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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dog Days

We celebrated Chinese New Year at the Fox home last Sunday: hung up the paper lanterns, handed out some hong bao to each of the girls with a dollar inside, and feasted on shrimp and noodles, fried rice and pork dumplings. It was a good evening: welcome to the year of the dog!

Not that I've been in a festive mood lately. The month of January always seems to be a low point for both Melissa and I, and with the pain she's been in lately, this January has been particularly hard for her. My problem with the month might not be all that different from that felt by no doubt many, many others: you get all primed for the new year, you make resolutions and plans, and then suddenly the Christmas holidays are over and real life begins again and all those goals whither quickly in the winter chill. Academics, especially those of us coming back after the new year to a new semester, have an additional burden: whereas the summer gives you a long time to plan and prepare and build up energy, allowing you to (one hopes!) enter into the fall semester with both the season and the whole structure of your profession like a wind at your back, the spring or winter semester seems almost invariably to be something you and your students are stumbling into, groggy and unready, plagued on all sides by some unfinished project or something that you had, with foolish enthusiasm, put off from the previous semester and now have to rush to complete, just as all the machinery of the workplace gets back into gear. You get a couple of weeks into January, and already you're counting down the days until spring break.

This year has been par for the course so far: a couple of textbooks that all of a sudden turned out to be unavailable from the publisher (why they can't ever get this information to us before Christmas I'll never know), requiring syllabi to be rewritten on the fly; and then of course your rushed replacement books come in late, or not at all, or they send the wrong title. Colds and sore throats that move in sometime during the first week of January and appear determined to stick around until March, at least. Gas bills have gone through the roof and so we have to keep the house a little too cool for comfort; but the cold days keep getting interrupted by freak, 50-plus degree afternoons, which should be pleasurable except that the quick, subsequent return of cold gray skies only makes us more depressed, besides shaking up the atmosphere enough to give our viruses new interest in hanging around, just when we're hoping they'll get bored with our home's sterile atmosphere and shuffle off. The papers I need to read and essays I need to write and lectures I need to prepare pile up on my desk; they're dogging me, reminding me what this year means.

We've been making a go at academia for five years now; as I said last April, this one is almost certainly going to have to be our make-our-break year. I've thrown myself into my work here at WIU and into the job search in general with as much energy as I can muster (and don't my letter-writers--whom I've pestered endlessly and unforgivably of late--know it!), and through most of the fall semester I felt enthusiasm along with that energy. But the year ended with the future as ambiguously and frustratingly open as ever, and thus so far this year it's been slow going; I feel like I just need to keep my head low to the ground, tuck my tail between my legs, and get ready for bad news. I hope it's the January skies and Illinois winds that are getting me down (if it'd snow again, instead of just being cold, that'd be something at least). There's still plenty of time before March and April, before all the big events and big decisions of 2006 confront us; and before that time, I'm sure, they'll be some sunny days, and a spring to give us all a lift. Even in the midst of this already dog-tired January, I know--intellectually, even if I can't really feel it--that there are professional seeds beneath the ground, here and elsewhere, maybe growing, maybe getting ready to pop up. For the moment though, there's nothing to do but work through the winter, and wait.

It occurs to me that 2006 marks a personal Rubicon of sorts--as I was born at the end of 1968, and left home for college in mid-1987, this year will be the one in which I've officially spent more of my life on my own, and with my own family, than with my parents. Yes, I know, I'm a nut for these self-generated numerological milestones; I don't expect them to meaningful to anyone besides myself. But still, I have to think: I'm 37, I've got a smart and wonderful wife, three kids and one on the way, a job that I love that, admittedly, hasn't yet amounted to much, but probably hasn't hurt me much either. Despite all these Januaries, I've made it this far. And with this entry, I've written 100 posts on this blog. Not bad for an old dog.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

On Blackberries, Canada, and Conservatism

Yes, it's another one of those big, summarizing "on" posts. But see what's the connection this time? I don't have a Blackberry, I'm not Canadian, and my relationship to contemporary conservatism is complicated, to say the least, so why the post?

Well, the post came together in my head through a column by John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail (via Laura Turner), written on the day of Canada's federal elections last Monday. I followed the contest between Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party and everyone else fairly closely, at least for an American; we have close friends in Toronto, and Canadian politics and political thinking has always interested me. But there was another reason why I followed the campaign news from Canada, one that perhaps only makes sense in the context of my relationship to the rather paltry political continuum which marks the limits of most politics in the U.S.: in Canada, there are Tories, and I wish we had some here.

Except that the Conservative Party in Canada today, though called "Tory," isn't really, at least not in the way I like to use the term. What am I looking for? I'm looking for Red Tories in the original sense--the noble, old-fashioned "conservative" mix of religion, egalitarianism, self-government and national populism, which goes back to Benjamin Disraeli and John MacDonald, and found strong expression in Canada through the Progressive Conservative Party of John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield. We don't have Tories in the U.S. Oh sure, someone will occasionally pull the term out of their hat, but it has no real meaning in the overwhelmingly liberal (philosophically speaking) terrain of American society: the number of people who identify their conservatism with a need to protect social goods and promote social justice and virtue through community and state action is vanishingly small. It'd be wonderful to be able to vote for such a candidate someday, and so whenever an election is called in Canada, I find myself watching the Conservative party, hoping to see someone flying my preferred banner. That hope is mostly in vain though. Sure, the Canadian Conservatives are a lot more comfortable with social programs than American "conservatives" are; it's a much more "moderate" or even, in a crude sense, "socialist" party as far as that goes, and good for them. But for all that, Stephen Harper didn't run and win his minority government as a Red Tory; the fact is, he barely ran as a Tory at all. The Ibbitson column I mentioned above explains why:

[Whoever wins,] the Canada that Canada is becoming will carry on. The immigrants will continue to arrive by the hundreds of thousands each year; hundreds of thousands of native-born Canadians will leave, or be driven from, rural life. The Conservatives cannot stop these exoduses. And so either Mr. Harper will continue the transformation of his party, seeking to infuse the urban reality of Canadian society with a dynamic conservatism--and yes, the two can co-exist--or he will let his party and his soul become hostage to the resentful, rural redoubt that still lurks in the wings.

There is a posture of inevitability in this passage, which carries the assumption that "dynamic conservatism" is the only possible, respectful conservatism these days, the only conservatism that isn't the refuge of "resentful" losers out on the farm. Of course, what Ibbitson really means by dynamic conservatism is the "conservatism" which has been polished into a bright sheen by Republicans (and Democrats!) in the U.S. since the Reagan administration, if not earlier: that is, neoliberalism with some nice communitarian and localist rhetoric thrown in. It's all about the suburbs and the corporations, tax cuts and law and order, growth and trade. The farm, the community, the nation: those are all well and good, but they need to be taught their place. And let's not pretend that isn't an attractive package! The majority of Americans, and with every passing year more and more Canadians as well, have embraced in practice (but perhaps more importantly in principle) a liberal and liberated and urbanized version of modern life, where commerce is quick and homes are interchangeable and borders are open and change is constant and the internet connects everybody anyway. What we want is our neighborhoods clean, our tax burden low, our civic obligations minimal and our government out of our business. Of course, for many liberals this would be the point where my analysis breaks down: a lot of the political muscle behind this "conservatism," in the U.S. and, again, increasingly in Canada as well, comes from various Christian groups that have very strong opinions about how the government ought to involve itself in our (moral) business. Fair enough; certain elements of what might be called Toryism survive. But since for the most part they are not combined with anything like a genuinely populist and egalitarian socio-economic platform, the whole package of "dynamic conservatism" fails, at least in my view. But when liberalism--as expressed by both Canadian Liberals and American Democrats--mostly fails to make much of a communal or moral connection with the people (much less actually offer an alternative to the ideology of growth), all the people for the most part have left is the question of who to blame for high taxes and high unemployment and high crime, and the "dynamic" capitalists will always have a persuasive answer to that question, at least.

Yesterday, Laura McKenna shared another one those stories she is so good at getting to the heart of: how her husband is being pressured to spend even more time at work and away from her and the kids so that he can "get ahead," and how his boss wants him to carry a Blackberry--because, of course, there's so much important work to be done that you really ought to make sure you can read the latest e-mails from The Man at any time of the day. A typical tale of high-pressure corporate life, you say; true, but also, as Laura notes, another bit of supporting evidence for her conclusion that "corporate life is the enemy of the modern family." My friend and frequent antagonist Nate Oman takes exception to this conclusion: he's no ally of those who embrace the "super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office" ethos which characterizes so much of modern corporate capitalist practice, but doesn't think the Blackberry supports such--on the contrary, he sees the Blackberry, and the world of constant and interchangeable information which it is just one very small part of, as a triumph of networks over hierarchy, a liberation of energy and activity (and time) which has torn apart the old socio-economic contract in favor of a much more meritocratic one. He admits that a "a reward system based on results" is more competitive, less secure, and less forgiving that the old system, but as it is also more "flexible," perhaps it is, ultimately, even more friendly to families than all that came before. (Or at least, that's what I read you as saying, Nate; no doubt you'll correct me if I'm wrong....)

The modern world is, practically by definition, a flexible one. As political revolution, social atomization, and technological innovation makes for ever more options and opportunities, all we individuals want is to be better able to respond to it, to go with its flow, to bend with it. The old Red Tory idea--and it's not just theirs; it's an idea that existed at the heart of practically every serious populist or egalitarian movement of the past three hundred years--was that, of course, we need flexibility....but we also need to make sure everyone is guaranteed a place, a home, a society, a space beyond the pace of the market, wherein they can put down roots and so be able to bend without breaking or being bowled over. No one who isn't psychopathically libertarian can honestly deny this, not even the neoliberals who call themselves "conservative" today. And so in America the Republicans associate themselves with the religious right, and at manage to keep various family values issues on the table; and the Democrats (despite the wishes of some of their big-city blue-state mandarins) keep trying to keep farmers and unions and those concerned about consequences of globalization politically viable. And in Canada, the Liberals rightly defend their country's attempt to make health care a duty of the whole; while across the aisle at least the Conservative government will presumably put a stop (for a while, anyway) to now ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin's desperate last-minute promise to get rid of the "notwithstanding" clause in the Canadian constitution--supposedly a threat to rights of individual Canadians everywhere but in fact one of the truly and admirably localist (or at least regionalist) aspects of Canadian politics. So yes, there are still options for populists out there; some good compromises can sometimes be made, here and there. But for the most part, whatever their more superficial political differences, the way Nate sees the world is probably about the same way John Ibbitson sees the world--and, on the basis of the evidence, it's a way of seeing the world that Stephen Harper has little problem committing himself to. I bet he carries a Blackberry.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On Culture, "Contamination," and Cosmopolitanism

Well, it's January 6, Epiphany. As good a day as any to kick free of the old year and get on with the new one, wouldn't you say?

Kwame Anthony Appiah's NYT Magazine essay from last Sunday, "The Case for Contamination", has received a fair amount of praise in the blogosphere, but little actual discussion. That probably is mostly a function of the fact that it appeared on January 1, and most of us are only now slowly getting our blogging muscles back into shape after the holidays. But I'm sure it's also at least partly a function of the fact that most of the blogosphere is probably already pretty comfortable with Appiah's basic cosmopolitan thesis: most bloggers, just like most modern inhabitants of the Western world generally, are philosophical if not political liberals, believers in above all individual liberty, and quite willing to agree that notions like "culture" and "authenticity," while all well and good in their place, are basically problematic if anyone starts using them in such a way that might actually involving the restricting of certain choices or the disciplining of certain desires. So when Appiah argues that all cultures are essentially "contaminated," and that such contamination is a good, he's essentially arguing for free trade and liberalization and diversity and who is to disagree with all that?

Well, I'll disagree with at least some of it. Not all of it, by any means; Appiah is a serious philosopher, and his book The Ethics of Identity was a serious contribution to the debates over liberty, culture, community and identity. The argument he made in that book--for a "rooted cosmopolitanism," wherein states (which Appiah takes much more seriously than nations) should be expected to make use of extant cultural resources in order to mold citizens into persons with both healthy particular identities and a robust appreciation for the tentativeness of such--has clearly contributed to the more popular argument he appears to be making in his new book, Cosmopolitanism. The vision of cosmopolitanism he presents in his NYT essay is an attractive one. He goes to lengths to distinguish his cosmopolitan position as a "humble" universalism, one based as much on doubt about differences as it is on an assurance of sameness, and thus distinct from the "neofundamentalist" universalism of radical Islamists (or Christian theocrats, for that matter), and he connects that to an interesting and careful argument about how cultures intermingle and adapt. It is a fine bit of writing. But the first few sections, I think, betray a major presumption on his part that I just can't accept.

Appiah insists that so long as you take individuals and not groups as "the proper object of moral concern," it is obviously correct that preserving practices in such a way as to discourage individual "contamination" is both wrong and foolish, because "people are entitled to options." Let people choose to be tribal if they want: just make sure they don't have any obstacles in the way of their choosing. Very broadly, this position is the same as Will Kymlicka's "liberal culturalism": we need to protect cultures insofar as some people might want to choose to partake of them for the sake of constructing their own identity; hence we need positive action to support various cultural practices, but we must avoid negative or protectionist actions that claim to act on the basis of the "purity" of those practices as they are actually lived. (Appiah sees this as the difference between "preserving culture," which he's all in favor of, and "preserving cultures," which he opposes.) When you look at it that way--when you allow yourself to be carried along by metaphors like "purity" and "contamination"--then Appiah's argument seems not just strong, but pretty eminently reasonable. Cultural enclaves are "distinct islands of homogeneity." Everyone wants at least a few of those around--every Scottish groom wants the option of buying a good old-fashioned authentic kilt to wear to their wedding, and so we ought to see if it isn't possible to make sure kilts remain available. But if it comes down to actually forcing people's choices to negotiate around the imperative of preserving these islands of kilt-makers and their kilt-making practices....well, then it's just not worth it. As he writes, regarding Asante farmers:

When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his maternal clan (including his younger brothers) would work it with him....Nowadays, everything is different....Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave--perhaps to seek work at one of the new data-processing centers down south in the nation's capital--and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

For Appiah, these islands of homogeneity--these sites of "pure" or authentic cultural practice--are invariably backwards: they lack modern medicines, technology, education. Losing one's "distinctiveness" means interacting with the modern world, and that allows for a new kind of distinctiveness: the variety and "contamination" that comes through individual choice, and that invariably means exposure to advanced material opportunities and goods. So, while modern globalization does cause some of these cultural islands to disappear, they are replaced by empowered individuals capable of choosing their own individual distinctiveness. Is contaminated diversity better than that which it replaced? Appiah says yes, because it agrees with his basic commitment to the individual--but more importantly (at least insofar as this essay is concerned, which is light on philosophy and heavy on telling anecdotes), because attempting to hold on to the previous kind is just way too cost prohibitive.

Which seems like a pretty realistic position. However, Appiah's quick and presumably "common-sensical" reference to economic realities in this situation is revealing. He notes the importance of the problem faced by those for whom he says we ought to feel sympathy--"they can't afford to do something that they'd really like to do, something that is expressive of an identity they care about and want to sustain....they're too poor to live the life they want to lead"--but then moves on, simply shifting forward in time: the real issue, according to Appiah, isn't considering what social and economic reforms might be involved in order to make possible the local preservation of various "islands" in the face of globalized media and capital, but just stopping various anti-cosmopolitans and anti-globalists from getting in a snit about what happens when the people on those islands get wealthy enough to choose to run around in Gap t-shirts if they so desire. Which, I freely admit, a great many of them will; I've known more than enough farming families in my years in the South and Midwest to testify that an awful lot of the rising generation always wants nothing more than to forget about their (in their minds') marginal lifestyles and join the mainstream. But that raw anthropological fact doesn't justify Appiah's elision of the issue at hand. What he's essentially doing in making that claim is suggesting that once we enter into an argument about the actual availability of cultural-economic opportunities, then we're not really talking about authenticity any longer, but distribution. And if maintaining a widespread distribution of family farming or kilt-making islands is really costly....well, hey, the argument for the irrelevance of authenticity to the present moment practically writes itself.

Except that it doesn't. Appiah makes the same mistake that so many liberals make when thinking about the cultural/communitarian/localist argument: they assume that, just because such an argument partakes of conservatism (which cultural preservation does), that it must be all about conserving some sort of purity. (Colby Cosh has some fun with this idea, not realizing its flaws, here.) Thus all you need to do is show that every cultural community has been contaminated by diverse human choices at one point or another--which is surely true--and you've won the argument: since it's both conceptually bizarre and socio-economically impractical to conserve all this (apparently fictitious!) purity, you embrace the marketplace of ideas as the only legitimate response. Appiah knows very well that cultures don't really work that way, yet he assumes that his opponents don't realize the same thing. (Granted, a fair number of them don't: there are plenty of honest to goodness reactionaries out there, who, say, really do think the 1950s were the way they appeared on "Leave It to Beaver" and honestly want to get us back to that point.) The "expression" of a culture--the fluid, evolving way in which the basic elements of a healthy community get enacted, critiqued, revised, defended or dropped, over and over again, every day--is inseparable from its authenticity. And this is what the better resistance to globalization and, yes, "contamination" is all about: not about defending a supposedly "pure" cultural content, but preserving the context wherein people ought to be able to work out whatever content it is they respond to. And so talking about the expressive capabilities of a community and the people within that community--and the economic empowerment and solidarity which goes along with making such necessary--is not a side issue to a more basic argument about what it means to protect a culture; it is that basic argument. (Realizing this point doesn't mean that opposition to cosmopolitanism automatically has a normative force which overrides all other public concerns; I haven't demonstrated that. I'm just saying that Appiah's argument benefits by making use of a metaphor of culture which makes it easy to think primarily of burdensome and static practices and modes of production, when I think the better argument is that "authenticity" is located in people's collective self-expression, which obliges to think about making sure that peoples are politically and economically involved in shaping their cultural practices, rather than just worrying about (and ultimately giving up on) any given cultural content.)

When Appiah gets into talking about how actual people all around the world have, in fact, responded to the increasing dominance of their disparate cultural contexts by American media and markets, he's on stronger ground. It's undeniable that a lot of anti-globalists replicate the old imperial sin of condescending to the natives: "pity the poor Zulu, his consciousness will be lost, for he cannot resist the power of 'Days of Our Lives'!" Appiah is right when he says that "cultural consumers are not dupes." This is true. But it is also true that if this is the only mode of acculturation available to any given Zulu--namely, consumption or rejection--then something important will have been lost nonetheless: the ability to believe in one's culture, to take it seriously as a substantive and particular resource. When Appiah talks about Israeli Arabs viewing an episode of "Dallas" and drawing from it a message "that confirmed [their belief] that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers," I don't think you're seeing, contra Appiah's claim, people enabled in a critical engagement with and vivification of their own embedded beliefs thanks to the power of cultural contamination; I think what's happening is a bunch of Israeli Arabs are disconnecting their belief about abused women returning to their fathers from the matrix of practices and beliefs where it developed historically, and are instead taking it as a free-floating principle, to be rejected or embraced or modified however one may wish. In other words, it's not an immanent critique, but a dislocating one. Now, if what you really want is the sort of critical empowerment that will privilege the individual above all, then however you get there must be praiseworthy. And even if you don't want that (as I don't), let's not pretend that one can always tell the difference between an argument which breaks apart horizons and one which works within them. Appiah talks about cosmopolitans are "humble," and we anti-cosmopolitans need to be humble too. But, as a general principle, being suspicious of cultural interventions that seem to be mostly one-sided doesn't strike me as particular arrogant.

Ultimately, Appiah wants to defend a cosmopolitanism that backs away from strong universals, one wherein people can choose not to be cosmopolitan. Sounds good...but the way that wish is structured supposes that everyone already is, in some sense, cosmopolitan, and thus can plausibly choose not to be. I think that gets it backwards. My belief is that we all have to be in particular contexts if we're going to choose cosmopolitanism in the first place--which means we have to ask ourselves just how and how many contexts can be empowered and preserved. And that means going beyond Appiah and Kymlicka, because these contexts don't begin with their having been chosen; they begin with their being substantively manifest in the way people already are, depending on where they happen to be born and what language they happen to speak, which is a communal and not an individual feature of life. Hence, the French language laws in Quebec (which Appiah once criticized in a debate with Charles Taylor): if the people who choose to live there are not obliged, as a collective, to restrict how they speak, than within a generation of free individual "linguistic consumption," being a Quebecois will mean something entirely different than what it does now (if it means anything at all). Is this one of those "islands of homogeneity" whose expressive context isn't worth defending? I have no idea how you would judge that; maybe it isn't. I'm not pretending that there is some easy solution to the problems posed by the prior burden which cultural contexts place upon our ability to negotiate globalization. But Appiah's cosmopolitanism, ultimately doesn't allow for any such pre-emptive contextual negotiating or defending, and that isn't right either.