06 December 2011

Columnist tells Americans: Don't wake up!

To be fair, the point Kelly Candaele was trying to make in a Los Angeles Times column that was picked up over the weekend by a local paper was that, contrary to the diatribes of political malcontents across the ideological spectrum, Americans are already quite wide awake. Candaele has apparently grown sick and tired of agitators and ideologues insisting that most Americans are "asleep," -- unaware or willfully ignorant of the control exerted over their lives by manipulative, exploitative elites, be they control-freak politicians or insatiably ruthless corporations. Writing on behalf of the great majority, Candaele, a former movie producer and present professor of communications, takes offense at the notion that most people are "essentially passive recipients of elite manipulation." He finds the notion patronizing, since it "assumes that most of us are simply unable to perceive and thereby act on our own self-interest." The assumption itself is elitist, Candaele claims, since it carries the "paranoid" implication that " only those with access to esoteric knowledge can know 'what's really going on.'"

Candaele touches on a point I've made in the past about conspiracy theorists whose sense of oppression reflects their difficulty coping with complex systems and their desire to be rid of them. Candaele's distinct point, however, is that while complexity is a fact, system is not. The very complexity we all seem to struggle with, he suggests, proves the absence of any system out of the paranoid imagination. The people who seem to be asleep from the vantage point of the paranoid or the conspiracy-monger, he contends, are actually just " liv[ing] their lives as best they can, sorting through the complex claims on their time, their values and their obligations to families and communities. We weigh the costs of action in the political world against the satisfactions and disappointments of working through the dynamics of everyday life"

The problem with Candaele's attitude becomes clear when we see the sweep of his dismissal of anti-"system" thought. He reaches back in time to chide Henry David Thoreau and Eugene V. Debs, while deploring the metaphorically similar rhetoric of Karl Rove, on the right, and Cornel West, on the left. Candaele's implication is that no critique of a "system" is valid, but an even worse implication from the overall tone of the article is that those who question the "complex claims" made on them, those who dare ask who made the claims, or for what purpose, are all paranoid. Whether you're conservative or liberal, libertarian or socialist, you'll get on Candaele's bad side, it seems, the moment you ask why things are the way they are, or why they can't be different. Since the answer to such inquiries could well indict people who benefit from the status quo when things could be changed for the better, that would render you a paranoid elitist in Candaele's eyes. Even doing away with the metaphor that so offends him and saying merely that Americans take too much for granted probably wouldn't change the professor's diagnosis.

I honestly can't tell from his column what Candaele's own political beliefs are, or if he has any, but his attitude is similar to the anti-political conservatism I noted yesterday in George Will's writing. Candaele appears to object to any attempt to think politically about society, to any raising of the possibility that today's "complex claims" aren't all simply historical accidents or unconsciously inevitable trends, to any suggestion that people do more than deal with their own problems. An absolute refusal to question our conditions is really no better than the truly paranoid assumption that every "complex claim" results from a vast systemic conspiracy to make my life miserable. But the sorting out of what may be inescapable from what could be changed requires a willingness to question that is not paranoid but is opposed to the sort of complacency that could be compared fairly, or at least artistically, to slumber.  Maybe Candaele wouldn't disagree with this, but only objects to the metaphor -- but if he expects his protest to still anyone's tongue, he's definitely dreaming.

No comments: