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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ode to My--and Others'--Youth (also, Ralph Nader)

I told myself I wouldn't take such long breaks from blogging this year, and I meant it too. But here I am, three weeks away from the blog, and the usual number of half-finished posts piling up, perhaps never to see the sight of day. My main excuse, this time around at least, is the same as Tim Burke's--this April I've really been swamped, and a lot of it has been with stuff I've never seriously had to deal with before: advising, committee responsibilities, program evaluations, faculty searches, curriculum reforms, and all the rest of the business of being a full-time, tenure-track academic that eluded me while I had that "temporary" label attached to my title. I'm not complaining (well, not about most of it--though figuring out how to translate course outcomes for my education majors into all these matrixes and rubrics which the state certification boards have decided must be used is a real pain). Building up a major, shaping requirements, evaluating students: I like it all. But it does take up a lot of time. I know, I know, wah wah wah.

Aside from all this, I have managed to keep up an ongoing conversation over this past month with some other writers over matters discussed in this post of mine on William Jennings Bryan and populism, much of which has been informed by the reading I've done for my History of Kansas class, which in turn was shaped by a lot of fine recommendations I received last semester from you all. I have a couple of posts to finish regarding that conversation and issues which came up in that class, which wraps up next Tuesday; I'll try to get them up over the next couple of days. But for today, another end of the semester note, one that takes me back to my undergraduate years at Brigham Young University.

Some of you are no doubt aware that Vice President Dick Cheney will be speaking at my alma mater's graduation commencement ceremony tomorrow--not because I assume a great number of you care what happens at BYU, but because the fact that the invitation has actually given rise to protests at one of America's most politically conservative campuses, located in the heart of arguably America's most conservative county, has attracted all sorts of media coverage. To which I can only say: man, I'm jealous. See, I was a twentysomething BYU protester once: not a terribly responsible or ethical one, I can't deny (working for the university's official daily newspaper and simultaneously writing for and rabble-rousing along with its underground student-run weekly was hardly my finest moment, and my unceremonious firing from the former was pretty justified), nor an entirely unconflicted one (politics and religion are not easily separated at the ground level, especially at a church school like BYU, and so sometimes I got caught up by events and commitments that I couldn't in good conscience support), but one that got out and carried signs and collected signatures and was even arrested for civil disobedience in those fun years of 1991-1994 or thereabouts nonetheless. I've left that kind of political activism behind, for the most part, as most people do as they take on the responsibilities and complexities of adulthood and the professional world; nowadays, giving a speech at a local community organizing group is more my speed (in fact, I just gave one yesterday). I don't regret giving it up, but neither--except, admittedly, for a few really boneheaded moves on my part, such as the one mentioned above--do I regret my involvement in those causes, as much in vain as many of them were, and as much as some of my views have changed since then. (Some more reflections on my protest days here.) Direct, expressive, face-to-face political action--when it is done responsibly and respectfully, and not given over to self-righteousness and contempt--is a healthy thing, good for democratic society and good for the soul. Reading about the success that the BYU Democrats have had, and especially reading about the alternative commencement they and other malcontents have managed to organize, makes me feel happier--and older!--in regards to my undergraduate years than I have in quite a while.

Ah, yes...about that commencement. Ralph Nader, huh? Well, no, he wouldn't have been my first choice either. (Jimmy Carter, perhaps--but I doubt he's on the lecture circuit these days.) I have to admit that I think it's rather amazing (but in a good way!) that a plea for donations to Daily Kos would have been so successful, considering all the hate for Nader out there. No, I'm not going to attempt to refight the Nader wars; I said my bit and made my peace about supporting him for president in 1996 and 2000 long ago, and I've nothing to add now. Well, except for one thing.

I don't know, and doubt I'll ever know, Nader personally. Most of what is written and said about him and his interests and activities has always acknowledged streaks of arrogance and authoritarianism in his personality; for all I know, those streaks now complete dominate him, and perhaps those who say he's now just little more than an ambulance-chaser to boot are correct as well. I think he has been, more than once in his life, an important rallying point for those who seek to articulate a populist political response to the corporate and technocratic elites who dominate the democratic process and the marketplace; the fact that his response is not enough to make me wish to directly hand him executive power--especially given is lack of attention to building anything constructive in his wake--doesn't rob him of his ability to effectively harness the expressive desires of folks like myself who otherwise can't, as he put it, crash the party of what sometimes seems like an aristocracy that rules our country. Is harnessing such desires unwise when confronted by the real-world consequences--Cheney being one!--of pursuing such idealism (an idealism mixed with messianic complex, as the case may be)? In all likelihood, it often is. But I wouldn't want to live in a society without it, all the same.

And as for his speech and the alternative commencement tomorrow, well, I doubt anyone--probably including Nader himself--will think substantively about what it means for a bunch of protesters in the heart of Mormon Country to turn to the former Green Party candidate. If anyone thinks about it at all, they'll probably have their speculations short cut by observing that, in all likelihood, there weren't many others with that kind of name recognition available on that short of notice. But speculation should happen all the same--because the truth is, Nader's moral and social authoritarianism, if you want to call it that, is not a drag on his progressive commitments; on the contrary, they inform one another, and that sort of mutual informing, in which social solidarity combines with moral edicts and cultural presumptions, is the sort of thing which I think all Christian progressives, and Mormon ones in particular, really ought to be familiar with. To quote--with a few amendations and qualifications--an old post of mine defending the idea that leftism and an attendance to forms of cultural or even moral authority can go together:

What many progressives call "wingnuttery" is, I think at least in part, a concern for authority--including, most crucially, the authority of certain principles as embedded in cultural presumptions. You can't, in the minds of these and other leftists [like Nader], achieve progress solely through the legal establishment of a plurality of neutral spaces wherein one may (hopefully) achieve egalitarian improvement through the freedom of choice (though the prudential argument for the preservation of at least a little neutral space is strong). Such a focus is insufficient, as it never addresses who actually holds power over and in the midst of those spaces....What you need is an engagement with the whole culture, a popular demand for its conformity with justice as dictated by (you guessed it) absolutes, not merely the availability of free choice....This is part of the reason why Nader has never seen much importance in mobilizing people against traditional views on behalf of abortion rights or "gonadal politics." Is that "authoritarian"? Well, yes--insofar as one may speak of "working-class authoritarianism" as Christopher Lasch and others have. Or one could just call it "communitarian," in the sense of insisting that self-government rests primarily upon our attendance to communal values--which for many millions of working-class people [as Harry Brighouse and Bill Martin observed in the passages I quoted in this post] means a "culture of life"--and not simply the private space we afford citizens in the choosing of such.

The great majority of those who will attend the alternative commencement tomorrow will not be looking for working-class solidarity; they'll be going out of curiosity, out of a desire to be recognized as one of those who were less than satisfied with or indeed perhaps deeply opposed the university's decision to invite a man with Cheney's public record to speak at their graduation, maybe even out of desire to hear something important about what they did in response to Cheney's visit, and why more such direct action is the part of the way to create a healthier political culture, a culture in which the abuses of a vice president are not so easily kept from democratic exposure and accountability. I'm sure that at least they'll get the latter; whatever Nader's many faults, he clearly still knows how to sell youthful activists on a life of protest. Good of him, I say, and for them. And if maybe, just maybe, Nader or someone else says or does something to help all these twentysomething protesters like I once was see that their (and my) religious beliefs can be progressive, without unnecessarily compromising their acceptance of the culture and faith which made them....well, then they will have a truly great commencement. Certainly a much better one than Dick alone could have provided.


Matthew Stannard said...

Russell, on the imperative that protesters must be "respectful," I would point out a passage from a groundbreaking (at the time, 1969) essay on rhetorical theory by Robert Scott and Donald Smith, "The Rhetoric of Confrontation." The authors point out that prior to the 1960s, rhetorical and communication theory assumed a unitary model of persuasion based on well-dressed, well-behaved, respectful, gentlemanly dialogue. Although some of their theoretical work is kind of quaint by today's standards, I am still struck by one of their concluding remarks, and I think it problematizes your normative position concerning the proper way to protest--or that there is a proper way.

They write: "A rhetorical theory suitable to our age must take into account the charge that civility and decorum serve as masks for the preservation of injustice, that they condemn the dispossessed to non-being, and that as transmitted in a technological society they become instrumentalities of power for those who 'have.'"

Moreover, there are those --from your own religious culture-- who argue that the very act of carrying a sign declaring that Cheney is a war criminal is "disrespectful." Reading your essay, with all of its qualifiers, exceptions, caveats and mea culpas, I'm not sure your halfhearted support of "appropriate protest" carries the strength to answer such arguments.

matt stannard

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, thanks very much for commenting; you were a central part of my education into the world of protest, even if your vision and the directions it has taken you has never quite been my own. Still, I wonder if you're reading something into my post that isn't really there. The line you're picking up on is my belief that protest is good for the civic body and the individual soul, "when it is done responsibly and respectfully, and not given over to self-righteousness and contempt." My defense of "respectful" protest doesn't mean I only acknowledge quiet, civil, nonconfrontational, bow-tied and buttoned-down ones (though I'm equally sure that the opposite type doesn't have an automatic claim to authenticity either). I mean "respectful" in the sense of treating ones opponents with respect, of giving them the credit of taking their ideas seriously and challenging them on the basis of their own self-understanding, and not reducing their claims to whatever strawmen might be easily and snidely set up on their behalf. In short, I'm saying that worthwhile direct action has got to have an element of pure witnessing to it. I suppose that does mean I prefer a little "seriousness" in my protests, and have less patience than perhaps I should for stunts. But there's a difference between a preference for serious talk and a demand that protesters conform to "approved" forms.

(Incidentally, I'm listening to the BYU alternative commencement as I write this. I can't tell really how big of a crowd they got, but they pulled it off, and that's an accomplishment all on its own.)

As for your parting suggestion, that brings up a harder matter. I would like to believe that my--admittedly qualified in terms of range, but still, I think, strong--support for direct action can make a response to those who would try to shut me up by claiming that my faith requires me to be "respectful" of everything touched by a church authority. I don't think, in such a case, that I and those making the accusation have the same definition of respect in mind. But clearly, putting the distinction between such definitions into practice isn't always easy, and I can't pretend I know exactly how to do it myself.

Jeff Taylor said...

Interesting post, Russell. I think Nader is "authoritarian" only in the sense that he speaks with authority. And I believe his reputed "arrogance" is linked to righteousness. I think it goes beyond self-righteousness into the realm of a genuine embrace of truth and justice, but not everyone agrees with me.

I'm sometimes amazed at how many of the "best people"--in a moral and intellectual sense--cast a vote for Nader during one of his three presidential campaigns. It cuts across the ideological spectrum. He did NOT only receive the support of liberal Democrats. In a way, Nader is our generation's Norman Thomas, who received the votes of everyone from Dwight Macdonald on the Left to Russell Kirk on the Right.

I met Nader when he came to our town in early 2004. When I said Hello on campus, he was pleasantly surprised that I was aware of his outreach to value conservatives. That evening, I went with my wife and two-month-old daughter to a high school to hear him speak. He gave a great speech. Wise, funny, lengthy. I'd dressed my daughter with a Nader for President button. Knowing my hidden desires, my wife urged me to go up afterwards and see if I could have a picture of her taken with Ralph. She's more assertive and extroverted than me so she nudged me out of my seat with our baby in my arms. I assumed I'd find Nader surrounded by an entourage of personal security or political groupies. He was actually standing backstage, a bit awkwardly, all alone. I introduced myself. He asked my daughter's name and made a kindly little joke about it. He willingly posed for a picture. I don't know Nader personally but those two brief encounters left me with the impression that he is a kind and gracious man. That doesn't preclude self-confidence or a will of steel. Those aren't necessarily bad traits. Society, including Christians, are better off for modern versions of Jeremiah or Isaiah (albeit secularized).

Nader's new book, The Seventeen Traditions, is a beautiful book. I was almost entranced as a listened to him speak about it on C-SPAN recently. The book is something that every "reactionary radical" or "left conservative" would appreciate. The only tradition missing, in my opinion, is acknowledgement of God.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jeff, thanks very much for commenting. I like the comparison of Nader to Norman Thomas very much, to say nothing of the comparison to Old Testament prophets. I really think such comparisons communicates something truthful: that defending democracy and decency and "the people" sometimes means speaking out against the easy-going preferences which the powerful want (and are often successfully able to get) majorities to speak out on behalf of. Hence are "populists" sometimes profoundly unpopular. But you're right that many of the best people, on the left or the right, will often support them nonetheless.

I should be clear, especially in light of your wonderful anecdote with Nader, that I like the man--a lot. I throw in as many qualifying statements as I do because I know and respect so many people who think he's been running on nothing but ego for years, if not decades. That's not the impression I get, but I can see how others can come to it; it's not like he never comes off monomaniacal. The thing is, as I tried to argue, I think there is a kind of monomania, or "authoritarianism," which reflects a deep commitment to not just some abstract (and therefore pliable) ideas but real, livable principles, and such people therefore--unlike so many other supposed moral and political reformers--insist that we must and can make choices that involve conforming ourselves to larger truths.

When I wrote my response to Matt Stannard above, I was listening online to his BYU commencement speech, and it was one smart, challenging, real-life-community-family-centered challenge after another: eat healthy food, avoid depraved entertainment, reject war and military spending, participate in politics, and so on and so forth. To the sophisticated, "mainstream" liberal (or conservative), he probably sounded like an old-fashioned, impractical scold. I loved it. I hope many others who heard him did too!