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.

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