The previous symposium posts and comments are an embarrassment of riches. Doing them justice is out of the question, of course, but here goes.
As Michael notes, “persuasive” is a little slippery. I probably should have written “plausible” instead. I do, though, mostly agree with Richard Bernstein (and E.D. Hirsch, among others) about the desirability of children steeping themselves in the history and literature of their own language, culture, and society before setting out to explore others. To some extent, the reasons are a priori. I believe that outgrowing intense early attachments, and the generally manageable emotional conflicts this involves, are a developmental necessity. Children should first identify with their parents, country, neighborhood, religion, ethnic group, and baseball team. This identification supplies the sense of environmental mastery that is foundational to a healthy psyche. Soon enough they will notice that their parents, country, religion, etc. are imperfect in this way or that. This recognition induces ambivalence about previously unquestioned (moral, cultural, etc.) authority. To grow gradually into this ambivalence – into an acceptance that parents can both love and (sometimes unfairly) punish, that a religion can both inspire and delude, that a baseball team can stink and still be worth rooting for – is an essential maturational task. If it’s not accomplished, then the ambivalence becomes disabling and psychic boundaries unstable; one’s emotional appetites are erratic and outsized; one alternates between resentful submission to authority and indiscriminate rejection.
The same argument (more or less) is made in a non-psychoanalytic form by Michael Walzer in The Company of Critics and Interpretation and Social Criticism. First, according to Walzer, we uncritically assimilate a local history and morality. Later conflicts with other traditions are resolved not by transcending both in favor of cosmopolitan detachment but by reinterpreting the local story, finding a meaning for new experiences in its familiar terms. As in the psychoanalytic case, the secure possession of a specific identity is what enables the recognition of otherness.
So far, pretty abstract. But of course, my sense of how politics and art are related comes first of all from my own experience. I read James’s Portrait of a Lady and Lawrence’s Women in Love before I’d heard of feminism. Imaginative identification with those brave, gifted women and their struggles to lead full, independent lives produced in me an immediate commitment to sexual equality. The same for racial equality, when I encountered Twain’s Nigger Jim, with his ineffable dignity. Blake and Shelley first taught me to question authority. And like Orwell (or was it Shaw? or both?), I came to socialism via Dickens; in my case through those heaven-shaking, heart-stabbing words that follow the death of the poor ragamuffin Jo in Bleak House:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.
Likewise, the masterpieces of Russian, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindu, Urdu, and every other literature furnish plenty of materials for a far-reaching moral and political education – if taught well. If taught badly, no curriculum is much use.
And that’s why I’m skeptical of programmatic multiculturalism – not because it’s multicultural but because it’s a program, bureaucratically designed and administered. (To the extent that it’s the result of individual teacherly enthusiasm, of course, it can only be a good thing.) Taught with passion and imagination, the traditional humanities are moral and political dynamite. But from the cheap plywood of educational methodology, no sturdy or elegant thing was ever fashioned.
Since Bernstein’s book and the high tide of the curriculum wars, another powerful critique of multiculturalism has appeared, this time from the left, in the shape of Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble With Diversity (2006). It’s not a brand-new line of argument. It echoes Jacoby, Jim Sleeper, Adolph Reed, Thomas Frank, and others; and many CTers have doubtless weighed in on it in various forums. (Some have actually found it less than fully persuasive – I stick my tongue out at you.)
Michaels argues that identity politics is a mistake: not just tactically – because it makes it harder for liberals to win elections – but also strategically – because changing the racial and sexual distribution of privilege is the wrong goal. If the problem is that blacks and women are disproportionately unemployed, underpaid, uninsured, and undereducated, then the solution is full employment, a more generous minimum wage, universal health insurance, and Head Start, all to be paid for by progressive taxation and reduced defense spending. In short, class politics plus robust enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws. What society’s most vulnerable women and blacks most need (and, in general, want) is economic equality. Curricular inclusion and elite representation are far less important to them – and, not coincidentally, far easier to win from our rulers.
On a previous thread, we discussed the ideal of connoisseurship, i.e. of criticism concerned with judging aesthetic merit rather than explicating ideological presupposition and implication. Of course one can do both, but who does? It’s hard enough to do either. It isn’t that I believe art should never be put to political use; on the contrary, art is quite as often about politics as it is about love, money, or significant form. I just think it should be done straightforwardly and pungently, in everyday conversation, rather than elaborately and obliquely, as part of a scholarly project of demystification. “Would you rather marry Madame Bovary or Major Barbara?” seems like an unanswerable argument for educating women. “You want Cedric Daniels (from The Wire) or Mark Fuhrman running your town’s police department?” seems like a good opening wedge in an argument for racially integrating law enforcement. But finding “the Empire at work” in “the selectivity of and emphases in what is included and, by implication, excluded” in Aida (Said, Cultural Imperialism) doesn’t really help much. I don’t mind the politicization of culture, when done by amateurs. It’s the professionalization of the politicization of culture that I’m dubious about.
Getting down to Michael’s cases: Yes, I think I was too kind to Bernstein. There was a prosecutorial tone to his book and, as Michael suggests, an unwillingness to see (or acknowledge) what his targets were (rightly) exercised about that I should have brought out in the review. Perhaps I was bending over backwards: at the time I was constantly seething over the complacent banality and reflexive centrism of Times cultural coverage (including Bernstein’s), and I remember admonishing myself that I ought to keep that feeling separate from my response to the book.
Too soft on Cockburn; too hard on Said? But Said was such a culture hero; I thought his reputation wouldn’t even register a few knocks from me. (I doubt it has.) Besides, Cockburn wrote divine prose back then, before he soured, while Said’s prose still sets my teeth on edge. That’s what really ticked me off, I think.
About Mapplethorpe and Morrison: I confess I meant to induce some uncertainty over whether I endorsed or merely “ventriloquized” those judgments. I agreed with them, but not very confidently, and haven’t revisited them. I actually liked Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. But I thought Mapplethorpe was just preening. I didn’t perceive any emotional content to the photos; they seemed as blank as New Yorker ads. Maybe I didn’t look long or hard enough. I still don’t much like Toni Morrison. No, I don’t agree that she’s the equal, as a narrator, psychologist, or stylist, of Coetzee, Lessing, and Garcia Marquez. I thought Borges, Calvino, Nabokov, Kundera, Larkin, Ted Hughes, Henry Roth, or Philip Roth should have gotten a Nobel instead.
Lasch and Rorty did indeed stand “miles apart” on several big questions, as Rich ably enumerates. But on the biggest question – modernity, pro or con? – they at least stood on the same side of the Great Divide. Remember that avowal by Lasch I quoted (page 174):
Once and for all: I have no wish to return to the past, even if I thought a return to the past was possible. The solution to our social problems lies in a completion of the democratic movement inaugurated in the eighteenth century, not in a return to a pre-democratic way of life. Socialism, notwithstanding the horrors committed in its name, still represents the legitimate heir of liberal democracy. Marxism and psychoanalysis still offer the best guides to an understanding of modern society and to political action designed to make it more democratic.
Lasch died in his prime, at 60. If he’d lived another decade or two, he might have sputtered out, making increasingly gnomic and ill-tempered noises, like Philip Rieff. Or he might have summoned a final great effort and tried to answer the profound questions he’d raised. I’d like to think the latter, but who knows? Alas, I don’t see who else is going to answer them.
Rich appears to doubt that the questions Lasch raised – which boil down to: how have individual psychology, intimate relations, and political culture been altered by the drastic change of scale that industrialism entails? – are really all that urgent. Yes, maybe things have changed in roughly the way Lasch claimed in Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self. At any rate Rich, after admirably summarizing Lasch’s argument in those books – i.e., that mass society is “destroying communities; creating hollowed out individuals, lacking autonomy, vulnerable to consumer blandishments, oscillating between rage and fear; abdicating familial authority to faceless professional `experts’; and eviscerating any vestiges of local autonomy and worker skills in favor of giant state and corporate bureaucracies” – registers no disagreement. Instead he counters: what’s so bad about that? – and what was so good about the world we’ve left behind? Pre-industrial life was insecure, benighted, brutish, and short, after all. Besides, there’s no going back. If any historical development was ever irreversible, surely mass production is. No one has convincingly imagined any alternative – certainly Lasch didn’t. In the name of what, exactly, did he continually disparage the only – admittedly mixed – blessings the toiling masses have ever enjoyed: unions, consumer goods, mass culture, the welfare state?
In the name, above all, of human nature and its limits. As Lasch explains in the lengthy autobiographical introduction to True and Only Heaven, it was raising a family that first prompted him to question progressivism. He had an ideal in mind – a lovely one, if you remember:
A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-handed music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children.
What threatened this family idyll was not only the occasional failures of capitalism: gross inequality, economic instability, war. It was the normal functioning of industrial society that “thwarted the need for joy in work, stable connections, family life, a sense of place and historical continuity,” offering increased consumption as a substitute. Raw ambition, bureaucratic savvy, skilled self-promotion, rootless mobility – the whole pathology of the Organization Man – supplanted the pre-industrial ideal of “devoted service to a calling,” seen as its own reward, along with the respect of peers and neighbors. The degradation of work in his children’s world was Lasch’s original grievance as a parent.
The left’s traditional answer to this concern has been: 1) we’ll all share the disagreeable work more equally; and 2) there’ll be less and less of it, in any case, thanks to technological progress, which is, in principle, unlimited. Economic growth, equitably shared, will make possible leisure and abundance for all.
It’s not yet certain that this honorable socialist vision will have to be abandoned. But it’s looking increasingly likely. Lasch was one of the first to face that prospect and look unflinchingly at the consequences. The only possible futures, he thought, were: 1) ecological catastrophe; 2) a domestic and international caste system, with extreme and permanent inequality, harshly enforced; or 3) voluntary renunciation of universal material abundance as our goal and of mass production and centralized authority as the means. Obviously, only the last is even potentially a democratic future.
Lasch may sometimes seem, as Rich suggests, merely grumpy or nostalgic. But there’s more to him, much more. The way we live and work now threatens our capacity for autonomy, stability, and intimacy. What should we do about it? It’s possible that one day, nearly all right-thinking people will be asking this question and will be grateful to Lasch for having been one of the first to press it hard. Hard enough to risk alienating even potential allies like Rorty and Rich.
Aaron asks, very eloquently: “What is to be done?” People ask Chomsky this constantly, and his answer is always the same: “Give me a break. I talk to people in the Third World all the time, and they never ask,
what should we do?' Instead they say,this is what we’re doing – what do you think?’ You should do what they do: talk to one another, form groups, study your problems, find other groups that share your concerns, discuss strategy and tactics, pool resources, try one thing, then another, then another. Organizing a political movement is not rocket science, or even auto repair. It just takes initiative, dedication, and perseverance. You knew that.”
Which is not to say it’s easy. I have a clerical job in Harvard’s Physical Resources Division. My boss is ex-Navy, straight-arrow, average in every way; exercised about immigrants, disgusted with all politicians, voted grudgingly for Obama. During the financial crunch last winter, he was livid. Conversations around the office, among ourselves or with visiting contractors and workmen, were frequent, bitter, and entirely in accord. Every leftist imprecation I would toss out about “the system” or “the ruling class” met with immediate, emphatic assent. And every conversation would end the same way: “But what can you do?” “Yeah, you can’t do anything.” They all had families (unlike me) and plenty of bills; and as Rich has pointed out about other workers, their jobs (full-time, unlike mine) left them very little spare time and energy. But with minor exceptions, they all knew perfectly well what should be done: higher taxes on the rich, campaign reform, national health insurance, less defense spending, fix the schools and the highways, kill all the lobbyists.
What should I have told them? Read Chomsky and Naomi Klein? Form neighborhood or online discussion groups? Send money to Fairvote.org or Corporate Watch? But they have no time to read, no energy to discuss, no money to send. Multiply them by a hundred million and the result is: no democracy.
Russell asks another fundamental question: “How Will Intellectuals Eat?” Independent intellectuals have always depended on conversations, lectures, seminars, libraries, museums, bookstores, newsstands, cafés, small publishers, little magazines, cheap apartments, and easy movement into and out of part-time jobs, preferably on the fringes of culture or academe. In other words, cities. In return, they supplied the civilization in “bourgeois civilization.”
Capitalist rationality is not synonymous with bourgeois civilization; on the contrary, it is the chief subverter of bourgeois civilization. By its inflexible logic, the material prerequisites of intellectual life were economically irrational. Inexpensive urban neighborhoods, small-scale enterprises, relaxed personnel policies all succumbed to the same polite, deadly formula: “We’re sorry, but nowadays investors expect a higher rate of return.” In an earlier example of industry consolidation, Nixon’s delightful Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, helpfully advised small farmers and ranchers: “Get big or get out.” They got out, and American food is now, by and large, mass-produced dreck. Will the same thing happen to American culture?
There are symptoms: the difficulty of getting non-blockbusters published, promoted, and kept in print; the pressure of bookstore chains on independents; the vast wasteland of Clear Channel radio; the metastasis of the Murdoch media empire. There are also exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions to trends before they become accomplished facts, as a great many people were eager to remind Russell when The Last Intellectuals appeared. But in general, I think Russell’s formulation here is spot-on: for nearly everyone, “the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.”
Some institutions are more benign than others, to be sure. Universities are still, to some extent, havens in a heartless, spiritless world. But the extent is dwindling. Whatever the scholarly credentials of their presidents may be, universities are now run as businesses, by people who embrace managerialist ideology. Students are customers; trustees are mostly lawyers and businessmen; administrators are professionals rather than professors doing community service; donors are assiduously cultivated and (when it can be done without scandal) truckled to; and professors are encouraged, gently or forcefully, to become entrepreneurs, bringing in big grants of which the university takes its slice. As editors in publishing houses now consult the marketing division, deans consult the development office. Above all, first and last, costs must be cut and the workforce disciplined. There go those comfy, undemanding, dead-end jobs that once supported writers, painters, musicians, and other misfits.
Will the Web save the situation? Certainly, many misfits thrive here. A few, like our Scott, even make a living here. But Scott (like Edmund Wilson) may be sui generis – at any rate, he’s not a child of the Web. He’s a print man in a cyber-world. Every Wednesday, after reading his column, I chant: “Two, three, many McLemees!” But I’m not holding my breath.
About the Web generally, I’m of divided mind. Politically, I’m optimistic. The Web could be just the thing for vanquishing anomie and enabling public conversation. Democracy, after all, simply is continuous conversation. (Though as Rich has reminded us, screen-to-screen relations can only supplement, not replace, face-to-face relations.)
Culturally, I’m pessimistic. Like Rich (I’m sure the epithet “bloviator of Hindenburg-like proportions” was meant affectionately), I’m an ardent fan of Sven Birkerts. As I say in the book’s final essay, I agree with Birkerts that cyberculture is not promoting general literacy – at least, the real article – but instead bypassing it. Life on the screen alters our psychic metabolism; Birkerts’ phenomenology of this process is unsurpassed. Depth and stillness are less prized; speed and horizontal connectivity are all-conquering. This is not good for intellect; ergo, not good for intellectuals.
Henry is right, of course, that “we need more … intellectuals who understand the technical underpinnings of the existing consensus well enough to operate with them,” who have “at least a nodding acquaintance with the technical vocabularies that underpin” dominant ideologies. I yield to no one in my admiration for Bowles and Gintis, along with the entire cohort of radical economists with whom they emerged thirty years ago. I tip my cap to Dani Rodrick for grappling conscientiously with trade theory; to Ian Shapiro for patiently demystifying rational choice theory; to Joseph Stiglitz for demonstrating that the usual “simplifying” assumptions about market exchange oversimplify drastically; to Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers for sifting through mountains of data on voting behavior and political contributions and formulating their “investment theory of elections,” one of the few genuine achievements of political science; to Chris Mooney and David Michaels for thoroughly documenting the corrupt pseudo-science with which industry frequently delays or defeats regulation. All of the above, like Chomsky, Stone, and Nader, are the kind of “new public intellectuals,” combining expertise with civic spirit, about whom I made wistful noises in the title essay.
All I meant to say is, let’s be clear about the obstacles. I’m afraid I muddied the waters by complaining that it’s hard for literary intellectuals to learn economic theory. Literary intellectuals don’t really need to learn economic theory. Plenty of graduate students and junior faculty members already understand economic theory well enough to “mount a quite devastating internal critique of the more ideologically loaded forms of economic thinking” and to “show that right-wing arguments often fail on their own terms.” The question is, why are their views marginal? Why is Econ 101 dominated by pro-business simplifications rather than populist ones? Why do the media overwhelmingly prefer to quote pro-business economists rather than Doug Henwood or others with a bad attitude? Why are Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin at Obama’s elbow rather than Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros?
I think it’s less because left academics haven’t learned to speak with a public voice or because left public intellectuals haven’t mastered the technicalities than because (to simplify a little – see Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent for the full monty) there are ideological filters of varying diameters at every stage in the formation of public opinion. The levers of social power – investment and job creation, media ownership, technical research, public relations, campaign finance, the revolving door into and out of government, etc. – are in the hands of business as a class, and they use them. (For a crucial example, see Invisible Hands, a fine recent study by historian Kim Phillips-Fein, which shows how a number of business organizations, angered by the New Deal, pretty much ordered up a movement – the New Right – that has succeeded in rolling much of it back.)
There is nothing surprising about this. Now as always, whoever pays the piper (professor, politician, policymaker) calls the tune. Not every single note, of course, but the overall concert program. If you don’t like it, you can always start your own orchestra.
Scott, acknowledging these grim truths, nevertheless asks where we might “find the home address of any counteracting tendencies,” might locate “some reserve of values, commitments, influences, inspirations, ideas, ideals, superego energies, etc” that would “nourish the critical intelligence and allow it to sustain itself.” In other words, whence cometh our hope?
Well, Chomsky, Rorty, and Lasch would certainly have different answers to that question. Chomsky would say that a certain irreducible minimum of creativity and self-expression is hard-wired into us. We require freedom in order to attain selfhood in exactly the same way our bodily organs (including language) require a proper internal (or linguistic) environment in order to attain mature form.
Rorty would not deny, I think, that our biological endowment predisposes us to the exercise of freedom and self-determination. But he struck a different balance than Chomsky between biology and culture, between drive and socialization. Human nature is stubborn, no doubt, but not immutable or unconquerable. Even if it requires tinkering with our genetic program, social control can ultimately, for good or evil, get “all the way down.” Which is why he acknowledged that his was “an ungrounded hope.”
Lasch, for all his severity, talked constantly about hope. What he meant by it remains tantalizingly obscure. He sometimes referred to it as “trust in life,” or in “Being.” Here is his fullest definition, from True and Only Heaven (pp. 80-1):
Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories – no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events – in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.
I’m not sure I understand this, but I find it more illuminating than many things I do understand.
What keeps me going? I suppose it’s simple gratitude toward a few (doubtless idealized) exemplars of moral beauty. I worship the ground John Stuart Mill and George Eliot walked on and dread above all things writing a sentence that would have displeased either of them. And even on the brink of despair, the last sentence of Middlemarch has always seemed sufficient reason to stagger onward:
… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Perhaps she wouldn’t mind my adding “and wrote now-unread book reviews.”.
Beyond that, I’m not sure my own career, or version thereof, is particularly instructive. For one thing, my family was poor, so not having a middle-class lifestyle has never seemed quite so much of a sacrifice as it might have to others. For another thing, I never wanted children, knowing quite well that I was too fragile and unstable. Finally, I had a decade-long emotional collapse after leaving Opus Dei, which altered my career plans a good deal. Fortunately, my bewildered working-class family, the supportive 1970s Cambridge counterculture, and the comparatively generous pre-Reagan economy and welfare state kept me afloat. In a fully rationalized society and maximally efficient economy, I would have been toast. If anything about this twisted path seems to point the way for aspiring public intellectuals today, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Thanks to the symposiasts who prompted these reflections, and a hearty “you’re welcome” to all readers who find anything useful in them.