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July 30, 2013

Ashamed of Patriotism, But Won't Quite Say Why

This Charles C.W. Cooke piece makes a specific point about this syndrome. First some of the backstory again.

[C]onsider the words of one Michael Shulan, who “really believes” that “the way America will look best, the way we can really do best, is to not be Americans so vigilantly and so vehemently.” Mr. Shulan, who is the creative director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, also expressed his distaste at what he called the “rah-rah America” instinct.

The news that a New York City–based “creative director” is disheartened by muscular American self-assuredness will presumably not come as a hefty surprise to many. Nevertheless, I might venture that if one’s sole job is to memorialize for the nation the revolting attack that unrepentant barbarians perpetrated on the United States on September 11 of 2001, one’s calculations as to what level of patriotism is and isn’t seemly should change a touch.

Elizabeth Greenspan's new book documents the resistance of Shulan to memorialize 9/11 in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The whole article is worth reading, but here's the part I'd like to noodle on:

“My concern,” Shulan explained, “as it always was, is that we not reduce [9/11] down to something that was too simple, and in its simplicity would actually distort the complexity of the event, the meaning of the event.”

The never-ending search for complexity where it neither exists nor belongs is the unlovely signet of the pseudo-intellectual. What, precisely, are America’s flag-waving rubes missing about the events of September 11, 2001? What does the photograph show that “distorts” anything? If Mr. Shulan disagrees with Rudy Giuliani’s admirably Manichean statement that, the attacks of 9/11 being “an attack on the very idea of a free, inclusive, and civil society,” “we are right and they are wrong,” then he should say so. He might tell us also what he conceives to be the apparently unknowable “meaning of the event.” Absent an explanation, we should presume that the curator of the 9/11 Memorial Museum considers that there was a better time for firemen to be “vigilantly and so vehemently American” than the day their city crashed down around them. This is unacceptable.

I do not know the name of this particular rhetorical gambit but it is widely deployed I'm sure it must have one: The gambit of the vague blanket contradiction without -- and this is key -- the forwarding of a concrete positive statement which one is willing to defend as more true than the denied one.

If that's a bit abstract, I just mean this: You've all been in arguments with this type of dishonest "intellectual," the person who believes that argumentation consists of only denying any proposition you make, rarely offering any kind of debatable rationale for the contradiction, and never offering her own competing claim for debate. This sort of interlocutor is simply not playing by any sort of rules of reasoned and fair debate, but is simply being a dishonest juvenile prat.

And if that's still too abstract, well, I just mean this.

The reflexive contradiction is, again, couched in such vague terms that you cannot even intelligently debate the grounds for contradiction -- the tactic is designed to avoid that sort of counter-argument entirely. The entire point of the shabby gambit is to ensure the "battle" can only take place on "your ground," because the enemy never sketches out ground of her own.

The open-ended, undefined contradiction can take many forms, from a simple negation of your proposition without ever offering one's own ("we must not reduce 9/11 of its true, complex meaning" without ever saying what that other meanings one may have in mind), to the sandbagging Death By a Thousand Sneers in the Forms of Questions ("Oh you think that do you?") to the stripped-down, let's-just-stop-pretending-we're-really-having-a-debate-at-all all-purpose universal negation by juvenalia, "LOL."

I'm saying "her" here because the most wretched prat I ever encountered deploying this style of "debate" happened to be a woman.

Why is this tactic deployed? In my experience, and according to my speculation, for four reasons, but this is the important one:

To Avoid Confessing the True Belief Held by the Speaker, Which Is Itself Indefensible. If Mr. Shulan would like to put a kind word in for Al Qaeda's psychopathic mass-murder, I'd like to hear it. And I don't mean that saracastically -- I'd like to hear it. I'd like to have an honest discussion, for once, with Shulan and his ilk about precisely what it is they believe, rather than having to forever spar with shadows.

I don't think his beliefs could survive the light of truth. I think the knows that. Perhaps he's too stupid to know it on a conscious level, but somewhere down deep he does seem to have the proper instinct: Don't share this hideous and indefensible belief with anyone except your fellow monsters, in the dark corners where no one else can hear. Just speak very vaguely about what you don't believe; no one can find you out if you're only speaking of things you don't agree with.

Cooke's column ends with some "rah-rah American patriotism" that I myself disagree with. He proclaims that among the nations of the West, the Anglosphere is superior; and among the Anglosphere, the American nation stands out.

I think he's thinking nostalgically. That may have been true six year ago but it is not true today. America truly is now an "ordinary" country, just as Obama always believed. He has transformed his belief into reality.

Because, I don't care if this is New York City or not, if a curator says he refuses to post an iconic picture of three firefighters who chose, of their own free thinking (no one has ever seriously contended this was a Government Propaganda Effort or the like), to memorialize 9/11 on the day of 9/11 itself --

-- if a curator, supposedly interested in presenting the historical record of 9/11, is determined to erase a key part of the historical record from the official account--

--if a curator, whose job it is to present the expression of others, artists, for example, or here, the free spontaneous expression of three firefighters directly involved in the events of 9/11, decides to eradicate their expression in favor of his own preferred narrative --

then you fire him. Done and done. It is that simple. There is no need for caterwauling or crying. We are all adults. Or, rather, some of us are adults, and many of us are elderly teenagers. But in a decent country, there are more adults, and when an incompetent and fool refuses to do the job he was assigned, you fire him.

But of course we can't do that in America today. Members of the New Class are immune from the hazard of firing for cause. Other members of the New Class would complain and say All Sorts of Nasty Things in the Media, and we can't have that. So for some reason we are held hostage to the sophomoric "I have my own ideas, Dad!" tyranny of Elderly Teenagers.

And notice how very differently the New Class treats the picture of the 9/11 firefighters raising the flag as compared to the picture of Johar Tsarnaev that appeared on Rolling Stone. The latter, they claimed, was a part of the real historical record and how dare you object to entering the real historical record into the full evidentiary body of the case. (Nevermind the fact that Rolling Stone played around with coloring and sepia effects to make a casual amateur snapshot appear to be a professional in-studio portrait of a profiled rock star.)

But in this case, the New Class seeks to eradicate the true historical record of that day, and what is the justification? Some mumble-stumble about the "wrong meaning" and such.

I didn't see "the wrong meaning" argument getting much credit as applied to Johar's Star is Born cover treatment. In that case, it was postulated that the wrong meaning didn't even exist, or else concerns abut the wrong meaning, worshipping a terrorist, were dismissed with the sneer of "Why don't you stop being such big Stupid Babies about this you big rightwing Stupid Babies."

One last point: It occurred to me with Tsarnaev, and it now occurs again with this Shulan dreg, that there is a specific illogical logic to how the New Class thinks and how it signals its superiority over the Common Masses it despises so thoroughly.

And this, then, is how one signals one's membership in the bien pensant member of the New Class:

By treating questions of aesthetics as if they were matters of morality, and maters of morality as if they were matters of aesthetics.

To treat morality as a matter of morality, you see, and aesthetics as a matter of aesthetics, well, what can one say. It is so wretchedly common.

No, the bien pensant demonstrates his quality by trivializing the sacred and consecrating the trivial.

And that's how they know that they're so far above you.


The Other Reasons for this Particular Style of "Debate:" Originally I included these in the essay, but now I see they are sort of irrelevant to the main point and merely fatten an already bloated essay.

Here then, as an afterthought, as they should have been from the start, the other reasons for the Debate By Simple Contradiction:

1. To created doubt and obscurity about a proposition the gambiter knows is true, but doesn't wish to confess is true. This is how I was first annoyed by the tactic, by someone questioning everything regarding Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, but careful to only imply Clinton was perfectly faithful to his wife, careful to never explicitly state that he was faithful to his wife, a proposition so absurd it could only be safely hinted at, for to state it forthrightly would be to expose oneself as an idiot.

2. To suggest the speaker has some Deep Thoughts in mind which he'd like to share with you but he's not sure you'd quite understand. Spoiler Alert-- he doesn't. He hasn't done the homework and hasn't really thought very hard about these matters but he wants credit for having done so just the same. And so he'll buy some intellectual cache on the cheap by simply signalling he's a Deep Thinker Who Thinks Deeply About Thoughts.

3. To Create and/or Unify a Political Coalition. This is both putting on airs and also engaging in simple politicking. It is far easier to be against something than to be for something; this is a basic phenomenon that propels all politicking. You, me, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, even Chris Christie, all of us are far more united in what we are against than what we're actually for.

That's no knock on us, exactly; it's just how politics works and always has worked. Barack Obama assembled his coalitions in 2008 and 2012 not by offering up his great ideas and his astonishing record of achievement -- do not make me laugh -- but by saying, again and again, I'm against Bush.

In fact, discussions about what we're actually for will often expose major rifts in a coalition which are generally hidden by the unifying power of being against something. We will all be united in the comments vis-a-vis Barack Obama, but the minute someone starts agitating in favor of Chris Christie or Sarah Palin or Rand Paul, now we're arguing with each other.

What political coalition would Shulan be interested in keeping together? Well, how about the one that keeps his ass from being fired, for starters. And for seconds, appeasing the quite-stupid people who consider themselves bien pensants and always seek to signal their superiority over the Common Masses by reflexively taking a position contrary to the despised untermenschen.

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posted by Ace at 03:13 PM

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