Friday, December 26, 2008

WHAT STORIES

Gabriel Sherman reports in ‘The New Republic’ about another Oprah-hyped ‘story’ that has turned out to be too good to be true.

We are familiar now, perhaps, with the script of this sort of thing. A politically-correct minority, some form of self-reported ‘victim’, tells a heart-warming story that a) reinforces the victimhood, b) demonstrates a certain ‘pluck’, while c) containing enough ‘sad’ elements to pluck the heartstrings of the studio audience (a creature that deserves a long article of its own) and provide the pretext for a ‘warm’ and ‘rich’ empathy-fest on camera that will beam out to open the eyes, hearts, and pocketbooks of the viewing audience.

In this case, a Jewish gentleman now retired from television repair who lives in Miami, was told not long ago by his deceased mother in a vision that he should finally ‘share’ his ‘story’: while a young inmate at one of the sub-camps of the infamous Buchenwald in the winter of 1944-45, he met a young girl, Jewish but masquerading as a Gentile, who came up to the camp fence every day for seven months and tossed him food, until he is transferred suddenly to another camp.

It goes on.

Having survived the camps, living in Coney Island and in his 20s in 1957, he winds up on a blind date with a young Polish immigrant who tells of tossing apples to a young boy in a concentration camp.

Well.

In my immediately previous Post I talked about how Rove and the rest of the Bush gang had rather cleverly if unscrupulously taken advantage of “History, with its flickering lamp”, threading their machinations through the dim and confused miasm of recent American society’s “rich” chaos, using the greasy smoke and fog to provide just enough ‘plausibility’ or ‘plausible deniability’ to effect their darkling purposes.

And I mentioned that this rotted plan is made a whole lot easier when so many citizens can no longer distinguish, or perhaps care to distinguish, between truth and fantasy.

Now this incident here is a clear example of how something that would appear both ‘liberal’ and ‘well intentioned’ can wind up weakening the bridge that carries truth over the swamps of falsehood.

This is not the first time that Oprah – and she is hardly alone – has supported the type of ‘story’ that contain all the elements dear to the dampdreams of ‘sensitivity’ and the desire to see the hundred flowers of empowerment bloom, and with a happy ending to boot. In fact, her business plan seems to have more than a little in common with Rawls’s jury-rigging of a ‘philosophy’ that would do pretty much the same thing – a business enterprise for which he, like many financial whizzes on the ‘other’ side of the ideological divide, was far too richly rewarded, in this life anyway.

Nor does it seem to do much good to find out truth. ‘Truth’ after all is just ‘facts’, and to the true believer ‘facts don’t matter’. In fact, to be so ‘insensitive’ as to attempt to ascertain the truth of reported ‘facts’ is seen in many circles as merely the irrefutable evidence that you ’just don’t get it’.

What We have so often seen among ‘fundamentalists’ appears to be equally true of much ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ discourse and its ‘stories’: it’s more of a pep-talk to buck up the converted than an actual factual appraisal of what’s really going on.

Which is fine for a some sort of therapy, but hardly the basis of determining public policy, foreign or domestic.

And this is the huge and lethal disconnect: ‘stories’ have come to be more important in political and public and civic discourse than thinking and deliberating and ascertaining reality (let alone truth).

This, of course, is a hallmark of revolutionary praxis: you grasp public authority and then use it to impose your ‘story’, ruthlessly suppressing dissent or any of those ‘stubborn’ facts that tend to indicate that your revolutionary vision and objectives have some serious holes in them. Lenin and Stalin were masters at this … for all the good it did them, or the Russian people.

And it’s the reason that Obama cannot be expected to ‘fix’ things – he is up against a game-plan that has been embraced by both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, by both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and has been thus going on for decades. Both Parties have been taken over by elements that seek only to impose their visions, facts and consequences being irrelevant, so long as ‘the vision’ is beaten and pounded into the public mind and public policy until it constitutes a ‘fact on the ground’, a piece of the national furniture that nobody even thinks – or dares – to question.

So, in this particular story, you’re not going to get too far with the audience if you ask: how can anybody get close to ‘the fence’ of a concentration camp? And in winter, where the snow would leave tell-tale tracks? And keep repeating it for months on end? And would inmates – especially in such dire circumstances as obtained in the camps – allow a single youth to enjoy such a benefice?

Nor can that now-all-too-familiar deceiver – spectral evidence – trump any sustained thought: having one’s dead mother issue instructions in a vision that only you can see is perhaps possible, but hardly constitutes any publicly useful justification for an action. Have the postmodernists and assorted Theorists de-authorized ‘God’ and ‘ideals’ and ‘metaphysics’ as grounds for action, only to replace those lost gems with ‘visions’ and ‘repressed memories’ and ‘hopes’ and ‘stories’?

The ‘sensitivity’ revolution, riding on the back of deconstructionism, seems to have erased ‘God’, ‘religion’, ‘tradition’, ‘common sense’ and ‘philosophy’ (the revered Rawls excepted) only to introduce and impose an even more primal panoplium of ‘feelings’ and ‘stories’. I’m not feeling the civilizational progress here.

Apparently, the assumption is that if you can make folks feel good, and make a few bucks, then who’s to say what’s true and what isn’t? And so what anyway? People need feelings and thinking is so … ‘male’.

Surely, having watched Bush and his better-educated associates for the better part of a decade, We can discount the assertion that thinking is an indispensable element of male-ness. Nor, watching Condi Rice, does it appear to be factory-installed in females either.

Thinking is an indispensable element of ‘maturity’, but to the revolutionary method, ‘maturity’ only gets in the way. Stalin made it a point to seek out all the mature-minded folks in Poland … and shot them. It was a preventive sort of thing, since he could figure that sooner or later they’d get in the way of the great Soviet future for Poland. And as it turns out, ‘maturity’ was one of the first things to come under fire here some decades ago. I’m guessing that ‘mature’ people don’t go stand in line and build their year around sitting in the audience galleries of TV studios. But maybe I’m thinking too much.

There is a pattern in the dots here. Something connects ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, feminists and macho-ists – something that binds them together equally in dangerousness: the disregard for fact and reality and truth, and the substitution of fact, reality, and truth with feeling and fantasy.

And if this has also been insinuated into public education as well as into the general public ‘sense’, then generations are growing up without the tools and skills and self-development that the species has struggled millennia to acquire.

And that can’t be good.

ADDENDUM

Associated Press reports now that the author and alleged recipient of the apples has stated that “it’s a work of memory, not scholarship”. I’d like to unpack that, because – to restate its significance – it gives Us a clear glimpse into something that has gone very very wrong in American culture over the past several decades, and has spilled over into politics, jurisprudence, academia, media reporting and journalism, foreign policy, and the financial sector.

The author’s statement sets up an implied distinction between memory and truth-accurac: If I remember it this way, then I don’t have to take responsibility for its truth and accuracy – because that’s (only) for “scholarship”.

Oy.

Truth has been reduced from some requirement to correspond to the facts of a given matter, to simply being ‘whatever I and maybe my supporters think it is’. If you ‘get’ my truth, then fine – and if you don’t ‘buy’ it, then don’t buy it.

Of course, in the matter of politics it gets worse: if you don’t ‘get’ the truth, then you’re an obstruction to ‘justice’ and are obstructionist and maybe Evil, so you are going to have to keep your mouth shut or you will indeed ‘get’ it.

In the ‘world’ created by shows like Oprah’s, which coincide – and I don’t think coincidentally – with the rise of a more feminist or female sensibility, it’s the ‘story’ that counts, not whether it’s ‘true’ (which is such a ‘male’ thing anyway). This is not a particularly new dynamic: stories have always counted more than truth and facts in the fairy tales that used to be read to kids.

Remarkably, the same dynamic holds true for revolutionary imposition of the vanguard-elite ‘vision’. And that should have raised red flags 35 or 40 years ago; it probably did, but Political Correctness was immediately deployed to prevent the flaggers from sharing their insight. Between ‘visions’ and ‘fairy tales’ there is some fundamental similarity, in dynamic if not in content. Nor do I say this in some sort of cutesy way to ‘trump’ particular vision of how things might be – We will die as a civilization and a culture without ‘vision’, as Scripture sayeth.

But if you’re going to start turning fairy-tale-level dynamics loose, in a society where you’re already ‘valorizing’ ‘feelings’ over thinking, and where you’ve given the vote to a whole lotta persons who aren’t really very far removed from their own fairy-tale time in the playpen, then you’ve got to ask yourself if letting all those variables loose and then turning up the pressure and the heat to speed up the process and then calling whatever happens ‘progress’ … well, that’s not how you’re going to get a science merit-badge.

Yes, ‘visions’ are an essential part of a mature life, individually and societally. But to take a personal mental image and the emotions it evokes and then figure that the image is totally and immediately transferrable into ‘reality’, and into public policy and law, and by imposition rather than deliberation, and without assessing any possible downsides in the form of consequences (expected or unexpected) or skepticism of one sort or another … well, that’s what the Fundamentalists have been doing with their Bible-haunted religious excitements for a century or more. Nor did they do Us much good service when they managed to achieve Ascendancy in the already addled swamp-pots of the Beltway milieu. Gack.

And if one’s ‘memory’ needn’t conform to any truth or reality that actually happened, then how in the blessed frak are courts supposed to determine actual guilt or innocence? A ‘memory’ – whether repressed or not – is pretty much ‘spectral evidence’ insofar as nobody else on earth can see it to assess it. This is medieval praxis and thinking. I’m not feeling the progress here.

Of course, in revolutionary justice (as in military justice) it’s not about the Process of finding truth; it’s about the symbolic value of the Outcome – of convicting the designated target. The ‘symbolic’ is the level on which both revolutionary and Identity justice operates: just churn out enough convictions on the basis of this or that ‘story’ – as ‘remembered’ – so that your target class will ‘get’ it. This has its concurrent ‘positive’ pole: it’s not competence, it’s the symbolic value – so make enough of ‘us’ this or that, give them this or that highly responsible position whether they can do the job or not because it’s really only the ‘symbolic’ value that matters. Competence is a ‘guy’ thing anyway; it’s so Industrial Age, and that’s gone. Oh yeah – it’s gone, baby, gone.

And, although I don’t want to be simplistic or reductionist here, I will point out that after several decades of such crapulous dynamics We wound up with (not to say ‘elected’) the most incompetent (as well as the most venal and treacherous) Presidential administration in American history – twice.

And the similarity between fairy-tale and ‘story’ holds for consequences to the mind as well as to public policy. A democracy where the citizenry are processing input (not to say ‘information’)
in fairy-tale mode is going to be in big trouble. It’s citizens are not ‘thinking’, not assessing or deliberating, but rather are processing with their feeling and their ‘gut’ (remarkably, the ‘sensitive’ and the macho – think Bush – wind up dealing with life the same way!). Gack again.

There is indeed – didn’t Kathlik thought know this centuries and millennia ago? – a powerful level of human being beyond thought and mind. But unlike the ‘modern’ presumption of Freud’s era and the Enlightenment before him, that ‘feelings’ are wild and untamed and dangerous, the role of feeling is essential to true and full human-being. But feeling is meant to work in partnership with thought, as both heart and mind are trained to work at the higher end of their respective range.

This is not at all to deny that there appears to be a difference in how the female and male process and value life’s ‘input’. Just the opposite appears very much to be true; there is indeed something to the ‘Venus-Mars’ difference. And that would seem very logical, since Nature (or whatever you prefer to call it) has arranged things so that the female of the species must be the first nurturer of the young, while the male must keep things moving in the wider world.

Nor am I denying Betty Freidan’s insight in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (all those decades ago) that somehow ‘housewives’ adapt to the suburban home-making routine in some ways similar to how Dachau inmates settled into their fate in the camp: with a dis-spirited, alienated passivity that amounted to an abdication of the possibilities of one’s genuine and ‘highest’ self. Although Ma Joad seemed to do quite a bit, as did the sturdy women of the frontier who turned out to be as gimlet-eyed as the boys they raised and sent off to the Civil War. But postwar suburbia did not offer the stern and bloody challenges of the frontier that kept one – male or female – very much in touch with the ‘adventure’ and indeed the ‘agon’ inherent in life, what the Renaissance Italians referred to as life’s terribilita.

I think American religion missed a huge opportunity to educate believers into the higher ranges of perceiving the drama and indeed adventure of living a Graced life when so many of the ancient material challenges had been greatly reduced. Instead, American religion – all the religious faiths – simply sank into the same materially-defined miasm of the ‘burbs as their congregants (Richard Yates’s ‘Revolutionary Road’, now out in a film, captured something of the awefull Flatness of the postwar ‘burbers). The Fundamentalists certainly did their best to keep their religion ‘exciting’, but with an immaturity – spiritual as well as psychological and emotional – that reduced their efforts to a dangerous level of agitation and, again dangerously, a near-idolatry of ‘the powers that be’, which in a democracy is as dangerous as ‘passivity’.

Woe to Us: in the early ‘70s the Republicans sought to build on the South and its fundamentalistic and militaristic frenzy for adventures and the frenzied dampdreams of nationalistic, Rightist, corporatist ‘patriotism’; meanwhile the Democrats decided to cut the New Deal, Industrial Age ‘working man’ (and woman) loose, and embrace a post-industrial, feminist-friendly ‘knowledge’ polity and economy while pooh-poohing the ability to think, reason, and deliberate individually and communally. Gack again. And again.

And here We are.

Oy.

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