Sunday, February 26, 2006

Screaming into a Box

At times, when I speak about certain topics, certain issues that have a contemporary political currency, I feel as though listeners or readers in our current climate have developed the tendency to hear one or two statements and turn off, dismissing my commentary as ideologically driven from an opposing point of view. The oddity, it seems, is that my views are "ideological" and "opposite" to folks on both sides of the aisle. We've developed such an adversarial mode of discourse in this nation that whenever a commentator delivers a statement that does not immediately attack one side or the other, individuals on the receiving end automatically assume that the commentary opposes their points of view.

First of all, I want to know why in the hell an "ideologically-driven" politics is necessarily bad. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "we ought to remember [when dealing with the state] that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case... the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement" (from "Politics"). In other words, Politics is all ideologically and contextually driven. Politics is inherently oppositional: nobody can agree on all points with anyone else.

I'll offer a viewpoint on higher education. The Pope Center - a conservative think-tank that has more heart than brains - loves to attack the fact that higher education has added a more diverse curriculum in recent years. Colleges don't teach Shakespeare or Chaucer, paragons of Western Civilization and virtue! This is their cry, which they cram down throats with glee, citing courses in "Queer Theory" and "Trickster Characters in Literature" - special topics courses - as supplanting these paragons of virtue.

I won't address the "virtue" comment with anything but this: Chaucer was a dirty-minded man, and some of his stories would be printed in "Hustler" in modern America. Take for instance, the tale of Handy Nicholas, who, when sticking his ass out the window to fart upon the husband of the young lady he was screwing, received a hot poker up said ass for his trouble. Take the drunken murders and sexual innuendo in the best of Shakespeare ("Thy daughter and the moor are making the beast with two backs" - Othello). They just say it in prettier prose. Chaucer, if one looks closely enough at direct and accurate translation of his contemporary vernacular, told some classic dick-and-fart jokes in Middle English.

Special topics courses - those which "supplant" Shakepeare and Chaucer - appear once in a while as a result of student demand. For good reason: with an increasing number of "groups" writing literature, there is a broadened base of knowledge. For a long while, the study of American Literature - Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and company - was considered classless and base. Shakespeare and Chaucer have their place, and the many sections of both that are taught each semester are full; but with an increasing base of knowledge that goes along with an increasing base of literature goes a responsibility on the part of universities to study and discuss that base.

Why the outcry? One side doesn't understand it, the other embraces it to the point of folly. There is no balanced center - those in the center are considered members of the opposition by the vocal and obnoxious minorities on either side of the spectrum. I agree - to a point - that Shakespeare and Chaucer belong in the English curriculum; however, I don't think that a single-minded obsession with retaining cultural references that are five and eight hundred years out of date is a wise course of action. Shakespeare and Chaucer form the base of Modern English - Shakespeare's plays are among the earliest written records of early modern English, and direct correlations with linguistic development can be traced between the two. They are not the only contributors anymore, though. The latino, the vocal homosexual, and the descendant of the slave have all contributed their voices to our current culture, and to understand it, we must understand its origins and its expressive means.

On the other hand, studies that have been part of Western culture since its inception in Greece, and here I speak specifically of Rhetoric, are denigrated as meaningless. By extrapolation from the phrase "just campaign rhetoric," most citizens feel that rhetoric is the study of how to say something without saying anything. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rhetorical critic tries to find the meaning that the rhetor has hidden within his message. We need more critics of rhetoric: more people who can dissect and share the true meanings of speeches and statements.

More on this later.

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