Now (she said, throat-clearingly), that comment of Amartya Sen’s is relevant (in my mind at least) to the discussion in Politics and Morality, below. Mark Bauerlein emailed me in a cordial way to point out that there was a survey reported in the Chronicle some months ago which asked professors in all fields about their political allegiance. “Those who considered themselves Left or Center Left outnumbered those Right or Center Right by almost 3 to 1.” So, as I said in an update to that post, that at least partly answers my question about Business schools and the like, and it’s interesting in itself.
But even with that question partly answered, the more I think about this whole subject – ‘whole’ in the sense of in its wider aspects, as opposed to the relatively narrow one of party politics – the more complicated, fuzzy, and difficult to pin down it seems. And the similarity to Sen’s point has to do with the question of categories, and how we define people, how they define themselves – how we define ourselves and each other, in short. ‘There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them.’ You could substitute ‘political beliefs’ there for the purpose of this discussion, and the effect would be the same. In other words, it seems to me that knowing that someone identifies herself as Left or Right or Center Left or Right, doesn’t necessarily tell you very much about her. It might, but it easily might not. And it also might not tell you what you think it does. Your idea of Left or Right might not be hers. But I think Sen’s point is the really interesting one – that those one or two words miss much that is important about most people – miss it or confuse it or both.
You could argue, and I think I’m going to, that one of the most interesting things about people is what trumps what. Does political angle trump artistic tastes, or the other way around? Are your commitments more moral than they are political, or vice versa, or do you have a hard time telling the two apart? And then, within those categories, what do you put where? That’s another interesting item. Consider religion, and secularism. Are those political categories? Intellectual? Moral? All those? Something else? And how are they weighted?
And then, how do we know? How do we know which issues are political and which are not? The media, I suppose, is one answer. The newspaper and tv and radio tell us. If they say religion or ‘family values’ or gay marriage or abortion or creationism are now political issues, then we generally accept it – no doubt because newspapers and tv and radio make such statements true in the very act of making them. Speech acts. Once the hegemonic discoursers throw a subject out into the political boxing ring, then that subject becomes something that political operators have to take into account. (So the media ‘create reality’ as the saying now goes.) But that’s part of the problem, in a way, or at least a source of some of the confusion. (What confusion? Well, mine, for a start.) It’s not really self-evident that, say, ‘family values’ are political at all. In fact one might think they are by definition not political. (That’s part of the problem with the way political campaigns, especially in the US [where political campaigns last four years, which means they never stop], talk about the candidates’ personal lives and characters more than they talk about exactly what the candidates are going to do if elected – it turns everything into a ‘political’ subject, including things that might be vastly more usefully and interestingly discussed under a different rubric.)
Maybe this is just a very long-winded way of saying I’m bored by politics. Which I am. Well, considering the way it’s carried on here, via a mix of cartoonish irrelevancy and shameless bribery re-labeled ‘campaign contributions’, and then considering what we end up with as a result, can you blame me?