Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Second-Nature of Politics

So, the semester has finally started. It really has. And I've got a stack of half-written student recommendations (and more than one unfinished syllabus) to prove it. Classes don't begin at Penn until next week, and I have been trying to take a little break before the delicious storm that is the start of every new academic year pours down on my head.

I've also re-read many of the scathing comments to my last few Chronicle posts, trying to honestly consider their criticisms, including the idea that my Chronicle posts exemplify the kind of left-wing brainwashing that needs to be purged from the academy.

I don't see it, but I would also readily concede that that doesn't necessarily mean the criticisms are unfounded. Culture is powered by self-deluding blinders. It is a kind of second-nature that usually only gets harder to recognize the more you try to spot it. Culture wouldn't be culture if we spent most of our time second-guessing it, especially not the parts of it we take for granted. We do most of whatever it is we do everyday with a lack of explicit consciousness that rivals the potency of more ostensibly hard-wired and biological instincts. So, that is all to say that any ideologue is the last person to recognize his or her own subjective biases passing themselves off as objective truths in the public sphere, which means that I'd probably be one of the last people to see (or want to see) any truths in those aforementioned criticisms.

To make matters worse, other people's cultural practices are always easier for someone else to see, at least insofar as they differ from the cultural practices of the person doing the looking.

All that is simply a way of saying that I take all critiques seriously, if not as statements of objective fact about the world then at least as a different set of cultural assumptions about what "facts" actually mean, where the rubber hits the road on all this stuff anyway.

Even still, I want to state my distaste for a few common moves in the rhetorical/ideolgocal battle being mercilessly waged between so-called The Left and Right. First of all, there is this winner-take-all mentality that only tries to defeat the opposing team--at all costs, come hell or high water. That might work in the short term for people trying to win elections (even if not for the long-term good of those they represent), but it certainly doesn't work if the default team in quiestion is robustly inclusive. Economist Glenn Loury makes this us-them point quite clearly with respect to multiracial conflicts in his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. What if we all started with the assumption that we were playing for the same team? Would our rhetoric change? Our political endgame?

Point two: just because the Chronicle is about "higher education" doesn't mean that discussions of hip-hop artists being deployed to explain international politics or an invocation of "obamaphobia" in a discussion about our over-heated public debates are categorically out of order. One can talk politics without trying to brainwash people or push a partisan agenda. Of course, we live in a world where many people seem happy to reduce any talk of "the political" to one or both of those impoverished alternatives. I reject that claim, even if I sound like Pollyanna.

Do I tend to lean "left" on most things? That's probably true (most days), but I'm genuinely interested in listening to other people, from all sides of all issues, and challenging my own too-comfortable cultural assumptions about politics or anything else.

At the same time, I do get a little froggy and want to jump back at what I think are unproductive attacks. For example, when Michelle Malkin describes my aforementioned "Obamaphobobia" post as a "screed" on her website and declares that I have called her book "a hate crime," it takes all that I have not to cry "foul." What was she reading? Is this the kind of gloss on texts that informs the interpretations found in her bestselling book? Besides that, she's calling somebody else's work a screed? That seems like the pot signifyin(g) on the kettle, if you know what I mean. If only her mention of my post had gotten my Racial Paranoia book anywhere near the hemisphere of her book's sales figures. Maybe it would have all been worth it.

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