Tuesday, July 29, 2008

WHAT’S REEL, REELY?

Slate’s always interesting ‘Jurisprudence’ columnist, Dahlia Lithwick, writes about Jack Bauer’s major role in the slide into torture (“The Bauer of Suggestion”, Sat., July 26, http://www.slate.com/id/2195864/).

Those modestly familiar with the major (and usual) suspects in the government might scratch their heads: where in the federal employment roster is this guy stashed? But of course, he isn’t. Jack Bauer is a figment of some writer’s imagination. But he’s on TV, so to far too many Americans that makes him real. Really real. More real than, say, any actual persons on either the one or the other end of the torture stick.

So far so familiar. But now We find out – again – that among those reality-challenged Americans, are pretty much the entire upper echelon of the Bushist administration, plus a couple-three of the Supreme Court Justices, and who knows how many congresspersons?

Well, it was bound to happen. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad. And the ur-madness of this bunch – the point where they really left the rails – was when they decided that they made reality, and not so much the other way around. Reality, apparently, was not amused … and still isn’t, as best can be inferred.

It remains only to determine whether these holders of high office, elected or appointed, actually believe that Jack Bauer’s way is the high-road of reality, or if instead they simply figure that We – or enough of Us at the moment – are sufficiently whacked to think that Jack Bauer is about as real as one can get.

Poor reality. It’s been under attack since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before that. What is it? Is it the way things and people are at their worst? At their best? Is it what things can be made to appear to be? Is it something that is deeper than appearances? Is the opposite of reality ‘fiction’? Or is the opposite of reality ‘the ideal’? Or is there any difference in these latter two at all?

Philosophers have been on the case for quite a while; almost from the beginning. But most of what they managed to piece together – and it was not inconsiderable – was jettisoned in the period of A Million Flowers Blooming, that movement in American society that mirrored the Chinese original 40 years ago, with the Democrats in the role of Mao, and the Identities in the role of his cadres of Red Guards. Nothing old could remain; all must be smashed, creatively destroyed, so that the new and better can be built in its place.

Tearing apart the very structure of a culture, a society, and a civilization, seemed not such a big thing to Mao – he, after all, actually made history in China and everyone else simply watched and followed in awe (or at least silence). Of course millennia can be undone; it was the Will of the People as expressed by Mao, and who could stand against that? Who would dare?

So too over here. With his subordinates frantically trying to plug the leaks as the very hull of Chinese society (and its economy) began to lose structural integrity, Mao was beginning to learn that successfully and instantaneously rebuilding a ship in mid-ocean, reconfiguring the very hull itself, is not an ideal; it is a fiction. And fictions, famously, do not often survive their encounter with the real world.

Mao himself however, was of only modest interest to the Democrats; they were faced with the problem of votes: LBJ’s war in Vietnam was going south; the economic hyper-supremacy of the postwar US now starting to fray as other countries recovered or developed; their confidence in Johnson’s actions in The Glorious ’65 was badly shaken by the anticipated blowback from Southrons deprived of their ‘inferiors’; and then it was shattered by the almost incredible shock of the Watts riots (the Dems, like everyone else in the country, figured that those columns of nicely dressed young ‘negroes’ of Spring '65 would now come aboard the Party train and ride it to middle-class achievement and glory; the face of ‘negrohood’ presented by the Watts riots of July '65 was one they had not seen before and it utterly … ummm … ‘unmanned’ them, as the Victorians would have said).

The patient democratic method is always going to look pale next to the quick-burning fires of youthful idealism or revolutionary impatience or just plain primal macho chimpery. The evolved skills of an experienced adulthood, careful and deliberate, are an excellent substrate for a democratic politics. But such traits are gall and wormwood to youths and revolutionaries both, as well as to the chimpish who reside pretty much year-round in their inner jungle.

The Dems, hobbled by the inherent unglamorousness of a democratic politics, were mortified to find their creds even more sharply threatened by the war they had gotten into and were now losing in Vietnam. Their solution to avoiding the un-manly charge (could it only have been half-a-decade since the Dems were surfing the robust youthful manhood of JFK?) was to raise up ‘Women’ and ‘Youth’, and then hang on for dear life. And the rather clear asymmetry between what they were trying to escape and what they chose to embrace was – officially, anyway – not clear to any of them.

I don’t think We can even begin to imagine the surprise and then the sleaze of Beltway Democrats over the ensuing decades, seeking to look competent and in control, while finding themselves ever more subservient to the increasingly uncontrollable demands and dynamics of a revolutionary politics of Outrage and Identity. And then to have Reagan take Nixon’s rather stodgy and ‘bourgeois’ “silent majority” and re-mould it as a robust, earthy, in-your-face, suck-on-this, red-blooded, patriotic, loyal, manly, God-wielding and utterly engaged voter bloc … well, that frazzled the already-addled Dems so badly that they were happy for any chance to run with the macho dogs.

Very few of the citizenry imagined that the Party of FDR and JFK would really give up on the New Deal; but the Dems and the Republicans arrived at that fateful decision, although by opposite but weirdly compatible paths (the Nanny State for the Dems, the Security State for the Repubs). And in Clinton’s administration the Dems quietly yielded the New Deal and the core American industrial and productive capacity that grounded it.

And in Bush’s time – so weirdly similar to Germany of the Third Reich – a whole bunch of hairless, service-evading poseurs became the trumpeting champions of War Eternal and Preventive, raised to positions of great authority by an unripe President who had himself failed to fulfill his sworn service and a draft-evading Vice-President who at the critical time ‘had other agendas’.

No wonder Americans are having trouble distinguishing fiction from reality. It’s not just that ‘reality’ can have several different valences, but that fiction – the admittedly artificial and made-up – keeps seeping into reality, often injected intentionally, by a Beltway full of Dems and Repubs who have all arrived at the ominous conclusion that there is no solution to anything and that keeping-up-appearances is not simply lucrative but is the only way to go. No amount of deliberation and reason and commitment to the genuine public good and the common weal is going to fix what needs to be fixed, so get aboard the gravy train and just focus on keeping up appearances. The Beltway has become no place for a mature adult; and almost nobody there remains one for very long.

One must select one’s ideals – like an airliner’s course-keeping computer, the base coordinates have to be selected and entered in manually; only then will the computer itself order everything else around maintaining that course.

One must choose one’s ideals. Even if they are ‘handed down’ through a religious or cultural tradition, or both – one reinforcing the other, the ideals must be consciously chosen, embraced, and nurtured. Each individual must ‘imprint’ the ideals so that they become grafted into the very vitality and feedback-loop systems that constitute the human person: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

And – usually with help from tradition handed on from family or culture or religion or all three together – each individual must choose the ideals most suited to fulfill one’s general humanity and one’s individual gifts. Ideals don’t just ‘come’; they must be selected and cultivated with a sense of seriousness and sustained with a sense of purpose. The human self, after all, is much like an airliner: it doesn’t ‘just’ suddenly become airborne; it has to be flown off the ground through all the work of take-off; and it doesn’t just ‘get’ to where it’s going, it has to be flown there – and unlike comparatively simple machinery like a jet aircraft – it has to be constantly ‘flown’ by its pilot.

How anybody could imagine that this job of work could be managed without careful attention and supportive societal structures is a matter for historians yet to be born. But to revolutions, ‘thought’ is a form of ‘oppression’, or at least collusion – unwitting or quite possibly witting – with oppression; no true revolutionary embraces thought. To ‘act’ is the key. The history can be written at your leisure and as you see fit after you’ve disposed of all the rival interpreters.

Is it any wonder that folks now have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality? And after decades, not only the whole of congress but many of the voters, no longer know – or want to learn – how to deal with reality. The fiction of ‘reality TV’ is enough for them. Though it is not enough to keep this nation going, as a society or as a culture or as a political entity or as a member of the world community … or, most poignantly at the moment, as an economy.

The challenge facing Us at this point is to restore what many of Us have never actually had: a capacity for maturity, one that can nurture a realistic idealism that is itself configured in the service of genuine individual fulfillment and the common weal. (Perhaps under the good providence of God as well, but why scare folks with too much all at once?).

That’s a tall order. Whatever is happening in the poisoned precincts of the Beltway, We out here have a job to do if the Republic is once again to be grounded in a People. That’s going to take a lot of work.

And if forcing Ourselves back onto the high-road of genuine reality be torture, then let Us make the most of it.

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