There are few standards left. Everything is negotiable, from the now fossilized idea of a traitor like Bergdahl to a neo-Confederate sanctuary city. A play, a movie, a building, a novel — anything really — cannot be assessed by absolute criteria, given that such “standards” are always set by oppressors of some sort, usually the children of capitalism and bourgeoisie consumerism who wish to enshrine their “privilege.” Take a sentence, chop it up into lines, and presto — a poem. By what standards is Chopin any more a genius than a Snoop Dogg? I thought of Walsh’s book yesterday when watching the various newscast reactions to the migration crisis in Europe and the deer-in-the-headlines faces of the European Eloi: Who are we to say that our culture is better than theirs? What is a border anyway? What even is a migrant? Whose values construct someone into the “Other”? Why do hosts enjoy privilege and guests do not?Angry? Hyperbolic? You decide? But refutable? Consider some long-winded meditations from a different perspective on the same presidential campaign. Here's the short form, from Henry Giroux.
Frankfurt intellectuals have done a lot of damage: from multiculturalism to postmodern art, they have destroyed the individual experience and made us cardboard cut-outs by their constant Marxist-inspired dumbing down, ending in a dreary predictable sameness. The past has become melodrama adjudicated by 30-year-old PhDs rather than muscular tragedy. When Obama decides to rename a mountain or brags that Trayvon looks like the son he never had or urges Latinos to “punish our enemies” and quips “typical white person,” he is more or less offering a paint-by-numbers version of the postmodernists who despise both the rich capitalist West whose bounty created their own leisure and subsidizes their nihilism, and the rest of us who lack their awareness and thus are unthinking cogs in a huge monotonous wheel. For the postmodernist, Middle America lacks the romance of the poor of the inner city that is never visited and the high culture of the Upper West Side or Georgetown that is prized.
Under the reign of neoliberalism, space, time and even language have been subject to the forces of privatization and commodification. Public space has been replaced by malls and a host of commercial institutions. Commodified and privatized, public space is now regulated through exchange values rather than public values, just as communal values are replaced by atomizing and survival-of-the fittest market values. Time is no longer connected to long-term investments, the development of social capital and goals that benefit young people and the public good.That sounds like a coherent belief, something Roland Barthes and the deconstructionists pronounced anathema upon. But where there is multiculturalism, are there truly communal values, or do we only see identities?
In the age of casino capitalism, time itself has become a burden more than a condition for contemplation, self-reflection and the cultivation of thoughtful and compassionate social relations. The extended arc of temporal relations in which one could imagine long-term investments in the common good has given way to a notion of time in which the horizon of time is contained within the fluctuating short-term investments of the financial elite and their militant drive for profits at any price. What is lost in this merging of time and the dictates of neoliberal capital are the most basic elements of being human along with the formative culture and institutions necessary to develop a real, substantive democracy.Perhaps the most charitable thing to say about that paragraph is "extended non sequitur." But I persist. "The formative culture?" No multi there! "Institutions necessary?" Not deconstructed or marched through? Perhaps Donald Trump is what happens when the intelligentsia and the political class deride and demean normal Americans for too long.
This retreat into private silos has resulted in the inability of individuals to connect their personal suffering with larger public issues. Thus detached from any concept of the common good or viable vestige of the public realm, they are left to face alone a world of increasing precarity and uncertainty in which it becomes difficult to imagine anything other than how to survive. Under such circumstances, there is little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous.Whatever. Mr Giroux goes on in a similar vein, raising the possibility of a distinctly American fascism. There's an even longer version of the complaint in Tikkun. Nowhere, though, does he suggest that perhaps there can't be a coherent response to a trashy and superficial public culture without some shared notion of what a dignified and substantial public culture is.
Surely, the celebration and widespread prevalence of ignorance in US culture does more than merely testify "to human backwardness or stupidity"; it also "indicates human weakness and the fear that it is unbearably difficult to live beset by continuous doubts."