Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


I’ve been oscillating over this post for the last several days… I’m not convinced that I can articulate clearly and concisely the issues that are troubling me; I believe the post sits outside the normal focus of this blog; and I also suspect it may annoy some regular readers whose opinions I respect… Yet the subject keeps nagging me in ways that usually drive me to write something… I’ll therefore place the content below the fold – anyone interested in my (somewhat self-indulgent) rant on the occasional experience of being a token American in local discussions of US politics can read on…

One of the realities of being an expat American is that my presence often serves as a handy excuse for people who want a sounding-board for their personal grievances against the US government. These grievances range from quite complex and nuanced critiques, all the way through to the most outlandish conspiracy theories.

Discussions at the nuanced end of the spectrum are often incredibly useful opportunities for me to reflect on my own tacit assumptions about US government, law or culture.

Discussions at the conspiracy-theory end of the spectrum are… not so useful… I find the prevalence of anti-US conspiracy theories disturbing. I find the ease with which intelligent and otherwise reasonable people suspend their critical faculties to embrace such theories frankly depressing… And I find being dismissed out of hand because I was born in the US, and can therefore apparently be expected to suspend all rational judgment in the service of my home country, frustrating in the extreme…

One thread that often runs through the conspiracy theory discussions, although it is logically distinguishable from them, is a debunking argumentative move. I’m not a fan of debunking as a mode of critique – something I think I’ve established in a number of contexts unrelated to any discussion of US politics. I don’t understand why it is a critical move to point out, as someone did in a conversation with me the other day, that the people who assisted in the drafting of the US Constitution were less than admirable in their personal lives – or, to make my concern a bit more precise: I understand how this critique might say something about these individuals (although I sometimes wonder whether people seriously regard absolute consistency as morally superior to a form of hypocrisy that at least holds out the potential for a more complete realisation of moral ideals at a future point…), but not why the critique has ramifications for the ideals expressed in the Constitution itself.

And then there are the sometimes very confused critiques that blend anger with the current US administration together with sometimes very broad rejections of liberal or democratic ideals – even though the motive for the anger against the US relates specifically to the feeling that the country has failed to live up to these liberal or democratic ideals… I understand the… sociology of this kind of blending of critical impulses, but I think that democratic and liberal ideals are too important to cede them because of the imperfect actions of any government – I would rather mount my critiques in the name of these ideals, rather than tossing the ideals aside to demonstrate how angry I am at how they are being violated by any particular government…

I need to stress to the strongest possible degree that I am not at all trying to suggest that all voices critical of the US government fall into these hastily-sketched categories. In this post I am specifically describing positions that I find distressing and frustrating, and that I encounter more often than I would like. This is no doubt, however, because the sorts of people who seek out a random American citizen to express their political discontent are a self-selecting population. I am saddened by these forms of critique because they appear, to me, to surrender too much, to work against our ability to uphold crucially important political ideals and humanitarian principles… I am also frustrated because my expat status works so quickly and definitively against my ability to participate in debates on these issues… Hence the need to let off steam here… Here’s to hoping the post won’t come off as broader than it’s intended…

7 responses to “Expatriotism

  1. MT June 13, 2006 at 4:08 am

    Yes, I don’t doubt you’re a perfect dumping ground. People can barely achieve rationality when they explain their dissertation theses, and I don’t think we’re obliged to engage people’s rationalizations or hastily articulated complaints. I’m sure you can sympathize with anti-American anger and outrage, and what I think or like to think I do is to echo or at least riff on the feelings or the part that maps onto what I consider real, and make my own related complaint in my own language and as I frame the problem. Often I’ve seen people embrace my take on a situation once I demonstrate it permits me to be just as angry or even angrier than they are. Or at least we part as friends, happy in our agreement to disagree about our brand of venom. With some people in some moods I don’t want to get into debating their explicit assertions at all. With others I do so after or in between episodes of air time in which I establish my credibility and offer my beliefs in the context of my overall no-less-cynical-than-theirs view. The fact that Jefferson owned slaves and that civil rights and the slavery had to be ammended is not really what people are upset about right now. I think most of your friends and colleagues knew such facts before 9-11. Another thing: You might watch out for expat conservatism. Note scholars look to the colonies to learn how the mother tongue sounded long ago. I think we’re prone to gauge and adjust our politics all the time and largely unconsciously from cues around us from the way our compatriots our talking. In places I’ve lived a long time, I’m able to richly annotate almost all the information comes in (“O.K. this is a Tri-Delt sophmore talking…”; “note the dreadlocks,” “yes, he drives a lexus but we’re in Berkeley”). While I’m away and out of touch, I have to go by a few rough landmarks like the New York Times or Z Magazine, and so even if their reliability were static and unchanging on all topic, still abroad I tend to trust them more than I ever did while among my political tribe and while sitting directly across from coalition partners and the opposition. The population on which you depend on your politics reads and travels more widely than you ever could. Basically we’re all relying on testimony a lot more than facts and theories, is my view.

  2. MT June 13, 2006 at 4:20 am

    i.e. we know nearly all facts only through the testimony of others (Earth orbits the sun, hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center killing hundreds of people on board) and we researched and thought about few of the theories we depend on (that force that keeps us on the ground also makes Earth orbit the sun, there’s no way the 4-hijacker story is lie and the 9-11 attacks were staged, because the government could have had no motive acceptable even to people as cynical or immoral as we believe our leaders are, and even if there were so many people would have to be in on it that the organizers would never take the risk of leak and discovery [BTW I believe the gravity theory but am agnostic about the 4-hijacker story])

  3. N Pepperell June 13, 2006 at 11:40 am

    There’s always a massive underdetermination of our personal theories by the evidence – so, yes, a lot of what we “know”, we know through proxy – because, based on past experience or other factors, we’ve decided to trust particular sources to be thorough, honest, etc. I can absolutely understand why someone might decide to adopt a particularly high level of scepticism about information from sources that, in that person’s experience, haven’t been reliable in the past. And I can also understand how anger bleeds over into scepticism.

    Where I begin to get depressed is when we reach the point where the anger and the scepticism itself begins to seem like a kind of religious faith – where it no longer seems possible to touch it by evidence and argument. It may of course be that I’ve had a bad run of interacting with people who might be perfectly willing to be persuaded by *someone’s* evidence and argument, but just not mine – whether because I’m American, don’t argue well enough, etc. I want to be very careful not to overgeneralise from my personal experiences.

    I also agree about making tactical decisions about whether it is possible to argue some positions to some people in some moods (mine or theirs…) – although, having made a few tactical decisions of this sort recently, I’m a bit concerned about whether I’m making a calculated tactical decision, or just deciding that I don’t personally want the grief the conversation will bring…

  4. MT June 14, 2006 at 1:06 am

    Yeah, your own mood certainly matters. At least mine does. “Mood” suggest something brief, though, and I think I’ve also noticed more enduring differences in myself to do with what personal psychological epoch I’m in. I think when I’m happier and feeling more secure, anger doesn’t feel as personal to me and doesn’t instantly become about what the angry person thinks of me outside the moment. When the mojo is working, I don’t even lament an absence of an apology for anger some one directs to me (and I don’t have kids!). But we can’t all be the Buddha all the time, and Shakespeare would be pretty boring if we could.

  5. N Pepperell June 14, 2006 at 10:22 am

    My professional work, at one point, essentially consisted of standing up in front of angry people, and letting them channel their anger toward me for things I hadn’t personally done, so I have some… er… professional practice in not taking things personally. This kind of experience kicks in if I’m in a classroom, an interview, or some other kind of formal setting. It’s a bit more complicated when something happens in a personal setting – and, of course, a PhD program involves strange combinations of hierarchy and informality, personal and professional…

  6. Liam June 15, 2006 at 10:12 am

    Of course your detractors currently belong largely to a country whose government is complicitous in the very actions those detractors blame on the US… And of course singling out individuals from a given country in order to criticise the actions of their government is sometimes known less politely as racism. However I suspect the root cause of your frustration is the intellectual laziness that all too easily rests on comfortable ideological positions with ready-made rhetoric. These are no less prominent on the left than on the right, and no more justifiable because they are found on one side of the political fence.

  7. N Pepperell June 15, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    There’s definitely no monopoly on any particular side of the political spectrum. I think I get frustrated at times because I haven’t quite surrendered an idealistic notion of the university as an intensely intellectual environment, and so I tend to react more negatively when people in this setting don’t engage empirically or analytically with an issue. I realise that everyone (myself included) will have topics they’re not interested in dissecting in great detail – then again, in the incidents I’m ranting about above, I wasn’t the person who brought up the subject of US foreign and domestic policy… ;-P

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