Thursday, June 23, 2011

Faith and Reason, Treason and Blindness

When I was a child, I idolized two historical figures: Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman. I suppose that, even then, I was in awe of people who, despite their perceived insignificance, pursued what they thought was right in the face of deterrents and derogation. I was a skinny kid, and I admired these brave, unshakable women. So, it saddened me to see a political cartoon clothing Michelle Bachmann in the military armor of the maid from Lorraine. Perhaps, to artist Victor Juhasz, any figure claiming religious motivation is equally harmful. Perhaps, he would consider Tubman, the Moses of her people, no less a demagogic megalomaniac than the Congresswoman from Minnesota. I can't make myself accept that equivalence. (And, looking again, Juhasz does have Bachmann moving in the opposite direction of a God pointing her to the Left. She is too mesmerized by the Bible in her hand to heed the true instruction).

The theme of the accompanying Rolling Stone article is that when educated elites from the coasts laugh at Bachmann, they simply make her stronger. Although journalist Matt Taibbi does an excellent job documenting Bachmann's rise, he never offers any evidence for his primary thesis--namely, that her supporters like her not because they agree with her on specifics, but because they identify with her experience of being laughed at by haughty intellectuals. It would not have been difficult to substantiate this idea by visiting states where candidate Bachmann has appeared and asking Republican supporters what appeals to them about her. So, while Taibbi may certainly be correct, the article's central claim remains, at present, a tantalizing hypothesis.

However, this hypothesis leaves us with a conundrum. If laughing at Bachmann's misinformed statements and quixotic quests strengthens her prospects as a candidate, what are people opposed to her ideas and political vision to do? Are we supposed to patronize her, go easy because some people share her factually mistaken notions? That is, are we supposed to avoid being intellectual bullies to a political bully? I would think not. To pity them would be to fall prey to the same opportunistic thinking that suggests that Bachmann and Palin, by virtue of their sex, are automatically at a disadvantage in a conversation with any male. The Mama Grizzly, I think we all know, gets in more than a few swipes of her own claws, all the while protesting she's just a beset wife and mother. (On this matter, I'm with Chris Rock. I won't hit a woman who has hit me but I'll sure as hell shake her!)

Bachmann has also used her sex to her advantage. Take, for example, her confusion of past and present tense when claiming, ten years after her last child left the house, that she rushes home to cook for a large family every weekend. If the statement is untrue--and uttered merely to misrepresent herself as not a full-time politician but an everyday working mom--then why should political opponents not be able to call it out?

While silence can be an effective rope-a-dope move (see Obama's long silence and delicious victory in the Birther matter), it cannot be the only strategy--especially when your opponents have gained political power and implemented state and national policies that one thinks are wrongheaded and unjust.

After all, no one can say that Fox News (for example) goes easy on President Obama because, say, black people, Ivy League graduates, or immigrants identify closely with him. It does not seem reasonable for the Left, in the era of Fox News, to take a "go easy on em" stance. Besides, figures like Palin and Bachmann would continue to cite "lamestream" media bias against them even in its absence. Despite the fact that they are political bullies, they pretend (like abusive spouses) that they are the persecuted ones. God knows it is unbearably difficult to be a white Christian mother in these United States. The number of lynchings alone (committed, ostensibly, on their behalf) would keep me up at night.

So here's how the switcharoo plays out. Remember the Katie Couric interview with Palin? Certainly, Couric is not known as a hard-hitting Marxist critic. She's the same woman who (no lie) asked Condoleezza Rice if they could be girlfriends during a 60 Minutes interview. This moment is not part of the transcript here, but I recall it vividly from the broadcast. "You just seem like you'd be so much fun to be friends with," was the tenor of the gushing compliment. Is this a sleepover or an interview with the Secretary of State at a time of war?

So much for major network media selectively dragging conservative Christians through the mud. (It should not be forgotten that Rice, like the majority of the Bush administration, is an evangelical). What we're really dealing with, then, is a persecution complex. Palin still asserts that a journalist asking her what news sources she reads is playing "gotcha journalism" and exhibiting liberal bias against a beleaguered conservative. And this martyr complex travels: I recall sitting next to a very nice white woman from Tennessee who informed me that she loved Palin, who was then a candidate for the Vice Presidency. "Katie Couric has always been prejudiced against white people," she sniffed. Come again? So now we can just invent a whole archive of Katie Couric interviews bashing white people? I don't think you get to be "America's Sweetheart" by making it a habit of tearing down white people--and only white people--on television. I mean, she could have just said, "I don't think Katie Couric likes white people." But I guess that would have been somewhat close to what other English speakers mean when they use words to correspond to things in the world.

Now, according to Taibbi's article, I should not laugh at this woman (and I didn't, until the first time I told someone else the story and every time thereafter). But should I reason with her?

Cognitive social scientists say no. There may be some validity to this caution. People don't like to be wrong, especially in a public forum in which they can lose face -- and, yes, even a one-on-one conversation can be public, if you fear losing stature in the other person's eyes. Cognitive social scientists are putting forth the idea (not unfamiliar in post-structuralist literary theory) that reason is not an independent tool but a servant of the powerful. That is, whoever has the most social or institutional power can set the first principles that guide the subsequent discussion.

Elegant statements of logic, such as "if x, then y," all hinge on who gets to stipulate the if. "If God wanted gays to marry" is one sort of proposition. "If all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law" is quite another. Where you reason from each of those is not solely up to your own free-ranging mind but, actually, somewhat prescribed by that all-important first stipulation.

As I think of how to confront political opponents like Bachmann, I find a serious challenge. Confronting them appears to be futile.

To borrow from philosopher Linda Alcoff, such confrontations are a battle between opposing modes of reasoning. The classical Greek model identified reasonable statements based on their content. If a lunatic said that the sky was blue on a clear day, then he (always he) was rational, no matter what process he used to get there. The model of Descartes was entirely different: the conclusion did not prove reasonableness; rationality was evident by the plausibility of the steps one took to get from assertion to assertion. Descartes might be seen as the originator of the idea that reasonable people can differ. The older, Platonic, version insists that all reasonable people must agree. Politicians of Bachmann's or Palin's kind, it appears to me, believe that certain conclusions are the only reasonable ones. If you conclude that environmental regulation is a necessary thing, then you must be wrong--no matter your reasons for coming to that conclusion. To differ (from them) is to be irrational, treasonous, and heretical, all at once.

It appears to me that there have been two effective ways to confront them: first, to agree to their stipulations but show them that their terms can lead to other outcomes than they expected or, second, to argue for a different set of stipulations (say, that the Constitution and not the bible should be the guide for national law). The broad left coalition seems to revel in the latter, insisting (for example) that the Bible should be mute in discussions of public policy. I tend to lean toward the former. Too often this has been taken to mean conceding to right-wing interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution. The more appropriate strategy (for those so inclined) would be to argue for different outcomes on their very ground. Maybe this would indicate "not laughing at them" while also not patronizing them with silence. I can't recommend ignoring what they wish to do -- from defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminating labor protections to rolling back the clock on racial equality and enshrining gender and sexual inequality in stone. In that battle, Bachmann et al can play the Dauphin, I'll be cutting my locks to play Joan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Luxury of No Stance

We're caught in the middle, Carol.
We're middle class. We're middle aged.
We were wild in the old days...
-- Joni Mitchell "Chinese Café"

An old saying runs that a young person who is not liberal has no heart and an old one who is not conservative has no brain. The idea, of course, is that in all situations, the Truth or the Best Path lies between two extremes. While this seems a reasonable statement on its face, the problem has always been in determining what really counts as extreme. Opposing parties in a dispute are not necessarily at extremes: think of the considerable overlap between the major political parties in the US. President Obama, for example, is not a socialist, despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary. An opponent does not necessarily indicate a pure extreme. Taking the middle point in any dispute strikes me as not only morally lazy but also, eventually, paralyzing.

In the last post, I considered the idea that one can and must maintain political ideals even while realizing that political negotiation demands compromise. I was hoping to communicate that certain short-term concessions might be necessary in order to achieve a long-term goal. As the old spiritual says, "Keep your eyes on the prize/Hold on."

Today, I had the opportunity to read an excellent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, marred by one flaw: it has an insightful recognition of the seeming paradox that the academic arena of queer theory shares the fundamentalist Christian belief that gayness is not a core aspect of one's identity.  However, the author then forgets this point and wrongly suggests that someone who adhered to queer theory and then became a fundamentalist Christian switched from one extreme to another. The writer and many of the commenters then suggested that a middle way between gay orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy was necessary. A big helping of moderation all around.

I am happy to report the NYT selected my immoderate comment as one of the editors' highlights. Perhaps my academic knowledge can be translated to the popular sphere after all!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Play Politics -- Or Take Your Ball and Go Home

One of the more interesting developments of the last few years is that President Obama seems to bring about very polarized responses within the Left -- which for current purposes I'm calling that wide swath from Clinton Democrats to doctrinaire socialists, pacifists, and the like. At least since the George W. Bush era, we have heard of increasing polarization within the US electorate: red states versus blue states, evangelicals versus "secular-progressives," the heartland versus East Coast elites. In the Bush era, the most vicious disagreements seemed to be between liberals and conservatives (again, broadly construed). As Iraq dragged on and New Orleans flooded, you could pretty much count on anyone to the left of Donald Rumsfeld to despise the Bush administration. What we have now, though, is a bit more surprising: a rift within a bloc that was unified by their anti-Bush sentiment. This unity was, it seems, as short-lived as any alliance made against an external foe -- like a Bin Laden. With the foe vanquished or vanished, all the old disputes resurface. And so it seems that among those who voted for President Obama, we now have staunch defenders who will not brook an unkind word said against the administration and disgusted partisans who consider him to be a spineless panderer or "worse than Bush."

This last claim seems inflated by hysteria. Certainly, one can find single issues on which the administration has either continued Bush policies (Guantanamo and black ops prisons), compromised with Republicans (the deal to extend tax cuts for the most wealthy), or imposed more Draconian measures of their own (immigration). However, one can also find single issues on which President Obama was able to succeed in ways that has Democratic predecessors had failed: outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, passing health care reform, mandating gender equity in pay.

Within the fraying leftish coalition is a group who decries failures of the administration to impose policies that we would like as proof of either the President's weakness or the Democratic Party's secret conservative agenda. I would say that this group does not like politics -- a strange aversion, considering how often they utter the word. Outside of autocracies, politics does not work by imposition. The process of political negotiation proceeds based on what you can get others to agree to do. Therefore you do not get everything you want -- even if you are "right." Being "right" barely enters the equation, sadly. Moreover, even when you get what you want and what is right, that victory often has unintended consequences -- foreseen and unforeseen messes that have to be cleaned up. That's why the song goes: Pressure. Persuade. Negotiate. Rinse. Repeat.

To say that participating in political life means accepting the fact of concessions does not mean that one should not hold positions. It means that the difference between pragmatism and idealism is not determined by the supposed cowardice of the pragmatist. (The loud insistence that the reason the Left has not achieved total victory lies in Obama's secret conservative ideology or well-concealed lack of vertebrae run on variations of this theme).

Idealism is a worthy game, but it is a different one from engaging in the political process. In any group situation, from a theater to a business or government, no one ever reaches the ideal. There are too many egos and ideological differences to contend with--not to mention the fact of human fallibility. But one can still get tasks accomplished in these settings. They are simply unlikely to reflect exactly any one participant's ideal. And even if one person's ideal were achieved, sustaining it becomes dependent upon the leverage and charisma associated with that personality.

That gulfs separate ideology from legislative settlement -- and both from enactment -- does not justify abandoning ideals--far from it. Still, it is time to recognize that the fight of politics takes more than simply stating the ideal with eloquence and force. It takes all the persuasion, negotiation, and concession necessary to inch (and sometimes leap) forward on important matters.

While I find the exposé style of Obama's Left-intellectual critics to be ineffective, I also cannot support the strategy of those who put their true beliefs aside and overlook the President's concessions. Disagreeing with the President's choices and demanding that the Democratic party return to some core principles is not an act of disloyalty--even in the midst of virulent right-wing attacks on the First Black PresidentTM. It's really what being a constituent is about: reminding representatives of who they represent and what we expect of them. We need not accept the rightward drift of the Democratic Party and should continue showing up and pushing in the opposite direction. Taking our ball and going home is not an option. But neither is allowing the party to ignore us.