clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, June 28, 2004
Last Wednesday I caught Bill Clinton on Charlie Rose. (Direct link to stream: here.) Charlie said that there was always a sense of intelligence about Clinton, and asked, "Were you the smartest guy in the room, or was it something else?" Clinton, after making a self-deprecating remark about being in calculus class with someone who was clearly much smarter than him, said this:

I had a peculiar kind of intelligence, I think, which made me well suited to politics. I knew I had both the intellect and the emotional predisposition to synthesize apparently disconnected events and to be able to put things together. And I believed when I became President I needed to put things together in America and then I needed to construct a vision for a more united world.

Yes. And what does this make him? This makes him, of course, a critic.

Making connections, offering cohesive explanations--these are the things a critic does. And this is one of the reasons I really love politics: the genuine ability to create something from nothing.[1] You are taking these things, a "chaos" as Clinton later goes on to describe them, and by connecting them, you change them.[2] You are writing your vision on the world, and if it's done well, it can be extraordinarily effective.

Politics is the translation of word into deed, of proclamation into force, and while there are all sorts of interesting dynamics going on in making this actually happen (to say nothing of the dynamics of it not happening), this is, at heart, the ultimate purpose of governance: to do something with your words. Politics is criticism by act, of taking your interpretation of events (poverty is the result of insufficient incentives to work v. poverty is the result of structural factors that demand it, for instance) and applying it. The official statement of a viewpoint (that certain guns are assault weapons and others are not, for example; that poverty is defined as making below X dollars per year, for another) actually causes things to happen. We all know that your worldview inevitably effects your actions, and we can see certain ways criticism/art does this to individuals (particularly the creation that is religion, or certain critical interpretations thereof--witness the effect a very particular interpretation of Islam is effecting the world right now), but politics is a literalized version of this.

Maybe it's the post-modernist in me[3], but I really like that, in politics, perception is reality; it sort of neatly sorts out the more messy way this plays out in other arenas. You should only make policy on the basis of facts, of course (which facts can include how likely something is to actually get passed), but actually getting that policy implemented is, as Clinton states above, partly a matter of emotion, of knowing how to present the policy in a way that it will be embraced. And that's OK. If FDR hadn't lied about Social Security, we wouldn't have it today, and I'm comfortable with that. Much of our lives consist of doing things we don't really want to do, and if one or two of those things end of being a great positive collective benefit, then hey! Rock on, Washington.

Of course, like criticism, politics is a conversation; one party[4] offers their interpretation, and this is countered by another. Sometimes policy clashes directly with its criticism and there's a kind of synthesis.

But I'm not just trying to big up politics here, I'm trying to reflect that back onto criticism to show the value that it could have if people took it either more or less seriously--I can't really decide which. But in either case, I think it should be a broader model, a good way of understanding things, and a way of acting. If we can positivize the essential negation of a lot of post-structuralist theory, I think something good could result. But, of course, I could be wrong.

[1] See Hannah Arendt. A bunch of the links here are good. Here is a good summary: "Arendt introduces the idea [of natality] in the course of her attempt to draw out the significance of the ever-present possibility that someone, somewhere, some time might say or do something that makes possible a fresh start in the realm of human affairs." The way she ties this explicitly to Christian morality has a lot of way interesting parallels with, if I recall correctly, the intended conclusion of my and Jason's reading project, Eric Voegelin, and his phrase "immanentizing the eschaton." Natality, not mortality.
[2] This is related to the non-discussion I had below about finding a way out of post-structuralism; OK, we know there's no meaning, but given that meaning can be a positive force, how do we create it effectively?
[3] And for every conservative criticism of the perceived post-modernist worldview (that morals are illusory, that there are no universal standards, generally a confusion w/nihilism) you can find a conservative political act that would presumably make Foucault wet himself.
[4] Har har har.