Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reflections on a Catalogue

It’s been a long week here in Our Little Town.

Some of it has been enjoyable – Monday night’s show, for example, as well as my classes this week. I got to spend some time explaining Thomas Malthus to my Western Civ class, and it’s always fun to see how you can get from the simple observations that people have sex, people eat and these two things are connected, to undermining the entire Enlightenment in a few easy steps.

Some of it has not been enjoyable – grading exams, for one thing, which is always a depressing activity (“Is this what gets through to them?”), and the ongoing tempest in a teapot that has roiled our fair Home Campus for the last couple of months. If you think workplace dynamics are strange in your office, try working in a place where half the staff can’t be fired, the other half only has contracts good for sixteen weeks, and nobody is qualified to do anybody else’s job. It makes for some interesting days, in the liberal arts sense of the term – the way that three-headed frogs are, you know, “interesting.”

So last night I decided I needed a break in the action, and settled down with the Edward R. Hamilton catalogue for some “book porn.” The ERH catalog is about a hundred pages of publisher overstocks, remainders and other such detritus of overly optimistic editorial thinking, all priced accordingly and laid out in three columns per page of 6-point type, and I just love going through it, pen in hand, marking out all of the things I would buy if time, money and shelf-space were infinite. I remember to order things only just enough to keep them sending me catalogues, unfortunately, but it’s a great way to spend time and distract myself from the rest of the world.

The books are laid out in categories, though the categories are not in any particular order and sometimes you have to wonder what people were consuming when they decided which categories in which to place certain books. But that’s part of the fun, really – it’s like being in an old-fashioned used book store, where you never know what you’re going to stumble upon in the next shelf down the line.

As you might expect if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, one of my favorite sections is the Politics section. Herein you may find works from both right and left, each peddling their favorite analysis of What Is Wrong With This Country (i.e. views that are not theirs), How To Fix This (i.e. converting or marginalizing such views) and/or What Will Happen At That Point (i.e. peace, love, harmony, and beer flowing from the faucets). It is always worthwhile to see what the other side thinks, and here you can see it all laid out for you, one title at a time.

So I’m scanning through these titles and the pithy little descriptions underneath, and it occurs to me that one of the things uniting the right-wing books is that nearly all of them claim to be “politically incorrect” or to be exposing the lies of “political correctness” or some other variant of that phrase.

Is there anybody to the left of Glenn Beck who still uses the phrase “politically correct” without irony?

I survived graduate school in the liberal arts in the early 90s, so I do remember when the American left (which is rather centrist, compared with other places, but that’s another issue) actually considered that a viable phrase. And at its core it’s a pretty obvious and worthwhile idea – if you stop calling people names, maybe you can learn something from them. But it so quickly got taken into self-parody by its practitioners and (ironically enough) got converted into an epithet itself by its detractors that I really don’t remember the last time I heard anyone use the phrase other than as a way to claim some kind of originality for not being so described.

The fact that this originality is much akin to the car I once saw that had the word “Rebel” neatly stenciled on the side by the factory is yet another issue. There’s a lot of other issues today, apparently.

I think it is odd how the spectre of political correctness is being kept alive by people who need it as a straw man for their own shoddy thinking to knock down long after it died out there in the real world. It’s as if the right wing were still arguing against Social Security or other long-settled issues of the distant past.

Wait, what?


Back to the catalogue for more respite, I suppose.


Unknown said...

"I do remember when the American left (which is rather centrist, compared with other places, but that’s another issue) actually considered that a viable phrase."

During my trip back to the States, Rick made the comment that Obama was five steps to the right of Nixon. I thought he was exaggerating, then thought again. Wage controls (I think that was him), opening to Red China? Yup, about five steps.

A Bryn Mawr professor drilled into our heads that the person who frames the issue often wins. At least in France, the Tea Partiers are often called "l'ultra libéral", meaning of course the extreme right. Not a compliment.

David said...

If you can get past the fact that Nixon was a first-class menace to the Constitution, a certifiable paranoid, and - protestations notwithstanding - in fact a crook, he was a pretty decent president.

He was the last president we had who even understood what a foreign policy was, let alone had one, for example.