Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Voice and False Consciousness

I've been reading about "voice" lately for the section in my book on "Adaptive Preference and False Consciousness." This gist it is that "we" don't hear what the Oppressed have to say because we don't hear their voice or, I suppose more colloquially, understand their language. Moreover, when token members of oppressed groups gain entree to knowledge and power elites they forget their native language since the price of admission is enculturation. African-Americans who have become "white," women who have become "honorary men," and "westernized" indigenous people identify with their oppressors and no longer speak with the voice of their cultures.

This seems to me wrong on three counts

(1) There is a difference between having a voice and having a soapbox. Oppressed people were always capable of articulating their concerns but no one paid any attention. It is uncontroversial that access to political process, to the media, to all the mechanisms for voicing ones concerns and exercising power ought to be more widely available--it's important that priviledged people hear what less priviledged people have to say. But it's quite another thing to suggest that we aren't "really" hearing if we fail to see the wisdom of what they have to say or if, having heard, we conclude that they are naive or wrong-headed.

(2) Concern to hear the authentic voice of the oppressed is patronizing: it fails to distinguish between those who have something to say and those who don't, and systematically writes off the smartest, most educated and most articulate members of traditionally disadvantaged groups as inauthentic.

Educated, articulate members of disadvantaged groups don't need help in finding their "voice"--they need soapboxes, access to media and publicity. Uneducated, inarticulate members of disadvantaged groups don't have a distinctive "voice" that needs to be made audible--they have nothing of interest to say--and attempts to cultivate their voice or render them articulate are comparable to programs that purported to articulate the voices of autistic children through "assisted communication."

(3) Well-meaning attempts to articulate the "authentic" voice of the oppressed ghettoize people and lock them out of the dominent culture. It may be better to be "affirmed" and admired for one's cultural peculiarities then despised or ignored, but it is better still to have the option of shedding one's culture and gaining admission to dominent culture.

Right now USD, like a great many colleges and universities, has developed a "gender studies" program which, some hope, will grow into a major. Women, de facto the clientele for such programs, may gain some benefit through being "affirmed" in such programs, but the overall costs far outweigh any benefits. Gender studies majors are locked into an occupational ghetto. Women should be steered into engineering and the sciences, and given the wherewithall to succeed. "Cultural" studies, bilingual education and "self-esteem" programs for students in the public schools do nothing for students. The assumption behind all the rhetoric is that most are write-offs who cannot make it in the dominant culture, cannot assimilate.

At bottom there is an empirical question: what do members of "oppressed" groups want? Of course, like members of priviledged groups, they want a variety of different things. But the suggestion that, ceteris paribus, all or most would prefer to retain their native cultural peculiarities and only grudgingly assimilate as a price to be paid for priviledge is speculative.

Monday, October 27, 2003

SoCal Burning

There are about a dozen brush fires in San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles county creeping into populated areas. Scripps Ranch and some other upscale suburbs have been evaculated.

Even here, the sky is grey, the sun orange behind the clouds of smoke and ashes floating down. The air is thick and I smell smoke. All schools and most businesses are closed. There is speculation that some of the fires were set intentionally--and I am waiting for the conspiracy theories to get started. If this wasn't planned by terrorists, it should have been since it's the most cost-effective way to destroy property in Southern California: wait for Santa Ana conditions, and set brush fires. Interestingly, I haven't heard of any fires just the border.

Apocalypse now.

30 people were killed in Bagdad, 200 wounded, as the war drags on months after Dubya's swashbucking arrival on the flightdeck to declare victory. Meanwhile the Times Magazine reports that members of paramilitary units are eating their victims in the Congo's ongoing gang violence.

Unemployment is holding steady even as we are told the US is in recovery and Louis Ruykheiser decares a raging bull market. Corporate CEOs on the average earn 532 times the wages of their lowest paid workers in the US (compared to 20 times in Canada). Employees at the three major supermarket chains here are striking as Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs try to cut benefits in order to compete with non-union Walmart, average employee wage: $8.50/hour with no benefits.

The Anglican Church is imploding and the news items on Anglicans Online were all about the "7 day countdown" to V. Gene Robinson's consecration as bishop of New Hampshire and the collapse of the Church as we know it.

The fire may be an act of God and we are certainly doing everything we can to fight it--firefighters are working, shelters have been set up, concerned citizens are sending food and blankets--Dubya himself was on TV pledging all the help and support he could muster. But everything else is what we did to ourselves, pointlessly, and refuse to fix.

Why do natural disasters galvanize people, but not the economic and political disasters that we ourselves create? Why do people send food and blankets, donate to the Red Cross, and make real sacrifices in public emergencies like this one but grudge paying a few more dollars in taxes to fix all the miseries that are so readily fixable by nothing more or less than money?

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Population Exchange?

TLS reports that a number of plant scientists in Britain have fled to Australia after their research projects, including a project on breeding drought-resistant plants for sub-Saharan Africa, were dismantled by bioterrorists.

The solution is clear: what we need is an exchange program through which British plant scientists can swop places with American scientists doing stem cell research.

Americans don't like stem cell research because they imagine that Godless Communists are promoting it in order to grow soul-less mutants in petri dishes. Europeans don't like genetically modified foods because they believe Big (American) Business is producing them in order to poison the population for fun and profit. Americans imagine cadres of mutant zombies, made not begotten, marching on major Midwestern cities to demolish suburban developments, churches and VFW halls and institute a Stalinist dysutopia along the lines of North Korea. Europeans picture SuperWeeds spreading with visible speed, choking off all natural plant and animal life until the entire landscape is covered with ultra-kudzu so that multinational agribusiness can monopolize all food production and rule the world.

I don't know what the moral is. Possibly that we're all equipped with a story template, hardwared into our brains, according to which an evil force creates monsters that devour everything natural, idiosyncratic, and human in scale, and replace it with standardized artifacts that reduce us to soul-less machinery, lacking self-consciousness and individuality--the triumph of mass mechanism. The nightmare took different forms--masses of brainwashed Russian workers or Chinese peasants, identically dressed, chanting in unison under monumental Socialist Realist posters, hordes of suburban commuters, dressed in identical gray flannel suits, carrying identical briefcases heading for advertizing agendies where they would manufacture slogans to stimulate zombie consumers to buy mass-produced products.

The preferred alternative was sweet nature, pretty little villages, compost heaps and organic gardens, happy tribal people and wilderness.

I don't care for that picture, a cardboard stage set masking brutality, tedium, and want. Life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish and short.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Limits of Management

Well, well...the Primates of the Anglican Communion are meeting at Lambath to preside over the dissolution of the Anglican Church. a casualty of Culture Wars.

Ostensibly Liberals and Conservatives are duking it out over homosexuality. For over 30 years now Liberals have marched from victory to victory in their campaign to accommodate the Church to its cultured despisers--who haven't taken any notice. For over a decade, as part of the program of jettisoning socially embar assing regulations concerning sexual conduct, they have tried to push through a "teaching" on sexuality intended to eliminate "discontinuities" between the Church's doctrine and the mores of the contemporary world--that is to say, they have attempted to p roduce a code of conduct read off of the opinions and behavior of secular upper middle class Americans.

Now, belatedly, Conservatives have drawn the line in the sand, and the battle is on. Liturgical revision seemed too trivial to fight and was, in any case, handled with finesse. Opposition to women's ordination could not rally the troops. The only members of the Church who seriously objected were Anglo-Catholic clergy with mystical notions of priesthood who wanted to be Catholic at all costs. The rea l i ssues were too amorphous and abstract to function politically. But sex was just right--concrete, perfectly suited to elicit resentment and, of course, sexy.

Incredibly, until very recently, Liberals didn't get it. They were convinced that their new p olicy on sexual conduct would get through, with minor protests, and then it would be business as usual. They had, after all, used psychology, employed the best management techniques and played clever politics--producing a fait accompli by ordaining an ope nly active gay bishop. They looked forward to official recognition of their policy, damage control and "healing." Instead, incredibly, Conservatives behaved like grown-ups, organizing meetings, withholding funds and threatening litigation.

What they didn't get was that managment has its limits. You can get people who are already on board with a program, and even people who are indifferent or confused, to go along with your agenda by management, therapy, advertising and other modes of non-rational persuasi on, but you cannot change people's minds. 12-step programs motivate people who are already committed--AA works for people who want to quit drinking. People will put up with a lot of humiliation to get support in overcoming weakness of will. (I paid to part icipate in a Kaiser-sponsored quit smoking group at which participants had to write farewell notes to their cigarettes). Pep talks, workshops, and motivational tapes are fine for people who are already motivated: you can psyche up athletes and pump u p salespeople's e nthusiasm. People who are indifferent can be tipped in one direction or another by advertising. People who are confused can be given direction, and a vocabulary to describe their predicament, through therapy. But you cannot get adults wh o have rationally co nsidered commitments--however wrong-headed--to get on board by manipulation.

At least that is what I'm betting. The Primates are closeted and so far there are no leaks. The Archbishop of South Africa has made the predicted dipl omatic move, suggesting that there be a Study but, according to statements prior to the meeting, Conservatives have rejected the proposal as a ploy to avoid taking any action. But maybe they will bite.

I hope not. Ironically, I completely disagree with Conse rvatives' position on sexuality, and with their views on most other ethical and theological issues. I think they're wrong. But they are wrong and rational, and they have every good reason to object to the arrogant, patronizing, manipulative behavior of Liberals.

It reminds me of the last faculty "workshop" in which I participated. Faculty got $250 and a free catered tablecloth lunch for signing on for a day during winter break. The "facilitators" at this event were a couple of chickies in cute suits who were recent USD graduates. They give us three-ring binders with "materials" on five different colors of paper and set us to playing "relating games." For the first game we were to arrange ourselves in order of how long we'd been at USD, without talking. And so it went. Sometime before lunch, when we were hungry and thoroughly disgruntled, one member of the group--for a change not me--rebelled. As he put it, "We're adults--and we have Ph.D's." The chickies were speechless--we broke for lunch and then went home..

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Conservative Chic

Schwartzenegger, the icon of Conservative Chic, is governor of California.

This may be the beginning of the end. Once a political posture becomes chic, it becomes popular piety, and once it is established as the old time religion it ceases to be chic and, with nothing else to recommend it, withers away.

Radical Chic became a household word when Leonard and Felicia Bernstein invited the Black Panthers, and Tom Wolfe, to their epoch-making cocktail party. In those days, far-left political action of this sort was an extreme sport that only the very rich could afford to play. Young, lower-class black males in street gangs were the great domestic nightmare--paired with the Soviet Bomb, their foreign counterpart. They were the ultimate countercultural symbol, flaunting their rejection of bourgeois folkways and appropriating every feature of the Bad Nigger archetype they could manage for the titilation of the decadent elite.

Radical Chic however did not last. Once it became public it spawned safe off-the-rack knock-offs for Middle Americans. Within a decade, afros were quaint period pieces, along with mohawks, and middle class suburban teenagers affected dreadlocks. "Roots" became an American Epic and it became a pious truism that America was "a salad bowl, not a melting pot."

Like Radical Chic, the liberal piety that replaced it was fundamentally apolitical: it was a multimedia fashion statement. In addition to liberal clothing and accessories, which evolved over the years, there were liberal sports, liberal foods, liberal stationary, liberal medicine and liberal decor. Liberals hiked (they did NOT hunt) and ate whole grains, tofu, vegetarian fare and expensive chocolate. They used hand-pressed unbleached papers for social correspondance. They trusted in the medicinal power of herbs and birthed their babies naturally, ideally in Alternative Birthing Centers with midwives in attendance. They furnished their homes from IKEA where where they could leave their toddlers in nurseries furnished with educational toys, which they imagined simulated enlightened Swedish pre-schools, while they shopped.

Politically, Liberalism was the widest of tents. The only thing about which Liberals agreed was Peace, which they generally held to be a good thing.

By the last decades of the century Liberalism had become so bland and pious, so oppressively "feminine" in the old, unreconstructed sense that the elite, which now included ex-officio the entire 16 to 30 age group, adopted a new extreme sport: Conservative Chic.

Stupid white men, like Rush Limgaugh were the countercultural Bad Niggers of the '90s, titilatting their constituency with quips about "feminazis" and skating close to the edge of racism. Minnesota voters elected Jesse Ventura. George Bush II, a legacy graduate of Andover and Yale who opined that the jury was still out on evolution, was deposited on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Being a guy was in, dumb was cool, redneck was good, firefighters were heroes and the more inarticulate the better.

Then Arnold Schwartzenegger, his very name a joke, became governor of California and Conservative Chic became safe, mainstream and pious. Arnold , pro-choice, a supporter of gay rights and the environment, did not have anything to say about feminazis or affirmative action babies. Carefully coached by his handlers, his only ideological commitment was to cut taxes--the conservative mantra. Conservativism had become boring.

What is next? I hope a cadre of new radicals clamoring for for high taxes and war, for a socialist welfare state, military intervention to squash human rights violations, nation-building and the imposition liberal Western style democracy on all peoples, the legalization of recreational drugs, the abolition of dress codes, affirmative action and the destruction of post-modernism, Continental "philosophy" and multiculturalism. Let us dream.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

The BBC reports another case of honor killing--a 16 year old Kurdish girl hacked to death by her father for planning to elope with an 18 year old boy. The father was given the maximum sentence, life, and the judge made it very clear that no "cultural defense" would ever be available for honor killing.

Right that is. But how do we understand the whole affair, and win hearts and minds?

Ideally, members of all cultures should be converted to utilitarianism. But it isn't even feasible to convert all members of our own culture to utilitarianism--people still have entrenched Romantic notions about honesty, virtue and the like. "Honor" is like that: family honor depends on female modesty and defending it is a man's moral duty. Dishonor diminishes him.

I can understand that. I value having a neat, clean organized household--most women do because it is the crown of female accomplishment. If my house is a mess, I am diminished. Emotionally, most women do not, and probably never will, buy the idea that "only boring women have immaculate homes" any more than they will buy the idea that it's ok to be fat or old.

But you can sell the idea that it houses should be "clean enough to be healthy but dirty enough to be happy," the principle that utility trumps personal aesthetic preferences and egoistic concerns, that you shouldn't lock your children into their rooms to keep them from making a mess or beat them up for spilling Kool-aid. So I think you could sell the idea that female modesty, even extending to headscarves is fine, but does not trump goals like education for girls and some reasonable degree of autonomy and does not license beating or killing girls who violate the rules. I'd bet that most Muslims, even most conservative Muslims disapprove of honor killing, even if they might regard it as a crime of passion and punish it less harshly. I would even bet that all things being equal they don't want their daughters to be domestic slaves and would rather see them, modestly veiled, going to (possibly all female) medical schools and marrying nice Muslim boys who won't beat them up.

That's speculation. But I'd like to know the empirical facts of the matter. The assumptions of Romantics who assume that the most exotic, and offensive, practices represent the culture are equally speculative.