Friday, May 05, 2006

The Swinging Door Policy

Even the most consistent demagoguery becomes self-defeating in the face of a divided people. When illegal immigration wasn’t a particularly salient issue and the prospect of picking up a significant proportion of Hispanic votes outweighed the danger of irritating the nativists, Bush cheerfully sang the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish—in those days, as his publicists were eager to inform us, he was fluent in the language. With his base in revolt, both Bush’s bilingualism and his enthusiasm for La Bandera aren’t what they used to be. The President can’t solve the underlying political problem with this simple PR adjustment, but PR is all he has. A serious crackdown on illegal immigration would harm the interests of his moneyed backers. Indeed, it would put them in legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, the mass part of his support is afraid of all those brown faces. Anyhow, as true Americans, they’d rather face a thousand deaths than actually learn a second language; and you can’t simply point out to these folks that imprisoning or even deporting twelve million hard-working people isn’t going to happen. So it’s a guest worker program to appease the Chamber of Commerce on the plane of the real and three cheers for a culturally white America on the plane of the imaginary.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

You don’t have to exhibit the piety of a Sister Wendy to appreciate the renaissance’s wealth of religious art. Indeed, indifference to religion makes it easier to view these images as art instead of objects of use. I expect that something similar will eventually occur in the evaluation of the enormous mass of commercial art produced in our era. Once nobody gives a damn what the picture was an ad for, when the corporate sponsor has become as forgotten as the various “my honey lords” of Elizabethan prefaces, when the political purpose of the poster is simply quaint, it will be noticed that the 20th and 21st Centuries were ages of staggering creativity.

Contrary to the presumption that excellence is hard to winnow from the dreck, the challenge for the art historian will be how to deal with a volume of highly accomplished work that dwarfs the capacities of any possible human appreciator. The currently available technical means of preservation make it likely that a far higher proportion of artifacts will persist, at least in virtual form, even in the wake of a serious contraction of human civilization. Classicism is a very pleasant form of scholarship in part because the paucity of the surviving evidence makes it possible to take a synoptic view of the field. The humanists owe something to the monks who didn’t chose to copy everything and the Goths who thinned out the statuary garden. No guarantee that the next round of barbarians will prove as helpful to the savants who try to comprehend the American Centuries. Too many DVDs. Too many deleted scenes.

Monday, May 01, 2006

All in the Family

Just as liberal non-believers are constantly admonished to keep quiet about their atheism so as not to offend the credulous majority that decides elections, people skeptical about American exceptionalism are shushed when they dare to criticize the sacred nation, not only by those who ask without irony, “Why do you hate America?” but also by erstwhile progressives whose political courage—or prudence—doesn’t extend to challenging our national vanity. One can talk about “true patriotism” but the notion that there is might be something problematic about any kind of patriotism is a non-starter.

I don’t know whether Americans are more thin-skinned about their country than the citizens of other nations. They–we—seem to be, though you might expect that the inhabitants of so dominant a nation wouldn’t have to be so touchy, not only when foreigners criticize us but also and especially when one of our own dares to suggest that we aren’t all that wonderful after all. I have a different take on things. I’m an American whether or not we’re perfect and lovely in every way just as, for better or worse, I’ll go on belonging to my family even if there really is something alarming about Uncle Ernie. Which is why, while I much prefer the “May she always be in the right” part, I also buy into the “my country, right or wrong” part of Stephen Decatur’s toast. But if I’m going to sign on to stick with the ship, I’d very much prefer if the ship didn’t actually go down; and I propose to go on reading the riot act to the other sailors and even the captain if I think they’re steering towards the rocks.
The Gettysburg Address of Stand Up?

Not quite. In fact, I expect that Steven Colbert feels a certain amount of regret about his delivery, which wasn’t very smooth. On the other hand, the predictable absence of audience response must have made it difficult to maintain the timing, guaranteeing that the level of the performance wouldn’t match the excellence of the script or the significance of the occasion considered as a political act.

As Garry Wills points out in his wonderful book on the Gettysburg Address, the idea that Lincoln’s speech fell on deaf ears is a myth. The official journalistic reaction to Colbert, on the other hand, really is silence. Nothing surprising about that: under certain circumstances, the Press Corps may be willing to turn on Bush, but they certainly aren’t going to give any airtime to a deadly attack on themselves. They certainly can’t answer the charge implied by his jokes. They aren’t living up to their own narrative about themselves and they know it. Supposedly a band of heroes that speaks truth to power, they act like a bunch of well-paid whores.

Colbert violated a sacred rule of corporate funfests. When the employees make the ritual jokes about managers, they can, indeed they must, say outrageous things; but the daring cracks have to be completely irrelevant. You can rib the boss for his golf game or even his waistline, intimate that he can’t pronounce nuclear and suggest that he isn’t very bright. Remarks that actually hit the target, no matter how witty, are forbidden. The point of the reversals of roles during Saturnalia is to make it easier for the slaves to go on being slaves, not to suggest that there is anything problematic about servitude.

(transcript of Colbert's performance)