Should the Left pool its resources and buy CBS? Robert Markley offers strategies for avoiding Patrick Buchanan's jihad.
Michael Bérubé's essay on the politics of selling out is an eloquent investigation of the dilemmas confronting left intellectuals seeking to survive the long dark night of irrelevance. My only concern is that I wish Bérubé had provided more advice about how to sell out, while, at the same time, winning political converts and influencing influential people. While there is much that is admirable in Bérubé's piece (originally delivered in March 1995 at the Cultural Studies Symposium at Kansas State), particularly his discussion of the Right's negation of the "public" in the name of the "people," I would like to sketch briefly an alternative to the politics of selling out by putting pressure on the term "intellectual," the blind spot in many romantic calls to action by left cultural critics.
A crucial point: nobody cares about intellectuals, except other intellectuals. More to the point, unless intellectuals have another source of income, most of them wind up subordinating intellectual interests to the pursuit of livelihoods, or convincing the powers that be that intellectual activity can be profitable (see Bacon, Francis). Few people, for that matter, understand, care about, or are willing to spend the time and energy to follow the intricacies of rational discourse. Think of the sad history of presidential elections since World War II. The Democrats, admittedly a poor excuse for a left of far-right party, nominate Rhodes Scholars, Pulitzer Prize Winners, nuclear engineers, and so on for President; the dominant mode of communication for Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale, Carter, McGovern, Kennedy, and Stevenson has been explanation - a dubious strategy because the hegemonic rhetoric of multinational capitalism is the assurance that Life is Simple: advertising slogans, biblical homilies, capsule news summaries, crossword puzzles, billboards, true-false tests, and click on one of the following options all reinforce the belief that there are always "right" answers to be had, and that these answers can be summed up in a few words: "just say no"; "you deserve a break today"; "life is good." Can you remember a Republican candidate for national office (since, say, John Lindsay) trying to explain anything to voters? Nixon, perhaps, but Nixon's explanations were always corrosive and evasive.
The most successful Democrat since Roosevelt was, significantly, the least intellectually gifted and, if you have read the first two volume's of Robert Caro's biography, the most vicious, brutal, and amoral. What Lyndon Johnson understood far better than most cultural critics is that intellect (not to mention morality) is a handicap in politics: the purpose of policy is not to achieve moral clarity or intellectual rigor but to perpetuate networks, connections, positions of power, influence, and of course to accumulate symbolic capital and cold hard cash. The most successful, in many ways, of the handful of Left political leaders (broadly defined) in the past half century, Martin Luther King, did not analyze the semiotics of race, despite his Ph.D., so much as he evoked a religious vision: "I have a dream." Dreams may have their own semiotics, but they do not, for audiences glued to Sightings, require complex modes of intellectual elucidation.
In my mind, then, our concern about the role of the public intellectual is misplaced. The arena in which the Left has to contest the Regime of the Right is not in the pages of The Nation or even The Village Voice but in the much devalued realm of cheap, anti-intellectual "entertainment": tawdry talk shows, infomercials, trade shows for would-be entrepreneurs, tabloids, the Psychic Hot Line, etc. Bérubé reports that his editor at Harper's suggested that a successful article renders the experience of reading almost non-cognitive; in any consumer culture, the separation between logic and rhetoric returns with a vengeance. In such a world, the Left needs to counter the vicious, mindless, kneecapping of the Right with vicious, mindless, kneecapping of its own: not nostalgia for JFK but a reinvigoration of the Realpolitik of LBJ.
Who better to contribute to public policy than college and university professors who are paid to study rhetoric and semiotics? Think of all the energy that cultural critics have devoted to interrogating racist, homophobic, misogynist, and classist rhetoric, values, and assumptions during the last fifteen years. This knowledge can and should be used to counter racism, sexism, homophobia, and the politics of privilege, but such an undertaking requires precisely that "we," left erstwhile intellectuals, relinquish our stubborn faith in rational argument. Rational argument is what we do on our jobs; it is not necessarily an essential, unchanging measure of our intrinsic worth as human beings. You cannot argue morality; you can successfully challenge prejudice only by exploiting a complex psycho-social matrix that is largely unresponsive to causal reasoning. All of us know that, to varying degrees, it is often an uphill struggle to get students to distinguish between reason and bias. The mush-headed right, at least since George Wallace, has accumulated political capital by tarring and feathering "pointy-headed intellectuals" - cashing in on a politics of resentment by redirecting economic anxieties away from the unequal distribution of wealth to the distribution of specialized knowledge. For many Americans, elitists read poetry, not The Wall Street Journal. The Left will be more successful, as it has been in the (dim) past, by counterattacking the Rush Limbaughs of the world, not by noting inconsistencies in their presentations.
As Bérubé points out, the practice of left intellectuals attacking other left intellectuals for elitism, obscurity, and impracticality is old enough to have passed from history into the dark backward and abysm of myth. If the left seems doomed to repeat rituals of self-immolation, it is, in part, because we remain obsessed with the value of distinction, discrimination and purification rather than with the always impure strategies of success. What follows, then, are some suggestions to ensure that we sell out successfully:
1 Coopt the rhetoric of values, and beat the Right over the head with it. No self-styled Leftist should be allowed to offer political pronouncements without chanting the following mantra: greed, hypocrisy, and sin. Pro-Lifers who refuse to demand that the government raise taxes to provide funds for education, medical and dental care, food, clothing, shelter, and so on for each and every child who is "saved" are (repeat after me) hypocrites. Fundamentalists who ravage the environment to make money are sinners. Pat Buchanan has no values except greed.
2 Deploy the language of prejudice and exclusion by (for example) insistently feminizing right-wing males. Elected stooges of multinational capitalism are "whores"; candidates who turn a blind eye when workers are "downsized" into lower paying jobs are "cowards"; men who harass women on the job are "wimps who can't get a date." Officials who claim they cannot or should not intervene to help the homeless, the sick, the dying are "impotent." The NRA should be ridiculed for playing with phallic symbols to compenstae for their psychosexual dysfunctions. Obviously, reproducing such rhetoric tends to reinscribe the dynamic of prejudice and exclusion that many of us are dedicated to overcoming. But politics is not about purity: the squeamish need to ask themselves whether living through the jihad that President Buchanan would visit upon us is a price worth paying for claiming the supposed moral high ground.
3 As Bérubé argues, the Left's basic problem is that it lacks the financial resources of the Right; this unequal distribution of wealth and power is unlikely to change soon. Consequently, it becomes imperative for progressives, feminists, radicals, greens, pinkos, and reds to concentrate their financial resources in areas likely to have the most benefit. My suggestion, then, is that we scale back our commitments to worthy causes (ACT UP, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, battered women's shelters, the United Negro College Fund, Ducks Unlimited, NPR, you name it), pool our resources, and...buy CBS. I wish I were kidding. But the ideology of corporate command, control, and communication renders us little choice if we want to sell out successfully enough to buy a fair share of political power and cultural capital. Left-Wing TV might bring back Gore Vidal to prime time as a Commentator on the CBS Evening News, offer variations on programs such as X-Files by hiring the best writers and producers to promote left-wing conspiracy theories: sexy agents combating corporate skullduggery; white supremacists in league with hostile aliens; mysterious conspiracies at the highest levels of telecommunications; and lonely forest rangers fighting off evil corporations intent on gutting the environment. There should be sympathetic portrayals of lesbian police officers, gay physicians, African-American labor organizers, and so on. If the Left is to counter the cultural dominance of right-wing talk shows, it needs the cultured voice of Gore Vidal intoning nightly that the political spectrum in the United States runs from the Right to the Far Right.
4 Get our own house in order by taking back our universities. One example of effective collective action. Imagine the end of the Fall Semester 1996. Professors all over the country rise up and give every scholarship basketball player in the country a real set of finals: "Discuss the influence of Hegel on Kierkegaard." "Analyze the significance of Walter Lippman's concept of the stereotype on the image of the African-American athlete." "What are the implications of Coase`s theorem for negotiations between professional athletes and franchise owners?" This may sound like a vicious case of harassing the pawns by asking scholarship athletes (a high percentage of whom are African-American) to do work that almost all of their peers would fail abjectly to do, but such collective action could be the springboard to insist that scholarship athletes who generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year be paid stipends (much like research assistants). Think, too, of network executives (spending a half billion dollars a year on college basketball) stuck with a Final Four tournament that consists of walk-ons and white guys shooting two-hand set shots on national TV. Most educated Americans - doctors, lawyers, corporate chiefs - have little idea of the wages and working conditions of most college and university instructors, particularly part-timers. Instead of the disinformation campaigns presented at half-time of basketball and football games - half nostalgic images of ivy-strangled halls and half glitzy promos of hi-tech venture capitalism, show lines of students trying to get into closed out classes.
5 The African-American athlete is sadly underused by the Left. Michael Jordan, Shaq, Grant Hill, and so on exist for most Americans in a depoliticized state of glamorous consumption, as though their multi-million dollar contracts and highly publicized lifestyles negate the economic and cultural disadvantages of millions of African-Americans. A trivia question for cultural critics: who is Kellen Winslow and why am I bringing up his name now?
6 Finally, counter the Right's simplistic slogans with simplistic slogans of our own. A general purpose campaign slogan to use against Republicans: "Your jobs going overseas."
Irving Howe? Russell Jacoby? Shana Alexander? Alexander Cockburn. Hunter Thompson. Molly Ivins. Left intellectuals need to resist the blandishments of a rationalistic politics that remain tied to models of cause and effect, to the siren song that we can reason our way into cultural and political significance. How's this for a slogan for the resurrection of the Left? "There's only one Party in this country, and you're not invited."