Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 30 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Fog and Pomposity edition)

Sometimes you put in the headphones just to block out the crap that flows into your sonic space. Sometimes it's two 19-year-old bottle-blonds in sweats and Ugg boots (but with their makeup perfect) swilling down the large Starbucks Mocha Frapuccino's paid for with a credit card that's billed to Daddy while they talk about which guy who has asked them out is likely to have the biggest allowance from home--and thus be the best investment. Sometimes it's the hardy-har-har "funnymen" on the local Fox Talk radio station the sum total of whose attainment is the morning 6am-10am "drive time" Rants and Scores segment--and at which even that they're failing.

But sometimes it's my goddamned colleagues and peers--tenured faculty members addicted to the First Person Pronoun, holding forth in performance for their table-mates (and anybody else within a 20-yard radius) and practicing the worst kind of identity politics.

One of the terrible outgrowths of the '60s--and something for which I and people like me are partially culpable--was the mutation of empowerment. I am not a '60s revanchist--I still believe that was, with the periods 1770-92 (Boston Massacre to the Constitution) and 1890-1919 (Populism to the Palmer Raids), one of the most important and profoundly net-positive periods ever in American history. Taking off from the socio-political opportunities offered by the (productive) chaos of post-WWII, and the determination of entire minorities (blacks, Latinos, women, gays & lesbians) not to hold still for the repressive shit that had obtained in America pre-1939, the underground '50s (especially jazz and the Beats) and the aboveground '60s (especially Civil Rights, Vietnam resistance, and popular music) were a period of enormous and positive social change in this country--and a period that repressive assholes like Dick Cheney have been trying to roll back ever since (Cheney got 5 deferments from Vietnam, in part by narking-out numerous anti-war groups in Ann Arbor). The Civil Rights movements of the '60s led directly to Gay and Women's Rights and to the environmental movement. And those were/are Good Things.

But, the regression of the 1970s "Me Decade" and the long narcotized sleep of the 1980s Reaganesque "Greed is Good" era also did bad things to the social justice and freedom-of-speech ethos. It meant that at least in part people concluded they could accrue political power, in the post-60s era, by practicing identity politics and the politics of victimhood; e.g., "I am, or have been, or might have been, or can re-calibrate my public persona so as to seem, a member of some oppressed minority...and therefore I'm entitled to special consideration." Of course this strategy is practiced most commonly of all by those who, in the '70s and '80s, felt their entitlements slipping away: chiefly straight white men.

But in the last 20 years, it's become increasingly prevalent throughout all streams of our political discourse and in practice by all different kinds of social groups, including both those groups who have absolutely no fucking business claiming oppression (that would be the aforementioned straight white men Like Me) but also by other groups who have been oppressed but whose individual claimants do not necessarily any longer have much business making the claim either. I'm sorry--all people, even the aforementioned, have had hard times and been mistreated: even straight white men probably had some measure of shitty demeaning experiences, and poverty, just fighting their way through graduate school, so all people have endured suffering and mistreatment.

And if you're a tenured full professor on a university faculty with a job teaching the precise field of Identity Politics which you yourself subscribe to--the specific oppressed minority which you both embody and pontificate upon--could you please recognize that you're actually a pretty damned privileged person, not matter what/which experiences of Oppression you--or maybe just your predecessors in the minority--might have endured? Identity politics is tired, and tiring, and in and of itself, it is not scholarship. Just saying "I'm going to tell all you students how to think how this literary or historiographic problem because I am a member of the oppressed minority whose experiences are detailed in this problem" is not pedagogy--it's polemic. But because it's a university setting, and you're the tenured full professor of X Studies, and you're mostly dealing with 19-year-olds who are open and receptive to modeling themselves upon you, it is goddamned easy to become very enamored of your own voice. Call it the Ward Churchill Syndrome.

The people who came out of the Cultural wars of the '60s and early '70s sanest, least egocentric, and most self-aware were those who had some kind of spiritual/sanity practice in place (in my own tradition, that would be the various Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist groups, but I'd include in the same groups the various Catholic Action and other socially-engaged movements--in fact, some of the sanest post-60s people I ever met were the back-to-the-land hippie pagans in southern Indiana, whose leader said to me once "I've never understood how somebody could call themselves a 'pagan' if they'd never even planted a garden"). Absent some kind of self-reflective regular practice--and, I would argue, a wise teacher who will regularly kick your ass to examine your own failings as well as pointing out those of the world--it is just too damned easy to presume that your expertise in a single narrow area of scholarship, or hell, even your own identity politics in place of scholarship, entitle you to sit in a coffee shop and hold forth at great length and loud volume.

My old brother-in-music-and-combat Quantzalcoatl (now happily returned to the arena--welcome back, mijo!) calls it the "fog and pomposity" index; easily the best and most apposite description of professors' tendency to mistake their own opinions, or identity politics, as received truth.

Why is it, so fucking often, that the most articulate advocates for social justice and positive change are also such personally self-aggrandizing egocentric blowhards? Why can't they just do the fucking work and shut up about themselves? Why are so goddamned many professors such ubiquitous (and remarkably un-self-aware) practitioners of Fog and Pomposity?

Why am I?
Now playing: Dick Gaughan - Stand Up For Judas
via FoxyTunes

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

Re your last line: I've been watching your particular weather system for a long time, and there ain't no fog in there as far as I can tell. In your case I think the "Fog and Pomposity Index" should be replaced by the "Severe Thunderstorm" index (and I do mean this in a very positive sense.) Watches, warnings and cloud-to-ground lightning probabilities could be issued regularly to all classes involved. :-)