Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You're Stupid, Therefore I'm Smart Q.E.D.

Roy Edroso decided to make fun of the right-wing legacy blogger Jonah Goldberg yesterday.  He couldn't decide whether "the key line" of the Goldberg post he was mocking was its celebration of the TV show Breaking Bad as true conservative entertainment, or "And that is why great novels are, by nature, conservative."

This, of course, set off a wave of parodies from Edroso's commenters, rewriting the opening lines of various famous works of literature.  Not all of them were novels, and I suspect that a similar blurring of form and genre by right-wing writers or commenters wouldn't get a pass from this lot.  Anyway, because Edroso's fans, like all liberals, are bold independent thinkers, they followed his lead predictably.  Most of the parodies were constructed by putting in references to Goldberg's mother (because Goldberg probably got his start in right-wing punditry thanks to his connection with her), flatulence (Edroso's standard punchline for his mockery of Goldberg), and Cheetos (another standby in Edroso's comic arsenal).  Because, as we all know, the most devastating reality-based criticism you can make of your political opponents is to call them fat.  It's the vital common ground between American liberals and conservatives.
For a long time I used to go to through a 32 oz bag of Cheetos quickly. Sometimes, when I had put my hand in the bag, its contents would vanish so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’ve eaten another goddamn bag of Cheetos!”
But none of them, not Edroso and not his commenters, thought to notice that Goldberg had an arguable point in that claim about the conservatism of novels.  Better minds than either Goldberg or Edroso have claimed as much, and it's not exactly surprising.  The literary canon is conservative in the strict sense of the word, because it's designed to expose students to the normative works of the past, and despite right-wing hysteria about liberal professors, the canon was generally chosen by political as well as artistic conservatives, and they've traditionally been taught to minimize whatever thoughtcrime they contain.  (George Orwell, for example, remained a socialist all his life, but 1984 and Animal Farm are usually taught as pro-capitalist because they're anti-Communist.  And so they are, but they are vehemently anti-capitalist too.)  There might very well be great works of literature that could be labeled liberal or even radical, but they were usually not taught to children or even college students.  Schooling was primarily intended to mold the young to obedience, not to critical thought.  Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, for another example, doesn't need to be rewritten with the Cheeto in the place of the madeleine to make it a conservative work.  Jonah Goldberg was probably just cribbing someone else's cliché, and he doesn't seem capable of developing an argument to defend his beliefs anyway, but he might not be totally wrong in that sentence.

Even if I grant Goldberg that much, though, neither he nor Edroso and his merry band notice that "conservative" in the sense I've been using it here has nothing to do with what's known as American political conservatism.  Richard Hofstadter pointed out fifty years ago that American right-wingers like William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan who styled themselves "conservatives" were really radical reactionary statists who wanted to overturn the American system of government: real conservatism, in the sense of wanting to conserve the good things in one's society, would in the 1950s have meant New Deal "liberalism."  Older American conservatives were generally put off by the vulgarity and belligerence of the New Right, which is not really a point against the latter; it's a matter of class and style, not of content or policy.  Pointing out that today's conservatives aren't really conservatives is as much a cliché as Goldberg's truism about "great novels."  But that's why I'm mostly referring to people like Goldberg as right-wingers here, not conservatives.

As I've noticed before, Edroso's take on art is pretty "conservative" in the sense of hanging on to the New-Critical stance which denies or ignores the political content of art and entertainment in favor of close readings of the texts -- usually short forms like lyric poetry, which can be covered in a single class period or journal-length article.  (Even the New Critics, if I remember correctly, admitted that their approach didn't work well with long poems or novels, but they thought that just counted against the value of those longer works.)   He loves to mock his right-wing counterparts' obsession with finding right-wing content everywhere they possibly can, but he (and even more, his fans) clearly wants to believe that good art is liberal if it's anything.  This, you may recall, was the lot who were comfortable with claims like "Political philosophy is almost entirely a liberal project" (which is false no matter how you define "liberal" and "conservative"), and had to be reminded that "Marx, Alinsky, Debs, Chomsky, Ilich, Mills, Zinn, Sinclair, Gorz and the like" were not a liberal canon but a left-wing one.  Just as the Right wants to claim various dead heroes as real if unbaptized conservatives had they only known it, liberals love to claim those heroes for liberalism, even when they were explicitly hostile to liberalism.

One commenter today wrote:
Wait a second, isn't this the guy who just wrote a piece on how liberals try to bring politics into everything? Geez, Jonah, you couldn't have let a week lapse in between those observations?
And another lamented, "They just can't let us have anything to ourselves, can they?"  (Reminiscent of heterosexuals who see gay readings of works they like as "appropriative."  If gay men love Bette Davis, normal people can't love her.)  Resistance to "political" criticism of art or entertainment is a bipartisan bugbear, of course.  That's partly because it's not easy to do it well, partly because many people persist in understanding literary "criticism" as purely destructive rather than analytical, and partly because it often uncovers aspects of popular and beloved works that their fans don't want to think about.  Laura Miller's book on fantasy, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008), falls into this trap, even though Miller recognizes the value of criticism generally.  Yet she also writes:
The traditional, reverential study of canonical literature that prevailed in Lewis’s day, and the revolution-mongering of the 1960s and 1970s that supplanted it, gave way to poststructuralist and postmodern theory. Books that past generations regarded as eternal monuments of genius were dragged into the courts of theory and indicted for their ideological inadequacies. Their authors’ personal lives and political beliefs served as evidence against them. Racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia lurked everywhere, often in disguises that required expert decoding. If you wanted to know why the world proved so resistant to the utopian designs of a fading radicalism – and that’s exactly what many academics, having seen such dreams die, wanted to do – you could point to the poisonous bias embodied in even the most celebrated pillars of our culture [170].
Compare this to Joan Acocella's fervid defenses (which is how she saw them) of Willa Cather against "theory" which leveled the "accusation" of lesbianism against Cather.  Both Miller and Acocella are probably liberals, but they both treat any discussion of authors' "personal lives and political beliefs" as scandal-mongering -- even though they both root around in the knickers of their chief subjects themselves, Cather in Acocella's case and C. S. Lewis's in Miller's.  I suppose there must have been writers who fit Miller's caricature of postmodernist theorists, but I can't remember ever having read any myself, and I've read a fair amount of postmodernist theory.  Probably the chief work of this kind is pre-postmodernist, a classic of feminist scholarship: Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, published in 1970.  Millett focused on three iconic male modernist writers: D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer, with an envoi on Jean Genet, but she included a historical overview that, among other things, introduced me to (and induced me to read) Charlotte Bronte's Villette.  Millett was attacked for demonizing Lawrence, Miller, and Mailer, though in my opinion her analysis was nuanced and didn't demonize the great men; I'd say she drew fire simply for criticizing them at all.  Ironically, Miller too was attacked by Lewis fans who thought she didn't cut the great man enough slack, though I think she cut him plenty, and wrote about him with affection and compassion.  To the true devotee, of course, no acknowledgment of the hero's clay feet is acceptable.

But all this pretty much misses the point of political (or "political") criticism.  In the first place, the "traditional, reverential study of canonical literature" was fully compatible with destructive criticism of non-canonical work, to justify its exclusion.  Read male critics' denigration of female writers, and you'll see what I mean; Joanna Russ collected and analyzed critical misogyny in her How to Suppress Women's Writing (Texas, 1983); and as Robert K. Martin argued in The Male Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (Texas, 1979), mainstream critics generally agreed that a great artist must be a Truly Good Person, so they had to decide whether Walt Whitman (for example) couldn't be homosexual because he was a Great Poet, or he couldn't be a great poet because he was a homosexual.  Biographical criticism of this kind is traditional; perhaps what changed in the 1970s was some critics' insistence on confronting the question, and it infuriated the traditionalists.

But biographical criticism of this kind is not really political criticism.  As Miller argued,
Of course, it’s absurd to speak of the “politics” of Narnia. These are children’s fantasies, not designed to address such adult concerns as class systems, nationalism, and economics. They take place in a dream world where talking beavers bake marmalade rolls despite having no surplus goods to trade for oranges and sugar, commodities that can only have been imported from a warmer land. Who raises and slaughters the pigs to make the bacon and sausages gobbled up at almost every Narnian meal? Who grows the wheat and grinds the flour for bread, and who imports the tea and coffee? Even Tolkien, who labored for countless hours to make Middle-earth a consistent, coherent alternative world, never made it entirely plausible economically, and he thought Narnia a disgracefully slapdash creation [158].
I disagree that it's absurd to speak of the politics of Narnia, and Miller shows right here why it isn't.  It's just not all that relevant, since as Miller goes on to say, Narnia isn't a real world but a fantasy creation where political economy isn't involved, any more than it is in a dream.  But notice that J. R. R. Tolkien, hardly a poststructuralist critic, objected to the Narnia books because they weren't realistic in this sense, the sense he tried to realize in The Lord of the Rings.  That would indicate that it's not improper to point out flaws in Tolkien's execution of his aim to make Middle-earth "a consistent, alternative world," though doing so is probably as much beside the point as it is for Narnia.

What political criticism does properly do is analyze the assumptions that underlie art and entertainment.  As Joanna Russ argued, "it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value." (Quoted at greater length, with sourcing, here.) Myself, I don't really draw a distinction between art and entertainment, but I'm thinking here of people who get their pants in a bunch over academic criticism of commercial entertainment and culture.  They hardly consider Madonna or Barbie or I Love Lucy to be Great Art, so they don't see the point of analyzing it (though they don't really approve of analyzing Great Art either, as I've already mentioned).  I think that commercial entertainment is just as full of assumptions about "what human nature is", etc., as Shakespeare, and it's interesting and worthwhile to figure out what those assumptions are and to see how they work in practice. 

As for sexism and racism and other bigotry in canonical art, I've argued before that conservative critics don't want to confront them because they consider bigotry acceptable, a cultural norm.  "Liberals" tend to defend their favored works and and artists by declaring that in the old days it hadn't yet been discovered that people of color, or homosexuals, or women, were people, though they're unclear as to when this great discovery was made.  (Notice that Orson Scott Card has tried to use this argument to oppose a boycott of the upcoming movie of Ender's Game: "Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984."  Gay issues hadn't been discovered yet in 1984, and won't exist in the future!) Of course, it's not easy to evaluate the significance of bigotry in works from the past, which is why academics are still hotly debating whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, for example.  But I don't see why it's unfair to raise the question.

I realize that going off in this direction takes Jonah Goldberg more seriously than he deserves; and probably Roy Edroso, too.  But I think that both of these boys are playing with serious (if not necessarily important) matters that deserve better, more thoughtful treatment than either can give to them, or cares to.