I mentioned in my last post that studied moderation isn’t much comfort to me lately. That’s partly because, however it might otherwise appear from this blog, I’m not trying to calculate the distance between the two most extreme positions I can find and end up exactly in between them.
One thing I am trying to do is understand where an opinion or perspective is coming from in its own terms without immediately boxing that view off as anathema. This is not the same thing as trying to compose my own arguments with a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Being serious about the question of where a culturally religious and politically active evangelical thinker is coming from doesn’t require me to leaven my own views with some amount of that person’s thinking or worldview.
I’d almost characterize some of what I’m trying to do as anthropological, but even that carries the problem, deeply well known within that discipline, that it tends to box off what you’re trying to understand as an alien object rather than a person or community to which you already have numerous relations and connections, and makes you assume a distance which may not be there, which is one of the very things you’re trying to understand or evaluate. I often mention to my students the example of a presentation I once heard from a graduate student who was proposing to study of the experiences of West African women as audiences for modern mass media. The student was wracked with concern about whether her own experiences of mass media would keep her from understanding the experiences of the women she was studying. The real assumption that was the problem was an assumption about an inevitable distance between the researcher and her subjects.
So trying to understand the habitus of people who have different political or social values from yourself means you treat them presumptively as people, not objects. Which means you try to answer to them, listen to them, and make your own positions more provisional and modest in some respects. None of which, I hope, precludes coming to very strong and even extreme positions on some issues: this is not necessarily a moderate ethos in the sense of invariably and perfectly in-between.
I’m always feeling uneasy about whether this is the right way to approach political and social conflict. With some chagrin, I remember my own response as a graduate student to Susan Harding’s essay “Convicted by the Holy Spirit” (and then her subsequent work The Book of Jerry Falwell), which takes a very similar position to the one I’ve just outlined. What I wrote then was that this approach makes the person who follows it endlessly vulnerable, totally passive, an inevitable victim of unscrupulous political opponents, that it is a choice to prefer the strategy for incurring maximum losses in Prisoner’s Dilemma rather than maximum gain. I wrote that Harding was in some respect a chump, and that the right response when confronted by enemies is determined and total opposition. I don’t agree with my younger self, but I’m always troubled by the possibility that I may have been more right then than I am now.
One reason I’m feeling stirred up about this again is my summer reading of Rick Perlstein’s excellent Nixonland.
There are a lot of things in Perlstein’s history that make me squirm with recognition. Perlstein’s repeated use of the opposition between the college club that Nixon started (the Orthogonians) and the old-boy-network Franklins as a window into Nixon’s permanent transformation of American political life works very well on the whole. Perlstein argues that Nixon mobilized Orthogonian resentments up and down the social hierarchy, wherever people felt a sense of exclusion or perceived hidden reservoirs of elitism.
Again and again in Perlstein’s story, old-school practicioners of a certain kind of consensus politics, many of them Franklins of one kind or another, end up looking on dumbfounded as Nixon’s new style of politics rips them to pieces, with Adlai Stevenson being a sort of ur-victim, dazedly waiting for their opponents to be reasonable gentlemen interested in working out the great issues of the day. The position I’m carving out sometimes feels to me to be neo-Adlai, and just about as arguably deer-in-the-headlights, just as tweedy and pipe-smoking and impotently Franklin.
I also hear all around me in all sorts of places the continuing clueness of Franklins. I happened to be at a political fundraiser this summer which was a very interesting event, and for a very worthy state official doing what I think is important work. But I really had to grit my teeth when some of the people at the gathering started talking about the problem of uneducated people not understanding how important that work really is, and about how we needed a better program of civic education, and so on. I gritted my teeth first because I think that the speakers were wrong about what the public knows and because the suggested remedy was so very, very Franklin, so Promethean in its appointment of wisdom to itself.
Also in purely stylistic terms, a lot of Franklinesque writing, a lot of neo-Adlai drive towards reasoned conversation about the great issues of the day, is a great fucking bore in that classically professorial manner.
It doesn’t have to be that way: a sharp-eyed reporter can achieve enormous sympathy and understanding for individuals and communities and ways of life that he or she nevertheless brutally vivisects or passionately opposes, and that can be delivered through red-meat prose that grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
I just can’t deal with the alternative if the alternative is full-throated culture war. Just purely in terms of my interest level as a reader and writer, for one, slogging through those conversations is like being stuck in the circle of Dante’s Inferno where high-school debaters are stuck tendentiously whining at each other for all eternity. But if it was just talk, go at it. Unfortunately, it’s not, and the great left-right circle jerk that swirls around a lot of the predominant culture war issues wrecks real lives, messes up important institutions, distracts from genuinely urgent challenges, and leaves a meandering shitpile of misbegotten policy in the way of folks who just want to get on with living and working decent, ordinary lives.
This is another thing that stands out reading Nixonland. Up to a point, I can agree with Perlstein that the tactics and character of political struggle within American society were reset in crucial ways during the late 1960s and 1970s. But at the same time, it’s really striking how weirdly archaic some of the most animated, powerful cultural rhetoric defining those conflicts now seems. Is there anyone left out there who seriously, fervently cares at all how long a man’s hair is, or sees a beard as a marker of degeneracy? And it’s not just the trivial, narcissistic terms of intergenerational cultural battles between the young Boomers and their equally shallow elders that now seems hopelessly outdated, but even some of the more profound arguments over crime, race, sexuality, mass media and so on.
That makes me think that we could have a consensus politics that was vaguely libertarian on many cultural and social issues while broadly aiming for much of what is often described as lying within “family values”, while generally pragmatic on many other major political issues. In fact, it makes me think that we already do have that consensus. That consensus is not the stuffy old consensus politics described by Perlstein, the consensus that protected Jim Crow and many other sins of prewar American society, for whose demise we should shed no tears. Maybe all we need is to wake one day and recognize that most of us don’t live in Nixonland any longer, and we should stop listening to the noisy little squibs who yap at us with their megaphones from within its squalid boundaries.