I just finished Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. In Liberal Fascism, Mr. Goldberg traces the historical link between progressivism, fascism, and liberalism. The history is interesting, Mr. Goldberg's points are more than a little valid, and the tone of his tome is relaxed, intelligent, and much less in-your-face caustic than, say, Ann Coulter. He's readable plus you don't feel like you're in the middle of a screaming match like with so much political pundit writing.
And man, is he insightful! While reading the book, I kept going, "Yes! Yes, that's exactly how I felt in my master's program!" This particular quote caught my eye:
[O]ne of the main reasons I've written this book [is] to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous. At the same time, I need to repeat that I am not playing the movie backward. Today's liberals aren't the authors of past generations' mistakes any more than I'm responsible for the callousness of some conservative who championed states' rights for the wrong reason well before I was born. No, the problems with liberalism today reside in liberalism today. The relevance of the past is that unlike the conservative who has wrestled with his history to make sure he does not repeat it, liberals see no need to do anything of the sort. And so, armed with complete confidence in their own good intentions, they happily go marching past boundaries we would stay well clear of. They reinvent ideological constructs we've seen before in earlier times, unaware of their pitfalls, blithely confident that the good guys could never say or do anything "fascist" because fascism is by definition anything not desirable. And liberalism is nothing if not the organized pursuit of the desirable.I concur. There are few things in this world as bizarre as listening to a liberal tell you how horrible and close-minded and disgusting conservatives and Republicans are and then, in the same breath, tell you how much the said liberal hates various groups. (And no, I'm not exaggerating.)
In my master's program, I referred to this attitude--"whatever I say is tolerant no matter how intolerant it sounds because what I'm saying is de facto tolerant"--as Calvinism although maybe that's unfair to Calvinists. Still, the approaches bear a similarity: rather than behaving a certain way, one adopts certain attitudes or positions. If I gain a conviction that I am saved, I must be saved.
And this attitude, oddly enough, dovetails into a completely different subject I've been thinking about lately: the belittlement of the science-fiction and fantasy genre by "sophisticated" writers.
I used to read articles by Orson Scott Card and Stephen King about so-called sophisticated writers belittling genre literature, and I'd get all worked up about it, but in my heart of hearts, I didn't believe it was that big a problem. However, in just the past few years, I've had similar experiences whereby I've encountered "sophisticated" writers declaring that fantasy and science-fiction pieces are just soooo childish--not real and reputable and profound and sophisticated like the stuff they write and read.
I have found these statements bewildering, to say the least. I've always assumed "sophistication" to mean something like "a broad knowledge of the world" which, unless one ignores most of history and World Literature, includes fantasy and science-fiction (the first English novel was a fantasy: Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and one could argue that The Tale of Genji is fantasy although in a somewhat different vein).
Knowledge, by the way, doesn't equate to "liking." I have no trouble with someone who doesn't care for fantasy, who prefers, for example, Henry V to Midsummer Night's Dream, but there is little to no point in saying, "Midsummer Night's Dream would be so much better if it wasn't for the fantastical elements." What, the lovers are supposed to take a road trip across America and find themselves instead? I'm sure Shakespeare could have written that sort of thing if he'd known about it, but it would kind of ruin the play. (And despite assumptions to the contrary, it wouldn't automatically make it more insightful.)
I think that what Goldberg defines as "smug self-confidence" is at work here. Rather than formulate intelligent, sophisticated arguments about the immaturity or non-insightful nature of fantasy and science-fiction, supposedly sophisticated critics and writers have simply decided to define fantasy and science-fiction by those terms. (This is marked by the fact that when they do decide to like a piece of fantasy, they redefine it as "magical realism.")
But why, I've asked myself, create the definition in the first place? It is hardly necessary for someone who likes contemporary, "realistic" (see this post for my discussion of what constitutes "realism"), hanging-out-suburbia fiction to even have an opinion about fantasy and science-fiction writing.
I've decided (and this brings us back to Mr. Goldberg's criticisms of modern-day liberalism) that humans have an intense fear of not-being-cool.
Yes, yes, I know, we all of think of that fear as an adolescent trait, but I believe the fear of not-being-cool is simply more vocalized, more honestly admitted to, in the teenage years. The hold of "the cool" never really leaves us. It is the fear that somehow one will fall out of favor with others of one's tribe if one supports that which is not tasteful, profound, appropriate, sensitive.
Now, "cool" isn't the same as "legal." We are not talking about murder or theft or even breaking a religious commandment here. In other words, we are not talking about actual crimes or deeds that result in a literal outcasting. Rather, breaking the rule of "cool" results not in ostracism but in a lack of empathy. Dissonance occurs. One is no longer "one" with one's group.
This happened to me in high school on several occasions. On one occasion, I was reading Izzy Willy Nilly by Cynthia Voigt. The cover of my edition was "teen friendly," a well-coiffed girl sitting in a chair; the cover blurb was, for lack of a better word, "teen-fantastic." In other words, the book didn't look even vaguely sophisticated. All the "sophisticated" people I hung out with then were reading Thoreau. One of them picked up Izzy Willy Nilly and said, "Oh, what are you reading?" in a "this is just toooo pathetically teeny-bopperish" tone.
I wasn't being ostracized, but I was being informed of the "right" tastes of the group. However, another student spoke up and said, "It's a good book," and the incident passed. It wouldn't have worked on me anyway. I was as susceptible to peer pressure as the next teenager, but it never occurred to me not to read exactly what I wanted. (I got "uncooled" again when I read Gone With the Wind, which to be honest, was rather a waste of time. I never did read Thoreau.)
But I still wonder, Why the need to "uncool" people? To say, "If you do this, you aren't a neat, sophisticated, with-it person like us"?
From an anthropological standpoint, the need for people to hold certain tastes in common could bind the group together; still, you'd think the need to eat and not die would have a slightly stronger hold. I suppose people are more likely to find food together and not die if they hold ideas in common, but an excess of common ideas could also stagnant the group.
And I think, too, such "cool" agreement (as opposed to blatant ostracism) is largely superficial as a binding mechanism. I have remarked elsewhere that I found the supposedly uniform culture of Brigham Young University (a church-run university) more conducive to open discussion than other more liberal institutions (hey, BYU had protesters of the Gulf War and protesters of the protesters!). A society that holds fundamentals in common seems to be more ready and more tolerant of dissent than societies that don't. (Update: actually, from a historical perspective, the key to tolerance seems to be size and a fluctuating population; Salem, Massachusetts burns witches; larger towns and cities don't.)
So, while I haven't solved the purpose of "uncooling," maybe it explains why fantasy/science-fiction writers seem to be more open to different types of writing than "sophisticated" writers. Like conservatives, fantasy and science-fiction writers are forced to defend their beliefs so often, they learn what they believe. Rather than being grounded in an "I say I'm saved, so I am saved" mentality, they are grounded in something tangible. Which is a much healthier place to be than the mindset of "I'm so tolerant, everyone fall down and worship my tolerance!"