Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Politicization of Our Identity

“Real community cannot be political.” – Dave Eggers

Who are you? You can be a variety of things: an early riser, an oenophile, a paragon of truth and justice, a Lutheran, an amateur cartoonist, a janitor, a Guatemalan, a conservative. In fact you could be all of those things at the same time.

But among those identities only the final three are indispensible. Your job, your place of residence, and your political views are paramount because they reflect our commonalities. “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?,” are almost always the first things people ask after getting your name.

Your work and your neighborhood, however, rarely say much about our subjective selves. Most people’s jobs rarely reflect their artistic or intellectual skills. Rather, one’s job reflects how an individual learned to tailor skills to meet the economic demand. Work is almost always induced from practical, external forces and not deep, internal desires.

Your general geographic locale says even less. There is no real New England identity or midwestern identity or Canadian identity. I probably have many more similarities with the upper-middle class suburban folk of Perth, Australia than the denizens of Revere, a working class suburb of Boston 15 miles from where I grew up.

The previous example, nonetheless, does lend some credibility to a geographic identity. A suburban identity, an urban identity, and a rural identity do exist.

Similarly the specific neighborhood means something too. Culture is local, not macro. In New York City, for example, a Chinatown identity, a Williamsburg identity, an Upper East Side identity do exist. But these identities are often a reflection of randomness (e.g. where you were born) or economic necessities (e.g. where you can afford).

Most importantly, though, many people do not view your occupation or your residence as a personal trait. Rather they view it as the same as physical attractiveness or any inborn skill. That is, an innate trait that is such an indelible part of who you are that it is not part of a self-conscious identity construction. It is just you.

Secondly, there is no inherent meaning to where you live. If you’re a painter that lives in Williamsburg or a painter that lives in Hoboken no one really cares; they care that you’re an artist.

And that idea behind art gets to what really matters: our subjective selves. What are our subjective tastes, interests, skills. What makes us unique. Where do we agree and where do we divide.

The aforementioned example of art, however, is imperfect. Although being a painter or enjoying painting are major aspects of many people’s personalities it is not expected that all people should have opinions concerning these topics. Art is not a universal commonality, nor is biology or philosophy or engineering and just about any other discipline you can think of.
There is, however, a mode of discussion that represents the cultural nexus, a meeting ground where everyone is assumed to have opinions. That mode of discussion is politics and that is a problem.

* * *

The idea that politics and government are inextricable is one of the most outrageous and ubiquitous fallacies in the modern world. There is no intrinsic connection between the two. Politics means the distribution and delegation of power within an institution. Nothing more. Politics exist within almost all businesses, religious institutions, universities, households.
Yet the character of those aforementioned institutions is not determined by politics. There is no political identity to a business. The board of directors are chosen by their capacity to successfully oversee the business managers and their practices. This doesn’t mean bias or personal opinions come into play. An authority figure that chooses board members will naturally be inclined to delegate someone that shares his/her values. For example this authority figure might support the expansion of marketing programs and the elimination of service jobs, and therefore these beliefs will influence his/her board picks. But these ideas are cemented into some one-dimensional political stance. This board member isn’t a pro-marketing anti-laborist. He makes this choice based on his own observations; he doesn’t consult some overarching political philosophy.
This greatly diverges from the institution of government where politics is an all-encompassing obsession. During a campaign pay attention to the media. Turn on CNN, Fox, MSNBC. Watch the early morning talk shows. Read the New York Times, Newsweek, or any major publication. These media obsess if the candidate will win, how the candidate will win, and why the candidate should win.

In other words, these media obsess over the candidate’s narrative: the ascent from obscurity, subsequent tepid reception at the early polls, the inevitable comeback, and his/her quiet demise.

Kerry is the Comeback Kid!

Dean Yells Loudly!

Huckabee Out of Nowhere to Win Iowa!

I guess it’s understandable that the media will craft a story around these events, like Huckabee’s stupefying triumph. Surprises are stories. But I don’t really care about Huckabee’s victory and, when it comes down to it, no one should. What we should care about are his viewpoints on NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, and the federal income tax. We should ask him what specific government programs would be eradicated or severely minimized due to the loss of revenue? We should call on him to provide an elucidation concerning his stance that the state can influence morality and whether it contradicts his small government philosophy.

The media, however, do next to nothing in regards to the specifics. In the case of Huckabee’s candidacy (and all other candidacies) the media generally informs us about three things: the candidate’s personal trajectory (pious Arkansan comes out of nowhere), how the candidate persuaded voters (he galvanized the evangelicals in Iowa), and the political spectrum he or she draws from (right-leaning Christian populism).

But as a voter I want to know why I should vote for Huckabee. His personal background is interesting but irrelevant. And I don’t care how he convinced previous voters in Iowa. I will vote or not vote for Huckabee based on my own opinions, not others. His macro-political identification (right-leaning Christian populism) is important because it helps me contextualize his opinions. But it doesn’t need to be mentioned more than a handful of times.
What I do want to learn about are the candidate’s viewpoint on specific issues (NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, federal income tax) so I make an informed vote.
Very rarely does the media inform the voters about the content of the candidate’s platform, the likelihood of it being implemented, and the potential of the candidate being an effective public servant. In other words, rarely does the media inform us about the only things that actually matter. The substance of the politician’s ideas is subordinate to the narrative we create around the campaign.

I don’t really blame the media. It’s their job to craft an immediately stimulating story for their viewers. I certainly don’t blame the politicians. They provide substantive answers when they are asked substantive questions (like in the debates). I don’t really blame anyone. But if I had to blame someone I would blame the voters. I blame the people for channeling their personal narrative into this larger narrative. But I don’t really blame them; these are merely natural reactions to a culture they have inherited.

* * *

Our current political identity can be attributed to the rapid technological growth during the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution political life was vastly more localized and not tainted by a concrete political spectrum. The Founding Fathers did not reference political parties in the Constitution because they thought they were nefarious and irrelevant. Our first president, George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, never even belonged to a political party. And due to the lack of mass communication Thomas Jefferson believed that, in a presidential election, no candidate could win more than 5% of the vote. (This was an impetus behind the creation of the Electoral College as well. One educated elector’s vote was more representative of a district’s values than thousands of votes from the uninformed masses.)

In the early 19th Century, however, the United States underwent an era of exponential technological advancement. The invention of the train, the electrical telegraph, and the growth of canals cultivated a vastly more inter-connected culture.
But it was the birth of the widely circulated newspaper that really changed American political culture. In 1810 the mechanical printing press was invented. This was followed by the rotary printing press twenty-three years later. These advances were absolutely epochal; the printing press, until this time, had barely changed since Gutenberg’s era (the 15th Century). Millions, rather than ten of thousands, of pages could be printed a day by a newspaper.

Daily access to national current events was available for the first time in any country’s history. And Americans took advantage of this greater access. Citizens could hear news about their perpetually disintegrating frontier on a regular basis. Readers in Atlanta could fulminate against the machinations of John Quincy Adams. Abolitionist publications galvanized the anti-slavery cause throughout the north. Literacy skyrocketed as well.

But these benefits came at a cost. It created a society that was conceptually communal but deeply atomized. It created an intellectually homogenous society that maintained the conceit of ideological differences. The loyalty devoted to one’s political party was generally superficial and emotional, uncannily prefiguring the rise of tribal attachments to local professional sports teams. Political partisanship developed for the first time in human history. And a one-dimensional political identity was assumed by millions of Americans, largely fostered by the rise of partisan newspapers.

And most importantly our relationship with power was no longer concentrated within the local community. Rather it extended into this “imagined community.” The Whigs of New York could bond with their patrician brethren in southern plantations. Democratic-Republican immigrants might share the Jeffersonian values of a Midwestern farmer.

“Imagined communities” had existed before. According to Benedict Anderson, the author who coined the phrase, the very first “imagined community” came about in the 15th Century. Interestingly it was Gutenberg’s printing press that facilitated widespread communication to form this unprecedented community. Nonetheless, although this community is significant, it pales in comparison to the “imagined community” of the modern nation.

This type of community isn’t a horrible thing though. Even a lifelong citizen of a small town will probably not be able to meet all of his/her fellow residents. This citizen will, however, form a distinct mental image around the town’s community. This image will obviously be influenced – among a variety of things – people the citizen will never meet. This image (although partly invented) is pretty genuine.

An “imagined community” is a problem, however, when power is involved. Specifically, it is a problem when the source of this “imagined community” derives around a minority who hold power over the members of that community.

* * *

The well-documented partisanship of the past 200 years is symptomatic of a society whose individual sense of self-power has weakened. The birth of a complex, industrial economy necessitated an equally massive federal state to supervise it. Existential matters that were historically limited to the local community were transferred to an impersonal, homogenous regulatory agency. This idea that the general population harnesses power is through the pretense of democracy. We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a republic. The voters elect politicians to make decisions for them. A select group of officials that almost all voters will never even meet maintains actual power.

This estrangement needs to be transcended somehow. Political dualism is the cure. Political power is conceptualized through simple dichotomies (Whig verses Democratic-Republican; capitalist verses socialist; left verses right) because it is such an easy way of softening the estrangement. There’s a 50/50 chance the voter can “feel” a “victory.” The ideologue can form an obvious identity through simple choice.

Not only are these identities symptomatic of powerlessness but also they obscure critical thinking. What’s your opinion on NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, or the federal income tax? A grand, ideological model does little help when evaluating extremely specific issues. And even if an ideological model augments understanding it doesn’t really matter. The left-right political spectrum merely contextualizes the vast collection of ideas. There is no inherent meaning behind “leftism” and “rightism”, “liberal” and “conservative.” The only thing that actually matters is the issue.

I get the idea that everyone agrees with this but no one really believes in it. It’s simply easier to take a side. And it’s easy to understand why this happens. People are busy working, living. Critically evaluating an issue is hard and unless politics is your #1 hobby it’s going to be almost impossible to have a sophisticated understanding of what is being debated in the Senate.

It is predictable, then, that the undereducated will instinctively pull for a side. But political conformity among the educated is even stronger. An obvious testament to this is the constant reliance on contextualizing phrases among opinion makers. Talk radio is dominated by sensational ranting against the ideological opposition, a generally weightless cause given the diversity of viewpoints within any ideology. Even the more balanced debates on cable television shows are framed around the participant’s competing political philosophy. And newspapers, though the most sober medium of popular political discourse, devote an enormous amount of ink to strategizing rather than informing.

It would be tolerable if these media merely distorted our perception of political life. But by aggrandizing political life they have infected culture as a whole.

* * *
Where are we going?

Pundits stress this over and over with an astonishing perplexity and urgency, as if we are in the midst of societal entropy. We live in the most peaceful time in human history and the most stable civilization on earth. Life in America is very predictable. The fact that 9/11 has become the signifying moment of the 21st Century American narrative is testament to this. Though flagrantly horrific and visually arresting the amount of people that died was relatively small. Drunk drivers killed twice as many innocents in 2001 and will continue to be much more harmful to society in the long run.

Ah, but that echo remains: where are we going?

The pundit is never actually referring to “we”. The pundit doesn’t know you. The pundit is actually referring to the second person, plural (you all and I), a pronoun that does not exist in the English language.

This distinction is more than semantics. By applying the meaning of the second person, plural (you all and I) to the first person, plural (we) opinion makers have created a devastating illusion. The vague collective (you all) is allegedly an inherent part of the individual’s immediate relationship with the other.

This doesn’t mean that a collective sense of identity is unhealthy. An integration of the collective and the individual is the core of a multi-dimensional personality. However, a problem is created when one discusses this collective sense within the context of an individual sense. In reality, the individual can only have a conceptual relationship with the American people. Once it is asserted that the individual is supposed to have a direct relationship with the American people – something that is completely impossible – estrangement is inevitable.

A true collective identity, on the other hand, could be viewed through genuine societal commonalities. One’s relationship with his/her local community, family, or any group that maintains mutual interests with the individual makes up a genuine collective identity and collective narrative.

This “we” that is spoken about is never expressed in these terms. It’s never spoken in terms of where society is going. Or even where the country is going. It’s where the government is going.

The hippie revolution of the 1960s is a perfect example. It was the most important cultural movement of the 20th Century, a reclamation of our lost Dionysian virtues, a world-historical event, the greatest revolt against the values of technocratic society since the Romantics of the late 1700s. But foremost it was an allegedly “liberal” movement. And in one sense it was a very liberal movement if we are defining the word “liberal” (the maximization of individual freedom) in its primary sense. But we’re never referencing “liberal” in its general, proper sense.

Instead these “liberal” times are always viewed within a political context. And here the incongruence between society’s narrative and the political narrative is most pronounced. The year 1968 represented the height of the counterculture. Who made up the “liberal” wing of the federal government? LBJ and his war-voting Democratic Congress. And who was the ultimate “liberal” presidential candidate in 1968? It wasn’t Wavy Gravy. It was Hubert Humphrey, your archetypal law-loving, hard-arteried noble patriarch that every politician has ever been.

This example is no anomaly. Almost all cultural movements are immediately or retrospectively subsumed under a political label. When eminent University of Chicago historian Sheila Fitzpatrick published a book about Russian society she immediately caught resistance from her colleagues. Why? Because of her wildly unorthodox method to “evaluate history outside of the prism of the state.” This is a type of approach, she said, of which “there are almost no examples of” [emphasis mine].

The government has devoured the collective narrative. National movements and cultural advancement is always constructed through the lenses of the state. A political metaphysic consumes our society, our nation, our perception of the world. This political control, meanwhile, is internalized to such an extent that it is unrecognized by almost everyone.
This doesn’t mean people don’t feel this lack of control. Quite the opposite. A variety of people loudly express their discontent against the government’s metaphysical dominance. Ostensibly radio show hosts, activists, and politicians are lambasting policies they strongly oppose. But legal freedom in Western countries is extraordinary. The right to challenge authority and assert oneself is unprecedented now. This doesn’t mean that political grievances aren’t legitimate. It’s just that the level of this rage is enormously inconsistent with how bad things really are.

In reality, this politically-oriented indignity is a poorly sublimated rebellion against government’s metaphysical enslavement of its citizens. This will only end if politics are no longer regarded as an end. In my experience I can find little that is spiritually transformative or personally liberating about the federal government. After all, the whole point of the state is to curtail rights rather than expand them. What we need to do is find a way of attaining a collective identity through a more genuine path. Because right now our political identity is nothing more than a collective displacement against a type of power that we no longer have.

1 comment:

grainne proinseas said...

Very interesting, Powers. I'm with you on a lot of this stuff, but diverge on one point that I think is important, pertaining to your last statement about the federal govt. I think one of the great fallacies of government in general, and American federal government specifically, is the tendency people have to endow non-monarchies with the personal charecteristics historically associated with monarchs- the government is Good or Evil- it is Inspiring or Uninspiring, it is a despot or an ineffective pansy.The reality is that modern governments should never be viewed in this way. The federal government is a system by which revenue is distributed (ideally) to support the common security and the common good. Examples of the necessity of this system are real physical infrastructure, national defense, education and social welfare. This is not exciting or inspiring and is incredibly imperfect much of the time, but it is absolutely necessary and must be continually improved if we are not to neglect our moral obligations to one another as human beings (Americans are human beings who happen to contribute revenue to the same historically designated system). The best thing the federal, state, county and municipal governments could possibly do, which might alleviate some of the other issues you raise about an uniformed electorate and mindless political polarization, is start funding and facilitating real education (I define real education primarily as encouraging rewarding, and providing tools for critical thinking and autonomous investigative pursuits).Much of the crisis of our partisan, simplistic. 24-7 media shitstorm is actually the crisis that people haven't been prepared to confront it critically.
lastly, I think it is a welcome sign that the number of independants in the US is growing- choosing not to register with one of the two major political parties is a signal that more people agree with you that the Issues are what matter.