06 April 2009

Postmodern Wha?

I hadn't had the dubious pleasure of reading anything by James Poulos, an apparently prodigiously prolix (or prolixly prodigious?) young conservative blogger, until Andrew Sullivan (whom I generally like and agree with surprisingly often given our respective political leanings) linked to one of his more recent essays, suggesting as he did so that it "prods the left." Since I'm feeling a little understimulated at the moment I decided to take a finger in the midsection and give the piece a read.

Doing so has given me a welcome opportunity to complain, so I guess I've been duly prodded.

The piece in question decries the fact that liberal "legalism" has blurred the line between public and private space while accentuating the urges of of the lower bodily strata (to use a Bakhtinianism) through repression in the cause of political correctness. Money quote - I think:

...our public obsession with security and health parallels our ‘private’ tastes for risk and self-poisoning, and our loving, de-eroticized pieties concerning Respect for All grow apace with our beastly appetite for erotic impieties.

In the face of all this, small-l liberal politics largely bites its lip. The ultimate hero of our civilization is a sixteen-year-old sexpot who saves Darfur and bitchily destroys her rivals, all in a day’s work — Lolita Borgia in a reality-TV production of Legally Blonde 4: Barely Legal Bottle-Blonde Beasts of Prey.
Right. Right?

I'm not going to deny that pinching some late-70s Foucault and throwing in a dash of crypto-titilatory prurience dredges eyeballs- at least, I think it does? - but what all this has to do with "small-l liberal politics" is beyond me.

Poulos is right that the realms of public and private are problematic at the moment, and our capacity to communicate often outstrips our capacity to act maturely - I don't think you'd find a liberal or progressive who didn't agree with that assessment. But does the proscription of public conduct make private conduct worse? And why is said proscription a small-l liberal phenomenon?

Part of the trouble here is that "liberal," "progressive" and other political descriptors are so contested by all sides that I'm at risk, as is Poulos, of making erroneous analogies left, right and centre - if you'll pardon the pun. But I think Poulos has constructed a straw man in the person of the sixteen-year old Darfur-saving, Lindsay Lohan-trashing sexpot - because in whose eyes, other than perhaps those of a coke-addled TV pitch writer desperate not to lose their job - would such a person be attractive?

Let's be clear: the worst aspects of our human natures - those closest to the animal - are now broadcast and rebroadcast, available at any hour for almost anyone to see. But it's the paradoxically distancing and binding effect of the electronic media - disengaging us from the reality of the images or words before us yet connecting us to an amorphous world of fellow viewers - that separates us from the full consciousness of the extent of our culture's abdication of its progressive responsibilities, not the attempts made by progressive politicians, educators and authors to soften the savage breasts of chidren with a little empathy.

If Poulos had read his Foucault carefully, he would know that the rise of the legible citizen - the citizen free to exercise whatever libertinage is permitted by the central power, be it the state, its capitalist symbiotes, or both - is older than the political Left broadly defined. And I would add that liberals and progressives, far more often than conservatives, have sought to curtail power's hold over the individual while harnessing authority's capacity to create the conditions for social and economic improvement.

In other words, I sure as hell am not biting my lip.

Poulous' postmodern conservatism seems, at least from this particular article, to amount to a hyperloquacious plea for the good old days when pastoral power was transmitted through the patriarchal, mystifying and often repressive suasions of official religion instead of through the (at least nominally) democratic mechanisms of the state. The latter is a little - only a little - better than the former, but to imply that the exercise of public power over private mores didn't take place before the era of Big Government - and that our contemporary vices are a direct result of liberal democracy's avowed acceptance of diversity - is sloppy.

I think few actually on the ground attempting to do progressive work - in government, schools, NGOs, wherever - are blind to the challenges posed by our human appetities. To tar these people as misguided at best and hypocritical at worst misses the real problems with power and authority that we, both left and right, face.

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