Sunday, June 15, 2008

Letter from El Dorado

What's Colombia like? It's cool. Like 10 to 15 degrees Celcius every day in the capital city of Bogota, way high-up where that conurbation of 8 million hugs the tops of the Andes mountains. They always did say I had my head in the clouds....

It's a swingin’ little nightspot named Kathmandu—where you'll find hookahs, belly dancers, and Latin American businessmen on expense accounts. It's El Tambor—our favorite picnic place, just outside Bogota, where they serve real campesino fare, including such ultra-treif menu-items as pigs' intestines (don't tell the rabbi). Delicioso! Only a few tens of millions of pesos per person, too.

And a couple of hours by car outside the city (down roads patrolled not long ago by guerillas and paramilitarios), it's the mysterious, verdant Guatavita—sacred lake of the Muisca people. For centuries, the Muisca are said to have periodically consigned raft-loads of gold to the bottom of this water-filled meteor's crater, in ceremonies of ritual sacrifice, or what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously taught us to refer to as potlatch. Expenditure without reserve. Glorious waste! Useless spending affirmed as such; acceptance of loss of what is most precious, without possibility of recovery or return on the investment.

Or was it? According to our tour guide (although I might have misunderstood, my Spanish is poor), today the algaefied accretion of millennia remains as unfathomably remote to modern science (despite attempts by annoying fools to drain the lake, either to steal the stuff or, in one egregious instance of ressentiment-cum-schadenfreude, to prove its non-existence) as it once proved inaccessible to conquistadors (who took almost everything else). In fact, the mound of castoff valuables is detectable empirically (insofar as it is detectable at all that way) only second-hand—implied, some say, by the occasional odd ripple, at weird angles, across the water’s otherwise glassy surface (an "index," as C. S. Pierce would say, of what must lie in the path of currents below, though hardly a portrait, much less a map).

They knew what to do with their precious things, the Muisca chiefs! Don't you think so? No pearls before swine for them, at least. For as legend has it (I think I heard our tour guide explain), it's that tangled mass of an artificial underwater mountain of glittering baubles, trinkets, and fetishes, which yet to this day keeps the sacred lagoon's placid visage so preternaturally calm, serene and—even in the wake of the Muisca's tragic passing, long ago—unperturbed in any weather.

It's not all dark depths and endless reserve, though. I'm also informed that, occasionally, on the brightest of sunny days, summer mornings usually, when the air is crystal clear and the barometric pressure is just right, or when the moon is full and the Andean Spectacled Bear is in the tops of the trees once more, at such times a lucky visitor's eye sometimes catches a momentary glint of the purest amber luster, reflected from out of Guatavita's auriferous lacustrine depths—usually without even realizing it!

Colombia, te quiero!

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best School in America?

"It was the best of schools, it was the worst of schools." That was how David Horowitz, the notorious conservative commentator (an ex-1960s-radical-leftist who turned right, in disgust at the criminal excesses of the New Left) had planned to introduce his talk, last Tuesday, May 27, at UC Santa Cruz's Jack Baskin Hall. A handful of "protesters"—hecklers was more like it, this was not Selma or the FSM—apparently threw off the pugnacious pundit's concentration. Toughen up, Dave! He had meant to give the physical sciences at UCSC their well-earned due, while questioning only the quality of instruction in the humanities and social sciences. There's no such thing as "politically correct" astronomy, biology, chemistry or math.

He could be forgiven for hesitating. As he took the stage before an overflow audience of more than 200, his dozen-or-so detractors banged on windows from outside the room, holding up signs bearing edifying slogans like "Kill Whitey" and "Racist." IDs and bags had to be inspected at the door. A bodyguard stood watch close-by throughout the speaker's 90-minute colloquy. As I heard some observant audience members remark—and as Horowitz himself observed at one point—it is ironic that you can say any crazy thing you like on most college campuses (Bush is worse than Hitler, the victims of 911 were little Eichmanns, Israel is an apartheid state, the US is a terrorist state) and you'll be applauded, or, at worst, tolerated by students and faculty alike. But point-up the threat of Islamofascism and you're a "racist." Raise concerns about the radical-left orthodoxy that has long stifled debate in academia, and you need the physical protection of security professionals (and the police, who were there in advance)!

Horowitz came to defend the thesis of his much-discussed article, "The Worst School in America" (September, 2007). It named UCSC the "most radical" and, therefore, worst university in the entire Lower 48, Alaska, and Hawaii. While some readers said, What about Duke? (where professors disrupted a Horowitz lecture earlier this year, some of them the same moral exemplars who railroaded the innocent lacrosse players in 2006, out of "politically correct" motives), and What about Columbia? (which, not long after Horowitz's article, hosted Iranian president, and Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), others were miffed at the very idea of calling a school to account for pervasive bias in the humanities and social sciences.

Of the latter ideological tilt, however, there can simply be no doubt. It's true, what Horowitz says. Love him or hate him for bringing it up. He's right and everyone knows it. Radical left-wing ideas are center stage in the classrooms of UCSC, while mainstream Liberal and right-wing Conservative views are given short-shrift. If they're given any shrift at all. Mostly, as Horowitz says, Conservative writers are simply ignored. They're not assigned. Students come out of 4 years of college ignorant of whole currents of thought. Or, when a Conservative or Liberal thinker does show up on a syllabus, it's nearly always to be pilloried—set up to be set upon by the simplistic "critiques" of faculty. Trotted out to be tarred and feathered as "racist," "sexist" and "homophobic" greedy "capitalist" exploiters by egged-on undergrads, egged-on by graduate student Teaching Assistants (who are usually worse than the faculty whose work of grading they do for them, cheap).

The weakest part of his talk, by contrast to the sturdy main point, was when the writer/provocateur was asked to explain the "methodology" for reaching his conclusions. How did he know this was the worst school? Instead of just dismissing this for the category-mistaken nimwittery it is—"I wrote a journalistic, editorial piece," he said, rightly, "I wasn't doing an exhaustive statistical study"—he added, a little lamely, that he'd interviewed five students. This got a laugh from the audience. As perhaps it should have. But not because highlighting the meagerness of the sample effectively disputes the author's conclusions.

He should have just said, It's common knowledge that UCSC is a very radical place. If you don't know that, go look it up. Look at the course catalog like I did. Google your professors—including former Black Panther and ex-Communist Party member Angela Davis, postmodernist guru Donna Haraway, radical feminist Betina Aptheker, et al. Check out the Cultural Studies program—populated exclusively by "post-left" (post-Marxist, postcolonial theory, postmodern) academic guerrillas, practitioners of intellectual terrorism, intimidation, and conspiracy-theory tinged quackery, which they call "resistance." Worst or second-to-worst is not the point. And hey, if you're looking for "politicized" education, then UCSC is the best. Just ask your professors themselves what they think they're doing. They're likely to tell you, with pride, some of them, that they see the classroom as a "political space" and themselves as intellectual "activists." The pursuit of "justice," not knowledge, is their special competence.

There is one thing all this misses, however. And which DH's five students can be forgiven for overlooking. The decline of the academic post-left. (See my "Odyssey of the Post-Left," Democratiya 13, http://www.democratiya.com/). The post-left (albeit amply represented at UCSC) is losing power! It's old hat, for one thing. Students raised on South Park and other hip comedy shows of the 1990s and 2000s come to school already hip to the joke that Post-left Political Correctness has long-since become. Even at a place like Santa Cruz, people are starting to stand up against it. There have always been lots of folks doing good, honest work in the humanities there, like anywhere else. But they've tended to keep a lower profile, not wanting to suffer the puny-but-annoying wrath of the self-styled radicals. They've tended to keep more to themselves and work more on their own. Exiles from the warmth of the academic "community."

But recent years have seen mainstream faculty organize around issues of governance (in the wake of Chancellor Denise Denton's tragic suicide), and alternative perspectives on politics and the true meaning of a "liberal education" have been coming out of the woodwork. Pro-Israel faculty have organized a chapter of SPME (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, http://web.mac.com/spme_at_ucsc/iWeb/Site/Home.html), the membership of which grew by fully a third in 2008. Many students are fed up with what they've been getting. All that the minority voices among the faculty have to do is have the courage of their convictions. The students are eager to learn. There's nothing wrong with UCSC that what's right with it can't fix. Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.

This was indicated by the audience's demeanor at the Horowitz lecture. Although somebody was passing out "Obama" placards, meant to be waved in the speaker's face, these were quietly put away under seats by the recipients. The crowd gave Horowitz its polite attention as he explained that he had a right to speak, and the shouting "protesters" were acting like fascists. Agreed. For UCSC students are basically Liberal, and not Radical or Conservative! They understand the meaning of the First Amendment in their bones. Given the chance, they'll stand up for it too.

What's more, a last-minute "counter event"—a so-called "teach-in," organized by Community Studies professor, David Ortiz, and scheduled to coincide precisely with Horowitz’s talk—attracted only about a quarter as many attendees. They should have called it a "teach-out," as its pernicious timing was clearly meant not to educate, but to keep people out of the Horowitz event. It didn't work. Students were curious. And while I think it's safe to say that not many of those who weren't already persuaded when they got there were convinced of a lot of details by the FrontPageMag.com editor, they had wanted to hear all sides—and they did. While off his main argument, it seemed they didn't really need much convincing—it's their post-left teachers who don't respect diversity of thought. When students go wrong in this way (as they sometimes do), they're usually just aping some "charismatic" elder, abusing his/her office. So for those (relatively few) students who do become intolerant, unlike for their teachers, it's not a career; more like a phase.

Whatever the rot among a narrow but vocal segment of the faculty—increasingly anxious and insecure, as they sense that their ship has sailed and it's sinking slowly but surely—the students of UC Santa Cruz are among the best in America, and the world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Archeology of the Post-Left

A genealogy of the post-left would take us back to the inter-war period of the 20th century (see Alan Johnson's March 27th column on CiF, http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/alan_johnson/), or at least the end of the cold war and the interregnum of 1991-2001, between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the war on terror (the subject of my forthcoming essay in Democratiya). But a synchronic sketch of the thought-grid that defines post-left logic is easier. The postmodern, post-Marxist, postcolonial-theory "left" is a rigid "Zombie Left" (Bernard-Henri Levy), "The Left that Doesn't Learn" (Mitchell Cohen), "The Unpatriotic Left" (Richard Rorty). Here is why it can't learn, and why its brain is dead even though its limbs are still moving.

These are the elements of post-left thought, the building blocks of a paint-by-numbers exercise in ressentiment unhinged from politics in the Aristotelian sense of politike, or "the art of the common life."

1. Inverted Exceptionalism. Take the old "exceptionalist" idea and flip it. America is unique among nations—just not uniquely good, that's all. The horrid US, with its crude consumer culture, unparalleled racism, and war-mongering politicians, is to blame for everything.

2. Post-Zionism. Ditto the above for Israel. One is the tool of the other in the US-Israel relationship, though it's not clear which is which. For Walt and Mearscheimer, Israel manipulates the US. For Chomsky, it's the reverse. In any event, the new dogma of the post-left is that Israel's right to exist is in question (at best).

3. Third Worldism. The wretched of the earth ("multitudes," whatever) are not just unlucky but morally superior to the earth's beneficiaries. Empowered by powerlessness to take the place of the proletariat in conventional Marxist doxology, the Third World Other can do no wrong. It's all "resistance." Whatever it is. Up to and including terrorism. In this salvation myth, any two-bit despot—from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hasan Nasrallah, even Osama bin Laden—can be seen to represent a salutary rebuke to American Capital and The West. So the millenarian imagination persists, after "the end of history." Romanticizing victims and rooting for the perceived underdog in every fight are basic to the post-left mindset.

4. Cultural Revolution. It's manichaean also. Because of #1 and #2, a complete transformation of consciousness is needed to wipe away all the micro-corruptions of US-led capitalism, and replace these with more salutary (revolutionary) habits of mind (to be discovered thanks in part to #3). Everything "bourgeois" "white" and "male" will have to go. Barring that—for the, er, moment—at least it can all be "deconstructed"—in the, er, meantime. Mix with heavy doses of Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism. A heady cocktail for the mind that has slipped its moorings. Remember, all "difference" is good—provided it's different from you and me, of course; our difference is the same.

5. Totalitarian Ideology. Ah, but moorings are so very reassuring when one finds oneself adrift! The cultural revolutionaries find them all right, in a pathetic dialectic of abandonment and attachment worthy of Borderline Personality Disorder. Did I say totalitarian? Actually, Hannah Arendt said it. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she outlines the closed-world world-view of the totalizing mind and its self-serving auto-validating procedures. She was talking then about Stalinism and Nazism, but it works for the post-left too (if that sounds like a harsh comparison, see #6 below, support for mass-casualty terrorism). Inside this cramped, airless space, (a) every question receives an exhaustive total explanation, situating the smallest detail of an argument within a vast theodicy with no outside and little room for ambiguity or surprise. Nothing escapes. And no light gets in: For such explanations are (b) independent of and resistant to experience—anti-empirical as necessary—in defense of the post-left "a priori" structure of thought. This inclusive, arbitrary narrative without a referent is also (c) ultra-consistent. Why not, when you're making it up as you go along? Not only does everything fit that gets in, and nothing get in that doesn't fit, the results are always the same: the same demons, the same impotent self-righteousness. And finally, (d) the ascription of collective guilt to its enemies. The condemned in the post-left scheme of things will be judged not according to what they do or say or think or even who they are but what they are. For Osama bin Laden it's "Jews and Crusaders" who ought to be killed anywhere anytime by any means. For the emergent post-left—fully discernible per se after 9/11—it's a similarly blanket approach to enemy categories. The post-left, in short, offers its followers a tidy picture of a messy world, suitable for framing by lazy and credulous minds, with a bit of a bloodlust and a sadistic/masochistic streak.

6. Islamism. Thanks to #1-5, the pre-post-left prepared itself to embrace radical Islamism after 9/11 as a form of "resistance," indigenous to the Third World (#3), aimed at a guilty US (#1) and Israel (#2), striking a blow for "difference" (#4), that simply had to be good in some way (#5), because it positions itself against liberal capitalism in the name of something Else. This final element, qualitatively distinctive, catalyzes the other ingredients to produce the post-left proper. Granted that the totalitarian left of yore was already guilty of some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century—nonetheless, sympathetic understanding of and support for suicide mass-murder terrorism today is new, I argue, in my "Genealogy of the Post-left," forthcoming in Democratiya.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

How I Became a "Left Neocon" (A Confession)

I am a Left Neocon. I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq on vague prudential grounds, highminded (as I thought then) principle (gauzy abstraction was more like it), and out of reflex. War? No! I marched. I spoke out.

My arguments at the time were those of a citizen—not an expert in Middle East policy, much less a military strategist. This is not the way to bring democracy; war is a blunt instrument; people will die and we'll be responsible for "pulling the trigger" on the situation. How should I know if Saddam is really dangerous?

Unlike some of my more prescient comrades in academia and elsewhere (but mostly in humanities departments), I never claimed to have "known" all along there were no WMDs. Although I guess I could have nodded and chuckled knowingly after the fact—as if I had access to information no one else did, or uncanny instincts rendering reliable inspections supererogatory—this pose (not uncommon by 2004) disgusted me. Could I have said whether or not the US military mission would succeed? Unlike many a PhD in Comp Lit, I had no crystal ball, and not the slightest inclination to pretend—in retrospect—to have had one when I protested initially, out of habit as much as anything.

Yet neither had I defended for a moment Saddam's "right" to rule—against America's claim to enforce UN sanctions, over the head of the Security Counsel to be sure—as some of my less complicated colleagues did back when, and still do. These unambivalent and unambiguous radicals; I blame Bush/Cheney for one thing: making them remotely plausible to themselves.

I was uncomfortable from the start with the anti-Americanism and antisemitic/anti-Israel rhetoric I encountered at the marches I attended, in San Francisco. I felt doubts about who I was in bed with. Having grown up "on the left," I should have been used to it. Fringe nuttiness went with the territory. Still...

So when Saddam's statue came down—looking a lot like Lenin's ravaged bronze carcass, except for a mosque in the background—my left-winged heart leapt, intuitively. Shouldn't it have? I was delighted by the scene of crumbling Fascist dictatorship. It was not quite a "guilty pleasure"—once the war started, I had said, "well okay, let's win"—but this feeling of elation left me wondering. Was I wrong to have protested in the first place? Was it really "left" to oppose US imperialism more than Baathist tyranny or the Taliban's brutal theocracy in Afghanistan (another regime that came to an end only over the objections of people like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy)? Worst of all, could a person on the left take such pride in the accomplishments of...the US military? (I couldn't have said "George W. Bush.") Would my friends mind if I wasn't sorry to see free elections follow soon, were they to follow soon? What if—despite the best intentions of activist groups like ANSWER, who facilitated "antiwar" rallies as Maoist exercises in resistance to "American capital"—it worked?

If only things had been so simple! How relatively easily I might have digested the embarrassment of misunderestimating the Rumsfeldian military genius for new tactics using a lighter force. For the apparent "mission accomplished," as we know now too well, was anything but. Instead, as the war ground on and things got worse, horror compounding horror on a daily basis between 2004 and 2006, years which I happened to spend living in Turkey, I found that my "well okay, let's win" sentiment was not widely shared. It was appreciated neither by my expat colleagues in Ankara's top private university (professors from Norway to Italy to Canada agreed: Bush is worse than Saddam, worse than Hitler, worse than Anything) nor the majority of Turks (America's approval rating plummeted).

Which is how I became a "left neocon"—at a most inauspicious time in the history of the Neocons. While the rats around me were squeaking with delight over the apparent sinking of a ship they'd been no more tempted to board at first than I (in shameful disregard for the lives of innocent passengers, so deep did their hatred run for the captain, Ahab/Bush), I held increasingly to the belated insight (having by then read Kenan Makiya's Republic of Fear) that Saddam's removal was indeed something that—in and of itself—ought to have warmed the cockles of my "left" heart. Defeat for the US in Iraq, should it come at the hands of the terrorists ("insurgents"), would not bode well for humanity—Iraqis first of all—let alone social democracy.

Things were not looking good. Yet did that—the prospect of failure in a difficult situation—mean we should never have confronted Saddam? The more credence I gave to the idea that we had a right all along to be concerned with the internal politics of Iraq—that abuse of human rights, as well as legitimate fears about possible WMDs, could overrule a dictator's "sovereignty"—the more I found that brushing off the "accusation" that I had gone from being a post-Marxist to a neo-conservative was a stupid waste of time. In fact, what I was reading by Francis Fukuyama (who was not above spending a moment or two sloughing off the neocon label himself), Bill Kristol, and in the pages of Commentary magazine—even if I didn't agree with all of it—at least made more sense than the ravings of my Foucauldian buddies, or crackpots like British MP George Galloway or New Left Review's Tariq Ali. Moreover, what I read by Michael Ignatieff, Michael Walzer, and in Dissent made even more sense—but the postmodernists and old New Leftists couldn't tell a social democrat from a neocon at 20 paces sans blindfolds. And something inside me didn't feel like correcting them. Except to declare, on occasion, that I had remained a loyal Marxist after all—only now I was a "Christopher Hitchens Marxist," as I informed a scandalized group of Edward Saidists one balmy night in Istanbul. To their occidentalist horror. I specialized in ending dinner parties.

Paul Berman wrote recently that to understand the meaning of the word "neocon," as it is employed today, you have to imagine somebody holding their nose while saying it, or standing on a chair and shrieking like they've seen a mouse. One also notes a conspiracy-theory mentality at work, evident in the wish for a "cabal" of such vermin to pin things on: the excited search for a community of scapegoats to blame for the complicated and messy business, with unpredictable outcomes and risks galore, no matter what you do (or don't do), that is politics of its nature.

Was I wrong to protest? Though I may be the only one who thinks so now—better, I say, a left neocon, who today only regrets having been objectively right about a tragedy, than one of those unabashed post-leftists, who confuse schadenfreude, ressentiment, and the will-to-powerlessness with insight and courage (see Alan Johnson's critique of the post-left, http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/alan_johnson/). May history prove me even wronger.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Tyranny of the Mediocrity

"If ever these lines are read in America, I am well assured of two things: in the first place, that all who peruse them will raise their voices to condemn me; and in the second place, that very many of them will acquit me at the bottom of their conscience," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, fearing public opinion but trusting in private insight. He was talking about the famous "tyranny of the majority" that his work predicted, and, somewhat paradoxically, publicized the notion of. He didn't expect the object of his criticism—mass society—to embrace its own damning critique; but he believed individuals knew better in their heart of hearts. For it was the nature of the beast, in this case, that it should lead people out of the open air of Emersonian nonchalance and candor, and lock them up in cages of cliché. Trapped behind bars of his own making, the disheartened creature yet knows despair.

The French nobleman who adopted democracy as his faith was wrong, of course, in one sense. He has not been damned for this de rigueur teaching—itself in danger of becoming a cliché—but rather celebrated. He was right in a deeper sense, however: How ironic that we mouth the phrase "tyranny of the majority" today, while almost always giving it a firm twist in keeping with the most widely held opinions!

Not mere diversity of skin color was AdT's goal, but diversity of thought and expression. And not mere diversity for its own sake either, as an end in itself—every man his own "culture" and a universe unto himself—but for the sake of vibrant interchange, creativity, and the ennoblement of democracy. For freedom.

This is something—the first thing—our school system should promote; but sadly it's almost the last thing you should expect to see in our increasingly corporatized universities, where the customer is always right. It's more comfortable for everyone to "celebrate diversity" uniformly, and go back to sleep. Walter Benn Michaels' courageous recent book, The Trouble With Diversity, forthrightly exposes this fraud. For a highly abbreviated version of the argument—we love racial and ethnic differences because they serve to obscure the growing gap between rich and poor, and so preserve inequality—read Michaels' NY Times op-ed (reposted in a variety of places, including here, http://www.contrarianreview.com/dodge.html).

As Saul Bellow pointed out in 1992, "there is simply too much to think about" these days. And so we get our opinions secondhand for the most part. Not having much time to consider well before purchasing, we buy what's advertised, available cheaply, and what others buy. We feel as offended when our "opinions" are challenged as we would if our blue jeans were questioned. We know our rights as consumers.

The philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, called it bullshit, in his book, On Bullshit. The stuff we say because it's the stuff we say. To conceal; to withdraw; to hide in the glare of the florescent light.

"What modern man needs," Bellow wrote in his great novel, Herzog, "is a good 5-cent synthesis." Until we get it, it seems that political correctness—decades after it was identified as such, more than 150 years after Tocqueville's prophecy—will have to do. It serves our laziness as much as anything else, our wish for absolution without effort, and our need for a social lubricant to ease the stress of contact with strangers at work. It's either that—or more of us will have to stand openly and publicly for the importance of freedom of thought and a genuine diversity of reasoned argument.

Has the American university become a graveyard of the intellect? Overspecialized? Gutless? A place where once lively thoughts go, wounded, limping, to be compassionately euthanized by technicians void of passion? Is college then, in the words of J. D. Salinger's disappointed Franny Glass, in Franny and Zooey, "just one more dopey place, dedicated to pilling up treasure"?

Far from it. The tyranny of the majority is simply that. To heck with tyrants!