By and large, I try to project a cheerful upbeat persona. Nobody likes a complainer. But every so often, my inner Eeyore wells up inside me and seeks expression. Today is one of those days. My mild dyspepsia has been triggered by the experience of traveling on USAirways, which is, I do believe, the worst airline in America. I shan't bore you with the details, save to say that I made it home from Williams College a day later than planned, and then was able to complete my little trip only by running through the Philadelphia airport to make a connection for which the airline had left way too little time.
The visit to Williams went just fine. I gave a talk to thirty or so students and faculty Tuesday evening and led a three hour seminar with twenty Philosophy seniors the next afternoon. The students had been told to read a chapter of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, as well as my "bourse" on Ideological Critique and my essay "Narrative Time," both of which are posted on box.net and are accessible through this blog, and then to come to the seminar with questions prepared for me based on the reading.
The students are wonderful -- bright, lively, serious, engaged -- and I think they liked me [if I may echo Sally Field]. But they did not ask a single question based on what they were supposed to have read. Instead, they all seemed troubled by my statement in my Tuesday evening talk that you must choose "which side you are on" in politics and life, who your comrades are and who your enemies. They clearly wanted everything to be "nice," with sensible discussion rather than bitter disagreement. I suggested that that attitude was an expression of the comfort and security of their protected upper-middle class life.
But that is not what bugged me, Rather it was something quite different, something that troubles me as well about the responses to this blog. In the materials they were asked to read, both those by me and the chapter by Mannheim, there are some subtle, original, difficult ideas. They seemed not to have even noticed those ideas, and they certainly were not sufficiently engaged with them to want to discuss them.
Now, over the years, I have written and posted here an enormous amount of conceptually complex material, much of it in one way or another original. The simple truth is that the ideas in that material mean more to me than the political opinions I express from time to time. Indeed, they are, I believe, my raison d'etre. But although there have been almost 5000 comments posted here, including my own [an astonishing number -- which Google faithfully keeps track of], scarcely any of them have referenced the ideas I have articulated. There are a good many seriously interested readers, as evidenced by their steady return to this site and by their comments, but almost no one has actually engaged with my ideas -- not with my opinions. That is something quite different.
Returning to Williams, one of the more subtle ideas in "Narrative Time" is that the social world is inherently and uneliminably perspectival in its structure, mimicking in that characteristic the Judeo-Christian conception of the natural world. No one mentioned that idea. One of the central ideas of the Mannheim chapter is his claim that ideological disputes are at bottom a form of all-out war in which the aim is not merely to refute one's opponent but to humiliate and destroy him or her. In light of the manifest eagerness of these students that everyone be "nice," one might have thought they would seize on that idea and quiz me about it, connecting it with what I had said about the necessity for choosing sides. Not a peep.
It makes me very sad. I could understand it if the readers of this blog [or of my written work] simply did not find anything there worth discussing. But I am smart enough, self-confident enough, indeed arrogant enough, to be certain that that is not the case.
Meanwhile, in the presidential race ...