An example, of the kind of thing I was talking about yesterday and a few days before that – of this matter of the complexity and arbitrariness of political categories, and of the idea that sometimes it’s just not particularly helpful or interesting to attach labels of liberal or conservative, left or right, to any and every idea that comes along. The example is from an interview with Barack Obama in the October Progressive – unfortunately not online. The interviewer, Barbara Ransby, said, ‘You also said something to the effect that you are open to ideas from both the right and the left. Now, you know this kind of talk makes progressives a little nervous. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?’ and Obama answered,
Yes, certain factions of the left have bought into an either/or argument about how we solve our problems, and I contend that all our solutions do not have to do with money. They have to do with attitudes, values, and morals. As I said in my speech at the convention, for example, we have to recognize academic achievement as parents. Now some may label that a ‘rightwing’ or ‘conservative’ position, but you go into any place in the community, you will hear the same thing.
Obama’s not kidding when he says that some may label that a ‘rightwing’ position – in fact he’s understating it drastically (no doubt being polite to the interviewer and The Progressive). There’s very little ‘may’ about it – some do emphatically label that a ‘rightwing’ position before the sentence is even finished. I noticed such a bit of labeling just the other day in an article in the New York Review of Books –
Along with other black conservatives —John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell—Ogbu places the blame for ongoing inequality on black communities. He recommends a variety of self-help strategies to raise black students’ achievement, such as publicizing black students’ academic successes, reinforcing parents’ commitment to monitoring their children, and so on.
I think it’s very debatable to call McWhorter a conservative, and I think it’s even more debatable to assume (as that quotation does assume) that the idea that some factors internal to ‘black communities’ play a part in educational inequality (which is not the same thing as ‘blaming’ those communities, which is a silly, loaded, and manipulative way of stating the idea) is necessarily a ‘conservative’ idea. It can be, and it can be useful to conservative agendas, but it doesn’t have to be. But it is (in some circles, or factions, as Obama puts it) assumed to be. It is in fact a kind of litmus test – it’s one of those things that people avoid saying for fear of being put into a box they don’t want to be put into. The good old hegemonic discourse is full of minefields like that – things it’s risky to say unless you want friends to think you’ve suddenly become Krusty the Konservative.
And it’s understandable in a way. Understandable and not malevolent. We have heard enough about ‘blaming the victim’ to be very wary of seeming to do that ourselves, especially when we are not in the same victim box ourselves. It is a very queasy position to be, say, a white person worrying about anti-intellectualism among black people; we worry that we don’t know enough, that it’s easy for us to say, that we have unpleasant motives we’re not entirely aware of, that we are indeed shifting the problem from institutionalized injustices to the naughty behavior of the victims themselves. Understandable. But the trouble is – what if it’s true? What if it really is true that, for instance, black students shame each other for doing well in school or liking to read, label that ‘acting white,’ apply peer pressure to make their friends stop it? Then that sqeamishness and reluctance to talk about it doesn’t look like such a good idea, does it. Because if it really is true, then it’s a bad thing, and everyone ought to make every effort to change it, and that’s a good deal harder to do if the subject is taboo.
And that’s just one example. Which is not to say that nothing should be labeled left or right; I’m not a fan of ‘bipartisanship’; but it is to say that not everything should be labeled that way. That some issues are factual rather than ideological, is rather than ought; that an empirical, inquiring, analytic approach works a good deal better for many problems than a political or even moral one. The issue Obama is talking about isn’t one about blame, it’s one about what to do. But entrenched positions make people unwilling to think about some avenues of inquiry. That doesn’t seem particularly useful.