Saturday, March 27, 2010
SARAH PALIN AND THE POLITICS OF KITSCH Part I (18)
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