Saturday, September 12, 2009

The 9/12 rally, Chomsky, and "sociological imagination"

In terms that really matter, Washington is not so far from Cairns -- or from anywhere else, for that matter. Hence, the "9/12 rally" is of much more than passing interest, as is the commentary on reddit.

The comment that introduced Noam Chomsky's "take" on "the 'populist rage' going around the country and what it could lead to in light of the rising unemployment" grabbed my attention within the context of the surrounding comments. The commenter excerpted from the following sequence:

"AMY GOODMAN: The whole issue of populist rage, Noam Chomsky, actually, do you think that this rage is going to boil over as the unemployment figures rise?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s very hard to predict those things. I mean, it has a potentially positive side, like it could be like the activism of the 1930s or the 1960s, which ended up making it a more civilized society in many ways, or it could be like an unfortunate precedent that quickly comes to mind. I’ve written about it.

Take a look at Germany. In the 1920s, Germany was the absolute peak of Western civilization, in the arts and the sciences. It was regarded as a model of democracy and so on. I mean, ten years later, it was the depths of barbarism. That was a quick transition. "The descent into barbarism" it's sometimes called in the scholarly literature.

Now, if you listen to early Nazi propaganda, you know, end of the Weimar Republic and so on, and you listen to talk radio in the United States, which I often do--it’s interesting--there’s a resemblance. And in both cases, you have a lot of demagogues appealing to people with real grievances.

Grievances aren’t invented. I mean, for the American population, the last thirty years have been some of the worst in economic history. It’s a rich country, but real wages have stagnated or declined, working hours have shot up, benefits have gone down, and people are in real trouble and now in very real trouble after the bubbles burst. And they’re angry. And they want to know, "What happened to me? You know, I’m a hard-working, white, God-fearing American. You know, how come this is happening to me?"

That’s pretty much the Nazi appeal. The grievances were real. And one of the possibilities is what Rush Limbaugh tells you: "Well, it’s happening to you because of those bad guys out there." OK, in the Nazi case, it was the Jews and the Bolsheviks. Here, it’s the rich Democrats who run Wall Street and run the media and give everything away to illegal immigrants, and so on and so forth. It sort of peaked during the Sarah Palin period. And it’s kind of interesting. It’s been pointed out that of all the candidates, Sarah Palin is the only one who used the phrase "working class." She was talking to the working people. And yeah, they’re the ones who are suffering. So, there are models that are not very attractive."

This immediately got me thinking about C. Wright Mills' argument about "sociological imagination" (and, interestingly, Chomsky refers to Mills in the interview, but on a different point).

It has long been my belief that being able to "grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society" must be the first fruits of an acceptable education. To compel young people to undergo education whilst systematically withholding opportunities for developing, nurturing, and sustaining sociological imagination constitutes, in my view, the state's official crime against young people -- which, of course, includes us all, sooner or later.

Of course, we may want nowadays to revamp Mills' concept a bit to take account of "multiple subjectivities" and the like -- to give identity more of poststructuralist "spin" than "biography" might intimate at first blush. But, to my mind, the substantive point remains true, and as important today as ever: An education that does not have the pursuit of socilogical imagination at its core is at best a "schooling", it is NOT an education.

One of the things that has most "angsted" me throughout the times I have spent in universities is the extent to which prevalent conceptions of what it means to "make serious academic, theoretically, and research advances" systematically sideline a focus on sociological imagination (or whatever we might want to call it). This includes many developments within kindred academic pursuits, such as building more sophisticated -- even "critical" -- forms of discourse analysis. Too often, in my view, the focus on generating "improved" and more subtle and sophisticated analytic procedures, techniques, and "theoretical housings" can end up detracting attention from the relatively straightforward point that caring about understanding the relationships between biography and history, and knowing what to do with that understanding, and how to do it in principled ways, is at the heart of the end game.

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