“clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

[Re-posting this old piece of mine -- conjuring days of old in the spirit of May Day.]

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?

Yours,

Posted in politics, Rhetoric, Writing. Comments Off

On hypocrisy

It seems that one of the few moral principles most Americans can agree on is the importance of avoiding hypocrisy. Sincerity and conviction is valued in itself, regardless of the content — such that secular liberals can claim to admire the tenacity with which religious people hold to their amazingly deluded beliefs, for example.

Hence liberals instinctively gravitate toward accusations of hypocrisy. “They say they care about the deficit, yet they passed unfunded tax cuts.” “They say they want to reduce the number of abortions, but they oppose birth control.” “They say they’re pro-life, yet they embrace the death penalty.” “They say they want the government off people’s back, until it’s a matter of regulating sexual morality.” We can all probably think of dozens of further examples — it’s a really popular tactic.

It’s also a tactic that I am sick to death of. The reason why is that I don’t think there’s any benefit to being consistent if your political goals are destructive and bad. If Republicans pursued their goals openly and consistently, that would be even worse. Why do liberals waste so much time on the “meta,” procedural question instead of directly attacking conservative values? It seems hypocritical for a political philosophy grounded in the importance of open debate to avoid a real confrontation of ideas!

The rhetoric of decadent Barthianism

I am a great admirer of the work of Karl Barth. I engaged with him extensively in my coursework, and one of my exam areas dealt with him (in connection with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer). I find him to be one of the most consistently creative and surprising theologians in the history of Christianity.

And yet I have often detected certain predictable negative effects that Barth has on his followers. Namely, a certain rhetorical pattern has repeated itself in conversations with Barthians too many times to be a coincidence:

  1. State something that sounds more or less like a familiar Christian doctrine, albeit in more poetic and emphatic form.
  2. Claim that Barth’s articulation of this Christian doctrine differs in a subtle and yet crucial way from the familiar account, such that no standard critiques apply to Barth’s version.
  3. If someone asks for clarification of the difference, do one or both of the following:
    • Claim that explaining the difference would be such a Herculean task that it would be foolish even to begin to attempt such a thing in a conversational setting.
    • Claim that the interlocutor’s presuppositions make it impossible for them to recognize and appreciate Barth’s nuanced wonderfulness.

In short, Barth seems to give some theologians the license to make Christian faith claims while absolving themselves of the duty to answer any critics — or indeed, any questions or requests for explanation.

UPDATE: A Barthian responds! Executive summary: “I know you are, but what am I?”

The Gnosticism of Everyday Life

One of the most familiar types of “clever” remarks is to pretend to take it literally when someone says, “I’m sorry” in response to some tale of woe, responding, “It’s not your fault.” Indeed, so typical has this “joke” become among males my age that I am increasingly reluctant to express basic human sympathy out of fear of providing the set-up for some hackneyed joke.

Today, however, I came up with a solution that allows me to signal my empathy while gaining the upper hand in the increasingly competitive market for quips. Instead of simply saying, “I’m sorry,” one can respond to accounts of unfortunate events in which one had no hand as follows: “I apologize on behalf of God, who has so poorly fashioned the world.”

This quip works particularly well when dealing with people suffering from seasonal allergies or problematic wisdom teeth, which help to lend some credence to the Gnostic notion of Incompetent Design.

The Dictatorship of Relativism

Early in his papacy, Benedict XVI put a new rhetorical spin on a familiar conservative trope, claiming that we are living under a “dictatorship of relativism.” The fear of moral relativism, however, disguises our real problem, which is that the guiding moral imperative of our era is all too clear: either make money or serve someone who can.

“Princeton declined to forward it to Lockheed.”

Ever since I first read the research proposal on “weaponized irony”  in Harpers I’ve wanted to post a link.  Sadly, it’s been behind their pay-for-play wall for months.  This morning, I randomly checked to see if this was still the case.  I was pleased to find that it was not.

Here’s my favorite part:

The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collative initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modalities and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet ski, liberal arts, Hermès, night soil, etc.) By means of constantly reweighted nodal linkages, the Ironic Cloud will be to some extent self-organizing in real time and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations—potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.

Adventures in Social Networking: 1. Incivility Happens

Being a social creature, I keep and maintain both a Twitter (AhabLives ) and a Facebook account. The latter is for personal contacts back in Ohio and Kentucky who I never see and never email, about whom I’m sometimes curious. The problem is, many of them are decidedly more conservative than I, which poses a problem when I decide to post the something that actually reveals what I actually think about the state of the world. Case in point, upon word yesterday of the Pope’s throwing open the doors to the Church for Anglicans, I posted: “A glorious day for misogynistic, homophobic bigots who happen to be Anglican! Kudos to you.” This set off a chain of acrimonious comments and private emails that my normal postings–e.g., ” Having obliterated the philosophical basis for ontologizing the sublime in a matter of a few pages, I think I can safely begin to wrap this paper up with a footnote explaining string theory”–rarely does. The major criticism of what I wrote was that it misrepresents as hatred and fear what is really just an alternative set of convictions. To which my response (in hindsight, I realize) added fuel to the fire: “Those who are not themselves filled with hate and fear can take solace, I suppose, that their convictions just happen to be those of misogynistic, homophobic bigots. (I know I do when my own views are compared with those of tyrants.)” For the most part, people employed selective reading and chose to disregard my fairly conciliatory parenthetical gesture, and instead chose to focus on my ungraceful incivility.

This got me thinking about the question of civility in dialogue. We go on about this a lot here. Well, actually Adam goes on about it a lot, since he & Anthony tend to be the ones to whom the issue is raised more often. I, as ever, remain the good cop. (This is, true to the metaphor, because I’m hardly ever around.) More broadly, people in general complain about the uncivil social discourse in this country, and how it is what is somehow holding us back. I’m not convinced this is true, though. Obviously, it may cause strain on one’s personal relationships. That’s not the issue. The problem, with respect to incivility in public discourse, is when incivility is instrumentalized beyond its natural, maybe even sometimes healthy, occurrences in specific situations. The problem, in other words, isn’t the screaming person on either side of a position or conviction, it is when that screaming person is given the title “columnist” or “analyst,” and who uses incivility as a tool (namely, a bludgeon).

So, in short, you should feel free to be a dick. Just try to avoid thinking your being a dick is conveying anything more than how much of a dick you are.

Posted in Rhetoric, Social networks. Comments Off
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