The error of most student radicals today is ultimately related to the Manichaean heresy that Christianity absorbed as much as it refused. This is the view that Being, the world, life, or humanity is evil. The pseudo-political form of this holds that all government is evil. This does not motivate anarchism because all anarchisms have positive utopian visions and are not merely contrarian and oppositional. Manichaenanism holds that the world, and all worldly forces and powers, is evil, and what is good is some inner spiritual essence that is to be embraced and cultivated. The political form of this is simply the claim that all worldly institutional powers are about nothing but exercising domination, or profiting through use and exploitation, or something like Heidegger’s “technology” as a way of thinking. Instrumental and strategic rationality in the name of the institution and its authorities and what it can be said to need and they want. Further, contemporary pseudo-left radical politics reduces, as Marx did, culture to power. So: Shakespeare’s poems and plays are nothing but elaborate masks for what is at the core pure domination and legitimation of monarchical, aristocratic, and bourgeois class privilege. The academic left has long held this position, speaking of “race, gender, and class” as the keys to all of literature and art. This claim is absurd. But we must trace it back to heretical Christianity (and its Indian and Iranian sources: world-rejecting spirituality in the former case and dualism and an evil empire that the forces of good must contend with in the latter). The problem is that if the creative and demiurgic world-ruling power is in fact in essence pure matter and energy or force, then the good is banished from its domain, and finds its place in esoteric doctrines of spirituality and their mysticisms and/or the afterlife. Hinduism and Buddhism were radical in drawing the conclusion that this really pits Being as such against a Nothingness that is the sole valid and intelligible object of any spiritual quest. Then there is no politics or art: no world-transformation as a project. But: ideologies are effective and culture survives because it does have meaning or significance and not just force. (Is it finally the shift from philosophies of consciousness to the primacy of language that most fully changes this?) It is not just a mask of power. That is the crude theory of ideology that was bequeathed us by Marx in one of his many insufficiently philosophically reflective moments.
The alternative is to be critical readers. First, admit that in the English language Shakespeare is preeminent even though he was a bourgeois English man and not a colonial subject. But we do not read works of literature in order to enshrine them in a pantheon. And if we did or do, we still must understand them. Further, marginal subjects can read and interpret and transform mainstream culture, as many have done. The third world authors that these students extol would mostly be far less interesting if they had not read Shakespeare and much of the English literary canon. English literature belongs to writers and readers of the English language. Do you want to change the world or just complain, while bringing to some literary and scholarly parliament a bunch of third world voices and then having a vote where majority rules?
Manichaeanism also appears in nationalisms and pseudo-nationalisms and their liberation movements. The logic is: We are oppressed by them. Nationalism identifies nation-states with their peoples. Thus, if the Welsh invaded New York state, patriotic New Yorkers would by this logic not merely hate the Welsh government and its army, but would also despise the Welsh people. And it would see their culture and their aggressive politics as intertwined. In the extreme, the former will mean to “us” only what it means when significance is reduced to force and their culture to an ideology for it. We then become pure by way of contrast. Every moralisms says this: I am good because you are bad. And ultimately this is Manichaean and not Jewish or Christian. What happens is we get a panoply of oppressed groups, and savvy people who are not apparently oppressed begin to catch on that it’s the in thing to be, and that this is the way to privilege, by claiming that you have none. So black is beautiful and good, white is ugly and evil. We are innocent, they are our oppressors. How could we not be innocent if domination is the political crime and they are exercising it unilaterally over us? In the end this is a logic of war. In the ancient world, Judaism introduced powerful ideas that tend to promote peace even within a warrior culture. Wars continued, but were of secondary importance. (There is a time for peace and a time for war, which is why there are no Jewish pacifists, but war cannot be the end in itself it tends to be in warrior cultures). We could also say that what is involved here is a shockingly explicit and very angry Schmittian idea of the political, as war, and as defined by the us vs. them mentality of the friend/enemy distinction. In this framework, it is opposition to an enemy that defines a nation or pseudo-national identity politics with its false ideology of liberation that is in fact its very opposite: one of security.
The primary function of the campus “left-liberal” radicals today is to legitimate and enroll people of various political persuasions, but especially the “left,” into tacit and implicit support for a national security state engaged in endless war internationally and domestically under cover of the “war on terror.” They combine what is wrong with Hilary and what is wrong with Trump.
So much of what we do is an unwitting adjustment to broad social and cultural trends; this fact makes it feel right, and justifications naturally follow. This is one reason why there is a kind of social, historical, and political unconscious. And it is one reason why we must affirm that there is a politics, and a need for a politics, of form, manner, and style. What guards against this is what in times like these we need more of: criticism. This can take the form of published writings and works of art, or of speech. The trouble with freedom of speech, and the reason it must constantly be defended, is that it is pretty much guaranteed that, since meaningful statements will be disagreements with either some individuals or some broad consensus or both, if you say anything about anything to anyone, you will very likely piss them off. What has happened in our culture that people cannot take being offended by what someone says (as in the irony of the witticism, for example), and that it is increasingly rare that people argue instead of fight. While fighting is done to defeat the opponent and win a victory thereby, and fighters know that they are right at the outset and are not curious, the secret of argument is that good opponents only seem like bitter adversaries; they are actually curious to know if you can persuade them, and their persuading you is in the interest not of pride but of testing their own idea. (After all, no one knows at the outset what the other person can say. The person who knows how to argue will not bother if he believes himself absolutely certain, but he knows how very rare that is).
Is it because of changes in the university? Professional specialization and the absence of a broad “humanist” culture, as it used to be called? The fact that students are high-paying consumers, soon to be massively in debt, and anxious about whether or not they will get the good professional career opportunities they are paying for? The evolution of humanities and social science disciplines into factions that do not speak to one another and which are enclaves in which future scholars and students working on this model expect to be protected from friction caused by exposure to other factions? Identity politics constructed on the model of Black liberation beginning in the aftermath of the 1960s? An educational system as a whole that has ceased to foster critical thinking, a mass media that is propagandistic, advertising that manipulates desires, emotions, and fantasies rather than presenting facts and appealing to preexisting needs, and a film industry that cultivates feeling rather than thought and is itself part of a propaganda machine? American society as an anti-intellectual business culture? The decline of every kind of public sphere due to privatization of most of the functions of government? I think all of this.