March 3, 2003
of perception: how do you know what is a typical sentiment?
Not long after
9/11, I found myself locked in a frustrating argument on a social listserv with
a long-time participant who I thought was remarkably intelligent and eloquent
in general. I had spoken with some frustration about what I perceived to be
the weaknesses in the response of many liberals and leftists in the United States
to the trauma of that day. My acquaintance didnt disagree that the responses
I described were inadequate, but he contended that they didnt really exist.
There were no liberals or leftists making those arguments, he said.
I knew what I had
heard and read. The problem, as I observed then, was that a significant proportion
of what I was reacting to was more conversational and informal, what people
around me were saying or what I was seeing in a number of academically-oriented
listservs and bulletin boards.
I found some of
the emails and bulletin board postings that I thought were good examples, and
forwarded them with identifiers stripped off. These, commented my acquaintance,
were just lunatics and fringe elements. I countered with a number of published
pieces by intellectuals on the left, most notably Chomsky. Hes unrepresentative,
shrugged my acquaintance.
This made me angry then and still irritates me somewhat as I think back on it. I felt this was an attack on my integrity. However, since that time, its become clear to me that there is a much, much deeper problem of perception involved.
of the reaction of the American left to September 11 was shared by Todd Gitlin,
Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Rauch and many other observers who were not far-right
ideologues. But I have also run into many progressives I admire who think that
what I perceive to be a common, patterned response simply doesnt exist
or is the work of a highly marginalized fringe element, and that it is irresponsible
and unfair to take this response as representative of liberal or left thinking.
That suggests to
me that we need a discussion about how to make assessments of what is representative
or typical of a particular political movement or worldview, about what the rules
of the game are before we start to play. There are a lot of different, and sometimes
contradictory, metrics available.
One way to judge
what is typical is to take a highly limited range of writers and thinkers that
we judge to be icons of particular political sentiments, and use them as a cross-section
of representative opinion of a larger group. So if you want to know what libertarian-leaning
conservatives think on a particular issue, you go and read Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater,
Virginia Postrel and Robert A. Heinlein. The problem here, however, is that
such an approach necessarily requires a prior categorical sense of the movement
or ideology that youre trying to map. For example, you cant know
who might represent or stand in for the cultural left unless you
already know what you think that term meansand it is a term which was
invented as a negative label for the group it purportedly describes.
Another way to
make claims about what is representative sentiment is to identify commonly reproduced
arguments, broken down into discrete sentences or forms. This requires a comprehensive
sense of a particular mediumsay, all newsmagazines or all blogsand
is vulnerable to someone arguing that the arguments described are not the most
important or central points. It is easy, after all, to caricature a particular
perspective by pointing to highly formulaic or rhetorical statements that tend
to be repeated and taking them to be the central persuasive point shared between
many writers or speakers. It is also hard to figure out which medium is the
most properly determinative. Blogs are important but they are also not nearly
as widely disseminated and read as television news or op-ed columns in printed
newspapers. Which is the standard by which claims about what is typical should
You can make claims
about what is typical in a sociological fashion, by using polling or voting
data, or other systematic statements about the relationship between a particular
piece of writing and some describable public. You can also look at what visible
groups and organizations of people do in the world, using demonstrations or
legislative policy as a way to measure what is a common thought.
Or you can make
it impressionistically, by combining all of these metrics in a loose and unsystematic
way. Which is, I think, what most of us are doing when we say, The left
thinks XYZ or The far right believes in this and that. Our
impressions are most powerfully determined by the fabric of our daily lives.
I perceive academic leftists to be important because I spend a lot of time in
I am perfectly
willing to concede that there are both individuals and groups who identify themselves
as liberals or leftists, or who can fairly be labeled as such, who substantially
agree with me about the moral, ethical and political views I have of Islamic
fundamentalism, terrorism, military action, American society and other 9/11
issues, where any disagreements I might have with them are about the details
rather than the fundamentals.
I am still uncomfortable with arguments that Chomsky or ANSWER or postcolonial theory or any number of other constellations of political and social thought that do not share my root assumptions are marginal, unimportant, and easily exempted from a sense of what the left, broadly speaking is. They may not be your progressives, which is fine. But if so, then its your responsibility to describe what you regard as liberal, or left, or progressive and why your sense excludes intellectually and possibly even numerically significant groups of speakers and activists who can reasonably be represented as left (and who may self-represent as such). I dont think you can just wave your hands and consign that all to some unimportant margin, unassociated with your own views.