Saturday, November 15, 2008

"As Long As I Can Have The Panda..."

Several things come out of this conversation between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly. One is that my crush on Jon Stewart continues unabated. I love this:
"The tradition in America is a progression of individual freedoms. You know what the tradition of America would say? Gay marriage is the next step in the progression. That's the tradition of America. You're misrepresenting the tradition."
What also crystalized for me is how there is often a game of 'chicken' in these matters. It is what bothers me about the cry of identity politics. And it is what bothers me about Bill O'Reilly's statement, "The problem with you is you see it through a prism-", to which Jon Stewart adroitly responded, "Of rational thought!" The problem with the prism statement is this: we all have our prisms. One of my English teachers in high school continually said, "Half of what you get out of a piece of literature is what the author put in it; the other half is what you bring to it". And it is true for many things in life, and not just literature. No one in this world is wholly and completely unbiased, objective, or rational. We all come to the table through our unique, and sometimes contradictory, prisms. The issue is not that we have them. The issue is the game we all play toward objectivity, and the meme that states objectivity is not only key but also obtainable. That position grants whomever claims that the other side is playing into identity politics or seeing the world through whatever prism perceived objectivity. They immediately get, even without meaning to, the high ground - because they were objective enough to recognize someone else's experience. This becomes a problem, especially with matters of gender and politics.

It becomes a problem with gender because men have, historically, been seen as the more unemotional, objective gender. Women were (and are) seen as emotional, irrational, and unable to reach that objectivity needed to truly and competently and rationally comprehend and debate matters of importance. One needs to look no farther than this election to see that. There were plenty of sniping about Hillary Clinton's menopause, but nary a hint that, at 47, Obama may suddenly be hit with a midlife crisis and decide that instead of being president of the United States, he would like to try his hand at raising Alpacas. This is a problem; that isn't to say that those who state identity politics may play a part in someone's candidate of choice is out and out wrong. But without an acknowledgement of one's own personal prism, the announcement that A likes C because of a mutual B comes across as something else entirely. The conversation shifts to A's defense or repudiation of B or the liking of C. This comes across in this interview. Bill O'Reilly obviously comes to the conversation through less than objective means. He has his own biases, his own experiences, and his own vision that color and influence how he perceives the world around him. But that is ignored; whitewashed. There is no problem with Bill O'Reilly; the problem lays wholly with Jon Stewart, and the fact that Jon Stewart sees it through a prism. The implicit statement is that since the problem is that Jon Stewart sees the situation through a prism, Bill O'Reilly and other right-thinking people do not. And it would be the same even if we cut out the word problem, if the statement were merely, "You see it through a prism", because that once again implies that Bill O'Reilly does not.

Identity politics and personal prisms can be discussed on an intellectual level; the idea of an objectiveless world, a world without any Truths with a capital T - or if there are, the inability to properly perceive them without any perversion - is one we need to seriously consider. But I question the importance, or even the relevance, of claiming someone comes to a stance based on identity politics or even declaring that someone comes to the table via a prism because that, to me, is like pointing out to someone that they have skin. We can (and should) discuss what that prism means and whether or not the opinions and stances taken through it are right or the correct course of action; the pros of preventative suntan lotion versus the corrective care of aloe, in keeping with the skin metaphor. But declaring that someone has one seems banal and mundane and more than a little condescending, even if that person is willing to admit their own prism in turn. Because that first person may have misidentified why A likes C.  It may not be because of a mutual B at all, but because C has Z. After all, Jon Stewart may not feel this way because he lives in Greenwich Village or because he's a 5'7" Jew, but because of some other reason. There are liberal-leaning people even in Alabama, and Bill seems to not consider that. At the very least, Jon Stewart's political leanings may be what keep him in Greenwich Village, instead of packing up and moving to Sarah Palin's so-called "real" America.

The complexity of identities and of what makes a prism are generally ignored in these conversations. It gets boiled down to the base and readily visible components of race or gender - or, in the case of Bill O'Reilly, geographical location. And that is as aggravating as it is understandable, because we live in a soundbite culture and identity and one's prism can largely be influenced by a product of unconscious and indescribable impulses. Because identity may be one of the keys to a person's decisions, but what goes into how that person identifies is remarkably complex. Take, for instance, the first hour of the 11/13 Talk of the Nation podcast, with Andrea Seabrook and Dawn Turner Trice; they discussed how many white Americans claimed to personally identify with Barack Obama. That is obviously a kind of identity politics, and it could come down to, if it were mostly white men saying it, gender. But the question of what kind of identity politics came into play in this sort of instance harkens to that idea of a more complex formation of identity than the usual emblems of this declaration usually do. And that is important. Is identity politics a catch-all? Are you engaged in identity politics if you identify with the philosophy of someone's tax plan? In many cases and in many situations, identity politics is used as a disparaging assessment of support; and if we are to truly give IP its due, we have to both acknowledge its historic negative uses and what wisdom it can generate, if properly used, in the future.

There were two other aspects of this interview that really caught my attention, and since this post has gotten burdensomely long for anyone reading, I'll highlight them quickly. One is this: "The right in this country has got this mythology pinned down that... ...being religious means you're good. It doesn't mean you're good. It just means you go to church." Right on, Jon Stewart. I have often been somewhat insulted by the injection of religion into the litmus test politicians must endure. In order to be elected to public office in this country, one must be religious - and outwardly so. Hell, Elizabeth Dole's reelection campaign put out an ad asserting that Kay Hagan took "Godless money", and insinuated that she was in the atheist interest group's pockets, and a potential atheist herself. Kay Hagan, being a Sunday School teacher, was dismissive of the ad and confirmed that she was not an atheist. But if she had been, she would have never had a chance in national politics. And that is rather disheartening to me. It is just one more way in which Barack Obama, a religious man who lists the Bible as the most influential book in his life, is so not a victory for the truly secular left and still represents the tight grip of religiosity in American political life. And while religiousness is not a bad thing, the idea that the absence of religiousness is bad is very much a negative aspect of American life.

The other thing is the title of this post. I find it to be rather representative of a couple of things: one, the ridiculousness of labels, especially ill-fitting ones; and two, the dismal state of education in our country. Bill needs to get back to school, or visit a zoo or something if he thinks that teddy bear was a panda.

Editing to add Keith Olbermann's response to the panda/teddy bear mix up, largely because he has cute and seemingly cuddly baby panda bears on video to demonstrate the difference (and who among us can resist adorable baby pandas?):


John said...

I think the part that really made me laugh was when Bill O'Reilly said that Greenwich Village isn't a diverse community! He might've meant in terms of the way they vote, but it's still a pretty ridiculous statement. Almost as bad as the Panda notion, which seems like a very "the sky is green, and you're crazy if you think it's not" sort of notion.

Okay, so let's say I wanted to put an end to identity politics, starting with my own. That would mean that I could no longer vote for anyone who is white, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, young, thin, left-handed or agnostic unless both candidates have the same trait(s). Wouldn't that decide my vote for me just as arbitrarily as "playing into" identity politics? And what do I do when it's a black man versus a white woman, as it was in the democratic primaries? Which aspect of my identity am I allowing to influence my decision the most? Must I change my party affiliation just to be able to cast an "objective" vote? After all, I'm not just voting for the candidate I think will look out for my interests, right?

mikhailbakunin said...

John,not voting for someone bacause they're similar to you would be "playing into" identity politics. Identity politics means supporting a candidate (or not) because of their identity - or because of the characteristics associated with their identity.

If I vote for Obama because I want a black president, that's identity politics. If I vote AGAINST John McCain because I don't want another white president, that is also identity politics.

I don't think anyone is completely immune to identity politics - it seems to play a huge role in every election. But I think it was particularly pronounced this time around.

John said...


My point was that if I'm a black man and I want to avoid identity politics, do I have to vote for a white or female candidate since I don't share as many identity traits with him/her?

"I'm voting for McCain/Palin." "Why?" "Because I have less in common with them demographically than Obama/Biden and I don't want anyone saying that my vote has been tainted by identity politics."

In other words, at what point does it stop being identity politics and start being an informed political decision?