By Outis Philalithopoulos, who met an untimely end five years ago, and now “wears the chains he forged in life” as an economist.
In our story so far, a cyclops challenged Outis to discover possibly inconvenient truths about liberalism, and proposed the help of three Spirits.
Through the gloom, there sounded the deep, hollow, melancholy note of a bell.
I turned, and there stood a strange figure. It seemed rather aged, and yet the face, and the smooth, hairless head, had not a wrinkle in it. The arms were very long and muscular, and the feet were bare.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” I asked.
He spoke with a French accent, in a voice that was even and clear.
“Who and what are you?” I demanded.
“I am the Ghost of Liberalism Past. My name is Michel Foucault.”
“Oh,” I said. “Should I know that name?”
“What?” the Spirit exclaimed, with a flash of pride. Then he sighed.
“I suppose,” he said, “it is better if my phantom no longer casts its shadow upon the world, as if I were some sort of great Astrologer surveying an atemporal sky, telling people what is good and what is not.”
“But you were famous?” I asked, feeling bad that I had hurt his feelings.
“Oh, sure,” he said with a trace of self-mockery. “Noam Chomsky once said that he had ‘never met anyone who was so totally amoral.’ I tried to teach people about madness, medicine, and sexuality, but most wrote me off as this radical anarchist with an absolute hatred of power.”
“And that wasn’t true?”
“No!” he exclaimed. “Power is not always repressive.”
I struggled to understand. “By power, do you mean government? Or one social group oppressing another?”
“These are only a few particular instances of power,” Foucault explained. “Power is anything that tends to render immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.”
“That sounds kind of… bad,” I replied.
“Listen, listen,” Foucault replied. “How difficult it is! I’m not a prophet. I’m not going to tell people, “This is good for you, this is bad for you!” I try to analyze a real situation in its various complexities, with the goal of allowing refusal, and curiosity, and innovation. Is it clearer, now?”
I shook my head. “I find your world confusing. It’s like there are no points of orientation…”
Foucault gazed at me mildly. “Perhaps, in time…” he murmured. Then he clasped me by the arm. “Rise! And walk with me!”
I took a step – and found myself outside a snowy yard covered in red brick.
“What?” I stammered. “Here is where I wrote my thesis…”
“You remember it, then?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it?” I cried. “I could walk this campus blindfolded.”
“Let us go in, then.”
We walked through the doors of the Kennedy School of Government, into the midst of a boisterous crowd of students. Seconds later, they fell silent, and the president of the Young Democrats announced the speaker. It was Al Franken, presenting his book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.
I hadn’t heard Franken’s name in a while, but something tugged at my memory. I looked questioningly at Foucault.
“1996,” was his only response, as laughter echoed from the audience. Franken had begun speaking.
I soon found myself nodding along with Franken’s words. Franken pointed out that Limbaugh had “tapped into the resentments of the ‘angry white male,’” mentioning his “studio audience of rabid – but extraordinarily straight-laced – right-wing yahoos.” He went on to talk about some of the crazy religious people he had met while touring the country.
“By now, you may be thinking I’m showing an anti-Christian bias,” Franken suggested, grinning. “Nonsense! Need I remind you that I married a Roman Catholic, whom I met in college, despoiled and then convinced to renounce the Pope?”
The crowd roared with laughter. I joined them, although something about that word “despoiled” rubbed me the wrong way. Franken added that Limbaugh believes feminists think all heterosexual sex is rape.
“The thing is,” Franken said, “I know a lot of women, almost all of whom consider themselves feminists, and I know of only one who actually holds this belief. And we’ve been married nearly twenty years.”
As the room rocked with laughter, my jaw dropped. Making light of the victims of marital rape? What was Franken’s problem?
Franken said that at one point, when Limbaugh had not been famous, he had been so poor that his wife had made him go file for unemployment. Franken addressed Limbaugh directly.
“I swear, you must be the biggest pussy on God’s green Earth. My God, you are a sad, sad creature, aren’t you? Sort of a she-male?”
I was sure Franken was right and Limbaugh was a horrible person, but how could he not see how problematic his statements were? Reinforcing gender normativity? Negative references to female anatomy? Why wasn’t anyone in the audience besides me concerned?
Most likely people were concerned, but felt too marginalized to say anything.
Franken had meanwhile moved on to the big picture. What was the fundamental issue with guys like Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson?
“You know what I dislike most about these guys? They’re always so certain. They’re always 100 percent sure of what they’re saying.” He paused for a split second. “This is why I like being a Democrat. When we see a complicated, intractable problem, we have the only really genuine, authentic human reaction you can have: we’re confused.”
I stared at Foucault. When Allan Bloom had claimed that liberals are terrified of people who think they are right, I had assumed he was describing a colony on Neptune. Maybe he was instead talking about people like Franken and Foucault. Foucault smiled back at me.
Franken started to discuss various controversial issues.
President Clinton’s crime bill paid for a lot of new prisons, and that’s good.
I have no problem frying a murderer. In some cases I’d even waive the cruel-and-unusual punishment. That is, as long as we know we have the right guy.
Right. What kind of progressive/liberal was this guy, anyway? Wait, what was that about a “national Ponzi scheme currently scheduled to implode in a spectacular fiscal nightmare”?
Pete Peterson, a co-founder of the Concord Coalition, did hit a home run with a very sobering speech about what will happen if we don’t reform social security.
Franken talked about watching Pat Buchanan speak to members of the Reform Party. He counted six standing ovations, “although it’s hard to count when you’re cowering under your seat.” The biggest ovations had come on the crowd’s “red meat issues,” such as NAFTA and the 1995 Mexican bank bailout, on which Buchanan had said:
Politicians of both parties sold us out in Washington, D.C. They took Citibank and Chase Manhattan and J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off the hook, and they put us on. Well, […] when I get to the White House, NAFTA will be canceled!
To me, the speech sounded like something Matt Taibbi would say. Why did it frighten Franken so much?
An uncomfortable subject that’s not discussed enough is black on black crime. Jesse Jackson had the courage to talk about it in terms that most people can identify with. He said it pains him that when he’s walking down the street at night and hears footsteps, he’s relieved if it’s a white man and not a black man. I know exactly what he means. I was leaving NBC late one night and heard some footsteps. When I turned around, I saw it was Jesse Jackson, and it scared the living daylights out of me!
The audience thought this was hysterical. Why hadn’t the real progressives organized to deplatform this guy?
Franken returned to the topic of anti-establishment, anti-free trade Americans in his final windup.
Some of them were crackpots, sure. But I thought about Hank from Michigan, a retired autoworker who was worried about jobs moving overseas. I thought about Louise from Washington state, who was scared for her children because wages for non-college graduates have fallen 20 percent in the last twenty years.
I thought about how our political system appeals to the worst, not the best, in us. And I thought about this book.
Maybe, I thought, I’m on the wrong track. Maybe I’m sowing the very seeds of distrust that I so decry. Perhaps, I thought, I should throw away the 200-plus pages of cheap, tawdry, mean-spirited (yet accurate) bile, and start over on a book whose humor heals rather than wounds.
Then, as we flew over Manhattan, it occurred to me that my book was due in a week. Then we flew over my daughter’s private school. And then my son’s orthodontist. Followed by the bank that holds the mortgage on my apartment.
And as the plane banked its wings, a stream of light pierced the window, bathing my face in the orange glow of the sun setting over the American continent. And I thought to myself, “You know, Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot.”
“He sells out his principles to maintain his cushy lifestyle and then brags about it?” I wondered incredulously, as laughter and applause reverberated around me. “Allez, viens,” Foucault said, beckoning.
A long line of students waited to talk with Franken, who beamed and autographed copies of his book. A rather earnest-looking young man and woman were walking towards us.
“Did you like it, Outis?” she asked with an accent a bit like Foucault’s.
“It was hilarious,” the young man said. “But Corinne, did you…”
“Yes, it was good,” she said. “Rush Limbaugh really is a negative person and it’s scary that there are so many insane people in your country. But…”
“Oh, yes,” said the young Outis. “The talk over in your department…”
“I know you’re not thrilled about it,” Corinne began.
Outis said, “The way they talk…”
Corinne completed the thought. “It can be hard to understand. And honestly…” and her voice lowered, as if she were afraid of being overheard, “a lot of postmodernist scholars are just BS artists who spout the jargon to get good jobs.”
The young Outis nodded. Corinne continued with some passion. “But sometimes people just use that as an excuse not to listen to the important things they say. And this speaker’s different.”
“I suppose she’s not very well known…?”
Corinne eyes danced. “Well, you are an economist…”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete illiterate,” Outis shot back. “Come on, I’m familiar with a lot of postmodernists – Derrida, Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, Edward Said…”
“But you’ve never heard of her,” Corinne finished. “Well, maybe she isn’t as chic as some of the others, but she’s very smart – and clearer than most of them.”
“Sure,” Outis said uncertainly.
Outis took on what he doubtless assumed was a cunning expression. “I’d be more excited to go if afterward we slip out for a walk down the Charles.”
She smiled cunningly back at him.
I looked desperately at Foucault. “Spirit,” I cried. “Show me no more!”
* * *
In the next episode, Outis becomes more certain that postmodernist liberalism was not a myth after all.
Sources: For Foucault, see this interview. At one point, the interviewer remarks, “I have to admit, I find myself a bit lost, without points of orientation, in your world […]” All Franken statements are verbatim quotes from Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (1996).
Speaking of Pat Buchanan, he’s actually sounding pretty mellow these days:
Only if it means Mutual Assured Destruction for both wings of the Depublicrat duopoly.
Like when ol’ Bob Livingston (R-La) blew hisself up during the televised Clinton impeachment hearing.
That was one of the great moments in American government! :-)
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, regardless of who wins the presidential election, we’re in for a level of dysfunction, obstruction, and sabotage in Washington that’ll make the Obama years look downright civil.
Good stuff Outis although I thought Franken’s joke about his wife was kinda funny. Worth pointing out that Limbaugh claims everything he says is also humor and sometimes that may even be true. Liberals are perfect examples of Mel Brooks’ comedy dictum. If you walk down the street and fall into an open manhole–hilarious! If I get a tiny paper cut on my little finger–a tragedy! They need to buck up.
Interesting: Camille Paglia has been criticizing Foucault for years. Yet she is beyond the pale. May be time for some reassessment of her work. I thought that Sexual Personae was remarkable. 1990. Wow. We’re back in Outis’s memories.
Stealing from Wikipedia: “In the book Paglia argues that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian or chthonic aspect, especially in regard to sexuality. Culture and civilization are created by men and represent an attempt to contain that force. Women are powerful, too, but as natural forces, and both marriage and religion are means to contain chaotic forces.”
Containing and managing chaos is impossible. All that does is change it, and generally make the result worse.
For example: Try to catch a falling plate, hit it instead of catching it and break a window. Now you have a broken plate and a broken window.
Don’t you just love Paglia’s originality? Why, she could have quoted the whole thing from Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud himself was quoting from Plato, most of the time, but at least he knew it.
Freud was a great, readable writer. The above-mentioned book, and “The Future of An Illusion,” concerning common notions of divinity, are on the required reading list of Educated Humans (TM). That makes it all the more juicy that pompous blowhards like Harold Bloom talk about the latter book as a failure. Talk about Cointelpro–foolish or invidious, it’s your call.
The SJW stuff has always had a strong whiff of COINTELPRO about it for me.
For all the wailing about how students can’t handle different viewpoints, the current crop really isn’t that different from the ones who preceded them. The nonsense is all coming from their erstwhile “protectors”.
And all the while, anthropology is being systematically destroyed as a discipline, and the corporate world is plowing under local cultures the world over. Straining out gnats and swallowing camels…
I think this makes sense – but for the sake of clarity, who exactly do you mean by “protectors”? Also, can you say a little more about the destruction of anthropology?
In the Foucault interview cited at the end of your analysis he seems to endorse a proceduralist concept of Liberalism when he states: “Let’s change the game. Let’s say that the intellectuals will no longer have the role of saying what is the good. Then it will be up to the people themselves basing their judgment on the various analysis of reality….to work or behave spontaneously so that they can define for themselves what is good for them.”
Foucault seems, in this statement, to endorse a type of liberal proceduralism geared toward sustaining an instrumentalized, subordinate relationship between the private sphere and the public sphere where the individual can engage in a type of self-enactment in society, which can supposedly deepen his own individuality and responsibility.
This type of proceduralism endorses movement over substance. It endorses uncertainty over certainty and challenges our contemporary politics (across the political spectrum) which seems more intoxicated with the necessity of certainty than ever before.
A problem for the Left is that in real world politics they have tended to default to the intellectuals and the state for definitions of the common good when perhaps they need to look more closely at procedure as a way out of this crisis.
What if liberalism is really institutionalized skepticism?
As usual, you make interesting points. When you say our contemporary politics “seems more intoxicated with the necessity of certainty than ever before,” I think this is correct, and this theme will continue to recur in the series.
Maybe am reading Foucault a little differently than you – I’m not sure if he’s endorsing proceduralism as the means although I think your description of his ends is reasonable. Foucault seems to have hoped for a change in perception about the role of the intellectual, so that people would start to see ideas more as intersubjective constructions and less as preexisting Platonic ideals.
The strange thing is that a lot of Foucault’s historical work involves looking at the interaction between procedures and ideas, so you might think that he would have come up with ideas about how procedures could reinforce the ideals he supported. But I don’t know of examples of him trying to do this.
Jim, the quote you refer to, at least outside of any larger context, reminds me of existentialism.
Personal interpretation of reality, self definition & spontaneity are all important aspects of existentialism & the search for individual authenticity & autonomy.
Conservatism is institutionalize skepticism.
so far Outis has it a lot easier than Dante
That was some harsh shlt Dante saw. I wonder if he had Xanax. Probably not.
he just cruised along, frankly, as if he was uninvolved in the metaphysical reality of his surroundings. Even Virgil was sort of low key. What is it with those Romans anyway? Were they all Mr. Cool. Probaably not. Not what’s his hame — Cicero and the other dude, the Senator he denounced. I forgot but it’s on the internet, that’s for sure. The speeches. Whaat a life! Making speeches and then getting your throat cut.
They would make impassioned speeches, but Dante just sort of watched and took it all in.
If Outis doesn’t get ffreaked out, this may not be believable. Is this just somebody’s creative writing or is it real? If it’s real, then there should be some screaming and throwing thing. hahahah
“the other dude, the Senator he denounced”: Catiline?
Senator could be Mark Antony ? Certainly Cicero’s vicious diatribes against Antony lead directly to his death. Antonius HATED Cicero.(Antony demanded Cicero’s death as part of the Second trivimarate (sp) deal between himself, Octavian & Lipidus)
Well, Dante’s persona. IIRC, the real-life Dante has highly political, and the Inferno was used to settle some political scores,
I never read Foucault as being particularly enamored with liberalism. THE BIRTH OF BIOPOLITlCS is a series of speeches he gave shredding liberalism in it’s current iteration. Full work can be read here: https://1000littlehammers.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/birth_of_biopolitics.pdf
Below is a passage I liked… but the whole work could almost be summed up with Because Markets, Go Die. Emphasis mine.
Thank you for the quote! Really informative! Like the entire post…makes much, much sense to me.
I’m glad you present Foucault’s views fairly (though I agree that he’s a strange person to associate with Liberalism). But towards the end of his life Foucault became increasingly unhappy with those who thought (especially from English translations of variable quality) that he was simply interpreting the whole world as patterns of endless submission and domination. He tried to correct this in the Collège de France lectures in the 1970s, from which, if I remember rightly, the extract quoted above comes. He emphasized several times that power could be positive and even benevolent – without it, nothing would ever get done.
It’s important to remember that “pouvoir” in French, especially as a verb, has a much wider range of meanings than “power” in English. It’s root meaning is really “the ability to do something”. So you can say “j’ai pu passer un weekend à New York” – I was able to spend a weekend in New York – for example, without oppressing anyone else.