Thursday, April 20, 2006

Gaze Into Infinity

Lance Mannion parses the conservative myth of what once was:
This is the Right Wing Kulturkampf ur-myth restated. Once upon time we were all good and well-behaved, if plagued by demons and temptations within. You know, back in the day, when lynching was a spectator sport, children were worked to death in factories and mineshafts, and employers thought nothing of hiring goons to beat and kill workers who dared strike for safer working conditions and decent pay.

Then came the Fall, and with it moral relativism, post-modernism, Freudianism, Marxism, feminism, birth control, Roe v. Wade, situation comedies that make dad into a buffoon, and black people who expect to live in our neighborhoods and send their kids to our schools...whoops, did we say that last one out loud? We meant entitlements, the nanny state, and the culture of dependence brought about by Welfare.

The temptation when things are bad now is to drop back into a mythologized history, one that never existed. As Mannion points out, this history isn't just about barbecues and social order--it has aspects we cannot in good conscience try and bring ourselves back to. Slightly more sophisticated indulgers might admit to the horrors of the past, but say they can be excised from the revival--we can bring back the community feeling of the 50s without also resurrecting the "segregated" part of said community. I applaud these people for at least recognizing that their collective past was not, in fact, idyllic, but it still misses the point: the whole schema of these time periods were intricately tied together--good and bad. This feeling of "community" that is so exalted, for example, was sustainable because it was socially permissible to exclude mistrusted minorities from the endeavor. It's easy to be friendly and neighborly when your entire neighborhood is of one race, class, religion, and mindset.

The root of this falsification is nothing too complex: It's just easier. This is liberalism's strategic (not moral) flaw. It's asks people to run an endless marathon. History is an endless struggle for moral progress (though there is no guarantee that at any given moment we are moving forward instead of backwards). There is no place on the horizon where we can rest and say "We're here. We've reached paradise." Justice being an ideal, chasing it is like chasing infinity. Not only that, but liberalism has to always pick at its own scab. We have to constantly emphasize the failings of the present, constantly remind the people that the journey continues.

This isn't a moral indictment of liberalism. The search for Eden may be fruitless, but it is still a worthwhile quest. And just because we can never get to the end doesn't mean we haven't made progress--real progress. But the gaze out into infinity can be paralyzing; is it any wonder that some wish to grasp something concrete and say "this, this was what the world should have been"?

H/T: Feministe


Mark said...

Is this parody? I certainly hope so, if not you should spend a little more effort into not demonizing conservatives. Imagine for a moment that conservatives aren't evil, stupid, nasty small-minded folk (substitute your preferred derogative adjectives). Can you imagine taking a point of view that reforms very often (if not usually) are accompanied by unanticipated side effects which are often worse than the problem they attempt to cure. That isn't the same as saying all changes are bad or that no change is deeply desired or that the past need be painted as the paradise it wasn't.

I'd also disagree about the community as being engendered primarily by exclusion. Different roles, even if/when unfair or frankly evil, still allow for the creation of community. Familiarity, shared experience, and personal bonds are what build community. I think the dissulution of a sense of community was primarily as a result of removal of the difficulties and expense (time and money) entailed in travel. When you can dwell, shop, and spend your spare time in completely geographically distinct locations with people bonded not by locale and who are all transient, community cannot form.

scott_api said...

To (mis-)quote Billy Joel "The good old days weren't always good..."

Matt said...

Re: Mark -

I don't think your argument about community is particularly true our particualrly responsive to what David is arguing. No matter how you try and formulate a community, there is always an in-group/out-group dynamic. For example, you point to "familiarity", which is a perfect example. Cultures and lifestyles which are familiar are good and have a place in the community. Those that aren't are exoticized at best and excluded at worst because they are perceived as alien and threatening. "Shared experience" operates similarly. If Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or whatever is the defining experience of a commnunity, those who don't partake are held at a distance because they lack the experience needed to legitimize their palce in the community. And so it goes, right? I'm not saying that its unreasonable to desire shared experience or familiarity, but you should be able to see the other side of the coin, which is that the pursuit of security through community usually contains an impulse to homoogeneity, with difference only being accepted as part of a hierarchized relationship. Even as one group of outsiders may integrate itself into a community, new outgroups are defined. I think this is in part because defining the Self neccesitiates the identification of an Other. If the community is comprised of Chrisitan, law-abiding, hard-working, moderates then it cannot offer equal footing for people who are non-Christian (or un_Chrsitian as the perception may run), criminal (or part of social groups stigmatized with criminal behavior), the unemployed and poor who may be seen as lazy, or the extremist (or again, those percieved as such). Such a community might see its negative in the stereotype of the radical Muslim who sympathizes with terroritst in the Middle East, and the existence of such an Other is neccesary for the maintance of the communal identity.

The point that you should realize is that while exlcusion and oppression may not be the goal or motivation for community, it is always a part of the process. Lawrence Cahoone sums up the argument nicely in his introduction to "From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology" when he writes, "The apparent identity of what appear to be cultural units - human beings, words, meanings, ideas, philosophical systems, social organizations - are maintained only through constitutive repression, and active process of exclusion, opposition, and hierarchization. A phenomenon maintains its identity in semiotic systems only if other units are represented as foregin or 'other' through a hierarchical dualism in which the first is privileged or favored while the other is deprivileged or devalued in some way. For example, in examining social systems characterized by class or ethnic division, postmodernists will discover that the privileged groups must actively produce and maintain their position by representing or picturing themselves - in thought, in literature, in law, in art – as not having the properties ascribed to the under-privileged groups, and must represent those groups as lacking the properties of the privileged groups. In a human psyche, the self may feel compelled to represent itself as excluding sexual or aggressive feelings, which, however, cannot simply be obliterated, and so must be ascribed to chance situations, to idiosyncratic events (e.g. “I was not myself that day”), etc. In a philosophical system, a dualism like that between “reality” and “appearance” involves the construction of a kind of waste basket into which phenomena that the system does not want to sanctify with the privileged term “real” can be tossed (mere “appearances”). Only in this way can the pristine integrity of the idealized or privileged term be maintained."