The Myth of Objectivity–Political or Otherwise

The following is a long response to a comment from Secret Menu I want to include as a regular post:

“The fact is that some policies ARE better than others. It’s not simply a matter of opinion – it’s a matter of what evidence the policies are based on.

“I’m not going to touch the point about states’ rights – that’s ideological. However, it’s not merely ideological to reroute funds from things like military campaigns to education. That’s not money solving everything – that’s money being used to provide real services for people who need them. I worked for a public university for six years, and I’ve seen what funding cuts do. It’s not pretty.

“Also, I’d urge you to read this article about Obama’s bipartisanship, comparing Obama’s actions in office to a list compiled by the moderate conservative writer Peter Berkowitz: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/04/why-did-obamas-bipartisanship-fail.html

“Obama’s failure to fully submit to the constant far right tugging of the past four years is not tantamount to extremism in its own right, and is certainly not tantamount to Bush-era extremism. As with the debate, I just don’t think assumptions about form should not be commuted to content. And since I’m a college professor myself (albeit without tenure – thanks, funding cuts!), I’ve decided to read your penultimate comment as glib rather than anti-intellectual. Suffice it to say, professors act the way they do because they have been held to an objective, universal standard of empirical engagement that compels them to argue their ideas against an existing canon of evidence and analysis. And that’s exactly how I’ve been approaching my vote in this election.

“Our leaders are only as creative as the citizenry they govern. When more of us stop viewing financial gain and materialism as virtues, I imagine our government will follow suit.”

A very close friend with a Ph.D. in Poetry, Laura Hamblin at Utah Valley University, wants me to go for an MFA in poetry. I’ve been thinking about her opinion, but I might go for a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition instead. Another friend, Brian Birch, at UVU thinks I could do both. The only thing holding me back is employability, the future of higher education and practical impact I could have. Right now, I see that I might better effect high school students by helping them sharpen their writing, close reading and philosophical lenses. One of the ways to do this to help students understand the delusion and myth of objectivity.

Politically, Laura and Brian are liberal. I don’t care, but freshmen right out of high-school do and are attracted by it. Politically, neither are objective and academically they are far from objective. Laura is a second-wave, green feminist/post-modernist and Brian follows Wittgenstein. This is important to know when one is looking for mentors. Knowing the same about politicians is equally important.

So I read the article by Berkowitz. I’ve read him before. I like the Weekly Standard. Neo-Conservatism is extremely fascinating. In the article, a graph shows the direction Republicans are going, Democrats are going and the where the House of Representatives is going. Where the parties are going is meaningless, where the aggregate of the House is going is important. The entirety of the house is re-elected every two years. The aggregate of the House very fairly represents the nation and was designed to be that way. Knowing this is as important as knowing where professors are politically and academically.

The nation is 40% conservative, 21% liberal, 35% moderate and 4% unknown http://www.gallup.com/poll/120857/conservatives-single-largest-ideological-group.aspx. 59% of Americans consider themselves fiscally conservative and socially liberal http://libertarianmajority.net/libertarian-polling. In this spectrum, where do the candidates sit? Next, does the political base of either group approve of fraternization with the enemy?

Mitt’s record is fiscally-moderate and socially-moderate (why the evangelicals and tea-party will be voting while holding their noses). The President is fiscally-liberal and newly socially-liberal. This is public domain because it has been repeated so often in the media it is ubiquitous. Also: if Mitt were truly fiscally-conservative, Ron Paul would have endorsed him. Paul still refuses to.

The political base of the Republican party hates bi-partisanship. This is why the President focused on Romney’s bi-partisan record in Massachusetts during the debate. As a political moderate, I love bi-partisanship. I want it. I demand it. While I think Romney’s bi-partisanship is a giant plus, the right does not. The right does not want to cooperate with the left, they want the left to see the light, come to their senses and convert to the truth. That is why since Newt, the conservative House of Representatives is so combative with the left. To counter this, the left retreats to an attitude of reasonableness implying the right is incapable of such. This is another example of patronizing behavior. Reason, truth and logic are matters of social experience and perspective and are thus relative. As such, political truth does not exist. And so, acting reasonably is pretentious.

This is why educators are not trusted by the public in general (IMO).

If political truth does not exist and since moderate America could care less about “truth,” politicians then need to then focus on the actual. Government is in debt. People do not have jobs. Everyone knows someone who simply gave-up trying to find work. Many people, particularly the middle-class, lost big in the downturn. The middle-class, overall, could care less about green cars or green energy, they just want to get from point A to point B, fill up their SUVs and to be able to pay their bills. Life for the middle-class sucks. VP Biden just admitted this this week. The middle-class wants a return to the status-quo. President Obama has not been able to do this and no one is fooled when he says he cares about the middle-class. The right, however, lacks credibility just as much as the President. The extremity of both sides right now is distasteful, but true representative choice is simply not available or even possible.

Objectivity is mythical. The undecided middle know the President is to the left and Romney is to the right. Professors Hamblin and Birch at UVU are not objective and recognize the canon is not either. Keep in mind, both are in the humanities, so the idea of objectivity in academics is completely nonsensical to them and they do not have a problem with relativity in the canon. I teach high school students this when I can. What I tell them is to approach the actual as often as possible through what statistics and analysis are provided, expose the structures within a text and/or concept and then debunk the structure as ridiculous if possible. If the ridiculous is not possible then show how it violates an existing moral code like the ideals Professors Hamblin and Birch hold or any other the students might know of. In my mind, it does not matter which moral code one uses since all moral codes are suspect, relying on the delusion of assumed truth/reason/logic.

No policies are better than another, they only reflect moral-coding. No policy can be objectively seen as better. Policies must succeed at what the public wants. Right now the public wants jobs, middle-class security and growth and smaller, more efficient government and most don’t care if the rich have to pay a bit more in either taxes or collapsed tax-loopholes.

The constitution dictates state’s rights. The constitution is a text and is a creature of perspective. If states had the balls and money to do it, they could successfully reclaim almost every federal program and department except those required by the constitution. Most people, me included, are comfortable with federal control of many programs, but by doing so, I am saying the federal government can do things better than local government. Since truth is relative, insisting one practice, POV or policy is better than another is patronizing.

Bi-partisanship is the demand of only the moderate minority. The right is not at all interested and honestly, nor is the left.

The last thing is that creativity is the only solution, but not the creativity you and I like. I write (and occasionally publish) poetry and draw comics, but this type of creativity is not going to help the US economically. We need political and economic creativity to elevate not only the United States, but also the world even if society in general sees economic success as a virtue.

So what about you and me. I am on the cusp of a decision. I must decide by January 1, 2013 if I become a regular high-school teacher or pursue a career in higher-education.

Universities are running out of money, but are still building gigantic buildings. Schools are doing this because legislatures could care less about professors and academics, but have great relationships with real-estate agents and construction contractors. Poets and philosophers do not spend that much time playing golf. University administrators play well and often and with legislators and the business community. The legislature of almost any state would rather cut tenure, chairs, professorships, programs, research and the arts instead of hurt their relationships with business. Besides, all professors do is bitch, refuse to cross the aisle and attempt to understand what makes an uneducated, politically conservative republican contractor think without being didactic, patronizing and pretentious and then refuse to help said contractor continue to do what every republican wants: make money.

This is the kind of creativity that is needed. Neither Romney or Obama is providing it.

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3 thoughts on “The Myth of Objectivity–Political or Otherwise

  1. A very interesting post, though you misunderstood what I wrote about objectivity. I did not write that professors are objective, but that they are held to an objective standard of empirical engagement. I added the adjective “objective” to emphasize that this standard isn’t something that I or a bunch of my academic cronies made up. It is a real approach to critical analysis that emerged from centuries of thoughtful, mistake-filled engagement with the world, and it has evolved into the myriad strategies employed by scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. It exists out there, for real reasons – not just to make people feel inferior.

    You suggest that reason, truth, and logic are relative. Indeed, that view itself is derived from phenomenology, post-structuralism, and semiotics – all strategies that were honed in the academy, and have trickled out into popular discourse in very interesting ways. Even the idea that “truth is relative” has a very specific sociopolitical context – and, perhaps more importantly, is a concept that has been frequently employed in popular discourse to create false equivalences. Having a *feeling* that the teenager in the hoodie looks dangerous is not the same as having proof that he’s armed. Likewise, having a *feeling* that Mitt is a nice guy – or Obama, for that matter – versus reflecting on the very real, very available data to the contrary are not equivalent approaches to political engagement. One is a popularity contest, and the other is evidence-based. If someone’s – say, a professor’s – appeal to evidence-based reflection makes the general public feel inferior rather than ready to counter with their own superior analytical approach, then I’m not going to blame educators for that. Education is not infotainment designed to make people feel good about themselves. When its done right – yes, even by teachers and professors with attitudes we don’t particularly like, or whose views we don’t agree with – it provides students with the opportunities and skills to articulate their own world views.

    I found your rhetorical tactic of differentiating “truth” from “the actual” even more interesting in light of your appeal to relativism. Might not “the actual” be information of some kind? How does that information come to us? How are we equipped to understand it and reflect upon it? With all things being relative, the 7.8% jobs number from earlier this week might be “actual” or just a case of cooked books. Similarly, the kid in the hoodie very well might have a gun in his waistband – but are we confident enough in our hunch to go ahead and shoot? At times like this, it can be helpful to consult trustworthy sources of information. All things being equal, if I want information about economic history I’d still prefer to consult a reputable scholarly journal over Fox News any day. I suppose that comes down to the fact that scholars are accountable to an existing canon, a developing canon, and each other; Fox News is accountable to Rupert Murdoch and a bunch of advertisers. Call me a snob, I guess…

    We could certainly look into the economic and political information that sourced some of your claims about Obama’s ineffectiveness. First we could start by asking, well, why do people not have jobs? Is it because of the 2008 Wall Street crash? Partly, sure. Is it because corporations have steadily been moving jobs overseas for decades? Partly, yes. Is it because many unions have become bloated and bureaucratic? Yes, that too. And finally, is it because capitalism as a system is based on growth, which itself is dependent on constantly lowering operating costs – e.g. labor costs – to maintain investor profits in a competitive field? Of course. (Does that final claim make me a socialist? No, it makes me someone who has read a lot about economics.)

    I also know a fair number of PhDs in a variety of fields. One of them is a tenured professor who studies American financial history. Back in 2009, the topic of the recent Wall Street crash came up and she said something I’ll never forget: pretty much every economic downturn since the 1800s has resulted in a bunch of political bloviating about the evils of regulation and restructuring, she said. As a result, she continued, the financial system doesn’t get restructured and nothing gets better. And when things go from bad to worse, she concluded (somewhat patronizingly), the powers that be finally get the bright idea that they should re-rig the financial system. She’s not wrong, of course. This has happened lots of times before. You can look it up.

    I will concede one point, though: you’re right that “all professors do is bitch.” We bitch because, like everyone else, we’re tired of having our pay cut and our job security whittled away. We’re tired of having to take on more students for more classes, of having those same students make our cup of coffee at 6am with their shift ending at 2pm, right in time for class – which they, admirably, do not completely sleep through – so they can defray the astronomical cost of those classes at the rate of minimum wage. The most accomplished among us bitch because they know exactly why all this stuff is happening now, exactly how and why it happened before, and that our society’s continuing inaction has real and dangerous effects – poverty, violence, war. Some of them even try to get into office to change things, and run up against those same social and political structures that keep the intolerable status quo entrenched for decades and centuries.

    But I don’t know, maybe a professor isn’t the person for the job. Maybe the guy in the diner should try it – according to my dad, that guy always knows all the answers.

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