Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ultimate Lightness of Revolution

This has nothing to do with copy editing or department stores. But...

I've always been sanguine about the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was among those who protested the war and thought that maybe there was more to Che than to, say, Everett Dirksen. I'm far from ready to forsake that and grab onto a neocon flag of repentance. But Richard Wolin's review of Pascal Bruckner's "The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism" in the Aug. 12 New Republic has made me wonder.

It can get tough going, and like too much of the New Republic it can read as if it had to have a ritual insertion of something pertaining to Israel in order to be published. Still, it makes one think about the different worldviews between the international-referencing class and the national-referencing class -- views that I think are as much behind the culture wars as the specifics of abortion, taxes, or bowing to the emperor.

Some excerpts:

"The process of decolonialization and the concomitant rise of multiculturalism have resulted in a surfeit of competing cultural claims. By degrees, the ideal of cultural excellence, which at one point seemed more or less self-evident, has ceded to an overextended and anthropological definition of culture: the idea of culture as the 'expression' of a way of life of a group, a tribe, a people."

Which even gets at the famous statement about rural Pennsylvanians clinging to their religion and guns amid the stress.

"The unintended consequence of this development has been a paralyzing incapacity to make significant cultural judgments and distinctions."

Which seems to cover so much of the culture war -- one out of many, virtuous and (at least in our own minds) superior, or one among many, with all having some good points or bad points, and it's bad form to say one is superior except by being superior enough to see that none are... ?

"France's historical badge of distinction had been the Great Revolution of 1789. This is the heritage that accounts for French 'exceptionalism': the obsession with insurrection as a vaunted and permanent feature of the national political imagination."

But is not the tea party...?

Quoting Bruckner: "We searched for a more intense and, therefore, more innocent version of ourselves in Angolan soldiers, Bengali Naxalites, and Bolivian guerrillas."

I'd never made a connection between intensity of feeling and authenticity before in that manner -- but if you think about it, it also partly explains the press' preoccupation with gaffes and gotchas (as revealing the 'real person' instead of just another facet) and the ongoing desire for a utopia that informs so much online theorizing. If we can simply throw off the Don Draper we have worn, we can again be who we think we really are, or at least who we dreamed we would be. Except that Don is also part of us...

Quoting Bruckner: "Wearing such outfits [looking like Cuban guerrillas, etc.] was an attempt to make mere loitering look like the Long March. (If I pretend to be the Other, his victories become my victories.)"

And not just for Che or Ho, of course. This has made me think of athletic-team jerseys in a different way. It's not just showing support; it's imagining oneself as a part of the team. (I don't wear jerseys, and when I was a student radical I wore dress shirts and polyester pants. Obviously a failure of my imagination.

Again quoting: "From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. The whole world hates us, and we deserve it. That is what most Europeans think."

I have no idea what most Europeans actually think, but clearly much of the criticism from the right of the "you liberals hate America" variety seems to revolve around the idea in this sentence. We held ourselves to a higher standard; we failed to meet it; therefore we should be condemned; or, we held ourselves to a higher standard; we tried to meet it; therefore we should be praised and should praise ourselves. And neither side understands the basis of the other. This plays out every day in attacks on newspapers and other media.

"In reasonable quantities, of course, self-criticism and repentance are praiseworthy: necessary stages in working through a politically or morally compromised past. Yet when indulged to excess ... they turn into an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that shuts down the capacity to live fully and honestly and constructively in the present."

Yet demonization of others can yield the same outcome, and again we face the tea party.

Quoting: "Romantic fascination with exceptional beings -- with the insane, the criminal, the genius, the artist, the pervert -- stems from our fear of being lost in the flock, in the stereotype of the petit bourgeois man. 'I am different from the rest.' That is the motto of the man of the herd."

Well, somehow I doubt I will ever see "Mad Men" in the same light -- or the "Newsmakers" column.

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