Tuesday, February 17, 2004

aid and comfort to enemy ideology

The above applies to yours truly, and that proofreading work I was doing over the weekend. I found the Edgar Allan Poe story online. Here's the link, if you want to read it yourself. Mrs. Kang is using Poe's story to support her argument about the "duplicity" of American culture, whose checkered historical track record (slavery, war, etc.-- you know the litany) stands in shameful contrast to the ideals we constantly preach.

I'll be honest and confess that Mrs. Kang's paper thoroughly pissed me off, and while I kept a very civil tone in my proofreading notes, I let her have it-- as politely as I could-- with regard to the sloppiness and incompleteness of her argumentation (this isn't unique to Mrs. Kang, by the way; the academic culture in Korea doesn't exactly cultivate methodical thinking and good research habits). I've become less cruel in my old age in how I evaluate folks; as I've gained greater awareness of my own foibles, I find it's harder to pass judgement on others. But Mrs. Kang's argument, and the poisonous school of thought it reflects, raised my hackles, and I couldn't take this lying down (if you don't mind one lame cliché following another).

In general, I don't write about patriotism as such, because my stance on such matters is fairly philosophical: nations come and go; they're not forever. Carlin's at least partially right when he says, in reference to gung-ho conservatives who are easily angered by flag-burners, "I leave symbols for the symbol-minded." This I can understand. But at the same time, we have to remember that we don't move through the world as if we owe it nothing. We are constantly in debt: in debt to the earth, to the water, to the sunlight, to our food, to our family, to our friends, to all that gives us care and sustenance, and at some level, even philosophical folks like me have to recognize that the notion of country is included in this great list of indebtedness. Among my various debts, I owe my country. I'm not giving this issue any absolute weight, mind you, but it still has to mean something to say that I've grown up in America, been nurtured there, enjoyed a free, open, and pluralistic environment there-- a place where a man can write raunchy stories, study religion, and gleefully mock political figures for his small reading audience of a couple dozen.* One way to show appreciation for all these gifts is to defend, when appropriate, the caregiver.

[*TECHNICAL NOTE: Yes, I'm actually doing a lot of that while here in Korea, not in America. True. But I did it while in the States over Christmas, I'll be able to do it there again when I go back, so if you want to nitpick the geography issue, I hereby cordially invite you to EAT ME.]

So that's where I am right now, mentally, in dealing with Jang-woong's big sister. I saw her paper as heavily ideological, almost nonchalantly anti-American (it's written for an audience that will simply nod its head sagely at every mention of American imperialism and colonialism and materialism and corporatism, etc.), and I felt I needed both to get some frustration out of my system and educate her a bit about Other Points of View. As people like the Air Marshal have argued, most Americans are not unaware of what the world thinks of us; quite the contrary, the world makes sure we know its opinion of us. But the countries that call us to the carpet don't often seem to turn that same critical gaze back on themselves, and so their critiques are very one-sided. This isn't to suggest that everyone in America is free of the grip of ideology, partisanship, and nationalist zealotry; that would be a naive thought. But when emotions rule us, we forget that our opinions, arising as they do in the moment, are never the end of the story. And while I may not hold some absolute privileged perspective, I nevertheless know a lot more about my own country than Mrs. Kang who, bless her misguided heart, plainly doesn't know shit about it.

This evening, I was all set to put up a cartoon about John Kerry fucking sheep, but this proofreading affair bothers me a little too much to concentrate on that right now. It was very hard to sit down and go line by line through this anti-American diatribe, correcting spelling, rephrasing sentences, adding polite remarks and critiques... and eventually I cracked. Here are the general remarks I left at the very end of Mrs. Kang's draft. You'll see I've tried my best to remain as polite as possible, but know this: it was very, very hard to do.

GENERAL REMARKS: VERY interesting paper so far! I’ll be curious to read the rest. I think the overall argument needs to be made more coherent, however. Several points:

First and most important, what is your primary purpose in writing this paper? Is it to critique modern, 21st-century American society by using Poe’s story as ammunition in the critique, or are you commenting on the historical ironies of America’s past history, i.e., at the time of Poe? This is very unclear. If, as I’m guessing, your purpose is to critique contemporary America, then you’ll have to provide much more evidence that relates Poe to our times—more connective evidence and arguments.

Many non-Americans use terms like “imperialism” and “colonialism” without understanding what they actually mean. Many Americans also do this! Your paper, in order to avoid confusion, needs to present clear definitions of these terms (even as footnotes; that’s OK) for your arguments to be stronger. Is America, in fact, an empire? This is an important question, and answers vary. Many Americans will argue that this contention is ridiculous, especially if one compares America’s behavior to that of China (a truly imperialist country, eating Tibet and threatening Taiwan!), the old empires of Western Europe, or the Roman Empire. In all such cases, imperial powers physically dominate other countries, force them to pay tribute to the central government (Beijing, Rome, etc.), and cruelly suppress open criticism—none of which America does. If America is imperialist, it is perhaps “culturally imperialist” or “economically imperialist,” though you’ll have to redefine “imperialism” away from its classical definition for this to make sense (and people will challenge a redefinition!). So long as countries relate to America on economic/trading terms, it is far less clear that America “dominates” other countries. Market forces and national sovereignty play important roles in trade. I’m not saying that America therefore isn’t imperialist. Perhaps it is! I am, however, saying that your paper will need to present strong evidence in favor of the imperialism argument, beginning with a clear definition of words like “imperialism,” “colonialism,” etc.

A more direct connection needs to be made between the notions of exploitation and colonialism. I haven’t read Poe’s story, so I don’t know how much evidence his book will provide. If his book doesn’t provide enough evidence in your favor, you will have to research elsewhere for various thinkers’ opinions on exploitation and colonialism. (QUESTION: Is The Narrative a novel, a short story, or something else? This should also be mentioned at the beginning.)

As things stand, the paper is rather unfairly balanced in a very anti-American direction. This makes any critique much less convincing, because it appears motivated by emotion-driven nationalistic ideology, and little else. Because only leftist and postmodernist sources are cited, a very distorted view of the actual situation is presented. This needs to be corrected, because it’s quite obvious that American history is NOT merely one of domination, hypocrisy, and alienation. If it were, then people would have no reason to desire a life in America, and there’d be no immigration to our shores. If your purpose is to provide a convincing critique of American culture and values, the critique must be balanced, or it will be little better than propaganda. This is why I provided some counter-arguments to your contentions: NOT to discourage you, but to encourage you to reply to them by amassing evidence and presenting a fuller argument in favor of your point of view. It is indeed true that America is inconsistent in how it views itself and the world (what country isn’t?), and our history is replete with hypocrisy. But Americans often appreciate and welcome trenchant critique of their own culture, because they are generally idealistic and constantly trying to improve it. A constructive critique’s purpose is to make things better, not merely pass negative judgement. So again, what are your motivations for writing this paper?

Allow me to congratulate you on your English skills, which are far better than my written Korean skills! At present, I would be unable to write such a complex paper in Korean!


Grrrrrrrr. Write in with comments if you want. I turned Mrs. Kang's four-page, single-spaced paper into a seven-pager with my voluminous critiques, and she's still got another half to give me for proofing.

UPDATE: With thanks to Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges, I now have a link to a very good short essay (much shorter than Bill Whittle's ponderous screed) by Joseph Nye on the question of America and empire. And Dr. Hodges also provided a link to IndependentPhilosopher, whom I'll blogroll and plunk down right next to AnalPhilosopher. The prof who runs IndependentPhilosopher, Dr. William Vallicella, says this about his philosophical position:

My philosophical position may be described as onto-theological personalism: I defend the view that individual persons form an irreducible and ultimate ontological category, and that within this category self-subsistent existence is the prime person. This is the theme that unifies my seemingly disparate investigations. Thus my critique of the anatta doctrine of Pali Buddhism subserves this end, as does my rethinking of themes from the great but now neglected native Californian philosopher, Josiah Royce. The same goes for my critique of Heidegger's phenomenological approach to Being, as well as my critique of the logical approach to existence found in Frege, Russell, and Quine.

This is obviously a position I disagree with, which will make Dr. Vallicella interesting and frustrating reading, much as Dr. Keith Burgess-Jackson is. And that's one way to land on the blogroll. Thank you, Dr. Hodges!


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