Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Are cultures opinions?

Nirvana's song "Territorial Pissings" off their Nevermind CD contains the line, "When I was an alien, cultures weren't opinions." The album was released in 1991. Of course, history ended in 1989 (or sooner) with the formal collapse of the Soviet Union and, most importantly, its supporting ideology. Nirvana's song (maybe I'm giving Curt too much credit; I hope not, though), or at least that line, aptly describes one view of politics of the post-Berlin Wall world.

Francis Fukuyama popularized the notion of the "end of history" with his far too famous book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), though an earlier essay, "The End of History?" was published in 1989. As Walter Benn Michaels notes (see his The Shape of the Signifier about Fukuyama's point, the end of history is the end of ideological conflict. This isn't the end of all conflict -- just ideologically based conflict (this is an important distinction). Whereas capitalists and communists disagreed over the best way to organize a society (or a society's economy), it was an ideological disagreement. For this reason, people could switch sides since it was a matter of ideology. Hence there can be American communists and Soviet capitalists (even if the former had to be largely invented).

What has happened since then -- after the end of history (a political scientist who studies Latin America calls it the end of politics) -- is the nature of disagreement has changed. Now cultures opinions and one's political views now define a person or a region: the US is now divided into red and blue states. Ann Coulter's book How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must is another example (well, except that I haven't read it -- and won't). Liberals and conservatives are different kinds of people (note to self, maybe this explains the resistance to gay marriage) and apparently need to be segregated, just like races in the old days in the South.

The reason why I write this today is that Obama recently stated:

One of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. I have never suggested that Sen. McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.

Bush has certainly done what Obama is against: if you are against Gitmo then you're against America. It's standard nationalist bullshit (I'm not sorry for calling it what it is), but is especially indicative of the posthistorical world we live in (Michaels introduced the term to me; I'm not sure to what extent Fukuyama used posthistorical to describe the current state of affairs) in which all politics are identity politics.

All of those kinds of attacks -- you don't love America if... -- are inherently posthistorical (even if they took place before history ended, I would argue). Most importantly, while there may be some good things about posthistoricism -- there are benefits to multiculturalism, for example -- it has led to the end of politics. And my this, we mean the end of interest in real issues.

One simple solution? Pay attention to the real issue. It doesn't have to be governed by a guiding wide-reaching ideology. I'm not sure I like Obama more than I dislike McCain, but I do like this statement here.

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