Monday, September 17, 2012
Laugh And Do Nothing
On the Tel Aviv street, the street I am living on, a tall middle aged man, in a long flowing gown, a big red nose, smoking a cigarette with large gestures, says to me, "no smoking". I look at him. "Good idea", I agree. "No nylon. Paper only. Recycling. Automatic." I explain there's paper in the plastic bag I'd dropped into the large plastic bin. "No nylon", he says again. "No smoking," I counter. We look at each other. It's the days of the New Year here. The city is shut down. The ceremonial blowing of the shofar will be in about an hour at the small meeting room around the corner.
I'd been dropping by there the last several days. I like the singing. I like that no one pays much attention to me.
Kishon, the famous Israeli humorist, once wrote a piece entitled "No One Listens". The idea was that people were in such a hurry to get on with what they were doing, when you said anything to them they guessed what you were saying, guessed it was probably something agreeable and agreeing, left you with a perfunctory reply and were gone before you knew it.
The big subject of our times is just how our democracies are failing.
Information is more accessible to more people than at any other time, but there is something wrong with the way people are using it.
Consider a recent The Baffler magazine article. The political comedian Jon Stewart is attacked for helping his audience laugh at corruption and then do nothing.
The "do nothing", according to the author, arises from the policy of compromise the comedian adheres to in exactly the way our President says he also does.
Another writer for the same magazine likes to point out that if no one takes a clear position there is nothing to discuss. When a compromise between positions is reached, it is not by finding where the truth lies, but in a balance, or overbalancing, of power. If ideas do not fight each other the money behind them will, and what money settles on is entirely independent of truth, which should be obvious since money does not seek truth but only more money.
Vicious criticism, it is argued, rather than creating the conditions for dissent, protest, rebellion, only deepens the sense that there is no truth. Attacking the truth of an opponent merely throws in doubt the "honest" performance of delivery of money promised in the marketplace of ideas. And coming up with the money settles the question.
Ridicule, when not part of a larger dialog, is only a minor adjustment of the bargaining power of ideas, is itself an application of the principle that ideas battle for power rather than truth.
It is a nearly powerless adjustment. The bargaining is not conducted as a search for truth, only for one particular truth, exactly how much money buys how much influence.
The audience laughs and does nothing, because the audience can do nothing. The decision of which ideas win is done by the marketplace, which is to say, is made by those with the most money to spend. And the audience knows this.
Knows this from their professional lives, knows the masks necessary for getting by are shows of power, knows they too can be unmasked. Economic collapses like our recent one teach people how much they depend on these masks for their mere existence, which is one reason economic collapse is so favorable to those with the greatest ability to control the marketplace of ideas.
People are defeated in advance. The more they ridicule and expose corruption, the more they realize their powerlessness.
The more the truth is exposed, the more their powerlessness is revealed to them.
Conservatives want small government, but their party creates big government; they want independence and equality, but their party favors the rich and the rich rely on the government to make them richer.
But the Conservatives accept, like their Liberal opponents, the principle that ideas only meet each other in the marketplace of power. They too, individually, and as a party, think they are powerless.
The parties in power say they want to do this or do that, but the marketplace won't let them. Each idea has to fight it out on its own. No one is in charge.
That is why the conservatives and liberals when their party is in power don't get what they want.
The people who do get what they want are the people with the money, and they get what they want not matter which party is in power.
Both conservatives and liberals agree to the principle that a marketplace of ideas is a good thing. And that is how we got to where we are now.
The liberals call it "tolerance" of other people's opinions and ways of life. The conservatives find in it safety from large government schemes built on one idea or another of social life: if we agree there is no one best social idea we are safer from having one imposed on us.
Then what happens when tolerance and safety from ideology are put into practice? Since we are not allowed to communicate with each other with ideas, only battle with each other, no one sees, no one notices what follows.
Hope and Change leads to Despair and the Same Thing But Worse. Small Government leads to Big Government.
And, in accordance with the electorate's abiding beliefs in tolerance and independence, no one can ever notice how it came about. There is no "how". "How" is just one more idea to be thrown into the marketplace of ideas, to be tolerated or protected from.
No one listens. Why should they when no one can do anything?
But it is only because no one listens that no one can do anything.
Get the message?
Happy New Year