Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Political Consciousness

What is it about the term “political consciousness” that I dislike so much? I think I first noticed that I hated the term when I realized that the people who asked the question, “When did you become politically conscious?” really meant: “When did you become liberal?” It’s the liberal equivalent of an evangelical asking: “When did you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

This has been my experience. I would be interested to know whether my experience matches others’ experience.

So, what specific reason do I have for disliking the term “political consciousness”? To begin with, the term seems to me to be intimately connected to the ideals of protest, revolt, and outrage. It’s taken to mean that rejection of authority is the sine qua non of growing up. I am not really human unless I am outraged about something. In other words, a good liberal needs to mount the barricades and support the revolution—at least in spirit.

This is an attitude I have to reject in principle. How can it be true that I am not happy unless I am outraged? The two ideas seem to exclude each other. Now, I do not deny the need, in some circumstances, for outrage. However, I cannot base my life on outrage; I will only be unhappy in the end.

My observations are, of course, not original. They first crystallized in my mind when I recently read some of Thomas Manns’ “Reflections of an Apolitical Man.” In one essay, Mann identifies “politicization” as “training for rebellion.” This also bears some relation to Alasdair MacIntyre’s remark in “After Virtue” that democratic discourse today is marred by our obsession with “unmasking” hypocrites, i.e. proving that all authorities are hypocrites. In other words, we only seem to be happy if we are outraged about an authority’s misfeasance.

I have a suspicion, though, that here in America much of this rejection of authority is mere posturing; just as the hypocrite plays a role (υποκριτης), so too does the unmasker. Why do I think this? Just look at all the idiots who wear Che Guevara T-shirts imagining that they’re antiauthoritarian. They revere Che for trying to spread the Communist revolution throughout the world, with absolutely no risk to themselves. They are protected by the most liberal free-speech laws in human history, yet they feel that spouting their support for a murderous thug transforms them into daring transgressors. Their outrage is nothing more than self-indulgence in their alleged moral superiority.

I also dislike the term because it reeks of democratic superciliousness. What do I mean by that? I mean the conceit that we must all be good liberal democrats in order to be good men. This can be traced back to Kant’s idea, found in “What Is Enlightenment?”, that enlightenment is the human race’s coming of age. Until the Age of Enlightenment, mankind had been suffering under the cruel yoke of benighted authority—ecclesial and political. One of the key aspects of our coming of age, therefore, was rejection of traditional authority, thinking for ourselves in matters of religion, and demanding democracy. Kant believed he was helping usher in a new golden age of humanity, when all men would be free and autonomous. In short, Kant maintained a rather questionable philosophy of history.

What can I propose in the stead of “political consciousness”? Do I reject the term outright? No, of course I don’t. There is a time in most people’s lives (including my own) when we start to care much more about politics than we did as children. Unfortunately, though, I only have time for a quick rejoinder, which might come across as a mere “I told you so” argument. Be that as it may…

Any adolescent has to face the question of authority. In that sense it is an essential part of growing up. I would suggest that what we need to do is “grapple” with authority, perhaps in the same way that Jacob “grappled” with the Lord (Gen. 32:23-33). Without confronting authority, we do not know our true place under it. After confronting authority, though, we should prove more humble. I see no reason why I should be forced abandon all authority as a matter of principle merely because of inevitable conflicts with authority.
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