Monday, December 28, 2009

The Left at War

I hope, before taking a sabbatical of sorts, to review Michael Bérubé's The Left at War. However, I have occasion, ahead of schedule, to point out one of his arguments for this discussion here. It's terribly premature, in part because I've yet to get to chapter 5, but with the kids over I doubt I'll read that chapter tonight. Speaking of which, I'm drinking, and any typos are mine.

At one point, Bérubé contrasts a Tom Tomorrow cartoon (read it; good stuff that I'd copy, except I don't want to deal with copyright here) with some stuff said by Todd Gitlin, Marc Cooper (and, I'm sure, many others).

Bérubé writes (92, cartoon on 91):
Following a line of thought laid down by Richard Rorty in the 1990s (Achieving Our Country) (a line of argument to which I return in chapter 5), Gitlin and Cooper chastised the Manichean Left for (among other things) it's lack of patriotism; but, by the logic of the argument I am developing here, that was the wrong line of thought to pursue, for it hardened that wing of the left in its conviction that "mainstream opinion" attributed the attacks simply to al-Qaeda's "hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage," and that such an explanation was, as Chomsky said, "completely at variance with everything we know" though it has "all the merits of self-adulation and uncritical support for power" (Radio B92). For the Manichean left, Gitlin's and Cooper's appeals to American patriotism were prima facie evidence that such appeals were craven accomodations to power; but because Tom Tomorrow's appeal to American values clearly--and ironically, because tacitly--suggests that (a) secular humanist ideals should properly be international ideals and (b) American leaders are traducing them even as they invoke them, there is a qualitiative difference between this cartoon and Gitlin's and Cooper's analyses of patriotism and the left.
He goes on to clarify his point, in case anyone thinks he simply supports witty cartoons. It was important for leftists to lay claim to certain values without making this a concession to the right. One might limit the impact of Bérubé's claim by saying it's a matter of poetics, of being able to craft rhetoric to accomodate multiple constraints, but if so it's surely an important matter of poetics.

Another matter, that one (at least one coming from a certain direction) must also understand as informing the argument, arises early and often when Bérubé rejects what I'll call "windowless" relevatism. Much of what he writes is informed by the simple acknowledgement that a debate, in order to be productive, must be conducted according to agreed upon rules of debate. More often, in this world, there is no such agreement, and so there is little productive engagement. But it is a mistake to assume that your own rules of debate are superior. To do this, you wind up arguing in circles. "I'm right because my arguments produce a better result according to my standards." Or, "The Bible is true because it's God's word, which I know to be true because the Bible tells me so." He deals with this at great length in Rhetorical Occasions while discussing the Sokal affair and the relevance to that affair of the Jean-François Lyotard/Jürgen Habermas debate. Following Lyotard to an extreme could produce a certain relativism that ought to be criticized, but it is a mistake of many anti-postmodernists to exaggerate that view to make it a strawman supportive of any convenient value system. There's a story in my Zen tradition. A student once asked Dae Soen Sa Nim, "What if we take all the candles and incense and robes and just throw them all out the window?" One of the great draws for students of Zen these days is the teaching, "no form," but there's lots of form everywhere in the teaching, so students have questions like this. Dae Soen Sa Nim replied, "You still have a window." Windowless relativism fails because it simply ignores the window. (Attachment to emptiness or perhaps "nirvana sickness" in Zen lingo.) It isn't the absence of any value system; rather it is a particular value system that only thinks it's the absence of a value system. Bérubé gets this, so he's able to recognize his own view as his own view. It's a strength of his, to be a relativist of sorts standing on solid ground. In The Left at War Bérubé repeatedly acknowledges that he finds it useful to have values, contrasting himself with Slavoj Žižek, for instance, who is too quick to reject values such as freedom for vague promises of a superior and leftier leftiism.

So he's not about compromising or de-emphasizing his values, which are geniunely leftist even if he doesn't emphasize how leftist they are. He is about engaging with the political center. What he's against is the attitude of superiority that says, "I'm better than all those sheeple," that reinscribes elitism in the name of populism. It may seem he's walking a ridge between the liberal reformists and those leftier-than-thou. It would be better to say he's walking a ridge between those complaining of cliffs on each side, but it would be better yet to redefine the landscape.

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