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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Imperial Idiot

Our political culture is administered. Insofar as it encourages idiocy, rather than cultivate independence, it is an imperial and not a republican culture.

The imperial strain in American political thought, from the Founding Fathers to today, has always been fond of comparing America with classical Greece and Rome. According to these comparisons, America is continuing the experiment with democracy that first the Greeks and then the Romans undertook. It is in this respect that Jefferson spoke of an Empire of Liberty or Benjamin Franklin spoke of the American republic as a logical and historical continuation of the British Empire. Such comparisons are dangerous to make, however, not just because we know the final outcome of Roman History –i.e., the republic gave way to empire and the empire led to the decline and fall of Roman civilization; these comparisons are dangerous to make because they can also highlight the causes of that decline.

Consider, in this regard, that the word idiot comes from the ancient Greeks, a people who valued above everything else their public life in the polis. Consequently, for them, an idiot was someone who would dedicate himself to private preoccupations rather than concern himself with the public affairs of the polis.

This “dropping out” of public life in order to attend to one’s private concerns is a symptom of the imperial idiocy that has taken hold of our political culture and threatens to undermine American democracy. Indeed, on the eve of the Presidential Election, we see in televised Presidential Debates that our political culture has become a spectacle and a farce. The candidates do not debate ideas and policies; they merely repeat scripted lines, like actors in a theater (of dunces). There is little if any concern for truth. The media treat this glaring absence of truth with decided cynicism: I am thinking of the Washington Post, where there is a column written daily in which the paper’s editors study statements made by either President Obama or Mitt Romney, and assign to these statements a certain number of “Pinocchios”: Five for outlandish lies, one for half-truths. To treat these misrepresentations of truth as something that is “cute”, only serves to remind us of the idiocy that reigns over and governs public discourse in America today. It is characteristic of the collusion of intellectuals with the administering powers, and it is symptomatic of their humiliation and reduced power to effect change in public life.

The decline of the public intellectual is, of course, not in itself a newsworthy item. From Julien Benda’s to Russel Jacoby, intellectuals have been decrying the increasingly circumscribed role that intellectuals play in our public life, not only here in America, but throughout the modern world, where the forces of globalization have managed to make a mockery of democracy in every inhabited continent of the globe. Such critiques, whether implicitly or explicitly, point to a utopian notion of the intellectual’s role in governing public life. We could go as far back as Plato’s Republic for an example of this utopian concept of the intellectual as a “Philospher-King”. But insofar as our democracy is a modern democracy, the more appropriate example is Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.
In this text of 1624, Bacon formulated an enlightened ideal of a utopian society governed by the so-called Fathers, or intellectuals, of a university named The House of Salomon. In Bacon’s utopia, men participate in an expansive culture where human consciousness is completely articulate with the natural world and where this knowledge of the natural world serves as the basis of man’s sovereignty over his historical world. What is more, this is a society in which the intellectuals are trusted to never abuse the power of their knowledge and in which it is assumed that they will use it to the benefit of all mankind: it is, in short, a society that recognizes the moral integrity of its intellectuals. Finally, this is a society in which art (and techne in the broadest sense of the word) expresses these same enlightened ideals and the harmonious balance between human consciousness and nature in which they are founded.

Comparing our political culture to this enlightened ideal is enlightening. Today, intellectuals, from those who work in universities to those who work in the government or in the media, find themselves in a situation that is decadent. Under the current regime of administered culture, our knowledge has become disarticulated from the world and life; our moral conscience has been institutionally neutralized, and our art –our interpretations of reality—have dissolved into that endless stream of discourses on discourses that this administered culture calls “consensus”: the Washington Consensus: the consensus of dunces: of Imperial Idiots.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed! What is the intervention that cracks the consensus? Comparing ourselves to an ideal, I agree, suggests both a self-critique and routes of action, but what forces or encourages this comparison? Me, I always turn to Marx:

    "Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analyzing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realizing the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work."