Politics, narcissism and the culture of judgment

Imported from iWeb:

There’s a good political debate going on now on the list-serve of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. The fervor and passion displayed there makes me proud to be a citizen-actor here in Philly. The best artists I know have a highly developed sense of civic responsibility. For most of us, there is a direct line between what we do as artists and what is happening in the country, in our communities, in our world. This sense of civic engagement combined with the enormously high stakes before us – and the two appealing Democrats in the race – make for some heated rhetoric. I am consistently drawn to the posts that display a sense of grace and respect for others, and consistently repelled by the ones that seek to anger, either through sarcasm or confrontation. We want to pass judgments so badly, I think to myself, we want absolutes and certainties. But these two candidates won’t give them to us.

This tussle was on my mind recently because I auditioned for Doubt by John Patrick Shanley and so read the play, including his remarkable preface. Part of it reads as follows: “There’s a symptom apparent in America right now. It’s evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion. We are living in a courtroom culture. We were living in a celebrity culture, but that’s dead. Now we’re only interested in celebrities if they’re in court. We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere.”

This seems so apropos right now, not only because of the Obama/Clinton debate, but also because of an ongoing discussion I have had with my peers in the arts and in journalism about the nature of artistic criticism. Most artistic criticism is rendered as verdict (verdict: truth-speak). Criticism is no longer an invitation to a discussion, but rather a judgement passed. I have ascribed this tendency to two sources: academic culture, deeply invested in hierarchy, the rendering of judgments and the maintenance of it’s self-importance; and sports, in which a drama is played out until someone wins, and someone loses. I teach at universities and I love sports. But they have had a pernicious effect on the soft and subjective landscape of creativity, in which there are no verdicts, no absolutes, no winners and no losers.

Shanley makes in an interesting link I hadn’t thought of before: that this obsession with judgment is connected to our relationship with celebrity. It reminds me of Sometimes a Great Notion, in which Hank Stamper observes that everyone loves to see the biggest tree come down. It’s the same disease which leads to our sick fascination with Anna Nicole, Britney and Michael Jackson. It’s what makes us focus obsessively on news items like Jeremiah Wright – we sense a big tree might be about to come down. Watching a famous person’s trouble makes us feel perversely better about ourselves, because many of us hate ourselves for not being famous. And so fame and celebrities become the source of our low self-esteem, and we delight when they are revealed in all their human imperfection.

I take Shanley’s suggestion one step further, that beneath the celebrity-driven culture of extreme advocacy is cultural narcissism on a mass scale. It is only when my feelings about myself trump all other concerns that the world and its celebrities can drag me down. What an extraordinary paradox! My inward focus is fed by outward experience: experience that my narcissism warps into a kind of fun-house mirror. The tabloids and magazines say, look here in this mirror, see what you should be but aren’t. This syndrome is stoked to bonfire proportions by capitalism, which wants me to buy things that will make me feel I am closer to becoming what I’m not. And when I begin to rely on things to make me feel better about myself, I have entered a very particular circle of hell. I like Barack Obama because he appeals to my sense of duty – to my country, my children, my community – and in so doing, takes my focus off myself (where it can rest comfortably for an embarrassingly long time).

Part of the quandary the Democratic party finds itself in these days is that we can’t draw judgment-laden, precise distinctions between Clinton and Obama. And so we are forced to have a conversation, a real conversation, about the kind of person we want to be our leader. The decision is one of nuance, of subtlety, virtues anathema to contemporary public American discourse. It’s been interesting to watch how much trouble the pundits get into when they try to apply sweeping verdicts to either of these candidates. Both have revealed themselves to be immensely complex characters, and in their complexity, their assets and liabilities, we see a true mirror, one which which won’t peddle the falsehoods of extremism, one which reflects us clearly in all our ordinary heroism, hope and doubt. Politics, narcissism and the culture of judgment Thursday, March 20, 2008