Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The illusion of substance

A student sent me this, possibly in retribution for something—one way or another, it made my head hurt.

I have little doubt about two things here: first, that it is entirely likely there were any number of answers of substance and intelligence that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overall narrative; and two, that one could have easily cobbled together a comparable series of interviews at Obama’s election night rally in which people vapidly spouted empty rhetoric about hope and change. However, there is a third thing I have little doubt about as well, and that’s that the Palin supporters who can speak substantively to the issues are always going to be vastly outnumbered by Obama supporters who can.

I can claim this with confidence for two reasons. The first is simply the law of large numbers: whatever spin has been put on Palin’s popularity, she is actually a lot less popular than she has been made out to be; and her favourability rating is significantly lower than Obama’s (see Christopher Beam’s astute distinction between “favourability” and “job approval” here—he makes the point that Palin’s job approval rating can’t be measured because, well, she has no job). Hence, the proportion of naturally-occurring intelligence translates into higher numbers for Obama.

More importantly however, the number of Palinites able to speak substantively to policy issues will be significantly less because Palin herself has no substance. None. And it has been exasperating and baffling to read a series of op-eds this week and see otherwise intelligent people falling victim to the illusion that Palin’s largely media-driven persistence on the American stage is evidence of substance. Rex Murphy in The Globe and Mail and Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich in The New York Times all opined that people on the left (and some on the right) claiming that Palin is a “joke” need to rethink their position—that she does in fact possess political wiles and savvy well in excess of what people imagine. Dowd states that Palin “reigns over thrilled subjects thronging to a politically strategic swath of American strip malls” and that “Democrats would be foolish to write off her visceral power.” Rich claims, “Palin is far and away the most important brand in American politics after Barack Obama, and attention must be paid.”

It was however Rex Murphy’s column in this past weekend’s Globe that most dismayed me, as whatever issue I might take with some of his positions, I can usually count on him for good contrarian common sense. His column was particularly irritating because he made some spot-on observations, but framed them in assumptions about the character of Obama supporters, and brought it all to an embarrassingly (for him) wrong-headed conclusion.

He says, “It will make Obama fans perspire to hear this, but Ms. Palin has a more forceful bond with her supporters than he with his.” This observation is exactly right, but I wonder why he feels the need for the caveat—Obama supporters are well aware of Palin’s forceful connection with her base. Indeed, it is one of the key things that worries many people about Palin: the bond is not intellectual but instinctive, proceeding not from the mind but the gut, and it is a manifestation of the most troubling elements of American reactionary nativism. In this she is not, as Mr. Murphy suggests, a unique new force in American politics, but the latest of American conservative politicians (following the likes of Dick Armey, Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee) to achieve a radioactive half-life balanced somewhere between actual elected officials and pundits like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. She is, to coin a term, a politainer: a political actor concerned not with policy or governing but her own specific brand, and when she pronounces on policy delivers what Jon Stewart (always the voice of sanity) calls “a conservative boilerplate mad-lib … delivered as if it were the hard-earned wisdom of a life well lived.”

It is his conclusion however which is most egregious: “Ms. Palin has rare gifts and stamina enough to give them play.” Certainly, she has a keen ability to cater to in reactionary American nativism; whether that counts as a “rare gift” is doubtful. But stamina? This is the governor who quit well before her term was up, just when tanking oil prices put Alaska’s economy in a spin; who didn’t actually write her own book; and whose political pronouncements emanate from Facebook and Twitter, not exactly forums that allow complex or nuanced thought.

Yet, Mr. Murphy observes, people respond to her intuitively and viscerally, and where there’s smoke there must be fire—forgetting, presumably, that in politics where there’s smoke there’s more likely to be mirrors. The abject loathing not just from the left but from the conservative intelligentsia equates presence, apparently; he writes, “A truly dumb and witless person would not have the demure columnist David Brooks hissing dismissively, angrily in fact, on a Sunday morning talk show that Sarah Palin ‘is a joke’ … Empty vessels do not inspire such venom and fury.” With all respect, Mr. Murphy needs to take a longer look at the culture of celebrity today—empty vessels fire the popular imagination as they never have in the past, and the heat they generate is no evidence of light.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The weirdness of academic conferences

We just finished up last Sunday the annual Canadian Association of American Studies (CAAS) conference, my favourite academic organization. I’ve been attending CAAS for four years, and have been on the executive committee for almost that long. Last year I organized the conference and hosted it at Memorial; this year, happily, it was held in London Ontario, which meant (a) I was on very familiar ground, and (b) I got to spend time with Kristen (I’m writing this entry at her place while she growls at the Library Sciences paper she’s writing).

(I also have a post on the CAASblog about the conference here).

The annual CAAS conference is a highlight for me, in part because it always feels a bit like going home (even when it’s not actually in St. John’s or London). I am and have been a member of a variety of scholarly societies, and usually attend the Congress of the Humanities every year in May. CAAS is the pleasant antithesis of the Congress—small (this year there were about ninety papers), tight-knit, friendly, and supportive. There’s something to be said about seeing the same faces every year, especially when you can be confident that this will lead to fruitful collaborations and discussion.

CAAS is a comfort on this front, because academic conferences—especially the larger they get—can be, if not necessarily daunting, then certainly odd.

There’s always a moment at conferences, usually when I’m sitting in on a panel whose papers are all way outside my areas of expertise and interest, when I reflect on the strange beast that is the academic humanities conference. I’ve tried to explain to non-academic friends and family the ostensible purpose of usefulness of conferences, and I have on occasion defended them in principle when friends and colleagues in academia inveigh against them as wastes of time, money, and energy. The thing is, I sort of agree with both perspectives; I always look forward to conferences as a chance to travel (even when the location is no great destination), to see friends and colleagues from other universities, and, yes, to see papers and engage in discussions about the subjects being discussed.

At the same time, there are always points at which the conference experience can be excruciating—even when the topics or themes under discussion are of interest to you. It is at times like that that I wonder why we do it, usually when I’m sitting in an overly heated hotel conference room in an uncomfortable chair trying to be interested in a poorly presented paper droning on well past its allotted twenty minutes … with no indication that the panel chair will be taking steps to bring the presenter to a close. Of course, the disturbing thing at those moments is wondering how many people in my audience will be thinking that about my paper.

The fact is that at your average conference you have to kiss a lot of frogs, and realize as well that you will yourself be one of those frogs for any number of people. Which is why, in my experience, the larger the conference the more likely that feeling of futility will surface. I return to CAAS every year knowing that the conference will be more of a collaborative effort than an atomized group of people there to put in the twenty minutes necessary to get a line on a CV.