Monday, February 28, 2011

Irony, Identity, and the Tea Party.

I went down to the state capital on Saturday to attend the pro-union rally held to support the fight in Wisconsin. On the opposite side of the street were real live Tea Partiers, the first time I had ever seen them in person. 

The primary impression I came away with was that Tea Partiers, in person, do not seem nearly as intimidating or scandalous as they do on TV. I don’t know why I had this response – perhaps it was because I knew precisely what to expect, and I’ve seen so much footage of Tea Partiers that to see them in person was simply more of the same. 

Tea Partiers in Sacramento this weekend.

But I think there was something else. There was something about seeing them in the flesh that humanized these people – all they were, after all, were people on the other side of the street holding signs which said some very historically inaccurate things on them. (My favorite was one that read UNIONS = COMMUNISM.) But on top of the sensation that these were not people to spend too much time getting upset about, the sense of the futility of the whole exercise was acute. Rallies can make good television, and they are a good way to network with likeminded people and energize movements – but they aren’t a place where any fundamentally new politics will be brewed between combatants.*

I mentioned to my companion that had I more guts, I would go over to the Tea Partiers and try to start a conversation about why they believe what they believe, and offer some factual correctives. My friend doubted, however, that my reluctance had much to do with my guts but probably more to do with my common sense, as this was unlikely to go down well. I had to concur. There was no way I was going to stroll over there and, no matter how polite I was, challenge the deeply held beliefs that most Tea Partiers have built a sense of identity around. At one point, the pro-union ralliers and the Tea Partiers were simultaneously chanting “Shame on you!” at each other, which was a particularly humorous caricature of the state of political discourse in the country. 

Considering that historically, unions have had more to do with keeping immigrants out of the country, this one was particularly funny.

I like rallies, which remind me that some political consciousness on the Left does still exist, and I will continue to go to the ones that support causes I believe in. But if they are the best we can do, we are in trouble. It is ironic that the Right loves to complain about how identity politics have ruined American governance – and there are many, many problems with identity politics indeed – because sitting there watching working-class and middle-class workers protest against their own self-interest, their own weekends, and benefits, and eight hour work days, I thought, there is nowhere in the country where identity politics is more powerful than in the Tea Party. If you keep that in mind, it is actually quite easy to listen to Tea Partiers screaming at you and feel, in fact, a deep sense of empathy.
* I don't mean to suggest that political rallies never do this; after all, what is happening in Wisconsin is an example of the possible when a run of the mill rally becomes a full-fledged protest movement. But typically, when the event is more scripted performance than grass-roots awakening, they posit nothing new but do serve the function of giving voice to those who they represent. Which is not nothing, but is also only so much, depending on how much power in the political process the protesters possess. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"What Would Bob Do?"

That’s my favorite sign from the montage footage bellow. Wisconsin has a great progressive history, greater than most states in fact – “Fighting Bob” La Follette was considered the leader of Progressivism until Teddy Roosevelt came back from shooting animals in Africa to challenge Taft for the presidency. In the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison they have (or had, when I was there at least) this great exhibit where you can listen to the speeches of various leaders from Wisconsin (including Joseph McCarthy), and the Bob La Follette selection was a commentary on how obvious it is that men are divided into different classes in society, and that differences in power result. I tried to find out which speech it came from online, but alas, I was unable to. 

I think what is happening right now in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country is very exciting. I don’t think teacher unions are all perfect, or that they always act themselves in the public interest – but I do believe that the Republican Party has long desired to crush unions and, for that matter, any form of political action that challenges corporate and financial power. The fact that Walker refuses to accept the compromise the unions have offered – to accede to all his financial demands but maintain their existence, basically, as a union – clearly shows to me that this is not about balancing the budget, but about getting rid of the last vestige of organized labor with any real vitality left. 

In any case, this is injecting a much needed dose of class rhetoric into our politics. The more people talk about unions, the more people are reminded that before the culture wars and the large middle-class that the unions helped win, the real political cleavage that mattered was whether you were among those who had to struggle to achieve a decent standard of living, or among those who simply leeched off the labor of the rest of the country while you enjoyed your afternoon yachting excursion. 

Anyway, here is a pleasingly upbeat video on La Follette and my favorite montage so far of the protests – and yes, I am a complete sucker for montages set to inspiring music. 

You have a progressive history America! Remember Fighting Bob!

Historians are awesome.

From this interview with Thomas Frank at The Onion AV Club:

"When you take somebody’s quote out of context, which happens all the time, nobody’s ever going to go and do the research on their own and figure out that you got it wrong. In 20 years, a historian might."

Damn straight!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Equal Signs.

This was originally written in October of 2009, so the tattoo that it refers to is now well over 2 years old now - but my feelings about it remain unchanged. 

Cooler weather means warmer clothes; clothes that cover up my shoulders and bundle up my arms in cozy sweaters and long, protective jackets. I love fall and winter clothing, and I wear scarves even when it is hardly cold enough to justify them. But the delights of fall fashion have developed one particular drawback – I am not as aware of and connected to that equal sign seared into my back, that has been there for almost a year now.

The other morning I stood with a mirror in my hand just to observe it for a minute or two, and run my fingers over it again. I had a nightmare last week that somehow it had been damaged, had been taken away from me. Not even a full year and already it seems a part of myself I couldn’t bear to part with. Taking time to meditate on its perpetual presence immediately calms me, gives me a sense of stability, a reminder of who I am and what is important to me.

I’ll never forget the weekend when I finally got that tattoo. My sister and I had plotted it after the depressing passing of Prop 8, and the moment her brilliance thought it up I instantly knew it was the right thing to do. When it came time to do the deed, I felt a surprising sense of calm. Part of me had been expecting to feel fear, doubt; that when I would finally get right down to it, something would tell me “no.” But this never happened. And I didn’t even need someone to hold my hand – my sister was out getting money from an ATM. The tattoo artist called me over, I sat down, and without any ripple of doubt I got that beautiful equal sign etched into my back. The moment did not so much reveal itself as intense, tinted with religious fervor; it was just obvious, that this was the right thing for me to do. I had always wanted some relatively small, meaningful tattoo - something to represent an idea that I could trust not to lose my devotion to as the decades went by. But I could never think of anything before. And from the moment Michelle suggested it to the moment it was complete, I knew that this, this was the one thing I could count on to always have faith in.

Because the equal sign on the back of my shoulder is not just about gay rights, or the freedom to marry. It is about the idea of pluralism, of democracy and freedom of thought. It is my testament to the belief that any idea which allocates human dignity unequally amongst human beings is wrong – and that every idea that furthers our appreciation of the endless diversity and startling creativity of mankind is a beautiful thing. The reason that I like to stop, every now and then, and look calmly at my equal sign is not only because it reminds me of who I am, and who I want to be – but because it reminds me of who we all are.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More on the internet.

Following up on my post the other week about the impact of technology on the human condition, Maureen Dowd has an excellent column up about the empathy-destroying powers of the internet. She quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains*:

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions. ... If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”
This is exactly what Wallace and Franzen talk about.** And untangling what is going on here is very important, I think; I'm quite disturbed by the sheer amount of cruelty people on the internet seem to delight in directing at each other. I'm always wondering, what are these people like in their every day lives? If I could confront them, and ask them point blank, in an honest desire to know -- dude, what the fuck?, what would they say? What is their level of consciousness about how mean and awful they are being? To what extent do they behave like this in real life, to actual people they see around them? Undoubtedly there are a lot of bitter, nasty people out there that the internet simply brings out the best in, so to speak. But then it seems the internet is also a lot like road rage -- for some people, being locked into this virtual world pushes the off button on a lot of suppressed ugliness that has not been fully dealt with. Or so it would appear.

Anyway, here is Wallace discussing another aspect of the same issue, particularly relevant from 2:10 on:

* I noticed Dowd does not italicize the title of the book in her article (but rather quotes it), although I checked, and indeed it is a book - is this something else the internet has done? Has the distinction between how to present an article or blog post title and how to present a book title also been obliterated?, and now I am merely being a fusty, quaint academic by insisting on the distinction?

** I know I keep bringing up Wallace and Franzen, and I look a little stuck on them. That is because I am. No point in denying that. I'll probably blog in the near future more extensively as to why I am so drawn to them at the moment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

American sadness.

For the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of sadness – particularly American sadness. Above all else American sadness is a sadness which is shunned and ignored by the popular culture; its sufferers are asked to keep quiet and lay low, and by and large they do. This sadness comes in many forms – depression, anxiety, the agony of being gay in a largely straight world, or black in a white one. Much of this sadness could not be avoided by any society – it exists as part of the human condition. But in America, it is made even all the more alienating by both cultural and economic oppression. 

Even those who do not have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from – or whether it will be enough to cover the rent – experience the stifling smothering that the broader culture tries to perform on the reality of sadness. American life is full of stories of successful, affluent bourgeoisie who can find no reason to get up in the morning. Recently I have been reading Homeward Bound for the sections I am teaching this quarter. While most of the young couples Elaine Tyler May researched indicated that they had no regrets about getting married young and settling down, the doubts and uncertainties that do come through speak to dreams never believed possible, to a feeling of being trapped and lonely. This could be difficult enough for those who really were happiest being stay at home housewives or corporate breadwinners, but what about those who simply saw no other option? Who knows how many gay and lesbian Americans struggled under such conditions, who knows how many women who never wanted to have children – this one in particular I identify with – ended up having their entire youth consumed with child care?

For the economically oppressed things are even worse. American society tells us, after all, to measure our worth by our income – if we are coping both with fundamental sadness and a feeling of worthlessness, the burden becomes heavy to bear indeed. I heard a social scientist once describe those on the absolute bottom of this ladder, the homeless, as “radically vulnerable.” For such Americans, invisibility is the preferable fate – preferable, that is, to the type of scorn and rejection they are likely to face whenever they actually do succeed in attracting the attention of their countrymen. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A note on the (likely) rhythm of this blog.

As a graduate student trying to research and then write my dissertation,* I am obviously what most people would refer to as "busy." Actually, I don't feel that busy considering I have primarily three things on my plate every week and three things only: 1) working on my dissertation, 2) going about my duties as a teaching assistant and 3) taking care of my puppy. But writing is not something I do lightly or quickly; while I do write posts themselves relatively quickly, the editing and tweaking processes take some time, as does, for some reason, all the small changes I make and typos I correct and websites I need to find to link to etc etc when I finally get around to posting the writing.

So basically, I predict most of the posts for this blog will go up between Thursdays and Sundays -- because during the weekdays I am involved a little too much in finding time for everything else. I just wanted to note this so that, if it goes dead here for several days in a row, no one thinks I am fading away. I'm going to be right here for quite a while, I reckon.

During the blank spots though I highly recommend my other blogging locale, An American Atheist, a group blog on atheism and religion. I usually get around to blogging there about once or twice a week, but my fellow bloggers make it well worth visiting on their own credit.
* And yeah, I am going to do it in that order. (Research then write.) I've been told you are supposed to be writing as you research, but no writing project I've ever done -- including a year long research project that was basically the equivalent of a master's thesis and then was written in three days -- has gone down like that, and I see no reason to doubt at this point a method which has served me so well so consistently.**

** That was completely irrelevant to anything any readers would be interested in here, but forgive me the indulgence. Us graduate students have very little else to talk about sometimes other than our work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On appreciating, not worshipping, the founding fathers.

Two evenings ago, I was delighted to discover this music video, which is a very highly produced parody of Timbaland’s hit song, “Apologize.”

No wait!, stick around – I actually have something of substance to say other than the obvious fact that this video is totally fucking awesome. It gets me to thinking about one of my favorite pet peeves – the type of idolizing that American political culture so cruelly and ignorantly asks its founding figures to endure. 

Now, let it be known that I come to this position as a profound lover of the founding fathers, and of early American history in general. In fact, I love it so much that I originally planned to make my living at it – my emphasis was in early American history before switching, at the end of my third year of graduate school, to twentieth century American history. I made this change because my interest in contemporary politics became so important to me that I could not imagine putting my academic energy into a field that I could not easily apply to the questions that face us today, and 240 years ago was just too much of a stretch – more on why that is in a moment. However, I will never lose my love for the people and stories of early American history, and a large, framed image of Alexander Hamilton is still one of the most notable features of my interior d├ęcor.

However, despite my affection for Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and all the rest – an affection that at times feels so intimate and immediate I occasionally refer to them as “my boys” – I do not think that they hold the key to every social question we face today, nor do I believe that an argument on either side of a question is bolstered simply because you can cite one of the founding fathers as being in support of it. I’ll begin with the first issue.

If there is one thing you learn from historical training, one mantra you will pick up, it is this: context, context, context. Partly this is because without obsessing about the niceties of context, the field would stagnate and there would be no way to attack each others' work * - but mostly it is because historical analysis shows us how much  - from the clothes people wear to their assumptions about God, nature, and humanity -  is dependent on historical context. Simply put, the worldview  - the basic assumptions, the feeling of life itself - of someone from the eighteenth century was so dramatically different from someone from the twenty-first century, that to artificially extract an eighteenth century opinion and apply it to a twenty-first century problem is a very ahistorical, and indeed illogical, thing to do. It is silly to ask what the founders would have thought about abortion, or affirmative action, or net neutrality. Even if you possess primary source material expressing opinions you could then map onto these modern questions, why would you want to? They come from a profound position of ignorance – the founding fathers could not imagine the type of society we live in today nor the obstacles we would face in fulfilling our values. They were not psychic, so their writings should not be treated as though they apply equally well to all times and circumstances.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film review - What’s the Matter with Kansas: a good exercise in empathy, but not as significant as the book.

Not in Kansas - rather, Kentucky -- but loved by Kansasans.
I finally got to see What’s the Matter with Kansas this week, after waiting months for it to become available on my Netflix queue. Based on the book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas takes a look at the strange world of culture wars and the stage of economic deterioration they play out on. Like the book, What’s the Matter With Kansas approaches its human subjects with empathy and patience – we meet a young Christian activist, for example, who is clearly bright and blessed with confidence, but also completely sure that evolution is merely a (wrong) theory and that all the founding fathers intended America to be an (officially) Christian nation. 

The film encourages you to view the opinions of these various Kansasans as reasons for sympathy, rather than accusation. It might, at times, even ask you to consider whether or not they have good reasons for their beliefs. This is in part because the film treats its subjects with respect, but it is also because, unlike the book it is based on, it is not nearly as explicit about its argument - or perhaps, it doesn't even pursue one.

In the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Frank is right upfront with his main argument: the bloody flags of the culture wars have blinded the citizens of Kansas to the real divisions in America, which have less to do with pro-life versus pro-choice and more to do with poor versus wealthy. And while Republicans always pander to the culture war issues during the elections, once in office they largely ignore these initiatives and instead focus on doing what Republicans do best – making life easier for those who already have it the easiest. 

In the film, however, this argument is hinted at but could easily be missed by someone not familiar with the book. We learn about the struggles of farmers from interviews with the head of the farmers' union, and we learn about the sadly hysterical attempt of an entrepreneur to put a theme park in the middle of a place no one lives and no one wants to drive to. But the connection between the downward economic trends and the packed fundamentalist churches is not explicitly made – and this ultimately makes for a less powerful, and less significant film. 

Nonetheless, as an exercise in empathy, the film is worth seeing. Indeed, its virtue is that it is not hard to like many of the right wing activists we encounter. I didn’t like all of them, granted, but I liked a few of them. And in a time when my encounters with the Tea Party set tends to be in the form of reading horrifically homophobic, sexist, or racist comments on blogs, this is refreshing. 

The question then becomes, of course, what do we do with this information? We know that those on the far right are by and large decent human beings, with the same hopes, fears, and struggles as all Americans. We know that they derive great meaning from their causes and their beliefs. But how, once we’ve built that bridge of empathy, do we then go on to make an argument to them that much of what they believe is, unfortunately, untrue? How do you gently inform someone that they are suffering from false consciousness? These are questions this film does not try to tackle, but we need to start trying to come up with some answers. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Media technology; an infinite jest?

In the past six months or so, I have added the issue of technology – especially the technology of media, ie TV to facebook  - to the docket of things I think about. This was inspired mostly by the commentary of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, two authors I’ve started to read after a whole lifetime of almost totally ignoring literature. Simply put, neither Franzen or Wallace are Luddites (and the way in which this term is used is actually a disservice to the actual Luddites, who were about much more thoughtful and noble ideas than simply disliking technology), but they both articulate a concern that media technology, while having its uses, distracts Americans from both civic engagement and sustained confrontation with the existential questions that all of us must try to address to fully face our humanity. As Jonathan Franzen puts it, “There is some part of me, if I spend all day online, [which] is even lonelier than when I started.”

I myself have a rather ambiguous relationship with the internet in particular. Ever since my undergraduate years, the internet – particularly through the venue of blogging and, online discussions on such social networking sites as facebook – has offered me both one of the most powerful tools of self-expression and also the most acute reminder of how limited that self-expression can often be. It has been both the symbol of connectivity with the outside world and the ultimate symbol of loneliness. In particularly sad times, which always corresponded with a feeling of invisibility, the specter of being surrounded by blank monitors, totally unresponsive to and uninterested in my existence, would present itself to me in my daymares. But obviously here I am, still blogging away – for the internet has also provided me with some of the best opportunities to make connections to other likeminded people, and to have my own views challenged and refined. As the title of this blog suggests, it is part of what keeps my isolation incomplete. 

I try, however, to balance this with activities that depend on and cultivate the type of solitude that actually leads you to being more, rather than less aware of the world around you. It is important to always keep in mind, and thus try to mitigate, the tendencies of media technology to whittle the entire world down to you – to keep you so focused on yourself that actual human empathy becomes increasingly more difficult. Thus this recent column by Maureen Dowd at The New York Times caught my eye. The column mostly flirts ironically with the humor of a new iPhone application designed to make Catholic confession more user-friendly and to encourage the faithful to attend more often. However, the column brings up an unspoken question that both critics from the right and the left like to tackle: will technology ultimately, and inherently, erode human relationships and the fabric of the concept of the larger good?