Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whose side am I on?

I'm beginning to think that there something to the claim that intellectual honesty and political action are exclusive to one another. I'm concerned about a few points made by a guest author in my fave political blog.

The gist of the article (though you ought to read it in its entirety) is that Obama has a moral code concealed beneath his rhetoric, and it is a code of American progressivism. Now it would be difficult to argue with this thesis; contrary to the author's implications, I think this is true of any progressive--Obama is different primarily in his sophistication. I'm ot worried with this claim, though, but only with the author's willingness to accept at face-value the manufactured image of Obamidealism.

One way of expressing my reticense to stand alongside Professor Lakoff's position is his perception of conservatives--or the conservative part of conservatives--as radically ideologically or epistemelogically different from progressives. (Aside: I'm mildly concerned with the turn away from "liberal" and toward "conservative." I'm not convinced that the best way to counter the conservative slandering of the word "liberal" is to abandon it.) My main concern is with Lakoff's claim that progressivism is about empathy while conservatism is about greed. This is alternatively voiced as social versus individual responsibility.

I think it's unempathetic to suggest that conservatives--social conservatives seem to be the target here--are unempathetic. Indeed, I think the distinction here ought to be between empathy and sympathy. It is a mistake--clearly an enabling and strategic mistake--to presume that one can understand what it is like to be in someone else's shoes. I think that conservatives *do* see social issues from multiple positions, but that these positions are based on fear, not sympathy. Gay rights typifies this for me: it seems that the most vocal homophobic leaders are the most likely to be found sneaking in a little gay love. Clearly these men have no trouble seeing the world from a non-heterosexual position (I will avoid calling them gay; there's a lot more to same-sex sex than homosexuality); the difference between how Ted Haggard empathises with gay men and how I do is that he's scared and angry and I am sympathetic. In other words, the difference is between viewing difference as positive or negative. The conservative (read: misogynist, homophobic, racist, etc.) position is that difference is disruptive and distructive, and in so far as empathy is involved, it manifests as fear and violence. Progressives, on the other hand, view difference as positive and generative, and our empathy manifests as sympathy and acceptence--and sometimes condescention. Both--all--forms of empathy are misreadings.

There are a few other points I would touch on (like Lakoff's strange claim that "Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way."), but if this gets much longer, it would have to bounce over to my other blog. I'll close with a few comments on intellecutal honesty.

Lakoff's piece is put forward as an intellectual exploration of Obama's presedency, but what is really going on is something quite different (Lakoff's structure parallels his reading of Obama in this respect). The piece is much more a call to action. And this in itself is no problem for me: everything is written, I suspect, with the intent of coersion of some sort, and Lakoff's politics are, I think, quite positive. What troubles me is his rather hasty and dismissive over-simplification of conservatives as focussed on greed and individuality, while progressives can lay sole claim to community and empowerment. A crucial enabling step here is a lack of differentiation between economic and social conservatism--social conservatives are very much concerned with community and long-term stability; they just seek this aim at the expense, rather than the inclusion, of minority positions.

I don't think that trivializing--and ultimately dehumanizing or de-ethicizing--conservatives does anything productive toward subverting their programs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I've been puzzled by the intensity of my distaste for this band for some time. It's playing right now, and I think I'm edging my way closer to understanding.

So far there are three things.
1) The musicianship, in terms of the quality of the notes produced, is affectedly poor. One comes away with the sense that the singer and trumpet particularly are deliberately avoiding producing a euphonous sound in favor of creating a "quirky" atmosphere. Bad intonation and unsteady tone production work to great effect in this venture, turning the ensemble from a well-knit body into a haphazard coalition of armchair tunesters.

Which has something to do with my second point:

2) The success of this venture of stylized incompetence relies, at least in this case, on a condescending valorization of the colonized. It is not coincidental that the rhythms and harmonies, as well as the instrumentation, mime a non-specific Eastern European Gypsy-ness. But the reason this is hip is not because of its geo-historical origin, but because the music itself struggles. There are any number of very good (and hard-working) groups that play in this general ideom, but Americans--particularly left-leaning, well off Americans--eat us Devochka because they're so bad at making pretty music that you can practically hear the (post)colonial struggle. But of course, the struggle in the music is fake. It is a banal placation of affluent guilt, a cheap trick.

3) The third point is less theoretical. It bothers me that a band so dependent for its identity on ideosyncratic rhythms cannot play them in time. Everything is wonky and late, and with an awkwardness that reflects the above, not with any sensibility.
This is part one in a Demetri Martin routine:

He's a pretty funny dude, but the autobiographical character of this particular routine makes this something different than just funny to me. Just sharing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Piss and vinegar

I got a new coupbla books Tuesday. One of them is part of a marvelous series, of which I am already privileged enough to own two. It is called Feminist Interpretations of G.F.W. Hegel. I've read only the introduction so far (though I've read two of the chapters in their original publications), and already there's a substantial difference in my thinking. Not because I've been exposed to new ideas (indeed, I've thought these thoughts before) but because I'm back in feminist theory. woooooo. So back to politics of lack and difference and sameness and normativity. I get to be insuffereable again :).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The worst thing I have ever heard

A friend of a friend of a friend of mine is pregnant. When she went in for the sonogram last, the doctor discovered her child is not growing brain cells, and will die immediately upon being born. She will carry the child to term because late-term abortions are illegal.