Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Les extremes se touchent

Frank also includes a footnote on p. 277 that reminded me of something my father told me years ago, when I was in college in the 1980s and campus identity politics were nearing their apogee. My father said that identity politics was basically a right-wing phenomenon, in that it effaced class and thus masked from people their true interests. This seemed an odd observation at the time, given the strident leftist posturing of the early identity politicians. But here’s Frank:
In denying its own agency, as well as in many other ways, the backlash is a precise mirror image of the pseudo-leftist academic discipline known as cultural studies. According to this theoretical tendency, the most banal and routine culture-products are intensely political and subversive; the left is constantly but silently winning the war over everyday life; and even the lowliest of consumers are endowed with massive quantities of agency, with a stupendous power to exert their radical will in the world. For the backlash, on the other hand, nobody has agency except for people on the left. We, the Middle Americans, are utterly powerless to change our culture—to ban abortions or outlaw sodomy or build Ten Commandment Monuments—or to prevent the left from wrecking everyday life. And yes, the backlash agrees, everything is politicized—the way you mow your lawn, the color you paint your house, whether or not you ride a bicycle—but politicized negatively. Everything offends; everything is calculated to advance liberalism’s plot to make the culture more to its liking. Backlashers are, in fact, just about the only people in the world who would agree with the professors who find all sorts of subversiveness in Madonna and Britney and Christina Aguilera. A final, telling commonality: neither movement bothers seriously to consider the role of business in American life or culture.
In making this observation, Frank puts his finger on the fundamental and salient point about wingjob politics: this is the identity politics of the right. And right-wing identity politics is just as loathesome as "leftist" identity politics -- and just as self-defeating from a "self-interest" perspective.

Then again, identity politics have never been about self-interest -- though the leftist variety tended to connect a little more easily to self-interest by advocating various forms of preferential admissions and hiring practices. Rather, identity politics is about expressive individualism, in other words, about finding a way to make yourself known and heard and understood: a Hegelian quest for recognition much more than a Nietzschean will to power.

What's frightening -- or, alternatively, amusing -- about the current Republican Party is that it has managed to hitch the angry masses' desire for Hegelian recognition to the plow of a corporate will to power. As Frank concludes:

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targetting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting a black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

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