Sunday, October 31, 2010

200,000-Strong Bartlebys Unite To Say: "Meh"

The much-ballyhooed "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear"-- brainchild of America's Ironists-in-Chief Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert-- came and went this past Saturday in Washington, DC. Although the crowd-count estimates vary (as they always do), most put the number at somewhere between 200,000 and a quarter-million attendees. (TRANSLATION: For Midwesterners, that's somewhere between the total populations of Des Moines, Iowa and Lincoln, Nebraska. For Southerners, it's somewhere between Montgomery, Alabama and Greenville, North Carolina. For East Coasters, between Yonkers and Buffalo, New York. And for West Coasters/Southwesterners, its between Modesto, California and Glendale, Arizona. Apologies in advance to Pacific-Northwesterners, but the range between Spokane and Seattle is just too wide to be of any use to you in this case.) For those of you keeping score at home, that's basically a SH*TLOAD of people, in layman's terms, who made it out to a political rally for.... uhhhh, err, umm... what was it all about, anyway? A rally for ironic engagement? For no more "politics" ? For indecision? For sanity "and/or" fear? Or maybe just for Comedy Central?

As Bob Dylan once said: there's something going on here but you don't know what it is, do you, Dr. J? (Well, okay, he was technically addressing "Mr. Jones," but same sentiment anyway.)

It would be hard to gleen an overarching theme from the political signage at the rally, a kind of self-parodic and intentionally ascerbic ambiguity that was itself part of the motivating principle behind many people's attendance. As Jon Stewart performatively reminds us each evening on The Daily Show, what passes for "political discourse" in this country is too often regrettably vacant of meaningful substance, relying as it does on sound bites, misinformation, "spin" and "truthiness"-- all of which reduce complex and nuanced (and important) issues to sloganeering and, in so doing, eliminate any possibility for rational deliberation about them. The truth is, as we all would admit when we're using our inside voices: politics is messy. It's neither easy nor wise to pretend otherwise, to try to strategically over-simplify it, to act as if the interests of over 300 million American citizens can be aggregated and addressed in a way that each of them will find satisfactory. The "Rally to Restore Sanity"-- and its coincidental, uncanny doppelgänger, the "Rally To Keep Fear Alive"-- were intended to be, in their novel 21st-century styling, an iteration of the age-old political strategy of consciousness-raising. (Gasp! Combo Marxist-and-feminist reference!) In that sense, both rallies were what philosophers like to call "meta-"exercises. Everyone tried to step back for a moment from the mudslinging madness, the he-said/he-said character assasinations, the Hitler-analogue hurling, the pork-barrelling, the filibustering and gerrymandering and I'm-gonna-take-my-toys-and-go-home obstructionism to just, for just a moment, dial it down a notch. The whole point of the rally, such that there was one, seemed to be to give moderate, reasonable and informed discourse a moment in the spotlight. Or, at the very least, a minor speaking role.

As an admittedly left-leaning (oh, who am I kidding? I'm solidly Left), socially progressive, communist-sympathizing, democracy-loving believer in the powers of rational deliberation between and among informed citizens, I'm ALL FOR "dialing it down a notch." I've had more than my share of choking back throwup-in-my-mouth during this season of political advertisements here in Tennessee. (Most of the ad campaigns here can be summed up thus: on the Right we have "I'm a good ol' country boy, a Christian, an NRA member and a protector of unborn babies who drives a truck, not a 'Washington politician,' and I will oppose every single thing that Nancy Pelosi does" OR, on the Left, "C'mon, give me a break, I'm from Tennessee, too! I'm a country boy, too! I have a truck! And I am not Nancy Pelosi!") Even during the anti-Harold Ford, Jr campaign by Bob Corker in 2008, which was incontrovertibly backwards and racist, I didn't find myself so consistently itching and crawling with the political-creeps as I have during the current (MIDTERM!) election campaign. I'd like to believe that this isn't peculiar to Tennessee, an intuition that I think can be confirmed by watching (debatably-rational) talking heads prattle on every day on every channel about Obamacare the so-called Tea Party Takeover. Although, as a rule, I'm generally more inclined toward proactive political engagement-- by which I mean the kind of engagement that forces our differences to the fore, and in real confrontation-- I have also found myself in recent months exhausted enough by pro forma discursive hyperbole to have considered attending the DC rally, if only to show my unwavering support for that most regrettable of our collective political casualties: SANITY.

So, why didn't I go? To be honest, the truth is that I just didn't have the money or the free time to spare for a weekend jaunt to DC... reasons that no doubt mark me as an inadvertant collaborator and in absentia participant in the rallies, even despite my protests that follow. But I do want to register a few (minor and not-so-minor) complaints to justify my non-attendance at what may turn out to be the most significant-- or at least, most generationally characteristic-- political event of my life. (The election of Obama notwithstanding, of course.) Here's the thing: I'm all for the so-good-it-hurts kind of morally and politically instructive irony that Stewart and Colbert have not only mastered but also managed to funnel into something like an identity, even when it's bitingly sardonic (even somtimes mean) irony. And, yes, I'm one of the many 18- to 40-yr-olds in this country who really does think that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more informed and more politically astute than most of the people that I find on my ballot when I step in the voter booth. I get both a deep, moral satisfaction and a healthy, hearty laugh out of their eviscerating send-ups of contemporary Tartuffery. I happen to be (what I'm sure most people who know me would describe as) a "loud" person-- especially when it comes to politics (and philosophy, music, pop culture and deconstruction)-- but, at the same time, I know that the best way to neutralize loudness like mine is to not shout back. It's a fundamental life-lesson we all should have learned from the first Rocky movie, or from Muhammed Ali's famous rope-a-dope boxing strategy. Blowhards and bullies will eventually wear themselves out if you don't engage them on their own terms. So, I genuinely appreciate the effort of Stewart/Colbert to passive-aggresively combat the deafening flame-war din that passes as political conversation today. But I worry, and oh how I worry, that what they may have inadvertantly inspired is....

Shhhhhhh... Quietism.

As much as I absolutely loathe the anti-intellectualism with which so much of the Right (and too much of the Left) is enamoured these days, I really can see in this weekend's rallies a lot of what those anti-intellectualists find so objectionable. Let me offer what is, I think, an illustrative anecdotal aside: When I was an undergraduate (Philosophy major), I remember my father coming to visit me once at college and going out to dinner with me and my friends. As a 18- or 19-yr-old at the time, I of course thought that all of my friends were super-smart and politically astute and witty and hilarious. But when we left dinner, I remember my father saying to me, with one of those truly disappointed faces that you only recognize in the visages of parents: "Your friends are all so proud and so cynical. It's really kind of sad." At the time, I thought-- as young, hubris-marinated smartalecs are inclined to think-- that he just didn't "get it." But now I'm older (not quite the age my father was then, but getting closer by the day) and I can appreciate his exasperation with his dinner-mates' affective disposition that pretended, ever so deliberately, to be above-it-all. He was right, I now see, that we were "proud" and "cynical" and in our own way "sad." We were (or thought we were) so smart, so removed, so disgusted by the petty little goings-on of the hoi polloi, so ironic, and ever so proud of ourselves for being so superlatively critical. We were "against" everything, but none of us, for the life of us, could have formulated something that we were "for," not even if it meant a free dinner. In retrospect, I can see now that we were embedded in just another mundane phase of post-adolescence, in which it was very important to us (for very important reasons) to mark ourselves off as autonomous and reflective and educated. But our disposition was, at its heart, little more than the flailing, grasping, ungrounded and ever so common affect of fundamentally unprincipled young people.

Without articulable governing principles, without a cause or a rule that one can be for, without some motivating first premise from which one can derive the host of arguments and positions that come to form an informed citizen, we were just adolescents-- by which I mostly mean, angry, rebellious, directionless, fully equipped with range of affects and yet unable to generate any effects. I worry that too many in the crowd at this weekend's rallies were the same. They're mad at "politics as usual"-- for good reason-- and they're disaffected by a discourse that echoes vacantly in their ears and their lives. But what does their attendance at the Stewart/Colbert rally signify, other than that exasperation? What does it positively signify? What does it demand? What does it refuse? I mean, I get it that calling for a "restoration of sanity" has a palpably ironic and shaming force to it, like that of the child who pointed out the Emporer's nudity in front of His Majesty's passive and adoring subjects. I like that kid as much as the next person, for many of the same reasons that I like Socrates-- I think we need more of both!-- but I wouldn't vote for either. I'm not even sure that I would count on either of them to effect any real political change. I doubt I'd even want them as neighbors.

I'm worried that there might be too much self-congratulating going on among the throngs of people who identify too-reductively with Stewart and Colbert, with the Emporer's demystifying child, with Socrates, with the so-called "educated elite," or with the hundreds of thousands of the rest of us who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Those figures and the sentiments that they inspire are only the first step toward thinking more critically, toward tearing away the veil of truthiness and spin, toward understanding what IS well enough to formulate some reasonable idea of what OUGHT TO BE. But if one only takes that first step and then proceeds no further, if one only sits at home and laughs/cries ironically at the insanity (and inanity) of it all with Colbert and Stewart, if one is unable to formulate anything more substantively principled than the claim "I don't like what is happening now," then I'm not convinced that one has developed a civic posture any more mature than Bartleby the Scrivener, who goes to work each day, more and more disaffected and less and less really effective, responding at each demand for his performance with the (in)famous retort: I would prefer not to. I want, desperately, to believe that this weekend's rallies was something more than a quarter-million Bartlebys shrugging their shoulders in exasperation, and not because I think widespread exasperation is an insignificant political phenomenon. Rather, I want to believe that that exasperation is only the first step to something more transformative, even revolutionary, than exasperation all by itself can ever be.

Thank the heavens, or whatever overarching-goodness analogue you prefer to substitute, for Jon Stewart himself. It turns out that The Voice of irony is also the voice of Reason, as it should be in every good democracy. Stewart's closing remarks to the Rally (below) were measured, empathetic, inspirational, sober and, most importantly, eminently sane. Just like he promised. If I'm wrong in my criticisms above, if there were in fact a quarter-million reflective and caring and sober and reasonable people there who think like this, then I have hope. Hope for a change I can believe in. I know we're going to lose the House in the upcoming midterm elections, but let me go on the record as saying I would prefer not to.


Curry O'Day said...

With all of the attention that gets devoted to fringe groups like the Tea Party or, my sense was that most attendees just wanted a chance to show America and the rest of the world that there is a sizable number of Americans who are not represented by those groups and yet still willing to organize and be heard. There may not be one single issue to which you can point identifying the constituency of Stewart's rally, but what is remarkable is the sheer diversity represented by the group. The homogenous participants in Tea Party and style rallies are not representative of America. Rather, the diverse heterogeneity of those who attended Stewart's rally is the real "real America" and Stewart's message was one that appeals to most patriotic, Constitution-loving Americans, despite similar appeals made by Tea Partiers and Indeed, in my opinion, Stewart's "you go, then I go" metaphor is the heart and soul of American solidarity.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Curry. I sense some dissatisfaction from people (here, on fb, and in person) about this post. Upon re-reading, I'm a little dissatisfied with it myself. I still think it's fair, but definitely not balanced.

I *do* get it that one of the chief accomplishments of the rally was to demonstrate the magnitude and force of what you (rightly) call the "real real America." And as AnPan said over in his post on the same event, I shouldn't underestimate the fact that "civility can be a cause." Like you both, I think Jon Stewart's "you go, then I go" metaphor is a quietly powerful one. And like you both (and 200,000 other people), I'd like to see more of that.

I'm as tired of hyperbole and shouting and spinning in political discourse as the next person. Sure, I'd like to see our elected officials (and their mercenaries in the Fourth Estate) tone it down a notch. But I suppose, if I were being totally honest, I would have to say that "playing nice" is NOT a political virtue that I prize above all others. During the last administration, I think too many of us did a little too much of that polite "you go, then I go" thing-- and what we found was that, when our turn to go came, we couldn't go where we wanted.

At any rate, thanks for your comment.

jcirtain said...

I enjoyed reading your post. My wife and I did attend the rally; she is a liberal-minded activist and I am a moderate independent. We both attended to support the concept that truthful discourse on government is best for all, instead of the... fringe divisional rhetoric common from both parties. I neither appreciate the name-calling nor the fact-invention each side of the aisle has adopted.
The most meaningful things I took from my interactions with other people at the rally was not that there were a bunch of similarly inclined political beliefs in attendance, there were a variety of those, but that it was a group of people that prefer: an honest conversation to a shouting match; when consciencous diliberation creates the final product. And most of us seemed generally perturbed with media manipulation of the population, on both sides.

But that is just my un-philosophically enlightened perspective. I really did enjoy your blog entry.

John said...

Bartleby is certainly an enigma, but one that asks to be understood. While you probably weren't launching into a reading of the story, I don't think his inaction is based on lack of political maturity...In the story he had been highly productive until one day...he refuses to do the mechanical writing demanded of him. If anything I think the story "speaks" to the incongruity of freedom and compulsion, the non-communication between the spiritual and the secular. Is this apolitical character (who at the end lifeless is said to be "with kings and counselors") simply politically immature?

William H. Harwood said...

Thought you might find this interesting:

Although it is a bit dated (2007), it is related to your post insofar as it describes The Daily Show's audience demographics alongside those of other media sources (e.g., O'Reilly, online blogs, NPR, major newspapers, etc.). In addition, it surveys the relative educational level and--more pertinent to your post--the "knowledge level" of those who regularly watch particular shows. It ran these (and more) numbers alongside those taken in 1989, as a test of whether our knowledge of political and current affairs has changed at all in two decades characterized by an asymptotic increase in media.

The results are remarkable: First, those who claim to watch Stewart/Colbert regularly are around middle of the road as to education (31% college grads, compared with, e.g., 43% for Major Newspaper website regulars or 40% for NPR), and they were younger than most of the other audiences (26% were 18-29; NB: this changed in the last year by 5%, according to a Nielsen survey). Second, Stewart/Colbert users scored higher than EVERY other media outlet audience save that of Major Newspaper websites, with which they tied at 54% scoring in the "High Knowledge Group" category. Third, those who scored in the "High Knowledge Group" category were enormously more likely to be registered to vote (90%), to say that "most issues in Washington affect me personally" (73%), and "enjoy keeping up with the news" (69% "a lot," 25% "some"), than those who were in the "Medium" or "Low" groups.

In short, Stewart and Colbert's audiences are more educated generally, more informed politically, and younger than all other media audiences studied in the survey. Further, the majority of those surveyed were more politically active and more motivated to stay informed. When you consider this alongside Pew's comparisons of the data with 1989--which showed that overall those polled in 2007 fared worse or scored the same in political knowledge--then these audiences may be (1) at least less likely to be Bartlebys than the audiences of every other news outlet surveyed, and (2) at least more likely to be a source of hope for American democracy than the rest.

But I try to be an optimist regarding these things. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I would switch teams for Stewart.

John said...

A second reflection: Bartleby's work (on Wall Street!) consisted of the copying by hand of legal documents. What do things look like from Bartleby's vantage point (fraught with non-communication or incommunicability)? The text would suggest a spirit sickened, poisoned, or weighed down by the task he has been given. At the same time he does not protest, or barely protests. He violates the social contract (and his work contract) by his mute presence, by his refusal, by his disengagement that is apolitical or antipolitical.

Now, is such a stance possible? If the political is characterized by association, deliberation, decision (or simply the impression circulated of "getting down to business", "rolling up our sleeves and working" that these days is required of politicians and the political body before the public, as a self-justification of that body-- and much more could be said about this miming of work), is what would be outside the political, other than the political possible?

At this point what Obama (and the center-left Democratic coalition) advances in terms of the rhetoric of "union" interests me. This union, necessarily and essentially political, does it admit of anything outside? Is it a totality? And the political theater, whether it is transparent or opaque, composed of true sincere faces or masks, to what extent can it speak on behalf of the marginalized?

Brian said...

I've been reading with interest your series on the uncanny valley, and wondered if that has any bearing on political divisions in this country. You sort of touched on it with race, but that's such an overdone, hackneyed subject to apply that to. Far more interesting are the cultural shibboleths that define another as "self-like" or "other". The further toward "other" the greater sense of revulsion.

In politics, I've observed, people tend to be animated not by the ideas themselves or their merits, but the kinds of people they associate with them. The more distant the people they associate with them are culturally, the greater sense of revulsion to the ideas. They are familiar - erect hominids - yet they are foreign: fat, speckled, with multiple chins and grating accents. Cognitive dissonance ensues, and the emotional response is unempathetic and negative, and the ideas they express, rather than being sound and reasonable, they are harsh, divisive, and, well, insane.

Curious what you think.

DOCTOR J said...

@Brian: Just for the record, I don't think discussions about race are overdone or hackneyed, but we can just agree to disagree on that. ;-)

As for applying the uncanny valley to "political parties," I suppose that could be done. I'm not sure I'm the one to do it, though, since what interests me most about the theory of the uncanny valley is the question of "the (real) human" implied by it. Although there are some political parties that figure the "other" as non-human, I'm unconvinced that this is the case with most of them, so I'm not sure that the uncanny valley would map onto that phenomenon very well.

I'm a bit concerned that you might be misinterpreting the theory of the uncanny valley, though. That theory suggests that the more FAMILIAR an imposter/double/simulation is, the more we are repulsed by it. You seem to be saying that the more DIFFERENT people of other political persuasions are, the more we are repulsed by them. I think that observation is probably true most of the time, but it's not because of the uncanny valley. Not to sound patronizing, but the phenomenon you describe sounds to me like an pretty elementary account of how "othering" happens, which is imho a really hackneyed and overdone topic.