“What Community Was This?”

My comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means are not and cannot be exhaustive; the book holds so much that I can only touch on a small part. Also, I don’t want to take anything away from those who plan to read it (if you are one of those, I suggest you do that first). I will not comment on every chapter; there’s something to be said for silence, too. I expect to write one or two more pieces about the book.

The book is bracing and inspiring–comparable to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and, in some ways, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I often pause on a paragraph to think about it more or to admire the integrity of the words. As I mentioned before, the book leaves me with some uncertainties and questions, one of which I will bring up here. That’s one of the best things a book can do: to set an example of thought and language, bringing the reader to life and questioning.

This blog piece will focus on the first chapter, where Bromwich analyzes a series of stories from the news. In most of these examples, an institution or group (or person acting in an official capacity) restricts an individual’s expression or artistic work in the name of the interests of the community (or an ethnic group). Such invocation of “community” is deadly, because often it doesn’t exist, at least not as invoked. Moreover, as invoked, it falsely presumes sameness and consensus; has unwritten laws that come forth with a vengeance at seemingly arbitrary times; and is “hard as nails,” despite its insistence on sensitivity.

Ultimately, by invoking “community,” such officials and institutions demand a sacrifice of individual thought and art. They make claims to culture of a corrupted sort—that is, culture defined by demographics and group identity, culture that tells people who they are and should be. (I have seen exceptions to this, but I have also seen the problem in its fiercest form. This book untangles and examines the problem.)

The situation Bromwich describes has only mutated and grown. Everywhere I hear the mantra of “teamwork and collaboration” (a version of “community”); supposedly these are the necessary and desired alternatives to “testing and accountability.” If I had to choose between “testing and accountability” on the one hand and “teamwork and collaboration” on the other, I would fall into despair. They are more similar than different. After all, accountability presumes a group norm, as does “collaboration” in its current usage. All of these will be forces in life; one has to navigate through them, make sense of them, find what good they may hold, and resist their pressures. There is hope in individual thought, but one must think well.

Bromwich’s first example of such “community ” involves a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, whom the school’s administration charged with “lewd and indecent behavior.” The student had displayed a few Penthouse centerfolds on the door to his room. The official complaint came from the dormitory’s supervisor and her husband; they cited student complaints, yet no student came forward. The dormitory supervisor’s husband explained, “I was acting in the best interest of the community.” Bromwich asks in this chapter, “What community was this?” The Affirmative Action office called the centerfolds “degrading and abusive to women”—thereby making reference to a vast group that may or may not have agreed.

The point is not that the act of putting centerfolds on one’s door deserves any sort of respect. As Bromwich points out, the student who did it was displaying vulgarity and inviting censure. Still, there is a difference between individual reprimand and an official charge from the school, in the interest of “community.” The latter was based on slippery language, “degrading and abusive.” Bromwich comments, “Degrading such pictures undoubtedly are … But on no ordinary understanding of the word could a mere display of pictures be described as abusive.” This distinction is subtler than may appear. To say that such pictures are abusive is to suggest that students have no inner defense against them, no judgment, no capacity to turn away. If that is the case, well, then more “abusive” things must be removed from their sight.

This is only the beginning. I have not gotten to my favorite parts of the chapter. At the very least, I want to bring up some of the discussion of art.

Bromwich describes the controversy over the Broadway casting for the London play Miss Saigon: the lead actor, Jonathan Pryce, was going to bring his role to America; the Committee on Racial Equality, of Actors’ Equity, voted to bar him from performing it, on the grounds that it should be performed by an Asian-American actor. (Ultimately Pryce did perform it.) The committee’s initial decision ran counter to art, to put it politely. When you demands that a character be played by a person of the character’s demographic background, you imply that people can only understand reflections of themselves, or, at the very least, that representation counts for more than imagination. But art offers much more than confirmation of who we are, much more than a chance to play ourselves.

Bromwich writes, “As I shall argue throughout, it seems to me that art, like thinking, does exist in tension with culture thus defined. You cannot serve both at once–cannot even pretend to when, as often happens, the two come into open conflict. … It follows that in art, the suitability of person to role is a matter of strength of imagination–only that.”

(I am giving a shortened version of the argument; there’s much more, and I have many more thoughts about it.)

Education, too, holds more than a confirmation of who we are—and that is part of Bromwich’s overall thesis. I recall when, at age twelve, I first visited the school that would be my high school. I was moved by the serenity of the place: students walking quietly through the halls, students intent on a lesson, the sound of someone practicing the piano, a giggle coming from somewhere. The school taught Latin and Greek; I longed to study these languages. I left with dreamy impressions and a copy of the school’s brochure. On one of the pages, there were various quotations from students about the purpose of education. A seventh grader said, “It is to teach you something that you don’t already know.” I cried over those words because they were so simple and so remote from the conception of education at the junior high school I attended.

That leads to one of my favorite passages from the first chapter:

Is it our job to turn students back to their parents safe and sound, intellectually and demographically much as we found them but, if anything, more confident than before that they ought only to be what they already were? Is it the aim of education to assure students that they need not change, need suffer none of the pains of distance that go with the liberation of intellectual life? Or are we a superior social adjustment agency, in the business of granting degrees that mean: “Your son or daughter has turned out correct. Politically, morally, socially correct, at least by this year’s standards.” An institution going forward on these principles would deserve to be called many things. A laboratory that knows how to monitor everything, and how to create nothing. A church, held together by the hunt for heresies, but without a single ritual, credo, prayer, or prayer book in common. Maybe it would resemble most of all an industrial park, with a perpetual supply of interns and apprentices, but with enough refinement not to want to call itself an industrial park. It does not much matter what we call it, for once the reflection or the remedy theory of education has been accepted, new demographics will always dictate a new name. Whatever the place we work in turns out to be, it will not be a place for thought.

Such institutions brandish the “we” against which Bromwich protests throughout the book. When discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (which he calls “a great and liberating work with a wrong title”), Bromwich finds, in Emerson’s remark “imitation is suicide,” a distillation of the problem of a self-aggrandizing and self-assured “we.” Bromwich explains: “The people who believe that it takes one to know one, who know exactly who and what they are, to whom and what they belong, want no singular person ever to survive as singular. They aim at complete possession.” Their “we,” in other words, allows for no “I.” I have heard this “we” in many places, particularly in schools and in education discussion.

Now, here is my qualm, in short. In order to make room for individual thought in schools and universities, one must counter the trends that have pushed it out. To do so, one must define some sort of common purpose and understanding, including some kind of (non-restrictive) curriculum. Otherwise one is left with a battle of opinions where words cross each other. If one wants students to have a chance of encountering Shakespeare and Milton in a college course, instead of focusing on “21st century media literacy” and such, then one needs kindred minds (that may differ deeply on certain matters) and kindred purposes. Otherwise there’s no standing up to the fads. So, in a sense, we do indeed need “we,” but this is profoundly different from the “we” of false consensus and false community. (For more on “we,” see my third piece about this book.)

It is good to be distrustful of “we.” It is good to avoid slipping into its muck. This book invites me to shed all vestiges of icky “we,” and I accept the invitation gratefully. But there’s a rocky, hardy, glistening “we” somewhere, a “we” that gets you to the place where you can stand on your own. I don’t think Bromwich would deny this, though I might be wrong (and I recognize that the book was published twenty years ago). In any case, it’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. What is this “we,” and how do we sustain and defend it against the other kind?

Note: On November 18, I made a few revisions to the penultimate paragraph, and added a new paragraph before it, for the sake of clarity.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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2 Comments

  1. A Dream of Uncertainty | Diana Senechal
  2. Questions of Community | Diana Senechal

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