dumb academics, you should review the history of obscenity law in the United States.

    Besides, my tastes and yours aren’t the point here.  The point is that Frank truly does think we live in a crap culture, and that we can rally some of the right against capitalism on that basis.  I admit that there is a good portion of the American left that agrees with him about this.  In fact, Ralph Nader made it part of his (staggeringly successful) campaign to reach out to conservatives in 2004.  But I disagree, and now you know why (in great detail).

    OK, enough from me.  I gotta go read Ulysses now.  Hey!  Who took my copy of Ulysses??

    Posted by Michael  on  09/26  at  05:35 PM
  22. I’ll see your Ulysses and raise you two Jeff Koons masterpieces. Of course there are many evil people in the right who want to control what everyone else reads and thinks. The popular support of the right, however, is not 100% grim religious fanatics, sitting in their trailers and plotting to drabulate the rich cultural rainbow enjoyed in English Departments.  By lining up on the “side” which celebrates the imaginary common cause of artistic expression and using sleaze to sell crap, the “left” is making a strategic error that validates the right’s invention of this common cause.

    Not that I’m such a big fan of Pretty Baby which seems to me a lot closer to “using sleaze to sell crap” than artistic expression. It would be nice if the enlightened cultural elite could take some time from celebrating the daring idea of middle aged guys getting all excited about younger sexual partners ( a groundbreaking subject, that was probably not introduced much prior to the Cro-Magnon period) and, you know, talk about the dull old fashioned Raymond Williams stuff.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  05:07 AM
  23. Jeff Koons has a masterpiece?

    And we seem to agree on Pretty Baby, too-- I threw that in there with Taxi Driver not only for the pedophilia, but also because Brooke Shields leads directly to Calvin Klein.  (Come for the pedophilia-- stay for the pedophilia!)

    Anyway, you’re right when you say that the right isn’t 100% Comstockery from one side of the trailer park to the other.  And I agree so strongly with the argument that cultural studies has overlooked questions of value and evaluation in popular culture that I’ve actually made it myself (as have a number of contributors to the forthcoming and about-to-be-flogged-on-this-very-blog book, The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies).  Surely we can talk about why Maury Povich sucks without becoming nose-pinching elitists.  But the reason I’m not joining anyone on the right in the fight against vulgarity is that I just don’t trust ‘em.  They’ll agree with me about Maury Povich, and then, next thing you know, out goes Chris Rock (whose last HBO special was really quite vulgar!  and occasionally brilliant!).

    Posted by Michael  on  09/27  at  06:13 AM
  24. re koons: Hey, if you are gonna cite Joyce to prove that vulgarity is sometimes intrinsic to great art, I can cite an example of vulgarity intrinsic to moronic schlock.

    As for alliances, that’s a different issue. But I wish that critiquing the demeaning vulgarity of the convergence of commercial “art/advertising” was not left to the Liebermans and Schaflys of the world. Someone should be out there yelling that Calvin Klein is attacking liberal humanistic values instead of letting the right define humanism as smarmy voyerism. And Frank’s point, if I understand it, is that the right is in a precarious position because they cannot embarass their funders too much

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  07:43 AM
  25. It may appear illogical for middle class whites to support, say, the elimination of the estate tax--and it is.  But from their point of view, they think that maybe they will get rich.  The lottery, a rich relative that dies and leaves them money, a lucky business deal, etc.  It is unlikely that any of these will happen, but they might.  And if not for them, then for their children.  It is this kind of thinking that makes America what it is.  They also think that the rich will avoid paying taxes anyway, a belief that Bush plays upon.

    Posted by  on  09/27  at  08:02 AM
  26. Posted by  on  09/27  at  09:58 AM





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