A geriatric army marched on Washington, D.C. today and tried to appropriate language long since deprived of its historic force: Glenn Beck is no freedom rider. The civil rights of the aggrieved white upper middle class don't carry the blood stain of centuries of slavery. That anyone would think the Tea Party's petite rage can fill the outsize wine skin of Martin Luther King's passionate rhetoric is obscene.
But some good did come of today's political theater. It highlights the extent to which old forms are dead. A restless and disconnected people don't know where to turn. So they turn to yesteryear's theater to adopt a role, a pose. Absent any compelling new narrative to capture their lingering sense of malaise, they turn to an irretrievable past. Can anything better and more poignantly reflect the extent to which American politics has become sound and fury signifying nothing?
There is a legitimation crisis in the United States. Our politics and politicians are morally bankrupt. Consider the lead paragraph in this morning's New York Times regarding New York Governor David Patterson: "A thoroughly honest politician has pretty much always been considered an undiscovered specimen." How easily we assume that to be a politician is to be a liar. And yet we prosecute the liars we elect without irony. Does anyone really believe the rhetoric of the political elite? I suspect few do. We expect them to lie, and so they do. We expect them to lie because we have little or no sense of a shared truth.
I stumbled upon a little book I urge all of you to read. Its author is unknown. It is called The Coming Insurrection. The book was published in the United States in 2009 by Semiotext(e), 2007 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 427, Los Angeles, CA 90057. The author is called, simply enough, The Invisible Committee. (The publisher's web site is www.semiotexte.com.)
First published in France in 2007 as L'insurrection qui vient, the work is steeped in Sartrean and post-Marxian dialectic that makes for sometimes hard reading, especially in translation. Yet its assessment of a world in which politics and power are divorced from the
ordinary lives of people is compelling. "The business of voting and deciding a winner is enough to turn the assembly into a ... a theater where all the various little pretenders to power confront each other." Amen. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Richard Blumenthal, Antonin Scalia, Barack Obama -- all tossing words into a void, hoping that something will stick. "From left to right, it's the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or a savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys."
Politics, The Coming Insurrection argues, is passe. History doesn't end, institutions end. Their death sigh is observed in the widening gap between the rhetoric and reality of political life. Do we speak of freedom? "Freedom is no longer a name scrawled on walls, for today it is always followed, as if by its shadow, with the word 'security.'" What remains when rhetoric fails is the lived experience of those without rhetoric, possessing only the means, however limited, to act not in the name of mere survival, but in the joyous, almost Nietzschean spirit of overcoming. (I told you, the book is not easy.)
The dominant spirit of the age is the easy condescension of the raconteur: "[I]t's the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who's stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all. You can see the dogmatism of constant questioning give its complicit wink of the eye everywhere in the universities and among the literary intelligentsia. No critique is too radical among postmodernist thinkers, so long as it maintains this total absence of certitude."
This is dangerous reading. The future, and there will be one, even its shape is not foreseeable, belongs to those who can find life and creative energy in new, as yet scarcely recognized forms. Think how troubling the world looked to the Roman elite in the late fifth century: there was new life in the manor and in the monastery, a life that had yet to emerge and be known.
What new form lingers in the shadow of our decay? Is this form the commune? "The commune is perhaps what gets decided at the very moment we would normally part ways. It's the joy of an encounter that survives its expected ends." Put another way, the commune is connection after the ends of utility have been served. I am reminded of Cicero's definition of a commonwealth: a collection of people bound together not just by common interests but also by a shared sense of right. New communes arise daily all around us. I observed one the other night in an after-dinner gathering of friends in a small-town restaurant: the people there rejoiced in one another's presence. Who rejoices any longer in a public forum?
The American Century has ended abroad, and the rhetoric of American politics no longer matches the lives of most Americans. Glenn Beck's play-acting appeals out of an act hunger that must be served. He is a caricature energized by forces seduced into playing at politics when politics no longer matters. But as the Sun sets tonight on Washington the loud clanging of Beck's mordant cymbals already grows faint.
The Coming Insurrection is a dangerous book. It is a centerpiece of the French prosecution of nine individuals accused of terrorism. Indeed, the French government has called it a manual for terrorism. It is no such thing. The Coming Insurrection is a simple book about dangerous times. Read it, I tell you. Read it and ask yourself whether a little revolution now and again isn't a good thing.
Glenn Beck is a sign of a revolution, but he is no revolutionary. He is yesteryear in effigy. Anyone got a match?