Who do you mean by “we?”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

One thing about Walter Truett Anderson’s Reality Isn’t What It Used To be1: he’s making absolutely explicit some troubling assumptions that cropped up in his later book, The Future of the Self.2

In the latter book, The Future of the Self, Anderson actually has a decent (but incomplete) treatment of our economic situation in chapter 11. He immediately follows that in chapter 12 with zingers such as:

When young men march out to die on battlefields, as they have by the milions since time immemorial and are still doing today, they are rarely doing it for money—there are lots of easier ways to make a living. They are doing it because they have accepted their country’s noble lies about who and what they are, and who their enemies are.3

Wow. In fact, there seem to be a couple types of people in the enlisted ranks of the military. Some recruits are indeed just as Anderson describes them. In this category, I also include men who join up because their fathers did it and their grandfathers before them did it. But in another category, at the bottom of our long and steep socioeconomic ladder,4 people have to combine several WalMart or McDonald’s level dead end jobs to make a living; joining the military offers comradery, vocational training opportunities, a place to live, health care, food, a little spending money, and—get this—a possibility of promotion.

On the very next page, we see how Anderson is already outdated in The Future of the Self. He writes that people “are less inclined to cling to those group identifications as the final and permanent essence of their selves,”5 as if anybody ever only saw themselves only as a member of their race or their gender or any other group. But paradoxically, the recent “Ground Zero” Mosque controversy6 and the sheer racist venom that conservatives in the United States have expressed towards Barack Obama also shows that we continue to totalize others by group identity, that we are not a post-racial society. And some people actively assert group identities in order to obtain collective rights—which just doesn’t fit in with Anderson’s post-modern utopia—such as indigenous peoples to land and other compensations offered by colonial conquerors.

Anderson in fact disparages indigenous culture as “traditionalist” but fails to recognize that subaltern groups face a range of threats from discrimination to genocide around the world—and not just in what some might style as “those other places.” He does acknowledge that

class is a socially constructed reality, and we see the idea of “proper stations” as a noble lie (i.e., a lie of the nobles) designed to keep subjugated people content with their misery.7

But he claims that status has come to subvert class in many parts of the world, but

Status, although ancient, comes into its own in the postmodern era. . . . It is an open system. Status comes and goes, and few people have any illusions that it is an eternal or even terribly meaningful arrangement.8

I don’t think very many sociologists would agree with him. Certainly not those who specialize in social inequality. And I think most people in the lower and working classes are profoundly aware that there are considerable obstacles to their advancement (and not nearly so many going the other other way, i.e. downwards into even greater destitution).

But mistakes like this are endemic to privileged academics. Indeed Pauline Marie Rosenau observes a critique of some post-modernists that

Post-modern views of reality are reproached for some of the same shortcomings as idealist philosophical conceptions of reality. Critics argue that debate over issues such as the existence of an independent reality are of interest only to post-modernists (and other intellectuals) who, insulated from reality, never personally experience the violence, terror, and degradation prevalent in modern society. They point to the brutal presence of an “obviously existing reality” that solidifies around poverty, starvation, AIDS, drugs, and gang warfare. Only if one’s daily life, daily “lived” reality, is not harsh and unpleasant could one coceive of reality as entirely a mental construction.9

I keep coming back to this paragraph in Rosenau’s work, because for me, critiques of post-modernism keep coming back to this very point. Post-modernists—as Rosenau also points out—deny privilege. And I’m seeing this yet again in Anderson’s Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be. Here he writes, “In the postmodern world we are all required to make choices about our realities” as he goes on to write about all the choices we all have available to us. Excuse me, but I certainly do not have the option to “select a life of experimentation, eternal shopping in the bazaar of culture and subculture.”10

And when Anderson writes that “Today we are all ‘forced to be free’,”11 I am reminded of the discourse about human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,12 as committed to by the United States,13 14 as is arguably legally binding upon the United States under the supremacy of treaties in the Constitution15 and the Ninth Amendment providing for unenumerated rights16 and the discrepancy with the reality of my own existence. Somehow I don’t count. And neither do millions of other people who have lost their jobs, who have been unemployed for long periods of time, or whose jobs do not afford a basic level of dignity. Somehow, apparently, the word “human” in “human rights” doesn’t apply to us.

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