Saturday, March 21, 2009

PC has struck again, and this time it's made headlines, revealing some interesting aspects of US culture.

I'm of course referring to Obama's self-deprecating joke in which he mentioned "Special Olympics". Whatever his humorous intention, which was clearly pointing at his ineptness at bowling, the nation as a whole (nearly) and the media in particular have decided that this enters into the realm of moral failure or "serious sin", with some debate (among Catholics only) about whether it is mortal or venial. (One female black TV journalist asked whether his apology to the Chairman of the Special Olympics was "enough" or did he need to do more... a pilgrimmage to Athens in a wheelchair?). Some of the commentators extend the moral fault to the audience who actually laughed. The LA Times quoted Maria Shriver, Schwarznegger's wife and sister of the Chairman of the Special Olympics, Timothy Shriver:

"While I am confident that President Obama never intended to offend anyone, the response that his comments have caused, coupled with the reaction of a prime-time audience, demonstrate the need to continue to educate the non-disabled community on the issues that confront those with a developmental disability."

This all seems to boil down to what I call the actively repressive impulse at the heart of US culture, the same that sees exclusion, shaming - followed by rehabilitation - and/or killing as the appropriate response to an undefined black list of things one shouldn't do or say, sometimes thought of simply as "un-American". The fact that such an state of affairs is a recipe for hypocrisy in a culture where hypocrisy is considered the worst of all sins is in itself both painful and amusing. Having two potentially contradictory ideas or changing one's mind is typically seen and highlighted by one’s critics as proof of hypocrisy. Politicians call it the sin of "flip-flopping", which sunk Kerry in the 2004 elections. The funniest and most extreme example I know of that is when, as a teenager, I and three other friends were interrogated by two policeman in a dark parking lot in downtown Los Angeles. They separated us and placed us in the four corners of the parking lot to interrogate each of us individually. Not finding any contradiction in our stories (we had gone to see a film and were getting back in the car) one cop came over to me and asked for my driver's license on which it indicated that I was born in Chicago and my address was in West Los Angeles. He repeatedly asked me - with a change of tone each time - "how do you explain that it says here you were born in Chicago and live in Los Angeles?", a question that showed an amazing ignorance of sociology, since 2/3 of the population of southern California at the time had migrated from elsewhere. But he obviously thought he was on to some deep contradiction, a flaw in consistency, a proof of guilt without there even being a crime. (Maybe he also thought anyone born in Chicago was a member of the mafia).

This may seem to have little to do with the original point, but there is a connection, one that Ralph Waldo Emerson had already noticed in his famous observation (in "Self-Reliance"):
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do."

Had Emerson lived another century and a bit he could have replaced “statesmen, philosophers and divines” by "media". He would undoubtedly be appalled by the way all this has played out, even as his championing of self-reliance has been largely accepted. The concept itself has become a shibboleth but its meaning has come to represent the opposite of what he intended: an incitement to conformity and artificial consistency. Self-reliance now carries with it the obligation to be in phase with the crowd, which is precisely what PC tries to achieve: artificial consistency. Whatever people think or feel, they must conform to a formal code that will help them think and feel according to the norms. Self-reliance has become self-control. We see it in the concern with "continuing to educate" mentioned by Maria Shriver. Education in this usage has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with behaving predictably. It consists not only in knowing what not to say but also when not to laugh, even if you think it's funny. Some may remember Freud’s contention that humor and the ensuing laughter are the result of a spontaneous and pleasure-inducing shock between the unconscious and the conscious, which he considered a healthy way of letting off potentially unhealthy steam but which requires us to accept and appreciate ambiguity. This new form of PC education consists of not allowing any steam to escape and be perceived by others for fear of its corrupting effect.

And that leads me to an even deeper dimension of this question: the fundamentally and in many ways increasingly repressive impulse at the heart of a culture founded on the ideals of "freedom" and self-determination. Freedom has traditionally been seen as a good in itself and indeed more than a good, a moral ideal to be enjoyed at home and exported abroad, extending increasingly over recent decades to what Freud might call the right not just of the person but of the id (das Es) to achieve fulfillment so long as no visible damage is done to others (who can always sue if there is damage!). This freedom of the id – or the person as id - can be seen as the opposite of civilization, whose role is "sublimatation", avoiding both the direct expression and the systematic repression of the drives of the id. This new version of freedom (I have a constitutional right to do what I want irrespective of my social environment) inevitably requires some kind of mechanism to keep the lid on the id and its potential for chaos and destruction. Enter three actors (the ghostbusters!): repressive laws (including a deep commitment to capital punishment), PC and... silence.

If PC is a list of words people shouldn't say, silence is a quality forcibly attached to ideas one shouldn't have. There are many examples of this but I'll offer one that is very obvious today. As current events demonstrate the US economy and political system in the way it actually works (as opposed to the way it was designed and is believed to work) could be objectively described the opposite of democratic. Complicity between bankers, industrialists, politicians, the media and practically anyone who is assertively greedy and surrounded by good lawyers has made "the voice of the people" something of a sad joke, the realization of which has in recent weeks sent a shockwave through the population as it learns that the "average Joe" is nothing but a convenient sacrificial victim of those who run the show. This system built on cupidity and silence remained stable so long as trickle down economics seemed to work. All those greedy bastards tied to power mongers were actually keeping the machine going and therefore doing their job for the benefit of all. After all, if the crumbs that fall off the table are tasty and plentiful, who needs bread? But when you are required to collect the crumbs and give them back to the seated diners who have suddenly discovered that they've devoured all the bread (to say nothing of the meat and potatoes), one starts to feel the pain of hunger accompanied by pangs of resentment. And we begin to see who will ends up in tomorrow’s stew!

All this was made possible by... silence, in other words the repression of both dialogue and debate. The particular form of individualism developed in the US has made it possible for those in control to program ideas in a way similar to the way PC programs words. There have been and still are subjects that simply cannot be talked about, tabu, repressed from public awareness. (At the same time intellectuals are free to examine these things in their ivory towers so long as none of it spills over into the public arena, which it won’t because the concepts they use are on a virtual black list). The concept of socialism and its multiple avatars in the real world - which used to be more conveniently lumped under the rubric of Marxist communism, aka totalitarianism - has been a constant in the list of "things to be rejected before being discussed". It's now making a virulent comeback - in its repressed form, i.e. as a hobgoblin, a factor of dread - in reaction to the rising danger of taking seriously the concepts and practices associated with it (e.g. managing the collective wealth) as a response to growing criticism from within of the capitalist system. How that will play out is anyone's guess, since it has less to do with political decision-making and everything to do with the viability of the current financial system and ultimately with the grasping, pinching, casting off, squeezing, smothering or caressing of capitalism's "invisible hand" (hand actually do other things than just pointing fingers). What's interesting - and infuriating - is that the PC effect is producing its usual Manichaean division into choosing between good and evil: capitalism (us) and socialism (them... i.e. the unenlightened). No need for nuance, which we all know is a time-waster that makes decision-making difficult, complex (beyond the average Joe's understanding) and impossible to rally around, the way one rallies around a flag.

Depressing? Not entirely. It’s just the media’s insistence on following the white lists and banishing everything on the black list that hurts. The LA Times article starts out with this sentence:
“Despite the president's apology, athletes and others say they are disappointed with his remark on Jay Leno's show”
It maintains the idea of a uniform consensus of umbrage and indignation until the final paragraphs of the article, which concludes in this manner:

Brothers Rich and Ted Olson have participated in the Games for more than three decades and don't have enough space in their suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill., home for all their medals and ribbons. The Olsons, whose scores typically run in the 140s and 150s, didn't find the joke offensive, but Rich laughed when he heard the president's score.

"That's not very good," he said. "It wouldn't beat us. He needs to practice."

They actually didn’t take umbrage and pushed the humour even further.

Civilization is not dead or totally repressed. It has just been pushed to the end of articles, where people won’t read it (or worse won’t understand it because it doesn’t jibe with the rest)!