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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)

Benson replies:

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.

Posted by Michael on 11/21 at 12:00 PM
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