Sunday, March 28, 2010

NOTE on Jan 14, 2011: The remark below on Obama's "moderation" vs. Palin's "cross-hairs" mapping seems erily relevant now, in the wake of the Gabby Giffords Arizona massacre and the debate about civility it has prompted--punctuated, as might be expected, by the shrill of Palin's "blood libel" comments.


It is perhaps the greatest and least appreciated political achievement of President Obama--his outstanding virtue as a political leader, the virtue of political moderation--that he is willing to risk and perhaps even sacrifice the victories he most seeks, as he showed with health care, to insure that his government is inclusive, not divisive, that he invites the 'loyal opposition' to play a role, seeks consensus, in a form that will not change the basic shape of his own legislative goals, but will moderate them. It is the greatest evidence of the essentially unpolitical, radically dogmatic and irresponsible stance of the populist Republican party of today that its leaders eschew any form of moderation, and indeed, even show contempt for it, along with contempt for their Democratic rivals. Can we imagine what the outcry would have been, had a member of Congress screamed "Liar!" at the President at the State of the Union Address in 1960 or 1980 or 2000?

What is most troubling in the current politics of kitsch and histrionic anger in American society is the way it connects with our mass democracy, and the form of mass media that has emerged in the 21st century. The precipitous decline in the 4th estate, both at the level of newspapers and now at the level of television news, the institution which had, at least to some extent, evolved in its professional code toward the function of providing both accurate and relevant political facts and in-depth, critical analysis to the public for informed decisions, is quickly being replaced by opinion media, symbolized by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, which is overtly ideological both in its selection and 'interpretation'--the word is 'spin' but the truth is distortion--of political facts. The world of the Creation Science museum in Louisville, KY, which presents a little girl in a diorama with a gentle squirrel and an equally gentle raptor dinosaur--the world of kitsch religion--now has its parallel in the accounts of the nation presented on the angry talk shows proliferating radio, t.v. and the internet. And the public appears to have a very strong appetite for this very stuff--commodified, Disneyfied 'news', hot-tempered opinions which give us Heroes and Villains we can label, opportunities for sound-bite opinions which 'answer' the problems of the day. Palinism.

I don't pretend to know where all of this is going, but some negative trends seem undeniable. As we move toward a more heterogeneous society in which the distance between the rich or well-to-do and poor or 'barely making it' continues to increase, and the group at the bottom grows larger, the prospects for social trust and deliberative democracy weaken. It is getting very black and white, rather than red and blue, which in principle at least both belong to the American flag. The more deeply entrenched political kitsch, ideological bigotry and economic corruption become in American political life, the less we are one nation, the more our politics will incorporate verbal, economic, and physical violence. The more we will abandon genuine politics, both liberal and conservative, that aims at differing conceptions of justice. The more we will experience anarchistic political terrorism, like the airplane flown into the IRS building last February, and blink. (Interesting, isn't it, how that more or less went completely unnoticed and has been almost completely forgotten by the national collective memory? We will know we are sliding into fascism if such violence grows and continues to be ignored.)

We have to pull back from this downward spiral somehow, but its populist appeal will only increase, if we do not find ways to educate ourselves and our children, such that we and they are unsatisfied with anything less than genuine rational engagement, not play-acting roles of wanna-be celebrities, be it in the world of art, of knowledge, or of politics and the common good. The problem is not merely that these media and political demagogues and sophists, who want to persuade and even be elected, but not govern, distort and debase the political process; the problem is that we are already very close to losing one of the two great American political parties to a form of political engagement that makes them incapable of democratic government, and this makes that party and even the country open to a kind of American fascism, which combines ideological anarchistic individualism with corporate dominance of the actual government and a readiness for Caesarism (General Petraeus?). The idea of a social contract is breaking down, and the Republicans seem to be ready to abandon it and well over half of their fellow citizens, including most poor whites. We are moving toward a society in which the politics of kitsch plays a greater and greater role, and the consequence is we not only know but care ever less about the real world in which we make political decisions.

But gosh! we don't need that kind of stuff when the soccer moms and their 45's run things, do we? So let's reload and put the cross-hairs on all those lefties who hate America and want to So-obamaize it, before they get the chance.

In the political world of the Ron Pauls, the Tea Party mad hatters and Sarah Palin, the problem is the Other. It is like the story of the priest, the rabbi and the Christian Scientist who were suddenly all in hell. The priest admitted that after communion he had a little wine, lusted for the housecleaner, and kabam! "Here I am." The rabbi admitted he was at a luncheon, lusted for a ham sandwich, and kabam! "Here I am." But when they asked the Christian Scientist why he was in hell, he answered, "I am not here." The party of Palin is "not here" when it comes to American government. It is a simulacra of politics, like the Brillo cans of Andy Warhol were a simulacra of art--until one day they were proclaimed as the highest art. Like Enron was the model corporate citizen. Like the bankers were the conservative foundation of a prosperous free market economy.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


The extraordinary popularity and appeal of Sarah Palin both disgusts and fascinates political observers, who have often been at a loss to explain it. I believe the explanation begins with the concept of kitsch, a word defined in common meaning as 'art' considered a tasteless copy or imitation that creates a kind of cartoon of genuine or high art, stripping it of its seriousness and higher purpose. Kitsch belongs to a world of commodities to be consumed, "eye candy" that reassures its viewers of a safe and simple world of childish images. Kitsch is not degrading in the same way that pornography is, but it has a similar effect of deadening the capacity for spiritual engagement with the world, an escapism that art renounces by challenging us to perceive it as it is, laden with thought and beauty.

Milan Kundera, in his postmodern novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, defined kitsch as "the absolute denial of shit," arguing that kitsch functions to exclude from our conception of the world everything that human beings find difficult to come to terms with, creating instead a childish, sanitized, "Disneyfied" view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Kundera linked the desire for this type of consumable escapist world of images to totalitarianism, with its denial of the world of democratic politics--a world involving a plurality of perspectives that must be integrated through deliberation and negotiation, a world of complex social problems in which individualism and uncertainty and even irony are recognized as elements in the human condition, a world that cannot simply be divided, as the political world too easily is divided, into good and evil as us and them. Kitsch, because it does not merely deny but actually suppresses complexity, multiplicity, uncertainty, 'fallenness' and depth, renders its participants vulnerable to the kind of mass consciousness that totalitarian regimes play on, to fantasy roles against fantasy villains, and to the incitement to violence as the solution of political problems.

Kitsch is the great lie that complexity can be avoided, and that there are simple, happy answers that will give us all our pleasures without any sacrifice. It feeds the fat ego, reassures the hidden child. In politics, it is the world in which I can indulge my patriotic gore without sacrificing myself, my sons or daughters, my money or my conscience (by having to view the terror and agony of battle, civilian casualties, coffins of dead soldiers, war crimes, etc.). It is the world in which I get to rant about "irresponsible spending" but not make choices about what government services I want to cut. It is the world of racial and ethnic and class prejudice, which can occur in both directions, though it has more impact from the top looking down. It is a world in which uninsured abandoned mothers are all welfare queens, and unemployed workers--many victims of financial corruption at the highest levels--are all just lazy. It is above all the world in which faith in the political process--a process in which both liberals and conservatives have a vital and contributing voice--has succumbed to an attitude of entertainment, antipathy and excitement, rather than deliberation, human empathy, and sobriety.

All of us, liberals and conservatives, are prone to forms of kitsch, but in this era of the slow decline of American prosperity and power, which began more or less--and not entirely coincidentally--with the Vietnam War, kitsch politics has come to have a dominant role in the Republican party, affecting its capacity not only to serve as a participant in government, but to serve as the "loyal opposition." Republicanism, in becoming the party of anti-integration, fundamentalist religion, jingoist anti-internationalism and above all, political rant, teaches the mantra that Government itself is the enemy. What is sobering about this phenomenon, which otherwise might be laughable, is the intense self-righteous anger which its participants play at. The party of Eisenhower, who as it were won World War II, was taken over by our first actor president, who claimed the role of winning World War III, was taken over by a willful son of the Elite, who got to play the cowboy by starting his own war, GWII, is being taken over by a barbie doll, who wants to . . . what? Shut down the federal government? Go on a 'turkey-shoot' to get the SoObama-ites? (Does anyone think she might not use such phrases?)

to be continued

Sunday, February 14, 2010


My title echoes ironically Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”--ironically, because whereas Benjamin celebrated the democratizing aspect of mechanically reproduced art, and did not mourn the loss of “aura” associated with individual art objects, I believe something important is being lost to culture, both with 20th century technologizing of art--one thinks of Andy Warhol--and perhaps even more ominously with the 21st century technologizing of communication--the handheld, which Andy would have loved.

I did not say ‘art’ of dialogue, because dialogue partakes of three elements, each of which encompasses more than even the level of mastery implied by art: (i) philosophy, as the questioning pursuit of that at which we wonder, the uncanniness of life in whatever form it opens to us; (ii) friendship, the openness of human beings to mutual discovery, concern and even love; and (iii) courage, or perhaps better put virtue in general, though the willingness to expose one’s faiths to refutation and rejection, if not scorn, i.e. to suffer a kind of death of identity, is the first virtue we need for intellectual life, all life (and all love) arising out of and amidst the dying and the threatened.

I do not think of dialogue as mere conversation either, e.g. "My Dinner with Andre"; however dazzling the verbal performance, dialogue in my view must go to the heart; must seek the essence of things; must test and be tested for truth, whether the dialogue takes us into our beliefs and values about works of art, about religion, about ethics, about personal relationships, about personal decisions, about science or politics, whatever. You have to put yourself out there, say what you think--and you have to think, not just opine. And to be dialogue, you have to both think, and think together, which may involve open contestation, but cannot be driven simply by the will to win, or again it is not dialogue. And with this, you leave the world of mere life behind.

This is so unlike telegraphy, which approximates to the signalling communication of birds or other "communicative" animals. Text“: “I’m doing X. Want to join me?” “I feel Y. How about you?” Much of what we call "art" also falls into this signalling type of communication, and most of it is manipulative, an attempt to push your button to do X or Y.

Can dialogue exist, in a non-literary culture? I think perhaps not. There is conversation there, and music--bards of art forms in which the people sway and find themselves, but as a mass, as a herd, and that can be a powerful rhythm of natural life--but can there be a human life of reading and reflection without a world of books? And if there is no dialogue, are there really individual persons, or just ego-bodies on the run?

To rise up to the stage of dialogue, I have to put myself forth, potentially fully present, 'naked' to the other person. There is a kind of suspension of practical life, not unlike the suspension of disbelief (or perhaps more accurately, of belief) in viewing dramatic art. I enter one of those quasi-sacred spaces, a “kingdom of ends,” a cultural and intellectual place in which what I do is its own end, is for its own sake, not utility, not commerce, not ‘gain.’ And we have to work our way together into dialogue, which emerges slowly, as trust and commitment emerge, as we step foot by foot into the ring of personal exchange, opening ourselves to thought and wonder, seeking always the edge, the metaphysical boundaries we can reach, but not go beyond, as we are reflected back upon our human condition. Dialogue takes us out of our busyness into the presence of the gods, the realization of their death, and our solitude--but also, somehow, miraculously our redemption in the contact, two minds in inter-action, the revelation of us as individuals in our freedom together.

But such worlds of refuge are disrupted, and the intellectual life of a society in which such practices are still cultivated, such communities of discourse, by the tweets and twitters of hand-held devices, vibrating or emitting their whistles and bells. Constantly on call, we cannot 'give ourselves' to the kingdom of ends that is dialogue. It is an "act" of human agents and thinkers, a work of disclosure which itself interrupts the techno-world in which we are constantly in motion, dealing and trading in feelings, bodies, money, opinion.

We in this global Chinese-American 21st century derempt ourselves of nature, of the second nature of culture born of gods, and even of that human nature, in which logos -- the disclosing word -- exists for dialogue. Is this what postmodernists mean by the death of man?