Liberalism, whether it is Eastern or Western, is habitually deceitful. 'Let us come forth as we are,' Dostoyevsky is forever saying, 'in our native cruditity. No disguises.'
Telling the Damned Truth: Part 1.
As I approach my third year in a rhetoric and cultural studies PhD program in the Northeast, I am again and again exposed to the crisis of consciousness in academia—a favorite topic of conversation among academics. And rightly so.
In a recent PhD seminar, I was part of a conversation on Aristotle’s attitudes toward morality and if he was practical in his thinking or more idealistic in his thinking. In this conversation, and out of concern for recent political events, my colleagues were discussing how right-leaning factions in the United States often use misinformation to further their agendas. People were wondering if we, on the left, should also deploy misinformation to similar effect. Would Aristotle suggest that we engage in these tactics because of their effectiveness? Or would he suggest that we avoid ‘fighting dirty’ out of principle?
I listened to this conversation for about 15 minutes—somewhat confused. Doesn’t the political right use misinformation to hide the truth? Isn’t that why it’s called ‘misinformation’? Because it obscures information? Why wouldn’t we consider countering misinformation with information? Right? Isn’t that the obvious solution to lies? The truth? I wondered how it can be possible to even consider countering misinformation with more misinformation when we have a more effective tool—too effective perhaps—which is the goddamned truth.
This was a puzzling exchange that led me to wonder how it is that the most obvious response to a good question did not produce the most obvious answer. That is, why wasn’t the first response to the problem of misinformation, information? What is it, I was wondering, that is keeping those of us in the progressive camp from correctly diagnosing political realities and effectively addressing them? What are the real reasons we are losing to the right? Is it a problem of knowledge, information, and who is right? Or is it a problem of courage, integrity, and character?
There is an alarming disingenuousness in American life. Many of us from other parts of the world can easily see a tendency toward pretense and masquerade that is distinct to the regional character of the United States. It may be tied to an incessant, evasive irony and a casual sarcastic banter more and more apparent in pop culture. Or maybe pretense is an inevitable outcome of living in highly mediated and simulated worlds. Or maybe it’s just the corn syrup. But disingenuousness is certainly apparent and perhaps more so among progressives whose liberation efforts often end at the act of annunciation. Shallow rebelliousness is a prominent characteristic of many progressive organizations and their participants. What are their actual motivations? Are they just trying to piss off their parents? Why are progressive groups so often so dysfunctional?
It is pretty clear that many on the left are, in attitude and disposition, overwhelmingly, shall we say, spineless? A quick comparison between how the left and the right, in public forums, behave and interact may say some things about differences in personalities and comportment in these two camps. For instance, many members of the political right have convictions, they are able to take a position, they are assertive and direct. On the left, these character traits are less present. Leftists are reproachful, we are evasive, we are disinclined to saying things directly even if what we want to say is true. Those on the right are willing to discuss character, power, greatness. Those on the left are allergic to such thinking. We are too scared of sounding like the right. Therefore, we avoid deliberating on certain topics and the lack of some kinds of deliberation shows in our actions and our failures.
This comparison between the so-called left and the right might be patterned onto the republican/democratic divide as a generic example for the sake of this study. That is, the alarming lack of backbone discussed earlier appears in the democratic faction again and again—a faction which produces the kinds of lackluster politicians that give the political right good reason to continue to steer the world toward apocalypse. How are these character traits, broadly construed, so prominent in progressive camps?
Academic Dynasties and Dispositions
The generic comparison between democrats and republicans might be viewed in parallel to the academy which, like politics, is often populated by lukewarm and lackluster people. Some people attribute this to how basic academics are. That is, people who do academic work often have too much in common with each other. Not just in racial and gendered and economic terms but also in dynastic and dispositional terms. What I mean is, it seems as if academics are either bolstered by their daddy’s money (POC included) or bolstered by being white and male (which includes daddy). Or they are part of an academic dynasty. What I mean is, when I meet academics who are not white or male, they overwhelmingly tend to come from a line of civil servants, administrators, and similarly adjacent white-collar professionals. Sometimes even royal families. I know this because I ask. So, academics are far too often members of dominant groups (domestic and foreign). Race, gender, and class have been viewed at length in these discussions about the problems of the academy, but we less often consider the realities of succession which cuts across these other categories. That is, while the absence of difference influences academic life and the knowledge we produce, and the impact we have on society, certain elements of inheritance make this line of work successional and are, therefore, I think, worth considering in conversations surrounding the decline of the humanities and how critique has ‘lost its steam.’
This is what I mean when I say that the academy is dynastic. What do I mean when I say academics illustrate certain dispositional traits?
Well, in my experiences, I’ve seen a staggering inability to tell the truth among scholars. I know this because of all the dead letters I have collected over the years from people who would tell me, after a seminar or public forum, how much they appreciated my shocking comment or incendiary contribution to a tense conversation. They themselves, of course, did not speak up at the time of the discussion. I have a pile of these obnoxious notes, emails, and back-alley correspondences—sympathy notes from people lacking the backbone to take a stand and say something in the moment. These are tenured faculty. These are people who are secure in their academic positions but still don’t have the balls to say something. We should collect these wildly infuriating dead letters from the cowards and sycophants who send them to us and build an archive for the sake of posterity so that we will have something to pass on to the future scholars who will puzzle over how things went to infernally wrong in the contemporary academy.
It seems that most people in the academic humanities overwhelmingly come from some zone of protection and level of comfort which, rather than improving their character seems to pollute it. They seem to feel empathy differently. Their commitments seem skewed, confused—lukewarm? I believe many participants in the academic humanities (and other progressive groups) have questionable stakes in the struggle for human emancipation becuase they don't actually face the consequences of its absense. Places like the Pacific Northwest, particularly Portland, are striking examples: predominantly white communites vehemetly in support of Black lives...and yet, there are no Black people there. Is being a progressive/liberal just an aesthetic? Is that why they are so sloppy in their efforts?
How many humanist and social science practitioners are sincerely motivated by the general principle of scholarship: to find the truth and disclose it. Is it just an aesthetic? Are they trying to piss of their MAGA parents? These instances are perhaps part of a larger disposition. One that is prevalent in progressive circles. One that is easily apparent to people who are not from the United States—most of whom stay very rigidly within their own international circles. Perhaps it’s not what information we do have, or don’t have, or even the lack of courage to disclose the information we do have but the scenery of our lives and the ethical investments that do or don’t follow from it.
Perhaps if we recruit from the vast horizons and landscapes in which the suffering progressives are so distantly preoccupied with actually happens, then we will reanimate critique with this long-lost steam. So far, we get a lot of people from the suburbs. Foreign and domestic.
Imposter Syndrome and Actual Imposters.
The notion of imposter syndrome actually articulates a crisis in the academy that, it seems, very few people are consciously aware of. They might be, however, unconsciously aware of how imposter syndrome is not a pathology that puts us into conflict with our real self (a competent academic) imposter syndrome exists because there are actual imposters in the academy (I’m looking at you Steve Bannon).
The white males who are forever resentful of being rejected from the higher reaches of ‘manhood’ because they weren’t built for sports, or weren’t confident enough for commerce, or foolish enough for war—the men who were bullied for being ‘wussies’ i.e smart. These men who populate the spheres of knowledge production and spend their entire lives being mad at women (for the proximity they supposedly share with us).
And then, of course, there are the white women who seem so promising. They are not.
But then! There are the people of color. Who are surely here for the right reasons? Except that they, too, have spent their entire lives marinating in American fantasies of individualism and meritocracy and come to the academy loaded with competitive impulses and jealous fantasies. They can be just as misguided, sometimes more so, but because of those delightful ethnic trappings they have some very important roles to play in the machinery of higher education. And then, there's the international communities who offer the most hope. Except that they, becuase of how global wealth and power exists in our world, overwhelmingly come from vast economic privelage and dominant status.
Imposter syndrome may partly be about how we struggle to carry weighty titles—all of us—but it may also be about the prevalence of actual imposters. My father told me, years ago in undergrad, that studying philosophy was something that people from the protected spheres of society do as an aesthetic—make it a hobby he told me and don’t waste your time. I was outraged and so hurt. Research informs policy and policy informs politics! This is important work. But it seems he was more right than I was willing to consider then and sometimes even now.
The apparent inability (or unwillingness) to tell the truth, an apparent paradox of the academic humanities and social sciences, is actually perfectly fitting when we consider who humanist/social science practitioners are. This goes for progressive camps in the academy as well as progressive camps in politics. This is why they send me notes after debates where they ‘totally agreed with what I was saying’ but didn’t jump into it. What is it that keeps us from telling the truth?
One way or another, the humanities and social sciences are preoccupied with inequality and the suffering of the world and yet most practitioners have never seen any of it. Something seems to go terribly wrong when these deliberations are undertaken by people who (overwhelmingly) have been more comfortable than the subjects they are studying.