The Perils of Moderation

Moderation offers a seemingly attractive, common-sense approach to the political that inevitably disappoints when roused into (in)action. It’s the Ford Edsel of American politics.

Moderation contains no specific ideas or vision of its own, nor does it provide a process for balancing competing claims. Moderation is more a matter of faith; a kind of religious experience. 

Moderation is the character in a horror movie who stays fearfully inside the cabin while others are outside fighting evil. And is immediately devoured by the demons.

Moderation functions within political contexts it neither guides nor shapes. It is a dot on a pendulum it does not control; each wild swing producing a new center. Yet its main selling point is “stability.”

Moderation perverts the polarities of change. The perfect isn’t the enemy of the good; one only achieves the good by aiming for the perfect.

Moderation is a passenger trying to stop a runaway political train by moving everyone to the center car.

Moderation is a malleable sliver of metal seduced by the magnetism of the extremes. Expanding private health insurance only appears centrist in the face of forces which aim to take away any form of health care from all who are struggling economically. To include the latter in a calculus of “centrality” is to confuse mathematics with morality. 

Moderation is a strategy in which a thirst for the “center” replaces the parched materiality of people’s lives.

Moderation dims the aspirational shimmer of Progressives with the gloom of lowered expectations offered by Democrats.

Moderation is both Conservative and Leninist. As in Conservatism, it seeks only incremental change and exhibits a general disdain for progressive movements. It is the politics of “no.” Like Lenin, moderates view themselves as members of an elite Vanguard  – a small group of people who have risen above the false-consciousness of Progressives and will lead us all to the promised land of “let’s not do anything.”

Moderation is a place where people drive Edsels, worship the deity of the “center,” and, in the most dire of times, seek shelter in a rickety cabin of moderation while political monsters draw ever closer.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Sarah Silverman, Blackface, and the Death of Postmodern Irony

The comedian Sarah Silverman recently acknowledged that her career has been damaged by a decade-old episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character appears in a highly satirical version of blackface. Silverman has vociferously apologized for the episode, declaring “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”

Many have defended this particular usage of blackface by placing it within the contexts of comedy and satire. However, the episode represents more than the mere undulations of comedic boundaries. It is pointedly situated within two very different approaches to ameliorating social divides and hierarchies.

The blackface episode sits, self-consciously, at the crossroads of modern and postmodern politics. At one point, a crowd of supporters, also brandishing Silverman’s absurd version of blackface, are asked the typical protest question, “What do we want?” Their answer, however, does not reference the usual modernist tropes of equality and justice, nor does it refer to any specific markers of race. Rather, the crowd responds that what they want is “the freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of postmodern irony!” The denial of this freedom from within the film/television industry, and the larger political community, raises the political implications of the death of postmodern irony, and the loss of an important political tool to fight injustice.

Postmodern politics arose in the late sixties as a response to the perceived inadequacies of modernity. The argument was that claims of “reason,” “rationality,” and “evidence” always served to further undermine marginalized peoples. The belief was that individuals divide the world into categories and that any attempt at reasoned refutation of existing dominant norms simply collapsed into, and reinforced, existing categories.

We see this prominently today in the use of “socialist” as a linguistic denier of rational discussion. The postmodern approach would not be to argue the merits (or inadequacies) of socialism, its supposed substance, or the irrationality of some. All such attempts would simply reinforce the category and allow for its continued manipulation by others. Instead, postmodern politics seeks to disentangle and deconstruct the category of “socialist” itself – to “de-rationalize” all categories – often through the use of parodic embellishment.

The attempt by early postmodern political theorists was to deconstruct existing norms by creating “events” – such as the “die-ins” and the “kiss-ins” – which the viewer couldn’t easily define, categorize, and then discard. Judith Butler wrote, “subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.” In other words, they have to overwhelm the categories and undermine their ability to define and subsume “rational” arguments for structural change.

Butler also noted that once “you know how to read them in advance, or you know what’s coming…they just don’t work anymore.” Every attempt at subversion is met with the creation of a new category which will be constructed, maintained and patrolled. Thus the rise of “hipster racism” which combines contested categories, and links disparate comedians and performers, into a singular denotation which functions to both obscure and abjure.

The point is neither to support nor defend “hipster racism” or any specific category; rather it is to examine the construction, usages, and political implications of all categories. A category is not a mere recognition of the pre-existent metaphysical sameness of its components; rather the category itself defines and coagulates its substance. The substance of a category is shaped, defined and compared by the need for the simplistic comfort of the category itself.

Silverman’s use of blackface was designed not as a counter-category, but as a means of undermining all categorical constructions. Those who criticize Silverman’s postmodern approach replicate the futility of modernist politics – the very kind of politics which has brought us to the political precipice upon which we now teeter. Silverman attempted to deconstruct the category of blackface; the modernist response has been a re-assertion and condemnation of the usage of blackface anywhere, anytime, and a fierce denial to those who would not merely critique but attempt to demystify and disempower through parody and satire.

At one point, as Silverman’s character is leaving the apartment with her new blackface makeup, she places a bandana on her head – another sign for the modernists of an obvious racial stereotype. Except that, as she leaves, Silverman declares, in an exaggerated New York accent “New York this is your last chance.” This line is a reference to the old Rhoda show in which Valerie Harper played a Jewish woman from New York. (Each episode began with a short “history” of the character read by Harper, the last line of which Silverman is citing.) Silverman is attempting to undermine the power of a particular category by dis-entangling it from a singular set of substances and re-entangling it within a host of disparate signifiers. Silverman’s blackface episode points in many directions, criticizing not only racism but also those liberals who believe that they can easily “live” the plight of others by being “black for a day.”

In the 1970’s the African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge starred in a movie entitled Watermelon Man in which a white man (Cambridge in white-face) suddenly turns black overnight. The film is earnest in its depiction of what befalls Cambridge’s character as he loses his (white) wife and kids, and his home. The film is a highly modernist refutation of racism as the character is transformed from a white racist into a black militant.

Watermelon Man is comforting to modernists as a clear, reasoned, refutation of racism. But such approaches have been limited in their political effect. Postmodern irony and parody as evidenced through The Sarah Silverman Program is an attempt to place another arrow in the quiver of the fight for social and political justice. The defining, categorization, and repudiation of Silverman is, itself, an ironic and parodic performance of the modernist defense and reinforcement of an exhausted politics.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Politics of Simulation

Just outside of Los Angeles is a movie set known as Paramount Ranch. The ranch is a well-used filming location; its buildings appear so often in western-themed movies and TV shows their familiarity can become an annoying distraction. 

When the set isn’t being used for filming, it’s open to the general public. You can roam the same streets traversed by The Dukes of Hazzard, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the robots of Westworld.

As you wander through the set (it takes about four minutes, if you walk slowly) it becomes obvious that the “buildings” have no solidity; they are mere facades. As one-dimensional as some of the films shot there. (No offense to The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.)

Paramount Ranch is useful because its facades can be made to simulate any aspect of our shared imagery of the west. These images don’t necessarily represent any actual frontier town; it is their iconic familiarity that makes the  fictionalized appear authentically western to us. 

The general sense we have of the underlying simulative aspects of films and advertising can distract us from the pervasiveness of imagery in our own lives. A simulation is a sleight of hand; a misdirection into the realm of imagery and representation. It is a world in which nothing is as it seems.

Simulations hinder our ability to differentiate between truth and reality, allowing the powerful to engage in stagecraft which comforts us, but conceals intentions and objectives. Our current politics has become a realm of symbolism and metaphor with little substance.

Though the political has historically functioned as a territory of sorcery and enchantment, our current vortex of illusion emerged fairly recently. In the 1980 presidential election millions of Americans were convinced that “trickle-down” economics represented a spirit of “free enterprise” which would financially benefit all. 

However, the ocean of wealth that flowed to the few drizzled barely a drop down to the many. Those in power realized they could separate the metaphor of “free enterprise” from the actuality of its outcomes, and that even those most harmed would yield to a symbolic American freedom authenticated through economic inequality.  

‘Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved – commitment to a scenario.’                                                                       Jean Baudrillard

The resultant division between the 1% and everyone else has been maintained not through overt repression but through simulations of openness and inclusion in the political process. The forces of hierarchy persist behind the pageantry of democracy. 

Every town hall meeting conducted by a reluctant politician relies on the symbolic. Familiar elements are deployed which, in some way, represent “open discussion” to those attending – a public forum, time for questions, and so forth.

The extent to which a member of Congress actually thinks about what is being said by their constituents is dubious at best. Politicians at these meetings often have the pained expression of someone who’s been given number 88 at the DMV and just heard the loudspeaker announce “3.” 

It doesn’t matter. Politicians and constituents aren’t engaged in deliberation; they’re performing a ritual. Everyone plays their role. Those in attendance dutifully ask specific questions and politicians flee along a circuitous route avoiding any meaningful responses. The process repeats: pointed question followed by rhetorical sidestep. This is the familiar script. Constituents leave the meetings believing they’ve engaged in deliberation, but they were really part of a theater-in-the-round production touring the country.

Town hall meetings are simulations; they are phantoms of an ideal of civic engagement that exists only in the symbolic. The meetings are artful veneers; the familiarity of their iconography provides the illusion of speaking to power. The ritual replaces the real.

Presidential debates are the pinnacle of contrivance. As in town hall meetings, the theatrical overwhelms the substantive.

Watching debates, we are seduced by the ceremonial. Candidates hover behind phallic lecterns of power; journalists sit passively at tables earnestly lobbing questions which inevitably disappear into labyrinths of pointless phrases and hollow rhetoric. Myriad rules on speaking time and the structure of responses fabricate a phantasm of substance. As we watch the debates, we are aware of the emptiness of the liturgy but remain captivated by its incantations. 

In the 2016 presidential debates we were absorbed into a clash of the unreal. One candidate was so formularized everything she did seemed like an ironic parody of how a simulated politician acts. She lost to the hate-child of George Wallace and Huey Long – a tiny-handed flimflam who brayed the familiar libretto of the demagogue. Our “democratic election” was a contest between wizards of Oz; two illusory floating heads distracting us from the void behind the curtain.

Donald Trump is the most virulent political creature to emerge from our Orwellian lagoon. He has embraced politics as art(ifice). Democracy becomes a musical where the plot and dialogue don’t matter as long as the songs are catchy.  

Trump is angered when people refuse to hum his incendiary tunes and instead focus on the actual lyrics. For the president, the meeting in Helsinki with Putin was a dazzling success; it may have been a political disaster but it had all the markings of a Tony award winning production.

Trump believes that, in politics, the spectacle is sufficient. He may be right. 

Simulations maintain inequality by mollifying the public. We willingly acquiesce to a democracy in which inequality is fueled by a symbolic freedom and perpetuated through the pageantry of participation. But we are not merely spectators, we are also the actors. We have the potential to end these simulations by refusing to participate in them.  

The powerful maintain their position by turning all the world into a stage. We can no longer be merely players.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com