Monday, January 31, 2005

Moronic tales from Belgravia

Over in London, Greg's hyperventilating about the undoubtedly moronic claims of an obscure political scientist named Ward Churchill, who has for years been spouting vile rhetoric about how the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9-11 were "little Eichmanns." Now, eviscerating Churchill for this sort of stuff is all well and good, but Greg goes further in a highly telling, or rather symptomatic, way:

How are all these little vignettes connected to the idiocy and amoral musings of a Ward Churchill? Only to the extent that I suspect that a byproduct of the 60's, that is to say a heightening of a postmodern condition characterized by incredulity to metanarratives, rank skepticism regarding the existence of Truth capital T; the moronic obsession with political correctness and debunking the baddies of the dead, white, male canon, the obsession with rights, rights rights! (but never talk of corollary responsibilities), and so on--all contribute to an intellectual climate characterized by Derrida-like gaming about, pastiche and bricolage, relativism and innate distrust of 'power structures', a detached, ironic stance. You see much of such trends, taken overboard in cretinous fashion, in Ward Churchill's 'essay' quoted above. But, and this is a somewhat different point, I firmly believe that one of the reasons that Bush is so unpopular is, simply, that he is so totally unironic. To Clinton's glib, smirkily-delivered "it depends on what the meaning of is is"--Bush speaks of the United States' mission as ending tyranny on the planet (and he really means it!). In an era permeated by cynicism (Peter Sloterdijk has, in another context, talked about an "enlightened false consciousness")--Bush is unabashedly appealing to what seems like a philosophically incorrect and almost embarrasingly retro idealism to marshall against fanatical terrorists. And, complicating the sell and task, and unlike the struggle against communism under Reagan, terrorism is not considered as pressing a challenge as the Soviets were by many in large swaths of Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

So Bush is attempting to hoist a bold, meta-narrative on a highly dubious international community (who breezily equate, carping from the sidelines at the primitive antagonists--his robust idealism with the fanatical nihilism of our foes--as too many have become overly unmoored from making value judgements as they dwell in a cynical, postmodern millieu). Put differently, such broad, meta-narratives aren't even supposed to exist anymore. Whether the destabilizations borne of WWI or, relatedly, Picasso's cubism, or, much later, Watergate-era cynicism, or even the late 19th Century developments with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or Dosotoesky's revolutionary subjectivism--the canvas is supposed to be disconcerted, chaotic, ever-changing--John Coltrane to a Beethoven Symphony. And, like some odd Prophet from another era, Bush bangs on about freedom in our time and an end to tyranny....

Like most bloggers, Greg's posting was mostly greeted with cheers from like-minded readers, but there was some dissent, and I'll give Greg credit for the fact that he makes a point of regularly airing the correspondence of those who disagree with him. Here's the email he quoted:

I meant to write to you earlier today about your Churchill post, but others I see have beat me to it. Still, I have somewhat different criticisms. So I agree with you about the shocking degree to which views like Churchill's are widespread. I remember similar conversations after 9/11. But I disagree a) that they all originate in a love of irony and b) that this attitude is behind Bush hatred. First of all b) I know so many people who had the same reaction to 9/11 that you and I had, and who hated the Churchill people as much as anyone, who are clear and violent Bush-haters. As I remember it the Iraq war was really what set the fire. These people are not overly ironic or cynical or relativistic. But they felt (rightly or wrongly) that the Iraq war was wrong and worse, that it was dishonestly pursued and exploited 9/11 for purposes quite foreign to it. I don't agree with this view, but it doesn't fit into your picture, and anecdotally speaking it is extremely common.

Secondly, a lot of opposition to Bush like anti-Americanism generally is actually very idealistic and un-ironic. Take all the world's human rights activists for instance. They hate Bush to a man, but you would hardly call them ironic or cynical or relativistic. They hate him because they see him as an enemy of human rights. Likewise, a lot of al-Qaeda's tacit and explicit supporters are ideological; they are Third-Worldist in some form or other and so basically America is seen as a quasi-colonial power that exploits the third world to feed its own materialist capitalist appetites etc. etc. and so deserves what it gets. Plenty wrong with this view, but not a love of irony or hatred of straightforward idealism, at least not obviously.

Still, I have to say I'm glad to see that the Ward Churchill's of the world can still ignite the outrage they deserve.

To which Greg allows, "I didn't mean to indicate that the prevalence of irony in the postmodern millieu was the only variable causing much of the Bush hatred. Far from it, of course. Still, I take Zena's points." A big-hearted concession, you might say.

Actually, Greg's correspondent didn't go far enough in his takedown of Greg's symptomatic maundering. Not only can one can dislike Bush and his policies -- including, above all, his Iraq policies -- without being a relativist or an ironist, but even if one is an ironist, one can support the war effort. For evidence, look no further than Andrew Sullivan's blog, where irony and pro-war sentiments go cheek and jowl on a daily basis. (If you prefer visual proof of Sullivan's proclivity for camp, pastiche, and irony, just check out this picture from Time Out. In the article, Sullivan even frets about whether readers of Time Out will know that he's, well, ironizing.)

In fact there is no causal link between anti-foundationalist philosophical notions ("postmodernism" as Greg would have it) and political amorality, or even dovishness. Moreover, it's pretty much hopeless to try to prove such a link, because the nature of irony and anti-foundationalism is that it occupies a null space: it demands silence as to positivity. Inasmuch as anti-foundationalism question all verities and destabilizes certainties, it should be pretty obvious that by definition it cannot be tied to any single set of positive beliefs.

A small precaution: I am convinced of the essential epistemological correctness of anti-foundationalism. However, I also recognize that in order to act, one must set aside anti-foundationalist tenets and make decisions in the face of ineradicable uncertainty. Now, if Greg had argued that anti-foundationalism has a tendency to make it difficult to act without hesitation or equivocation, he would have been making an important and profound point. I might even have been sympathetic to the argument that a deeply-felt commitment to anti-foundationalist ideas may be inappropriate to the mental make-up of those who wield power in dangerous times. It is almost certainly politically wise to insist that those who wield power not find analytical uncertainty paralyzing. Weilders of power must be people who can act even in the knowledge that there exist "unknown unknowns," to use Rumsfeld's unjustly-maligned bon mot. And whatever one's normative judgment of whether this is a good or bad kind of character trait, there is little doubt that the material conditions of high power tend to weed out vacillators and equivocators.

[Update, 11:59 am: The requirement of decisive action in the face of ineluctable uncertainty is a good argument in favor of Bush's leadership, even a good argument in favor of the war in Iraq; indeed, that was Bush's argument for going to war, e.g. "We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." But acting in the face of uncertainty can only be judged by results, and here is where, pace the "accountibility moment" three months ago, Bush has failed. In fact, the main problem with Bush is not that he reaches policy decisions on the basis of too little evidence; it's the he reaches policy decisions on the basis of no evidence other than domestic political logic.]

Alas, such an argument would not have served Greg's purpose -- a purpose related to historical argument in the same way that Impressionism relates to mimesis. In fact, Greg's posting is less interesting as a historical argument than as a manifestation of the irritable mental gestures that today pass for ideas on the right regarding the etiology of all they consider wrong with the contemporary world. Once upon a time, the right-wing argument goes, prior to the publication of Of Grammatology and its military analog, the Tet Offensive, all was right in the world. Men believed in certainties and verities, the womenfolk trusted them, and the children obeyed. There was never any doubt on the right course of action. Then came "the Sixties" -- a scare word for all that's wrong with the world today -- and bada-boom-bada-bing the cultural contradictions of capitalism became manifest, the country went yella, and the hippies, vegans and bra-burners took over. Everybody began to doubt everything and as a result everything went to hell. And so it went... until finally Reagan came back and beat the Communists.

Needless to say, this nonsense isn't an actual historical narrative (much less metanarrative); rather, it's ideological positioning masquerading as an historical argument. What gives Greg away are his rhetorical flourishes. For example, the title of his post is "Moronic Tales from Academia." Academia? He presents evidence of claptrap from one political scientist at one third-tier college, and then extrapolates that to all of academia? Must be those damn liberal intellectual elites again! (In fact, academia is a much more heterodox place than the right wing think tanks that house the irritable mental gesturists, for reasons I explain here.)

The terrible writing of the post, which several people commented on, is also telling. The ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness rant makes one suspect that Greg was drinking while he wrote it. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was the best expression he could make for his ideas. In any event, what we find is the argumentative equivalent of a drunken brawler wildly swinging his arms around in the hopes that at least a few of his punches will land, and if not, at least the baddie will be frightened away by the febrile effort. What's wrong with Ward Churchill -- scratch that -- what's wrong with academia is "a byproduct of the 60's"! no wait, it's a result of "incredulity to metanarratives"! actually, it's "political correctness"! no, "debunking the canon"! "Derrida"! "pastiche and bricolage"! "relativism"! "irony"! "Clinton"! "cynicism"! Against all this, stands only... Reagan.

Hell yeah! Tear down that wall!

The next paragraph continues in the same vein, even more amusingly: anti-Americanism, Greg "suspects" (oh telling word), is the result of nihilism... cubism... cynicism... Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dosotoesky... even poor John Coltrane gets blamed. All of which in some vague way connected in Greg's mind to a desire to appease Islamic radicals, and all of which is resisted only by... Beethoven and Bush.

Hey Greg, pass the scotch....

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