“Unwinnable” Cultural Debates
As I’ve mentioned earlier this week, I am a big fan of Philip Roth novels.
I think the Philip Roth novels capture the psyche and inner turmoil of American Jews who were too young to fight in WWII but too old to be part of the baby boom. They grew up with significant anti-Semitism in the US and were the core of the last Jews to really grow up in urban, old-school ward politics. They also understood through out their childhoods that really horrible things were happening in Europe to Jews and that anything they suffered (which could be pretty bad) paled in comparison.
This means I generally think that he is well deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I suppose you can say that prizes like the Nobel do not matter but I think they do and recognize people who make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and culture and understanding in the world. There are going to be plenty of people who don’t win because the award is only given once a year. Haruki Murakami is a perpetual hopeful who will probably not win because his books are very poppy. There are still many people who think John Updike was snubbed for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A friend from undergrad who is also a heterosexual, Jewish, male really dislikes Philip Roth and Philip Roth novels. I recently made a brief post on facebook about my belief that Roth was snubbed again and my friend disagreed with an emphatic no. Our debate revolved around American Pastoral. I consider the book to be a masterpiece about a man who thinks he has risen from poverty and figured the entire American dream and society out, only to see his world collapse into chaos because of social change and rejection of the values he was taught to believe in. My friend thinks that American Pastoral is nothing more than misogynist drivel. He did not necessarily provide evidence, this is supposed to be a self-evident axiom it seems.
My friend thinks Chinatown is a nearly flawless movie. So he can watch art by problematic and morally compromised artists. Like me, he is also opposed to the trigger warning movement for course syllabi. So I am unclear about what he finds so morally objectionable in Philip Roth but he is very firm in his opinion.
What really struck me about the debate is that is a rather absurd and pointless one. We are probably not going to convince each other on the rightness of our viewpoint. He will go on disliking Philip Roth and I will go on defending Philip Roth. I think most cultural debates are probably like this with two sides just shouting past each other and not listening. So why do people argue? Is it to convince 3rd party listeners? I admit that there is a psychic pleasure in being liked and affirmed with this on the Internet.
I also wonder if my liking of Philip Roth makes me look like a potential turncoat. My friend is heavily involved in on-line journalism and posts a lot about on-line sexism against women. I admit that I am staggered and shocked by the amount of bile that can be directed at women on-line especially journalists like Amanda Hess and Amanda Marcotte but I don’t think liking Philip Roth novels is going to turn me into a fair weather friend of feminism.
What are unwinnable cultural debates you have been involved in? Why did you stick with the fight?
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