Monday, July 19, 2010

Let's stop acting surprised.

We're not really shocked, are we?, by instances of deceit, incompetence, greed and arrogance in the corridors of power?

Those of us who are convinced that civil liberties, free expression, free inquiry and democratic deliberation are the cornerstones of American society know quite well that lots of things are not as they should be. We know that, somehow, these essential principles and practices must be preserved, repaired and/or improved. We realize that we must continue to take these things seriously, remind one another of their importance and significance, and teach subsequent generations to preserve all that is best about the American project in republican self-governance.

We were, all of us, horrified by the self-righteous barbarity and callous disregard for the rule of law promoted, clandestinely (and then not-so-clandestinely), by former Vice President Cheney. We were dismayed to learn that various United States agencies had spied on American citizens, tortured prisoners of war (using methods borrowed from 1950s Communist China) and fabricated intelligence as a pretext for waging war. We thought the eleventh-hour first Bank Bailout, under Bush, was a bald-faced exercise in theft—that it revealed, to our dismay, the extent to which the American political system has become a fully owned subsidiary of powerful financial interests and an elite stratum of wealthy investors. And we thought that the second Bank Bailout, under Obama's watch, confirmed our suspicions about the current impotence of American democracy. To be sure, I'm not referring to its impotence in practice: we already knew all about that. No, what was confirmed was the impotence of American democracy as an idea.

So why do we act shocked when we encounter leaked footage of American soldiers in Afghanistan firing missiles at unarmed civilians? Why so surprised when Obama sells off—faster than Bush would even have dared—the American education system to a bunch of glorified loan sharks? Why are we taken off-guard when the Supreme Court overturns hundreds of centuries-old laws regulating the political spending of multinational corporations, on the basis of the notion—so argues the Court—that such laws restrict the (previously non-existent) Constitutional right of corporations to free speech?

I don't think that we are surprised by these things. I think that we are pretending to be surprised. I'm guessing that there are two (2) ways in which we pretend to be surprised, which coexist in varying degrees in any particular instance:

i. The first way in which we act surprised.
We want to be surprised by these things. Therefore, we either convince ourselves that we are surprised, or we act surprised in a semi-conscious attempt to simulate, for our own comfort, the feeling of being surprised. Or we act surprised out of sheer habit. In any of these cases—whatever our level of consciousness of our actions—we are motivated by a desire for comfort.

Why is the feeling of surprise comforting to us? Because surprise registers the phenomenon to which we are responding as something that is—as it were—beyond the pale. It's a psychological defense mechanism. We want so desperately to believe that everyone else values our Constitutional protections and civil liberties as much as we do. To us, this stuff is basic common sense, and it shatters our faith in humanity to recognize the truth: there are a substantial numbers of American citizens who would gladly give away their liberties in exchange for an illusory feeling of safety or security.

This brings us to:

ii. The second way in which we act surprised.
We hope that by expressing our outrage and shock in the face of the erosion of American civil liberties, we might be able to shock the aforementioned cadre of American citizens—a cadre that is in most other respects as heterogeneous as can be—out of its complacency and docility.

In other words, we like to believe that we are walking, talking George Orwells. That, if we talk frequently and loudly enough about how disgusted we are with our country's seemingly inexorable drift toward fear-mongering, surveillance state, that we will manage eventually to make them see the light!

The mistake we're making in this second instance is about as obvious as can be: do we really think that we can out-fear-monger the professional political-corporate-media fear-mongers?? I think this is a difficulty that faces those of us in the post-Baby Boom generations who believe that the only way in which our democracy can be repaired is through a reinvigorated civil discourse. At present, American political rhetoric is—like American political thought—beyond its moment of crisis. It is in a state of extreme fragmentation.

All I'm saying is, let's start admitting that we all know this. Let's stop acting surprised.

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