GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 23, 2006


Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:30 pm

I assume none of us Generative Anthropologists would assert that the “Jersey Girls” are enjoying to an unprecedented degree their husbands’ deaths; or, to take an earlier example, that Timothy McVeigh should have targeted the New York Times building.  However, a rather prominent Generative Anthropologist did characterize the 2004 Presidential election as a contest between two religions:  on the one hand, Evangelical Christianity; on the other hand, the religion of White Guilt.  In that case, shouldn’t Ann Coulter’s insight that modern liberalism is in fact a religion, with its dogmas, its rites, its saints, its doctrine of infallibility, etc., not to mention her fearless broaching of decadent liberalism’s reliance upon generating new forms of victimary status (even the poor John Kerry, “swiftboated” mercilessly, is a kind of victim, whose testimony attains a kind of infallibility as the Republicans continue to “swiftboat” others), make her, at least, an honorary Generative Anthropologist?  In fact, isn’t she doing fieldwork?

Coulter’s contribution to GA might be to remind us of the continued presence (indeed, the ineradicability) of the sacred–if we don’t explicitly acknowledge it, it will simply continue to morph into heretical and self-denying forms.  Even more, though, she reminds us modern rationalists that the real way to fight a religion is not to “argue” with it or provide a more plausible view of the world; far more effective is acts of sustained and egregious desecration.  Once you break the most solemn taboo, and nothing happens, what’s left?  If you call the victim’s bluff (ultimately, the victim of normative American Christian, national culture), and hordes of suburban McCarthyite lynch mobs don’t descend on the homes of gay couples and “peace activists” with “Protect the Bill of Rights:  Impeach Bush” signs on their lawn, the weakening of the taboo accelerates with each subsequent violation.  Unless the sacrality at stake has significant reserves in the reliance upon it of crucial social institutions.  All liberalism has is the resource of those who can plausibly present themselves as victims in a sustained way, and that resource is running out quickly.  A few days ago, on the Today Show, a relative of one of those American soldiers brutally tortured, murdered and desecrated by terrorists in Iraq blamed the U.S. for not paying a ransom for them out of some “ransom fund” we should presumably have been accumulating out of Saddam Hussein’s former assets to distribute to terrorists world wide.  I can’t imagine where he got the idea, but it certainly fit the pattern of family members of people killed in the war (Cindy Sheehan, Michael Berg, etc.) becoming walking talking points of the far left.  And this was too much even for Matt Lauer.  The victimary game, in other words, has become grotesque–Coulter’s timing couldn’t be better.

The only remaining question for us is whether Coulter’s practice of desecration spreads beyond her initial targets into the egalitarian precepts of the sacred center we ourselves revere.  I haven’t read the book, just Chapter 1 on and several reviews, so I can’t really say, even though nothing I have seen or heard concerns me in that regard.  It seems to me that part of her purpose is to test conservatives as well–let’s see, in other words, who seeks to dissociate themselves, who says “she makes some good points, but this is just too much!,” etc.?  If you read the article by Steyn in the link in  the preceding post, you can see that even he is a bit uncomfortable. 

It seems to me that this provides us with a good opportunity to carry out a more minimal mode of desecration.  Part of the functioning of victimary discourse is to discredit individuals by parading “outrageous” statements or “lies” that place them beyond some ill-defined “pale.”  There’s nothing wrong with such pales, as long as we can explain where we put them and why, but the purpose of the victimary is to stigmatize lines of argument that would otherwise sound quite reasonable.  It’s true that we shouldn’t listen to Nazis even when they make reasonable proposals about health care; the victimary exploits this by constantly testing who you can get away with calling a Nazi; and, then, once you’ve applied the label, fighting like hell to make sure it sticks and, further, is applied to anyone seeking to remove it.  Part of the reason for the focus on Bush’s “lies,” for example, is to place a sticker on everything he and anyone supporting him says marked “probable lie”–if other criteria were introduced, it would complicate things.  After all, invading Iraq might have been a good idea even if Bush had lied about some things.  Discrediting someone from the standpoint of the self-policing norms of the media and the academy cuts off such a line of thought and kills it–the liar is simply altogether unworthy, and allowing yourself to take seriously anything they say is to become a “stooge” or “dupe.”  There would be something rather “radical’ as well as “centrist” in calmly sorting out what one agrees with in Coulter’s book, what one rejects, what needs a bit more support, etc. and equally calmly rejecting all demands that one “denounce” her or place her at some “distance” from all good, civil people.  For now, at least, let’s raise the standards for ritual expulsion from the public sphere and let future events guide us in adjusting those standards.


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