Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ironic Threats: A Look At The Left

(Note: I plan to come back to this and add the sources, but I think you can find most of these quotes very quickly with a Google search.)

It may just be the hunter/gatherer in me trying to spot the stripes on the tiger before it eats me, but I'm confident there is something of a pattern to the way the Western press (and perhaps others as well) deal with ideological threats. I have only a few direct examples, but technology today allows another interesting way to approach this, which I'll get to later on in this post.

The first example is an opinion piece written by one Flora Lewis on the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. She reported how he conceptualized society as having the "civil" and the "political" realms, and considered it ironic that a Communist, or perhaps a jailed Communist, should be the one to "bring the notion into modern political usage." She then went on to excoriate his descriptions of American society by paraphrasing the 10th Amendment:

The American experience offers little help in analyzing the dilemma because Americans started with a different concept of the state. Gramsci got the U.S. approach all wrong. He said it hadn't ''emerged from the economic-corporate phase which Europe passed through in the Middle Ages - in other words [ it ] has not yet created a conception of the world or a group of great intellectuals to lead the people within the ambit of civil society.''

He failed to see that in the American concept, society reserves for itself all that is not expressly delegated to the state, not the other way around. Government is to be defined by its limits; it has only the powers conceded to it.

This is only half true. The 10th Amendment states that the powers are to be given either to the state governments or the people.

I'm going to stop here to say that I hope to get through all my examples before I attempt to deconstruct the disagreement, for the sake of coherence. However, I'd like to come back to this article later because I feel the same way about Lewis as she feels about Gramsci, and I think I understand her about the same as she does him. When I understand it more, I'll post about it.

The next example also involves the New York Times, and another prominent leftist: Emma Goldman. As described in the book Emma Goldman: Life in Exile, she denounced Bolshevism as "rotten" and 

the American press reveled in reports about her disillusionment; [...] the New York Times, for example, regularly printed squibs about her alleged change of heart, while gloating editorially that "it does add a bitter vividness to our conception of the horrors of the dictated proletariat to think that even she finds them intolerable."

Though the word never appears, it's probably safe to say that we are to understand that it is the irony of her statement that adds the "vividness... of the horrors of the dictated proletariat." This treatment was enough for her to warn her friend "not to believe what she read in the newspapers." It is not mentioned in the book whether the Times was polite enough to note that she had the chance to witness the horrors because of the U.S. government's policy of deporting radicals.

Gramsci's alleged failure to see the true workings of American society and Goldman's descriptions as mere additions to "vividness" of a picture that was already known suggest an unspoken rule that reporting leftist's opinions as ironic and incomplete is preferable to calling it truth.

I have one more example of this. Relatively recently, The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg, a man A Tiny Revolution's Jonathan Schwarz calls "America's preeminent propagandist," interviewed Fidel Castro. He told Goldberg that even his model was not enough to deal with the situation at hand, that Iran was not to be expected to back down, and that he was not given much more than anti-Semitic opinions as a description of the Jewish religion as a child. It seemed that one of the most notorious "Latin" Communists had just denounced Communism and taken the side of the Jews (that's a weirdly worded sentence, it is not as severe as it first seems). This prompted "surprise" from the Jerusalem Post, and widespread gloating in the rest of the press, causing Castro to comment further that Goldberg missed the irony of his remarks. It was not that capitalism will save us, he said, but that capitalism is so destructive, it will take more than the Cuban model to save humanity.

If these examples don't at least hint at a stark divide in ideology and a petty game of one-upsmanship, then I really don't have anything to say. But I see that here. What I think we are witnessing, dare I say  ironically, is cultural hegemony in practice. Seeing a threat as ironic allows one to see humor, and therefore to not be afraid. Laughing at others, and even oneself, can be seen as an expression of superiority.

I'd like to finally get to the other way to look at this rule -- using the Google News Archive timeline-search function. Adding "ironic" to "communist" and  "terrorist" highlights certain times of ideological upheaval in the West. You can see the Red Scares and Reagan's presidency lining up with "communist" and his declaration of the "war" against terrorism, the First Gulf War and the World Trade Center attacks prompting the understanding of that particular threat as ironic as well. On top of that, it seems that the term actually highlights these dates much more than the ideological labels by themselves. The task at hand, along with understanding these differences of opinion, might be to anticipate who the next bogeymen will be. It will be easy -- just look for someone being called ironic.

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