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Friday, September 24, 2004

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 Michael on 09/24 at 09:34 AM
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