Monday, October 29, 2007

Stabbed in the Back!

In a recent post, Daily Kos frontpager DarkSyde asked, "Why Is the Right So Angry?" He lists all of the victories of the right over the last six-plus years and wonders just why so many of that persuasion are still furious at America and American culture. Following DarkSyde’s piece are almost six hundred comments.

Among those comments (I didn’t read them all) may be some that got it right, but most talked about things like ‘declining world view,’ ‘fear of coming defeat,’ ‘fragile egos,’ ‘lack of principle,’ ‘loss of illusion,’ and the like. These, I suspect, are more along the lines of wish fulfillment and self-congratulations than they are serious comment on what’s going on rightward.

What we’re seeing on the seething right has more to do with flexibility and basic systems of belief than it does with fear or fragility. When “truth” precedes “experience” and is not shaped by it, no failure can be attributed to mistakes about “truth.” In fact, in such a universe, failure should be impossible—on its own.

In other words, the right is seeing that it has failed in numerous ways and is wrong on quite a few issues—but it cannot accept this. Its basic principles, in the view of the believers, are true on the face of them. So, failure cannot be based on anything they are doing; treachery and opposition must be the causes. With all the “successes” for the right over the past years, things should be a whole lot “better” in these here United States. Yet they aren’t. And a “myth” like global warming, instead of becoming daily more clearly the state of earth affairs, should now be scoffed at as a flat-earth belief.

“Principles and truths precede the man.” That’s how many on the right view the world. Hence, if somethings seems wrong with the principles and truths, it must be that someone has set out to make that happen. A devil. A tempter. Or “them.” Blame it on the “IslamoFascists” or the liberals; certainly, it cannot be that the beliefs are wrong.

Last year, Kevin Baker wrote an article for Harper’s entitled “Stabbed in the Back!: The Past and Future of a Right-Wing Myth.” In it, he traces the right’s blame-game back to Hitler’s Germany and before, the anger to others coming from unwillingness to accept responsibility for failure—or to allow that it might be a failure of principle and “truth.” As the failure cannot be one’s own, it must be the result of nefarious conspiracy:

Not just Nancy Pelosi or Dick Durbin but all Democrats and all liberals were now firmly established as traitors, and it was not possible that they had made some honest gaffes; instead, their very motives were sinister.

Convinced that they are stymied by the sinister, the right reacts, of course, with anger.

This is the classic problem faced by the totalitarian true believer. Out of power, he or she has no opportunity to “prove” any belief (and doesn’t believe she or he needs to, anyway). In power, when the beliefs start to fail them, they are unable to accept that they may have been wrong, so begin to cast about for the villain who gummed up the works. They find them, destroy them—but the problems continue. New villains are identified, found, and destroyed. But things still don’t get better. If anything, they get worse. In this manner, the true believers begin to eat away at themselves, finally, destroying themselves through their very inability to confront the possibility that they may be wrong.

And that makes them very, very angry.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Quilting Politics

For the month of October, Shakespeare’s Sister, my gift store and gallery at 270 Court St. in Brooklyn (take the F to Bergen St.), is exhibiting the quilts of Ruth Marchese. We invite anyone who happens to be in New York during this time to come and take a look. There are even easy chairs in the gallery, where you can sit and contemplate what led Marchese to these remarkable creations. And there’s no charge for looking… or for sitting.

What’s remarkable about these quilts is that they were inspired by global political events of the last six years, starting with the one called, simply, “Sept. 11.” With disaster only apparent if you look closely, it evokes Andrew Wyeth’s “End of Olson’s,” another seemingly static work with explosion at the edge and a sense of deep, deep loss. Other titles include “Walking in Darkness,” “Glimmer of Hope,” “Despair,” “In the Eye of the Storm-New Orleans," Lebanon 2006,” Waiting…,” and “Running for Shelter.” They tell the dark story of these last years yet are stunning, also, for their beauty.

Marchese has been a resident of Brooklyn for thirty years, but was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland. She quilts, she says, because she finds her “bit of peace behind the sewing machine.” She writes:
My pictorial quilts are hand appliquéd and machined quilted; the pieced quilts are pieced by machine and, depending on the effect I want, hand or machine quilted…. My most recent quilts are more abstract and in them I try to capture my moods, memories and impressions. The present political scene and the chaos in the world are of great concern to me and they have become the topic of my latest works. Some of them are very dark and this is often the way I feel…. Through these quilts I am attempting to make people realize into what danger we are throwing our world.

The gallery is deliberately a quiet space, accessed through the store, where no demands are put on anyone. People are welcome to sit for hours, talking, reading, mediating. There is no obligation to buy or to do anything but contemplate the art.

What Marchese has created is a remarkable series of images. Please, if you are in New York, come and take a look.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Invite a Conservative to Class Week

[Crossposted on Free Exchange on Campus]

In a couple of weeks (starting October 22, I believe), the David Horowitz Freedom Center is sponsoring something called “Islamo Fascism Awareness Week,” something my Moslem students (and I have a number) look at in confusion and with a certain amount of horror. The promoters of the “Week” claim they aren’t concerned with all Moslems, but that doesn’t make my students sleep any better at night.

Keeping in the spirit of that “Week,” with its events on quite a number of college campuses, I would like to propose another “Week,” “Invite a Conservative to Class Week.” It could even go on at the same time. After all, David Horowitz, Melanie Morgan, Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Michael Medved will all be on campus someplace. Unfortunately, I suspect there isn’t time to coordinate that (if you are a professor, however, and any of them is coming to your campus, perhaps you could extend an invite). So we would probably have to schedule it for later.

It’s really starting to get to me, that so many of these people who talk about education—and who will venture onto campus only if they are the ones talking—speak so knowingly about education without having darkened a classroom door themselves in years. And, even then, most of them entered simply as students. Few of them have ever tried to run a course, let alone an individual class meeting; few of them have even watched a classroom in action, outside of a student’s chair.

I have had a standing invitation to David Horowitz for years. He demurs (though that may be changing—if so, good for him!), though I have assured him that he would be introduced politely as a guest and that he could join into any class discussion if he wished. I wouldn’t want him to lecture or take over the class—that would defeat the purpose—but I would love for him to interact with students. That, I think, would be eye-opening for him. And my students might learn something, too.

In general, most members of the rightwing punditocracy speak of education with all the familiarity of someone pontificating about baseball without ever having seen a game, only having read newspaper reports. There are lots of statistics there, and descriptions, but they are not the real thing. Neither are syllabi. Nor course descriptions.

To use these alone to pass judgment, to do so without ever experiencing the classroom, is intellectually dishonest. We professors need to help our conservative brethren outside of the universities avoid that.

They may argue that they don’t need to learn about what goes on in class, that they already know enough. We teachers have heard this before, too, and sigh. How can one know that one knows enough if one hasn’t experienced the very thing itself? I mean, it’s not as though visiting a class is like tasting poison! It can’t hurt the pundits but, at the same time, they can’t know that it won’t help them.

By inviting conservatives to our classrooms, we can show how proud we are of what we do. We can stop being quite so defensive. We can point to our own work and say, “See? We educate!”