Democracy as Spectacle: The Messianic Compulsions of our Republic

by D. W. Sabin on September 3, 2010 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

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Washington, Connecticut. For such a brash and brass knuckle thing as the American Representative Democracy, its’ citizens, after over two hundred years of hard slog seem a little too prone now to the comforts of the herd. We used to be self-starting and skeptical. We used to root for the underdog, no matter his or her DNA. Even an arch-statist such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known to erect homely temporary Federal facilities, confident that once the current emergency ended, they would be abandoned and dismantled so that the people could resume their primacy over the State. The so-called “Conservative’s” favorite punching bag , Bill Clinton even left us a surplus and the opportunity to downsize in light of an America that found itself unchallenged. This fundamental awareness of limits is obviously no longer the case.

Our current American Government has banished the idea of “temporary” to a remote reservation on a Trail of Tears it likes to call “Change” or, in a pinch, “Security”. This has been one of the trademark bi-partisan initiatives of the current era. Regardless of whether the majority is Democrat or Republican, Federal directive now dominates our politics. Most notably, as recently reported in the Washington Post, it is burrowing deeper into our collective conscious by granting Top Secret Security Clearance to 800,000 people, at least that we know of. This would be almost funny if we were talking about some other country. The fact that we now require nearly a million people to be daily engaged in the top secret realms of state security would have been a preposterous notion only 15 years ago. 25 years ago it would have been scoffed at as some kind of bizarre Soviet Excess of Evil Empire. As Gide suggested, freedom has scared us out of our wits, paralyzed us. We no longer know what to do with it.

Fear, like water would appear to be a universal solvent. It has readily dissolved the hopes and dreams of the average American and replaced them with a kind of nervously desperate, elegiac fatalism. If I had a nickel for each time I heard or read someone somberly utter the defeatists oath: “our children will not have the opportunities that we once had”, I could fund and luxuriously appoint a Foundation whose role it is to dole out comfy sinecures for all our children, well into the future. Unfortunately, “can-do” has been replaced by “can’t-do”. It is now almost a given that declining expectations are en vogue. Welcome to the consumer chic of decay.

The Land of Opportunity is in Foreclosure. Boo Hoo hoo.

Perhaps the bait and switch schizophrenia of American Exceptionalism has finally run its course. After all, we have for so long heard the phrase “American Democracy” that we have come to believe our stage-managed direct democracy exercise in voting is much more than a kind of bone thrown to a hungry dog, anxious to serve their master no matter how much dignity must be lost in the process. We have come to confuse the representative electoral process as some kind of popular democratic process when it has not been such for well over 25 years. This is primarily because we have allowed our political objectives to become dominated by top-down Federal Fiat rather than the bottoms-up, locally dominated Federalism originally crafted for us. American political campaigns for Federal Office are little more than stage-managed fantasies with high production values presenting a series of canned yet picturesque fables that would be fertile ground for satire if we still had our wits about us. A strong sense of irony and its humorous consorts must be some of the softer geologic strata of our eroded intellectual tectonics. How many times must we fall for the blandishments of political promises of “cleaning house” as the American House becomes more decrepit, debt-loaded and subsidized by the year? Really now, my leering muscles are tired. The humor of it is stale because irony is no longer irony; it is now the outcome of every action, removing all the fizz from its past frisson of lessons learned.

Having lost or more aptly put it, surrendered our native skepticism, we citizens of a dejected republic have elected to tribe up and accept our place within a stage-managed theater of herds. Each herd has its champions and the role of the herd is to keep the individual champions exalted by running down the opponent’s herd and in particular, the opposing herd’s standard bearer. This Theatre of Attack is masked by a kind of exalted self -love amongst the herd-members themselves so that they can always consider themselves to be victims of a scurrilous attack perpetrated by forces that are arrayed to destroy all that the sacred herd stands for, which, conveniently, is inter-changeable with the notion that what the herd stands for is that endless Snipe Hunt of what America Stands For. America’s greatness was once such that it stood for a lot because it was standing for liberty, in its widest possible sense. Now the nation staggers, like a drunk that promises he will reform if only he can enjoy one last session with the bottle. Perhaps we might hazard this chance to update…yes, let us “change” our national motto to “Now for a little hair of the dog that bit ye”. There is a little ribald parable from my Irish side of the family whose punch line is “Brace yerself Bridget ” but we shall not go there. Instead, suffice to say that American Liberty now simply means the right to be against something. The freedom to hate grows rank. Malign forces multiply exponentially.

This perpetual siege helmet has inculcated a kind of apocalyptic thinking on the part of the whipsawed American and when confronted with things apocalyptic, one naturally casts about for the Messiah who shall rescue us all. Don’t hold your breath. Messiahs don’t grow on trees. They most certainly do not emerge out of the heavily fertilized, yet decidedly septic seedbed of our current political carnival. What does grow on trees however is demagoguery and this messianic era produces bumper crops of the kind of demagogues we once sniffed out a mile away, when we still knew what this American Experiment was really about.

Everything I know I learned from the antique tourist plaques that adorned the family cabin tucked up in a narrow canyon beneath Mount Aire in the rugged Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Some still adorn my office walls even though the cabin has been lost to various familial dislocations. Aside from the Mule Deer fur fringed toilet seat with the admonition “Tickles, don’t it Walt?” or the clock with all fives that announced “No drinking till after 5″ and the crowd-pleasing “Bedroom Mood Meter”, my favorite five plaques inculcated my top-five lifetime convictions:

1. “The Hurrier I go, the Behinder I get”

2. “I Get my Exercise by Jumping to Conclusions”

3. “To Have a Friend, Be one”

4. Please Remain Seated While the Room is in Motion”

And my favorite,

5. “That Helping Hand You’re Looking For is at the End of your Own Damned Arm”

These tidy and polished little sentiments seem to be as charmingly antiquated as the little wooden tourist plaques themselves. Emblazoned with the location they were picked up from such as Pinedale, Wyoming or Mount Rushmore, South Dakota or Franconia Notch New Hampshire, the catchy slogans of American Tourist Traps once united us in a kind of hardy, straight-talk zeitgeist.  This unadorned mindset demonstrated its exceptional quality not in Federal Fiat and Realpolitik Proclamation but in the realms of everyday interaction, one by one within an America that was thankful for its fortunes rather than sadly reminiscent about them.

Here we are now in 2010. In altogether too many ways, it is an even more different world to 1980 than my 1965 was to 1935. We have moved forward technologically but seem to be on the brink of turning the clock back to another Depression or lingering recession. We may blame our fate upon a changed world but what has changed is more ourselves than the world we are forever trying to improve. We have slid complacently into the notion that not only does the American need their government to both protect them and, more importantly, to create the conditions for all of us to survive, but beyond that, we seem convinced that the rest of the world needs America to fight their own battles too. We oblige with vigor, assiduously turning Blowback into a National Death Cult where war is pronounced over but 50,000 troops remain behind to watch peace erupt out of the blasted newly minted democrats. Somebody once said “War is the Health of the State” but I’d say it’s more like a bloody ten-day drunk of the State.

Back here within the pseudo-secured “Homeland”, we are that needful thing called a consumer and now that our hearth has been under-water mortgaged upon the altar of consumption, there is no safe harbor for us to provision and so we bob about in a Great Flood of Quantitative Easing where no bailout can long keep up with the leaks. We are waiting with baited breath upon the various quacks and strivers who offer themselves as our “leaders”. To add insult to injury, the emphasis of these various messiahs is not upon the word “prosper” but upon the deep-seated fears of “survival”. In response to these fears, we herd up and cast about for more Messiahs to emerge and lead the flock to safety while raising a constant barrage of salty imprecation toward the titular heads of competing herds. This aint democracy, it is competition anarchy, it is politics as comedy Mexican Wrestling and anyone who is at the head of it is a successful marketeer of the inchoate fears that have come to bamboozle us now that we accept the role of victim. There is more than a little parable in the fact that the newly anointed Republican nominee for the Senate in Connecticut is the head of World Wrestling Entertainment… Incorporated. Irony manages one more weak wink here from its’ deathbed.

The strength of this nation has always been the self-effaced and hard-working dignity of an immigrant polity, which, through the luck of the draw found itself landed upon one of the more fecund sectors of a planet not completely known for reliable fecundity. The people’s government did not dwell in the house of apology nor fear or resignation. It was happy in its role as being that thing, and only that thing which was required to support, rather than dictate a civil, productively private society. There really can be too much of a good thing. A people can, over time, legislate itself out of the position which most safeguarded its’ success. So too can they mistake things private for exploitation and stingy greed. Free Enterprise is only truly free and vibrant when the widest number of its adherents is engaged in its profoundest opportunities. When Free Enterprise sanctions a selective priesthood, you can be sure that temples will be built to host a spectacle of sacrifice to distract the peasants from their declining fortunes. That Ceremony of Sacrifice is currently underway.

It is time to remember exactly what it was that led to our success. Success can be a prelude for disaster when those who enjoy it forget the history of that success and decline to observe the necessary obligations and abiding sacrifices of success. This malingering social disaster we now inhabit was long avoided because our chief check upon the soft underbelly of Democracy, the now-abandoned thing we call the Separation of Powers required that we check our hasty compulsions at the door and bring a deliberative mindset to the problems of our social intercourse. The Separation of Powers was a principal check upon our resigned messianic impulses. It made even large government seem somehow manageable. Presidents were our servants and not our cosseted superstars. Congress deliberated, it didn’t dither at the beck and call of campaign contributions.

That helping hand you are looking for is not and shall never come from a heavily financed campaign. The helping hand is at the end of your own arm and it gains its greatest strength from a very simple exercise. It shakes the hand of a neighbor and sets to work solving problems that lie directly in front of us rather than thousands of miles away in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or across the contentious sands of the Levant. More particularly, this helping hand tends to scoff at the manufactured problems emanating from that swamp hard on the banks of the river Potomac. Problems accumulate because our big government sentiments thrive on them. Washington needs a roster of changeable or mounting problems to justify its’ elaborately expensive existence. Problems are coming home to roost because we invite them to do so because we really think a Messiah is surely on our side and will automatically be delivered.

It won’t. Why? Because we do not either merit or need one when it comes to self-governance. Americans do not need a Messiah because this nation is not Heaven on Earth. It is a pretty damned good approximation of that halcyon thing but it is not, nor has it ever been, Heaven on Earth. Sometimes, it has been downright devilish but at least at those times in the past when this has been so, we were chastened by our apparent lapses and pulled in our horns and rolled up our sleeves and took our lumps and set back to work putting the house in order. At least we tried. Now we moan.

“Back to work”. Look at the fundamental beauty of those words. Hear the harmony of them. Feel these word’s beneficent calluses. Smell the lusty tones of sawdust or lathe oil as the meaning of these words roll off the tongue.

Back to work; it is a heady phrase, it is what we humans do before we can consume. We work. We work because it is what gives us meaning. We work because it displays our essential arts. We work because it is the resort of our self-respect. We work, not to survive, but to prosper. We work because we are principally producers before we are consumers. We work because it is the thoughts within our brain made real, apodictic and as imperishable as this ground upon which we stride. We work because it is damned satisfying at the end of a productive day. We work, at long last because we are humans and possess that combination of brains, digits, eyes, ears, vocal chords, legs, lungs and brawn which must have work in order to retain health and sanity. “Sapiens” perhaps but we humans must have work in order to be wise.

You want another morning in America? Then find someone who is not satisfied with hate, degradation, myth and the cant delivered by media privateers or their assigns and is more interested in that old museum piece of productive labor consigned to oblivion by an America of lost hopes built on credit cards and “Blue Dot Specials”. Find someone who works and then help them work and leave the demons to those who think demons are work rather than something self-created as a distraction from the thing we do best. We work. The best thing about this notion of an America at Work is that waste is revealed quickly in a world of work because, well, obviously and un-ironically, waste is, gee, its waste. It’s nothing to get overly alarmed about, waste happens but it is the byproduct of work, not the end product of it. Work likes produce, waste don’t. Waste is a distraction and must be subtracted from gross profits. Work, in the end is the bedrock bulwark of any self-respecting, self-starting democracy, representative or otherwise. I’m not talking about that insouciant word “jobs” here either; I’m talking about “work” and all, which it entails. A “job” can be doing the work of a trained chimp and hating every minute of it. “Work”, on the other hand is redolent of its companion word “skill”.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, this salute to work aint no diatribe against the pleasures of leisure. Leisure is one of the rewards of work. The problem with this America of debt -financed fear is that it has confused leisure with a job. Work is to be avoided, or at best simply endured on a road principally engaged in pursuing one’s leisure-time pursuits. Shopping is now, of course, a leisure-time pursuit and so if we must abjure labor on its behalf, then a credit card is always the best weapon. With this kind of mindset, leisure is loaded with recrimination because to have it, one must endure something objectionable. Then, when we are freed to pursue our various and accumulating leisure pursuits, they are more often than not marketed in a seductive manner, urging us to go into hawk to pursue them, making us engage in that detestable thing called a job in order to reach the higher plane of leisure time fun. Frustrated and forever dissatisfied at both work and play, we find ourselves upon a spinning treadmill of confused and resentful priorities.

Nor, for that matter, is this a paean to organized labor and a pillorying of Corporate America. Corporate America has hit itself squarely between the eyes on its own. It has coughed up a real primer on the downside of richly reimbursed idiocy and waste. While it has been bailed out by its assigns in Washington D.C. and so seems somehow immune from cause and effect, it will not remain so because it will continue to act against the long term interests of both itself and the citizenry. The reckoning will come. It always has. Perhaps then we might re-configure the power of the Corporate Model so that, among other things, it stops proudly wearing the dunce’s hat called “External Costs”. It seems to me that to compete against China and a cooperative Europe or rising Latin America in the modern world, we are going to have to possess a full arsenal of all the tools required for a powerful economic condition. We will need all our tricks from corporate power to individual working skill. After all, there is a certain civil beauty to the idea of a strong working productivity bolstered by Corporate power functioning within an economic version of our political Separation of Powers.

Punch in America, go to work again. If you do so, you’ll find you don’t really think much about those “leaders” and huckster Messiahs in Washington because they will waste your time and if there is anything an America at Work needs to stop doing immediately is wasting time. 310,115,985 people within a prodigious, well-watered land of 3.8 million square miles are an awful lot of work opportunity. Go ahead, let all the World Improvers who make their living spinning webs of intrigue accuse you of isolationism because it is an isolationism of best resort, it is isolating one’s best shot at opportunity or success and working toward it. Just like those Mt. Aire cabin plaques asserted, the helping hand you’re looking for is at the end of your own arm and if you want a friend, you need to act like one. More importantly, the messiah you are looking for is your neighbor. Shake their hand and then, well… get to work, dammit.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar J. Blum September 3, 2010 at 5:34 pm

“Punch in, America.” Really? Millions of us out of work and you couldn’t have chosen a better figure of speech? Let us eat cake.

avatar Rob de Roos September 4, 2010 at 12:18 pm

The present situation is indeed sad. Democratic and liberal values being foisted on Americans is bad. But are Republicans better? With American politics with its clichés in a football game oppositional environment quashes the true complexity of the American social landscape. When Russ Linbaugh and Glen Beck praises a book like “Atlas Shrugged” with its virtue of selfishness and money equals virtue, you wonder the direction of Republican values only enable more cynicism, divided representation and a “vernunftrepublikaner” mentality. The “new world order” mentality is very much in the eye of the beholder.

avatar Artie September 5, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I agree with D.W., there’s nothing like the right antique tourist plaque platitude to get one motivated in times like these. My sole antique tourist plaque hangs next to a souvenir Thai silkscreen in my office. It reads, “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average.”

avatar Chris_Harrison September 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

“That helping hand you are looking for is not and shall never come from a heavily financed campaign. The helping hand is at the end of your own arm and it gains its greatest strength from a very simple exercise. It shakes the hand of a neighbor and sets to work solving problems that lie directly in front of us rather than thousands of miles away in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or across the contentious sands of the Levant.”

This is just crazy talk. Next thing you’ll be suggesting that we do radical things like grow gardens and potato patches — and even share the produce with our neighbors when it comes in — instead of relying on agribusiness for our basic sustenance.

Where do I sign up? Or, perhaps, I already did.

avatar Jim Dooley September 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

“…Smell the lusty tones of sawdust or lathe oil as the meaning of these words roll off the tongue.”

Ain’t no such smell coming from the blackberry 10:30 on your ordinary Wednesday night when answering the bell you read the words “I need you…to…” so that the tire company in Canton can be shuttered and moved to…well, Canton.
A very fine essay though. I’m still waiting for the Katrina stories of the people who just gave up waiting on Uncle Sugar and rebuilt their lives.

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