Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do the Americans Believe in Their Myths?

I know I should let it drop, but it's getting to me, this cult of personality.  An intelligent friend of mine on Facebook quoted today someone else's remark that "Seriously, Michelle [Obama] is like...the statue of liberty. Only with more compassionate eyes, and better fashion sense."  This comparison -- to an inanimate object, mind you! -- seems totally loony to me.  Luckily, Democrats base their politics on principle and fact, not on emotion.

The Onion has a good piece that sums up my reaction to Mrs. Obama's speech very well: "Good Evening, It's An Honor To Be Used As A Political Prop In My Husband's Campaign."  After reading a few more status messages gushing inanely over her speech ("Regardless of if you like President Obama, how can you not want First Lady Michelle Obama back?!"), I posted a link to the Onion piece.  A right-wing acquaintance of mine, who'd been drooling over Clint Eastwood just a few days ago, shared the link.  I commented, "Funny, you didn't feel that way about Ann Romney's speech"-- and she didn't ("a darn good speech at the RNC.  Who knew!").

But enough of this.  I decided to write this post to quote a couple of writers quite unrelated to one another whose remarks feel relevant to the way intelligent, educated adults act as though they believe that national politicians and their families are their personal, intimate friends.  One is from Glenn Greenwald:
Indeed, as I've written many times, "trust" is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians. That's what John Adams meant when he said: "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." "All" means "all" and "none" means "none."
But that's not how our political culture works generally. Our politics have become entirely celebretized. Political discussions typically resemble junior high chatter about one's most adored and despised actors: filled with adolescent declarations of whether someone "likes" and "trusts" this politician or "dislikes" that one. "I trust Obama" has long been a common refrain among his most loyal supporters. The fact that, as Krugman says, that is much less true now is quite significant, even if "trust" is an inappropriate emotion in the first place to feel towards any political official.
While I agree with Greenwald's basic point about trusting politicians, I disagree that American political culture is any more celebritized than it was in the past.  The scale has increased vastly from the original thirteen states, and mass media have extended its reach so that millions of people at a time can adore their rulers in closeup.  In fact, I believe that electoral politics is primarily glorified "junior high school chatter" about who's the dreamiest and most popular; concern about issues, logic, and fact is at best secondary.  Whether anything can be done about this I don't know; I'm inclined to doubt it.

The other quotations come from Paul Veyne's book Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? (Chicago, 1988), page 81:
Indeed, the pleasure that citizens took in hearing an orator pronounce the panegyric of their city cannot be believed. These speeches of praise were a fashion that lasted for a millennium, up to the end of Antiquity. People spoke of mythical origins and of kinship among the cities of Greece as often as the people who frequented the salons of the fauborg Saint-Germain talked genealogy, and for the same reasons. … “When I hear praised,” Socrates says ironically, “those who have just died in battle and, with them, our ancestors, our city, and ourselves, I feel more noble and great; each of the other listeners feels the same on his part, so that the entire civic body comes out of it exalted, and it takes me three days to get over this emotion.”
And from page 90:
Worship and love of the sovereign reflect the efforts of the subjugated to gain the upper hand: “Since I love him, therefore he must wish me no harm.” (A German friend told me that his father had voted for Hitler to reassure himself; since I vote for him, Jew that I am, it is because in his heart he believes as I do.) And, if the emperor demanded or, more often, allowed himself to be worshiped, this served as “threatening information.” Since he can be worshiped, let no one think to contest his authority. … [91] Under France’s Old Regime, people believed and wanted to believe in the king’s kindness and that the entire problem was the fault of his ministers. If this were not the case, all was lost, since one could not hope to expel the king as one could remove a mere minister.
The chorus of adulation for the President's wife (who, to repeat, is not running for office herself), the widely-expressed wish to have a Celebrity Death Match between Betty White and Clint Eastwood, and the endless flood of cute pictures of the Holy Family -- all this and more keeps reminding me that Democrats, even the more "liberal" or "progressive" ones, are no more rational than the Republican opposite numbers they scorn so lightly.  Who scorn them as lightly in return, with as little basis.  Whether, and how, we might construct a sensible politics in this country I don't know.  But it won't be built by either party.