Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Torn Between Irony and Earnestness

This will probably be my only election post this cycle. (Though if Harry Reid goes down in Nevada tonight, I may have to write up a farewell.) In election years past, I've usually written a fair amount, sometimes a great amount. Not this time. Partly it's because I have a big paper due for a conference in Hong Kong only a month from now, and I need to use my spare time working on it. Partly it's my usual busyness and whatnot. But partly it's also because I feel stuck between two poses at this moment, between raising angrily raising a fist on the one hand and sighing and shrugging my shoulders on the other.

In the latter case, John Stewart has already made the point very, very well.

"If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." That is, very simply, about as wise and as reasonable and as correct a bit of political and media criticism as you're every likely to hear. A tremendous amount of the hostility and frustration in American public life is due to a media culture (though not just the media culture; the legal culture has a great deal to do with it as well) which is driven--by economics, by popular expectations--to make almost everything into a huge deal. Well, everything is not everything is a huge deal. "Hard times, not end times," indeed.

A lot of folks I know and respect and follow online loved the event. They loved the fact that it gave them occasion to feel hopeful and affirmative in the midst of their ordinary (mostly white, mostly suburban, mostly educated, mostly middle or upper-middle class, mostly secular, mostly liberal) lives. That's no small thing, particularly in an election cycle dominated by rhetoric that has often seemed downright apocalyptic and illiberal. (Though see here for a smart bit of counter-evidence to that idea.) From a distant remove--both spatially, since I'm in Kansas, and ideologically, since I'm a religious believer who votes liberal mainly because there aren't any socialists on the ballot--I felt the pull of the "restore sanity" ideal myself. Because I know--and don't mind at all being validated in my knowledge!--that mostly people of goodwill do overcome their differences, and do get things done. That's the tolerant, hopeful side of my self, and Stewart spoke to it well.

And yet, I also wondered...so, just what is it, exactly, that we "get done"? Which is why I also felt the power of this:

Civility is a fine and pleasant thing, but it has never inspired a serious political or social movement--or revived the fortunes of a president. Irony and satire can be potent modes of persuasion, but what do Stewart and Colbert’s liberal supporters want to persuade their fellow Americans to actually think or do? ....People need to engage in the political process to reform and push it forward, not agree that we’re all more reasonable than the media portray us and promise to behave civilly. Like it or not, America remains a nation of true believers. Secular liberals with a decent sense of humor will have to learn, or relearn, how to adapt to that reality and turn it to their advantage. Or they can just pick up their remotes and watch Comedy Central.

I wasn't alone in feeling this vibe, the sense that the rally captured not so much the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had something to say, but rather that hundreds of thousands of people were looking for someone to complete their sentences for them. Laura McKenna, who is many ways is part of Stewart's perfect target demographic, thought the whole thing sounded boring. Peter Beinart rightly observed that in presenting "sanity" in opposition to the determined (and, admittedly, sometimes hysterical) focus of the Tea Party was condescending in the extreme. Even those who were there, and liked being part of it, couldn't deny that the whole feeling was "post-institutional," appealing primarily to people who "never quite fit anywhere, or they never wanted to"--which is almost the very definition of turning aside from the political part of life. Because politics, like it or not, is a communitarian endeavor.

Of course, one could also try to minimize or downplay that communitarian effort, and conceive of the public realm as a relatively small (and/or significantly privatized) arena, letting the rest of our busy, complex, pluralistic society and economy work itself out on an individualistic, case-by-case basis. My friend Nate Oman, a moderately libertarian type who believes that the market is a far more reliable producer of virtue than politics, saw his beliefs validated by Stewart's speech: the flow of traffic through a tunnel is, for him, just another sign that simple, ordinary human commerce is a "miracle of human cooperation." Except in cases of genuine wickedness and fraud, why turn to politics, when people going about their everyday business is so much more fulfilling?

In making his case for Stewart in these terms, Nate is actually touching on one of the oldest of all the perennial arguments on the left: what to do about the liberals? Because, from the point of view of "true believers" on the left side of the aisle--believers in regards to egalitarianism and populism and all that social justice jazz--we've always been, and probably always will be, outnumbered. On the right things are different; for a variety of what I think to be predominantly social-structural reasons, "true believers" of a conservative or traditionalist bent do better in regards to movements and coalitions in the United States than do progressives. (See here for the essential argument why.) And so what the leaves is a strange left-liberal conglomeration, which takes the form of an often uncomfortable, and frequently co-dependent, but only rarely outright antagonistic clump of fellow-travelers. Contemporary liberalism is, of course, occasionally quite egalitarian and/or populist and/or progressive...but mostly, at least as it is constructed by both its self-described adherents and its left-leaning opponents in its full cultural garb, liberalism is a home for the secular, mildly redistributivist, but mostly leave-me-alone-to-do-my-thing mainstream. Somewhat higher taxes for welfare and parks and public schools, sure, but anything more radical than that...well, we'd rather just get back to the suburbs, so please don't mind as we (cooperatively!) drive home.

When the left gets angry at liberals (calling them, as was the case in one wonderfully bitter intra-left squabble that I remember from 2005, "liberal sacks of garbage"), liberals respond by getting annoyed, as many defenders of Stewart are likely to get annoyed at this post, and others like it. They respond with mockery of the seriousness of their critics, and ask with all the irony they can muster: "exactly what else do you expect me to do?" This same debate is unwinding at Crooked Timber right now. And unfortunately for all of us whose sentiments catch us up in this dispute, all of us who have families and jobs and other matters that need tending to, but who also feel their beliefs pulling them in directions of a generally unpopular egalitarianism and communitarianism, the only two answers are 1) shrugging our shoulders, voting for whomever seems to make the best sense at any moment of time, and then getting back to our commute, looking forward to watching Comedy Central clips on the laptop later tonight, or 2) doing what George Scialabba emphasizes repeatedly in the CT thread: that after we do just what liberals do--namely, vote for whomever seems to make the best sense at any moment of time--we "work quite hard and steadily to organize structures of ongoing citizen participation." Which means we might have to put off or delay that commute some of the time.

Which is no problem for me, I guess; I ride a bike. Which I need to get on here soon; got to get the polls, and then to work. Vote well, everyone. And then, organize! I'll see you later, maybe.


Lee said...

Hi Russell,

I think I would probably qualify as a "liberal" in the sense that I think individual autonomy and well-being are the proper measures for a sound politics. I think I would probably want to cash out "well-being" in quasi-Aristotelian terms similar to that of Martha Nussbaum: well-being or flourishing means exercising certain distinctive capabilities or capacities. I further agree with Nussbaum that the state shouldn't compel people to exercise their capacities; rather it should provide the conditions for them to be able to do so freely. So this is a liberal view in some sense. Nevertheless, I also recognize that actually achieving something like the equality of every individual to make full use of their capacities would require far-reaching political reform that would be far different than the quasi-libertarian goal of minimizing the size of the public sphere. So I don't think that the dichotomy of liberal=tepid reform vs. communitarian=radical change necessarily works.

Maybe it's that "liberal vs. communitarian" is actually a different debate than "liberal vs. left." (Are all leftists communitarians?) And I don't know that irony vs. earnestness maps onto either distinction in any particularly straightforward way.

Russell Arben Fox said...


You're right to point out a couple of ways in which the post is much too simplistic, collapsing together different types of divisions. For one thing, you're correct that, as Nussbaum's and others' Aristotelian arguments make clear, there is a significant amount of room for an intentional, "believing" politics of the good withing a strictly "liberal" framework. So of course it's not just that my hypothetical liberals are less radical than my hypothetical leftists; it's also a very different sort of radicalism or "belief" than the more communitarian/socialist type usually associated with the "left."

That being said, note that I was talking about American liberalism "as it is constructed by both its self-described adherents and its left-leaning opponents in its full cultural garb." That's perhaps not a fair thing to do--but then again, surely there in DC you've got to fully recognize that many thousands of self-identified liberals very consciously present themselves as the voice of moderation, as a secular, enlightened, cosmopolitan voice, worlds away from those "believers" that focus on larger structural forces (whether it be sin or capitalism). Again, that's a stereotype, but it's a stereotype which is almost inextricably tied up with the whole Comedy Central ethos, and hence is very much on display as different folks express their frustration with just how far, rhetorically, a rally for "ordinary liberals" can or can't actually go.