I wrote the statement below to be read, by Aarthi Suguness, as part of the 2012 panel at Cassandra Troyan's ROY G BIV show. It's about a lot of things, mostly the impotence of the American left to do anything outside of the realm of satire. There are a few blurbs after the statement about things I "felt" regarding 2012 as a phenomenon.
Cultural Mirages & You
A speech delivered at ROY G BIV on February 22, 2010
I’m going to talk, for a moment, about why we shouldn’t talk, for any moments, about what we’re meeting here for at this specific moment.
But first, let me propose that a certain kind of common saying be, from here forward, relegated to the dust bin.
“Let’s agree to disagree.”
“That’s just a theory.”
“Well, that’s just your opinion.”
Popular philosopher Simon Blackburn points out that phrases of this kind, those that skim matters of “actual truth” in favor of not causing conflict are dead ends rather than points to move forward. Blackburn says specifically of “Well, that’s just your opinion."
"…notice that it is a conversation-stopper rather than a move in an intended conversation. It is not a reason for or against the proffered opinion, nor is it an invitation for the speaker’s reasons, nor any kind of persuasion that it is better to think something else. Anyone sincere is of course voicing their own opinion – that’s a tautology (what else could they be doing?) But the opinion is put forward as something to be agreed with, or at any rate to be taken seriously or weighed for what it is by the audience. The speaker is saying, “This is my opinion, and here are the reasons for it, and if you have reasons against it we had better look at them.” If the opinion is to be rejected, the next move should be, “No, you shouldn’t think that because…”
Advice: Take opinions seriously enough to get into arguments.
There are three things you’re not supposed to talk about in America: Sex, politics, and religion. When these elephants in the room finally do broach conversation it is usually summed up after a lackadaisical tit for tat as “let’s agree to disagree.” The result is to let biases, prejudices, misinformation, hallucinations and cultural mirages to continually stew, infecting the eyesight of all the spectator/citizens of American experience. But there is no topic which is as important, and therefore worthy of rigorous conversation, than politics. Governance touches on all aspects society - even itself. (This is sort of a funny , but superfluous, point - any set which contains itself inevitably tends toward the illogical <3 Bertrand Russell) It is government that has zoned ROY G BIV as a place for business, it is government that established the time zones we have met by, and it is government that has “made” us be in Columbus, either through moving the capital of Ohio here or by establishing a land-grant university down the street.
In America there is currently a vast array of cultural mirages that have gained traction with a not insignificant amount of the population:
Birthers - who believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Or that he is a socialist, a fascist, a Muslim, a Kenyan. That he runs death panels or concentration camps.
Anti-evolutionists – a museum dedicated to this ideology resides just a 100 miles away.
AIDS deniers – Supported by, strangely, The Foo Fighters
Global Warming deniers
An anti-vaccine crowd – Jim Carrey for instance.
A government program called HAARP caused the Haitian earthquake.
It goes on, you get the point.
It isn’t surprising that beliefs like these – counterfactual ones – run rampant. It once was a fact that the King of England was in control of America. So the mere idea of “America” is reliant on iconoclasm. To be American, in some ways, is to be an inveterate iconoclast. But that impulse, misdirected, can be evil as well as good. There is, in many ways, a free-floating sense of self-importance and grandeur attached to the post-war American identity. When that grandeur obviously does not match reality people look for reasons. Reasons which are not reflected in the commonly accepted state of affairs since, if reality holds that America is the provincial, broken, socially stratified, Roman Empire that it is, that people are poor in America, that we are an imperialist state, that we are not especially generous, or benevolent, or free, or advanced – then reality must be wrong – after all we are exceptional, rebels, mavericks, innovators. An increasing number of Americans believe, solipsitically, that Reality, “Truth”, does not exist because Truth does not and cannot reflect our narcissism. So, therefore according to some, if America is in decline it is because we have a black president who wasn’t born here. Or it is because of ACORN. It is not, however, because our political system is bankrupt, our economic policies favor the rich, or that we have never properly invested in our social infrastructure.
For many in the room today, the idea that this anti-reality ideology is actually widespread will be hard to believe. It will be laughed off or equivocated. Make no mistake, this exists in a large swath of the population. And the people who do hold these ideas are highly motivated. The organ of many of these ideas – The Tea Party – will be incredibly important in the 2010 Republican primaries. But these ideas have already begun to impact reality. In the Holocaust museum guard who is shot dead, the doctor at an abortion clinic in Kansas who is killed, the census worker found hung under mysterious circumstances. In the man killing himself by flying a plane into a building over the IRS. And, tragically, in the inability to pass comprehensive healthcare reform. (Death Panels!)
It is ironic, I guess, that the philosophical relativism and subjectivity which came out of post-modernism and the left has mutated into the salvation of the right and incessantly paranoid. But the left’s cause is not lost because of that fact alone. The left’s cause is lost when we all meet to talk about what 2012 or Birthers or HAARP conspiracies look like – when we all meet to laugh and imitate something which is very real instead of taking action against it in the most mundane ways possible – in the street, in the machinations of government, and in conversation with our crazy uncles by refusing to “agree to disagree” or calmly cede the conversation to “well that’s your opinion.”
Senator Moynihan from New York said it best “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Here are facts: 2012 not real. Obama – American Citizen. AIDS – Real, Holocaust – Real, Global Warming – Real, Vaccines – effective.
Also fact: I will not have health insurance in one month. My father, who just had a heart attack, does not have health insurance. 40,000 people die in one year from lack of health insurance in the U.S.A. But, amazingly, 20 senators have recently pushed for the public option through reconciliation.
So why aren’t we talking about the public option right now, like, not in an art gallery?
Are we too busying joining the 330,000 people in “I’m with Coco” on Facebook in solidarity with Conan O’Brien?
Are we not wearing clothes on the subway for a day as thousands of “cool” New Yorkers did recently?
Both cultural events happened the same week Scott Brown was elected the "41st" in Massachusetts.
It raises the question: can anyone here take reality as serious as birthers and 2012ers take fiction?
OTHER BLURBS TANGENTIALLY ABOUT 2012
The left regresses into the aesthetic of the past: the neighborhood deli, the Short North gates resurrected after generations. Even historically the adoption of Greco-Roman architecture for our capital, progressives rely on the idea that reworking contemporary facades will inherently rework contemporary politics.
The right regresses into the ideology of the past: traditional marriage, self-reliance, competition as cure-all. The right uses politics, de-regulation, zoning, annexing, eminent domain, for instance, to create the banal, soulsapping landscapes of tanning salon stripmalls, four lane highways, and commerical radio. The aesthetic of these places (all of our places) is that whatever makes money is good. This ideology – wealth next to godliness - results in the absurd reality that we even privatize our wars. We privatize our mail, our healthcare, and increasingly, our education.
The Left wants to talk about how 2012, Birthers, etc "looks." To describe the surface of it. What it "means," as a mental exercise. The right, and the seeming oxymoron, "the populist right," has instead wisely learned the lesson of paranoiac delusions eternal: If you say what they want to hear, they'll at least talk about it - no matter how impossible or inconceivable and that prompt will turn into an obsession, a self-fulfilling prophecy no matter how implausible or literally impossible it was to fulfill. Is Obama a socialist/fascist? If we completely restructure our idea of political labels, sure. Is 2012 the end of the world? That might be harder to force through by semantics but if we keep asking the question, pretending like it matters while the real world burns, it might just be.
In Frederick Turner's "The Significance of the American Frontier in History" he describes how the unique divison and collision between"civilization" and "savagery" throughout America's genocidal and imperial "manifest destiny" process produced a "rugged and rough" individual psyche, a societal temperment unique to America. This framework is responsible for letting the "Howard Roarks" of the world create industry and cities where once there was only forest but it also led to a mindset that doggedly rejects conventional thought and established truths. The mindset is a roving contrarianism that allows for the utterance of any and all ideas and for the possibility that large masses of people will follow patently false ideas and believe demonstrably incorrect explanations. This is why a fairly innocuous and obvious premise like Global Warming has spent the last 30 years inching forward (as the ice shelf quickly recedes). Darwin's theory of evolution is STILL being debated and crusaded against even in our educational system. In England, Darwin is such a settled matter that his visage resides on their currency. This roving and always allowable contrarianism (everyone has an opinion, just playing devil's advocate, opinons can't be wrong, "I'm sure the debate will rage on," "let's agree to disagree) mixed with raging right-wing delusions and a public school system so bankrupt and unconstitutional (in Ohio at least) has produced a political climate where Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh dominate the airwaves and Sarah Palin is a best selling author. Where Senator James Inofhe calls global warming a lie. Where a segment of our population can be persuaded of any crack-pot, half-baked theory: vaccines are bad for you, Iraq attacked us on 9/11, etc. There is such a degree of distrust in the concept of truth, of the idea that someone knows something that you don't, of experts, that out right fictions like 2012 garner widespread appeal and are repeated ad nauseum in hollywood movies, hundreds of websites, references in music and literature.
Or maybe we can't decipher a "truth" because we live in a tangle of day to day lies:
maybe teaching kids from the moment they are born to believe in figments of the imagination as real engenders this predisposition to fantasy, to live in a world made up - Santa, the Easter Bunny, God, the Tooth Fairy or the other outright lies we are told as children; you can grow up and do anything you want in America, that everyone is equal, or that we're the best nation in the world, at everything! That sports matter. That authority figures should be respected. Etc. Let alone all the lies we consume each day - the unrealistic level of money everyone on television has, the uniformity of superficial beauty in our media, or the overexaggeration of violent crime on the news. Even the prices we pay for consumer products are lies in that they do not account for the true environmental cost of the product.
end of painting ad reinhart
end of history fukuyama
Americans wants to the find the end, the stopping point. we work more hours, for less wages and less benefits than any "western" nation. Our ideas concerning goals, productivity, achievement, infect our conception of arts and culture - that minimalism can once and for all identify what painting "is." That once the cold war was over we could all go home and relax. Because our civilization is sold on the premise that our work "means" something; that if we do enough of it, something will happen. So we constantly look for something to prove our work accomplishes something - we look for ends. And when it becomes obvious, as it did through Bush's never ending 8 years, that nothing is ever going to happen for Amercans, that we will work until we die, that we won't see any change because of it, and that we better be happy that we can even do that work, we look for an end from outside sources, a deus ex machina to give us some sort of consolatory meaning, "Well we would have figured it all out but 9/11, Katrina, Tsunami, Underwear bomber, swine flu, 2012, happened." Diversonary disasters become the scapegoats we all secretly wish for and need to explain our comically inept and dysfunctional society. We need a Joe Lieberman to explain why a Democratic president with a super majority can't pass health care, when we all know that no one man is responsbile - it is false premises of our society and the cancer of specialized political classes. But Lieberman will do, just like 9/11 became the reason for an era, for anything, to anyone. 2012 is the hope that we can get another scapegoat. 2012 doesn't mean a specific event or even a specific time, it just means we want a disaster, sometime soon, that we can coalesce around, blame, put off the real, painful work of self-examination, incriminations, recriminations and, even scarier - change.
Yeah, 2012 is just "in" but not in a "good way." I've always felt apocalypse daydreams were symptomatic of human/temporal narcissism - like the things happening now and the people alive now are what is really important. So of course if the world is going to end, it is going to end now because we are what is important. And that would be the most important event in human history besides our inception. I always thought that stuff was ridic - the chance of being in the last generation of humanity is so slight. So it is kind of like the easiest way to achieve something as a generation if you could pull it off. I think a lot of people have clung onto imminent apocalypse because the stasis we're in doesn't allow for any real change, we're all so bored and deprived that the end of that could be sort of entertaining, in a solipsistic way. And in media culture that is driven on a constant river of spectacular events it seems natural that river should be leading up to something bigger, of course its not. It's so part and parcel with political apathy, if all the interest generated by 2012 could be directed at anything in America it would have an actual impact - instead it's just going to hit the wall of reality when that clock ticks down. Academics like to analyze what's behind eschatology but it's all kind of clear - life sucks, isn't entertaining, there is no way to easily change it and misplaced self-importance demands some sort of justification. I think this stuff also ties into the distrust of truth in favor of paranoia/infotainment in the Obama era, which is a thread of "thought" running throughout America's history: