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.

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