Culture Clash

From opposing political camps, two new polemics aim to Enlighten.

These two volumes could bookend any collection of writings about the old right/left philosophical schism. In fact, they would have to be bookends, since proximity would cause spontaneous combustion.

The flavour of Laura Penny’s More Money Than Brains is caught in its subtitle: Why School Sucks, College Is Crap and Idiots Think They’re Right. A literature teacher at Mount St. Vincent University, her outrage begins with the steady devaluation of the humanities—not to mention spelling and basic literacy—in our school system, and spreads outward, forest fire–like, feeding on the inanity and materialism of the larger culture. These she blames squarely on the “idiocracy” created by right-wing populism and its enabler, corporate capitalism.

In The Authenticity Hoax: How We Got Lost Finding Ourselves, Andrew Potter, a long-time Maclean’s columnist of the conservative variety, takes a more moderate tone and purports to be writing a more serious book. But he is really as partisan as Penny, since the “hoax of authenticity” he seeks to expose is a dastardly liberal creation designed to place restraints on free market capitalism. This false cult lugubriously manifests itself on Oprah, and it peeks out at us from the hundred-mile diet, the environmentalist’s cry that we should live in harmony with the world, and the naughty things liberals say about capitalism and consumerism. All of this, Potter says, is false, and we will be better off without it.

Both books pay homage to the Enlightenment. Penny feels we are living “At The Arse End of the Late, Great Enlightenment” (a chapter title), where the philosophical achievements of humanity lie shipwrecked on Sarah Palin’s thick skull. Potter, although lighter on the obscenities and heavier on the philosophy, is also a polemicist. He devotes a chapter to mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment thinker who first used the word “authenticity” to describe the perfected human personality. Of the two, I would judge Potter the harder ideological nut (botanically speaking).

Potter argues that the authentic life we long to live is a leftover from the past, where every tribe imagined its way of life superior to every other. But, he continues, authenticity lacks an epistemological meaning; that is, it cannot be seen or verified as a thing in itself. There never was a time when “we used to live in authentic communities and listen to authentic music.”

By the late 18th century the rise of liberal individualism and the market economy were visibly eroding traditional religious belief, leading to the general disenchantment (or loss of a sense of magic in the world) noted by Max Weber. Reactionary clerical authority fought back as best it could, but the most effective opposition to modernity came from the Romantic philosophers, led by Rousseau.

Potter’s dislike of Rousseau is palpable. He depicts him as a forerunner of contemporary hippy naiveté. Most of the Rousseau chapter dwells on the sage’s abandonment of his children, his general boorishness and his retrospectively silly dream of natural man “laying himself down to sleep at the foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal.” But Potter’s deep objection is to Rousseau’s defence of nature and of a respectful human engagement with it. He finds the cosmopolitan thinkers, such as Kant, more congenial in that they wished to break obligations to God and nature so humankind might control its destiny.

From Potter’s cartoon portrait of Rousseau you would not know that the Frenchman advocated a strong individualism, in which the source of our moral judgement is within ourselves. Nor would you know that Romanticism (scarcely mentioned or defined in this book) was a major school of thought that contended with the cosmopolitan thinkers and is far from a spent force today.

Potter’s tale is a triumphalist one. Cosmopolitan capitalism has brought us global trade (“sushi in Montreal and poutine in Tokyo”) while crushing competing beliefs such as socialism. But writers such as Charles Dickens have nonetheless managed to cloud the public’s mind with images of small children being beaten by “rapacious landlords in top hats.” Even worse than this slandering of honest business, however, is the hoax of authenticity that has been perpetrated by “Rousseau’s intellectual descendants.”

And who might these terrible people be? Why, step right up, David Suzuki and Al Gore. Here is a representative passage:

The hysteria over global warming that has led to calls for North Americans to give up flying, give up driving, give up meat, give up toilet paper, give up lightbulbs, and give up procreating is almost entirely driven by a ratchet of authenticity-seeking that progressively rejects more and more of the comforts and privileges of modern life. Next thing you know, the hyper-rich are sleeping on mud floors, like poverty-stricken Aboriginals.

One might almost think that this link between Rousseau and people who fear global warming was Potter’s insight. But it is a staple idea in the academic literature, most eloquently expressed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in The Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, where he describes “the battle between the Enlightenment and Romanticism as it continues to develop. This battle is still going on throughout our culture, as the struggle between the technologically and the ecologically oriented today attests.”

Some current thinkers, such as David Kolb, believe that Hegel borrowed Rousseau’s idea of austerity and used it to criticize the new market economy, where “accumulation of capital and the growth of markets are encouraged … for there is no way within civil society to say some needs are unnatural and should be shunned.”

Why does this Rousseau/Hegel idea of limits provoke such rage among right wingers? It appears that it sees capitalism not only as an economic system but also as the guarantor of democracy and human freedom. Any attempt to limit consumption of food, energy or status objects like Porsches or other tchotchkes is therefore an affront to human freedom. This, I believe, accounts for the hysterical edge of Potter’s prose when he denounces those with the temerity to suggest that there may be too many people in the world, and that we should perhaps consume less in the future.

Since he appears to believe that authenticity implies limits, it is understandable that he spends the rest of the book ripping out every tendril of authenticity that he can find. For example, a long chapter argues that there can be no authentically great artists if forgers can produce works in their style that fool the curators. Novelists, in his view, are people who were not smart enough to be ­political columnists. In a similar vein, he assures us that the meme of authenticity is what lures liberal voters to elect people they would most “want to have a beer with,” such as Barack Obama. Being partisan, however, he attributes the success of conservative leaders such as Stephen Harper to market forces, in the form of a political brand that assures the voter of a quality product.

But what to do about nutty Republicans like Sarah Palin, who embarrass the party brand? In her case he posits an “authenticity gambit,” suggesting that she does not really believe her shtick. Like most ideologically driven arguments, this one becomes so circular that Lance Armstrong could ride it to victory in the Tour de France.

A disturbing thread of the book is Potter’s nostalgia for an Anglo-Saxon world. This appears early on, when he wonders whether “race or climate” might account for the tremendous fact that the industrial revolution occurred in England. Later in the book he returns to the theme, nervously complaining that common courtesy can only be sustained in a society which is “culturally, ethnically, or racially homogenous.” Sonia Sotomayor’s remark that the U.S. Supreme Court could do with a “wise Latina woman” greatly upsets him, even though she was not suggesting that hyper-rich justices sleep on a mud floor with the aboriginals.

This kind of unbecoming talk is too common on the Canadian right, and just plain illogical in a book that argues that there is no such thing as cultural authenticity. But it is comforting, in an odd way, to see how furiously conservatives declare that their tribe is the right tribe, and their tune is the authentic tune.

Laura Penny’s book reads at first like a smart girl’s blog, lamenting her childhood as a bookish “Poindexter” (i.e., nerd-in-training) complete with eyeglasses and pudgy tummy. She grew up hoping to escape to the academy, but found that the bullies had also grown up, and were now chanting their mantra (“Fuck you, four-eyes”) from the corner office and Fox News.

The early chapters viciously expatiate on North America’s love-hate relationship with knowledge, where Dubya, Rush Limbaugh et al. suck up to thinkers who produce stuff that makes money, while reserving their dim-bulb rage for those who dare to think about literature, history and other un-monetizable subjects.

She is pretty entertaining. In Canada the moneyed bullies hate Michael Ignatieff for “whoring around with the likes of the BBC and Harvard.” They distract the masses from shrinking paycheques with calls to take out their rage on nerds, a.k.a. “the official spokespeople for imaginary things and superannuated crud”—that is, classic novels and the history of ideas. She conjures Ayn Rand in hell, forced to munch rubles and watch Alan Greenspan grovel for his ideological errors.

But readers not already on the hard left may tire of this merriment. When Penny criticizes simplistic rhetoric that has “the express purpose of enriching the speaker by inflaming everyone else,” she is describing a crew that includes Andrew Potter but also, arguably, herself.

Much better, in spite of chapter headings such as “Is Our Schools Sucking?,” is her heavily researched foray into education. Citing sociologist Michael Young, she argues that the new class stratification, where privileged young people automatically become business leaders, creates pressure for private sector solutions in education. What has been lost is a former entente where the wealthy supported public sector solutions because they understood that social solidarity creates better workers (an argument recently picked up by eminent American historian Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books).

Penny cites “Are They Really Ready to Work?,” a study by the Conference Board of Canada that shows that employers are aware of the decay in standards. When asked what is wrong, they frequently cite a lack of skill in critical thought and in both spoken and written English. Teaching the humanities addresses all of these, but only 13 percent of employers mention them as a solution. The result is a “relentless presentism” where ignorant students equate pop culture with culture. This, she argues, shows why CEOs should not be dictating what is taught.

She admits that much academic writing is indeed “forced and futile verbiage.” Here she makes reluctant common cause with humanities bashers such as Margaret Wente. But she ably defends the core of her analysis, describing the futile verbiage as a defensive reaction against the corporatist demand for increased productivity. Humanists fear an elite-driven populism that longs to hang “the last art history prof with the guts of the last philosopher.”

Alas, she then returns to the larger world where her knowledge is not so granular. In a rant inspired by the Greek word “idiot” (which meant a person who does not participate in public life) and the 2006 movie Idiocracy, she lampoons demagogues who run for office only in order to blow everything up.

After some warmed-over commentary on the slandering of John Kerry and the “bubbatude” of Bill Clinton, she moves on to the “media-entertainment perplex” where we all get to be a “microparticle” of media that “ping back and forth between the two sides that every issue is reduced to.” These are witty encapsulations of familiar observations. But her research is shallow, as when she says that reactionaries in the U.S. reject the idea of saving dying newspapers by making them non-profit. This idea in fact is alive and well, according to research by Michael Massing.

This is not the only time her analysis falls back on finger pointing, when the reader would be better served by a sociologist’s fine-grained analysis. Yes, it is maddening that the top three novels in the Modern Library list are Ulysses, The Great Gatsby and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while a web poll asking the same question comes up with Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and Battlefield Earth (with other novels by the same mystical shills, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard occupying positions seven, eight and nine). I suppose this means that intelligent people should do what the honest Roman peasant did in Satyricon, and cut their wrists. But this is venting, not argument.

McClelland and Stewart has published both of these books using cover palettes of red, orange/yellow and white, suggesting it sees them as lucrative populist entertainment.

Authenticity merits better treatment. It deserves humanist rather than partisan consideration. The pretty girl does not always go to bed with the rock star. Some men forego the corner office in order to spend time raising their children. There is a supra-moral pleasure in making the decision that feels correct. When no one else notices the independent step you’ve taken, you begin the internal struggle to find strength and meaning alone. You may become disappointed in others, perhaps solitary and, finally, inscrutable. But this can be the price of—dare I say it?—authenticity.

The price is not always so high. People will seek out others who share their convictions about the authentic life. From this emerge the island populations of religion and language, which Kant the cosmopolitan called the great threats to human peace. But I am not convinced by his, or Potter’s, belief that culture is a mere instrumental good that will vanish when humans become rational. The universe is cruel and empty, and slathering ourselves with iPods will not substitute for community and shared values.

On the other hand, some of the heritage valued by Penny will disappear. Most human languages now spoken will be gone within a century, which is dreadful for humanists (and humans). This will, however, solve the problem that our bodies release adrenalin when we hear people speaking a language we do not understand. Fewer languages means less violence. Diversity of skin colour, which delights some but makes most uncomfortable, will diminish with intermarriage. Potter’s descendants, and Penny’s, and mine, will be beige.

What will endure, however, is the need for what Charles Taylor calls a cultural horizon in which we speak and are heard by those who understand what we say. There will always be more than one of these horizons. Potter’s market utopia, and the quietist world of bovine consumption it implies, will never arrive. Thank God (or Nature).