Not long ago I sat in a Medieval History course at my undergraduate institution. That day’s topic was the Spanish Inquisition, and we had prepared by reading a chapter in our textbook that highlighted the glory of Al-Andalus, the terror of the inquisition after its fall, and the merciful harboring of Muslims and Jews within the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Beyazid the Second with an executive order for their protection. Ottoman failures aside, I expected that day to participate in a lecture condemning religious hatred and The Inquisition of the Catholic Church. As the professor began, she asked us what our impressions of The Inquisition were, and we responded as we should have – torture, executions, and repression. She glibly and triumphantly retorted, “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” The professor went on to highlight in great detail the “real” Spanish Inquisition where material conditions made certain events inevitable and out of the control of the people who committed the crimes. Such is the danger, it must be said, of “the middle.”
One who traverses academia will be all too familiar with the promised land known as “the middle.” In the mystical land known as “the middle,” all ideas come to wine and dine in extravagant intelligence pageants displaying opulent intellectual fairness and nonpartisan reason. The middle isn’t just the promised land of academics, of course, but the society at large. Children are taught the value of every opinion, college students are put through endless peer (sic) review, “movements” of detached reason against supposed frothing at the mouth religious individuals have cropped up(1), President Obama is praised for his nonpartisan approach to immigration, and “across the isle” became a failed rallying cry for national unity in spite of political differences.
A Whig American historian will tell you that “moderation” is part of the American spirit, as American as civilian collateral damage and a hard day’s work. Never mind the 600,000 soldiers who died in the middle of the 19th century, the atomic bomb(s), or the millions of slaves brutally beaten into service – the true american way is fancied to be taking two extremes and bringing them to an agreeable middle. Mythos, fictional as it is, has impact. It is for this reason that we must discuss here the danger of the middle intellectually and politically. At our universities and in our departments, through postmodern middle-worship, we have marginalized ourselves into the disagreeable position of borderline pointlessness. Politically, we have paralyzed ourselves into believing the critical contradictions of society can be navigated by mutually agreeable compromises. As current events illustrate with crystal clarity, this is not always the case. While we at the university and at the capitol building search for an agreeable intellectual middle, thousands are butchered for naught but their born identity, millions are homeless in a nation with millions of empty domiciles, and violence rages across urban environments gripped with systemic oppression and hopeless employment situations.
Like William Butler Yeats in his anthologized “The Second Coming” (2) we must conclude that in our age of extremes “the centre cannot hold.” Unlike William Butler Yeats, we needn’t feel like a falcon who has lost his way. We need only to do the truly hard work, the work of recognizing the radical nature of our social maladies and the radical nature of the solutions to these problems. If we can do this, Yeats’ “rough beast” will be of our own making – its origins at the very least not mysterious as they were to Yeats and his generation of the Great War.
Being Unbiased and Other Pipe Dreams
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” -Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach
There is a deep held belief in academia that to reach the promised land of the middle, we have to be “impartial” and free from “bias.” We must first address this before we can establish how this and the middle itself has lead to an utter marginalization of the academic fields. Naturally, the supreme unbiased arbiters of all things reasonable, arch-enemies of the barbaric analysis of Marxists, first to the front line of the historical specificity battle, need to understand the origins of their own analytical method of unbiased critique.
I know a time when capitalism didn’t exist seems nearly impossible to imagine, but in the revolutionary years of the 1640s and 1770s, an approach based on detached reason was in fact rebellious. The grandly named Enlightenment set the stage for these approaches. Enlightenment thinkers from Milton to Jefferson endeavored to “justify the ways of god” (3) in the former case and declare the natural rights of well off white men in the latter case. Of import, these narratives always reached for nature and detached observation or explanation of the state of things on earth presently. This is Enlightenment thinking. Even the devoutly religious Milton endeavored to define an English “nature” in his History of Britain. The conditions of earth justified god or elucidated the natural rights and qualities of man. Through “unbiased” observation of history and nature, Early Modern thinkers justified their actions in a discourse opposed to the impersonal dedication to feudal monarchs. Milton in his famous Areopagitica portrays himself as a mere messenger of history, spending page after page on histories of Greece and Rome.
I think most postmodern critics will notice quite clearly the true bias behind both thinkers and many Early Modern thinkers who endeavored to pursue social science (Hobbes, for example). Yet, this search for “unbiased” analysis continues, in spite of its historical invalidity. What’s more, by even picking this critical heuristic (the goal of unbiased and impartial analysis), one has already become biased towards Enlightenment notions of the critic. Our critical methods, to put the point most frankly, are social and thus political. Postmodernism’s rejections of metanarratives is biased towards the conditions of the late 20th century; an age of extremes and the failure of big men and big ideologies. Marxism is biased towards analyzing the heightening of class division in eras of unrestricted capitalism (the 19th century, for example). The point here is that you have to chose. You cannot be impartial and apolitical. The very means by which you endeavor to achieve impartiality are themselves tied to historical, social, and political conditions. Give it up. We are biased creatures. We must chose a method we believe to be true, and we must defend and propagate it (4).
Now, the fact that human thought inherently suggests bias is no reason to condemn all of humanity as degenerate louts who bit the apple. Rather, our ability to chose and advocate are redeeming and distinct qualities. By removing these qualities from our theory (theory is one of the few things that trickles down these days), our departments and courses have been robbed of their intellectual meat. Departments have preached impossible impartiality and have removed the true fruit of the work we love – developing and integrating schools of thought to help us better understand -and change- the world. We have been reduced from active participants in our world to mere passive observers seeking one arcane truth over another. We have, in short, marginalized ourselves.
Scholars could tell you what a certain word means in a sentence from 1634, but they would genuinely struggle with telling you why any of this is important. This is a direct product of seeking “the middle” via an impossible impartial and unbiased approach. We have robbed our books, historical events, and social phenomena of our own participation in them. Paradise Lost is an elaborate theological trap for unbelievers. Life during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century wasn’t that bad. The Battle of Verdun was actually waged by generals who tried their best with what they had. Yes, all of these are actual opinions I have heard in the classroom and read on JSTOR. The madness has to stop. We are not unbiased and cannot be. We all use derivative heuristics and radical assertions of uncompromising truth. Put the bias back in theory, abandon the quest for the middle, and you put the person back in theory; and in doing so, you make our fields potentially relevant to anyone instead of a group of 15 people on any given Saturday at the local library.
Reality and Contradiction:
Outside of academics the glorification of the middle is rampant and, quite frankly, incredibly dangerous. As we look on, thousands of Palestinians are killed by Israeli super weapons for firing rockets that only killed Nazis (in 1943) with massed fire that Hamas does not have. Yet, when the truth is so very clear to anyone who would look, many still hold to the glorification of the middle. John Kerry, after receiving a punitive phone call from Washington for suggesting carpet bombing civilian areas was maybe a bad idea, presently preaches the necessity of both sides to “come to the table.” In such a situation, it seems amazing for anyone to suggest middle ground, but it is quite common if one is to traverse the sulfurous pit that is comments sections on articles about the conflict in Gaza. In politics, even more so than in academia, the center cannot hold. It always falls back to one way or the other.
Similarly to Yeats feeling of powerlessness, many onlookers looking for moderation in Palestine conclude that both of the warring sides are to blame, that a solution between the two sides is impossible, and quite oddly that the two sides will always hate each other . This is the dangerous and potentially deadly side effect of seeking the middle in situations that require something more. This is not an unprecedented phenomena. The great compromise of 1850 lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Neville Chamberlain was a true intellectual and compromised with Nazi Germany. England urged the Holy Roman Empire to talk it out with its rebellious protestant princes, which was followed by a pithy period of war lasting thirty years. Alexander II freed the serfs in the Russian Empire. The founding fathers decided, in good faith, that an African slave was only 3/5 of a person, which itself lead to the aforementioned “great compromise.”
The fact is, societies have critical contradictions that can be solved only by the radical road. Compromise and “the middle” only prolong these contradictions. Would it truly be better, you ask, to have waged the Civil War in 1850? Yes, yes it would have, for a number of reasons. Contradictions must be solved and not avoided, for by avoiding them through the moral detachment of the middle and compromise, one only prolongs the festering of that synthesized contradiction; which is a circumstance that hardly bequeaths moral supremacy. Instead, such a position suggests a true indifference to the suffering of others so long as we may uselessly grasp for stability. Let history be your guide. When contradictions arise, they must be addressed with force and radical means, not with bills and edicts that side-step the issue. Solutions can be difficult and far from moderate. Reality is like that – our tasks are sometimes difficult. That does not change the fact that we must do them.
This overwhelmed powerlessness many feel, the anxiety that Yeats felt when he looked at a world in ruins, is not all that surprising when we see that our international community and ideology is based chiefly around the quest for the middle. If the UN cannot find a solution to the slaughter in Gaza, what hope do we, the people, have? We must conclude with Yeats, in such a rendering, that we are powerless in the creation of the new “beast” from Bethlehem that is our future. As alluded to above with regards to academic theory and its detached pointlessness, when we make ourselves observers we truly are powerless to fashion that beast. When we seek the middle in situations that have none, we make ourselves impotent.
Our world and ourselves need not be this way. As highlighted above in academics, history, and politics, the center cannot hold – and that’s a good thing. Our world is rife with contradiction, our classrooms and departments full of troubles and challenges. By attempting to remove bias and reach a transcendent analysis, we have made ourselves incapable of analyzing our world as it stands. We have removed ourselves from our world, and in doing so, removed what drives us to speak (5). As John Milton once remarked on writing, when a deep desire for truth is matched with a deep desire to express it, all other things fall into their places (6). When many begin to abandon the middle in favor of a true analysis of the critical contradictions of our society and the potentially radical solutions to them, and are further catalyzed to speak of such things, then, certainly, “the centre cannot not hold,” and a future of our own making from Bethlehem will “come round at last.” (2)