pragmatist comments ...
state of America, July 2003
The whole function of philosophy
ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make
to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula
or that world-formula be the true one.
William James, Pragmatism
Interpretation takes place in a political
context and each interpretive act relates directly to the
power relations (whether of nation, family, gender, class,
or race) involved in that context ... claims for a reading
are always direct attempts to affect power relations through
coercion or persuasion.
Steven Mailloux, Interpretation
and Rhetorical Hermeneutics
leave to do so, I typically prefer to leave politics to the assholes
who give a shit.
Given a choice, Id rather pretend indifference
than entrap myself into a discussion on how George Bushs use
of his position as Governor of the State of Texas to make a profit
out of a Major League Baseball team, the Texas Rangers, compares
with Bill Clintons sporadic sexual encounters with a White
Neither would it appeal to me to blunder into a debate on whether
the financial and educational poverty in Portland schools comes
as a result of our mayors opinion that Portland should pay
out corporate welfare in order to remain competitively attractive
to minimum-wage employers, or because our tax dollars paid for a
minor league baseball stadium that lost so much money it put its
namesake, PGE, into bankruptcy, or if this was just the inevitable
result of a general ineptitude in all the parents, teachers and
politicians who insist on getting involved.
I dont see any profit in discussions of such absolute irrelevance
to anything and anyone of any real importance whatsoever. Theyre
all right. Theyre all wrong. It all depends. Whats the
point, after all is said and done?
But you cant stand alone for five minutes in this nation
without overhearing some cockamamie bullshit theory on What Its
All About. And in the midst of international crisis (when has there
ever not been an international crisis?), with the media junkies
working so hard to share the wealth, how can one possibly manage
any long-term avoidance?
America, this great melting pot of an empire, has never found itself
lacking in opinions. We the people are not known for timidity, for
diffidence, or even for giving a seconds thought to our words
before they are hurled from our mouths. This tendency toward rapid-fire
rhetoric has a history far older than these united colonies, boasting
a lineage dating back to Europe, to Rome, even all the way back
to the ancient Greeks.
The rhetoric drills through the cubical walls at work, sours mochas
at the local coffeehouse, screams at you on buses or pummels your
television set, your stereo, your e-mail inbox. I dont watch
television or listen to the radio, but this is never enough to stopper
the draining of stupidity into this land of the free and home of
those brave enough to speak out loud in absolute ignorance.
So I listen. I am forced to listen. And, not being exempt from
that tendency to voice my own cockamamie theories, I too must respond.
But in responding I find it more suitable to make a few observations
on the effects on real people and real places of the current worldviews
being tossed around by so many ignorant professionals than to take
up, like so many other hacks, a measuring of the relative merit
that any one of those worldviews might actually contain.
I live in two worlds.
One, a relatively large corporation spanning across four of the
Northwestern states, insists on following the conservative line.
People there typically support Bush, support his war against terrorism
and his preemptive strike on the Middle East. A vast
majority of them have families, and most, if they practice any religion
at all, would call themselves Christian. Theyre a bit short
on cultural diversity, but then so is the Northwest. With my long
hair and Jewish beard, I stand out as an anomaly, but those are
just looks, after all.
The second world consists of a university, some neo-bohemian coffeehouses
and a few Internet realms that cater to writing, education and whatever
blend of progressive ideas fit my current state of mind. Politics
in this realm hold tight to a liberal line. Clinton was OK because
he smoked pot (nobody really believes he didnt inhale), and
Bush is a redneck, Christian fascist. The religious and cultural
diversity looks much richer here, but that shouldnt be mistaken
for open-mindedness. These people are, for the most part, children,
under 25, and do not lack confidence for all their lack of experience.
Physically, I fit in here just fine, but that is not to say that
I ever actually fit in.
I live in two opposing worlds. They look different. They smell
different. The arguments from each claim to contradict the other,
but the effects, the practical consequences of rhetoric, amount
to exactly the same thing regardless on which side of the fence
At work I overhear a man, a project manager, someone expected to
have learned the skill of seeing the bigger picture, report on his
consensus of the most recent media clip on Iraq. He expresses concern
that the liberal media will never, regardless of what
proof is uncovered, acknowledge the truth that there
are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
What strikes me as significant in his rhetoric is the exclusion
of any possibility at all that there may not be any weapons to be
found. It's only a matter of time, and this is because the president
has said so. The president does not lie (except sometimes on accident,
when fed misinformation by evil speechwriters who dont do
the correct research on their subjects).
At PSU they organize protests so that people who hope to someday
have advanced degrees, even some who already boast those advanced
degrees, can hold up signs with glib one-liners and cliché
slogans calling Bush a terrorist and associating the war with oil.
Im not sure what effect these graffiti parades are supposed
to have on the unconverted population, but they certainly dont
seem to be changing anyones mind.
Some of the students think that disrupting traffic, or businesses,
especially those that stand to profit from the war, would be more
productive, but their arguments lack any concrete details in just
how this is supposed to work. The protests are supposed to raise
awareness, to educate the ignorant masses, so to speak, but
how many people can claim to have actually learned something from
reading a sign at a protest or from listening to the repetitive
The professors share their opinions about how our government refuses
to learn anything from history, but doesnt this same argument
apply to protests? Many believe that the protests did far more damage
than good for the anti-war movement during the Vietnam fiasco, and
what did we learn from that?
What is it about George W. that enforces such a harsh black-and-white
dichotomy between those who agree and those who dont? It brings
to mind, with a frightening sense, Matthews line, He
that is not with me is against me. There is, in the various
reactions to modern political rhetoric, an overwhelming ad hominem
taint on the reception from both sides of the fence. The political
alignment of the speaker somehow gives weight to the relative merit
of any proposed truth, regardless of other circumstances or credentials.
But the really sick part of this whole twisted mess lies in the
lack of any practical differences between the two political powers
playing tug-o-war with the reigns of this trigger-happy nation.
Were supposed to choose a side based on our position in regards
to abortion, gun control and capital punishment, with the expectation
that the world might actually change if we pick the wrong one.
And yet, people still get abortions. Bush has yet to stack the
Supreme Court in such a way as to change anything significant. People
still have guns, as they always have ever since that band of lawyers
led our country into a revolution.
And capital punishment whats the point? One way or
another, the criminals life gets taken. Most decay and rot
in prison, passing away long before our great bureaucracy can get
around to putting them out of their misery. Our methods are supposed
to have become more civilized, utilizing high-tech gas chambers
or injections rather than a strong rope, perhaps to prevent infection
in the corpses neck.
Our politics dwell in the abstract realms of metaphysics and morality
and ignore entirely the practical impact that our decisions have
on the reality that most of us are forced to live in. For example,
why not discuss the presidents relative merits as a businessman,
using past successes and failures as possible indicators on how
our nations fiscal absurdities might be made better or worse?
Instead we argue about whether or not allowing people of the same
sex to have a legally bonded union will somehow taint the sanctity
of marriage, whatever that means. Or, on the other side of the fence,
we argue that having a highly paid professional tend your wounds
should be a right and not a privilege. Well, call it what you like,
but that doesnt change the fact that it costs money.
And speaking of money, how many hundreds of millions of dollars
are spent each year enforcing lifestyles on the incorrigible? What
is the practical effect? What does it all amount to?
In this era of multimedia, of computers and the Internet and obnoxious
laser light shows selling you tampons before you can cross the Hawthorne
Bridge, the American people have gotten caught up in trying to market
their rhetoric and have cast blind eyes on the real-world consequences
that their rhetoric claims to explicate.
And, of course, since each side holds tight to its respective political
line, the marketing converts no one, spam collects in our in-boxes
with petitions to sign and memorabilia to purchase in support
of our troops, and the whole mess amounts to nothing more
than meaningless noise.
Where does this leave me? What conclusion can I come to based on
this analysis of modern American rhetoric?
I wonder what the climate is like in Australia these days.