"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Politics (And Life) As Melodrama And Grand Guignol–Who Really Ever Wanted Facts? Fake News Is Fine With Us

Dostoevsky’s Devil (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, Brothers Karamazov)is a vaudevillian, a comedian who serves to enliven an otherwise routine and ordinary existence.  What would life be without me? he asks. “It would be holy, but tedious”.

So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious

Image result for images ivan's devil karamazov

If anything, we take life too seriously.  Life cannot possibly be a farce without purpose, only meant to entertain.  Neither Jesus Christ nor especially the God of the Old Testament had a sense of humor.  The Ten Commandments, Christian love and charity, and religion’s persuasive argument for an afterlife all suggest a meaningful, gainful, and essentially righteous world.  To think otherwise would be to drift into nihilism and down the slippery slope to hopelessness and despair.  No, Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha were right – there is nothing funny about salvation, redemption, and eternal life.

This of course is nonsense.  If the world is anything, it is silly, self-important, and presumptuous.  There was no purpose to life emerging out of the primordial ooze; it just did; and from then on all was simply a matter of survival of the fittest.  What made this imperative so farcical was the scramble.  Man’s inhumanity to man would be serious if the reasons for it weren’t so predictable, the battlefield extension of barroom brawls, duels, dog-eat-dog, and the clambering of one human being over another, pushing, shoving, posturing, sniffing, and barking.

There can be nothing more farcical and amusing than American political scene.  We may have indeed finally hit the bottom of the barrel, sunk to our lowest level, abandoned civility and good taste decades ago, and prefer grand guignol – hyper-melodramatic operas whose librettos are penned by the Devil’s own comedians.

Image result for grand guignol

It is not that the politicians have lost all sense of propriety and good behavior – we have.  True to form  we are still spectators at the Roman coliseum, preferring bread and circus to the deliberations of the Roman Senate, happiest when we are entertained and not taxed.

“Are you not entertained?”, shouts the movie Gladiator hero Maximus, former general of the Roman army, leader of men, an example of classical order, discipline, and honor, to the bloodthirsty crowds.  Of course they are and always will be, even when rectitude is thrown up to them like a challenge.  They and their long-distant descendants will always clamor for blood, prefer the sands of the arena to the temperance of halls of justice.   right

America has always been a land of grand guignol and melodrama; a country of snake-oil salesmen, side-shows, three-ring circuses, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Wild West.  Since we have never known or accepted our place – no  British class system,  Hindu castes, serfdom, nor Catholic autocracy; only immigrants with no one’s expectations but our own – we have done pretty much what we pleased.  Anti-intellectualism, charisma, and star-wonder come naturally.  Practicality and ingenuity and teary melodrama are not mutually exclusive.  We have always gone about are business of growing things, building things, and moving things by ourselves, with no imams, priests, or bishops looking over our shoulders. 

Image result for images american snake oil salesman

Pope John Paul II was a harsh critic of Protestant fundamentalism – cult worship he called it, an ecstatic, personalized indulgent worship without logical, rational grounding.  The intellectual discipline of Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, and the other philosophical minds behind the institutionalization of Christ’s message – the transformation of parables and simple divinity into a canon – has been lost. 

His words fell on deaf ears, since we were never his kind of Christian nation.  Our Mayflower ancestors were far from the orthodox, Augustinian Christians that John Paul envisaged.  They were expelled or forced to leave Europe because of religious persecution – not because they were heretics, but heretical and cultish in their beliefs.  In America, they hoped, anything was possible.

The American anti-intellectual, ecstatic experience, carried by our ancestors, hopefully held in check until it was folded into Jefferson’s vision of a secular Christianity – could never be tamped down or secreted away.  To even attempt to do so would be to ignore our very roots which were not 18th century rationalist but more immediate, practical ones of husbandry, agriculture, and industry.

Image result for images john paul ii

Everything in America is ecstatic – the religious ecstasy of a personal savior; the secular ecstasy of belonging to a movement, any movement.  A collective belief in progress and a better world; nationalism, patriotism, exceptionalism.  And being ecstatic rather than rational and temperate, such passionate belief is entertaining, humorous, and farcical.  Nietzsche was quite right when he said that the only validation of the individual is the expression of pure will; but he had no idea how self-serving, venal, and melodramatic such expression would become.

Donald Trump is Ivan’s Devil – a vaudevillian, a comedian, a showman, and a shameless provocateur.  No one should be surprised at what he says or how he says it.  He is the final and most expressive personification of the American character, part Hollywood image, part Las Vegas glitz, and part New York mean streets.  He is entertaining.  He himself is fake news. 

The hysteria of his opponents, however, is even more entertaining.  How could such elaborate, deliberate caricatures of the man, couched in the sanctimony of race-gender-ethnicity righteousness ever be taken seriously? How could the smarmy mudslinging, ad hominem slurs, and drumbeat righteous hammering be anything but funny?

There are those who blame the media for this state of affairs; but Fox News and MSNBC are in business to entertain ,not to inform or education.  They are in business to sell things and to bring potential customers to the marketplace.  The best way to do this is to give them the blood sport offered by Caligula.  They are not to blame.  They are doing what they are supposed to do. To make money for themselves and for their shareholders.

The most popular program on French television a number of years ago was Apostrophes, a roundtable talk show about ideas, art, literature, and philosophy.  True, the program was at its most popular before the deregulation of the national media before which the few channels on the air presented whatever the intellectual elite in charge thought was worth of France and France’s cultural patrimony; but it had millions of viewers in prime time who could have simply not watched.

Image result for images french tv program apostrophes

Such a program especially in prime time would have been unthinkable here.  It is no surprise that Hollywood movies are the most-sought after and and one if America’s most popular export.  The French created artificial barriers against the intrusion of American low culture, but it turns out that the French, despite Apostrophes, have some bottom rungs to their cultural ladder.  Nevertheless Europe – culturally homogeneous (until relatively recently), defiantly proud of its history and patrimony – was fundamentally different from the United States.  We have never valued culture per se.  Art, literature, theatre, and dance were European imports for the American elite.  For the rest it was the low-brow, bourgeois offerings so hated by the French.

Fake news is nothing more than an artifact of entertainment.  The greatest showman in America, Donald Trump, invented the concept and the term, and has only increased his popularity.  He knows that popularity doesn’t mean love and appreciation, but exposure.  Trump is always in the news because the media find him entertaining and audience worthy.  Of course the serious programmers at MSNBC think they are being serious when they tilt the editorial slant of the news to the left; but they are just the best boys, gaffers, and key grips helping to put on the show.

At last America has gotten a president that finally expresses – no, embodies – the American spirit.  We may be church-goers, responsible citizens, and community oriented; but deep down we are, despite ourselves, philosophically on target.  Life itself is a farce, so why should any part of it be less so?

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