Politics & Policy

Finger-Quotin’ Fools

Inside the MLA.

Finger-quoting is the habit of highly educated but slowwitted people of gesturing ironically with the fore- and middle fingers of both hands to indicate imaginary quotation marks around whatever words are coming out of their mouths. It’s likely that the annual Modern Language Association Convention, held the last week of December in New York City, features more finger-quoting per capita than any other gathering on earth. Based on the panel discussions I attended, this year’s most frequently finger-quoted phrase was “the war on terrorism.”

The conventional wisdom (literally) among MLA members is that “the war on terrorism” is a for-profit enterprise of racist American corporations determined to maintain their dominance — the preferred term is “hegemony” — worldwide. The MLA members’ goal, therefore, is to teach the benighted majority of their countrymen to see through the propaganda churned out by the mass media, which operates at the beck and call of the government, and recognize the United States as the imperialist bully it is.

Typical was a panel discussion called “Languages of the War on Terrorism” in which literature geeks from Kent State, Columbia, and the University of California held forth on global politics. The buffoonery actually began before the session itself; a woman from the altogether redundant MLA Radical Caucus handed out fliers to promote the group’s meeting later that evening. The fliers began by bemoaning the high salaries of university administrators at a time when more and more courses are taught by low-cost adjunct labor — a fair enough point. But the MLA being the MLA, and radicals being radicals, this narrow gripe evolved, several paragraphs later, into a full frontal offensive against corporate capitalism, class structure, and U.S. foreign policy: “Meanwhile, war on Iraq may cost $1 billion a day. That could only bring more hardship to the poor, including those at the gates of our own profession. That war and the promised, endless war on terrorism are also connected in a deeper way to the situation in higher education: their purpose is to guard our social arrangements, these savage inequalities, against any challenger, any time, anywhere in the world.”

Remember, these are college professors writing this stuff . . . and thinking this stuff. Not grumbling undergraduates. When the woman handing out the fliers repeated the meeting room, several audience members earnestly jotted it down.

The first official speaker for the session was straight out of central casting. Black turtleneck sweater, black pants, close-cropped hair, and a black goatee. He finger-quoted “the war on terrorism” two times at the start of his talk, then declared that, even absent the gesture, the audience should assume finger-quotes each time the phrase came up. He thereupon launched into a paper in which he connected the language surrounding the war on terrorism with the writings of Theodor Adorno. (Adorno is a neo-Marxist philosopher whom no serious intellectual takes seriously . . . which explains why Susan Sontag once gushed, “A volume of Adorno’s essays is equivalent to a whole shelf of books on literature.”) Professor Turtleneck explained that Adorno’s analysis of the lure of horoscopes among the masses had much to teach us about ordinary Americans who support their country’s militaristic response to September 11. People who read horoscopes, according to Adorno, do so out of a “desire to feel oneself to be in the know.” The war on terrorism, Professor Turtleneck insisted, is similarly buoyed by a “state of semi-erudition” — so the necessary question for literature teachers becomes How do we critique this mindset and thus give peace a chance?

Professor Turtleneck was followed to the podium by a twenty-something doctoral student whose horn-rimmed glasses, dowdy outfit, and short asymmetrical haircut seemed less a fashion faux pas than a desperate attempt to camouflage the fact that she was pretty. (Physical beauty being a commodity.) Ms. Horn-Rims prefaced her paper by saying that the audience should likewise assume finger quotes whenever she referred to “the war on terrorism.” She proceeded to deconstruct the phenomenon of news tickers crawling across the bottoms of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox news screens. Her point, insofar as she had one, seemed to be that the crawls were intended, by the media conglomerates, to create a false sense of alarm . . . and thus subtly acclimate viewers to the suggestion that America was already at war.

The third speaker, a startlingly cheerful middle-aged woman with rounded shoulders and a mane of light blond hair, announced that her presentation would be less formal than the first two; her intention, she explained, was to highlight the historical gap between the principled rhetoric of presidential addresses and the translation of those principles into real-world political strategies. The discovery that American presidents tend to compromise their noblest ideals when faced with the exigencies of policy decisions ranks right up there, in terms of shock value, with the discovery that Elizabeth Wurtzel is a high-maintenance girlfriend. Still, Professor Off-The-Cuff had a discernable thesis, and she made it in a concise, unpretentious way — sans finger-quotes. I was grateful.

This was followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer period. Most of the questions ran along predictable What-can-we-as-educators-do? lines. One audience member suggested, in utter seriousness, that the present crisis cried out for a renewed Marxist understanding of geopolitics. Another commented that we needed to do a better job directing our students to activist websites — which remain an untapped resource for alternative perspectives on the news. A call for more teach-ins was enthusiastically applauded.

As the session was winding down, I decided to ask a question. This is something I habitually do after such discussions; it’s sadistic act, the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and it speaks badly of my character. I directed my question to Professor Turtleneck — though it could as well have been addressed to virtually anyone in the room. Recalling his notion of a “state of semi-erudition” that characterized those who support President Bush’s war on terrorism, I pointed out that many of Bush’s supporters would characterize the antiwar movement in much the same way. “As an epistemological matter,” I asked, “how do you deal with the fact that each side sees the other as uninformed? You don’t want to make the claim that your knowledge is somehow privileged, do you?”

There was an awkward, slightly panicky pause after I asked this.

Professor Turtleneck began his response by saying he’d cut a lot out of the paper he’d read and then segued into an utterly irrelevant tap dance about Adorno’s own epistemological presuppositions. He was interrupted after a minute by a man sitting behind me, who called out, “You’re not answering the question! You can’t deny that you’re making a claim to knowledge here!”

“I’m not denying that,” Professor Turtleneck insisted. “I’m only saying that Adorno would say . . .”

And on and on.

The MLA Convention is graduation day from Clown College, and my purpose here is not to call more attention to the preponderance of big floppy shoes. Rather, I want to highlight the perennial lack of self-reflection of the anti war movement, and of the intellectual Left as a whole.

On the one hand, Leftist intellectuals — drenched by now in postmodern hogwash — dismiss the suggestion that the world exists independently of our perceptions, and that knowledge claims can be measured objectively against it. Knowledge, to them, is a function of power, always tainted by political and cultural bias; true statements are true not because they correspond with reality but because they’re accepted as true by “discourse communities.” Telling people who disagree with you that they’re wrong, under such circumstances, is an act of political oppression.

On the other hand, Leftist intellectuals have no problem whatsoever telling people who disagree with them that they’re wrong. That’s not oppression . . . that’s (open finger-quotes) education (close finger-quotes). Leftist intellectuals believe they see beneath the surface of things, that they discern the reality beneath the blur of language — conveniently forgetting that they’re committed to a worldview in which the blur of language creates reality, a worldview in which one blur of language is no more valid than another since there’s no underlying reality to measure language against. In other words, they claim that they see beneath the surface while simultaneously claiming that the surface is all there is.

More specifically, the antiwar movement is hoist upon the premise that ordinary people support the war on terrorism because they’re being misled by corporate-sponsored government-controlled media; if ordinary people only knew the truth, they would denounce the war in no uncertain terms. But ask the intellectual leaders of the anti-war movement if they believe that truth even exists, ask them if statements can be verified empirically against an independently existing reality, and they’ll scoff at your philosophical naïveté.

“Reality,” after all, must be finger-quoted.

Mark Goldblatt’s novel, Africa Speaks, is now out in paperback.


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