Monday, March 15, 2010

The Politicization of Everything (that the other side is doing)

Frank Rich wrote a NYT op-ed this weekend that began by criticizing former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino and former NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for their ideological readings of 9/11. Giuliani was appearing on ABC's Good Morning America in January; Perino, on FOX's Hannity last November.

"We had no domestic attacks under Bush," Giuliani declared (though he probably meant after 9/11).

"We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term," Perino stated. "I hope they [the Obama administration and the liberal wing of the press] are not looking at this politically. I do think we owe it to the American people to call it [the Ft. Hood shooting] what it is [a terrorist attack]."

The Rich piece is really about the extent to which Karl Rove (in his recent memoir) and Keep America Safe (a new foreign policy advocacy group founded by Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol) engage in ideologically heavy-handy historical revisionism.

"To hear them tell it," Rich writes, "9/11 was so completely Bill Clinton’s fault that it retroactively happened while he was still in office. The Bush White House is equally blameless for the post-9/11 resurgence of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iran. Instead it’s President Obama who is endangering America by coddling terrorists and stopping torture."

But I'm most intrigued by Perino's request that others not mislabel last year's horrific Texas tragedy for politically motivated reasons. It is the hollowness of such a call that moves me. And so many people make it. These days, the opening salvo of just about any debate is usually grounded in the charge that the other side's position is over-determined by mere politics and extremist ideology (as opposed to the speaker's own relatively neutral, fact-based analysis). Admittedly, Rich's essay implicitly pivots on something close to that same move. As does my own posting. But it is a question of degree and kind. And of what one imagines to be the categorical difference between competing sides of any social issue.

For instance, the claim that only left-leaning justices might be described as "activist judges" is silliness. Pure balderdash. Just this week, we find out that Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is starting a conservative lobbying organization (with links to Tea Party groups). It isn't the Justice himself, but her activists efforts will probably reflect the ideological assumptions behind the kinds of Supreme Court decisions that her husband has been making since the early 1990s. Why don't conservative pundits consider his opinions instantiations of judicial activism? Will that be harder to deny with his wife literally functioning as a political activist? (For those who want to imagine "originalism" as some kind of innoculation from petty politicking, read Matthew Engelke's A Problem of Presence. He's talking about Christian Scripture, not the Constitution, but he unpacks the "semiotic ideologies" that anchor claims about written words that are imagined to speak for themselves, or even to speak at all.)

An invocation of "the political" (to describe "the other side" and its self-serving motivations) is probably one of the most political moves (by that very same definition of self-servingness) in our current rhetorical arsenal. It is also a catchall term, ubiquitous in its squishy polyvocality.

For example, I can't tell you how many queries I get from Chronicle readers who want the inside scoop on the weekly's coverage of events: Why haven't they run an article on the racial angle of that Amy Bishop shooting? Do you know that the Chronicle you write for engages in some unethical censoring of its readership vis-a-vis their comments to articles, especially posts left by "conservative" readers? Just today, somebody was concerned that they hadn't found any coverage of the recent deaths at Cornell University. Is the Chronicle being pressured not to cover the story? The person asked this last question with implications that hover closely to a more non-partisan invocation of the political (to describe "backstage" machinations with a conspiratorial tinge, an example of the political's amazing elasticity).

Moreover, the political is cannibalistic. It feeds off other things, making it more difficult to disentangle political posturing from meaningful political practice. Political incentives can compel people to, say, pounce on Rep. Eric Massa. But that doesn't mean that Massa's actions should be defended, because his attackers smell political blood. (Of course, the logic of our current political/partisan system usually means that we defend our teammates almost no matter what, even to the point of hypocrisy and egregious double-standardism.)

Everything is political. And you don't have to be a card-carrying Foucauldian to think so. Even still, two things seem worth mentioning (as ways to organize and ground such an ostensible truism).

1) Claiming some kind of non-political Archimedean vantage point from which to survey the ideological landscape is unhelpful. And a lie. We can aspire toward greater degrees of objectivity without matter-of-factly declaring that our team (unlike the other side) has already achieved it.

2) Attempts to dismiss other positions as merely political distracts us from the point. The option isn't apolitical vs. political. And the folks who most adamantly declaim that the other guys have cornered the market on political motivations have drunken their own Kool Aid. Or they are betting on the fact that they can get some of us to drink it for them.