Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Politics of Cool Redux

I have a piece on AlterNet today about the reception of Markos Moulitsas's American Taliban.

This isn't a straightforward comment on California culture (though Markos and Daily Kos work out of Berkeley). I mention it here because many Californians may not realize that what counts as rhetorical success in liberal circles can be a resounding defeat in socially conservative ones.

I learned this while teaching in Texas, where I first heard that intellectuals were people "educated beyond their intelligence." That's why the whole pass-the-biscuits thing is so popular in Texas politics; any sign of sophistication is grounds for immediate suspicion.

This cultural difference is laid out nicely by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth (Princeton U.P., 1996). They contrast classic style and plain style, whose model scene is a congregation, not a debating society. Totally different language games.

I know that many liberals dislike polemics like American Taliban--they test the classic liberal virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and good temper. But as I argue in the piece, if we renounce polemic, and conservatives reject reasoned debate and regard political compromise as a spiritual sell-out, we're pretty much left with satire--not the greatest bulwark against passionate (but poorly informed) moral crusaders.

Another option is to cast our politics in religious terms. Let's call this the Jim Wallis strategy. I don't have a problem with that, but I think many liberals do.


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