Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Equality and Excellence.

Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), pp. 13-33.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 489.
Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), pp. xi-xxviii, pp. 303-326.


Part of the "fun" of writing these blog entries is the forty-five minutes or so that it takes to get into this site to try to say anything, while fighting against obstacles of one sort or another, not to mention domestic interruptions.

"Does this skirt make me look fat?" The answer to that question, of course, is on tape for most men: "Nothing could make you look fat, honey." This ordeal, Morpheus, is excellent training in concentration and psychological judo. I am now in my black Armanis and shades. I am ready for all agents. "Whoa ..."

What is culture for? Why bother with books and music? Why should you care about ideas? All my life people have been telling me that everything I care about is bullshit. Artistic masterpieces -- from Shakespeare to Picasso -- are things of slight value when compared with money, for it is money alone which allows one to purchase large electrical appliances, including the classic "drug dealer t.v. set" (55 inches, plasma!), which are now favored by suburbanites as well as Wall Street types as a sure sign of success. "Hey, that's some t.v. set, man. What time is the game on?" A lawyer I know actually said to me: "money is the meaning of life." For him, sadly, it may be true.

East Village Marxists are anxious to remind me that "money is the source of evil in the world." Wall Street capitalists insist that "money is the measure of success." Both are mistaken, I believe, because they confuse an instrument for the ends, an effect for a cause. Money is an instrument which may be used for good (millions in aid to Africa contributed by Bill Gates) or ill ($7,500 edible panties for "Ms." Hilton -- are they fattening?).

Money is not inherently good or evil. The malice and injustice associated with money or its absence is an effect of the flaws in human nature, that grasping and selfish quality associated not with genes (which are not capable of selfishness or altruism, since they are not persons), but rather with that paradox that we are.

Freud pointed out that in the absence of wealth, humans will certainly covet and envy one another, continuing to do evil for any excuse or no excuse. The fault is in ourselves, not in our stars, genes, or bank accounts. On the other hand, the beauty and good are also in us, not in how much money we have.

Women respond to such statements ("what's on t.v.?") from their mates or other male persons in their lives by throwing a large piece of raw meat into the room that contains these unwashed male persons, so that -- as the men fight on the floor for the scraps of meat -- the women may go out and get their shopping done for the week.

Well, I don't need much more of a t.v. set than my trusty old 25 inch GE special from the eighties. I can't afford a 55 inch plasma set. I prefer books, music, although seeing films on my old GE is nice.

Today's topic is artistic and intellectual achievement and excellence against our cherished notions of equality. Is genius necessarily offensive to egalitarians and self-described radicals because it is "unfair" to the rest of us that we are not geniuses, like Shakespeare or Brittany Spears? Is there a necessary conflict between democracy and "elite" artistic works or the persons who create them? I don't think so. Debates on these issues can be pretty intense and often confusing, since important terms are not defined. For instance, here is the late Alan Bloom:

"... I suspect that many [critics of The Closing of the American Mind] acted from a more tortuous, more ambiguous motive: guilt. The leading principle of our regime is the equal worth of all persons, and facts or sentiments that appear to contradict that principle are experienced by a democrat as immoral. Bad conscience accompanies the democrat who finds himself [or herself] part of an elite."

No effort is made by Bloom to be clear about what is meant by "equal worth" or how extraordinary talent offends this principle; "elite" is also not defined; neither is "democrat." Hence, adversaries in this discussion are often speaking different languages, not understanding one another, arguing at cross purposes.

I am a radical egalitarian, democratic socialist, freedom-loving and iconoclastic. I am nice to children and dogs. I appreciate great art (I hope!), since I believe that art enriches my life. Great art should be made available to all people, regardless of their economic circumstances. I argue for greater access to higher education for everyone, free of charge, regardless of social disadvantages. Education is a weapon against such disadvantages.

These traditional American democratic notions of guaranteed access to the "finer things in life" (by which I do not mean material goods necessarily), are regarded today as a form of conservatism (why?), or as "anti-egalitarian" (says who?), offensive to "political correctness," somehow, or "elitist" (how do you define that term?).

All art reflects the economic class or historical bias of the artists, or so we are told. There is no non-political art. All choices or rankings between or among works of art are also (allegedly) reflective of power and nothing more. Inevitably, aesthetic judgments are found to be non-objective. Thus, Edward Said tells us:

"In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation or the state; this differentiates 'us' from 'them,' almost always with some degree of xenophobia. Culture in this sense is a source of identity, and a rather combative one at that, as we see in recent returns to culture and tradition. These 'returns' accompany rigorous codes of intellectual and moral behavior that are opposed to the permissiveness associated with such relatively liberal philosophies as multiculturalism and hybridity. In the formerly colonized world, these 'returns' have produced varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism."

Bloom and Said are both misunderstanding something important about the issues that they are discussing. These are two of the most intelligent thinkers representing polarized and (I believe) equally untenable positions. Both men are now gone from the scene. All insults or ad hominem attacks are forbidden.

Is a concern with the "canon" a form of elitism or intellectual fascism? Are opponents of "the best that has been thought and said" only know-nothing political hacks seeking to bring about the collapse of Western civilization? Neither of these highly charged characterizations seem accurate to me, but it is not easy to say exactly what each man fails to understand.

O.K., boys and girls, get out your notebooks and lets see if we can figure out where these smart guys went wrong, also why they went wrong. Keep an eye on what motivated these genuinely held positions by brilliant and sincere scholars. If these highly intelligent and learned intellectuals "screw up" -- usually for subconscious reasons -- then you can be sure that the rest of us will make similar mistakes. I know that I will, but so will you.

On the one hand, Professor Said senses (correctly) that the "theft of the logos" by the West has been an important justification for colonialism as well as rationalizing vicious forms of imperialism, which are now popular again. Historically, the cultural dominance of the West resulted in denigration of the artistic and cultural achievements of all "others," feeding into dehumanizations and dismissals of people not fitting the somatic norms of the West in its imperialist mode.

Everyone not capable of being a "white male on a well-kept Sussex lawn," sporting an Oxbridge accent, is not worthy of concern or attention, on this view, and may only be "educated" or "trained," like a Spaniel, "for his or her own good."

You are a fucking Anglophile! I am accused of this terrible offense by thoughtful adversaries on these issues because I defend Shakespeare. I am attacked by P.C. storm troopers because I admire, say, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit or choose (like Erica jong) to read Henry Miller over Kate Millett. Worse, if I read both and prefer Miller, then I am truly beyond the pale.

Conservatives and others defending the canon say that "enemies of civilization" (New Jersey beings) would have you believe that Shakespeare is no different from Agatha Christie. Obvious judgments of artistic merit are reduced to mere expressions of class or political bias, without objective content or merit. The concept of universal merit or achievement in the arts or philosophy is denied by these "enemies of civilization" seeking -- for "a small fee" -- to have all standards and values eliminated from the curricula of our major universities.

Universal merit is reserved for "politically correct" artists. "Politically Correct" is defined by me, here and now, as "designating those artists or others adhering (knowingly or not) to trendy political platitudes and/or values, held as fashions and irrationally, regardless of objective merit."

Artists deemed safe for admiration by the chi-chi thought police are often persons who would have been or are astonished at the mere existence of the category of "political correctness" or at being included within its boundaries. Example: any of the great women novelists of the nineteenth century, who only wished to write and compete -- as equals -- against men for the top spots on the artistic merits team, hoping to have their books judged for their merits and NOT because they were written by women or trivialized because they were not written by men.

Would Jane Austen be insulted or pleased to be regarded as a "top woman writer"? Is there such a thing? You may write your essays in class and feel free to use any texts that you like. Hint: Would you describe Shakespeare as a "top male writer"? If not, why not? ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

How would you feel if after graduating from law school at or near the top of your class, passing the bar exam, paying your dues as a law clerk and associate -- somebody describes you as a minority attorney? What if that guy who needed your help in class pretends that he doesn't know you at the fancy party? Why not walk up to him in a crowd and say -- "Hey, how you doing? Remember that weekend study session when I taught you corporate law? You got it now?"

The goal for the intellectual fashionistas of all genders, allegedly, is to produce a generation majoring in Star Trek episodes and illicit sex, rock-and-roll and drug-taking. Great, where do I enroll? (I am against drug-taking, needless to say, and all forms of Communism, disrespect for one's elders and masturbation ... well, masturbation is o.k., especially when it can be shared and if it does not involve "smoking in public places," of course, which it almost always does.)

Where will future Republicans be found if these populist trends are not halted? But then, these young college students majoring in pop culture do tend to become Republicans, eventually, so all is well.

A concern to preserve the cultural and intellectual achievements of "our" civilization (which is increasingly global and enriches all of humanity, as do the civilizations of others) is legitimate and important in American universities. A key issue becomes what are these cultural "achievements" and how do we "preserve" them? Again, what are both sides in the debate overlooking? ("John Searle and David Chalmers On Consciousness.")

I wish to focus on a few of the most glaring and important confusions in these discussions: 1) The notion that judgments of aesthetic value are nothing but reflections of power-relations or political-class interests, historically limited and conditioned, so that objectivity with regard to such judgments is illusory. Professor Said recognizes that great books give him "pleasure," but not much more than that in his unfair assessment of Jane Austen. 2) The scope of the ethics and aesthetics of Western Civilization, which is rejected in the interests of "permissiveness" or "openness and tolerance" -- interests which look like Western values to me -- and on behalf of people from the "Developing World." 3) What exactly does "protecting civilization" mean today, in an educational setting that is concerned with initiating young people into the mores and conventions of adult intellectual life in increasingly sophisticated modern (or postmodern?) societies.

Of course aesthetic values and achievements are reflective of class-based power-realities in wealthy or technological societies. You can't write a book unless you are literate, for instance. This alone excludes most people and nearly all women (who were denied education) before the rise of modernity. But great books are still great.

We are not "discriminating" unfairly against women by pointing out that Shakespeare is a better writer than, say, Agatha Christie. You know that much is true even if you deny it. Thus, we are discriminating fairly in making that judgment between better and worse, regardless of gender. And yes, I am aware of Virginia Woolf and "Shakespeare's sister." Shakespeare's sister -- if he'd had one -- might have been a brain surgeon with no interest at all in literature, so unique is her "sibling's" achievement. (A famous essay by Ms. Woolf focuses on the difference between the respect accorded to the Bard as against what his fictional sister would receive.)

The real issue is how we decide what is better? Are those aesthetic preferences contaminated by sexism entirely? Or are comparative judgments plausibly made when it comes to disparities between Shakespeare and Christie? I think that we can make qualified, subtle, nuanced comparative cultural judgments with accuracy and confidently. We do so, all the time. I like these shoes better than those. What do you think? Do these jeans make me look fat? ("Let's Hear it For the Boys.")

Everybody who was not an aristocrat in Shakespeare's century, regardless of gender (even if women were a little worse off), was discouraged from being anything but a serf or soldier for the "nobles." Agatha Christie had more chances to be educated and greater access to books than Shakespeare, simply because of the century in which she was born. Shakespeare's genius was unstoppable and unpredictable. He was and will always be a natural phenomenon, like a volcano. That's a big reason why he is, as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live would say, "special."

What a joy and inspiration for us -- especially for those of us denied our worth or recognition because of social ostracism, gender or color -- to see that genius is unstoppable, that the need to create will not be halted, even if it can be blighted and injured by those seeking to alter our lives "for our own good," thus denying our humanity.

No, this doesn't mean that I claim to be a genius or better than anyone else. I claim for myself only what I insist on for you: freedom and equality, not necessarily "sameness" for men and women, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation.

I still favor the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that I supported, as a college student, which would not require men and women to use the same public restrooms or any other such nonsense. I have a "feeling" that, if he were around, Shakespeare would agree on the absolute right to equality for men and women.

As human beings, we have rights to self-determination and expression, so as to be understood by others. Shakespeare's greatness consists (partly) in recognizing our inner lives and writing "for us," as much as for anyone else, regardless of what we look like or where we come from. Another part of that genius is an awesome sensitivity to language. The average elite university graduate today has a vocabulary of about 5 to 6 thousand words. I believe it was Harold Bloom who noted that Shakespeare's plays display a vocabulary of about 26,000 words -- some of which he invented! -- because he needed them and they did not exist.

How many words have you invented?

The art that we make is our gift to our societies and to humanity, if we are lucky enough to achieve something of universal value -- universal because, even if it is true that we are each different in details, it is no less true that we are alike in what matters most. We are alike in our human need for love and beauty, together with our concern for justice, freedom and yearning for dignity in the face of death. These insights are politically "empowering," not the opposite.

"Permissiveness" and "openness" are also Western values. They are vindications of the spirit of a self-reflective and aware civilization, struggling always against itself, to sharpen and clarify its own values. Individualism and independence, human rights, freedom and equality, are historically Western values, which served to oppose colonialism and bring independence to many formerly colonized peoples, including Americans, who are still waging an "unfinished revolution."

Fundamentalism may be rejected without also dismissing the possibility of all objective content in both aesthetic and ethical "value judgments." Such judgments may be made by persons (as subjects and hence, be "subjective") and yet still possess some "objective" content in their merits. For example, we may say that this book One Hundred Years of Solitude, is better than that one, The Da Vinci Code -- and people of good taste will agree -- since the first book is wiser and more reflective of life, in all of its complexity and diversity, than the second.

How are we doing on the buzzword count: "diversity," "openness," "inclusiveness," "tolerance," "pluralism"? Prety good so far. Feel free to throw in your favorite trendy terms. You will find that the real values underlying these words, to the extent that they mean anything, are Western. You will also find that Western means many things, including African, since we begin (as a civilization) in Africa and the Mediterrenean Sea. Yes, I am thinking of Fuentes's Terra Nostra. Western also means Asian, since trade -- especially after the Renaissance -- resulted in a lot of "cross-fertilization," which is something I am "for," especially with my young blond neighbor in the short skirt.

"You wanna come in and meet my goldfish? His name is Egbert." ("Richard and I" then "A Doll's Aria.")

What part or values of this Western civilization do you oppose? Are you sure that you will not find the same despised quality in every other human civilization? If you're anti-American, then think again: Would you prefer than the allies had not won the Second World War? Would you opt for a Stalinist State over the "open societies" that opposed Left-totalitarianism in the Cold War? If so, what is your argument? How do you think "diversity" would do in the Gulags and concentration camps of the twentieth century? What happened to those who were "different" in those totalitarian societies? (See Gore Vidal's essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.")

There is no better world elsewhere. The battle for civilization, for freedom and equality, has to be fought every day, wherever you find yourself standing, if you're lucky enough to be standing. Perhaps we can best protect civilization by teaching students not so much the exclusiveness of the canon, but its inclusiveness. We protect Western Civilization best by challenging and questioning it, by testing so-called "great works" to determine whether they really are great or whether new titles deserve to make the team. I have no fear on that score for Shakespeare.

We may choose to compensate for past dismissals of women, for example, by a greater concern to examine their achievements today. We may encourage students not to be limited to ethnic or tribal loyalties, but to find the human in everyone and their likeness in others (which is Shakespeare's greatest lesson), especially others previously deemed beyond the pale or weird, not capable of genuine artistic achievements. That idea of universality is very Western.

I have taught myself to take an interest in white Protestant culture, for example, which is found thriving in places like Scarsdale, Connecticut. I am slowly mastering the rituals of inclusion and working diligently on natives' mating calls. There are many blond women among them. This is fortunate and inspirational. There are bizarre rituals associated with white bread and mayonaise. I am slowly learning them. Also there is a quasi-religious weekend activity among males involving golf clubs. I will give the final word to Harold Bloom, who is still "alive and kicking" the "yahoos" (look up Jonathan Swift) in the nuts, as it were:

"Confronting greatness as we read is an intimate and expensive process and has never been much in critical vogue. Now, more than ever, it is out of fashion, when the quest for freedom and solitude is being condemned as politically incorrect, selfish, and not appropriate to our anguished society. Greatness in the West's literature centers on Shakespeare, who has become the touchstone for all who come before and after him, whether they are dramatists, lyric poets, or storytellers. He had no true precursor in the creation of character, except for Chauserian hints, and has left no one after him untouched by his ways of representing human nature. His originality was and is so easy to assimilate we are disarmed by it and unable to see how much it has changed us and goes on changing us. Much of Western literature after Shakespeare is, in varying degree, partly a defense against Shakespeare, who can be so overwhelming an influence as to drown out all who are compelled to be his students."

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