Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Fizzle of Barely Imagined Communities

In his often-cited book Imagined Communities (which I confess I have never actually read) Benedict Anderson apparently asserts that nations are essentially "imagined" communities--constructed by our minds rather than imposed upon us by any transcendent ("primordial") logic of geography or genetics. We are Australian or French or Brazilian because we see ourselves as such, because we associate ourselves (albeit to varying degrees) with a set of values and a way of thinking that carry that label and to which other like-minded people adhere. This is not necessarily a "choice" we make (though it can be); usually, though, we begin to think of ourselves as members of this community at the very moment that we begin to think, shortly after our birth at a given time and place. Initially, and perhaps even throughout our entire lives, we reflexively and unselfconsciously embrace this identity, barely even questioning the matter.

However, as I look at today's world map, it appears to me that an "imagined community" is not necessarily a group of "brethren" who hold warm, fraternal feelings toward their fellow citizens or whose thinking on everyday subjects is homogeneously aligned. Such communities of benign, cooperative, similarly focused citizens may indeed exist (in Northern Europe, say, or in New Zealand or in Japan). But other imagined communities comprise a citizenry whose like-mindedness is relatively limited--sometimes to little more than a mutual agreement to compete and attempt to prevail by following a brief and undemanding set of "ground rules"--a skeletal social contract like the Constitution of the United States. The members of such a barely imagined, heterogeneous community may not, in fact, share an especially large number of cultural traits or values (they may, for example, espouse profoundly divergent views about personal morality, religious practice, economic systems, educational policy). In such nations, the communal feelings depend almost entirely on a common allegiance to the aforementioned ground rules (i.e., constitution) and manifest themselves most frequently in a) disputes over what the broadly stated rules "actually mean" and b) disputes with members of other imagined communities (in wars, financial affairs, or sporting events). Otherwise, there is little internal fraternity or "communion"(Anderson's term) and little consensus about what goals the commonwealth as a whole should pursue.

It is this lack of consensus or agreed-upon focus that disturbs me most about barely imagined communities--of which the United States is surely a prime example. I simply see scant evidence that such societies, held together as they are by little more than a skeleton of legal precepts (as opposed to a homogeneous society where nearly everyone shares the solid flesh of linguistic, economic, ethical, religious and culinary values) can genuinely function effectively as democracies. It seems to me that effective democracy requires the existence of a genuine demos, a kind of collective ego, a shared vision of Where We Want to Go. Unfortunately, alas, in our barely imagined framework, instead of such a collective vision, we encounter only multitudinous individual visions--an Alice-in-Wonderland intersection of roads to choose from--all of which constitutionally, at least, have equal validity and no single one of which is therefore likely to command the commitment of a majority of our barely imagined community. Like Alice: we do not know where we want to go, and worse, we don't even have a Cheshire Cat to offer hints about what lies ahead. Instead, we simply dissipate all our energy dithering, quarreling about virtually everything, paralyzed by the sheer quantity of possibilities and by our democratic equality. In short, by the operation of our so-called democratic processes, we cannot decide which, among all these roads, is worth taking--so we spin collectively about and take none at all.

What is lacking here, and what is not lacking in more completely imagined communities, is guidance, either a guiding principle or guiding person (more helpful than the Cheshire Cat)--something or someone to provide the direction that our focus-less equivocation requires. In Norway, such guidance probably comes from the citizenry's shared internalized beliefs about the common good--and in such a context, traditional consensus-based democracy can undoubtedly be successful. But in big, raucous, heterogeneous societies--where internalized common focus is notoriously lacking--democracy seems to merely aggravate indecisiveness. Interestingly, our much revered Founding Fathers--all basically planter/merchant philosophes--never in their wildest dreams "imagined" a community structured as a true "one-man-one-vote" democracy. Isn't it amusing, then, that modern-day Americans "imagine" that the Founders did indeed "imagine" a democratic community? Oddly, it would seem, our "barely imagined" community is also an "imaginary imagined community."

Well, OK. So what's my point? In a  nutshell, this: in the absence of shared internalized values to direct us, our barely imagined community requires not democracy, but some form of (let us be frank) absolutism. To the extent that our democratic indecisiveness renders us powerless to escape what the Cheshire Cat labels madness, we are precisely to that extent in need of a strong hand and a strong mind to lead us out of the bewildering roundabout. This is not a comfortable thought, I admit. Autocracy, despotism, dictatorship--all are terms that have acquired negative connotations--precisely because, throughout history, individuals entrusted with such concentrated power have, all too often, severely and disastrously subverted their assigned duty as overseer of a nation's well-being.

And yet, despite the abominations (Caligula, Savonarola, Attila, Ivan IV, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot), so many of humankind's most admirable moments have crystallized around the leadership of an autocrat: Pericles, Alexander, Augustus, Lorenzo de Medici, Akbar, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, the Tokugawa shoguns, Peter I, Napoleon, Bismarck, Churchill, De Gaulle. (OK, all of these people did harm as well as good, but, grosso modo and in the long view, more of the latter than the former.)

In American history, though, I can think of only two such moments of widely-recognized greatness--and in both instances, an overwhelming national crisis actually obliged our people to disregard the fractiousness encouraged by the Constitution and grant (reluctantly, but in direst necessity) autocratic powers to a president: the Civil War gave us Lincoln; the Great Depression and World War II gave us Franklin Roosevelt.

Alas, with the subsidence of those crises and their aftermaths, we have reverted once again to our lazy default position of barely imagining any common goals and of doing basically nothing. Must we await, then, another life-or-death crisis before we rouse ourselves once again to entrust out common destiny to the vision of an autocrat? If so, such a moment is probably not for tomorrow. But it will undoubtedly come one day--and there's a good chance that it will be bestowed upon us by the actions of more easily accepted autocrats in other more logically imagined communities--China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, a yet-to-be-born Islamic Caliphate.

This is a very discouraging line of thought, isn't it? In fact, I wish I had never begun it. It seems to offer so little chance for my barely imagined country--in its futile attempt to nonetheless function as a democracy--to achieve any enduring greatness. All civilizations die eventually. But some move the human trajectory forward--whereas others just pop, fizzle a while, and then trickle forgettably away. I think I hear a lot of fizzling.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Trump and Camp

I have just reread Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," an essay which explains a lot to me about Donald Trump's puzzling appeal. He is camp. As camp as a lava lamp, as camp as Grand Guignol, as camp as WWE wrestling (a great favorite of Donald's). I should note, as a prelude to discussing Donald's specific campiness, that Sontag makes a distinction between "pure" camp--defined as naïve, unintentional awfulness (e.g. art nouveau light fixtures, which earnestly but preposterously attempt to portray snakes climbing the stems of oriental flowers) and "deliberate" camp--which is conscious, ingenious outrageousness (e.g., Mae West's self-parodying in certain movies).

For Sontag, this self-aware camp is "usually less satisfying" than the naïve, sincere variety, though I find it difficult to follow her reasoning here. Nonetheless, I do agree with Sontag's overall definition of camp as extravagant artfulness which, sincerely or deliberately, spectacularly fails and thereby produces an impression of undeniable awfulness. It is just so bad, so artificial that it becomes enjoyable--it becomes "good" badness.

Sontag notes, by the way, and I must concur, that "camp sees everything in quotation marks." Furthermore, she concludes, "camp is the victory of style over content."

In other words, the appeal of camp lies primarily in a) its extravagant, outré ambition and b) the very artfulness of its awfulness--the impressive amount of work that goes into failing to realize a grandiose--albeit perhaps insincere--goal. The Donald, as he himself tells us (yes, his campiness is mostly of the self-conscious variety), deliberately adopts "flamboyant" positions which defy convention ("political correctness" he calls it) and, with a playful wink to the audience (there is always an audience), suggests that this is all a show--an elaborate edifice of style, entirely divorced from sincere content--which is meant to be appreciated for its very "fabulous" awfulness. His campaign thus resembles a marvelously yuuuge drag show with Trump, himself, as the show's headliner drag queen.

So obviously, we shouldn't be talking about a Trump candidacy as if it were a normal, uncampy and tedious political operation--à la Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz. Instead, we should be talking about a Trump "candidacy." The quotations marks make all the difference.

Why? Because in a regular candidacy, despite some theatrical moments, objective reality does count, and citizens are expected to make judgments based on the content of the regular candidate's character. But in a camp "candidacy"--conducted by a political drag queen--the only thing that counts is how skillfully he/she has contrived to distort, deform or defy reality. Voters are necessarily limited to judgments based on the "candidate's" style, and his style alone. For as we have seen, a camp "artiste's" actual character has no bearing whatsoever on the appeal of the performance--it is the artful awfulness that counts, certainly not the raw material which the artifice has deliberately obscured.

So what, then, is drag-queen Donald's "candidacy" really about? Walls on the Mexican border? Deportation of eleven million immigrants? Nuclear bombs for Japan and South Korea? Surveillance and incarceration of Muslims? Trade wars with China? Waterboarding political prisoners? Limiting press freedoms? Punishing women who have abortions? Growing longer penises (schlongs)?

No, of course not, silly people. These "positions" must be understood as mere accoutrements (subject to alteration or abandonment at any time), nothing but adornments used by a skilled political "artiste" to enhance his "show" and to induce applause in observers who cannot help being seduced by the improbable excessiveness of this swag. I suspect that most Trumpistas do not really--no, not really deep down--believe that these flamboyant costumes constitute Donald's real-world attire. But, you know what?--they don't care because, well, WOW, this drag is just so fabulously tawdry! Good show, Donald; good show! An A+ for campiness!

On the other hand, what then is DJT's real-world attire? Silly question. Obviously, no one besides The Donald has any idea about his true values or his genuine "moi." And perhaps Trump himself couldn't say, having been "camping it up" for so long that even he has forgotten what, if anything, lies beneath the layers of disguise. Maybe, in short, there is no longer any"there""there."

P.S.: My apologies for all the quotation marks. But I'm sure you see why they were unavoidable.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Peeing in North Carolina

Now, about that "save-our-Christian-women" bathroom bill (HB2) in North Carolina...Why in the world would a cis-gender male go to the trouble of dressing up like a trans-gender woman in order to sneak into the ladies' room and rape or abuse someone? All he would have to do is whip out his gun (or unbutton his trench coat), barge in, and grab a victim, without bothering about any disguise or lipstick shade. Trans or cis, dress or pants, with or without supplementary legislation, molestation in any venue is already a crime, isn't it? So what is the sense of this gratuitous and demeaning law that newly criminalizes (for some people) the mere act of peeing unobtrusively behind a closed door?

Obviously, HB2's claim to "protect our women from predators" is a clumsy sham--another bogus attempt to use "Christian love" to cloak blatant discrimination against people deemed to be "weird" or "unnatural"--people who, simply by existing and peeing in a neighboring stall, might somehow contaminate the flower of Southern Baptist womanhood. The folks who voted this bill know perfectly well that human rights ordinances do not threaten anyone's personal safety--rather they threaten something these bigots cling to much more tenaciously than their faux pearl chokers--their assumptions of moral superiority to "those people."

Again, therefore, Americans find themselves immersed in the murky depths of the cultural wars crapper: the holier-than-thou turds attempting to escape defilement by contact with the more irregular chunks that are merely thous. What is to be done? What IS to be done?

Well, one tactic quite familiar to both sides of this debate is the old American tradition of duping people with gimmicks. Americans love gimmicks, especially if they're very expensive (e.g., the new and useless B-21 bombers that cost $790 million apiece). The major attraction of such elaborate flimflammery is that the ingenuity of the gimmick generally bamboozles the quick-to-feel and slow-to-think into believing that "everything is under control." As the talentless, horn-tooting stripper Miss Mazeppa (in "Gypsy") sang so convincingly, "Ya gotta get a gimmick, if ya wanna get a hand."

Accordingly, in an effort to calm the Right to Pee controversy, I have devised a gimmick. It's every bit as unnecessary as the B-21 bomber, and every bit as stupid as HB2, but what the heck? It might be so confusing that, like Miss Mazeppa's horn, it will bamboozle us into applauding a bad show. Here's my proposal:

First, everybody must go to their local DMV (fun!) and register their Personal Potty Preference (PPP). This preference must be the individual's choice, not the clerk's haughty assumption. Next, a picture is taken of the individual, looking like he/she intends to look when entering a Potty Place. Then, a plastic Potty Pass--somewhat resembling a drivers license--is generated and an encoded magnetic strip is affixed thereto. Now, only one step remains:  all the restrooms in all the states must be fitted with subway-entrance turnstiles which can be activated only by appropriately-coded Potty Passes. This could probably be done for the price of oh, say two or so, B21s.

And voilà. Once all this falderol is in place, can you imagine what will happen if an individual, duly certified (by his own choice, remember) as a user of MALE facilities, suddenly and incongruously feels impelled to swipe his card at the entrance to a FEMALE loo?  Well, goodness! that will set off an alarm even more earsplitting than Miss Mazeppa's bugle. Swiftly, the Potty Police (an elite new force "dedicated" to this one task) will descend upon the perpetrator, confiscating his/her Potty Pass and arresting him/her for being "en situation irrégulière." Onlookers will either applaud or retreat bemusedly to their stalls--secure in their confidence that everything is all right. In short, the gimmick will have gotten a Miss Mazeppa-style hand.

Unnoticed will be the fact that nothing at all has actually changed: everybody will still be using the bathrooms that they feel comfortable using (for which they possess a Potty Pass encoded with the gender identity they chose), and everybody will still regard public toilets as rather unpleasant places that must, unfortunately, be visited occasionally. But maybe, our attention deflected by the spurious "legitimacy" of a government-issued ID--and lots of gates, barriers, bells and whistles--we'll all just do our business and get out quickly, without worrying overly much about the "moral" implications of Peeing Where We Want in North Carolina.