News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, May 15, 2011

By their fruitcakes, ye shall know them.

U.S. politics has become like holding a debate in an insane asylum with the inmates setting the rules every few seconds or so.  As a bibliophile who looks for texts to help make sense of WTF is going on, I think of three sources.  The first is a play by Peter Weiss that came out in the early 1960s:  The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  A lot of people today do not know what an insane asylum is because we have closed most of them and mainstreamed the inmates back into society, where they run for president.  At any rate, the play, title often shortened to Marat/Sade, portrays what is essentially a discussion of revolutionary attempts to deal with human suffering and class struggles that is often interrupted by deluded inmates, intrusions of the "doctors," and the nutcase rants of the director, the Marquis de Sade.  It portrays our current social and political milieu.

You can see the movie on YouTube.
Another play I have thought of frequently in recent years and would like to see again is The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giroudeaux.  It, too, deals with the efforts of the poor to obtain some rights in a society that connives to prevent them from having any. 

Perhaps a source that might be more germane to the South Dakota experience is Black Elk.  In his analytic vision, he sees a time when the people "walked the third ascent, all the animals and fowls that were the people ran here and there, for each one seemed to have his own little vision that he followed and his own rules; and all over the universe I could hear the winds at war like wild beasts fighting."  He further chronicles how the incoherence he perceives means "the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."  When people lose the ability to communicate, but think their individual howls into the wind contribute to any constructive possibilities, they have lost an essential of human life.

Those works of Weiss, Giroudeaux, and Black Elk all center on the poor and how the powerful oppress, persecute, and kill them or create conditions for them in which death is imminent.  

What brings these works to mind is the startling accrual of evidence that the nation suffers from a preponderance of intellectual and moral failure.   In one poll, 51 percent of the Republicans who intend to vote in the primaries believe that President Obama is not an American citizen. Perhaps the most listened-to radio show in the country is Coast-to-Coast AM which is a talk show that invades most media markets at midnight every day of the week.  The show has some interesting programs and one weekend host, Ian Punnett out of St. Paul, who brings an element of intelligence to the show.  However, most of the shows dwell on conspiracy theories, that one would hope would be confined to asylums, and obsessions with the occult--extra-terrestrials, ghosts, weird creatures unknown to science, and any kind of spook people can imagine or hallucinate.  The show claims to dwell on these matters as the only media source that pursues real truth for the American people.  Its  main host is also persistently anti-Obama.  He opens the show each night with some look at the news and calls in "experts" who help him confirm what a devious fool President Obama is.  The main host and his guests often complain that those who experience UFOs and kidnappings by aliens and ghosts are disparaged by the social majority.  What is scary is how many people listen to the show and do not find cause for derision.  The show's dominance of midnight airwaves shows a regressive movement of American culture back into an age of superstition and ignorant fixations.  Although, the main host of the show, who opens most evenings with some anti-Obama ploy, claims that the show broadcasts truth not available through other media sources. 

The devout beliefs in demented cults and absurd defamation, such as Obama's Kenyan birth, indicates a cultural shift in the national mentality more than a political one.  American politics are schizophrenic.  Schizophrenia can be a matter of social psychology as well as individual psychology.  However, at the social level, symptoms of the disorder occur in definable segments of the population.  They may take on the appearance of political and social attitudes, but at root display a split from reality that is accompanied by a nurturing of ill will.  When people make up derogations and falsehoods about other people and then believe in them passionately, they create a group dynamic that does not proceed from actuality.  Rather they create a mythology around their hatred, prejudice, malice and ill will.   Perhaps the iconic version of this in America is the Salem witch trials.  They impose their ill will, whatever its emotional source, onto society.  Exacerbated by the electronic media such as talk radio and the Internet, people feed on each other and the group dynamic is driven by shared hatreds and ignorance,  an obsessive evil, not the better angels of human nature.

The  most pronounced symptom of the malaise that dominates so much of America's discourse.    People who gain public attention through words and deeds of ignorance, ill-will, and stupidity are held up as leaders. Discourse in politics has become a discourse of malice, and it is wrong to call it rhetoric, because it does everything but make cogent and rigorous arguments that can engage people in productive thought.  It is the squabbling, accusations, and malicious fantasies of those who have supplanted reality with the rituals of hatred.  The media in its absurd efforts to be "interactive" post questions and invite answers about which the respondents have no information or intellectual wherewithal to process information competently if they did possess accurate information.  Media comment sections and discussion threads of blogs do not inform us of anything but the fact that there is a huge horde of ignorant and malicious people out there willing and ready to spread their ignorance and malice.  

A prime example came when Madville Times put up a post about the fact that the state GOP went outside the state of South Dakota to choose an executive secretary.  The thread of discussion soon devolved into exchanges of petty but virulent ill-will with some respondents trying to salvage some fragment of civility from the exchanges.  Somehow the exchanges turned to that perennial fix on the poor as the ultimate test of political intention.  One respondent posted these comments:  

Stan, nobody hates the poor more than liberals. Yes they talk a good game but their policies are a direct attack on employment options for them and deny them a chance to provide for their families.

This blatant assault on the poor for political power in light of their manipulative “pro-poor” rhetoric makes their hatred even more egregious.

Cory, when I read your attempt to claim to know the motives of the GOP, I am absolutely convinced you are a person who hates the poor and loves manipulating them to support your world view.
What is significant about the statements is that they reveal why our teachers, our schools, and our social programs, even our scientists who study the causes of global warming are under such intense attack.  Public education has become an object of scorn.  One of the first things that frontier communities did as they organized themselves was to  establish schools.  Education was revered as the means to a better life for future generations.  Although teachers were often put under stringent codes of behavior, they were also given authority and trust in directing the education of their students.  Now teachers, their organizations, and the schools they work in are under severe attack.  We hear constant charges about the failure of public education, but few people make a connection between that failure and the incidence of bullying that takes place in schools.  Kids are reflecting the immersion in ignorant hatred and resentment of the larger society.  American education is failing because it is so beset by an ignorance and petulance  that does not wish it to succeed, but only to serve the purposes of the ignorant and petulant.  The comments quoted above show the severity and cause of the failure of education.  As well, it shows how the poor are used as the occasion for malice. 

Black Elk's vision of people running amok guided by their own rules and contrived versions of  reality is a fact-of-life.   Our public schools are hamstrung by the conflicting imposition of idiosyncratic rules with which people want the world run.

No reconciliation seems possible.  Just as we have red states and blue states forming around the divide between ignorance and knowledge, between ill-will and good will, the only refuge from angry and destructive conflict seems to lie in a society divided along those lines.  Looking for a good school for our children may well require some dislocations into other countries. 


larry kurtz said...

You're right, of course; but, I'm desperately trying not to take your post personally, David.

David Newquist said...

Didn't really see any allusions to your comments.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States