Saturday, April 14, 2007

Red state of mind?

Written 5 January 2007:

“Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.”

—Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia
In re:
Press, Eyal. “In God’s Country,” The Nation, November 20, 2006.

The author reviews a spate of recent books on the political dominance of the religious Right and the atheist and secularist counterattack, including Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, seeking to dispel popular misconceptions. Evangelical Christianity is to be found among the lower classes everywhere, not just in the ‘red states’. Furthermore, the moral issues that concern these voters most are class issues (and even environmental issues), not predominantly the wedge issues that preoccupy its well-organized right wing. Also, there is a history of religious militancy in the service of radical causes from Abolitionism to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Religion had never declined as some people thought in the 1960s, and so the current state of affairs is not a break with the past. Nor is there any inherent reason that fundamentalism need ally with right wing politics. Black Americans are as religiously conservative as their white counterparts, yet even with some conservative attitudes, their support for the Democratic Party is solid. Even white supporters of the Republican Party oppose many of its actions.

The conservative views of this religious constituency are not to be discounted, but one should take pause before dismissing this mass of religious believers outright, as does Sam Harris in his latest book. If believers are ‘deranged’, does this mean the civil rights activists of the ‘50s and ‘60s were deranged as well? How about religionists now engaged in social service? As you might expect, the reviewer trots out the misdeeds of secular tyrants to demonstrate the folly of one-sidedness. The conclusion:

It does mean the secular left should think twice before seeing religious people as their foes, not least since such an attitude risks alienating many potential allies and confining ourselves to a small sect of like-minded believers. This, after all, is what fundamentalism is about.
While all these adduced facts are helpful, and perhaps also the admonition against lumping the entire religious public together in an oversimplified manner, the conclusion is unsatisfactory and not a little annoying. The problem with liberals and the left is not their arrogance toward religion, which, after all, few of them will state openly. The problem is taking a strictly instrumentally political view towards the pros and cons of religion: good when it’s on our side, bad when it’s on the other side. While one cannot choose one’s allies according to one’s liking, there are some deeper issues at stake in understanding the role of religion in a modern, scientific age. The role of religion is a marker of the quality of life, and however the religious positively relate to progressive politics, religious superstition is a marker of ignorance, alienation, and authoritarianism.

The problem of holding people from lower social classes at arm’s length is Janus-faced. By treating the “masses” as an anonymous collectivity, one condemns the non-conformists and dissidents among them to continued invisibility. So it never occurs to the guilt-ridden liberal or radical to think of the individuals suffering under the conformity and cruelty of the communities in which they are trapped. This is as bad as thinking oneself too good for the unwashed masses. Either way, it’s all about the capitulation to naked power.

The author fails to delve deeply enough into the dilemma we now face. He and others are on the right track in analyzing how the ‘red/blue’-state divide came to be. However, the destruction of liberalism, the isolation of its upper middle class adherents, and the descent of the nation into unbridled irrationalism, comprise an historical phenomenon that requires a deeper focus.

The USA in particular has always manifested an acute contradiction between its coexisting ultramodern and primitivist aspects, which stem from the conditions of the colonization of the American continent. We know what contradictions led up to the nation’s paramount crisis, the Civil War, which is still being fought. But, to adjust the focus for a moment, consider the contradictions that obtained at the moment Franklin Roosevelt took office: imagine the contrast between the skyscrapers of New York and the regions of the rural South that had never known electricity. Setting aside consideration of the unstable coalition that formed the backbone of the New Deal, consider the New Deal as an alliance of the New Class with the laboring masses. While the latter may have been dodgy in their commitment to a rational view of the world, and in some instances even to a secular society, it was a social order that made sense to them and worked to their advantage. In spite of the setbacks of McCarthyism, the liberal intellectual elite was in a position to maintain the fiction of the “American creed” and the consensus view of American politics. While some recognized the fragility of this alleged consensus, the illusion of stability of the Cold War liberal order maintained some credibility until it came apart in the late ‘60s.

One must understand how the Right exploited the weakening of the same liberal state the left opposed. The New Left rebelled against alienation, bureaucratic elitism, and the impersonal secular order and did not limit itself to traditional bread-and-butter issues or even equality under the law for disadvantaged groups. The political crisis of the late ‘60s, combined with the economic crisis commencing in the ‘70s and the cynicism that took over with Watergate and then stagflation, accompanied by a seismic shift in cultural norms which was the one victory the countercultures were able to sustain, weakened the entire fabric of social legitimation.

The Right absorbed the lessons of recent events and seized upon this key moment of weakness. They too re-discovered their “roots”; they too, learned that “the personal is political.” Cultural liberalism and aspiring minorities maintained a stronghold in the Democratic Party, while the Democratic Party let its white working class base twist in the wind, this after having alienated the white South in the ‘60s. This is an abridged version of my rap—”It’s the ‘70s, stupid!”—but it basically sets the stage for everything that has happened since.

Others have analyzed these developments in one way or another, but I want to inject an additional element: the reversion to irrationalism. Aside from the long-standing irrationalism of the fundamentalists, there are two other social components to consider. The ideological components of the radical political movements and countercultures (which overlapped but did not completely coincide) were all over the place. There were occult and New Age beliefs and practices permeating the ‘counterculture’ (a term which should be pluralized, since all were not white people wearing peace signs and headbands), though these influences were not all-encompassing or all-pervasive. The political movements require additional considerations. Neither they nor their participants were monolithic, but there were irrationalist tendencies in black power, feminist, and New Left circles. These were the ancestors of the postmodernism that surfaced publicly in the ‘80s once the yuppification of the new social movements in the academy was complete.

However, before assessing blame, there is one crucial component to consider: the decline of mainstream liberalism in the ‘70s. This was the major component in the decline of rationalism within the liberal intelligentsia. Its positivism, technocratic optimism, and universalist pretensions were shaken by the new pluralism and the malaise of the late ‘70s. The mainstream of the humanistic and soft social science wing of the intelligentsia began to succumb to irrationalism, as the yuppified elements of the new social movements melded into the mainstream. Before that, the irrationalist tendencies of the countercultures and political movements, however deleterious some of their immediate manifestations and potential long-range effects were, seemed rather self-contained and thus a relatively minor menace. But with the collapse of liberalism, bourgeois rationalism within the ranks of the liberals collapsed, and from this the right, not the left, profited. The impersonal liberal state was seized upon by the New Right, as they too discovered the power of the cultural movement and the implications of the notion that “the personal is political.” Their hatred of the impersonal, unresponsive liberal state morphed into an opportunity to seize political power. The logical end of the breakdown of the rational bourgeois order is precisely the theocratic fascism that threatens us now.

New class liberals, isolated from the working class base of the New Deal/Great Society coalition, could do nothing but exploit the new cultural order. The “liberal media” became “liberal” only in the cultural sense, as the marketplace must maintain friendliness to the range of its consumer base, even while politically the media became more conservative. Hence the culture industry, while giving some sops to the hateful redneck Right, in the form of talk shows of the likes of Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh, gradually institutionalized the culture of cynicism and decadence, which on mainstream television only ran full riot in the ‘90s.

This brings us to the author’s final recommendation. If the liberal-left is going to show more respect for the working class, what is it to do? It is entrapped in a closed-feedback media loop that cannot be broken. Simply consider the nature of hip media satire. The fact is that Al Franken, Jon Stewart, Colbert and the rest constitute a segment of the culture industry produced by and for the hip, cynical upper middle class, and in the final analysis, they are all useless for a radical social critique. These are the same sort of people who gobble up the cynical and sadistic albeit sometimes hilarious degeneracy of South Park and Family Guy.

If bread-and-butter New Dealism is not on the table, or is insufficient as a basis of appeal, what could a cultural politics that would respect the working class possibly look like and could it gain either financial backers, media greenlights, or a consumer base? Must the backwardness and ignorance of working class populations be piously pandered to? On the other hand, is there an alternative to Blue Collar TV? The Nation, after all, is an organ of the upper middle class liberal-left. If these people are feeling guilty about their class privilege and political impotence, should they then genuflect to Dumbfuckistan? Granted that the “liberal”cultural industry cannot bridge the red state/blue state divide—and I’ll add that no matter how assiduously they hype the flavor of the month, Barack Obama spouting his platitudinous bullshit can’t do it either—is there an escape from this vicious circle? I don’t see a way out, but I’ll be damned if pandering to ignorance is the answer.

No comments: