Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The public purchase of sociological stories

Folks who know me know I've got beef with evolutionary psychology. Here's why:

And that's not even getting into the complete drivel posted on the Psychology Today website every other day. But I've been on this rant-train for years. I have the bingo card and everything (useful for making those brain-fryingly awful comment threads just a little more enjoyable). So why bring it up now?

Well, today I happened across an excellent article from a 2007 issue of Sociology. Stevi Jackson and Amanda Rees' "The Appalling Appeal of Nature: The Popular Influence of Evolutionary Psychology as a Problem for Sociology" set my sociologist's heart all aflutter.

See, my major problem with evolutionary psychology is not that it's largely bull -- and sexist, racist bull at that -- because, honestly, I don't read enough evo pysch journal articles to know. All I know is how it's reported in the papers, and how folks respond to it in the comments. Here's an example (from the second Telegraph piece) for those of you who don't troll the science pages looking for new fuel for your rage fire:
Men who hate supermarket shopping now have the ultimate excuse to leave it to their mothers, wives, or girlfriends.
Today, a scientific study says that over many thousands of years evolution has designed women to excel when it comes to hunting down the most fulfilling food.
This is accompanied, of course, by a picture of a women in a supermarket with the wonderful caption "Women's shopping skills may have been honed on the African savannah". If you're checking, that one's on the bingo card.

The problem with this style of reporting is that it follows this particular formula: take one part Science is Truth, mix with two parts Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and add a dash of "hey dudes, don't you hate grocery shopping, hurr hurr hurr", and you've got the evolutionary psychology reporting trifecta. Evolutionary psychology privileges the heterosexual reproductive imperative as the prime mover in the foundation of human social life. In doing so, say Jackson and Rees, evo psych "lays claim to the entire subject matter of our discpline, offering a purportedly more objective account of human sociality". And while sociologists have never been particularly good about defending our disciplinary turf, we do have the tools at our disposal to provide an alternative perspective to the origin myths evolutionary psychology proposes. Thing is, we tend not to use these tools in public.

Evolutionary psychology has a leg up on sociology as it is. It's claim to science-yness solidified with it's appropriation of the word "evolution" -- sociobiology just doesn't have the same ring to it -- evo psych hits on all four cylinders. It's 'evolutionary', so if you disagree with it you're an socialist/feminist anti-science ideologue; and it's 'biology', and we all know you can't fight your genes. The way it appears in the mass media, it's also comfortingly simple and easy to digest -- the way we are is the way we've always been, and it's no surprise that life on the African savannah looked a lot like the 1950's American nuclear family. It's a good story.

So what's a sociologist who insists on the primarily social and cultural genesis of gender and sexuality to do? According to Jackson and Rees, tell a better story. And tell it in public, rather than to each other in late-night wine-infused departmental bitch sessions. It's not evolutionary psychology as a discipline that's the problem here -- it's the domination of the science section of the news papers by stories that tell us women like pink because we used to gather berries. Sociologists have different, but equally compelling stories to tell about the same social facts. The thing is, our stories can be more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more emancipatory. In the words of Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (via Jackson and Rees, once again): "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to overcome".

Monday, October 25, 2010

What is terror for women?

Last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fifteen thousand women were raped.

On October 17 of this year, almost two thousand women joined together to march against the sexual terrorism that has been perpetrated against them almost fifteen years.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Stephen Lewis and Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu at the University of Toronto. Over the last twelve years, Mukwege has treated 21,000 women, some of them more than once, for the damage that results when the women are raped -- often with foreign objects such as sticks, broken bottles, bayonets, and machine guns -- as a tactic of war. Lewis calls these acts the berserk lunatic predatory sexual behaviour of men, and that phrase only begins to describe the horror visited upon Congolese women by militias and soldiers engaged in civil war.

I wish that I had something eloquent to say about the unimaginable strength and bravery of these women, who marched against violence and terror. I wish I had words of enough virulence to describe my anger at the fact that, when we talk about terrorism in the Western press, we only ever talk about dirty bombs and airports, and never about the daily terror purposely inflicted by sexual violence -- sometimes by soldiers and contractors representing the so called enlightened West. But I don't think I have the words to represent my outrage as fully as Lewis did in his speech at SRI in the Rockies in 2008. His discussion of sexual violence against women begins around the 20-minute mark, and I have transcribed it at length here, but I encourage you to listen to the mp3 of the speech, because to hear a man talk about women's rights the way Lewis does is a rare and heartening thing:
I live in a feminist family, I love it. I believe to the end of my days that the feminist analysis of the exercise of male power is probably the most insightful analysis to explain much of what is wrong with much of this difficult world. And I must say that the more I’ve had the privilege of working in the international community, the more I have come to the conclusion that the struggle for gender equality is the single most important struggle on the planet. You cannot continue to marginalize 52% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve a degree of social justice and equity: it’s just not possible.
And when you look at the damage that is done to the women, particularly of the developing world, through so many perverse realities whether it’s international sexual trafficking or female genital mutilation or child brides or honor killings or an absence of inheritance rights or an absence of property rights or an absence or laws against rape and sexual violence or an absence of microcredit to give women some sense of economic autonomy or a lack of political representation – whatever the panoply of injustice, discrimination and stigma visited on women it seems to have no end, and it so profoundly compromises their existence.
And what has happened through the developing world latterly in many parts and which is so unsettling, unnerving, so profoundly compromising are the patterns of physical and sexual violence. The World Health Organization just did a quite astonishing study. It interviewed twenty-five thousand women in fourteen countries about physical and sexual violence. It found that the lowest levels of violence were in Japan at 14%, and the highest levels were in rural Ethiopia at 71%. And when they looked at the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada they found interim levels of 30-35%. So they saw that this was a pattern so deeply entrenched, whether it’s marital rape or sexual violence from intimate partners or domestic abuse, these patterns are overwhelmingly entrenched.
And then when you get destabilization in countries they are further accelerated. A country like South Africa is a good example, where you have 5,700,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in a population of somewhat over 40 million. Incredibly enough, South Africa is a country where eight hundred to a thousand people die every day of AIDS-related illnesses. And in the most recent year for which statistics are available, which is 2006, there were 52,000 reported rapes. And everyone knows that reflects only 5-10% of the actual number because women are so reluctant, for a whole range of reasons, to actually, formally, to report the rape and begin to engage in a police and judicial process.
And it gets worse still when there is conflict. When there is conflict it goes right out of control. I don’t understand what these berserk lunatic predatory male sexual behavior – how it happens under conflict – but it happens and it never seems to end. And it’s not merely on the continent of Africa which I admit is a continent I love, but throw your minds back to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The President of Indonesia just apologized to East Timor for the sexual violence that was unleashed by his forces when they tried to prevent the independence of East Timor. In the Balkans, I remind you a white, Western country, or countries, in the Balkans you have several military commanders who have come before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity rooted in sexual violence. The same is true for Colombia. There seems to be no part of the world which is exempt.
But in parts of Africa it really is astounding what is taking place. In the post-election violence in Kenya, suddenly more and more women were turning up at the hospitals, raped and subject to the most grotesque sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, an organization which I am involved with and to which I will refer at the end, AIDS-Free World, that Lisa mentioned in the introduction, I can’t go into details, which you will understand, but we have been over the last few weeks in an unnamed country in Africa, interviewing and taking affidavits under formal legal terms from the women who have been raped by Mugabe’s Youth Corps as Zimbabwe has ground down over the last several months. And Terror Camps were created --that’s what they’re called – to subject women associated in any way with the political opposition to insensate sexual violence.
And I was recently in Liberia, meeting with the President of Liberia and the Minister of Gender and the Unicef representative and they were telling me that the majority of rapes now in Liberia – after the civil war is over but the raping continues – the majority of rapes are committed against young girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. And everybody knows what’s happening in Darfur, that need not be explicated at length. For five years now the entire world has agreed that there is a genocide taking place and for whatever unconscionable reason we’ve never been able to bring it to an end. I mean, forgive me but this is not the Taliban in Darfur. These are Janjaweed militia commanders on horseback! And it is entirely possible to have subdued that and brought it to an end if the world cared a tinker’s dam for what was happening in that country.
And in the case of the Congo, you have a war on women. You know, if I may make a somewhat more intellectual observation, rape is no longer a weapon of war. Rape has become a strategy of war. You rape women in such numbers, so savagely that you humiliate entire communities through the women. The women hold the communities together. On the continent of Africa, nothing happens without the engagement of the women, particularly at the grassroots, particularly on the ground. And what happens is that the entire community is subdued, oppressed, overcome by these roving bands of marauding militias, who rape the women, move the community off the extractive resources, which is what they want, or turn the women into sex slaves and the men into the laborers who do extract the resources. And it’s hideous, the consequences, and it’s been going on since 1996. More than a quarter of a million women have been raped. And what is so unfathomable about it is everyone in a position of power knows, and it continues. I’ll never never comprehend.
In August of last year, Eve Ensler, the magnificent dramatist and writer of the Vagina Monologues went off to the Congo to see for herself what was happening and she spent a month or more and she came back and wrote an immensely powerful essay, the first words of which were, “I have just returned from Hell.” And I do not have the emotional equanimity to read to you the case histories that Eve set out. But after she came back suddenly the Undersecretary General of the United Nations, John Holmes, goes off to the Congo, comes back, writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calls it the worst place in the world for women. The Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who appears before the Security Counsel on a regular basis, and then suddenly there’s a front-page piece in the New York Times, and a front-page piece in the Washington Post, and a front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times, and Anderson Cooper of CNN does a twenty-minute segment on 60 Minutes, and everybody is caught up in the anxiety and urgency of what is being done to the women – it’s impossible to say in a way that can be absorbed what is happening to the women.
In the city of Bukavu in the Eastern region of the Congo there’s a little hospital called the Panzi Hospital where a lovely group of surgeons attempt desperately to repair the reproductive tracts of the women. This is rape that isn’t merely the gang-raping of eighty-year-olds and eight year olds, although that takes place. It’s rape with mutilation and amputation and guns and knives. Guns shot into the vaginas of women. I’m speaking to a sophisticated audience that cares about human issues – there is a medical term in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu which I never in my adult life expected to encounter: it’s called “vaginal destruction.” And Eve Ensler has appeared before the Security Counsel, and we had an ostensible peace agreement, part of which peace agreement provided an amnesty for the militias that were doing the raping. And the war never ended. And the raping continues. And the war is now resuscitated. And so bad have things become that Condoleeza Rice, on June 19th, at the Security Council, introduced a resolution branding sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security. That had never happened before. And we have seventeen thousand United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo, the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world, and we cannot protect the women. And everyone knows its happening. And everybody knows that if we increase the numbers of peacekeepers, or the United Nations agencies did their job on the ground, or we confronted the government of the Congo in a way that no-one has had the courage to confront, we could perhaps abate the violence. But I have to tell you it’s so monstrous, and it’s so rooted in gender inequality, that it makes one feel not just tormented but dismal about the prospects for human behavior.

For more reading: Eve Ensler's piece that begins "I have just returned from hell".

To take action:
Donate to The Stephen Lewis Foundation
Donate to the Panzi Hospital
Amnesty International's Campaign to Stop Violence Against Women

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Ideal Readers

I've been thinking lately about reading, and what makes me return to some books again and again, while others languish, unfinished or unstarted, on my bookshelves. There are four authors I repeatedly turn to in times of crisis or boredom or need: Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Ursula LeGuin, and Annie Dillard. I didn't know this about myself until I started giving away copies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Tent in hopes that someone else would share what I felt when reading the words inside. Eventually I realized that even the people who enjoyed my recommendations -- and that was certainly not everyone I hassled to read what I was reading -- didn't effusively express the same connection to the books that I did. 

Over the years, Borges has started to creep into the ranks (strangely the only man in my pantheon on writers, despite the fact that most of the books I read are written by men), but the sensation of being known by an author is few and far between. I sometimes experience it with theorists -- C. Wright Mills, Richard Rorty, and Foucault come to mind, although only Rorty regularly makes it into my work -- but it remains a sensation tied to words, and not to ideas. I find myself picking up books by writers who express similar feelings about my beloved quintet; two weeks ago I bought Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the basis that he once said he could live under a kitchen table, reading Borges. 

It turns out there's a term for this sensation: that of being the ideal reader. In her introduction to The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003, Zadie Smith wrote about the experience of discovering yourself as an ideal reader:
The ideal reader cannot sleep when holding the writer he was meant to be with.
A cult book, of course, is one that induces the feeling of "being chosen as ideal" in every one of its readers. This is a rare, mysterious quality. The difference between, for example, a fine book like Philip Roth's The Human Stain and a cult book like J.D. Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is that no one is in any doubt that Roth's book was written for the general reader, whereas a Salinger reader must fight the irrational sensation that the book was written for her alone. It happens more often in music: Prince fans thought Prince their own private mirage; all of the boys who liked Morissey thought he sang for each of them...It is all of it delusional, probably, like simultaneous orgasm, but to think of oneself as the perfect receptacle for an artwork is one of the few wholly benign human vanities.
Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E.M. Forster's ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert's or William Gaddis's or Franz Kafka's or Borges's. But early on Forster and I saw how we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each others company. I am Forster's ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all his jokes and appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws as I am by my own, and as please when he is great as I would be if I did something great...You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not, you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the writers that you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones you know.
This is not the ideal reader of the writer, as presented in Stephen King's excellent On Writing. The writer may indeed have an ideal reader in mind while she works -- this person is not the same as the reader who feels themselves to be ideal. Goethe, in a letter Johann Rochlitz, wrote that there are three kinds of readers: one who enjoys without judging, one who judges without enjoying, and a third who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. It is the final class of reader -- though the smallest class -- "who reproduces a work of art anew". This is the reader who holds, for the books that matter most to them, the promise of resurrection. They are the cumulative reader: each re-reading, each new piece of writing by the author, adds new layers of memory to the narrative.

From Nick Hornby's Songbook:
But sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly. And they don't do this with words or images, necessarily; the connection is a lot less direct and more complicated than that...It's a process somewhat like falling in love. You don't necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest or the most beautiful; there's something else going on. There was a part of me that would rather have fallen for Updike, or Kerouac, or DeLillo -- for someone masculine, at least, maybe somebody a little more opaque, and certainly someone who uses more swear words -- and though I have admired those writers, at various stages in my life, admiration is a very different thing from the kind of transference I'm talking about. I'm talking about understanding -- or at least feeling like I understand -- every artistic decision, every impulse, the soul of both the work and its creator.  
Who are you the ideal reader for?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LOLTheorists or: Why the Internet is the Best Thing Ever

I was going to write a lengthy post explaining how excited I was to come across the intersection of social theory and cat macros, but I think these images speak for themselves:

Kant & the Frankfurt School
If you want more of this boisterous and completely nerd-riffic entertainment, visit loltheorists for all of your academic macro needs. I know I'm going to try to work these into at least one academic presentation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Thinking Sociologically

I've spent the last few days with food poisoning and scrambling to catch up with work, but in that period of time I had the chance to read Zygmunt Bauman & Tim May's Thinking Sociologically.

Like the academic nerd that I am, I'm always on the lookout for good introductions to sociology that I can recommend to folks, either to undergrads who want a slightly more in-depth explanation of the discipline, or to friends and family members who I want to torment with demands that they have at least a basic understanding of what it is that I do (although the latter has yet to actually work on anyone). My go-to book in the past has been C. Wright Mills' classic The Sociological Imagination, and though it's still a favourite, the middle chapters are getting slightly dated. Most sociology students these days never have an encounter with the work of Talcott Parsons or Karl Lazarsfeld; as entertaining as Mills' critiques of these mid-century giants is, its borderline irrelevant to the incoming generation of sociology students.

On the other hand, most introductory sociology textbooks follow the tried and true "subfields" method of organizing the discipline: a chapter on stratification and inequality, a chapter on race and gender, a chapter on organizations, a chapter on social movements, and so on and so forth. I've always hated those textbooks for two reason. First, they orient the mental frameworks of students toward dividing sociology into neat little categories that don't intersect. In my view, this promotes an extraordinarily atheoretical attitude among sociology undergrads (as well as some sociology professionals!) and relegates classical sociological theory to the dustbin of irrelevance, mostly for being 'too broad'. Second, they're often brutally out of date when it comes to introducing readers to up-and-coming theoretical perspectives. I've only very rarely seen intro texts that provide a place for network theory, for questions about risk, or for ethnomethodological or dramaturgical approaches -- most texts don't seem to know what to do with a Garfinkel or a Goffman, and so leave them to the sidebars. This isn't the only way to approach introductory sociology, but it seems to be the dominant organizational strategy in North America -- particularly in the United States.

Bauman and May eschew this approach in favour of a looser organizational style. Thinking Sociologically is divided into two substantive parts -- "Action, Identity and Understanding in Everyday Life" and "Living our Lives: Challenges, Choices and Constraints". Under these headings are chapters like "The Bonds that Unite: Speaking of 'We'", "Time, Space, and (Dis)Order", and "The Business of Everyday Life: Consumption, Technology, and Lifestyles". Each chapter deals with two or three major theorists who touch on these topics (broadly construed), as well as pointing the reader towards other work -- both traditionally sociological work and pieces from other social science disciplines -- that expands on the themes of the chapters. I found myself extremely happy to turn to the back of the book after Chapter Five (on gifts, exchange, and intimacy) and find both Ulrich Beck's Risk Society and Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart as recommendations for further reading. In a traditional US sociology text, the Hochschild book would end up in the "Gender" chapter, and the Beck book probably wouldn't appear at all.

My favourite part of the book, though, is that it actually follows through on the promise of the title. Like The Sociological Imagination before it, Thinking Sociologically focuses on what it means to approach questions in a sociological way. Rather than bounding the discipline by providing a list of "sociological" topics, Bauman and May spend the introduction exploring the idea that what makes sociology different from the other social sciences is not its subject matter, but rather its way of thinking about the world. Toward the end of the introduction, Bauman and May write:

Sociology stands in opposition to the particularity of worldviews as if they can unproblematically speak in the name of a general state of affairs. Nor does it take-for-granted ways of understanding as if they constituted some natural way of explaining events that may simply be separated from historical change or the social location from which they emerged...It demonstrates that the common metaphor of the motivated individual as they key to understanding the human world -- including our own, thoroughly personal and private, thoughts and deeds -- is not an appropriate way to understand ourselves and others. To think sociologically is to make sense  of the human condition via an analysis of the manifold webs of human interdependency -- that toughest of realities to which we refer in order to explain our motives and the effects of their activation.

May and Bauman focus on the power of sociology to be an antifixating discpline, one which "renders flexible what may have been the oppressive fixity of social relations", thus widening the scope of human freedom. This is an emphasis which is sorely lacking in mainstream sociological texts, for reasons unclear to me. In representing sociology as a domain of widened possibility, rather than as a stringent set of areas to be studied, Bauman and May make thinking sociologically relevant to non-specialists as well as professional sociologists.

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills lays out a project for sociology:

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. It is the characteristic of Herbert Spencer--turgid, polysyllabic, comprehensive; of E.A. Ross--graceful, muckraking, upright; of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim; of the intricate and subtle Karl Mannhein. It is the quality of all that is intellectually excellent in Karl Marx; it is the clue to Thorstein Veblen's brilliant and ironic insight, to Joseph Schumpeters's many-sided constructions of reality; is is the basis of the psychological sweep of W.E.H. Leckey no less than of the profundity and clarity of Max Weber. And it is the signal of what is best in contemporary studies of man and society. 
In large part, contemporary man's self-conscious view of himself as at least an outside, if not a permanent stranger, rests upon an absorbed realization of social relativity and of the transformative power of history. The sociological imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness. By its use men whose mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits often come to feel as if suddenly awakened in a house with which they had only supposed themselves to be familiar. Correctly or incorrectly, they often come to feel that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive assessments, comprehensive orientations. Older decisions that once appeared sound now seem to them products of a mind unaccountably dense. Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again. They acquire a new way of thinking, they experience a transvaluation of values: in a word, by their reflection and by their sensibility, they realize the cultural meaning of the social sciences.
Thinking Sociologically is a work that fits squarely in the tradition of Mills' project, and in that capacity, I wholeheartedly endorse it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A whole other type of geekery

Yesterday, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Orchestra, under the direction of Valery Gergiev. They performed Mahler's Symphony No. 5, as well as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concert No. 3, with Denis Matsuev at the keyboard. The Rachmaninoff, in particular, was brilliantly played, and received the lengthiest standing ovation I've ever been a part of.

When I was younger, I used to listen to classical music all the time. I grew up in a house where you were as likely to hear Beethoven as you were to hear the Beatles. My father was (and is) the very definition of a music junkie, and so many of my earliest memories involve dancing around the dining room table to T-Bone Burnett's "It's Not Too Late" (shamefully, not available on YouTube), John Hiatt's "Something Wild"(available only with video of James Spader doing stuff in a car), and REM's cover of "Wall of Death". But they also involve cleaning house to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, reading to Vivaldi's Concertos for Lute & Mandolin, and falling asleep to Glenn Gould's idiosyncratic rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

If this seems like an egregious display of cultural capital, well, in some ways it is. I was lucky to grow up in a house were nerding out over bluegrass was as acceptable as nerding out over classical music, and where collecting all of the YA fantasy books Tamora Pierce has ever written was equally as valuable as having the complete Shakespeare. My parents encouraged, to use a concept I generally hate, cultural omnivorousness. The end result is that I like to geekily embrace political theory alongside my sci-fi, and sometimes I like to put on a skirt and some heels for an afternoon of classical music, when I'm not carting my newly tattooed self to an indie concert.

But being a fan of sci-fi and obscure bootlegs of Springsteen makes you a nerd; being a fan of Foucault and Mozart's operas makes you an aficionado. And that distinction (in the Bourdieusian sense), kinda sucks.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quick Hits

  • An interesting take on The Social Network over at the New Statesman: "The territory of this modern parable is precisely objectification: not just of women, but of all consumers. In what the film's promoters describe as a "definitively American " story of entrepreneurship, Zuckerberg becomes rich because, as a social outsider, he can see the value in reappropriating the social as something that can be monetised. This is what Facebook is about, and ultimately what capitalist realism is about: life as reducible to one giant hot-or-not contest, with adverts."
  • David Simon, creator of The Wire, wins a MacArthur Genius Grant. Two and a half seasons into the show, and I can completely see why. It's some of the best television I've ever seen -- it might actually be the best ever made. But what I like about it most is the same thing I liked about HBO's Deadwood (and, every once in a while, about Battlestar Galactica): it's good sociology. I've got a post in the works about The Wire and Althusser's ideological state apparatuses. Stay tuned.
  • Spent the evening tonight watching the classic documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. It's one of the more brilliant docs I've seen, and really throws light on labour struggles in the United States. Criterion has an excellent essay up on the film, which situates it as a progenitor of the contemporary political documentary. The film is available streaming on Hulu & Netflix, so no excuse not to watch it. But if you need more convincing:


Monday, October 4, 2010

The paranoid style, revisited

In November 1964, Harper's Magazine published an essay by Richard Hofstadter entitled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The essay deals with what Hofstader describes as a paranoid style prevalent (although by no means limited to) in the right wing of American politics. The paranoid style, he argues, is defined by an attitude of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and 'conspiratorial fantasy'. Under the umbrella of the paranoid style, Hofstadter includes movements against Illuminism and Freemasonry, against Jesuit intellectuals and a nebulous mid-century Communism. What makes "The Paranoid Style" worth revisting, however, is the way in which Hofstadter's description almost perfectly describes the current political discourse in the US.

The modern right-wing -- in Hofstadter's time institutionalized in the anti-Communist John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater campaign -- feels "largely disposessed". He goes on:
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals*; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
The similarity of the rhetoric described here to the claims made by followers of the Tea Party is almost prophetic. Here is Glenn Beck on his television show on Sept 2, 2009, exploring the secretly 'communist' and 'fascist' of the Rockefeller Center. He alternately ties the art to Mussolini and Italian fascism, communism, and the United Nations, as well as to Rockefeller himself:

Hofstadter goes on to describe the 'paranoid spokesman':
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, who systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization...Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to the finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated--if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.
Glenn Beck on his radio program, on October 4, 2010 (with bonus mention of Canada):

The relevance of Hofstadter's essay today is not only in its description of a political discourse that seems to map quite well onto the contemporary political landscape. It is also in its ability to trace this political style through the annals of history. The paranoid style is nothing new, Hofstadter points out. It does not have its genesis in the Tea Party, nor in the McCarthyism of the mid 20th century. While many contemporary article look to explain the Tea Party without the long-view of historical context -- see Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone for an excellent recent example -- Hofstadter's article points to a problem embedded in American public life, one that requires analysis and careful understanding, rather than dismissal. While he uses the word 'paranoid' in the title of his essay, Hofstadter never dismisses those who engage in the paranoid style as crazy, and thus easy to marginalize. Rather, he takes seriously the idea that something in American civil society prompts the emergence of this style in the form of the mass movement, rather than the modest minority. It is this insight that renders "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" worth revisiting.

For an excellent dramatic reading of sections of the essay, and an interesting panel discussion on the piece in relation to contemporary American life: CBC's The Sunday Edition from September 20, 2009.

For a lengthy portrait of Glenn Beck and his career, see the NYTimes Magazine: Being Glenn Beck.

*For more on the anti-intellectualism in American politics, see Hofstadter's excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

So I've had this sort of bizarre theory in the works for about five years now. It goes something like this: songs with the word Virginia in the title are generally good. I have no actual desire to know if this is true, but after five years of collecting musical evidence of this phenomenon, I have finally distilled my playlist down to my seven favourite Virginia-related songs. And so, without further ado, I present you with the Virginia EP, complete with cover art:

You can download the mix here: The Virginia EP. Paintings in the cover art via But Does It Float?

Dance break!

One of my favourite ladies singing two of my favourite songs. Mostly posted because 'Mother of Pearl' starts with the line "feminists don't have a sense of humour" and just gets better from there. There's also a great video up from NPR that give some insight into her songwriting process.