This week, for the first time in, let’s say, a “long” time, I attended a mid-week bible study. I’m now an official Reader/Lector at the church I’ve been attending, so I thought I might actually reflect on the stuff I’m supposed to read. The study itself was fine enough. We talked about the parable of the tax collector’s prayer, which is, if you recall, compared to that of the Pharisee. Humility vs. pride. The error of hypocrisy. Obligatory liberal note that we shouldn’t conflate the Pharisees with all Jews, and that the Gospel ware written during a particularly ticklish period, so emotions were a little heightened. Etc. My favorite part of the conversation was when the group began comparing the hypocritical Pharisee to conservative talking-heads on tv. I did not find this so much as curious as silly, and ended up confessing that I’d never watched Bill O’Reilly, and continued with the suggestion that perhaps their moral indignation might be better directed if they stopped watching 24/7 news channels.
Now, I have not done any solid research to substantiate the claim that the following is any more true now than anytime before, but it seems to me that Americans are far more eager these days to rush headlong into the living embodiment of a caricature. You have these people on tv–Rachel Maddow as the representative caricature of a do-good liberal, and Bill O’Reilly as the representative caricature of a dog-eat-dog-world conservative–and for all our so-called cultural sophistication w/ respect to media, the political discourse of the masses (such as it is) seems modeled on these personalities/caricatures. This is not a novel observation, I know. But what’s interesting to me is that this kind of behavior is supposed to be the very thing a super media-savvy culture has moved beyond, what with our much-ballyhooed sophistication and post-ironic investment in what happens behind the camera, in the editing room, in the marketing meeting, etc. (I observed a similar thing when my niece visited me last summer: it felt like I was watching the tv-version of what a teenager is supposed to do & say, as though she wasn’t even there. Just a slightly less sexed-up Glee cast-member.) We are today, we’ve been told repeatedly, the smartest consumers of culture ever. On some level, I’ve no doubt this is probably true; and yet, perhaps we’re damned all the more for it being so. I say this because media infiltrates nearly every facet of contemporary culture–including even our reflections about how media infiltrates contemporary culture. Waxing theoretical about irony on this point seems profoundly unhelpful. To my mind, it’s not that everything today (particularly as it relates to our political discourse) is fake: it’s that sincerity itself has been distorted by the untold layers of glass piled all around it. (Note A: No, this doesn’t speak to an inherent problem with “progress” that can be resisted by picking up Milton every now and then.) (Note B: You’ll just have to trust me when I say that I don’t necessarily believe there is a Zero-Ground of “Sincere Human” that has been sullied. This point of perfection, and indeed the entire conversation about it, i.e., whether there is one or not, is a nuisance of ontological proportion. On this point, I diverge mightily from my many of my most philosophical friends, including myself not too long ago.)
What’s interesting to me now is how at the very moment in American history in which the middle class stakes its place(s) (as a strident caricature) in the political landscape, they in fact have the least amount of power to rule. Fitting their chosen nature of discourse, theirs is only have the illusion of power, whereupon, as William Gass has noted in a fantastic definition of fascism, lower middle-class values are given placating places of ideological prominence, while their interests and well-being never quite enter into the equation. The upshot, then, of a political body replaced by caricature is merely the sentimental notion that one’s country looks (or does not look) like you, whoever that is, and is (or is not) well-run.
Is there a solution? Well, probably not, since I’ve only very opaquely even described a problem. As I see it, the fundamental issue with this caricaturization isn’t dogmatism; rather, it’s the dickishness of one’s caricaturized dogmatism. There are different modes of political dickishness, and identifying these differences is crucial if we’re not satisfied with contemporary political discourse.
I will use myself as an example: I’m definitely a leftist, and indeed am probably even horribly dogmatic about my leftism. I would, I think, impose my will and vision on the world in a second if I could. Be that as it may, I am not in a position to do so, and likely never will be, so there’s little sense compounding my impotent tyranny by also being overly tedious prick about it (my dogmatism, that is)? Such is the problem: how can we maintain our dogmatism without succumbing to distorting pressure of simply being a caricature?
As should be clear, it will likely come down to changing one’s discursive practice more than one’s ontological self. Just as one can be a vulgarly rude person in the relative privacy of one’s own consciousness, they needn’t be vulgarly rude to others. In my experience, certainly in terms of politics most people are simply not persuaded from an opposing position primarily by rationality (this includes a) good arguments, b) bad arguments, and even c) patently irrational arguments that pretend to be otherwise)–in a world that has owned up to, knowingly or not, the complex nature of causality and of the relationship between [x] and [non-x], the work-in-progress nature of rationality is more a frustration than anything else, even if we profess an abiding hope that it more or less works but in ways unseen and/or partially. Of course, some people (probably even you lot) find reason compelling, or at least some people some of the time; but even then, I would argue it is most compelling, as an argument, when deployed amongst those who more or less agree with you already, rather than convincing those who believe the opposite. (You may say this use of “the opposite” is simplistic and simply not true, but I posit that it very true in this world of caricatured politics. That’s precisely how the caricature works: x vs. not-x.) The Habermasian “public space” is already so littered and loud as to be useless, appealing to reasonable dialogue is like looking for something of value at the mall. Sticking with the shopping metaphor: is it not better to go to a neighborhood that embodies your “look,” your values, etc., and shop there? Which is to say, instead of trying to dialogue with somebody opposed to you, “preach to the choir,” as it were, and put into not-strictly-rational practice what you hold to rationally (for me, odd as it may sound, this is the rationale for my recent church attendance, which I may or may not get around to explaining some day).
Of course, this doesn’t mean you stop interacting with people whose dogmatism stands opposed to yours: indeed, you may occasionally (or, should you choose, even constantly) inconvenience somebody who disagrees, by way of protests or simply stating your position, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, i.e., not subject to argument. (E.g., I’m not going to argue that climate change is real. But I will instead state repeatedly, and live my life accordingly, its reality. There is no “dialogue” on this point: be dogmatic.) This, I think, seems perfectly fine, and is very different from asserting one’s caricatured dogmatism in argumentative, dialogical form. Yes, at the end of the day, people may still call you a dick/jerk/etc., but at least now you’re actually doing something conceived by others to be dickish/jerk, and as a result provoking real reactions & repercussions. Agency is, to put it crassly, a bitch–and we would want it no other way. (Note C: Would that the incoming Republican majority keep this in mind and do us at least one favor by killing the filibuster when they retake both chambers of Congress.)