Sunday, December 18, 2016

Newton's Third Law

Even if New Year's is two weeks away, I've resolved this past year to expand my reading material. The echo chamber's become a common phrase the past few months, derided by some who blame whatever ideology one leans to for keeping half of America tuned out from the other half. Both sides sometimes could care less about the other (small 'o' rather than The Other elevated by one side). But I figure it's stimulating to do so, and besides, I've always had unpredictable (a bit at least) and contrarian ideas.

So, I read Ross Douthat in the NYT regularly. This conservative Catholic intellectual's an anomaly, certainly. His take on the campaigns and culture wars from his perspective reminded me not of my Jesuit college, which was decidedly of the "social justice" tilt, but of a few authors I tried out in the stacks during my stint. I roamed them to find among the Eric-Gill- Hilaire Belloc- Chestertonian axis an argument for distributism, a return to guilds, and a William Morris-inspired direction of a benign reform less hostile to the spiritual than the Marxism and/or liberation theology favored by certain professors. I mulled over these issues in my undergrad years, during Reagan's first term, and while I opposed him, I found that the knee-jerk denigration of those like my family who voted for the Gipper as an antidote to the identity politics promoted by the Dems diminished the voices of "my" folks. Unions declining, education faltering, the Church diminishing, their trusted verities faded rapidly. This white working class is mostly mocked, but I understand it.

Not that I backed the GOP, but I didn't cotton to the attitudes of those limousine liberals either. The earnest Michael Harrington's version of democratic socialism appeared as one option some of my circle entered, if gingerly. We were from the blue-collar ranks, the first to go far with higher ed, from average parishes and schools. But the Jane Fonda-Tom Hayden in the People's Republic of Santa Monica's noblesse oblige the DSA exuded for L.A.'s NPR crowd on the Westside, few of whom were natives and many from New York and other bastions of privilege, rankled me instinctively. (I get that way whenever my hometown is critiqued by airy arrivals from wherever.) And when I questioned proto-Maoist radicals at UCLA a few years later during my doctoral quest, as to where their efforts to recruit among the likes of my father's machinists would wind up, as factories left the U.S., I did not get much response as to a shift to consciousness raising among the temps in their monitored cubicles.

Now, as many may have buyer's remorse as to whom they voted for to bring back those tool-and-die jobs my dad did, the choice of the right-wing, as fickle as predicted in their embrace of cronies from capitalism's elite to fill the Cabinet to come, bodes poorly for reforms. No surprise there. But in retrospect, an April 23rd 2016 piece by Douthat I found this morning in the paper pile shows how the lately fevered fears of certain "alt" sites and voices can be placed within a larger context, one the media pass by. I'm unsure how much aligns with what I stumbled across in college, but here goes.

Douthat documents the roughly 2/3 bias in programs (highest in my field of English Lit) against conservative candidates otherwise equally qualified for a post competing with a liberal applicant. 10% of the humanities professoriate total its right-wing. A minority no advocate lobbies for more spaces in the ivory tower. This movement Douthat labels as '“neoreaction,' which in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs." (See here for more on the latter contingent's variety, tallied by one who delights to épater le bourgeois.) Douthat suggests these two phenomena emanate from a common core: "the official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts."

The Whiggish expectation that we advance inexorably towards a better future outweighs the Newtonian third law of actions triggering equal and opposed reactions. They may be balanced in that one President follows another, and their racial and social stances may be seen in opposition. But are they equal in reactions? Both kow-tow as any elected figure in the U.S. of any stature to bankers, developers, lawyers, tax-dodgers, connivers, and cabals. A shadow government runs our real system. For me, a change of the front man does not mean the backing band has changed utterly for the better. It's as if the lead singer lip-synchs what the talented songwriter pens, the charmer out of the spotlight,

Going beyond the easy depictions of idolizing Him, Douthat discerns a void on campuses. If a discontent wants to revolt against "tenured radicalism," what to do? Those think-tanks don't attack
"the very roots of the modern liberal order." (Deft spin to the derivation of a less-heralded radical.)

"Deep critiques" abound on the left.. Douthat notes that while scholarship on Carlyle or T.S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling continues, few publishing on these writers would admit any admiration for their politics. Their often racist and anti-semitic outbursts, akin to the antebellum South, make this sympathy taboo. Yet when we erase polarized opposites of Foucault or Zizek, we may lack contexts.
But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real
insights. (As, for the record, does Slavoj Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions
about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order,
the evils that come in with capital­-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the
ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for
family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes,
sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.
Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But
both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative
sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post­national utopia
with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.
Is there a way to make room for the reactionary mind in our intellectual life,
though, without making room for racialist obsessions and fantasies of enlightened
despotism? So far the evidence from neoreaction is not exactly encouraging. The official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts. is also evidence that ideas can’t be permanently repressed when something in them still seems true.
Maybe one answer is to avoid systemization, to welcome a reactionary style
that’s artistic, aphoristic and religious, while rejecting the idea of a reactionary
blueprint for our politics. From Eliot and Waugh and Kipling to Michel Houellebecq,
there’s a reactionary canon waiting to be celebrated as such, rather than just read
through a lens of grudging aesthetic respect but ideological disapproval.
Now, where are the insights Douthat invites? Tribalism has been blamed for the intransigence of the divides into which we are born, are classified within and expected to uphold for a demographic tick-box or a employer-mandated form. Order is fragile, but as with global warming and neo-liberal pieties, do these impacts merit dismissal as we crest into planetary chaos? The ebb of standards in the arts and discussion we lament within the chattering classes (at least of a certain age, before the advent of word processors and smartphones), but we engage in the same technologies and share the same memes as our younger charges. I personally get frustrated by the casual reversion to f-this and s-that all around now, but my peers shrug it off. I'm happy that the definition of family expands to same-sex couples and any whom have long faced ostracism. But I worry about the "single mom" trope as if this origin excuses any criticism of blame for the damage a fragmented home may inflict on young or old.

As for patria, I suspect this when nationalism stands for inbred mores and backward selfishness. Much as I have a soft spot for the Irish Tricolour, I remain detached about flag worship, and even the standing for the Pledge discomforts me as I've grown to realize this compromised U.S. Yet I defy its liberal norm in arguing if fruitlessly against open borders as I believe any jurisdiction by its nature should exercise self-deliberation among its citizens as to how many newcomers it can include. This clashes with everyone around me, but it's a tenet for me squaring with sustainable economies, eco-friendly lifestyles, and populist decision making rather than the centralized dictates that the au courant  musical hit Hamilton champions, if glossing over the real Alex's pro-British elitism and trade that favored the wealthy and the Feds rather than the states and those resisting Beltway power.

Religion needs no debate here. It's been contemplated for all my life, let alone many of my posts. The appeal of the atavistic and the ancestral pulses strongly within me. Its dangers and its delights create discomfort and rouse discussion. Suffice to say that "its strange viral appeal" buzzes in my sly soul.

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