Thursday, August 16, 2012

Canons to the Left of Me!

How Goes the Culture War? Roy Edroso asked sarcastically today, referring to some more conservatives who are whining that their side gets no respect, and in particular:
And at Power Line, Steven Hayward asks, "WHY IS THERE NO LIBERAL AYN RAND?" He's taking off from Beverly Gage who, slightly less stupidly, asks, "American conservatives have a canon. Why don’t American liberals?" Sure we have a canon -- it's called Western literature. And it beats the snot out of the sad, long-form political pamphlets wingnuts like to name-check. You will learn more about the human condition from the works of novelists, playwrights, and poets than you ever can from a thousand power freaks' blueprints for the mass production of Procrustean beds.
I don't think this works, but then I have to remember that Edroso's mission is to make fun of the monkeyshines of the Right in a Democratic-Party-friendly fashion, not to do any serious thinking.  Once in a while he tiptoes toward the precipice of criticizing Obama, but never goes too close.  Most obviously, the canon of Western literature is also claimed by conservatives, and rightly so, since that canon is a conservative product.  (As well as something of a fantasy: the canon looks different in each European country, both in its content and in how it's read, and the content changes over time within each national tradition.)  Edroso also has this hobbyhorse about art not being political, which would seem to conflict with his implication that the canon is more liberal than conservative.  He's right to make fun of the contemporary American Right's attempts to read their views into art and pop culture, but that's because the writers he's citing are sloppy thinkers.  As Joanna Russ once wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political." I admit it's tempting to believe that there's a connection between sloppy thought and the Right, but I've read too many sloppy liberals and leftists to take the idea very far.

For example, in an update to the post, he approvingly quotes a commenter:
Political philosophy is almost entirely a liberal project. In some sense liberal political philosophy fuckin' created Western political culture. Human rights grew entirely out of liberal institutions consciously advancing specific liberal political conceptions...
I suppose that "almost" saves the claim from being completely false.  Political philosophy in the West begins with Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom was what you'd call a liberal, and proceeds through centuries of thinkers who drew on them.  Perhaps what the commenter meant was "modern Anglo-American political philosophy," but even there, I think it would be more accurate to say that human rights grew out of individuals struggling to get institutions to advance their political conceptions, not all of which were "liberal" in the sense that Edroso and his regulars use the word.  Parochialism isn't limited to the Right, you see.

American universities, the guardians and gatekeepers of the canon in the US, were quite conservative institutions until after World War II, when the GI Bill funded higher education for a flood of people who'd never have been allowed in before, certainly not in such numbers.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1962, President Carl Bridenbaugh lamented the changes he saw occurring in the academic world. Himself from Protestant Middle America, Bridenbaugh deplored “the great mutation” in Clio’s profession that was occurring as the post-World War II GI Bill ushered into the undergraduate and graduate programs people who could not have gone to college in the Depression. “Many of the young practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices,” Bridenbaugh lamented, “are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They suffered from an “environmental deficiency” because they were urban-bred, rooted in the Old World traditions of their parents’ homelands, and therefore lacking in the “understanding … vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.…They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”

Almost everyone who heard or read Bridenbaugh’s references to urban, foreign-born outsiders, mutants tarnishing a noble profession, understood that he was talking about Jews. This was far from the last lamentation about the wholesale change in the recruitment of historians in a period of extraordinary growth in higher education. Bridenbaugh’s discomfort was shared widely because before World War II the history profession had been drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of middle- to upper-class white Protestant men [Gary B. Nash et al, History on Trial (Knopf, 1998), p. 54].
Stuff like this is a reminder why American academia underwent such upheavals in the 1960s, and the canon was opened to such abominations as Women's Studies and African-American Studies.  (Do I need to caption "abominations" for the irony-impaired?  If so, consider it captioned.)  Edroso's a lot younger than I am, so he may not be aware of the changes that occurred.  His politics-neutral claims about art indicate that he absorbed some reactionary rhetoric along the line, though detached from its earlier context.

Another commenter not quoted by Edroso wrote:
I am sure that if one were to cite as a liberal canon the works of Marx, Alinsky, Debs, Chomsky, Ilich, Mills, Veblen, Zinn, Sinclair, Gorz, and the like, Hayward wouldn't call them a commie or anything like that.
But as another pointed out, "that's a left canon, not a liberal one; the two concepts are somewhat different."  The same is true of George Orwell, whose anti-totalitarian stance has often been confused with pro-capitalism, especially by the Right.  A good many heroes and heroines of today's liberals don't seem to have been liberals, and were often vilified by liberals in their day.  It's as dishonest to claim Martin Luther King Jr., for example, for liberalism as it is to claim him for conservatism.  But both those factions want to bask in King's prestige: the best (or at any rate safest) role model is a dead role model.