Lie Back and Enjoy It

Oct 13th, 2003 9:47 pm | By

This is a hilarious piece. Katha Pollitt is pretty good at being hilarious. But of course she has good material here. Why are conservatives always bleating and moaning? Have they not noticed? Yo! Those heavy steel things in your hands? Those are the levers of power!

Why can’t they just admit it, throw a big party and dance on the table with lampshades on their heads? Why are they always claiming to be excluded and silenced because most English professors are Democrats? Why must they re-prosecute Alger Hiss whenever Susan Sarandon gives a speech or Al Franken goes after Bill O’Reilly? If I were a conservative, I would think of those liberal professors spending their lives grading papers on The Scarlet Letter and I would pour myself a martini.

This is what I keep saying. Of course there are a lot of leftists in humanities departments, not because conservatives are systematically excluded (though no doubt they are unsystematically excluded), but because on the whole leftists tend to be also the kind of people who want to do that kind of work and conservatives don’t. Obviously! Grading papers on The Scarlet Letter or even on ‘The Sopranos’ doesn’t pay as much as, say, being a bond trader or an oil executive. This comes as a big surprise to people? That leftists are not quite as intent on the bottom line as conservatives are?

Ah well. I don’t really want to make heavy weather of it. Actually I just thought the line about grading papers was too funny to waste, so I wanted to quote it.

Damp Squibs

Oct 13th, 2003 4:30 pm | By

It’s a very handy thing, having a Fashionable Dictionary and a Rhetoric Guide. Because whenever people who have little or nothing of substance to say, resort to mere abuse instead, it’s useful instead of merely boring and time-wasting. You can just slide it into one or the other and hey presto, your correspondent has done a little work for you.

For instance, there’s ‘Meaningless Sarcasm’. Addressing your opponent (or rather the person you’re attempting to engage, who wandered off in boredom long ago) as ‘little Ms X’ or ‘little Mr Y’. Has the disadvantage of making one sound about seven years old, but if one is delusional enough, it passes for wit.

Or there’s that old favourite, ‘I’m embarrassed for you, frankly.’ That’s a funny one. It’s hard not to wonder why it’s such an old favourite, when it’s so silly. It’s so obviously not true that one would think people would want to do better. Why should anyone feel embarrassed for an opponent who says something foolish? The time to be embarrassed is when we ourselves say something foolish, not when other people do. And that is normally how it works, isn’t it, especially in an argument. It’s quite simple, really. Here we are having a disagreement. I say something clever. Result: feeling of pleasure and triumph for me. I say something stupid. Result: feeling of embarrassment and chagrin. Opponent says something clever. Result: I feel annoyed. Opponent says something stupid. Result: I’m delighted. Where does the embarrassment come in? Sarcasm is all very well, but it has to be good to work.

An Unfortunate Meme

Oct 13th, 2003 2:17 am | By

There was a very interesting review in The Nation last month, that talks about a subject that’s been coming up a lot lately: the tendency of apologists for the Catholic church to equate criticism of the church or the Pope or Vatican policy or the religion itself, with intolerance or hate crime or a kind of racism. It seems to be a bit of a meme, in fact. No doubt the archbishop of Birmingham had just been reading Philip Jenkins’ new book and picked up some ideas. The ideas he picked up are very bad ones, as I argued in a N&C last month. The Catholic church is an institution like any other. It’s not a good idea to make institutions immune from criticism, it seems to me. And even if it were, surely it’s simply a category mistake to muddle criticism of institutions with bigotry against people.

And one could argue that the Catholic church is a particularly bad institution to grant immunity from criticism. It’s such a very activist body. I don’t normally quote myself, but just this once I’m going to, because it’s all just too apposite.

It’s familiar stuff, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. An unholy alliance between identity politics and obscurantist religion that uses complaints about ‘offense’ to try to establish its right to be beyond criticism. Suck it up, bish. Your church is out there in the world telling billions of people what to do, including whether to have children or not. Claiming immunity on top of all that is really pushing it a bit.

Not only whether to have children or not, we now learn. Also whether to protect oneself against HIV or not. The answer the Vatican gives is, not. No, don’t wear a condom, because we don’t want you to, because we think contraception is bad, because if God had wanted us to be able to have sex without procreating, why, he would have built contraception in, wouldn’t he. So because we don’t want you to for a stupid irrational fundamentalist reason that not even most of the believers accept, therefore we’ll tell lies about condoms, thus condemning who the hell knows (certainly not the pontiff) how many people and their spouses and children to a horrible death. Brilliant.

So JoAnn Wypijewski does well to point out the danger of this ‘don’t criticise Catholicism’ meme:

Jenkins is ordinarily a cool dissector of the cultural construction of social problems. He aims to be the same here, but his book is a muddle, alternately careful to distinguish anti-Catholicism from anticlericalism, policy disputes from prejudice, and then recklessly defining political protest–most dramatically, ACT UP’s 1989 action inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral–as hate crime, anti-Vatican rhetoric as hate speech, discrimination against policies as discrimination against persons.

No immunity for church hierarchies that tell billions of people falsehoods about latex and the HIV virus.

The Fame Game

Oct 11th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

This column by David Aaronovitch seems apposite to something we were talking about the other day – the cult of celebrity, or in Leo Braudy’s memorable phrase, the frenzy of renown. It’s not just a matter of electing conspicuously unqualified people to powerful jobs on the basis of nothing at all apart from pure Fame, though that’s more than bad enough. It’s also what fame, or perhaps a certain kind of fame, can do to the people who have it.

an American sports sociologist, Jeff Benedict,…had been asked by sports authorities to collect data to contradict the perception that many athletes were committing crimes against women. Benedict interviewed 300 athletes, victims, lawyers, cops and groupies and discovered that, unfortunately, the perception was correct. In 1995 and 1996, he revealed, there were 200 cases of college and professional football and basketball players arrested for abusing women.

Could that have anything to do with the exaggerated hero-worship of athletes that is, surely, one tributary of the cult of celebrity.

Redmond has pointed out a common feature in many of the cases that she has dealt with. “At some point the athlete has said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ He feels he’s entitled to her, and if she says no to him or embarrasses him, he puts her back in line.” We can do what we like, say the young footballers. There is nothing that is forbidden to us. We are gods. And our perception of ourselves as gods is endorsed by the purblind fans, by the groupies, by the amoral administrators who only care about what we do insofar as it affects their investment.

Just so. All the drivel that gets drivelled about football players and basketball players as ‘heroes,’ all the sweaty exhortations to athletes to be good ‘role-models’ – why? Do we exhort pharmacists or real estate agents or insurance peddlers to be role-models? Why athletes? Is there some connection between skill at throwing or catching a ball and, say, ethical responsibility or consideration or generosity? Not that I can see. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but the connection seems entirely arbitrary to me. Maybe instead of reasoning that because we make such a big deal of athletes, therefore people look up to them, and so we should beg them to use their influence well, we should stop making such a big deal of them (or at least a different kind of big deal), so that people won’t confuse them with real heroes. Fame and human decency are unfortunately not the same thing, they’re not even particularly close neighbours.


Oct 8th, 2003 10:07 pm | By

One of the things that can make discussion so dull and claustrophobic is limiting it to just one set of frames: left and right. Not everything is about that. Not absolutely everything is political, and then even what is political doesn’t necessarily divide neatly into left and right.

One different frame, one that arranges and sorts things in a way quite different from the left-right docket, is anti-intellectualism. There is plenty of anti-intellectualism on the left as well as the right – and on the right as well as the left. Often they seem to compete with each other over who can raise the lip farthest to sneer at learning or rationality or critical thought.

For me this division often supersedes that between the right and the left. There are times, or situations, or issues on which I prefer a pro-intellectual conservative to an anti-intellectual lefty. The pro- or anti-intellectual frame trumps the left-right frame. I noticed this shift several years ago, and I think it was then that I began to realize that my leftish outlook was full of fissures and cracks. The more the left insists on being anti-rationalism and anti-Enlightenment, the broader and deeper those fissures become. And I don’t think that’s inevitable. I don’t think anti-intellectualism is an inherently leftist position.

Worries about anti-intellectualism are often taken to be elitist and so right-wing (except the right uses the ‘elitist’ epithet at least as much as the left does, so I’m never clear on the logic of that), but I don’t think that’s accurate, not if you define the elite in a sensible way. Not if by the elite you mean people with money and power. Intellectuals aren’t the elite in that sense, and the elite certainly aren’t intellectuals. Rich people don’t have time to mess with books and ideas, they’re too busy making money. Intellectualism is a minority taste, yes, but elite doesn’t mean minority, so that’s beside the point.

And in any case, intellectualism is more of a minority taste than it has to be, because we make it that way. Every time we snigger at nerds and geeks, every time we conflate ignorance with sincerity and being ‘down to earth,’ we train each other to think of mental life as something odd, peculiar, and probably sinister. Every time people who ought to know better endorse this view, they do their bit to keep the joys of intellectual exploration and discovery away from the non-elite, and that is very far from being a kindness.

Such a Good Idea

Oct 8th, 2003 7:47 pm | By

Well, perfect. Absolutely splendid. Good thinking. It’s such a boring unhip vieux jeu Enlightenment kind of idea, to think that people in high office ought to have something to recommend them beyond pure Name Recognition. How silly is that?! What else is there but name recognition?

No, of course. Obviously. Obviously having your picture taken a great many times in rapid succession is simply the ideal qualification for being, say, the president of the United States, the single most powerful human being on the planet, or the governor of California, a state larger than many important countries. After all, presidents and governors get their pictures taken a lot too, so there you are.

Yeah, come on, this is such a brilliant reform, let’s really push it through, let’s get mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore (take what? who knows, who cares) and throw out all those condescending elitist know-it-alls (if there are any left) and replace them with more photogenic people. Let’s make Jennifer Aniston Secretary of State, and Sly Stallone Ambassador to the UN, and Tom Cruise governor of New York, and let’s throw out the entire Congress and replace it with everyone (still alive) who’s been in the cast of Saturday Night Live, and impeach the Supreme Court and replace it with the cast of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ (omitting either Joey or George, whichever). Then when we do that the rest of the world will be so jealous they’ll do the same thing, and pretty soon the whole world will be run by movie stars and athletes. It will be like Utopia! Like a beautiful dream!


Oct 7th, 2003 8:42 pm | By

Our sermon for today is on the text

The religiosity of the recovery movement is evident in its rhetorical appeals to a higher power and in the evangelical fervor of its disciples. When I criticize the movement I am usually accused of being ‘in denial,’ as I might once have been accused of heresy.

That is from Wendy Kaminer’s examination of the ‘recovery’ and self-help movements, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. But the reaction she describes is typical of vastly more ‘movements’ and ideological systems than just the self-help variety. In fact it’s probably fairly difficult to find a ‘movement’ or ideology whose adherents don’t resort to that tactic. If someone criticises a set of ideas to which I am committed, then that someone is doing a bad thing. I must elaborate on exactly what kind of bad thing it is that the critic is doing. Let me see. The critic is being intolerant. The critic is an elitist. The critic is arrogant and anti-democratic. The critic is an extremist and outside the mainstream. The critic believes things that most people don’t believe, or doesn’t believe things that most people do believe. The critic has Bad Motives – I don’t know exactly what they are, but I’ll hazard a guess. The critic is Eurocentric, or Orientalist, or a positivist.

It’s all pre-emption. And all based on the premise that criticism, however impersonal and general it may be, is somehow impermissible. Not just wrong, in error, inaccurate, but wicked and invidious and deserving of moral condemnation. That’s a bizarre notion on the face of it, and it will be worth pondering where it came from…

Sincerity is Not Enough

Oct 6th, 2003 5:28 pm | By

Alan Wolfe has a new book out, in which he apparently says something very silly.

As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.

Well, I for one don’t put ‘tolerance’ at the center of my politics or my belief system or whatever you want to call it, precisely because of statements like that. Depending on how one defines ‘tolerance’, of course. If it means simply non-interference, live and let live, equality before the law, and so on, that’s one thing. But if it means, as it is so very very often taken to mean, never ever breathing a word of criticism even in general terms, even in public media like books and newspapers and websites – then that’s quite another. And that seems to be what Wolfe means by it.

And his analogy is a very bad one. ‘Inequalities of race and gender’ are not the same thing as ‘difference in the sincerity of belief’. Obviously. Blindingly obviously. One is born a given race or gender. Yes, ‘race’ is a social construct that doesn’t really mean very much, but being stuck with it is certainly part of that social construct. There’s a lot of cultural pressure around these days to try to construct religion the same way – to convince us all that we’re born Muslim or Hindu and can’t possibly change it. But that notion overlooks the fact that religions have ideational content, religions make truth claims which can be accepted or rejected, religion is a cognitive matter. If we demand immunity from criticism for religion, what other set of ideas will we claim immunity for? And if we start demanding immunity for any set of ideas that people are ‘sincere’ about, what hope is there that we can analyse and judge and criticise all ideas impartially?

Great Lowing Herds of Rebels

Oct 5th, 2003 9:38 pm | By

Erin O’Connor at Critical Timber continues to expand on her discussion of conformity in the humanities. There are new posts here and here.

This is a large, rich subject, and one that has been under discussion for quite a long time, for instance in the pages of the late lamented Lingua Franca. William Kerrigan has an excellent essay on his enchantment and then disenchantment with Derrida and ‘theory’ called ‘The Falls of Academe’ in Wild Orchids and Trotsky. David Lehman discusses the displacement of literature by literary ‘theory’ in Signs of the Times. Helena Echlin describes the misery of being a literature graduate student at Yale in this essay.

But my professors look at me as if I am the village idiot. It tires me out listening to long sentences that sound like English but lack all meaning. And resistance isn’t easy. Where there is noparaphrasable meaning, dissent is impossible, because there is no threshold for attack. It is like trying to disagree with a poem by Mallarmé. (Without the poetry.)

Without the poetry indeed.

In general, students and faculty at Yale do not explicitly espouse theory, or particular theorists. But high theory, whatever its merits or demerits, has validated the use of jargon. People who talk nonsense are now looked upon not as sloppy thinkers, but as sages. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism…

It sounds very like an email O’Connor received last year:

Hipper-than-thou graduate colleagues literally smirked when I voiced my thoughts in class, then snubbed me in the hallway; professors dismissed my papers as naive and romantic. In a private meeting, one professor questioned me about my “evident resistance” to critical theory, which she described as a “problem.” Chiding me to “rise above the undergraduate level,” she encouraged me to adopt more “rigorous” critical approaches. When I asked her to elaborate, she reeled off a dozen theorists–Jameson, Spivak, Said, etc.–whose “sophisticated” analyses should “inform” my thought.

Oy veh – can’t you just hear them. Naive and romantic, indeed! But ‘critical theorists’ themselves are never naive, oh hell no, they’re the only sophisticated people on the planet, they are. Yes and offering up the same old dreary list of red-hot ‘theorists’ is all that’s required for ‘informed’ thought. Because Jameson hung the moon, and Spivak invented the wheel, and no one thought about power until Foucault came along. That’s one of the rich ironies of the whole thing, of course: the way a discipline that prides itself on being cutting-edge and hip and non-naive is in fact so remarkably sheep-like and suggestible and line-toeing. Read Mark Crispin Miller’s account of attending a lecture by Homi Bhabha. The acolytes he saw talking to his friend after the lecture, who were so overcome with admiration and yet so unable to articulate why and of what…How can we not suspect that we have a bad case of Emperor’s new clothes here? That they are all simply unwilling to be the ones to say ‘That just sounded like a lot of empty words being shoved around like so many tiddlywinks to me’? No, so much better just to go on assuring each other that it was all terribly sophisticated and rigorous, and simply accuse anyone who doesn’t agree of ‘resistance’ to theory. The trick served Freud well, after all; it got him an undeserved reputation as a brave and lonely iconoclast; so let’s all do that. How else are we going to get tenure?


Oct 4th, 2003 4:45 pm | By

As B and W gets ever more popular, I find myself cringing at times. So many right-wing blogs seem to like us. Fortunately so do a lot of left-wing ones, as well as less-politically-classifiable ones, but all the same, I do cringe. But as my colleague likes to remind me, the left has only itself to blame (or, when he’s being ruder, it serves the left right). If they will insist on being woolly, if they will insist on ignoring evidence they don’t like – then they’re just giving away ammunition, that’s all. The more leftish voices there are trying to keep the left honest, the better, and if that’s a gift to the right too, so be it.

But then again. It’s not always quite that simple. People do have agendas, after all, and can use evidence for their own purposes. So I do cringe, and hesitate, and doubt, and ponder, sometimes when I find an article on a site belonging to the Cato Institute, or the American Enterprise Institute, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute (we should start calling ourselves the Butterflies and Wheels Institute, I think, it sounds so much more important). Getting the facts right is one thing, and using them to try to make a case for profit as the ultimate decider of every question is quite another. But then I shake the water out of my ears and remember that if the article is good on its own terms, if it makes its case, I should link to it and let readers draw their own conclusions. So that’s what I do – cringing all the while.

My colleague’s colleague (Julian Baggini) talks about this in an article at Open Democracy.

But it would be as wrong to dismiss Bradley’s claims because of their provenance as it would be to accept them because of a prior commitment to free trade. Bradley backs up his claims with plenty of evidence, and some of his recommendations are as eco-friendly as any green could wish…But there is little chance of Bradley or Beckerman getting a sympathetic hearing from greens or their leftist allies. This isn’t just because of willful narrow-mindedness. The problem is that there is a wider ideological war going on and in war, propaganda is more valuable than the truth. What people say is not as important as how their words will be used.

That’s just it, you see. How will the words be used. But then if that worry becomes a reason to hide or dismiss or ignore or conveniently ‘forget’ evidence or arguments that we don’t like – the result is obvious. Everyone will be systematically lying all over the place and any hope of getting policies based on reality instead of wishful thinking is gone.

Our ideological enemy’s enemy is our ideological friend; loyalty to a position, deserved or not, blinds us to the merits of our opponent’s case…A tract like Bradley’s can be readily dismissed – since it emanates from a free-marketeer, ‘he would say that’. But this game can be played on both sides: when greens dismiss Bradley’s thesis, the neo-liberals can just as easily say ‘they would say that’. Yet we should judge arguments on the basis of their premises and reasoning, not on the predictability of their conclusions.

He’s right you know. The other way only leads to Down the memory-hole. We’ll just have to get used to the odd cringe.

Sacred and Inviolable

Oct 4th, 2003 2:49 pm | By

I had a bit of a dispute or anyway discussion with my colleague yesterday, about one paragraph in his article on the Bright idea. On this Durkheimian idea that religion does not necessarily entail a belief in the supernatural, that it can also refer to the sacred, and hence to inviolable unrevisable ideas. I haven’t read Durkheim, and I need to. I think the only reason I resist the idea is that that’s not what people usually mean by religion (a point Richard Dawkins makes in his article ‘The Great Convergence’). Discussions and arguments about religion can become frustratingly evasive and slippery when the parties are not talking about the same entity, and defenders of religion have a way of defining religion one way when talking to skeptics (you know, it’s feelings of awe or wonder, it’s that ‘oceanic’ feeling that Freud was so stonily devoid of) and quite another way when talking to fellow-believers. So I’m dubious about broadened definitions.

But the underlying idea I do think is interesting. I suppose it’s one of the essential background ideas of B and W that no beliefs, opinions, ideologies, theories, ideas, should be inviolable. At least none that amounts to a truth claim about the world. But other commitments or loyalties, on the other hand, ought to be. It would be a fine thing if all six billion plus of us had what we so obviously don’t, an unshakeable conviction that we must not murder, slaughter, ethnically cleanse, torture, rape, beat, injure anyone. It would be a conspicuously better world if that conviction were precisely not revisable by, say, ethnic or religious chauvinists on the radio whipping up hatreds, or mullahs or priests or rabbis or reverends lashing their congregations into frenzies of hatred and rage, or ‘teachers’ in madrassahs teaching boys to hate and despise and punish women.

But alas, no. That’s not how it is. Ideas about decent behavior are all too easily revisable – see Eichmann in Jerusalem, Ordinary Men, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. No, it’s the damn silly, useless, or harmful ideas that become sacred and inviolable, while the most necessary one is tossed out the window all too easily.

More Than Politics

Oct 3rd, 2003 9:18 pm | By

I have another thought on the matter of lefties in the academy. It has to do with this one sentence of Timothy Burke’s that Erin O’Connor quoted:

The tripwires here aren’t generally as obvious as saying, “I voted for Bush”-though Brooks is completely correct in thinking that this would possibly be one of the three or four most disastrous things an aspiring humanities scholar could say during an on-campus interview.

What’s interesting about that is that it’s no doubt true enough, but there is more than one reason for it, more than one kind of reason. At least I assume so, extrapolating from my own opinion on the matter. In fact, the other reason (the reason other than the one implied by the context, which is the political one) bears out precisely the point that Burke and O’Connor are making. The other reason has to do with those less parochial, less narrowly political ideas and commitments that one expects intellectuals to have. The other reason for being repelled to hear that an aspiring humanities scholar voted for Bush is the fact that the man, his many explicit remarks on the subject, his considering himself qualified to run for the presidency, and the support for him, are all profoundly anti-intellectual. Any humanities scholar worth her salt ought to be hostile to Bush, and I would still say that if he were to the left of McGovern. All the sneering at Gore for knowing something and expecting the voters to care about substance, all the drivel about likability, all the brazen nonsense about what a reg’lar guy Bush is despite having everything handed to him by way of birth and money, simply because he never reads and mispronounces words and doesn’t know much – all those are glaring signs that what humanities scholars do and value, and what they think is valuable for other people, is considered elitist and often downright wicked by too many Republicans and too many voters. As an American I’m embarrassed by Bush; if I were a Republican, I would be beside myself with disgust.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what things would be like if the Republican president were, say, Richard Posner. Would the revulsion among humanities scholars be quite as universal? Would an interviewee’s having voted for him be quite such an automatic trip-wire? I really wonder. I know it wouldn’t in my case. I’m quite sure I would disagree with many of his policies, but I wouldn’t feel as if there were an unqualifed overprivileged not very bright mediocrity in the job, and that would make a big difference.

Think Like Us

Oct 2nd, 2003 8:00 pm | By

There is an excellent post at Critical Mass – starting, interestingly enough, from a comment on Crooked Timber. So we’re in a hall of mirrors here, or the land of infinite regress, or something. Bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on (finally) an actual newspaper column. But that’s all right. The truth is, plenty of blog posts are better than plenty of newspaper columns. And this one is very good indeed. Erin O’Connor quotes Timothy Burke on the excessively narrow terms in which charges of political orthodoxy in universities are framed.

Virtually anything that departed from a carefully groomed sense of acceptable innovation, including ideas and positions distinctively to the left and some that are neither left nor right, could be just as potentially disastrous. Like a lot of right-wing critics of academia, [David Brooks] generally thinks too small and parochially, and too evidently simply seeks to invert what he perceives as a dominant orthodoxy. If they had their druthers, Horowitz and Pipes and most of the rest of the victimology types would simply make the academy a conservative redoubt rather than a liberal one. The real issue here is the way that each successive academic generation succeeds in installing its own conventional wisdom as the guardian at the gates, and burns the principle of academic freedom in subtle, pervasive fires aflame in the little everyday businesses and gestures of academic life.

That’s great stuff, and spot-on. Parochial is just exactly what this kind of thinking is. Anyone who’s ever listened to a putative Shakespeare scholar, say, droning on about what sadly imperfect views Shakespeare had on the Other, knows all about that parish, and wants to get the hell out of it and move to the big city. Clearly O’Connor is one of those:

I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study–a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching–are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to “politicize” her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical “human questions” out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative.

This is what I’m always wondering about the trendy lit-crit crowd. Do they even like literature particularly? They don’t seem to. They seem to want to talk about anything and everything else under the sun except literature. Which is understandable in a way – I love the stuff but I’m not sure I would want to write about it, and I’m especially not sure I would want to keep on writing about it for thirty years or so. But then why get a PhD in English? If you want to read and think and write about politics, why not get a PhD in that? Or in history or sociology? Why go into literature and then talk about something completely different? It seems so futile, so silly, and such bad manners. Like going to a pizza place and screaming the place down because it doesn’t serve sushi.

As Burke points out, this is at least as much about conformity as it is about politics…It’s the culture of academe–or at least of the academic humanities–that is the main problem. If you don’t have to be a conservative to get labelled–and reviled–as a conservative, then “conservative” means something other than “conservative” in the academic circles I am discussing here. It means something more like “non-conformist,” which, ironically, often translates into either “traditional humanist” or “person who questions prevailing orthodoxies of any stamp” or both. Certainly, left-wing politics are central to this problem–the people who are labelling the “conservatives” in their midst are by definition on the left. But what they are labelling “conservative” is more often than not not conservative per se, but simply different from them.

Just so. I’ve had people solemnly inform me that B and W is ‘culturally conservative’. Which seems to me a silly thing to say on about ten different levels. One, so what? Two – so is everything that is newer than something else automatically better than that something else? Does everything invariably get better and better in an uninterrupted trajectory towards perfection? Do things never get worse from time to time? Hasn’t the Whig view of history had some doubts cast on it now? Three, if you take that view, doesn’t that mean that whatever New Thing someone comes up with tomorrow is necessarily better than whatever it is you’re doing now, and if so, doesn’t that make it all seem a tad pointless? Four, is it really sound to judge ideas chronologically? Does it work to simply date everything and then say ‘Well look, this idea is from 1825 so obviously it’s much better than this other one from 1789’? Hitler was newer than, say, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser was not a great guy, but was he worse than Hitler? For that matter, Colly Cibber was later than Shakespeare; was he better? Well, the reductio is obvious enough. But people go on saying it. Erin O’Connor is exactly right, it seems to me: it’s all about conformity and orthodoxy, group-think and fashion, playing well with others instead of thinking clearly on your own.

Secularism Meets the Hijab

Oct 1st, 2003 7:19 pm | By

This is always an interesting subject. There are so many boxes one could put it in, for one thing. How unhelpful, self-cancelling, and ill-founded talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or indeed impossible it can be to meet everyone’s desires and wishes – which is just another way of saying how self-cancelling talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or impossible it can be to decide what is really fair and just to all parties, which is yet another way of saying the same thing. How incompatible some goods are, how irreconcilable some culture clashes are, how differently we see things depending on how we frame them. If our chosen frame is religion, or identity politics, or multiculturalism, or tolerance, or anti-Eurocentrism, or all of those, or some of them, then head scarves look like one thing. If our frame is feminism, or secularism, or equality, or rationalism, or Enlightenment, or some or all of those, then head scarves look like another thing. If we see merit in both sides of that equation then head scarves look like a damn confusing puzzling riddle.

In France, meanwhile, two teenage sisters have been suspended from school after insisting on attending class with their heads covered. The school says it is simply enforcing secular laws that ban all displays of religious faith in state schools and public buildings. “The girls’ argument that they have a right [to wear a headscarf] is incompatible with secularism and school rules,” Education Ministry Inspector Jean-Charles Ringard said. Alma and Lila Levy, whose mother is Muslim and whose father is a Jewish atheist, say they are simply demanding that two basic rights be respected. “We are being asked to decide between our religion and our education; we want both,” said Alma Levy, 16.

Yes, but then what about other rights? What about the rights of other girls not to have to learn in the presence of a symbol of female inferiority and subservience?

A constitutional ruling gives schools power to ban any religious symbol – headscarf, Jewish skullcap or Christian cross – worn as an “act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda.” The headscarf, or hijab as it is called in Arabic, has stirred controversy in France for more than a decade…French feminists and left-wingers say the scarf is a token of servitude, a sign of submission to male dominance rather than to God, as devout Muslims claim it to be.

Just so. Pressure, proselytism, propaganda. A head scarf carries a lot of meaning, it’s not just some neutral bit of decoration. No doubt I ought to, but I find it very hard to feel much sympathy for girls who ‘demand’ their ‘right’ to advertise their subordinate status.

Sympathy for the…

Oct 1st, 2003 12:37 am | By

Norm Geras’ blog has an excellent post on a recent Guardian column by Karen Armstrong. I thought it was excellent when I first read it, before Norm demonstrated what dazzlingly good taste he has by posting a, a, well, not to put too fine a point on it a rave review of B&W. I did a Note and Comment on Armstrong myself a few weeks or months ago, making a similar point. She’s too determined to be understanding and sympathetic and inclusive and non-Eurocentric and non-Orientalist about Islam, too unwilling to just give it up and be ‘judgmental’. Having read some of her memoirs and other books on religious subjects, I take her stance to have more to do with excessive sympathy for religion than it does with, say, multiculturalism or cultural relativism; but I don’t really know that, it’s just a guess. In any case, the effect is the same.

Armstrong’s diagnosis of the problem of terrorism is multi-factor, but it comes down to two threads: the fundamentalist-reaction-against-modernity thread and the Western-complicity-in-political-and-social-injustice thread. But prescriptively it’s only the second thread which counts. In this she is wholly representative of the post-9/11 liberal and leftist ‘doves’.

It’s interesting to ponder what the implications of taking the first thread seriously might be. Perhaps that’s why Armstrong drops it – why most people drop it. Because if you start to argue that we really ought to pay attention to what al Qaeda wants, i.e. give it to them, then one has to start contemplating the joys of living under an Islamic theocracy – an especially thrilling prospect for a woman. Gosh, I’m so spoiled, I’m so used to going out of the house whenever I want to, without having to ask a man for permission, let alone having to stay in unless a man I’m related to will come with me. It would be a bit of an adjustment, frankly, to have to start doing things bin Laden’s way.

And yet some people do make that argument, sort of, almost, partly. Or they hint at it, they gesture at it, they mumble about it, without actually coming out and saying Yes we should let people like bin Laden call the shots and if that means a little less freedom for half of humanity, well, so be it. At least I don’t know what else is behind all the reproachful noises people make about secularists and atheists refusing to take religion ‘on its own terms’. There is another post with similar comments from readers here.

Bubble Car Blues

Sep 29th, 2003 8:35 pm | By

This is what you get when ‘offensive’ is the shut-up word of the day. You get archbishops complaining that the BBC is reporting on the church, and equating criticism with hostility and bias.

But there are clearly elements or individuals, mainly – as far as I can tell – within news and current affairs, who seem to approach the Catholic Church with great hostility. Certainly the Catholic community is fed up seeing a public service broadcaster using the licence fee to pay unscrupulous reporters trying to re-circulate old news and to broadcast programmes that are so biased and hostile. Enough is enough.

So – what would a friendly and unbiased report on the Catholic church look like then? An admiring enumeration of the Pope’s wardrobe? A fond reminiscence about the warm friendship between priests and choirboys? A ringing endorsement of the Pope’s stand on birth control? Would anything less flattering than that be called ‘offensive’?

It’s familiar stuff, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. An unholy alliance between identity politics and obscurantist religion that uses complaints about ‘offense’ to try to establish its right to be beyond criticism. Suck it up, bish. Your church is out there in the world telling billions of people what to do, including whether to have children or not. Claiming immunity on top of all that is really pushing it a bit.

Look on This Picture, and on This

Sep 28th, 2003 9:43 pm | By

There is an interesting exercise in compare and contrast in reading two of the obituary essays on Edward Said: one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by Alexander Cockburn. Hitchens’ is profoundly admiring, affectionate, grieved, as well as carefully honest about Said’s faults. Cockburn’s is unequivocally admiring and affectionate, but he is oddly enthusiastic about Said’s thin skin. Both Hitchens and Cockburn mention the subject, but only Hitchens expresses reservations as well as admiration:

Edward had a slight tendency to self-pity, and the same chord was struck even in the best of his literary work, which often expressed a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood…Yet he was famously thin-skinned and irascible, as I have good reason to remember, if any criticism became directed at himself…And he was capable of stooping to mere abuse when attacking other dissidents—particularly other Arab dissidents, and most particularly Iraqi and Kurdish ones—with whom he did not agree. I simply had to stop talking to him about Iraq over the past two years. He could only imagine the lowest motives for those in favor of regime change in Baghdad, and he had a vivid tendency to take any demurral as a personal affront.

And then he adds a beautiful grace note…

But it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended. Too many people survive, or imagine that they do, by coarsening themselves and by protectively dulling their sensitivity to the point of acceptance. This would never be Edward’s way.

Cockburn, by contrast, simply cheers the rage and resentment.

How many times, after a week, a month or more, I have reached him on the phone and within a second been lofted in my spirits, as we pressed through our updates: his trips, his triumphs, the insults sustained; the enemies rebuked and put to flight. Even in his pettiness he was magnificent, and as I would laugh at his fury at some squalid gibe hurled at him by an eighth-rate scrivener, he would clamber from the pedestal of martyrdom and laugh at himself…He never became blase in the face of friendship and admiration, or indeed honorary degrees, just as he never grew a thick skin. Each insult was as fresh and as wounding as the first he ever received.

An understandable, all-too-human flaw. surely, but too closely related to an overvaluation of self to be simply celebrated, I would have thought.

It’s also interesting to note that Hitchens reports Said had the same experience with acolytes that Terry Eagleton did.

…a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood. (I am thinking of certain passages in his Orientalism and some of the essays in Culture and Imperialism as well.) He was sometimes openly alarmed at the use made of his scholarship by younger academic poseurs who seemed to despise the classical canon of literature that he so much revered.

Oh those dreaded acolytes.

Second Stanza

Sep 28th, 2003 8:56 pm | By

And then fashion, chapter two. (You’ll think I’m obsessed. But then, it’s so important, isn’t it. We could label almost anything fashion. We learn from each other, we teach each other, and the more we learn and teach the better, yet it’s possible to call any of that teaching and learning ‘fashion’.) There is a very interesting interview with Terry Eagleton in the Independent, in which fashion plays a large though not quite explicit part.

But isn’t this a trend of his own making? The elusive pleasures of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault et al would surely have remained safely obscured from the masses if Eagleton’s passionate primer hadn’t burst on to student bookshelves and into their brains. “Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on that particular bandwagon,” says Eagleton, breathtakingly. “Inevitably,” he adds, more convincingly, “those ideas grow out of or are developments of ideas that I’ve been involved in. Postmodernism grew out of Marxism and so on, so, to the extent that I’ve been involved in that whole game, I’m responsible. Of course,” he continues, with a huge grin, “I would say that I’ve been ill-served by my acolytes.”

As so often happens. One could argue that Marx was ill-served by his, Darwin by some of his (Herbert Spencer springs to mind, followed by Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel), Nietzsche ditto; Rousseau, Blake, Byron, Carlyle, Emerson, Dewey – they all have a lot to answer for. But what then? One hardly wants to recommend that no one propound novel or at least unfamiliar ideas lest some talentless epigones come along and adopt them stupidly.

It is certainly true that Eagleton has been “ill-served by his acolytes”, those jargon-spouting, willfully obfuscating and, sadly, often not too bright purveyors of the kinds of arguments that prefer to loop endlessly rather than take the risk of any kind of original thought. Whoever bears the responsibility for this cultural mire – and only a conspiracy theorist could lay the blame entirely at Eagleton’s DM-shod feet – there is, he believes, an urgent need for fresh, and more profound, thinking about the world we are in. After Theory outlines just some of them. With his characteristic lucidity and wit, it charts the gains and losses of cultural theory and its refusal, or inability, to engage with the Big Issues: not just political, but moral and metaphysical, too.

There you are then. That’s all anyone can do – just keep talking, and if the trend goes wrong, offer a correction.

Follow That Herd

Sep 28th, 2003 8:25 pm | By

This column by David Aaronovitch raises a lot of perennially interesting and chronically unanswerable questions. What is fashion? Who is fashionable? According to whom? In what circles? Who gets to decide? Does it matter?

This question comes up a lot on B&W, not surprisingly. Well it would, wouldn’t it, since we take ourselves (self-flatteringly enough) to be fighting fashionable nonsense, and since we have a fashionable dictionary. Clearly we think we have some idea of what’s fashionable. But equally clearly we’re using the word in a pretty narrow sense, or at least to apply to a pretty narrow population. We’re not talking about runways and models fashion, nor about best-seller list, this week’s top-grossing movie, Top Forty, hit tv show-fashion. But we are still talking about fashion, even though it is minority or coterie fashion. But coteries often have influence out of all proportion to their numbers, so it’s always worth looking at fashion among people with influence.

But it has to be done with care. It’s an easy pejorative, ‘fashionable’ is. Just as ‘politically correct’ is, and for much the same sorts of reasons. It’s one of those ‘Yes Minister’ irregular verbs again – ‘I am hip, you are fashionable, she is a sheep.’ (In fact I wrote an essay for TPM on this tension a couple of months ago.) So Aaronovitch marvels at the notion that Tariq Ali’s polemic against the occupation of Iraq is unfashionable while Aaronovitch’s position on the war in Iraq is fashionable.

The ‘fashionable lurch to the Right’ is, in terms of the war in Iraq (which is what we are really talking about), the least fashionable thing that some of us have ever done. The entire bien-pensant world, every political actress, every talking painter, every modish singer, every T-shirt designer, every clever cartoonist, every radio quiz-show panelist, every TV critic, every professionally young person who can string three words together, has been against us and with Tariq Ali. We have not just been wrong on balance, but wrong beyond discussion, wrong beyond the possibility of being the slightest bit right. Fashionable? We might just as well have ventured into Tate Modern wearing mullet hair and tartan hot-pants.

It’s a fair point. This is yet another kind of confirmation bias at work. People I don’t agree with are fashionable while I’m bravely independent and so are all my friends…


Sep 25th, 2003 7:51 pm | By

One can see from this story how hopeless it is to try to reconcile worries about injustice, torture, inequity, barbaric punishments, misogyny, and just outright cruelty and brutality and bloody awful ugliness, with worries about being tolerant and broad-minded and not colonialist or cultural imperialist or Eurocentric.

Prosecutors argued Ms Lawal’s child was living proof she committed a crime under Sharia. However, defence lawyers countered that under some interpretations of Sharia, babies can remain in gestation in a mother’s womb for five years, raising the possibility that her ex-husband could have fathered the child.

That’s interesting. What if there were no such interpretations of Sharia? What if every possible interpetation of Sharia that anyone could find anywhere held that a woman who had a baby that was not her divorced husband’s should be buried up to her neck and stoned to death? What then? How would defence lawyers counter the prosecutors in that case?

To put it another way, what would we all think if the court had not overturned the execution? What would we think if it had gone ahead? Would we think Sharia was a disgusting nightmare that should be stamped out as fast as possible? Or would we think it’s none of our business.

This is the same question I always wonder about when people earnestly discuss the Koran and earnestly assure us that Sharia and the Taliban are aberrations, that fundamentalist Muslims misunderstand the Koran, that really in many ways it’s very egalitarian about women. Okay, I think, but what if it weren’t? Would everyone still go on finding excuses for Islam? Or would people summon up the nerve to just go ahead and reject that whole method of deciding on morality wholesale. It seems so obvious. 1500-year-old or 3000-year-old books dictated by a deity are not the best source for guidance on how to treat people in the real world. They’re just not.