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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Love of Argument: A Response to Michael Bérubé

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 02:29 AM

In this essay, I want to offer a response to Bérubé’s new book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts, rather than writing a review. My review is quite simple: if you are an academic, or are concerned about the prominence of left-wing politics in college humanities courses, you should read Bérubé’s book. It is a decisive refutation of David Horowitz’s charges, and (as others have written) a marvelous account of how English professors actually teach their courses.

In my response to Bérubé, I will focus on the fact that Bérubé considers himself to have a vested interest in argument qua argument, and specifically in the continuance of certain political debates that have a long history in the United States. Bérubé’s love of argument is representative of a widespread trend in both academia and the blogosphere. In my opinion, this bodes ill. Argumentation is a regrettable means, not an end; believing otherwise leads one to fetishize intelligence, misinterpret opponents, maintain incompatible ideas, and worse.

I will try to outline, briefly, a different account of what should be liberal about the liberal arts.

Bérubé opens his book with a story about a volatile student named John, who became increasingly outspoken about his conservative beliefs over the course of a class on postmodern literature.

John’s story begins when Bérubé is explaining the historical context for a reference (in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo) to something resembling the Black Muslim movement. Bérubé lectures on the comparisons that were made between the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the Nation of Islam, and John responds by “snorting loudly and derisively” (2). John exclaims, “That’s completely ridiculous!” (2). The class ignores this outburst, but Bérubé initiates a conversation with John after class, correctly intuiting that he is smoldering about the incident.

John tells Bérubé that “membership in the American community requires one to subordinate his or her ethnic or national origin” (2). Bérubé responds,

Your position has a long and distinguished history in debates over immigration and national identity. It’s part of the current critique of multiculturalism, and to a point I have some sympathy with it, because I don’t think that social contracts should be based on cultural homogeneity.

The problem with seeking John out, and re-assuring him in this way, is that Bérubé is unwittingly misunderstanding John. Bérubé sees John as a representative of a “long and distinguished” position in debates over the social contract, which means that he is thinking of John as an unliving piece of discourse. The proof that he has started to think of John this way is his response: “I don’t think that social contracts should be based on cultural homogeneity.” This is not extemporaneous speaking. Bérubé has clearly pondered this issue, and winnowed his thinking down to one dense nugget that already takes John’s views somewhat into account. The problem is that John probably can’t scan this pre-fabricated statement, and moreover he isn’t going to lie there passively like some library copy of Edmund Burke. As far as John is concerned, the time to overthrow identity politics is right now—and not to Bérubé’s well-considered liking, either, but in toto. Thus, all John takes away from their conversation is the idea that he was right to feel aggrieved.

Bérubé says as much:

We parted amicably, and I thought that though he wasn’t about to agree with me on this one, we had, at least, made our arguments intelligible to each other [...] But the dynamic of the class had been changed. From that day forward, John spoke up often, sometimes loudly, sometimes out of turn [...] he occasionally spoke as if he were entitled to reply to every other student’s comment—in a class of seventeen. (5)

Bérubé spends the rest of the term doing damage control. He has to use all sorts of subtle devices, often behind John’s back, in order to make the course valuable to the rest of the students without making John feel oppressed. I admire Bérubé’s resourcefulness as a teacher and his obvious compassion for his students. However, I think the problems John created were an inevitable result of the disconnect between John’s world, in which one argues to win, and Bérubé’s world, in which one argues merely to make one’s arguments intelligible.

Bérubé elaborates on this criterion of mere intelligibility a little later in the book, when he goes into an extended analysis of the discussion of foot massages in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent argue about whether a foot massage is sufficient grounds for “Marsellus to throw Antwan off a building into a glass-mutherfuckin-house, fuckin’ up the way the nigger talks” (quoted on 234). Vincent, having just trapped Jules into admitting that he (Jules) wouldn’t give a man a foot massage, goes on to explain the hidden sexuality of foot massages. Jules responds, “That’s an interesting point.”

Bérubé’s take on this is crucial:

I acknowledge that Jules’s is not the most eloquent of demurrals/deferrals [...] Yet in one way it is superior [...] for it leaves open the possibility that Jules himself may be mistaken; he is not convinced by Vincent’s argument, but he has understood it as an argument, and he appears to have taken it under advisement. (235)

Bérubé is doing two things here. First, he is showing us how Vincent uses Jules’s heterosexuality (and possible homophobia) to make Jules admit something about foot massages. That is a perfectly good example of what we might call an “immanent” form of argumentation. Second, he is demonstrating his approval of the scene’s open-ended resolution. Unfortunately, though, we really have no idea whether Jules’s comment means a) that Jules now agrees with Vincent, but is saving face, or b) that he can’t think of how to argue back, but isn’t going to change his mind. Bérubé’s comment on the scene allows (b) total legitimacy, since all Jules is really required to do is understand Vincent’s argument “as an argument.” In that case, the two positions become something like complementary tiles in a mosaic of argument, rooted perhaps in the differing, contingent histories of Vincent and Jules. (Also, Bérubé is so intent on preserving them in direct opposition to one another, that he doesn’t ask whether Jules may be talking about a reasonable standard of punishment in addition to doubting whether a foot massage is sexual. The two characters may be talking right past each other as much as arguing.)

Thus the romanticization of argument leads to an aesthetics of ambivalence. Bérubé models this kind of ambivalence in his own discussion of William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham. Bérubé, after asking his students a series of questions about their sympathies, find that they are

basically echoing Silas Lapham’s ambivalence about society and culture (or, if you like, its contradictions), endorsing both the novel’s portrait of social mobility and its image of simple country people with their simple country culture. Very well, so they find Howells’s account of Silas more compelling than mine. That’s understandable: Silas is Howells’s creation, not mine. (157)

This is just to Bérubé’s taste: he is at odds with his class, the novel is at odds with itself, and Howells too is “rather ambivalent” (157). He concludes, “That’s why I think this is so fascinating a book” (158).  “Interesting” is a more common term in academia than “fascinating,” but the purpose of the two words is the same: to put an end to discussions without resolving them, as though one had a personal stake in seeing both sides of every argument persist.

The political consequences of this position are fairly predictable. Bérubé writes,

I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study. I’m serious about this. I don’t mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they’re smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin. (83)

Bérubé is trying to assert his solidarity with “conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices” and “conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence,” but finds that almost none exist. He doesn’t examine the possibility that (for example) the contradictions between conservative notions of self-determination, and environmentalist warnings about global warming and etc., are becoming too great for these amiable instances of self-limiting conservatism to survive. Similarly, he sees no contradiction between embracing the free market, as conservatives do, and shunning the sort of practices that enriched the executives at Enron.

As with the student John, the problem here is seeing discourses like “conservatism” as static objects with an enlivening role to play in the tennis game of democratic debate. In fact, as globalized markets become more and more competitive, and environmental pressures become increasingly severe, the right wing responds dynamically to protect its core values, and the resurgence of the far right in the United States is part of that response. Thus the shift further right isn’t just an outbreak of lunacy, as Bérubé (quoting Brian Leiter on “bonkers” Republicanism) seems to want to believe.

I have no interest whatsoever in seeing right-wing positions (say, for example, the “flat-rate” income tax, or the privatization of social services) preserved out of respect for their long and distinguished histories. I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare.

This desire for an eventual political consensus may strike Bérubé as a textbook Habermasian fantasy. I would counter that the fantasies of his text are much less appealing. Occasionally, the text desires its own defeat, as when Bérubé spends a great deal of time applying Richard Rorty to politics and academia, only to allow a student who finds Rorty incoherent to claim the last word.

Bérubé also seems to countenance some kind of forcible solution to an argumentative impasse: this is a fantasy of cutting the Gordian knot, as Mia Wallace does when she dismisses the debate between Vincent and Jules. Bérubé talks both about Harrison Ford shooting an adversary in Raiders of the Lost Ark, instead of fencing with him, and of potentially excluding Hitler from the roundtable of liberal discussion. I think it is reasonable to claim that the Habermasian fantasy of consensus gives one more patience in looking for the kind of loophole Vincent exploits with Jules, no matter how dogmatic or dangerous the opponent.

I should add that I see definitive limits on the amount of “intelligence” one can muster in defense of right-wing arguments, since they always reason from false premises. I write this with a wincing awareness that it shows some disrespect to conservatives. I apologize for that, because this isn’t the forum for arguing the specifics of the issues. I am just very disturbed by the genteel notions of abstract “smartness” which have replaced other ideas of what literature and criticism can be and do, and which have prevailed because abstractable “intelligence” fits in with the valorization of argument as a permanent condition. The demand for originality can be just as good a goad as the experience of opposition—a better one, even, if the opposition reasons poorly.

* * *

As a teacher of English, I intend neither to protect students like Bérubé’s John, nor to impose upon them a set of contrasting views. My problem with John’s remark (“That’s ridiculous!”) has already been discussed somewhat by Dr. Virago. “That’s ridiculous” isn’t a reading of the text. What Bérubé calls the “capaciousness and uncontainable mimesis” (11) of literary study seems to me to be the standard for objectivity in professors and students alike. Ideally, John’s frustration with identitarian positions would lead him to the fact that “reductive brand[s] of nationalism [are] ultimately undermined in the course of the narrative” (2), and pursuing this thread would ultimately make him a good reader and a more insightful observer of situations beyond the text.

I would have no difficulty teaching a poetry course exclusively on Alexander Pope, T. S. Eliot, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, if some rationale for such a course existed. I would trust my students to discover Pope’s critique of the cult of virginity, Eliot’s hatred of the consequences of mechanized war, and Tennyson’s occasional outbursts against the bourgeois. In other words, I would trust that mimetic readings, and the exchange of views in the classroom, would produce the sorts of sympathies that Bérubé advocates in Rortian terms for his son and for all people. If one of my students chose to write about Eliot’s “crisis of faith,” with its potentially conservative implications, I would have no problem accepting her argument. The contexts Eliot provides justify his journey to faith in a manner incommensurate with the Left Behind series. If this throws us back upon the thorny problem of selecting a canon, so be it. I would rather face that problem, than the task of treating the political views of myself and my students as complementary aesthetic objects.

I am not suggesting that something like “Eliot’s hatred of the consequences of mechanized war” is a particularly interesting reading of Eliot. However, my definition of “interesting” involves a closer, more daring exposition of some feature of the text, one that still never loses touch with its most blatant properties. It has nothing to do with creating irresolvable arguments about Eliot. Bérubé wants to leave Howells at the point where the contradictions of Silas Lapham are at their most fascinating, whereas I want to see whether students can move towards interpretations that make sense out of an apparent muddle. If their sympathies are really with Howells’s Silas, and not Bérubé’s, let them prove that the value of his text lies in its ability to reconcile the apparently opposite modes of pastoral rurality and social climbing, in ways that go deeper than the overt marriage plot.

Literature is a site for the expansion of sympathy; as a statement, that is nothing new. As a phenomenon, it is one of the more rewarding things a teacher can observe in her students. Literature is something else as well. The suspension of the self necessary for the best mimetic readings (as well as the best intellectual work period) is, in the case of literature, also a very subtle elucidation of the self. John might have achieved this sort of subtlety studying how Mumbo Jumbo subverts the identitarian nationalisms he despises. Therefore literary studies can be a proving-ground for a more familiar synthesis of selflessness and enlightened self-interest – the realization that I am one among many, but no less than that. That realization has always been the firmest ground of support for policies that promote the common weal.


Comments

"Bérubé considers himself to have a vested interest in argument qua argument, and specifically in the continuance of certain political debates that have a long history in the United States. Bérubé’s love of argument is representative of a widespread trend in both academia and the blogosphere. In my opinion, this bodes ill. Argumentation is a regrettable means, not an end; believing otherwise leads one to fetishize intelligence, misinterpret opponents, maintain incompatible ideas, and worse.”

You mention specifically political debates, so I think that you may be making a bit of a category error.  Bérubé operates within the world of academia.  The world of actual politics is neither Habermasian nor Lyotardian (is that a word?); it is well understood that consensus is not necessary, and that victory will rearrange the available options in a way that will remove truly incommensurable language-games.  So, yes, in actual politics, argument is only a means to an end, and that end is the construction of a new center.  But the arguments that Bérubé talks about are only pseudopolitical.

Look at, for instance, the religious vs atheist political battles currently being fought in the U.S. and Britain.  Bérubé cites this as an example of two incommensurable discourses, if I remember rightly.  But I don’t think that they really are—they are two roles within a social system, with each individual arguer knowing full well what it would take to convert them into the other system (a religious experience, followed by indoctrination, or a loss of faith, followed by revulsion).  The truly incommensurable discourses near this topic, such as the tribal religionist whose identity is bound up with life-long ritual practise, have been written fully out of the dispute even as their social systems have been destroyed.

When people from academia criticize Dawkins, for example, they often go into how atheists treat religion as a matter of belief rather than practise, and so on.  That’s all beside the point; neither do Abrahamic religious authorities generally defend their religions as matters of practise.  That battle has already been lost, and no contemporary religion will long exist as a ritual one unsupported by belief.  That makes that particular conflict a good example of how academic takes on a political argument can be true, yet miss the point.

By on 11/28/06 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, if I understand you correctly, the category error would be Bérubé’s and not mine. Bérubé moves freely between academic debates (such as the debates over multiculturalism or authorial intention) and political discussions (such as the value of Social Security, or the rights of persons with disabilities).

That said, even I do not want to attempt the sort of hard and fast distinction between the study of literature or history, and political debate, implied by the term “category error.”

I agree with your sketch of academic “post-secular” argument, religious history, and contemporary religious movements. At the same time, I think recent conversations on the Valve have exhausted the vein of consideration of Dawkins and academic takes on religion. Dawkins and related topics isn’t the best way to understand Bérubé or my response to him.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I was just trying to use the argument around Dawkins as an example.  I agree that we shouldn’t start that substantively again.

I guess that I see Bérubé as making a proof by demonstration.  He shows his classroom practises, and implicitly says “Although it may look like we’re having political arguments, we really aren’t, because no conclusion can ever be arrived at.” This I take to be one of his basic defenses against the charge that professors browbeat students politically—something which they not only could do, but should do, if it were an actual political argument. 

I think that this is one of the few ways out of the dilemma of being a literature professor and wanting to have arguments among students about “politics”.  But the whole thing has to be glossed over, because it also can’t become a forthright statement that academic discussions of politics don’t really have much to do with actual politics.

It’s difficult for me to say exactly where I disagree with your point, because I agree with so much of it.  I guess that it depends on how much I think that Bérubé is conscious of what he’s doing.  Maybe it will help to look at your analysis of his reply to “John”, which I generally agree with.  He writes, in response to “John”: “Your position has a long and distinguished history in debates over immigration and national identity. It’s part of the current critique of multiculturalism [...]” I would have answered with something like “You’re thinking of this as an actual political argument, when it isn’t.  It’s a reading of a text.  You have to understand the text as part of this course, not decide which position is best for contemporary politics.” But that permits less “political” involvement for literary academia than Bérubé seems to want.  By focussing on practise rather than belief, Bérubé demonstrates that he isn’t really arguing politically, even as he keeps open the opportunity to do so.

By on 11/28/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

While I am all in favor of us battling it out if a disagreement exists, I think we’re on the same page. I agree that Bérubé opens Pandora’s Box by making John feel as though his political one-offs are relevant to a discussion of literature. The way you would have responded to John is very similar to what I would have said in order to put the emphasis back on legitimate close readings.

Bérubé writes that “as readers, we should think about what’s not in the narrative and why, just as you think about what is in the narrative and why” (158). This particular way of doing historicism is an alternative to mimetic criticism. I don’t think it does much for his reading of Howells, but unfortunately it does clear the way for John to insist that all novels should have sympathetic white characters (otherwise they become the excluded content we still need to ponder).

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I’ll have to think about your response more.

One side note: I think that Bérubé’s anti-foundationalism has something to do with this issue.  Anti-foundationalism is (in my opinion)fine as long as it’s applied to “culture war” matters, but not so much for the classic issues of the left, which have to do with people requiring actual resources in order to live, and moral/ethical matters being to some extent determined by the postulated decision that they should get them.  And that’s the source of most of the new politics of the left, too—exemplified by (my heroine) Gro Harlem Brundtland, say; the concept that physical limits should largely affect, although they do not determine, our politics.  I think that there’s a potential cognate between the blurring of literary and political arguments and the rejection of this source of politics.

By on 11/28/06 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, Jo.  Fascinating stuff; one of the best responses to Berube’s book I’ve read so far.  What I like about it is that it doesn’t fall back on the assumption that Berube’s liberalism is actually another word for ‘Age-of-Reason Rationalism’, and then critiquing that in a Dialectic of Enlightenment-stylee, as if this scores points off Berube himself.  As he says in his blog, he doesn’t take liberalism as equivalent to Reason.  So it’s refreshing to see you attack from the other side, as it were:  you have no desire to enter into a Berubbian argument with conservatives, because such an argument is not rational enough:  conservativism is in effect an irrational discourse (”...since they always reason from false premises..."); and you want a more reasonable understanding of what the social contract means:

I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare.

Personally speaking I’m enough of a Theorista to be troubled by the prospect of this rather monolithic must-not-be-argued-against ‘Reasonable Policy’ for which you hope; just as (I don’t mean this as a cheap shot) dismissing people because ‘they reason from false premises’ smacks too much to my ears of an Ayn Rand ideological strategy.

My problem is that I think a heterogeneity of ideological discourse is a better, more accurate and more pragmatically useful map of the world than a I’m-right-you’re-wrong model.  I wouldn’t call myself a conservative in any of the senses of that word, but that’s not to say that I believe conservatives argue from premises that are undeniably and demonstrably false.  Is it ‘false’, for instance, to believe in the importance of family life to the raising of children?  Is it false to find personal and cultural security in tropes of tradition, proper authority and so on?  Is it demonstrably false (say) to believe in God, and to base one’s life ethos on trying to fall in line with what one believes is the will of that God?  Me, I don’t believe there’s a God, but I don’t see how I can demonstrate in a watertight and compelling way either that God definitely doesn’t exist, or that it is disadvantageous for a person to predicate their lives upon that belief.  It may be the reverse: that (not to revisit the Dawkins post, but) believers have a solider, a firmer grasp upon psychological stability and interpersonal health than non-believers.  Understand: it’s not that I believe any of this myself.  I’m just not sure how, except through a Randian flat dismissal, we establish such premises to be fundamentally wrongheaded and irrational.

By Adam Roberts on 11/28/06 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(returns to the computer, reluctantly putting down the dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead with its awe-inspiring, virile prose)

Adam, you really must call me “Joe” rather than “Jo.” Otherwise I feel like I’m in Little Women.

Keep in mind, before I dive in and respond to the specifics of your (very kind) comment, that one of my goals was to say something like this: “Look, I’ll be honest, I’m on the far left. But that doesn’t mean your children are in danger, because I have no interest in suddenly breaking into a tirade against the war in Iraq.” I hope none of the following comments end up obscuring that point.

I think that the way we imagine the sorts of “reasonable policies” I’m talking about owes, perhaps, a little too much to George Orwell (hence the capitalization: Reasonable Policy). Actually, I’m talking about a “steady state” comparable to our current steady state of abolition. Nobody would seriously argue that our democracy is in danger because the pro-slavery side is no longer heard; we just accept living without slavery as one of the better things about living in U.S. (or the U.K.) in 2006.

I think family life is incredibly important to the psychological health of children. This is one of those areas where I think a Vincent-like argument from within the opponent’s own discourse (going back to the scene from Pulp Fiction) works best. The problem is that I think a family with two gay parents, and an adopted child, can work fine. I think families with single parents can work. The various uses to which the term “family” has been put by the American right—school prayer, opposition to gay marriage, opposition to feminism, media censorship—seem to me to be harmful to children and to the real families that support them. In other words, the far right version of “family values” strikes me as contradictory in itself.

In its way, my own post demonstrates my commitment to authority (which shows up as a commitment to objectivity), and to tradition, since what could be more traditional than my love of dead white poets? Again, the question is to what use something like tradition should be put. I think art does an excellent job exploring these questions; I am thinking of, for example, Fiddler on the Roof.

I don’t think personal religious belief is inherently political, except for the political necessity of freedom of religious belief and practice. I am inclined to agree with your assessment that faith can be a great asset to some people. It goes without saying that if a believer wants to predicate laws affecting all citizens on their personal beliefs, I would have a different response and serious objections.

It was essential to state my position in such “flat” terms because I don’t want to aestheticize the political into an appreciation of “intelligence” on all sides. However, where specific issues are at stake, I try to be sympathetic and point out internal contradictions.

I do start out with a conviction of the correctness of my beliefs, and I expect my opponents to do the same. I also accept that if I can’t refute their arguments, and can see the objective soundness of those arguments, I have to reverse my position or at least do some more research. The etiquette of civility and fairness does not require politely blurring the distinctions between opinion and truth.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I think you’re using a very narrow conception of the political here.  The idea that “real politics” makes an end-run around incommensurable ideological positions is not a critique of the type of debate Berube is interested in.  Argument is about both persuasion and the interpersonal construction of knowledge (eg, Socratic debate).  Just because someone is convinced today doesn’t mean that a discussion in a classroom or a taxi cab or a bar won’t change that person’s mind later.  Any argument that could potentially shape a citizen’s voting habits is political.  What Rich seems to be getting at is a difference between “real arguments” and “practice arguments.” We might be able to say that in a classroom, the teacher is teaching students how to have an argument, and so the arguments that take place in class are less about persuasion and more about rhetorical instruction.  But as Berube suggests, the idea that politics *is* a matter of rhetoric and argument and persuasion is itself a political idea (liberalism).  So training in argument in a classroom is training in liberal politics (liberal conceived loosely, not as center-left policy). 

This is the Horace Mann idea of education: teach students how to actualize to the highest degree their potential as democratic citizens.  To say that Berube is somehow confused about whether classroom arguments are political is to miss his point: these arguments are about teaching students how to have political arguments, not about convincing students to adopt certain positions on policy issues.  But as such, they are highly political, insofar as the liberal democratic process of debate and law-making is a political ideology.  (Remember, scholars like Jodi Dean don’t think we should debate certain issues, and instead call for an enlightened philosopher king to centralize the economy and redistribute income despite any popular opinion against such policy.)

A political debate is not over after politicians make a decision.  So even if “real politics” means using argument to sell a policy, I don’t think you can so easily separate off a kind of Socratic interest in political argumentation from “real politics.” Those “academic” arguments are what keep political issues alive.  And just because there are conditions under which an incommensurability can be broken down doesn’t mean that the incommensurability doesn’t exist.  A bear and I might be communicatively incommensurate, but if the bear becomes human or I become a bear, sure, then the incommensurability disappears! 

And Joseph, Berube might agree that argument is a means and not an end, but the means might be about learning, about working out temporarily compromises, about finding workable solutions to problems—and not about arguing simply to end the argument once and for all.  Even if your argument convinces everyone, there is a real need to keep the argument alive at some level—we might call this the falliblist’s safety net.  I think of the abortion debate: I’m certain that women should have access to abortions in the first trimester.  But I’m not sure that what’s being aborted isn’t a human.  And I’m not sure that a married women should be able to unilaterally decide to abort a mutually worked-for pregnancy.  Sure, there are some people on all sides of the debate who are dangerously self-certain.  But most people continue to question—even if, like me, they know what the policy result should be.  Abortion is about more than just policy.  And policy needs to be constantly be adjusted to new knowledge (i.e., does a doctor’s ability to nurse a few-month-old fetus to self-sufficiency mean that the fetus is a person with legal rights?). 

The same is true as regards Old Left as New Left politics (if abortion rights can really be written off as “New Left”—perhaps the curse du jour at The Valve).  If new economic principles are discovered that have immediate policy implications, let’s hope the argument over economic policy has remained alive rather than shut down by those who simply think that argument is about winning (and thus stop arguing and, in Vygotsky’s terms, thinking, once they’ve won). 

(Finally, can we please put away the simplistic Old/New Left distinctions?  The notion that gay folks or women or racialized citizens should put aside their political interests and only fight for an end to poverty is ridiculous.  A Left without the imagination to think about these issues as interconnected is a Left not worth fighting for.)

By on 11/28/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “Rich, I think you’re using a very narrow conception of the political here.  The idea that “real politics” makes an end-run around incommensurable ideological positions is not a critique of the type of debate Berube is interested in.”

Well, arguments are tactically useful in convincing people, sometimes, and they are strategically useful in cases in which you suspect that widespread agreement is going to take a long time, if it comes at all (that’s what a lot of liberal political theory is about).  But the problem with both the version of Habermas *and* Lyotard that Bérubé deploys is that neither one describes how politics actually works very well.  How democratic politics works is: you argue until you convince a little more or less than a majority, depending on the issue and tactics involved, then you attempt to steamroll the rest and permanently change the conversation.  Joseph is right that “the pro-slavery side is no longer heard”; the argument broke down, we had a war, and now no one argues for slavery.  That obviously isn’t the ideal solution—the whole point of democracy is to try to avoid the war—but, on a less violent scale, that’s how politics gets done.

So I’m not really trying to get at some innate difference between “practise arguments” and “real arguments”, because yes, you’re right that there is little difference between them.  I’m saying that the arguments within academia aren’t real because there is no stage at which they can transition to the exercise of power.  That’s why “consensus” can seem appealing (in democratic politics, there is never consensus) and why “incommensurability” can appear important (in democratic politics, people at the margins can have as incommensurable a discourse as they like; the margins aren’t that important).

Adam: “Personally speaking I’m enough of a Theorista to be troubled by the prospect of this rather monolithic must-not-be-argued-against ‘Reasonable Policy’ for which you hope; just as (I don’t mean this as a cheap shot) dismissing people because ‘they reason from false premises’ smacks too much to my ears of an Ayn Rand ideological strategy.”

I don’t think that there is anything unreasonably monolithic about Joseph’s position.  It’s like what John Holbo says about Rorty’s “imminent critique”: life must be lived in the forwards direction.  At some point I may be convinced that conservatives aren’t all wrong; at that point I will stop rejecting their ideas monolithically.  But that hasn’t yet occured, so why should I act now as if I believe something that I don’t yet believe, and may never believe?  I have procedural liberalism to fall back on to prevent myself from making any irreparable mistakes.

By on 11/28/06 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

I share your commitment to learning, to workable solutions, and to democratically minded compromises. However, I would not confuse compromise with truth; just because I have to compromise on fuel emissions levels does not mean that therefore emissions are exactly where they should be from the standpoint of sustainable environmental practice or public health.

There are a number of socially, but not scientifically, important debates that have been prolonged for no good reason besides corporate interests or prejudice. These include debates over global warming (is it for real?), intelligent design, and the civil rights of homosexual persons. It would be best for everyone if these “debates” came to an end. There is nothing to be learned from them.

I have to dissent from the psychological theory that debates atrophy if they are not watered by perpetual argument. If a new economic theory changed our idea of what a society could accomplish, that would justify a new series of debates. In the meantime, in the absence of such a breakthrough, Rich is right to suggest that life must be lived on the basis of what we do know.

This is even the case with abortion; if you know where you stand in terms of abortion policy, then you are basically waiting for the situation to change. The “dissenters” who are doing things like setting up anti-abortion “Pregnancy Crisis Centers,” with the intention of further confusing women already going through a terribly difficult experience, are not able to tell you anything you haven’t already heard.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What drives this critique seems to be the kind of approach to politics described here, with the pure assertion introduced by “in fact”:

“In fact, as globalized markets become more and more competitive, and environmental pressures become increasingly severe, the right wing responds dynamically to protect its core values, and the resurgence of the far right in the United States is part of that response. Thus the shift further right isn’t just an outbreak of lunacy, as Bérubé (quoting Brian Leiter on “bonkers” Republicanism) seems to want to believe.”

Here “conservative” and “right wing” and “far right” not to mention lunacy are uncritically conflated into a single malign force.  This is all to common on the blogosphere, which pushes us toward food fights with only two possible positions.  (The “globalized” story above also strikes me as pure fable.)

While one can’t read all the way through Michael’s text to the character of John, part of teaching at this level is taking students seriously as moral thinkers, and encouraging them to learn the traditions of thought behind the positions they take, plus counterposed positions.  (As Michael notes the problems usually arise when you get antagonisms between two groups of students, neither of which is ready to give the other that sort of room.) In any case I don’t see a lot of disagreement that teaching is a space in which questions must be held open longer than in, say, one’s research.  Nor do I see any difficulty in grounding this in respect for others, rather than a more elaborate Habermasian frame.

“Politics,” whatever exactly that is, may be another matter.  But I have no hesitation saying that I find, say, Burkean insights politically useful and important.  Underlying Joseph’s critique, pretty explicitly, is a theory of politics as a single great struggle between dark and light.  I would urge the merits not of ambivalence, but doubt.

By on 11/28/06 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this is a great reading of What’s Liberal; Joseph has teased out any number of tensions in the book’s treatment of argument, and I’m afraid I have to agree that sometimes, professors place a great deal of weight on argument as method without openly acknowledging that they have a stake in the outcome (and their argumentative thumbs on the scales).  Surely societies that conduct themselves by means of deliberation rather than, say, by means of feats of strength have a certain attraction for the knowledge-wielding class, and professors ought to say so without fetishizing intelligence, misinterpreting opponents, maintaining incompatible ideas, and worse.

But despite my agreement about the limitations of argument (and the way it might serve the interests of an arguing class), I can’t agree that argument is a “regrettable means.” Regrettable compared to what?  Compared to the kind of total victory Joseph imagines for the left in political affairs?  Because, make no mistake, when Joseph sees civil argument as a temporary way station, he’s thinking about total victory as the end:

I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare.

OK, well, it’s a good thing that (as my book notes) this society has achieved a rough consensus on slavery.  But anyone who thinks that something similar is available with regard to abortion isn’t thinking about abortion from every reasonable angle.  I too would like to achieve a social consensus that would prevent the criminalization of abortion.  But I honestly don’t see how humans are going to agree on “a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare” when it comes to abortion and disability.  There are people who would (and do) regard the eradication of Down syndrome as an unambiguous species-wide good, analogous to a cure for AIDS or the eradication of smallpox; there are people who would regard deafness as grounds for abortion; there are people who would bar prospective parents from having any genetic information about the fetus; there are people who truly believe they have the right and the ability to determine what kinds of people there should be.  Believing that these vastly different interpretations of the boundaries of the human can be reconciled into some kind of steady state of reasonable policy is a recipe either for disappointment or for despotism.

Which brings me to counterargument number two.  There are, indeed, issues like slavery (and, one would hope, genocide, torture, or experimentation on unwilling human subjects) about which one can legitimately hope to end serious debate once and for all, even if abortion probably isn’t one of them.  But I’m surprised that Joseph doesn’t distinguish between the kinds of argument proper to the classroom and the kinds of argument proper to the public sphere.  (I’m even more surprised that he regards this as a category error or confusion on my part.) I just don’t see the classroom as a place in which one argues in order to vanquish all comers, Schmitt-style, and for that reason I don’t see the problem with upholding the “interesting point” criterion in the classroom and then going out and doing whatever one can to end the practice of torture anywhere on the globe (and to put an end all arguments in defense of torture as well).

Which reminds me:  Joseph’s reading of my reading of Pulp Fiction is the best thing I’ve yet seen on the subject.  I especially like the first paragraph of Joseph’s post, too.  I have no argument there.

By Michael Bérubé on 11/28/06 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(NB: I have just read Bérubé’s own comment here, and will respond momentarily.)

Colin,

Hopefully I can clarify a couple of things.

First of all, the reference to “lunacy” is a reference to the quote in Bérubé about the Republican party going “bonkers.” I would not use either term in outlining my own attitude towards the right wing.

As far as giving students a bibliography of positions and counter-positions, I completely agree so long as the issue in question is really still “open” among experts. In English, it is still important to read both structuralists and post-structuralists. In science, it may be important for a student to understand debates within evolutionary science, but it is not necessary to study intelligent design.

Mythologizing my argument as a struggle between light and dark might be confusing, because we usually think of people as light or dark (at least in the hyperbolic worlds of fables like Star Wars). I don’t think the nature of a human being has anything to do with his position on income taxes, with two corollaries. First, students are capable of suspending their own personal views for the sake of a disinterested conversation. Second, it is perfectly possible to talk about a view as apparently wrong (as, to some extent, you are doing here with regard to my post) without that being an insult to the person.

I don’t think students should be taken seriously as moral thinkers. I don’t think professors should be taken seriously as moral thinkers. I think academics should be taken seriously as readers, experimenters, statisticians, and theorists. They should do what they can with the data they possess. Of course this ends up having an effect on the moral debates of the day, but not because it started out as a pre-determined moral commitment.

I think a lot more of an opponent who takes the logical position that I am wrong, than I do of an opponent who holds questions open out of respect for me. Doubt should be a response to a challenge of substance. By holding the question open out of mere respect, an interlocutor is actually putting her own position somewhat out of reach: “We should use each other to refine our arguments, but we will never agree.” (This is a different discussion from conversations about etiquette, including things like swearing at others, interrupting them, or making ad hominem attacks. Perhaps that is obvious.)

There are a wide range of views and a lot of essential uncertainty out there; at the same time, I think a lot of people (myself included) have had the sense, in the past few years, that level-headed conservatives, and spokespeople for the far right, have been employed tactically, as part of an overall effort to create and maintain a fairly right-wing Republican majority. That does not mean that individuals are being Machiavellian. Both Democratic and Republican parties put strategy first. The existence of the Republican party means that, unfortunately, in many cases the rugged individual (with his conscience in perfect working order) is nonetheless being deployed.

Undoubtedly, were I to teach a course on political science or the sublime, I would have a use for Edmund Burke. I would certainly be interested in more specifics on what you are currently finding valuable in his work.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

MB: “I’m even more surprised that he regards this as a category error or confusion on my part.”

I think that I introduced the term “category error”, and that Joseph was only echoing it in order to point out where he thought I was wrong.

I’m really surprised by the following, however:

“OK, well, it’s a good thing that (as my book notes) this society has achieved a rough consensus on slavery.  But anyone who thinks that something similar is available with regard to abortion isn’t thinking about abortion from every reasonable angle.”

How is that an anti-foundationalist position?  Surely there is no inherently “reasonable” vs “non-reasonable” angle (cue Jodi).  I see no practical difficulty in achieving semi-permanent “consensus” for legality of abortion, or at least nothing that makes the cases of slavery and abortion different.  Slavery was considered to be natural and reasonable and an organic part of society by the same section of the U.S. that predominantly thinks that abortion should be illegal now; we wore them down once, we can do it again.

Or, contrariwise, if the Republicans decide that torture is a wonderful practise and have the political power to make it so, then that becomes “the truth for mankind”, as your book puts it.  Saying that there are “issues like slavery (and, one would hope, genocide, torture, or experimentation on unwilling human subjects) about which one can legitimately hope to end serious debate once and for all” introduces the concept of legitimacy in something other than its procedural usage, in connection with the legitimacy of certain political desires in comparison with others.  How can that usage be supported under anti-foundationalism?

By on 11/28/06 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

Thanks for your reply.  I take your point that lunacy was not your term, but the larger argument of your paragraph remains that different varieties of right, including those Michael would descibe as bonkers, are part of the same thing.  I’ll get back to that below.

“As far as giving students a bibliography of positions and counter-positions, I completely agree so long as the issue in question is really still “open” among experts.”

I have no trouble saying a biology course studies biology which is the outcome of a particular way of making knowledge that clearly excludes Intelligent Design.  On the sort of social question raised in Michael’s “John” example, though, I’m not sure that talking about experts and open and closed gets us real far.  Nor am I sure what “bibliography” does above—I’m interested in something more vibrant, in ideally getting students to the point that we can learn about the world by reading across different positions.

Re your rejection of taking students seriously as moral thinkers, we may have located the ground of our disagreement with admirable efficiency!  But just to give an example, I often encounter students who worry that feminism undermines the family.  I tell them that I recognize that they’re working thoughtfully out of a set of moral concerns (and here I use “moral” quite simply to mean views about how we should behave toward one another) and I encourage them to work through the logic of those concerns, and to work through the logic of feminist thinkers on the syllabus, so they can get their criticism of those thinkers as close as possible to the nub of the disagreement.  Hopefully in the process they will also achieve a certain understanding of how, say, Adrienne Rich sees the world.  But that’s *all* I ask!  I also hold open the possibility that I may learn something from those students, and sometimes I do.  That’s where I would insert “doubt”—I mean it both epistemologically, in the sense that I don’t think I understand the world all that well, and in a more limited sense ethically, which is that I think of ethical knowledge as depending on conversation and interaction. 

In different language, a lot of teaching work is getting students of all political persuasions to see more complex codings.  Students like John are working from an oversimple code book, so that they miss, for example, the nuances of Ishmael Reed’s position, the nested critiques, the humor.  You get the quick wholesale dismissals Michael describes.  But if you simply shut down their reactions, they interpret that as your telling them that their politics are wrong.  They are *already* predisposed to read you this way, often having been warned by their families.  You’re in a delicate situation, and the possibility of an educational outcome depends on persuading students that you don’t see them as ontologically wrong, and that means genuinely not seeing them as ontologically wrong.

On your paragraph on Democrats and Republicans, look at this sentence:

“I think a lot of people (myself included) have had the sense, in the past few years, that level-headed conservatives, and spokespeople for the far right, have been employed tactically”

-- Notice that its knowledge claim is based in “sense” plus the claim that this sense is shared. 

-- Notice the agentless passive voice, repeated two sentences later.

-- Notice the larger conspiratorial logic.

Your claims that different varieties of right or conservatism are bound up together, and bound in a relationship of responsibility, depends, crucially, on this underlying assumption that there is a single political force (which you semi-identify with the Republican party) using and employing people. There are perhaps further underlying assumptions about polity.  And yet you ground this assumption *about the world* in nothing more than a “sense” which you bolster by saying others share it.  Surely, to circle back to your example of intelligent design, you would not accept the undeniable existence of a widely-shared sense that we are the work of a Creator as evidence in biology!

On your final question, Burke is great as, among other things, a theorist of doubt.  Robert Skidelsky does a nice job on Burke in relation to JM Keynes, both in his long Keynes biography and in the really short version published in 1996 by OUP.  It’s also interesting to read Burke as a proleptic critic of Marx.

By on 11/28/06 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael,

Good to have you with us! Thanks for your thoughtful response.

I do believe in distinguishing between the sort of argumentative procedure which is proper to the classroom, and that which is proper to the public sphere. What kind of distinction should be made probably depends on the nature of the course.

I’ll try to clarify the vision of objectivity offered in my post: I can see a student like John offering valuable readings of Mumbo Jumbo‘s resistance to movements like the Nation of Islam, while another student is going to give good reasons why such movements were attractive to the characters in the novel. This difference in interpretation might well be based on different political sympathies, and might even require moderation, but as far as I’m concerned both students would be doing excellent work.

On the other hand, if a student in a history class (or a literature course paying attention to historical context) made a factually inaccurate claim with political implications, it would be the professor’s obligation to offer a correction. I’m talking about ideas like the one mentioned in your book, that slaves were much better off than we think.

Suppose a student were to say, “In some cases, torture has proven to be an necessary means of interrogation.” I would ask the student for specific details, and, if he could provide a concrete example, let the motion pass in this situated way, even though I personally feel otherwise about torture.

My point is that students and professors should be held to the same standard. Just as a good professor isn’t going to start lecturing on ethical universals out of the blue, students shouldn’t think of class discussions as an opportunity to really be “themselves” by reacting dogmatically to texts.

On a purely professional note, “journals” or “short response papers” have started to emerge as a good place for students to engage in the kind of grandstanding that John found so indispensable. I teach a class that covers Roosevelt and the New Deal, and every quarter I get some papers that compare and praise FDR and George W. Bush. While I don’t think the similarities are all that persuasive, a few well-written paragraphs on these two “strong leaders” is a perfectly acceptable journal entry.

Honestly, it would be hard to think of any properly academic way to study the issue of abortion besides objectively studying cultural divides, historical sources of argument, and legal precedents. The history of the debate can be written, but the debate itself appears (right now) to be the exclusive domain of the public sphere.

I’m aware of the range of opinions out there on subjects like abortion and disability, and I can’t say I’m really disappointed by the existence of other points of view. My own readings of Rorty, William James, and Nietzsche would lead me to expect different ideologies to arise from different contingent circumstances. The fact that an issue is being debated, or the fact that I may not see a certain policy implemented in my lifetime, does not change my relationship to what I perceive to be true. I certainly don’t think that coercion ("despotism") is an ethical solution to this problem of disagreement.

Rather, my notion of a “final victory,” which can, I suppose, be read so ominously, is actually identical with “doing whatever one can to end the practice of torture,” extrapolated to a range of concerns, such as trying to meet the material needs of as many people as possible.

Argument is not regrettable compared to the marvelous efficiencies of coercion; it is regrettable compared to concord. There is a beautiful line from the conservative, religious text of the Tao Te Ching about going to war as though one were attending a funeral. Argumentation is a combative form; certainly not one we can do without, but one that often produces secondary difficulties. In an English class, I prefer to have students expanding on each other’s readings and contributing new insights, than to have them at each other’s throats. I would say the same for the literary, philosophical, and political blogosphere.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/28/06 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the good post, Joseph. It’s right up my alley - these argument issues, that is. But unfortunately at the moment I’m buried deep in a different alley (something I have to finish). So I don’t want to risk tearing my mind away from that to tear into this, as it were.

I’ll just say that I have an idea for a line of instructional videos and materials for kids: Hooked on Agonics! (Because you can’t spell ‘agony’ without the ‘agon’!)

By John Holbo on 11/29/06 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it would be good if the cartoon-y images that went with the teaching materials actually showed all the kids as happy little smiling fish, with the hook of ‘agon’ stuck through their lips, attached to the ‘line’ of argument.

By John Holbo on 11/29/06 at 01:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin,

I agree that we can learn something about the world by reading across different positions. But let’s be clear about the fact that what we will learn is what people believe. That won’t necessarily correspond to knowledge about the object of those beliefs, whether that object is a literary text, a scientific theory, or a historical event.

The reason I referred to a “bibliography,” rather than simply “intellectual traditions,” is that I think giving students some hints on where they might find sympathetic authors is much better than, in the words of N. Pepperell at Rough Theory, simply treating them like an epiphenomenon of some well-established line of thought.

As for whether the notion of “open” questions (really borrowed from William James on “living and dead” hypotheses) gets us very far with students like John—it clearly doesn’t, because John isn’t speaking from within the academic tradition of literary analysis. We have to bring him into that tradition by encouraging him to ground his views in a reading; at that point it does begin to matter that Mumbo Jumbo‘s account of certain “nationalist” movements is still open to interpretation and debate. That openness is what will allow John room to make his point in the form of a reading.

I have to admit that I’m uncomfortable with the transitions you make in your discussion of the “delicate situation” of educating dissenting students.

First, I don’t think political views have ontological status, as I tried to indicate above when I distinguished between individuals, and the views individuals hold on a given subject (like income taxes). On the level of ontology, we are talking about something like “human beings are the sort of beings who have opinions.” I certainly don’t think my students are wrong for having opinions, including ones different from mine.

Second, if you remove the word “ontologically” from your statement, then you are very close to suggesting that we shouldn’t see our students as wrong because doing so will only confirm what their parents told them. On election day, when I vote one way and my student votes another, to the best of my knowledge that student is wrong—not ontologically, but practically. But that is a moment when we are meeting each other as two citizens, not as teacher and student. In the classroom, my only “political” task is making sure that a student’s belief systems are not getting in the way of them performing good readings and producing good essays.

I agree with you that, in some cases, anxiety over feminism can lead to closer study of a feminist like Adrienne Rich. However, I would much rather talk to my students about putting aside their initial prejudices, whatever those might be. Otherwise I am pre-determining Rich as an opponent, and as a feminist above all else. This can narrow their experience of her writing in all sorts of ways, even if it isn’t necessarily a false account. I should add that Bérubé is excellent on the ways in which a bias in favor of a writer can also hinder the production of good readings, and thus also needs to be suspended.

While I recognize that saying one doesn’t understand the world very well smacks appealingly of humility, it is the sort of statement that doesn’t “pay off” pragmatically. Has it prevented you from calling my reasoning into question in this thread, for example? A commitment to the terms of rational debate, in which one can be proven wrong, does pay off. I don’t know how well I understand the world. That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I can make a statement about. But I am willing to change my mind about a given political issue if confronted with irrefutable evidence.

Like you, I’ve had the wonderful experience of learning from my students. However, these moments of learning have come through their close readings and compelling arguments. I haven’t learned anything from the occasional piece of dogma, like “feminism hurts the family.”

* * *

It occurs to me that some of the disconnect in the political conversation we’re having may be a result of my thinking largely in terms of public figures (with Bush foremost among those), and you thinking in terms of the diverse Republican rank-and-file, possibly including yourself, who are certainly not being “deployed” or etc.

The reason I included the more inflammatory paragraphs in my posts and subsequent comments was twofold.

1. I wanted to respond to the passage in Bérubé where he seems to argue that he wants, among his colleagues, a certain kind of Republican who can no longer identify comfortably with the Republican party. Nobody gets to pick and choose the opposition, and Bérubé did not confront the possibility that such individuals were actually moving farther right, out of his comfort zone, and doing so for comprehensible reasons. This objection again involves the difference between static positions or texts, and dynamic, changeable persons.

I strongly believe that this is not the forum for an essay titled something like “Bait and Switch,” on the ways that the right-wing has used moderate terms like “bipartisanship,” as well as moderate spokespeople, without ever having any intention of meeting Democrats halfway. So then, why be provocative? That brings us to (2).

2. I wanted to show that the much vaunted criterion of “intelligence” can be used as a way of enforcing a set of fairly centrist positions, even if those positions skew to the right or left. Bérubé metaphorizes this sort of intelligence as the ability to play a good game of tennis. I associate it strongly with public figures like James Carville and William F. Buckley.

It has, however, been a while since I’ve seen a committed Marxist described as this sort of good tennis player, or even Marx himself treated to grudging admiration on the grounds of “intelligence.” That’s fine by me, as is the belief that Marx was a bad economist whose followers led their countries into catastrophe. I just don’t want the no-stakes centrist tennis game setting the terms of the debate a priori.

(The natural response to this is that academics use Marx all over the place. That’s true, but one can easily be a political centrist who uses Marx specifically to write essays about Dickens.)

As an academic, I have a particular interest in this question of “intelligence,” because I intend to return to it at some point in order to discuss how the cult of the “brilliant reader” of texts is used to create prejudices about which theorists should be read, and which shouldn’t.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/29/06 at 05:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Jo. Josephus. J. Joey. Joe.  I composed a comment a while back but it got snaffled in one of those unfortunate computer-interface-internet glitches.  No matter.  Briefly:

I think family life is incredibly important to the psychological health of children. ... The problem is that I think a family with two gay parents, and an adopted child, can work fine. I think families with single parents can work.

I hope it goes without saying that I agree on this.  Indeed, given the hoops they have to jump through, the more-than-usually onerous process involved and the concomitant level of comitment required, I’d say that gay couples who adopt can be better parents than the twenty-minutes-of-sex-oh-no-here’s-a-baby crowd.  Actually ‘Homosexuality’ stands as a kind of failure of imagination for me: by which I mean, I can imaginatively enter into, even if I don’t share, some classically ‘Conservative’ belief structures (the primacy of patriotism, say; religious belief); but I really don’t see what it is that gets people so riled up about homosexuality.  But that’s probably my lack of imaginative vim.

The main point I wanted to make relates to the concept of a Political Orthodoxy so embedded that nobody even questions it anymore; and especially the idea that such an orthodoxy could ever be a Good Thing.  The example you use is slavery:

Actually, I’m talking about a “steady state” comparable to our current steady state of abolition. Nobody would seriously argue that our democracy is in danger because the pro-slavery side is no longer heard; we just accept living without slavery as one of the better things about living in U.S. (or the U.K.) in 2006.

Rich agrees with this, but thinks it a shame it needed a war to get there.  Michael B. kind-of agrees that this is a fact of ‘public discourse’:

There are, indeed, issues like slavery (and, one would hope, genocide, torture, or experimentation on unwilling human subjects) about which one can legitimately hope to end serious debate once and for all, even if abortion probably isn’t one of them.  But I’m surprised that Joseph doesn’t distinguish between the kinds of argument proper to the classroom and the kinds of argument proper to the public sphere.

But, see, here’s the problem.  Is it the case that there is no slavery nowadays in the US or the UK?  Or is it the case that a public-discourse consensus that ‘slavery has been abolished’ and that nobody would publically argue that it should be brought back effectively masks a whole bunch of enslaving social practices by closing down the possibility of even talking about them?  ie don’t you think that one consequence of thsi orthodoxy is that we now no longer have a public idiom in which to debate contemporary practices of slavery?  I’m talking about things like wage-slavery, or the widespread exploitative and slavery-like employment of eg illegal aliens as domestic servants.  [The argument would be something like people saying ‘well, they’re not actually in chains, so everything’s OK’] Or, a better example: in the UK at the moment there is a terrible problem with women being trafficked, often from Eastern Europe and the former soviet block, into sexual servitude in brothels in London and other big UK cities.  This isn’t ‘slavery in all but name’; it is slavery plain and simple.  But calling it ‘trafficking’ makes plain a refusal to face what’s actually happening.  (A offence of ‘trafficking’ looks risibly like ‘a traffic offence’, don’t you think?) I wonder if this isn’t because, in the public arena, everybody accepts that you can’t advocate slavery; but in a private realm ... and particularly with an example like this, where there are heterosexual men who are precisely turned-on by the idea of literal concubinage ... plenty of people are not only prepared to countenance it but are actively complicit with it.  So here’s slavery; but the public consensus that slavery has been abolished means that we have no public idiom in which to talk about it.

And this is the historical problem with Political Orthodoxy, don’t you think?  Once it’s orthdoxy that Soviet methods of farming are inherently more efficient than capitalist ones then it becomes strictly impossible to talk publically about rusting tractors, impending famine and so on.

Another example: Anti-racism is now widely regarded as a civic virtue, and quite right too.  When people express racist sentiments in a public arena they generally get into trouble (rightly: I’m thinking of your what’s-his-name politician with his ‘Macaca’ jibe).  But just because it’s discouraged in public discourse doesn’t mean that either racism or the expression of racist sentiments no longer happens.  Of course it happens a great deal; it’s just that people transfer it to private discourse.  (And, actually, when they’re exposed by having these ‘private’ statements broadcast publically, as with the people duped by Baron-Cohen in the Borat movie, these same people don’t get apologetic about being found-out as racists, instead they get cross that their ‘privacy’ has been violated.)

By Adam Roberts on 11/29/06 at 05:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,

I definitely see your point about the way that a consensus ("we have abolished slavery") can be used to manufacture complacence.

To put this in terms of the discussion that has evolved, I don’t think the survival of a pro-slavery faction would make us more effective in fighting wage slavery or the trade in sex slaves. In fact, I think the consensus about slavery continues to work to our advantage here, because we can link practices like wage slavery, which someone might not want to prohibit, to the older forms of slavery that they definitely would oppose. Rhetorically speaking, a consensus is a big help.

What motivates our response to modern “slave trades” is not the existence of an outspoken pro-slavery faction. It is certainly not a set of doubts about our own opposition to slavery. It is, instead, a level of concern for others in the society. It is because of our concern for the people being exploited that we begin to have new and legitimate doubts about the statement “Slavery is over.”

What made Soviet proclamations oppressive was the machinery of terror that enforced them. Merely having an opinion, and expressing it forthrightly, does not constitute oppression or orthodoxy. The public sphere has to be a place where confrontations can happen if need be; a person is free to express racist views, but they are not protected from rebuttals. Some illegitimate discourses, such as racism, continue to thrive in the private sphere. Still, I think it is important to remember how recently those same views were considered fit for public consumption.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/29/06 at 05:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe: “What motivates our response to modern “slave trades” is not the existence of an outspoken pro-slavery faction. It is certainly not a set of doubts about our own opposition to slavery. It is, instead, a level of concern for others in the society.”

Well, yes I do see what you mean.  But my point, I suppose, would be that the shape of public discoruse materially effects not only the kind of things we can say (that’s tautological) but the actual good we can do.  So with this example, if we aren’t talking about the trafficking of Eastern European women in terms of slavery we’re talking about it as a function of ‘prostitution’; following on from which people start to argue that the problem is solved by making prostitution illegal.  But that’s to miss the point of the problem.  My (liberal) view is that there’s nothing wrong with somebody freely choosing to be a sex worker; the criterion in sex or work as anything else is consent.

I do think this public/private discourse thing is crucial to contemporary political action, and to the larger shape of political possibility.  One of the things you can see, very particularly, the Right in America trying to do is to establish as a public commonplace that ‘America does not torture’.  It’s being contested, of course, but there’s a fair amount of cultural weight behind it.  And what this does is, first, to deny that there’s any torture going on in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay; but (even better than that) if the fact of torture becomes imposssible to deny then you shift it purely into the private realm: you prosecute individual soldiers for their appalling lack of military discipline, and thereby avoid the need to admit that there what they did was symptomatic of a systemic problem.  It’s quite a clever ideological strategy, actually.

“What made Soviet proclamations oppressive was the machinery of terror that enforced them.”

Well, yes.  But the Soviet proclamations were based on dodgy premises.  So in the event of famine Stalin might well have several thousand counter-revolutionary traitors arrested and executed, but it’s simply hard for the general population really to believe that that’s why the harvest failed.  Harvest is a big deal, difficult for a few people to sabotage.  But when Lindsay wossname was put on trial many Americans thought precisely: ‘yes, she was a bad apple, but the American Military is a glorious thing’.  That, in other words, whilst bad things may happen in the private realm, the public realm is Splendid.

By Adam Roberts on 11/29/06 at 08:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, it’s impossible to progress to effective action against “wage slavery” or illegal “human trafficking” as long as there is any significant contemporary pro-chattel-slavery discourse (and the political power that would keep such discourse “alive").  It’s like saying that we need for there to be a significant number of actual fascists arguing for fascism in order to see the problems of conservatism.

Because the discourse of slavery isn’t dead, and is applied to the issues that you mention.  Let’s see, just from this month:

“November 13, 2006
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WTO ANNOUNCES FORMALIZED SLAVERY MARKET FOR AFRICA

[...]

Philadelphia - At a Wharton Business School conference on business in Africa, World Trade Organization representative Hanniford Schmidt announced the creation of a WTO initiative for “full private stewardry of labor” for the parts of Africa that have been hardest hit by the 500 years of Africa’s free trade with the West.

The initiative will require Western companies doing business in some parts of Africa to own their workers outright. Schmidt recounted how private stewardship has been successfully applied to transport, power, water, traditional knowledge, and even the human genome. The WTO’s “full private stewardry” program will extend these successes to (re)privatize humans themselves.

“Full, untrammelled stewardry is the best available solution to African poverty, and the inevitable result of free-market theory,” Schmidt told more than 150 attendees. Schmidt acknowledged that the stewardry program was similar in many ways to slavery, but explained that just as “compassionate conservatism” has polished the rough edges on labor relations in industrialized countries, full stewardry, or “compassionate slavery,” could be a similar boon to developing ones.”

That’s from a group of prankster-agitators (see http://www.gatt.org, http://www.theyesmen.org, http://www.rtmark.com) who, as one of their projects, pretend to be WTO officials at meetings.  But mainstream human rights groups use the history of slavery in order to help motivate concern without the need for actual slavery defenders somewhere.

I’m not convinced by the “One of the things you can see, very particularly, the Right in America trying to do is to establish as a public commonplace that ‘America does not torture’” argument.  That’s a stopgap for blaming crimes on underlings until the structure for legalizing torture and openly engaging in it is in place.  You’re much more likely to see “America does not torture—we’re better than that, and the people who are trying to make torture legal are un-American” from the moderate left.

By on 11/29/06 at 09:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:  “it’s impossible to progress to effective action against “wage slavery” or illegal “human trafficking” as long as there is any significant contemporary pro-chattel-slavery discourse (and the political power that would keep such discourse “alive")"

You think so?  Impossible’s a sweeping term.  Does one have totally to vanquish all “significant contemporary pro-X discourse” before we can move on to progressive action on X?  Were (I don’t know) all the proponents of apartheid in South Africa convinced by anti-apartheid arguments before apartheid was finally dismantled?

I take your point about torture.  But surely the Right also advance a “America does not torture—we’re better than that” argument? (eg ‘we’re better than the terrorist, and anybody who tries to stop our military doing what is necessary is siding with Them’).  Different sense of what ‘better’ might mean, I suppose.

By Adam Roberts on 11/29/06 at 09:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “Does one have totally to vanquish all “significant contemporary pro-X discourse” before we can move on to progressive action on X?”

No, I was making a distinction between related issues along a continuum.  Chattel slavery is worse than human trafficking insofar as chattel slavery was legal, and the full power of the state enforced it.  Chattel slavery is worse than wage slavery in all sorts of ways; wage slaves get at least potential choice of jobs, are generally not seperated from their families, generally do not have to undergo sexual servitude, have some limitations on how hard they can be worked, etc.

I’m not advocating that everyone needs to be convinced; I explicitly argue against that, upthread.  (Text search for “steamroll").  But only once certain social structures are thoroughly disempowered (discrediting their arguments sometimes goes along with this, though not always) can you then go on to defeat forms of those same structures that are “less severe” according to their moral framework that you used to discredit them.  For instance, if women didn’t have the right to vote, fighting for equality between men and women in the workplace would probably be futile.  Only once opposition to female suffrage is a crank position can you really then go on to “glass ceiling” and wage disparity and family care issues.

By on 11/29/06 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I see, and take the force, of all that.

By Adam Roberts on 11/29/06 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Pardon my floating comma)

By Adam Roberts on 11/29/06 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

Thanks for your careful reply.

“... we can learn something about the world by reading across different positions. But let’s be clear about the fact that what we will learn is what people believe.”

People may have insights, knowledge, ways of understanding.  Beliefs may be the least of it. 

“I don’t think political views have ontological status,”

Even if views are mere opinions, opinions are still part of the social world.  But I am after much more than mere priors.  I’m interested in interpretive frameworks, and in the things my students know by virtue of being members of families, having jobs, traveling, and so forth.  The social world seems to me very much a world of meaning-making and meaning-exchanging, a position a humanist like yourself should embrace!

“Second, if you remove the word “ontologically” from your statement, then you are very close to suggesting that we shouldn’t see our students as wrong because doing so will only confirm what their parents told them.”

Not really.  Perhaps my point was too cryptic.  To expand: (a) Students have typically been warned by family members and friends that professors will try to indoctrinate them, and to be on their guard.  (If you ask them about this, once a certain trust has been established, you’ll get a lot of entertaining stories.) (b) Students are also often highly skilled at giving professors what they want to hear, and are pre-inclined to interpret professorial criticism of the content of their writing or speech as us telling them they had the wrong political line.  So when a student writes that Adrienne Rich caused millions of women to leave their families, I have a delicate task because if I just say that’s nuts, the student will conclude she gave me the wrong political line and shut down, thinking OK, my parents were right.  You’ve gotta find a way to encourage the student to ground interpretations and critique in evidence, thoughtful reading, etc. ... anyway Michael gives a fine discussion of the particular hermeneutics of suspicion in this case, overlain by power.

Re “suspending judgment” and “putting aside their initial prejudices” I don’t think people really suspend judgment.  I think students hear injunctions to do so as relativism, PCism, bland don’toffendanyoneism.  And they will then happily write you superficial little papers about how-can-I-judge-their-culture.  It’s another form of shutting down.  The most engaged students are usually the most interested in how a given text translates into how we should live.  I agree there are points where prefabricated judgments get in the way of learning, and you have to think about exercises and assignments to get around that. 

“I am willing to change my mind about a given political issue if confronted with irrefutable evidence.”

As pointed out in previous posts, though, you make strong statements about the world evidenced only by your “sense” that they are true!  To take two pieces of evidence that are close to hand: Jorge Castaneda’s _Perpetuating Power_ with analysis and interviews about Mexico under the PRI 1970-1994 which I’m in the middle of, and the historical data at http://uselectionatlas.org/ (look at where Adlai Stevenson got his electoral votes).  If you were a visiting Martian political historian trying to figure out Mexican or U.S. politics over the last 50 years, I say you’d find categories of left and right of strikingly limited explanatory power.  So I’m not talking about leadership versus rank and file.  I’m challenging your fundamental interpretive map of politics.  I’ve pointed out in the earlier posts that your critique of the Michael book hinges on a Manichaean two-camps view of politics that is simply assumed into existence.

On your larger point, _What’s Liberal_ is haunted by Rorty, and the position Michael carves out will always be vulnerable to the attack that it’s just another Rortian tea party.  But I’ll let Michael deal with that; he can always counter with a tough-guy hockey metaphor. 

------
Your discussion of “intelligence” sounds interesting, though I have to say I think of James Carville and William F. Buckley as public figures who differ in more than politics.  But to take Milton Friedman, whose death we mourned last week, I can think of a lot of things to call him but “centrist” isn’t one of them, and he was a formidable debater.  Perhaps though that wants to be another thread.

By on 11/30/06 at 12:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll let Michael deal with that; he can always counter with a tough-guy hockey metaphor.

Man, I’m just gonna cross-check this Danby dude.  And for the record, I have never been to a Rortian tea party.

But I actually came back to apologize for two things.  One, for showing up earlier in the week, commenting hurriedly, and then not following up until now.  Two, and more important, for writing such a foolish thing as “there are, indeed, issues like slavery (and, one would hope, genocide, torture, or experimentation on unwilling human subjects) about which one can legitimately hope to end serious debate once and for all, even if abortion probably isn’t one of them” (my rueful emphasis).  I told myself long ago that I would never again succumb to the temption of the rhetoric of “once and for all,” and I did it here.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Rich’s next comment is right to object to this, though the problem isn’t that I invoked a nonprocedural concept of legitimacy; the problem is that I suggested that some arguments can be won in such a way as to make their triumph permanent.  That’s precisely the temptation I would like to avoid, though, as my ill-considered remark indicates, I’m not always successful in this.  So I think I had it right in the book, is what I’m saying—even though the passage that refuses the consolation of the “once and for all” also admits that I have my moments of weakness:

“I think there’s no question that in the world we know, claims about the intrinsic rightness of X have a certain purchase on the moral imagination that claims about the contingent plausibility of X do not.  It appears that so far, Rorty’s appeal is simply not sufficiently powerful on this count:  when the secret police arrive, most people I know want to be able to tell the secret police that fascism is intrinsically wrong, and they want to be able to point to something more authoritative on the subject than Consequences of Pragmatism—just as I sometimes want to believe, despite my explicit intellectual commitments, that my child has intrinsic value whatever the world might think.

Now, I’ve learned over the years that it is a dicey thing to admit to that desire.  It invites realists and their friends to say, aha, you see, this Bérubé has been to graduate school and has been indoctrinated by Richard Rorty, and yet ‘down deep, in his heart,’ as the saying goes, he really does want to have an objective, noncontingent moral philosophy.  But actually, in such matters I do not have one desire that resides ‘more deeply’ than another; I have lots of conflicting desires all at once.  One of them entails the vain hope that someday we will no longer need to make the case for the human rights of every human born.  That’s the foundationalist part, the one that emerges whenever I get weary at the idea that we all have to keep arguing for the humanity of our fellow humans, especially for those of us like Jamie who aren’t very good at things like ‘arguing.’ But another of my desires runs directly contrary to that one, for it entails the imperative to keep arguing with moral foundationalists, to try to convince them, as I’ve already said but will surely have to say again and again before I die, that it is the height of folly to think that we can give up the fight, safe in the knowledge that some higher or deeper forces are on our side.  If it is dangerous to speak antifoundationalist in a world most of whose citizens like to believe in objective moral grounds, it is also dangerous to speak foundationalist and think that such an argument about human rights can ever be ‘won’ once and for all, in such a way that no one need ever worry about fascism or eugenics again.”

What was I thinking, to call that vain hope a “legitimate” hope and to say to Joseph that some debates might be won “once and for all,” rather than “won strongly enough in some times and places as to render other arguments temporarily unavailable”?  Basically, I was sufficiently tempted by Joseph’s critique of argument, and my general agreement with him about genocide and torture and slavery, to want to grant him that debate on such things, if not on abortion, “will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare.” That was a mistake on my part, and I vow once and for all never to make it again, except maybe when I forget myself.

By Michael Bérubé on 12/03/06 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m reassured that there was indeed a contradiction—I would have had to have read your book very badly if there hadn’t been one.  The question then becomes how an antifoundationist describes the process that Joseph writes about, which I would summarize as “winning”.  Because even if you think that arguments can’t be won once and for all, it seems that more than “render[ing] other arguments temporarily unavailable” occurs.  Politics involves power, after all; a contemporary could, in theory, argue in favor of slavery within the U.S., but would have no ability to actually re-institute chattel slavery unless they convinced more than 50% of the U.S. to do so, because the contrary “argument” is not just a matter of argument, it’s a matter of law.  Even more than a matter of law; it’s law that’s become embedded in patriotic propaganda, economic structure, the daily lives of hundreds of millions.  “Rendered temporarily unavailable” just doesn’t cut it; it envisions a binary opposition between “settled forever” and unsettled that is of no use other than to reject “settled forever”.

A side note: I have a book “Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South” that contains essays by slaveholders arguing in support of the institution of chattel slavery.  One of their key arguments, in addition to the predictable array of conservative ones, was that the situation of “wage slaves” was worse than that of chattel slaves, whose owner would look out for them.  That’s the same argument that the WTO prankster consciously or unconsciously echoes from the other side, as parody of the libertarian principle that clear ownership rights over everything solves problems.  In that sense, studying discredited arguments can sometimes be helpful—but that doesn’t seem to be really what you’re talking about.

By the way, Michael, if you do comment again, what do you think of “sustainability” and the associated batch of ecology-influenced ethics?  Would you just write off the whole thing as foundational?

By on 12/03/06 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<CENTER>http://www.flickr.com/photos/stc4blues/313367027/ TARGET=flickr</CENTER>

Whoops! Wrong blog. Sorry about that. Thought I was at Berube’s joint, where rumor has it that a Big Event is on the H o r i z o n.

Bill Benzon
Minister of Visual Propaganda
WAAGNFNP

By Bill Benzon on 12/04/06 at 02:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, in-jokes don’t travel that well.

As for arguing about chattel slavery, Bolton never gave up the good fight.

By on 12/04/06 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—In my posts you’ve established that you’re good at the ill-considered shot from the hip. Now you’re stalking the obvious.

Lighten up. A reasonable number of Berubites post here and, in any event, this place needs something to relieve the sense of high and most serious importance that pervades the joint. That little pictogram may not be just the ticket, but, so what?

By Bill Benzon on 12/04/06 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, cheap shot.  Rather than reply in kind, I’ll say that I find many of your JPGs (and especially this one) eyestrain-producing, and would rather not have to scroll past them everywhere.

By on 12/04/06 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rich. That comment makes sense, though I think you exaggerate the distribution of my jpgs—“everywhere”?

By Bill Benzon on 12/04/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I must say I feel unqualified to offer absolution to someone who, like Michael, seems to have undergone, uh, apogojirasis, but here I go anyway.  Our putative sinner confesses that he has “succumb[ed] to the tempt[at]ion of the rhetoric of ‘once and for all,’” and throws himself on the mercy of the court.  He says: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  But I say: no harm, no foul.  (For that, anyway.)

What is the harm here supposed to be?  Michael worries about what “realists and their friends” will say—here, that for all he says about contingency, when he hopes that certain questions will be settled “once and for all,” he shows that he really wants after all what everyone else wants (i.e. ideally solid foundations); so he contradicts himself.  It’s true that contradictory views are bad, but the thing to remember about dealing with realists is that you can’t win.  If you say anything that sounds like realism, you contradict yourself; but if you don’t, then you’re just another relativist.  So never mind what realists and their friends might say.  Frack ‘em.

Worry instead about what your friends might say.  I agree with Rich that, as he puts it, “‘Rendered temporarily unavailable’ just doesn’t cut it; it envisions a binary opposition between ‘settled forever’ and unsettled that is of no use other than to reject ‘settled forever’”.  Let’s see if we can’t aim for some version of “settled” that, shall we say, aspires to some sort of permanence, but falls short of endorsing the objectionable realist picture.

And what is that picture?  To establish something “once and for all,” on the realist/dogmatist view, is to do three things: 1) state a truth which transcends consensus; 2) provide a rationally compelling justification, e.g. a valid derivation from unimpeachable premises, for that conclusion; and 3) to do (1) and (2) in such a way as to make it unnecessary ever to do it again, in the following sense: if someone comes along who doesn’t believe our conclusion, we simply print him out a copy of the argument for it and count him irrational if he resists.

Anti-foundationalists see that this is a lousy model of moral deliberation (something which actually involves engaging others seriously as moral agents, even in disagreement, and not, or not generally, as (mere) simpletons or swine to be instructed).  But the problem is not (as they infer) that even our most closely-held beliefs are in fact corrigible—after all, even realists can concede this (that’s why some realists are skeptics)—but instead that such corrigibility requires the possibility of serious engagement, which is what dogmatism sees as unnecessary, even dangerous, once the truth has been discovered (which is why Michael is leery of truth-talk).  Yet, and here is my main point, neither can I be said to “engage” if I back off of my belief in advance.

So I am baffled when Michael apologizes for “sometimes want[ing] to believe, despite my explicit intellectual commitments, that [his] child has intrinsic value whatever the world might think.” I can only surmise that he has made a slide, similar to that made by realists, from the “intrinsicality” of Jamie’s value (i.e. in being a human being), which is indeed what Michael (and most of the rest of us here, me included) is committed to, to the realist sense of “intrinsicality” which depends on questionable metaphysical commitments (of a platonist and/or cartesian nature).

The problem with (1) - (3), then, is not that moral judgments can be seen as doxastic commitments (i.e., beliefs, which are thus subject to norms of rationality), but that they must be seen as solely doxastic, and that the nature of doxastic commitments and their revision fits the tendentious metaphysical-realist line.  But Michael seems, in drawing the lines the way he does, already to have conceded the latter, requiring him to object more strongly than necessary to the very idea of moral judgments being doxastic.  (In other words, (1) and even (2), properly construed, are or can be unobjectionable.)

For what it’s worth, let me just cut to my bottom line (if that’s even what it is).  The reason that moral consensus can’t be achieved “once and for all” is that when anyone steps out of line, we can’t just hammer him over the head with a prefab “conclusive argument” (as if it were written in the World’s Own Language or something).  That’s because morality is just as much a matter of existential commitment as of belief.  But, as the hermeneutic tradition points out, this is true of everything we say and do; it’s just that this fact can come up in a different way in the moral context than, say, in science.  Yet in either case we may speak of “establishing things once and for all” in a certain limited sense.  For while it is true that we may have to deal with future slaveowners, whom it will certainly take more than a prefab argument to convince to free their slaves on moral grounds, that will not be because we have backslid along the same track of our recent (what we call) moral progress (resegregating, redisenfranchising, reenslaving), but instead because we have encountered something truly alien.  (For the Nazi, it is axiomatic, not the result of backsliding from an Enlightenment conception of human rights, that the homosexual and the Jew are subhuman.) That may not look like much (and I have not given an argument for it, nor do I have one), but it’s not something to be sneezed at, nor given up lightly.

By Dave Maier on 12/04/06 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bérubé citing Bérubé contra Bérubé? Joseph Kugelmass cast as a foundationalist Tempter while Bérubé ascends into heaven via .jpg? I’m optioning the movie rights.

I completely agree that you (Michael) are not a foundationalist “at heart”—the competing positions that we entertain are never tied to the essence of our being, especially when the thing tempting us towards foundationalism is mainly greater rhetorical efficacy.

I’ve been discussing the relationship between ethics and melodrama recently, and I think the attempts to disprove Rorty by imagining the advent of the secret police fit squarely into a tradition of using imaginary crises as ethical touchstones. I think this is a pretty questionable tradition; in fact, the extreme methods of totalitarian states would probably lead to ideological entrenchment on all sides, meaning that I can imagine Rortian pragmatists becoming committed resistance fighters.

I think the bigger problem with the Rortian commitment appears at moments like now, when we aren’t living with fascism, but also can’t seem to face up to the environmental and economic problems of the day.

Most of the arguments that can be made against Rorty have been made already, and some of Rorty’s responses have been very good. I’ll try to be brief. First of all, Rorty’s criteria for what is “exhausted” (i.e. Enlightenment empiricism) appear to be totally arbitrary. If I am reading Locke, and finding him useful and enjoyable, am I suddenly standing outside of history? Logically, I can’t be, so we are left with an odd, Nietzschean vitalism that tries to score intellectual points by metaphorizing Locke’s writing as an old, doddering man.

Then there is the Rortian criteria of usefulness, which he’s basically inherited from William James. Back in James’s day, there was perhaps less debate over values, so it was easy to justify all sorts of philosophical differences through a set of consistent, slightly conservative practical standards. (For example, the maintenance of family and community—I remember temperance playing a significant role in The Varieties of Religious Experience.) However, now that we’ve lived through Georges Bataille, it becomes rather difficult to say what is most useful to us.

Finally, cruelty and greed. I agree that most writers have considered these to be bad things, but there is a big difference between Adam Smith’s definition of greed, and Proudhon’s. There is a big difference between the Stoic understanding of cruelty towards the self, and the bohemian understanding of the same. Foucault completely unsettled our common methods for perceiving and ranking cruelty. Even where there appears to be a cultural majority, the tactic of referring to what most people think doesn’t rise far above the high school phenomenon of peer pressure.

These methods of Rorty’s—calling something antiquated, or rallying the myriad voices of an imaginary cultural history to one’s side—can perhaps make an argument “unavailable.” The best way to make something unavailable is to censor it—for example, by making it unattractive by labeling it as played out. There may be the danger of despotism or dogmatism in accounts of truth like mine; there is certainly the danger of unscrupulous tactics in simply trying to make opposing arguments “unavailable.”

...Rich, the way you summarized the process to which I refer, as “winning,” made me laugh out loud. That’s how I’d summarize it, too.

Dave Maier’s response gives, I think, a very good account of a “corrigibility” that doesn’t become dogmatic, and a contrasting account of a disappointing failure to engage, albeit one motivated by a reasonable aversion to dogmatism.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/04/06 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great, thoughtful article. Do you have a blog of your own? The link you put in above to kugelmass episodes is dead.

By on 12/05/06 at 02:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bérubé citing Bérubé contra Bérubé? Joseph Kugelmass cast as a foundationalist Tempter while Bérubé ascends into heaven via .jpg? I’m optioning the movie rights.

Note that, from a technical point of view, the ascent is to the GNF, Giant Nuclear Fireball. The relationship between this conceptual object and the traditional “heaven” is unclear at this point. WAAGNFNP doctrine on this matter is in a continual state of flux.

You’ll have to negotiate the terms of the option with Oaktown Girl, Minister of Justice for the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party (WAAGNFNP). She can be found at Bérubé’s joint (look for the green triceratops).

Bill Benzon
Minister of Visual Propaganda
WAAGNFNP

By Bill Benzon on 12/05/06 at 03:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Guest: I do have a blog of my own...the link from here has also been fixed.

Here you go:

The Kugelmass Episodes

Enjoy!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/05/06 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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