Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Political Gnosticism

Long-time reader, commenter, good friend, and Ithaca resident (which makes him automatically cool) Democracy Lover and I are engaged in a kind of meta-political debate on the issue of the clarity of political discourse and the limit of political choices we face, as well as possible solutions to our condition. I am always challenged by him, kept honest, and our debates, while certainly heated, are also done with (I hope) the deepest respect for each other's position.

In this post, he welcomes back to the blogging world, after a health-related hiatus, Arthur Silber. When I first started this whole blogging thing, in my first attempt nearly two years ago, I stumbled, quite by accident, across his blog, and read it daily. His was a voice of strident public morality against the wishy-washiness and even immorality of so much of our public discourse. He reminds me, in many ways, of another public moralist, Noam Chomsky, and his positions are similar to Chomsky's in many respects - the clarity of vision, the refusal to accept what is given to us in order to ferret out the way things really are, rather than how we wish them to be. Finally, he uses the best in America's beliefs about itself as a goad to those who provide lip-service to our moral sense while violating it over and over again.

Yet, over time, I discovered that, as much as I accepted Silber's morality-based, reality-based critique of American society and politics, I yearned for an answer, an alternative. At the heart of Silber's critique lies the insistence that, for the most part, not only does the public not recognize the reality that is slapping it in the collective face; it cannot due to the ubiquitous power of propaganda, which somehow he and a few enlightened souls have managed to escape. I find this kind of thing a bit off-putting, to be honest. In essence, he is arguing that his is a far more honest, far more real analysis of our predicament, due to a superior ability to see and think through events; there is no way to escape this predicament, not because alternatives aren't available, but because most of the American public is too callow, too involved in the simple necessities of living, or too blinded by official lies to "get it".

In the post linked above, Democracy Lover welcomes back Silber by, in essence, calling Americans who participate in our current elections shit-eaters, because we are being fed a plate of offal that we gobble without checking to realize we are being fed a pile of excrement. He was kind enough to exclude me from the list of those who are unaware of our main political course, but I would have none of it:
It is all well and good to refuse to include me in the "shit-eaters", yet am I so different? I admit my support for Obama is far more emotional than it is rational; can any of his other supporters offer serious, substantive reasons, considering the differences between Clinton and him are minuscule? I would much rather be counted a shit-eater, as long as you know that I am quite aware of what has been set before me. You may count me foolish, but I prefer a foolish acceptance of the limits of what it is we have to deal with, to some dreamy "democracy" that cannot exist.

The last sentence captures much of my frustration with Democracy Lover's position. To stand above it all and issue a pox on all our houses due to ignorance and fallibility is not really political criticism. It is to be a political gnostic, to pretend to a wisdom and insight only available to the enlightened few who have rescued themselves from our officially semi-sanctioned cycle of misinformation and desensitization. It is, in the end, not just a counsel of despair, but an anti-politics, really. Choosing to stay aloof is all well and good; to argue that the system is rigged, and that we are engaged in a farcical non-democracy whose strings are pulled by invisible strings, and that millions of Americans are just too ignorant (not necessarily through any fault of their own) to see they are being served a plate of steaming shit is both to insult the millions of Americans who are actively, even excitedly engaged in our current Presidential contretemps, but offers no solution.

If the situation is as desperate, as hopeless, as advertised - why not give up, surrender now, and recognize the limited fare offered by the powers that be? It is one thing to complain that our political choices are narrowed by a variety of forces - John Edwards was about as far left as is acceptable in our political tradition for a serious political operative - but to say that Americans are desensitized so much they cannot recognize these limits (except for the enlightened few who are not taught to vote via American Idol) is to offer no hope.

It is also to pretend that our political structure has not always been the tool of the powerful and those with money and access. Or perhaps not so much pretend this, as pretend that politics, the game of power, can be played by other rules. To see Obama supporters (to offer an example) as misguided disciples searching for a savior, is to believe that all those folks do not recognize the limits of politics, political action, and politicians. Our country won't be saved by Obama, and I doubt his supporters (including me) think he can, or will do such a thing. Recognizing the limits of politics as a tool for social action - power is as corrosive as acid, no matter how enlightened; the better the intentions, I think, the more corrosive - he can be a vehicle for people to do the job themselves. This is potent stuff, but also quite limited. Obviously, it is hardly the radical change some would desire. Under the rules of the game - and I don't mean invisible rules devised in secret by our corporate overlords, but the rules of the game of power that has always existed - this is pretty good stuff.

I much prefer being just a humdrum American citizen, with my plate before me, to a starving beggar who dies with the satisfaction of knowing that at least I'm not one of those people, forced to smile with each bite.

Virtual Tin Cup

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