There’s an essay by Jedediah Purdy in the new n+1 that I found difficult and a little embarrassing but really, really worthwhile. I didn’t know who he was. His political consciousness struck mine like the mallet striking the big damn gong.
At 24, Purdy wrote a book (For Common Things) that made a case for “structural politics” (as opposed to ideology politics and personality politics). He called for radical imagination. He maintained that the foundational tenets of neoliberalism could be got out from underneath of. (Chief among them being the slavish worship of the free market and the ubiquitous, smothering and pre-emptive surrender to the idea that things are crappy but, hey, they’re as good as we can expect.)
During the germination of his sensibility, the Thatcherite mantra “There is no alternative…” had come to frame what passed for debate, so that no one of consequence trafficked in ideas–or rather, all the ones they trafficked in were variations on a theme. Install conservatives to lead the Supreme Court and the Fed for thirty solid years and look what’s become of the left: dead dead dead. (For an even cheerier take, see Adolph Reed Jr.’s brilliantly dispiriting essay in the March Harper’s.)
“Structural politics” sounds peachy to me but I’m not exactly sure what it means. I think it has to do with a general de-mythologizing of policy. If something works, employ it. If it doesn’t, don’t, but there’s no need to have a freaking baby over everything all the time.
Oscar Wilde said that a writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave. One time, working at the Highsmith Union convenience store back at college in 2006 or so, I imagined seeing a bear scratching itself on a tree, and then inverted my understanding of this scene: the tree was scratching itself with the bear. This revelation made me high, made me giddy. I shared it with customers for the rest of the night. I have never forgotten the feeling. It is the action closest to magic my brain has ever managed. That’s kind of lame, but there you go. (This anecdote is part of a larger thing I’m doing. Stay with me. When you lay awake nights, impressions and anecdotes and sentences and thoughts arrive for brief, recurring instances and you think: Golly, there are screeds in me! Polemics! But who has the time? It’s much easier to write them down, one at a time, like you unpack a bag after a long trip.)
Not too fond of the Freakonomics schtick, me, but there’s a moment in the documentary when economist Steven Levitt wonders how much money it would take to bribe kids into getting A’s in school. The experiment is small and deals in small sums and doesn’t, IIRC, meet with much success. So how much would it take, Levitt wonders? Like he’s suggesting a restaurant, he goes, “What if we paid them $100,000? Would that work?” It wasn’t the substance of the question as much as the tone in which it was delivered that stuck with me: this was intellectual inquiry, unattached to the gears of the humdrum quotidian. I guess you pretty much have to hang with the faculty to hear people speak this way on a regular basis.
In Traveling Sprinkler, oddballist extraordinaire author Nicholson Baker’s sequel to The Anthologist, the gracefully aging poet protagonist Paul Chowder spends a lot of time hating on the Central Intelligence Agency. Since my copy’s at home, which I can see from here, I will paraphrase the relevant passage. People think the CIA is forever, Paul says, people think it’s inevitable that America will always have a shadow organization of professional paramilitarized spies incinerating people on the other side of the globe with predator drones, but the CIA was created by a presidential act in 1947 and it could be abolished by one now.
Please forgive the coming bumper sticker apothegm.
A new neighbor of ours (we haven’t introduced ourselves yet [awkward, feel guilty about this]) is a professor at Warren Wilson, has a bumper sticker that says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”
All this adds up for me. The sentinels of intellectual unanimity are everywhere: the system exists to maintain the framework within which the system can exist; instead of trying to list them, just point at the world–your finger will land on someone with a vested interest in resisting the overhaul of our assumptions. On the quote-unquote conservative side, the domination of assumptionry over intellectualism is so total that Joe the Plumber becomes a leading light by sounding an alarm over something that’s a fundamental part of the social compact and has been his entire life (“The redistributionists are coming! The redistributionists are coming!”). On the establishment left, we’ve swallowed part and parcel Thatcher’s uncolorful worldview: we’ve deregulated and free-marketed and intervened ourselves down the rabbit hole.
(One need look no further for evidence of the left’s capitulation than the hue and cry over the Affordable Care Act: a market-based program that forces citizens to buy insurance from private companies… The crowning achievement of the first Obama Administration was dreamed up in a conservative think tank.)
Purdy concludes his piece with a touch of purple. We find him drunk and a bit bloody, having slashed an original hard cover copy of For Common Things to shreds, declaring to his roomie that it is “Full of lies.” In attempting reform from within, Purdy decides he’d tacitly collaborated with the monolith he’d sought to undermine. He’d been absorbed into the framework. He seems now to be suggesting taking up arms, of a sort. He is a Duke law professor taking a vocal part in the Moral Monday protests. The Visigoths storming over the hills didn’t wield books.
So why can’t we think ourselves out of this box?
Good news! We totally can! America is an idea sustained by the collective imagination of 300 million people. We change our minds about it constantly. Right now we’re shifting away from Strong Daddy Religion and traditional institutionalism at the same time. It’s crazy! It’s exciting! We manufacture our country out of our thoughts and deeds. When we shrug and say “It sucks, but it’s the best we can do,” we are the ones who suck! We’re drunk with the power of positive thinking except for this one tremendously vast blind spot. Why?
Why not we let our minds misbehave? Why not rethink the ship instead of whistling while it sinks? Why not say no to them who say no to us?