March 3, 2005

Down In the Dumps

Wealth Bondage has a wonderfully expressed post, "How to Write Like a Liberal Sack of Garbage", that I found through The Weblog. It’s the kind of critique that leaves me at a loss, though. Vastly more interesting and intelligent and ambivalent than the usual dog-bites-man drama of radical anger at perceived liberal wussiness, but it leaves me in the same place, half-Jimmy Cagney dancing on top of the burning gas tanks screaming “Top of the world, Ma!”, defiant at the accuser; half Jimmy Stewart with a startled, sleepy innocence saying “Gosh, gee-willikers, what’s all the fuss about?” Maybe the right thing is Travis Bickle: you talking to me? You talking to me? Or Groucho Marx, knowing that to be kicked out of the club is far better than to be admitted to it.

In any event, here’s what I posted in the comments thread at Wealth Bondage:

I'm sorry, I missed the part where the virile alternative to liberal eunuchry and mounting the Cross with hammer in hand was laid out. If it just comes down to what gives you pleasure--letting id take pen in hand, and glorious glossililalia shouted freely to no one save the others huddled in the miserable pews, venom shared among poison congregants against the new ruling scum and liberals too cowardly to just give up and join the defeated in their justifiable rages--then I'll stick with what gives me pleasure, which is the pursuit of public reason and the hope that decency is widely distributed if slow to rise to the surface when it is under assault. Because then it just comes down to which circle jerk you want to join: yours or the liberals, and I suppose I rather prefer to wank where I'm used to the other wankers.

If on the other hand you think you've got a better hand to play against the Horowitz types, I think I missed that part of the entry. I got to the dump part but you sort of just left me there in the garbage with everybody else who followed the piper's tune. I suppose it's better to huddle in loving com-misery amidst the garbage than to actually be garbage like Horowitz, but it doesn't seem to actually rise to anything resembling a "plan" with the usual feature of a plan, the promise of superior accomplishment of some shared objective. Since most of the bill of particulars laid against the oh-so-reasonable liberals is that they're foredoomed to failure, the implication is that you’ve got a better mousetrap in mind. If not, then we're back to deciding which circle to jerk in, and that's just a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum.

To continue on this theme, I know it seems a hopelessly prosaic, uncool, crude response to the poetics of the original essay to ask, “So you got a better idea?” But that’s a big part of it for me. For eighteen billion reasons, at least two or three of them pretty good ones, I simply don’t buy that Coulter, Limbaugh, Horowitz and others succeed in the public sphere merely because of power, merely because of domination, merely because of false consciousness, or whatever analytic alibi is being peddled this week. I don’t deny that power is present, that domination plays a role, that the culture industry exists, that some people have a clearly false understanding of the world and their place within it. But the bad propagandists and conspirators of the populist right also succeed because they sometimes hit a persuasive note, understand the architecture of popular consciousness, reach people where they live. Stuart Hall tried to get the British left to understand this under the assault of Thatcherism, that it doesn’t do any good to go whining off about the media or the corporations or evil old Maggie while you wait around for your own favored Godot, the hidden king-figure of the true and righteous masses that you think lies slumbering six fathoms deep in the social landscape and needs only hear the right notes on the ideological horn to awake and arise. It does even less good to descend into the self-confirming doominess of the postwar Frankfurt School, to take consolation in the purity and righteousness and fury of our own thought while agreeing in dismay that the masses are asses and that we hate television.

So if you take it as a given that Coulter, Horowitz and so on are indecent, destructive, and malevolently instrumental, that they have no interest in genuine communication or democratic discourse, that they intend to use the public sphere as a tool to destroy democratic practice and all their enemies in the process, that nevertheless doesn’t mean that you have to accept an account of their effectiveness that removes them from history and turns them into superhuman demons gifted with inexplicable powers. If they connect, however imperfectly, with some audiences, that is not merely a consequence of having web pages or access to Fox News. It is also because some of what they say is heard by some mass audiences as having some truth value.

I write as a liberal sack of garbage not because I think that I am writing to Gentlemen and Ladies on the other side, and thinking they accord me the same respect. I write it because the only way to win a rigged game is to play fair and hope that the onlookers will eventually notice who cheats and who does not. I write as a sack of garbage because I believe first that you cannot take arms against a vast sea of your fellow humans and either hope or wish to win. Because I think you have to listen for what your enemies say to find out what among their statements makes some fractured sense to the larger audiences drawn to them, and figure out how to rescue those accidental honesties and make them respectable, real ones. I think you can only do that with your cards on the table: the game is not being played against Coulter or Horowitz, but with an eye to the spectators. Setting out to win that game of sympathies with a conscious will to lie, to hide the cards, to match cheat for cheat, is a bad idea both because it obscures the ultimate purpose of struggle and because it actually hands another weapon to the cheaters. The spectators are watching: if we start to match them lie for lie, cheat for cheat, cheap shot for cheap shot, we walk right into the caricature that’s been drawn of us. I write as I do because I’m hoping to connect with popular veins of consciousness and knowledge that are very different from mine on terms of mutual toleration, possibly even respect, to persuade others with a certain humility of ambition and affect without losing sight of my faith in the rightness and soundness of my views. The Happy Tutor suggests in a response to my criticism that yes indeedy, the thing to do is to lie, to match every lie with a lie. I just can’t do that. I don’t think I ought to, either.

In the comments at Wealth Bondage, Turbulent Velvet suggests that I’m being kind of uncool by taking it all so seriously, or seeing myself as one of the targets of the original essay. To some extent, this is a demonstration of the basic difference here between preferred kinds of public language that the Happy Tutor’s essay is concerned with. Me, the sack of garbage who tries to communicate plainly, ploddingly earnestly, in good faith, naïve and pompous at the same time; on the other hand, the clever, ingenious, subversive voice full of double-meanings and ciphers that can score wounds and then plausibly deny that any wounding was meant. The square and the hip, the establishment and the subversive. Summing it up that way just makes you want to open a big can of Kumbuya-ya, to think of the conversation as just one of those accidental misunderstandings that happen when two superheroes meet up, or just one more episode in the long marital quarrel between liberals and the left. Kiss and make-up.

But as Turbulent Velvet observes I seem perfectly happy with the thought that I’m not on the left any longer, if still a "liberal" of the kind the Happy Tutor describes. Significantly for me that’s because I have absolutely zero desire to be reminded to join the team, to wait until it’s the right time to talk about those questions which people on the left have deemed unwise to talk about. Shut up about Ward Churchill, etc.: it’s not yet time, you’re helping the bad guys. Smells like team spirit. To be honest, I don’t care about any of that and I think the only way to not getting to care about any of that is to not worry about whether you’re “left”. It’s not why I write; it’s not what I write. I write what I like, what I feel compelled to write, what I think is true but also what happens to draw my interest.

But it’s also that I doubt very much the strategic instincts of some of the left, both for deep structural and highly contingent reasons, and as much in the case of the Happy Tutor’s essay as any other. I recognize the left, broadly speaking, as sharing my sense of the dangers of the present moment, so I care very much what people on the left think, both for personal and strategic reasons. I mean, no matter what, it's the old neighborhood, you know? In its just-kidding-you-liberal-pussies way, the Happy Tutor’s essay suggests that the earnest liberal tribunes of public reason suck first and foremost because they’re going to lose the battle against the populist right and in the most humiliating way. That’s what makes me grab the essay by its lapels and say, “So what’s your great idea, motherfucker?”, at which point it dissolves into totally great, seductive, beautiful prose that is roughly as prescriptively useful as Negri ahd Hardt calling the Multitude to some nebulously teleological barricades. As I observe later in the comments thread:

It frustrates me that this is seen as a dialectical honey pot and thus a triumph because I, a bear, have earnestly wandered into the trap, where the children can stick Piggy's head on a stick and howl in delight and yet also say, "What, me worry? Do you think we really meant to criticize?" It's an old kind of pomo kung-fu and I confess to grevious weariness with it even while appreciating its wit, its inventiveness, its rhetorical and tactical brilliance. Thus goes my entire professional life, I suppose: unable to indulge the stupidities of crude anti-postmodernism, unable to tolerate the cul-de-sac hipness of the painfully pomo. Forgive me my passing annoyance; I'll go back to playing the part of Gomer Pyle, and the sophisticates can get back to lounging about in their bathrobes and smoking their pipes.

Still, what the Tutor offers is certainly better than listening to umpteen million less interesting leftists tell me about the fabulous efficacy of Michael Moore at mobilizing the masses and how all we need is one, two, a thousand Fahrenheits. Even so, it doesn’t convince me that my own sense of the road ahead--both privately felt and publically counseled--is lacking and I should just kick back and let someone else drive for a while.