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Guest Writer

A pragmatist comments ...
The state of America, July 2003
by Steven C. Benjamin

“The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.”

– William James, “Pragmatism”

“Interpretation takes place in a political context and each interpretive act relates directly to the power relations (whether of nation, family, gender, class, or race) involved in that context ... claims for a reading are always direct attempts to affect power relations through coercion or persuasion.”

– Steven Mailloux, “Interpretation and Rhetorical Hermeneutics”

iven leave to do so, I typically prefer to leave politics to the assholes who give a shit.

Given a choice, I’d rather pretend indifference than entrap myself into a discussion on how George Bush’s use of his position as Governor of the State of Texas to make a profit out of a Major League Baseball team, the Texas Rangers, compares with Bill Clinton’s sporadic sexual encounters with a White House intern.

Neither would it appeal to me to blunder into a debate on whether the financial and educational poverty in Portland schools comes as a result of our mayor’s opinion that Portland should pay out corporate welfare in order to remain competitively attractive to minimum-wage employers, or because our tax dollars paid for a minor league baseball stadium that lost so much money it put its namesake, PGE, into bankruptcy, or if this was just the inevitable result of a general ineptitude in all the parents, teachers and politicians who insist on “getting involved.”

I don’t see any profit in discussions of such absolute irrelevance to anything and anyone of any real importance whatsoever. They’re all right. They’re all wrong. It all depends. What’s the point, after all is said and done?

But you can’t stand alone for five minutes in this nation without overhearing some cockamamie bullshit theory on What It’s All About. And in the midst of international crisis (when has there ever not been an international crisis?), with the media junkies working so hard to share the wealth, how can one possibly manage any long-term avoidance?

America, this great melting pot of an empire, has never found itself lacking in opinions. We the people are not known for timidity, for diffidence, or even for giving a second’s thought to our words before they are hurled from our mouths. This tendency toward rapid-fire rhetoric has a history far older than these united colonies, boasting a lineage dating back to Europe, to Rome, even all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

The rhetoric drills through the cubical walls at work, sours mochas at the local coffeehouse, screams at you on buses or pummels your television set, your stereo, your e-mail inbox. I don’t watch television or listen to the radio, but this is never enough to stopper the draining of stupidity into this land of the free and home of those brave enough to speak out loud in absolute ignorance.

So I listen. I am forced to listen. And, not being exempt from that tendency to voice my own cockamamie theories, I too must respond. But in responding I find it more suitable to make a few observations on the effects on real people and real places of the current worldviews being tossed around by so many ignorant professionals than to take up, like so many other hacks, a measuring of the relative merit that any one of those worldviews might actually contain.

I live in two worlds.

One, a relatively large corporation spanning across four of the Northwestern states, insists on following the conservative line. People there typically support Bush, support his war against terrorism and his “preemptive strike” on the Middle East. A vast majority of them have families, and most, if they practice any religion at all, would call themselves Christian. They’re a bit short on cultural diversity, but then so is the Northwest. With my long hair and Jewish beard, I stand out as an anomaly, but those are just looks, after all.

The second world consists of a university, some neo-bohemian coffeehouses and a few Internet realms that cater to writing, education and whatever blend of progressive ideas fit my current state of mind. Politics in this realm hold tight to a liberal line. Clinton was OK because he smoked pot (nobody really believes he didn’t inhale), and Bush is a redneck, Christian fascist. The religious and cultural diversity looks much richer here, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for open-mindedness. These people are, for the most part, children, under 25, and do not lack confidence for all their lack of experience. Physically, I fit in here just fine, but that is not to say that I ever actually fit in.

I live in two opposing worlds. They look different. They smell different. The arguments from each claim to contradict the other, but the effects, the practical consequences of rhetoric, amount to exactly the same thing regardless on which side of the fence you stand.

At work I overhear a man, a project manager, someone expected to have learned the skill of seeing the bigger picture, report on his consensus of the most recent media clip on Iraq. He expresses concern that the “liberal media” will never, regardless of what “proof” is uncovered, acknowledge the truth that “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

What strikes me as significant in his rhetoric is the exclusion of any possibility at all that there may not be any weapons to be found. It's only a matter of time, and this is because the president has said so. The president does not lie (except sometimes on accident, when fed misinformation by evil speechwriters who don’t do the “correct” research on their subjects).

At PSU they organize protests so that people who hope to someday have advanced degrees, even some who already boast those advanced degrees, can hold up signs with glib one-liners and cliché slogans calling Bush a terrorist and associating the war with oil. I’m not sure what effect these graffiti parades are supposed to have on the unconverted population, but they certainly don’t seem to be changing anyone’s mind.

Some of the students think that disrupting traffic, or businesses, especially those that stand to profit from the war, would be more productive, but their arguments lack any concrete details in just how this is supposed to work. The protests are supposed to “raise awareness,” to educate the ignorant masses, so to speak, but how many people can claim to have actually learned something from reading a sign at a protest or from listening to the repetitive chants?

The professors share their opinions about how our government refuses to learn anything from history, but doesn’t this same argument apply to protests? Many believe that the protests did far more damage than good for the anti-war movement during the Vietnam fiasco, and what did we learn from that?

What is it about George W. that enforces such a harsh black-and-white dichotomy between those who agree and those who don’t? It brings to mind, with a frightening sense, Matthew’s line, “He that is not with me is against me.” There is, in the various reactions to modern political rhetoric, an overwhelming ad hominem taint on the reception from both sides of the fence. The political alignment of the speaker somehow gives weight to the relative merit of any proposed truth, regardless of other circumstances or credentials.

But the really sick part of this whole twisted mess lies in the lack of any practical differences between the two political powers playing tug-o-war with the reigns of this trigger-happy nation. We’re supposed to choose a side based on our position in regards to abortion, gun control and capital punishment, with the expectation that the world might actually change if we pick the wrong one.

And yet, people still get abortions. Bush has yet to stack the Supreme Court in such a way as to change anything significant. People still have guns, as they always have ever since that band of lawyers led our country into a revolution.

And capital punishment – what’s the point? One way or another, the criminal’s life gets taken. Most decay and rot in prison, passing away long before our great bureaucracy can get around to putting them out of their misery. Our methods are supposed to have become more civilized, utilizing high-tech gas chambers or injections rather than a strong rope, perhaps to prevent infection in the corpse’s neck.

Our politics dwell in the abstract realms of metaphysics and morality and ignore entirely the practical impact that our decisions have on the reality that most of us are forced to live in. For example, why not discuss the president’s relative merits as a businessman, using past successes and failures as possible indicators on how our nation’s fiscal absurdities might be made better or worse?

Instead we argue about whether or not allowing people of the same sex to have a legally bonded union will somehow taint the sanctity of marriage, whatever that means. Or, on the other side of the fence, we argue that having a highly paid professional tend your wounds should be a right and not a privilege. Well, call it what you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that it costs money.

And speaking of money, how many hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year enforcing lifestyles on the incorrigible? What is the practical effect? What does it all amount to?

In this era of multimedia, of computers and the Internet and obnoxious laser light shows selling you tampons before you can cross the Hawthorne Bridge, the American people have gotten caught up in trying to market their rhetoric and have cast blind eyes on the real-world consequences that their rhetoric claims to explicate.

And, of course, since each side holds tight to its respective political line, the marketing converts no one, spam collects in our in-boxes with petitions to sign and memorabilia to purchase “in support of our troops,” and the whole mess amounts to nothing more than meaningless noise.

Where does this leave me? What conclusion can I come to based on this analysis of modern American rhetoric?

I wonder what the climate is like in Australia these days.

E-mail Steven at nyn@prodigy.net, and find more of his work in our archives.

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