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.

trump-victory-3
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 resemblance of the centre to a mushroom cloud is a large part of what drew me to this.

Beneath Good & Evil

As I write this, more than a quarter of the way around the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is penetrating the history books. There are no ways I can think of to condemn Trump that have not already been tried, no criticisms that have not been made manifold.

If we may cautiously poke whatever bright side exists on this rather tarnished moment in human history, it is in the return by necessity of a critical media. Shameful though it is that many publications and outlets deserted their posts in the warm glow of the election of first black president, the election of Trump seems to have brought at least some journalists back from their stupor.
That said, this also means a rise in pieces such as this one. There is a tendency among writers to portray political tumult as a clash between opposing forces. Inevitably the force with which the author sympathises is the light and its opponent the darkness. The twilight between them is the battlefield, the election campaign and so on.

Our arts are filled with this sort of imagery. It is easy and evocative. It appeals to our most primal instincts. We all know to be afraid of the dark. In its simplicity is its power.
But on this one instance I think it’s necessary to sheath Occam’s Razor for a moment and contemplate a seemingly more complex shorthand for good and evil.

There is a danger to our constant references to villainy of the dark. It separates ‘us’ from evil. There is now a good distance between us and evil; the twilight an effective barrier. When we denounce our foes as members of this shadow we condemn ourselves to the misapprehension of the righteous. We ignore the real origin of evil.
That is not to suggest that there no such thing as genuine darkness. In human terms that darkness is best described as a variety of nihilism(s). The absence of and opposition to the very idea of principle is impossible to combat without, well, combat. We see symptoms of this in those  madmen who shoot into crowds in the US to whom political purpose cannot be attached. We see this in the ignorant jihadist, who doesn’t know why he kills, or for whom, only that he will be rewarded as a martyr. These darkness’ can only ever be fought and fought until its elimination.
To claim that the current surge of popular faith in authority, strength and rage is symptomatic of the same darkness is misguided at best and clearly false as an observation. At worst it blinds us to a very elementary truth. Good and evil are not binary. Darkness is not evil. Light is not good. To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, if darkness is the domain of the madman then it must be us who occupy the fire. Us. Those who act with some (however misguided) moral purpose.

It is not often discussed how readily and drastically we romanticize humanity. Virtues are ‘human’ and the worst vice ‘inhuman’. Surely it would be a far more sensible claim that both are equally human. Doing so should not be taken as an endorsement of wrongdoing.
If we are to recognize the humanity of evil, then we must also recognize where darkness fails to explain evil. What we think of as evil today: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and perhaps Trump’s America, are not forces of darkness but of flame.
Like those revolutionaries and radicals currently in retreat around the world who pursue a variety of Utopias, Trump supporters are very easily spotted by their passion, their now palpable anger at the direction of recent history.

Perhaps then the danger is not in the darkness. Perhaps our future concern ought to be directed at the fire. Because the right (or in fact, wrong) demagogue can seize upon an unattended flame and burn all of our works to the ground. Everything must then be in moderation. Passion and fury are compelling fuels for justice and liberty and all the forces of good. But they can, at the drop of a pretense, fuel every goods opposite.
This acknowledgement is difficult. It requires that we stop demonizing our opposition and attempt to recognize our common humanity. Flawed primates that we are, we are certainly not the best candidates for a civil society, nor will the process of forming one be a peaceful or altogether calm affair. But we cannot abandon it now. We must keep the fires burning so that we may someday learn to control them.

Should we not bleed?

There is a great deal made of the loneliness of writers. They are a solitary, pained bunch anguishing under the weight of the ideas they have yet to discover and the stories they have yet to tell. It’s an understandably attractive reflection to contemplate. We are all Byronic heroes struggling to excavate our genius to display to the world.
Unfortunately for us, though perhaps fortunately for the average reader, most don’t get to.
But this image of the Romantic writer; Hemingway with a whiskey in one hand, a pen in the other and depression on his mind, persists.  Perhaps because the alternative is far less attractive to introspection.

I write this in the middle of the night, in one of those all too brief respites from exams, tests and college applications. I write because I find it enjoyable. There is an exhilaration to framing a thought in a particularly pleasing way. I apologize for this digression into the first-person but it’s in service of a larger point. I’m writing this alone, and not really for anyone in particular. It is as solitary as I imagine writing can be.

But this is a collaboration.

Not with anyone in particular, but the all the most original thoughts I could compose, the most eloquent phrases are constructed on scaffolding put up by a thousand writers before me. An essay on the eccentricities of writers is hardly original for a young writer. As it happens it’s barely even original on this blog.
Writing is uniquely positioned as an art form because of the power of the individual writer. Filmmakers are reliant on their cast and crew, game designers on their development teams. Visual artists; your painters and so on, are reliant on the audience’s interpretation. The writer is the only artist whose only limitation is their skill and ability to explain.
The skill of writing is not simply creativity, but the combination and composition of a million different ideas, phrases and rhythms.

A good writer in our time is working, quite often very closely, with; Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley(s), Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Hugo, Steinbeck, Russell, Tolkien, Orwell, Lewis, Clarke, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hitchens, King, Fry and Pratchett to name very few. And in this collaboration the writer is called upon the reanimate these silent authors and attempt to best emulate their best features.
It is so often repeated that it now borders on cliche but to read is to inoculate yourself against poor, repetitive and dull writing. Originality is the craft of knowing what to use later.
Writing is absolute in its primacy for the simple reason that it is, in practical terms, the annotation of thought as combinations of symbols and spaces. This simplicity marks it out as the finest means with which we can know each other and know at all.
Through this lens, writing loses much of its romantic lustre but gains the optimism that should be inherent in a form that manages to democratize thought.

I love the phrase ‘The Republic of Letters’. I was first introduced to it below.

“Universal empire is the prerogative of a writer. His concerns are with all mankind, and though he cannot command their obedience, he can assign them their duty. The Republic of Letters is more ancient than monarchy and of far higher character in the world than the vassal court… he that rebels against reason is a real rebel, but he that in defence of reason, rebels against tyranny has a better title to “Defender of the Faith,” than George the Third.” -Thomas Paine The American Crisis No. 2

I found this tremendously appealing, and it says far more eloquently and concisely much of what I think about writings role. I dislike the romantic notion of writing as a ‘need’ to express yourself because I feel it diminishes the importance of writing. All life has needs. They can range from the primal  to the complex. We do not distinguish ourselves as beings if we are simply motivated by a ‘need’ to write. Nor do I appreciate the attempt to describe writing as noble. No medium or tool can be noble, only it’s usage can warrant that description.

Writing is vital not because of some moral sheen that it bestows on the writer but because of a basic philosophical distinction it draws between humanity and our lesser neighbors. A beast needs. It acts for what it wants. We can never separate ourselves from our ‘beastliness’ as it is what makes us live. A beast acts on its needs. As do we. But, we distinguish ourselves as intelligent because we are not limited by our needs. We act on what we think ‘should’ be. And this is where writing plays an immense role. Without writing and its resultant shared human mentality, we could only act on our needs. Without the construction of organised thought that is writing we would be unable to ever believe that anything ‘should’ be. But this is still not noble. We once believed some rather unfortunate things ‘should’ be. It did not make us just or great. But, with writing and the desire that it instills to fashion a world as it ‘should’ be, we aspire to greatness. To nobility. That potential, and our striving for use it, is flawed and frequently even ruinous.

But it is what we are. And what separates us from beasts.