Monday, September 14, 2009

On Radicalism

The great Michael Bérubé has an excellent piece in this week's Chronicle Review about the failures of Cultural Studies. Entrenched as I am in one discipline I can't speak very well as to whether he is right or wrong overall, although within musicology, I think he is sadly quite right that the methods of Cultural Studies has become almost exclusively identified with popular music, and are all too rarely brought to bear upon the canon.

What struck me most about his essay, however, was a point made towards the end of the essay having to do with the relationship between the original British cultural studies folk and Thatcherism. In it he puts voice to a certain discomfort I feel with political discourse on the left these days. This paragraph, in which he heavily quotes the work of Stuart Hall, is key:
In an especially rich essay...Hall wrote: "The first thing to ask about an 'organic' ideology that, however unexpectedly, succeeds in organizing substantial sections of the masses and mobilizing them for political action, is not what is false about it but what is true." What, in other words, actively makes sense to people whose beliefs you do not share? Hall proposed that leftist intellectuals should not answer that question by assuming that working-class conservatives have succumbed to false consciousness: "It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas 'they'—the masses—are the dupes of history, 'we'—the privileged—are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation."

I find this particularly trenchant because sometimes it feels as if we on the left are spending most of our time complaining about how crazy and radical the right is. It is not that I don't agree that the right is crazy, and also wrong. They are both. Especially the wrong part. And although this might be a slightly heretical statement, I have the distinct impression that the endless chain of right-wing frenzies in these last eight months--teabagging, the birthers, Glenn Beck, Joe Wilson, etc--have been driven by left discourse as much as by right. I a nutshell, I think we are spending too much time convincing ourselves that the opposition is crazy, and not enough time either promoting our own agenda, or, in a true Cultural Studies fashion, considering what might be "right" about the opposition, and working within and against it.

For example: this weekend there was a big anti-Obama protest in DC. The left has had a field day with the overt racism of the event, not to mention its conceptual incoherence. Fair enough. But what good does it do to snicker, as one of the Daily Kos editors did on their main page, that most of the protestors were country folk who didn't know proper escalator protocol?

Lord knows I think those marchers were idiots. But you know, I've been to marches in DC, and in those marches have myself been on the radical fringe. For example, in April of 2002, I went to DC as part of a large protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, and preemptively against the stirrings of War in Iraq. To protest our country's (largely imaginary) retaliation against Afghanistan was, and still is, unthinkable in our current mainstream political discourse. And even within that already unthinkable position, I was part of a group that attempted to introduce a specifically-queer critique to the surrounding. We carried signs that said things like "Sex Toys Not War Games." It was college, we had a good time.

This is all to say, I've been that crazy holding a weird sign on the lawn in front of the Capitol building. And I therefore have an appreciation for that particular kind of inchoate political anger. Sure, those people out there on the Mall last Saturday were having their anger channelled and shaped by Dick Armey and Glenn Beck, but frankly, ours back in 2002 was shaped, largely against our will, by ANSWER. And despite that, and despite the utter failure of those anti-war marches to achieve their goal, marching against the war was a very affirming experience. It plugged us into a wider world of activists; it built community.

I hope the anti-Obama protestors fail in their goals. But I suspect that at the very least they will feel that sense of community. And if we on the left really want to make permanent change, really want to change people's lives, then we have got to respect their passions to the extent we can. And even less than that, I just don't see what it good it does to put all this work into convincing ourselves that they are crazy. Really, all we are doing when we complain about the marchers, or Joe Wilson shouting "You Lie," is register an appeal to the centrist political discourse for a judgment in our favor--"Look, they are out of bounds! Choose us!" I hate to break it to us, but in a world where mild government subsidies for health care is the "radical left" position, the center is never going to rule in our favor. Best to do without their help.

What we learn from Cultural Studies is that indeed, the corporate-produced media works in its own interest above all else. But the rejoinder is that no matter what the corporate media--read capitalism at large--produces, it is a big mistake to believe that those interests are automatically injected into those who consume it. If it is that simple, then we should just give up and go home. In reality, we know over and over again from cultural studies that people consume that media so as to produce a multiplicity of often divergent meanings, and towards divergent ends.

How then, should we best respond to the anti-Obama protesters? I certainly don't mean to suggest we validate their feelings and give them hugs. But I think there are more subversive ways to criticize; I rather liked the approach of a cousin-in-law of mine, who with his friend went to Saturday's march holding fake signs. (His read: "Gee, There Sure Are a Lot of White People Here.)

But as usual, there is no real substitute for engagement, and for emphasizing commonalities over difference. Sometimes the best political action of all is conversation. And in the meantime, let's get this goddamn middling health care reform passed, alright?


KG said...

I've been reading a lot of wonderful analyses on the tea-bagging protests and the rather strange alliance between the Ron Paul types and the LaRouche types. The position of these folks on the fringe was very present during the 2008 campaign. The difference now is that they've figured out how to be heard by MSM outlets. Their philosophy is so internally consistent that it's impossible to discuss or argue with them. When Palin or Wilson can just declare that our arguments are lies and have that actually work, something else is afoot. The core emotional strength of their hate is impenetrable.

One thing that gay rights advocates have learned is that reason rarely wins out over emotion in public debates. The argument may make sense, but it doesn't cut through the noise the way that raw fear does. What else explains why W. got (re-)elected? I think we on the left need to be harnessing more of that raw emotional power in our arguments. Otherwise we come off as aloof, hyper-intellectual elitists.

(Sorry for the lengthy response...)

Zach said...

Amen. The perspective from cultural theory that you bring to bear here is important to remember as we descend, I fear, further into slimy manipulation and money-fueled misinformation on health care.

On the other hand, the protests on Saturday seemed to be a blatant retaliation against Obama's rousing speech on Wednesday. And, frankly, the more shrill, irrational, and idiotic these protests become, the louder the death knell on this sort of crazy conservatism grows. Spreading demonstrable lies while yelling "You lie!" during a presidential speech cannot be good for the soul of right wing conservatism.

JJ said...

Great Post.

It's a struggle to walk the line between shinning a light on racism, ignorance and stupidity vs. giving them more promotion than they deserve.

Not sure where what we did falls in, but I'm glad you liked it. If nothing else it's good for a few laughs during the constant drumbeat of crappy healthcare news.

6.54 said...

Thanks for referencing this in your latest post, I'd set it aside to read and then lost my tabs when I accidentally closed Firefox without saving.

I would only add skepticism that the perceived radicalism of healthcare reform is related to the actual radicalism of healthcare reform: the opposition would probably be this fierce regardless of what Obama proposed. Reform could have been (& could yet be) a huge handout to the insurance companies, and would still be painted as crazy leftist policy by the far right and by a news media with, as you say, its own interest in maintaining the conflict (which in this case means making the conflict seem much bigger and widespread than it actually is).

On a related note, the westboro baptist church is coming to my neighborhood. I'd love to think they'd be worth talking to, but really, I do think they're just crazy. This, for example, is in their picket schedule: "Obama is the Antichrist and is going to be that weapon by which the Lord Jesus Christ, The King of the Place, destroys apostate Jews." Whattt????

PMG said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. And yeah, Westboro Baptist Church is a good test case of trying to understand conservatives, in that trying to do so could very well lead to physical harm, to me at least. The racist teabaggers would probably at least entertain my conversation, coming from a white guy, wheras you can just ask the hapless black street vendors at the march what happens when they tried to engage!

The interesting thing about the LaRouche-ites is that they were all over the anti-war marches too. Now there's a subculture I would like to see someone do an ethnography of!