Hey It’s Franklin

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.

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9 Responses to Hey It’s Franklin

  1. samth says:

    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.

    Why would you possibly think this? Usually, I have a lot of respect for the thought you put into the ideas on this blog, but this is just silly. There’s no empirical evidence whatsoever that people want either libertarianism or pragmatism on any particular issue.

    I recognize that a politics that handles the profound disagreements people have in this country is ultimately going to be messy, but that’s life. The fact that you ‘just can’t deal with’ this is neither here nor there. We have to fight for our beliefs – that’s what politics is.

  2. Carl says:

    I still think Weber was right when he argued in the essays on science and politics as vocations that the ethics of science (scholarship) and politics are fundamentally incompatible. The scholar’s ethic of getting it right produces an infinite process of approximation and revision. No question is ever settled and discussion is always open. “In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years.”

    For the politician the ethic is to get things done now, based on and existential gamble and a sense of commitment to ultimate values or to responsibility in the present. Politicians can’t wait for science to grind through its process. “To take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another…. The words one uses in [a political meeting] are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others. They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against the enemies: such words are weapons. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the [classroom].”

    Further, Weber says “I am ready to prove from the works of our historians that whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases.

    His point is that scholarship has an independent value of generating reliable, clear, non-partisan understanding that is instantly lost if it’s politicized. All of the sophisticated ideology critique of the last hundred years has complicated, but not changed this fact: from somewhere we need to be able to get clean data to make our decisions with.

    I realize you’re not really wondering about whether to do politics, but how to do politics. I’m saying that once you decide to do politics, you’ve just gotta plant your feet and go. But the scholarly ethic is never going to let you sleep about it, especially if you try to mix politics in with activities, like blogging, that you feel teacherly about.


  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess what I mean, Samth, is that I think a lot of Americans have a practical approach to the politics of everyday life, in a way that wasn’t true in 1968. E.g., that when its about someone they know or have to deal with, all sorts of variant approaches to everyday life, all sorts of identities, all sorts of cultural preferences, are just fine. When that gets distilled into patently unreal scenarios, hypotheticals, distilled essences of issues that have nothing to do with how we actually live, then people are willing to fight, but that’s because they’re fighting over imaginary landscapes a million miles away from their actual lives. This is not to say that those fights are not powerful and potentially disastrous: ethnic wars and genocide have a similar disjuncture between the everyday, in which ethnicity is no big deal, and the extraordinary abstraction, in which it is suddenly a valid reason to commit murder. I just think that when you look at how many Americans now actually live–red state or blue–there’s a kind of ordinary pragmatism and generalized decency that is a zillion miles away from the fighting keyboard brigades going at each other. I think this goes for institutions as well–that a lot of actual practicioners of education or medicine or law or governance just commonsensically use a lot of tools and approaches as the situation warrants, and hope that they go unnoticed by various dogmatists.

  4. Bill McNeill says:

    In response to the concerns expressed in this and previous post that your writing here may be excessively moderate or difference-splitting…so what if it is? In this blog you play the role of the Reasonable Guy. That particular mode of discourse isn’t by itself enough to change the world–it’s not even the only valid mode of discourse–but it’s an important one nonetheless. The world needs its Reasonable Guys. The world needs barefisted radicals too, but let somebody else handle that part. One person can’t do it all. Ultimately the best any of us can manage once we’ve made it past a certain baseline of speciousness is just do whatever it is we do.

  5. Carl says:

    What Bill said.

    Oh, and I expect you to like me now. 😉

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I’m just trying to figure out what use Reasonable Guys actually are at the moment. Because I do think there are conjunctures of history (not just particular discursive contexts) where a Reasonable Guy is like a person in a bathing suit at a black-tie party, very badly out of place. But the Weber material is spot-on, yay Carl. I think particularly the reminder that politics is always in the moment, that it only has accumulative force by accident, not by the conscious design of the people doing politics.

  7. Doug says:

    “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.”

    Are left and right equally to blame for the circle jerk? I’m guessing that you don’t think so, why not say so?

    Nixonland is very good indeed, and one way to read it is as a warning to the Obama campaign. Perlstein’s been working on the book for years, but its publication this spring is really a nice coincidence. (Or design by a publisher who’s cleverer than most.) Because I think that if Obama wins in November, then we will have left a great deal of Nixonland behind. Not all of it, of course, some of the debates are as old as the republic. But the perception that full rights for blacks — and now, by extension, to all minorities — were by definition a limitation of the legitimate rights of whites will be decisively struck down.

    Still, I read the book thinking “This is how McCain could win.” Nixonland wants us to stay there, but as Obama said last night, we are a better country than that.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    We hope. That’s really my reply to Samth: I hope that’s true, and I’m going to act as if it is or could be.

  9. AndrewSshi says:

    [My opening caveat is that I have exactly two semester of survey U.S. history from back in undergrad, so I could be terribly wrong. That said…]

    I’ve thought about this for a while, and it seems to me that the “consensus” position seen in U.S. politics in the middle part of the twentieth century was the anomaly, and overheated rhetoric generally more then norm. Look at the level of venom the American right directed towards (pre-WWII) FDR, or indeed, the energy of the populist movement of the turn of the twentieth century (two say nothing of the early and mid-nineteenth century).

    Brief moments of consensus are just that, brief moments.

    But since you’re a scholar rather than a journalist, you don’t necessarily need to be a part of take-no-prisoners political rhetoric. So basically, what Carl and Bill said.

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