Saturday, January 6, 2007

Salon des Pseudo-Refuseniks

In a post from his November web log, Joshua Corey, who is both a very talented poet and an insightful and committed thinker about poetry, refers to two posts on Joshua Clover’s web log attacking the foolishness and blindness of those who are na├»ve or ideologically deluded enough to vote. Corey has a very smart and eloquent response, but I wanted to add my own.

I am sick to death of these more-correct-than-thou types who claim to hold themselves utterly aloof from a world they see themselves as completely above, particularly those who assert that voting doesn't matter because all candidates and all parties are the same, or even that voting is a manifestation of false consciousness because it constitutes buying into the system. How anyone can believe that after over six years of George W and his accomplices despoiling pretty much the entire world is beyond me, except that their smugness and self-righteousness makes it impossible or unnecessary to actually see the world, since they always already know all about it anyway, unlike us poor benighted souls who are, as Joshua Corey so aptly points out, both to be pitied and to be held in contempt. It's interesting how much such types despise the very people for whose liberation they claim to hope, though apparently not to work.

I certainly don't know what these people, so many of whom seem to spend most of their time casting a jaundiced and superior eye down on the rest of us, are doing to bring the soi disant revolution any closer. Perhaps they believe that salvation is not by works but by faith alone. The intellectual and political Puritanism, and self-righteousness, of pseudo-purist leftists does bear striking resemblances to Calvinism at its ugliest.

On the question of what is to be done, and of what is being done, one major problem with the Manichean ultra-leftist worldview (besides its all too common hypocrisy) is that if there is on the one hand only total purity and on the other hand only total corruption, then nothing can be done, because any action will inevitably sully the purity of the intention. Between the intention and the act falls the shadow, as T.S. Eliot wrote some time ago. Thus the quietism and passivity of such types, who sit back and criticize others' actions (for what action is perfect?) while doing nothing themselves. Clean hands are idle hands. They are also never as clean as their bearers think they are.

So many Americans who consider themselves leftists or progressives would prefer nothing to something if the something isn't utopia. Or, like the several varieties of worsists, they would actually like to see disaster befall our society, or they think that they would, no matter how many people suffer, because that would trigger the revolution. Such types like to consider themselves totally outside of that which they claim to critique. Perhaps this is why is never occurs to them that they too will suffer in their implicitly-hoped-for worst case scenarios. But not voting is still participating in the system. By not voting, you are simply giving more weight to the votes of those who do bother to vote, however deluded or brainwashed they may be. In practical terms, you are voting for whoever happens to win.

Those who question or even deny the value of voting tend to be from those groups, social, economic, and racial, that have been able to take voting for granted. But people died so that I could have the right and the opportunity to vote. I don't intend to throw that opportunity away.


Seth Abramson said...


In the broadest sense, I agree with and applaud your observations of non-voters (I would add to them the observation that those who fail to draw distinctions between the two major political parties are no more perceptive, as to politics, than those who through their ignorance of modern art [cf. painting or sculpture] presume any one piece to be of no more or less moment than any other; it astounds me that artists think they can "dabble" in politics and draw brave conclusions therefrom, but would recoil in horror if a politician, in turn, "dabbled" in post-avant verse. It takes a lifetime to fully grapple with civic life in America--it's not something to "play at," however articulately and intelligently).

One thing you've said that I'd take issue with, however, is the contention that "so many Americans who consider themselves leftists or progressives would prefer nothing to something if the something isn't utopia." I think you'll find that the insular nature of the poetry blogosphere lends itself to overstatements of just this sort--by which I mean, your statement may or may not be true as to poets-cum-amateur political sociologists (though I do not doubt it feels true to you regardless), but it is manifestly untrue as to those who engage (off-line) in politics as something more than an oddball, slightly embarassing hobby, as do some artists. I think you have inadvertantly, and with the best of intentions, unfairly tarred the thousands upon thousands of committed progressives who do vote and who--beyond that--man phone banks come election time or even year-round, stand in frigid weather with placards, attend rallies, write their congressmen and congresswomen, and so on. They may be portrayed by our center-right media as some sort of lunatic fringe, but in fact serious political activism (for "something," not "nothing") is alive and well, thank you. I often find, as here, that artists with the best of motives nevertheless draw conclusions about non-artists largely through their observation of other artists. Why does this sort of tautological navel-gazing pass for scholarship and wisdom where applied to politics, but would not if it were similarly applied--with the same sort of derisive, flippant-yet-ostensibly contemplative attitude--toward Art? I should note here, Reginald, that I'm not so much referring to you as to these smug non-voting artists.

Those artists who don't vote because they consider themselves too well-informed to do so are, in my experience, approximately as well-versed in the goings-on of our political system as are all the other groups who are habitually non-voting: college students, the illiterate, the underclass, those who work multiple jobs or for minimum wage, the mentally ill, felons, adults with something less than a full high school education, recent immigrants, and anarchists.


hebegeebee said...

If these eloquent deflations of Clover and Silliman are any indication, this site will be a welcome addition to the poetry blogosphere. Kudos!

Miguel Murphy said...

Just a little note to let you know your bloglink to John Gallaher's site (on your links) isn't correctly entered.

As for voting. . . what interests me about the devil's position is that it glorifies the lure of philosophy. That is, what differences are REALLY made in the course of human history? . . . We might consider psychiatry in the same fashion. Do people ever REALLY escape the fate of personality? Having said that--because I love Milton for writing like Job (or like those orphaned Trojans in flight in the desert), "Where I am is Hell. I myself am Hell"--I stand with you, behind your shield and in arms. Voting is our political weapon, our private activism, our means of heroism, our (as is so often shouted) VOICE. It is our daily means to enact a very primitive response to and to engage those distant forces that impact our lives--those forces that sometimes feel too abstract to comprehend our relationship to. The point is that being "successful" is not always the point. I think people forget that this dialogue includes them, whether or not they like it. Though I'm a nihiilist at heart, I agree with you--because I find the only way to face the horror of existence is with a brutal heroism (say, the brutality of someone like Macbeth, who comprehends what he can and chooses). Apathy is passive aggressive, lazy, and in the end, as you say, results in the the inadvertant "support" of something, not nothing.

John Gallaher said...

Or as the band Rush sang, those years ago: "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice."

Seth Abramson said...

And yet, I still prefer "Fly By Night"...

John Gallaher said...

". . . away from here." Indeed!