Monday, January 31, 2011

Why conservatives love "Gran Torino": a very belated review.

"Get off my lawn" -- conservative viewers experienced a little death during this scene.

 I was reminded recently of the 2008 film Gran Torino, which starred Clint Eastwood and received high marks from critics and viewers alike. I would like to preface my comments here by acknowledging up front that Gran Torino is a very effective and well-made film, and on many levels I enjoyed it. I also want to make clear that I do not assume that the aspects of the film I am about to discuss were so crafted purposively – I highly doubt, actually, that anyone involved in the production of the film participated for the sake of pushing a conservative agenda, or even had any consciousness about the fact that the film is, in many ways, a profoundly conservative one. 

I would also like to acknowledge that the film is far from all bad. Indeed, its core message - that we can be inspired to be our better selves through a human connection with someone who previously, we might not have even recognized as fully human - is a good one indeed. So I feel a little bad going after a film whose heart is actually in the right place. 

However, the enthusiasm with which the conservatives in my life – we can assume I am related to them and leave it at that – embraced this film told me from the beginning that something was amiss. Upon viewing the film, my suspicions were confirmed – for rather than a film that confronts Americans with the realities of structural racial and economic inequality, Gran Torino is a film that panders to the comforting clich├ęs of boot-strap and colorblind ideology. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An update to last week’s post: is it the culture or the individual?

Since last week, a reader brought to my attention this New York Times article by Stanley Fish, now several months old, that makes a great point about how and when Americans chose to utilize the concept of culture:

"The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon." 
 I was also reminded of another New York Times article many more months ago that explored the cultural context of mental illness. Basically, the article discusses recent research that suggests that mental illness, while undoubtedly having a solid physical (ie, medical) existence in the brain, is often shaped by the way an individual’s culture understands various forms of mental anguish and illness. 

The most compelling example concerns the sudden uptick of Chinese teenagers who started exhibiting anorexia in a Western fashion – ie, an aversion to food based on fears of becoming fat or unattractive. Earlier, there was certainly anorexia in China, but it was not until the American phenomenon of young girls starving themselves out of a desire to be as thin (ie, physically attractive) as possible became well known in China that a large number of Chinese girls also started describing their aversion to food in this manner. 

This frames very nicely the crucial question of culture versus the individual, or in this case, culture versus the biology of mental illness. Often times heated discussions about this problem can develop when debaters seem to think that their opponents are saying “it is all about culture,” or “it is all about the individual.” I think the evidence, quite clearly, shows that on the contrary, it is always both. To what degree we can look to the individual or the surrounding culture as ultimately more responsible, well that depends on the particular case and requires a thoughtful investigation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

American Denial.


A few months ago, David Brooks penned a column in which he argued that Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, tells us more about the obsessions of writers and outcasts than it does actual middle-class Americans. Of course, Brooks reduced the complex struggles of the characters in Freedom down to the diminutive size of a morality play, when he determined than the main character, Patty, is “unable to make a moral judgment.” That the world, once filtered through David Brooks’s imagination, can always be whittled down to a juvenile, almost Victorian understanding of virtue as opposed to vice is, of course, to be expected. However, Brooks also went on to make a claim just a little bit more offensive than his usual, almost endearing desire to turn the landscape of humanity into black and white forks in the road. Brooks argued that most of the misery of the American middle-class – depicted by Franzen and other writers as leading lives lacking meaning, emotional fulfillment and community – is merely in the heads of “writers and other dissidents.” 

Plenty of people chimed in the comments section to ask, “Really? What country are you living in?” I do believe they effectively responded to Brooks’s desire to sweep the sadness of American life under the rug by merely chalking it up to spider-webs in the minds of Those Who Don’t Quite Belong.  So I won’t add to that particular discussion here.

However, that column was on my mind when I was watching Rachel Maddow painfully document this nation’s recent history of gun violence a few days after the tragedy in Arizona. The point Maddow was making was concerned primarily with the how, and not the why, of gun violence in America – frequently, much more frequently than comparable Western nations, Americans and especially young American males decide to kill a lot of people with guns. Whether or not this is a good reason to think more seriously about what kinds of guns and ammunition we need to protect ourselves and fulfill the Second Amendment – and I think it is – the torrent of newspaper headlines Maddow held up prompted another question in my mind: why?

This is of course, a question that is being asked all over the place. Almost never, however, is any theory advanced beyond the theory that there is no theory; these are acts of singular madness, and attempting to answer them, the suggestion seems to be, is unacceptable because almost anything you say will qualify as political. That we ought not to draw conclusions or make suggestions based on national tragedies that seem to speak to larger patterns is a strange, self-defeating ban on discourse for a democratic society to make. It is almost as if, no matter how horrific the tragedy or how high the number killed, what Americans fear even more than another gun massacre is a real reckoning with the question of why – we ask it merely to say we cannot answer it, so then we can continue as before. It is as if the truth would be more terrifying than the meaninglessness which the insanity of a singular American murderer offers us.  

So here is a politically loaded reflection, political not because I aim to artificially shame a political party or win an election, but political because it speaks to my larger beliefs about our country and the state it is in: one of the first things that came to my mind, watching Maddow rattle through the list of tragedies caused by gun violence in this country, was that David Brooks review of Freedom. At first glance, these two events would not seem related; Franzen certainly doesn’t have any character that speaks to the type of deranged alienation it appears Jared Lee Loughner fell into, nor could the novel in any way be offered as a clear explanation to why such characters develop. But Brooks’ denial of the underlying problem of American alienation – his desire to use a book which faces that honestly as an opportunity to claim that such arguments are merely the self-absorbed, self-affirming obsessions of a misfit elite – seems all too tragically connected to the media’s response to the horror in Arizona. The ardor we feel for glorifying America as the best of all possible places is completely out of proportion to the amount of mental anguish experienced by so many Americans on a daily basis. Conservatives hear the statistics about America being a land of depressed people and shrug their shoulders – inside, many of them believe it is the very fact that our culture finally has reached some level of openness about the challenges of finding meaning in America that explains the phenomenon of unsatisfied people. Back in the good old days, the inner rant goes, people did not complain so much, people did not expect to feel happy all the time – people merely put that in a box labeled the local bar or the 60 hour work week and left it there. Under much of this denial is a resentment, a resentment that the version of America as a land of contentment should dare be challenged by the likes of Loughner, and yes, even by the likes of Franzen. 

I am not denying that individual mental illness exists and much of this existence is separate from or immune to the particular cultural context in which it plays out. But it doesn’t always have to play out this way – it does not even have to develop in this direction, at least not this often. Sociology tells us that a good society is one in which all members of that society feel valued by their community, where each station and status in life is recognized and granted dignity. Individuals frequently deciding to kill others in a crazed rage of alienation, and then just as often, turn the gun on themselves, is only the most obvious manifestation of the failure of a society to provide meaning and dignity to all of its members.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Progressive or Liberal?

In his survey course of American history since Reconstruction, my adviser is careful to note during his lecture on Progressivism that while liberals are fond of referring to themselves today as “progressives,” the sense in which they use the term is distinct from the historical Progressive Era and the Progressive Party which flourished, for a time, under Teddy Roosevelt. He includes a sly comment about his confusion over why liberals have started using the term "progressive," as they seem to simply be capitulating to the attempt of conservatives to turn “liberal” into a dirty word. 

I will have to admit that this is probably the primary reason for the popularity of the term “progressive.” And yet I still prefer to think of myself as progressive, rather than liberal. Why? For me, it has nothing at all to do with an attempt to distance myself from the negative connotations conservatives attach to the term – indeed, I’ll be happy to embrace them. Am I a latte-drinking liberal? For sure. (Actually I prefer tea, but insofar as we are talking about a liberal whose favorite public dwelling space is a bourgeois coffee shop, I am surely guilty.) Am I a “tax and spend” liberal? Well, considering I can’t imagine what else a government is supposed to do with its time, yes I suppose I am. (And for that matter, nearly everyone is; the trick behind the “tax and spend” tagline is that what conservatives are really complaining about is not spending, but what the money is being spent on.) Do I believe all Americans are responsible for the well-being of their least fortunate citizens, do I believe that all Americans deserve public health care, do I believe that the inequality of gays and lesbians is a national travesty? Yes, yes, and yes. And do I think that religious bigotry and scientific illiteracy pose grave threats to a civilization which, in my mind, should first and foremost be based on Enlightenment values? Absolutely. So far from wanting to distance myself from all that being “liberal” might imply, I would push it even further.

So considering I am a liberally liberal, why don’t I feel perfectly comfortable with the term? For me, identifying as progressive is actually a way of distancing myself from the center-right consciousness of this country. When I think “liberal,” what comes to mind more than anything else is a Blue Dog Democrat, or the Cold Warrior side of John F. Kennedy. The 1960s radicals of the New Left were the most instrumental in creating this definition of the term – when Mario Savio refers to a “well-meaning liberal” in his famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, the implication was not flattering. A “liberal” in this discourse is someone who always believes in gradual change, in negotiating with the power structure rather than challenging it directly. A “liberal” in this discourse is someone who buys the redemptive storyline of American political thought, from the boot-straps myth to the benevolence of (almost) all free markets. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By way of introduction.

Welcome to Isolation Incomplete, a blog that focuses on progressive politics, history, and philosophy. Allow me to introduce myself with this opening piece I wrote several months back. It is rather long, but my hope is not that anyone will read it carefully but, rather that it be casually referred to in the future as an answer to the question of "who the hell is this chick?" It details my political history -- which I argue, is inherently personal -- and how I ended up where I am today, philosophically and intellectually.

Another reason I put this piece up is to be as honest an intellectual as I can be -- to put all my cards on the table. I believe that the denial of how the personal is political, the false wall we often put between our condition as human beings and our attempts at analysis, can at times distance us from the real reason we care about society, and care about human justice. Because if you do not admit from the beginning that you are human -- that you are part of and prey to the whole range of conflicting desires and needs that this entails -- you will become tempted to focus more on being right, rather than focusing on finding the truth. But if we do our best to be honest with ourselves, and honest with each other, the end goal in sight -- a better world for everyone -- can be kept more clearly in view.
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Progressives aren’t particularly known for being moralistic, at least not in the individualistic sense. Yet an argument for social justice inevitably lies at the heart of progressivism, and therefore so does a moral argument. For those who value pluralism and are wary of any statements of Truth as such, this can present a possible conflict. How can we trust ourselves to advocate for change and social justice without merely producing a potentially biased system of dos and don’ts? How do we know our intentions are sincere, and our proscriptions for our society won’t ultimately, at some indefinite point in the future, turn into a self-righteous straight jacket? 

This is a question I have had good reasons to ponder. For most people who know me as I am today, a progressive who is quite allergic to the center-right culture that surrounds me, would never guess what I once was. That I once, in fact, identified mostly as a “conservative.” That I even – horror of all horrors! – was an ardent fan of Bill O’Reilly, right up to my doorstep, which greeted you with a “No Spin Zone” doormat. 

Now that you know perhaps my most shameful secret, I’ll turn to the narrative of my political history. I believe my early identification as conservative had much to do with my parents, who I can roughly describe as center-right conservatives with a good dose of old-fashioned backlash thrown in. In their personal lives, neither are narrow minded or closed off to the acceptance of those who are different from them; but their political rhetoric was always peppered with the classic conservative complaints about big government, the erosion of personal responsibility, and the oppressive power of political correctness. 

I got along abnormally well with my parents when I was a teenager; you could even say that at times they were my best friends. Therefore I lacked the youthful desire to resist their politics, and my father had a short, pithy way of delivering his sentiments that seemed to drip with common wisdom unburdened by human folly. My earliest political memory is seeing Bill Clinton on TV, and intuitively disliking the man, a tendency immediately reinforced after asking my father, “Who is that?” 

However, even as a young adult there were visible conflicts between me and my parents’ views. The only heated political conversation that ever occurred between my father and I before I was in graduate school took place during the campaign for Prop 6, the ban on gay marriage which was later overturned by the Ninth District Court. Although I might have identified with the rhetoric of no-nonsense independence conservative pundits so successfully peddle in, I was too weird of a kid to pick up on too much of the conservative cultural package. I struggled with obsessive and paranoid thinking; terrified, at various points, of spontaneous combustion, abduction by aliens and, for a while, a fear I was possessed by demons. I was also given to occasional extreme bouts of hysteria, resulting in fits well into high school that an outsider observer might think qualified me for institutionalization. When happy, which fortunately was most of the time, I was loud, creative, confident and very obnoxious to people who found breaking routine social rules offensive. In high school most of my friends were either the dreaded “drama kids” or they had connections to said drama kids. I was a weird kid.