Laughter from the Body Politic

 

Politics is stupid. It is ridiculous. Absurd. Frustrating. For most of us even at its best, politics is simply boring, at its worst exceptionally depressing.
It is a stark condemnation of the activity, that when our politicians manage to display some semblance of principle or compassion in the face of tragedy, we laud them for overcoming politics.

In the face of such overwhelming disdain, it is easy to see why we turn our dry and dreary governance into fuel for our entertainment. It is simply easier to treat these passionless debates and baffling legislation as parts of a vast national sport, with added pride, pomp and circumstance.

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Trump on Election Night looking slightly queasy at his victory.

The current commander-in-chief of the largest military force in human history (pictured above in the moment of his triumph) is the purest distillation of politics as entertainment.
The former reality-star turned chief executive is hardly in the Oval Office on merit. He is catastrophically ignorant and profoundly unsuitable in morals and temperament to the lower rungs of public service. And yet, he won (with some Slavic aid no doubt) the presidency of the most important country in the world.
Now, once Trump secured the Republican nomination there are a host of practical and pragmatic reasons why he was voted for. They’ve all been dissected  and analyzed to saturation so I shall not discuss them here.
However, the reason Trump was elevated to a position where it was even possible for him to win the nomination is quite simple.

Donald Trump is entertaining.

That is by no means an endorsement of his particular colour of demagoguery, which remains odious and shallower than a common sieve. But it is a recrimination of the political class in America. Lacking charm or wit, they find themselves outplayed by the sort of creature who finds grade-school nicknames to be a dignified weapon in his rhetorical repertoire. And thus they lose. So it goes.

This is not to suggest that left is not guilty of elevating the unworthy to positions of reverence.
Take for example the role of comedy in left of centre discourse.

Over the last two decades, we have all seen the growth of political satire as a main stream of political conversation. Led by Jon Stewart, driven by a defiant irritation against the inadequacies of the Bush administration, The Daily Show ushered in a Golden Age of political comedy, in which many of its alumni reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the left’s warm embrace of easy political comedy and the vindication that a punch-line provides, comes at a cost.
Conservatism in its best forms, requires elitism. The conservative intellectual must be capable and willing to defending the past in both the broad and the specific. This manifests itself in a love of the ‘finer things’, of the bourgeois and the snobby, of Shakespeare, opera and golf (in  rapidly descending order). When conservatism allies itself to populism, as it has in America with Fox News and the petty demagogues of talk radio, it diminishes; shrinking until it exists only to provide an intellectual defense of indefensible politics.

Similarly, when progressives ally with what is an escape into cynicism, sarcasm and outrage, they abandon the very real necessity for the left to be explicitly constructive. Democracy and liberty are fundamentally radical ideas and their ideals remain under construction. To be so distressed by political opposition that we escape its pressures through what is, at the end of the day entertainment, leaves a vacuum ripe for the exploitation of the reactionary and the regressive.

Émile Durkheim

The early French sociologist Émile Durkheim first developed a complex theory of society as an organism, with various institutions acting as organs, fulfilling functions required for living. This was developed further by later writers but the fundamental metaphor is an interesting one to apply to any society.
Obviously in a liberal democracy the heart is the Constitution and the rule of law. In America perhaps the heart is shared with The Declaration of Independence (whose weighty signing was celebrated this week).
The mind may be freedom of thought, or when institutionalized, a free press.
Where does the comedy go though? It does not perform any essential function that is easily detectable. It is in essence no difference than any other art, it exists primarily for us to enjoy.

Free expression is often described as a requirement of a free society. While this sentiment is admirable and understandable I think it may be slightly off base. It is certainly true that any free society must allow free expression and thought, but it is not that expression that forms a free society.
Speech and expression are most important in precisely those in which they are not free. In which they come far too high a price. It is that violently expensive speech that moves masses and topples kings. It is that speech that requires of the speakers a commitment to hanging together, lest they find themselves hanging separately.

To return to the body politic, it seems that free speech has no place among the organs of a free society. It is instead of the breathing, the breath itself of liberty, instead of the heartbeat, the pulse of emancipation.
It is a sign of freedom, and thus we see in the birth of free peoples the loud exhalation in exaltation of dissidents and revolutionaries. In Czechoslovakia. In Georgia. In the Middle East and North Africa.
These breaths of freedom may be stifled by the iron hand or the jackboot, but without them no change is possible.

So when we claim that our cynicism and sarcasm is a suitable response to the transgressions and shortcomings of our politics, that it’s free speech at its finest. I simply ask that we remember those to whom the only path to liberty is through painfully sincere and costly speech.

 

 

 

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The Catharsis of Protest

Those of us whose intuitions incline towards liberalism and an understated support for democracy have plenty of reasons to protest, with our societies injustices and institutionalised ignorances growing longer by the headline. Thus, it is difficult to criticize those who do take to the streets in protest. They are, after all, demonstrating as their conscience decrees. However, in our present politics, when the need for civil disobedience and dissidence is paramount; it is more important than ever to understand that not all protests are created equal. Many recent protest movements have been afflicted in varying degrees by the same illness. Often identified by a hashtag, these ‘grassroots’ movements and marches are perennially reactive.
#Black Lives Matter #Occupy Wall Street #Notinmyname and so on.

Occupy Wall Street

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These protests are each fundamentally moral. They are conceived in opposition to racism, to theft and to lynching. These are not crimes of perspective, but of principle. They burn against the very fabric of a free society and so it cannot be wrong to speak out against them.
But in each of these cases, the protests that grew against these crimes were practically futile. Where they have had an effect, they have catalyzed a nebulous ‘awareness’ of the problems we face. Often, they have simply forced otherwise static politicians to offer a conciliatory speech and carry on with their political agenda. This is because despite the scale of the issues at hand, these movements do not understand the nature of effective political protest.

There are two types of political protest. The first is descriptive protest. The movements named above are all largely in this category. Descriptive protest is often a response to a particularly abhorrent example of injustice. The pictures of Junaid Khan were one such example. The videos of Philando Castille and Eric Garner are another.
These images and sounds act as fuel, enraging our moral senses and rousing our consciences to protest, to marches and speeches. In the aggregate however, they do not offer or demand anything material from the State. They restrict themselves to sloganeering and hash-tagging their way through civil discourse. “We are the 99%” is not so much a call to action as it is a claim of solidarity, “Not in my name” is not so much as call to action as it is a demand to be indemnified against the crimes of your fellow citizens. The descriptive protest may also be noted for its emphasis on outrage and ridicule of opposition. For instance, those whose response to Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter” were very rarely met with reasoned argument or persuasion. Instead they were met with condemnation and indelible labels of racism.

The second type of political protest is prescriptive protest. The examples of prescriptive protest movements are rather more resonant through our history. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was largely prescriptive. The LGBT Rights movement in the 21st century was similarly prescriptive. Prescriptive protests are often carried by the same energy of moral outrage; the injustice faced by Rosa Parks and black students spurred the United States towards desegregation, just as the Stonewall Riots led to the inception of the modern LGBT rights movement. Prescriptive protests are identified by their willingness to make use of the same injustices, but pragmatically and in service of specific political goals such as the desegregation of schools or the decriminalisation of sodomy. While this can manifest itself cynically it also produces the most direct results.
They also choose to prioritize persuasion over condemnation. Martin Luther King’s dream of his children living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” is notable for its lack of vitriol towards white America. Similarly, Frederick Douglas’ writing shows that despite what would be absolutely justified hatred of America, the autodidact freed slave retains admiration for the ‘great principles’ of the Declaration of Independence and hope for his captor nations more perfect union.

All protest is in the pursuit of catharsis. The ideal protest will result in a form of national or social catharsis; a popular realisation of the injustices of tradition and orthodoxy. There is no example of completely successful protest, but the examples of prescriptive protest above are as close as I can find. Although far from complete, the progress made in American race relations since the 50’s and in LGBT rights throughout the world in the last 40 years is unprecedented. This is because these movements embraced social catharsis. We need to understand the difference, historically and practically, between these styles of protest. They are by no means mutually exclusive, and often bleed into each other, using the same symbols and rhetoric to bend the moral arc of history towards justice.
But when one form of protest overtakes the other, as it has in many contemporary protest movements, we find ourselves in a civil discourse that is profoundly self-involved.


Political protest cannot exist in isolation, and it cannot succeed without the support of the institutions of democracy, but these institutions also require the support of protest, civil disobedience and dissidence that does not deal in cynicism or derision, but in honest civic engagement in the democratic project. A project that is both universal and profoundly parochial. If we are ever to reach the point that James Baldwin described in The Fire Next Time where we achieve our countries we must ask of ourselves and our peers these uncomfortable questions (among others).
What purpose should protest serve, if not to convince your fellow citizens of injustice? Can a moral minority ever hope to convict the immoral majority through condemnation and derision? What hope is there for a nation to achieve its potential if its liberals and dissidents, who are the drivers of social progress, view all patriotism as vulgar and crass. When protest is more in service of moral absolution than political solution? In short, we must take care to ensure that we do not substitute our own personal moral catharsis from speaking out, from standing up; for the social catharsis we need to create among our peers.

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Protest and civic engagement may seem futile, especially to those of us privileged to look down from our internet towers. It may at times seem impossible to persuade our foes and even undesirable to make the attempt.  Perhaps it is.
But to butcher Robert Browning;
Ah, but that a peoples reach should exceed their grasp, Or what’s a country for?