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This is a post that I published in 2014, but is now, sadly, more relevant than ever. Even the reference to Michelle Obama fits with current events…
Many will remember Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech, in which she said:
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed….You have to stay at the seat at the table of democracy with a man like Barack Obama not just on Tuesday but in a year from now, in four years from now, in eight years from now, you will have to be engaged.
Victor Davis Hanson notes that she also said:
We are going to have to change our conversation; we’re going to have to change our traditions, our history; we’re going to have to move into a different place as a nation.
…which is, of course, entirely consistent with the assertion made by Barack Obama himself, shortly before his first inauguration: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
It should be clear by now that all aspects of American life and society are rapidly becoming politicized. Obama has greatly accelerated this movement, but he didn’t initiate it. The “progressive” political movement, which now controls the Democratic Party, has for a long time been driving the politicization of anything and everything. The assertion “the personal is political” originated in the late 1960s…and, if the personal is political, then everything is political.
Some people, of course, like the politicization of everything–for some individuals, indeed, their lives would be meaningless without it. In his important memoir of growing up in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner noted divergent reactions from people when the political and economic situation stabilized (temporarily, as we now know) during the Stresemann chancellorship:
The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.
But this return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:
A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.
To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.
I’m afraid we have quite a few people in America today who like having “the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.” But for most people, especially for creative and emotionally-healthy people, the politicization of everything leads to a dreary and airless existence.
In her novel We the Living, based partly on her personal experiences in the early Soviet Union (which is probably why it is, in my opinion, the best of her books from a literary standpoint), Ayn Rand paints a vivid picture of what day-to-day life in the politicized society is like. Her heroine, Kira Argounova, is a strong anti-Communist, but absent other options, has found a job (which she got through the intervention of a Communist friend) in something called “The House of the Peasant,” which is dedicated to “a closer understanding between workers and peasants,” under the slogan “The Clamping of CIty and Village,” celebrated with posters bearing slogans like “Comrades, strengthen the Clamping!”
Kira’s boss at the House of the Peasant is an older woman “thin, gray-haired, military and in strict sympathy with the Soviet Government; her chief aim in life was to give constant evidence of how strict that sympathy was, even though she had graduated from a women’s college…” But the boss lives in fear of “a tall girl with a long nose and a leather jacket, who was a Party member and could make Comrade Bitiuk shudder at her slightest whim, and knew it…” All the office staff members also live in fear of the Wall Newspaper, which carries criticisms of individual workers both for their personal behavior as well as their work performance:
Comrade Nadia Chernova is wearing silk stockings. Time to be reminded that such flaunting of luxury is un-proletarian, Comrade Chernova … Comrade E Ovsov indulges in too much talk when asked about business. This leads to a waste of valuable time … We hear that Comrade Kira Argounova is lacking in social spirit. The time is past, Comrade Argounova, for arrogant bourgeois attitudes.
After reading this last, Kira “stood very still and heard her heart beating. No one dared to ignore the mighty pointing finger of the Wall Newspaper … No one could save those branded as “anti-social element,” not even (Kira’s Communist friend) Andrei Taganov … At her desk, she watched the others in the room, wondering who had reported her to the Wall Newspaper…”
All workers in the office are expected to be members of the Marxist Club (i.e., to be “engaged,” as Michelle Obama would put it), which meets after hours and for attendance at which the workers are not paid. The club met twice a week: one member read a thesis he had prepared and the others discussed it. When it is Kira’s turn, she reads her thesis on “Marxism and Leninism,” which she has copied, barely changing the words, from the “ABC of Communism,” a book whose study is compulsory in every school in the country.
She knew that all her listeners had read it, that they had also read her thesis, time and time again, in every editorial of every newspaper for the last six years. They sat around her, hunched, legs stretched out limply, shivering in their overcoats. They knew she was there for the same reason they were. The girl in the leather jacket presided, yawning once in a while.
After mandatory discussion (“Kira knew that she had to argue and defend her thesis; she knew that the consumptive young man had to argue to show his activity; she knew that he was no more interested in the discussion than she was, that his blue eyelids were weary with sleeplessness, that he clasped his thin hands nervously, not daring to glance at his wristwatch…”), the meeting finally comes to a close. “We shall thank Comrade Argounova for her valuable work,” said the chairman. “Our next meeting will be devoted to a thesis by Comrade Leskov on ‘Marxism and Collectivism.’”
If this sort of thing sounds like a lot of fun to you, then you should be applauding the increased politicization of America. Of course, to a certain type of person–the type represented above by the girl in the leather jacket–such a society is something to look forward to.
The endpoint of such a society can be found in the words of the Nazi judge Roland Freisler, who, in sentencing Christoph Probst to death, sneered at his defense: “He is a ‘nonpolitical man’ — hence no man at all!”…the implication being that manhood and humanity are only to be found via participation in (approved) political activity. This is the ultimate development of the “the personal is political” line.
The politicization of American life has originated very largely in the universities–indeed, what has happened in these institutions has been a leading indicator of what is happening in the larger society. For just one of thousands of examples, see this post about the indoctrination conducted by the University of Delaware as part of its “Residence Life” program. See also the notes of one of UD’s designated indoctrinators about his or her interview with a young woman who was showing more independence and spirit than is apparently desired by that institution. The degree of bureaucratic intrusiveness in this conversation could have come right out the the “House of the Peasant” in the above-referenced novel.
I’ve been reading David Mamet’s book about the film industry, Bambi vs. Godzilla. He mentions his 1992 play Oleanna, which he describes as “a rather straightforward classical tragedy” which “drove people berserk.” The play involved a girl who made an accusation of rape against a male professor, said accusation being either questionable or outright false.
The play’s first audience a group of undergraduates from Brown. They came to a dress rehearsal. The play ended and I asked the folks what they thought. “Don’t you think it’s politically questionable,” said one, “to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?”
(I guess it was even more politically questionable for Shakespeare to have Lady Macbeth plotting murder.) Mamet describes his own reaction to the reaction of the Brown students:
I, in my ignorance, was stunned. I didn’t realize that it was my job to be politically acceptable. I’d always thought society employed me to be dramatic; further, I wondered what force had so perverted the young that they would think that increasing the political enfranchisement of a group rendered a member of that group incapable of error–in effect, rendered her other than human.
For if the subject of art is not our maculate, fragile, and often pathetic humanity, what is the point of the exercise?
But, of course, in the fully politicized society the role of art is the same as the role of science or education or car-building or grocery-shopping … to promote the interests of the dominant or ascendant power structure.
Note that the incident David Mamet describes happened way back in 1992. We are now in our second or third generation of university administrators and professors who have grown up in a highly politicized climate and take it as the normal way for human beings to live. It was inevitable that this toxic orientation would seep out into the larger society and increasingly dominate it, and now it has.
Original post and comment thread here.Published in