June 15, 2005

THE SHARPENING (via Luciferous):

Bring on the Mud (Christopher Hitchens, Wilson Quarterly)

[I]s there any place “above politics”? Is there a subject that can avoid becoming “a political football” or a resource out of which “political capital” cannot be made? The banality of the automatic rhetoric is again suggestive here. Since every other electoral metaphor is sports oriented, from the top of the ninth to the 10-yard line to the playing of “offense” and “defense,” why should there not be a ball or two in play? (Surely, to move to a market image, it’s short-term dividends rather than actual capital that one hopes to accrue.)

Opinion polling shows how far cognitive dissonance on this point has progressed. When asked, millions of people will say that the two parties are (a) so much alike as to be virtually indistinguishable, and (b) too much occupied in partisan warfare. The two “perceptions” are not necessarily opposed: Party conflict could easily be more and more disagreement about less and less—what Sigmund Freud characterized in another context as “the narcissism of the small difference.” For a while, about a decade ago, the combination of those two large, vague impressions gave rise to the existence of a quasi-plausible third party, led by Ross Perot, which argued, in effect, that politics should be above politics, and that government should give way to management. That illusion, like the touching belief that one party is always better than the other, is compounded of near-equal parts naiveté and cynicism.

The current discourse becomes odder and emptier the more you examine it. We live in a culture that’s saturated with the cult of personality and with attention to the private life. So much is this the case that candidates compete to appear on talk shows hosted by near-therapists. In so doing, they admit that their “personalities” are under discussion and, to that extent, in contention. Even I, who don’t relish the Oprah world, say, “Why not?” There must be very few people who choose their friends or their lovers on the basis of their political outlook rather than their individual qualities. Yet just try to suggest that the psychopathic element in a politician, whether Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, is itself a consideration, and see how fast you’re accused of “personalizing” or “witch-hunting” or “mudslinging.” This charge will most often come from someone who makes his or her living as the subsidiary of a party machine and has an idealized or personalized photo or portrait of a mere human being or “personality” in a position of honor somewhere near the mantelpiece.

By definition, politics is, or ought to be, division. It expresses, or at least reflects, or at the very least emulates, the inevitable difference of worldview that originates, for modern purposes, with Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. This difference can be muddied, especially in a highly disparate society, but it cannot be absolutely obscured. So given the inevitable tendency of the quotidian, the corrupt, and the self-interested to muddy differences and make sinuous appeals to all sides, might we not place a higher value on those who seek to make the differences plainer and sharper?

Mr. Hitchens has already switched from the Paine side to the Burke side on his way to the sharpest difference drawer: Catholicism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2005 7:25 AM

You're dreaming. He'll never become Catholic.

Posted by: Brandon at June 15, 2005 3:30 PM

Neither will Saul.

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2005 3:40 PM


Somehow I can't shake this image of splenetic 'ole Christopher on his deathbed hurling gigantic curses at all "Romanists" and "papists" while Orrin stands by smiling serenely and assuring him of his coming beatification.

Posted by: Peter B at June 15, 2005 4:12 PM

Saul didn't.

Posted by: jefferson park at June 15, 2005 4:15 PM


what about Harry's deathbed: Brothers Judd yet lives.

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2005 4:17 PM

Hey c'mon. You can take Hitch but I want first dibs on Harry.

Posted by: Peter B at June 15, 2005 5:08 PM

"the Paine side to the Burke side"

Not a meaningful division in American politics. Burke in the US is meaningless. There is no time immemorial. The country was dedicated to a proposition at its foundation. The proposition is and remains radical. Adhering to tradition therefor means being dedicated to the founding proposition.

To be Burke is to adhere to Paine.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 16, 2005 1:45 AM