‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay ‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily. The following is an abstract of sorts:

American immigrants, especially the first and second generations, were sometimes reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. This was not just the case with immigrants from formerly communist countries who might be reckoned willing and enthusiastic consumers of the Republican Party and American conservatism’s historical anti-communist stance. Rather, American immigrants of all stripes have often shown a marked allegiance to conservative causes and claims. This trend, which did not always translate into major electoral gains, was attenuated by the Republican Party’s continuing adoption of nativism and crude populism, of xenophobia, of the crudest forms of racism and exclusivism. But it was not always thus; there were good reasons to imagine the immigrant was a  was a possible Republican and conservative mark.

In my essay, I argue that the immigrant imagination, tinged as it is with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for this political predilection. In particular, by examining recent descriptions of conservative intellectuals–ranging from Edmund Burke to William Buckley Jr.– as a species of romantic reactionaries, and comparing them to immigrant self-descriptions of their migratory journeys of arrival and accomplishment, I claim that the immigrant and the conservative are united by a species of self-conception that views them as outsiders subverting and eventually mastering–in their highly individual and particular ways–a dominant system. Like the conservative, the immigrant too, sometimes finds himself suggesting ‘the ladder be pulled up,’ now that he is aboard. The immigrant is in sympathy with a conservative vision then, because romantically, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it.’

I will explore this claim–via an autobiographical perspective–in the American context, thus illuminating the ways in which so-called ‘model minorities’ have conceived of their place in the American nation. The reflexively conservative standpoint I adopted when I was a brand-new migrant to the US should help explain why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. They suggest the Republican Party could further find in its electoral toolbox a rhetorical appeal to divide the current anti-Republican coalition by attacking one of its most vulnerable points.

Nietzsche’s Inversion Of Natural Law In The Genealogy Of Morals

The radically constructive nature of legal and economic concepts emerges quite clearly in the brilliant second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Here, Nietzsche sets out his view of how the concept of a contract creates persons, how the ethical subject is not found but made. For Nietzsche, the law, a set of human practices, ‘creates’ its subjects by acting upon humans to make them into beings capable of obeying the law. The inversion Nietzsche forces upon us takes from the notion of a contract as a legally enforceable promise to the notion of a promise as a morally enforceable contract.

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Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

Middle-Aged Laments: Changing, Disappearing, Friendships

I feel old friendships changing, some diminishing in affection and interest, some fading in that crucial dimension of the interest we show in each others’ lives, and thus, threatening to vanish into insignificance. Some because of lack of attention, of the tender loving care that is needed to nurture relationships; some we have tried and tried and strained to keep alive, only to find them sputtering out, impervious to our ostensibly tender affections; some because, somehow, in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so. We have been exposed to the–possibly clichéd–wisdom that friendships, like other relationships, take us from one station in life to another, and we sense the destination station is at hand. And then there are physical barriers of time and space; sometimes thousands of miles and multiple time-zones, sometimes even with the same city or country or state; I have lived in three countries, my reach extends, bringing me the joy of contact with the far flung, but also the melancholy of separation. I am growing older; I am a parent; at home, a human demands nurturing and rearing; an involvement that makes unprecedented demands on my commitments in time and energy. I willingly acquiesce. This sucks up the oxygen from other quarters; I do not seem to mind. There are new relationships now, ones demanding their own special species of nurturance.

This is a familiar, middle-aged lament. I’ve heard variants of it before; now, it’s my turn to join the chorus. This is not a wholly unfamiliar place to be; I’ve experienced variants of it before, at my life’s previous ‘stages.’ If there is a novelty to the precinct I have now entered, it is because my current melancholia–and I suspect that of others who make observations similar to mine–is infected with intimations of mortality. There might be no time for ‘reconciliation,’ for ‘rebuilding’; perhaps the changes we have observed in our relationships are irrevocable. It was a pleasant fantasy of years gone by that mistakes and catastrophes could always be put right somehow, that there was time and energy aplenty at hand. That illusion is no longer sustainable; our bodies have sent many intimations informing us of their lack of fidelity to our avowed goals; time has speeded up alarmingly; we now know that many of the farewells we will bid others will be final ones. (I suspect some of the notes I strike here might be a little overwrought; I am, after all, not confined to a retirement home or a hospice. Still.)

If there is a consolation in this state of affairs, it is the joy of new friendships; they do not replace the older ones, but fill my life in other ways. They address my changing person; they inform me of what I am becoming. And what I’m leaving behind.

Old Battles, Still Waged: Accepting ‘Defeat’ In Self-Improvement

Over the past couple of days, I have engaged in a time-honored academic ritual: the cleaning of one’s office. Old books, journal articles, student papers and blue books, random handouts from academic talks, conference badges–all fodder for the recycling bin. But I went further, looking for especially archaic material; and I found it in my graduate school notebooks. Scribbled notes from graduate seminars filled their pages; but much else too. In their pockets I found syllabi and handouts; and on their back pages, many, many notes written to myself during the seminar class period.

Some of these notes are simple reminders to myself: submit forms, pick up checks, finish reading etc. Yet others are financial calculations; in graduate school, I always lived on the edge, and frequent checks of my financial health were necessary. These, as can be seen, often distracted me even as I thought about metaphysics and ethics. And then, perhaps most poignantly, I find little injunctions and plans for self-improvement: eat more of this, eat less of that, run more, workout regularly, reading and writing schedules, smoke less or quit; and on and on. Sometimes I offer exhortations or admonitions to myself. These blueprints for a new me occur with some regularity; they represent a recurring concern of mine.

Those concerns and the ways in which I negotiate with them persist.

I still make lists of plans, I still draw up schedules of work and abstinence; I’m still struggling. Now, you can find the blueprints I speak of in my hard drive, tucked away into files; I don’t scribble them anymore.  But I continue to obsess over how I can get over this weakness, this flaw, this thing that is ‘holding me back’; I continue to obsess over how I can ‘change’ and ‘improve’ and be ‘better.’ When I see my notebooks, I see that I’m fighting many of the same battles that I used to fight back then; against distraction, anxiety, lack of discipline in my personal habits, in my ‘work ethic.’ I used to dream of transcending these, of moving on; it seems like I still am. Perhaps battles that have been waged this long are indicators of persistent failure on my part, a depressing thought at the best of times.

I’ve often written on this blog about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; perhaps talk of ‘self-improvement’ is a sham, a distracting disturbance that does not allow us to become truly comfortable with, and accepting of, ourselves. Perhaps we have not reconciled ourselves to who we are. But perhaps that’s who I am, the kind of person who will always be obsessed with making these kinds of changes and ‘improvements,’ who will never make them, or never in the way that I want, but yet never accept ‘defeat’ or ‘get the hint.’ In that case, perhaps the best way for me to accept who I am, to ‘become who you are!‘ is to not disdain this activity of constantly plotting and scheming to escape myself. To engage in it is to be me.

A Familiar Sight, Both Pleasurable And Reassuring

My family and I have gone hiking on several occasions. While on them, a general pattern emerges–I normally walk ahead of my wife and daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, though she did walk for some short stints, at most times my wife carried her on her back in an Ergo carrier; now my daughter walks on by herself for the entire trail. In the ‘old days,’ my daughter often required some persuasion to continue; such persuasion was more charitably and kindly dispensed by my wife; as such, she became the primary caretaker during a hike. Moreover, because my daughter would not let me carry her, a straightforward manifestation of her preference of her mother’s caretaking, my wife also became the primary carrier and beast of burden. (Her child-carrying feats evoked many cries of admiration from fellow hikers who were battling the switchbacks in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the summer of 2015; my daughter was then three and a half years old, and weighed in at a hefty thirty-five pounds.)

And so, on the trail, we set off together, but a gap slowly emerges between the two ‘groups.’ As it grows, I stop to let my companions catch up; sometimes I cannot even hear their voices behind me, and though the silences and the calm of the woods and the slopes are especially calming and thought-provoking, I still hanker for the familiar pleasures of hearing my wife and my child talking to each other. Somewhere deep within me is buried the fear that we will lose each other; that my wife and daughter will wander off into some cul-de-sac; that the prudent thing for me to do is to continue to provide them close company. So I cease motion; I take off my backpack, and rest on a boulder or tree stump. I look back along the trail, waiting for them to hove into view. If the gap has grown, it may take a minute or two before I can hear them again; it certainly takes a while before I can spot them again. Sometimes they are obscured by the woods; sometimes by the curvature and the bends and twists and turns of the landscapes.

Then, finally, as I hear my daughter’s high-pitched voice grows louder, I see them emerge from the woods, make the turn around the bend, up the path, through the trees. They see me, and our expressions light up in unison; we are happy and, yes, relieved to see each other. Sometimes, having spotted them, I move on; sometimes, we all stop for a break. We swap stories of what we have seen and heard; we know we move through the same landscape but our experiences are quite different.

It never gets old; that complex feeling, when I see my wife and daughter reappear, of a quiet happiness tempered with a relief that has grown in response to the tiniest of terrors. Here, in the wilderness, we are happy to be with each other again–even if only momentarily separated. We realize, thanks to that particular and peculiar reminder that only the wilderness can provide, of just how much we mean to each other.

Historical Amnesia And Stasis In Political Action

Over on his blog, and on his Facebook page, in response to a series of repeated claims stressing the uniquely dysfunctional and authoritarian nature of the present administration¹, Corey Robin has often made remarks which echo the sentiments expressed in the following:

We have a culture in this country that is relentlessly, furiously, ferociously, anti-historical. Whatever we’re going through, it’s always unprecedented. [on Facebook status]

The flip side of the ‘anti-historical’ regarding of one’s particular moment in time as being ‘unprecedented’ of course is a corresponding desire to believe that we are living through a historical moment–one that will be regarded as ‘historical’ by those who follow. The ‘anti-historical’ impulse is only directed at the past; for the present the impulse is  most definitely one that would like to write it, and crucially, oneself, into history. After all, what better way to make meaningful our lives, to grant them more significance, than to believe that the present moment is truly ab initio, bringing something to life ex nihilio? Put this way, political amnesia about the past becomes understandable as a kind of grasping for significance in the present, a refusal to believe that there can be meaningful novelty in the familiar–the study of whose particulars is likely to be far more revealing and edificatory than the hasty scramble to award it medals for novelty.

(A related, possibly converse, instance of this yearning was visible in the media reactions to La Affaire Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton–as it broke in early 1998. Those hyperbolic reactions made clear that Watergate had indeed cast a long shadow–especially as its associated mythology had anointed some ‘select’ members of the press as those who had ‘brought the administration down.’ Now, another possibly historical moment was upon the Republic and its ‘media corps’; which member of the media would ‘go down in history’ as the one who had broken the story, reported it to the nation, and finally, supervised the abdication of the old king and the coronation of the new one? Please dear God, let this happen on my watch; let me be written into the history books. Let me elevate the world-historical significance of this moment; in that act lies the existential redemption of my life.)

Thus a curious paradox of political action and resistance in the current moment: because we are so willing to grant novelty to the present, we confess ourselves puzzled and nonplussed and bewildered, cast astray and adrift. The stasis, in both thought and action, that results should be unsurprising.

Note: In a post on the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, I had noted:

Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is…extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump.