Judge of Character

Nothing offend American voters more than the imputation that their vote is ideologically motivated. Anything that smacks of partisanship is rejected out of hand. “I don’t vote for the party,” they’ll insist.  “I vote for the person.”

Then why, one wonders, is the American electorate such a lousy judge of character?  Why is inflexibility taken for strength, self-righteousness for confidence, and a refusal to accept responsibility for loyalty?

An attempt at an answer might start with a little essay called “Who Thinks Abstractly?” It was written about two centuries ago by someone not otherwise known for his essays, G.W.F. Hegel, and the heart of his argument is this:

“Who thinks abstractly?  The uneducated, not the educated.  Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy. . . .

“A murderer is led to the place of execution.  For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer.  Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man.  The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome?  How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! . . .

“This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.”

All stereotypes are abstractions of this sort, of course; so is Hegel doing anything more than claiming that the rich are less prone to stereotyping than the poor?  This is itself a perennial and inaccurate stereotype, belied by the fact that in the United States it’s usually the more wealthy and the more educated who lay claim to a life without overt manifestations of racism and yet turn out to have no friends of other races. But while simple class prejudice can’t be ruled out as an interpretation, it’s possible to read Hegel’s squib differently.

Abstractions like these have a narcotic value.  They bring experience to a close.  One doesn’t need to inquire any further.  More useful yet, one is subjected to no uncomfortable emotions.  The situation is understood, its importance is decided, and its implications safely woven into the expected texture of everyday life, which can now proceed in its orderly progress.

It is their evocation of closed narratives that lends such abstractions their power. Before its hard-to-contemplate end, real life is unnervingly open-ended. Story telling is one of humanity’s oldest drugs and its most common, turning a world both incomprehensible and horrifying into a chain of lessons, triumphs, comedies, and spectacles. Whatever their genre or message, all stories take the lumpy and aimless events we live through and give them shape and direction. Best of all, they give us closure.

But this comes with a price. Closure costs us the real details of events and the real experience of encountering others. We cannot live without stories (or without abstractions), but whenever we tell one to ourselves we stop the flow of time and back away from its changes. And this is nothing less than a withdrawal from the only life we have, which is woven through time and made up of the incessant transformations we work on each other.

In insecure times, though, it’s a price most people are willing to pay. The Republican Right has been happy to oblige; its depends for its success on the obsessive deployment of closed narratives — dime-novel versions of “the end of history.” Bush’s infantile pushiness is portrayed as the strength to repel the enemy: his very stiffness is a visual metaphor for an impenetrable bulwark. His refusal to express doubt maintains the equally inflexible line between good and evil. It means nothing that the “War on Terror” is itself open-ended, if not endless; its effective narrative is that the battle lines have been drawn and nothing remains but to be true to the mission. Its ideological structure ensures that this war can only ever be a good one.

The Democrats, who share all too many of their opponents’ fundamental assumptions, are stumped by the electorate’s preference for simplistic solutions. But why shouldn’t one look for simplistic solutions to a problem posed so simplistically? The “war on terror,” like the “clash of civilizations,” implies the most clear-cut and reductionist narrative possible. It can’t be carried on in a nuanced fashion.

The same difficulty crops up in what is supposed to be the Democrats’ area of strength, that of economic issues. There, too, the debate is between simple solutions (cut taxes) and complicated ones (structure taxes more fairly) that both presuppose a simple, closed narrative problematic, the neoliberal doctrine that “free” markets have been shown to be the solution to all problems and that endless economic growth is both necessary and attainable.

It’s the fundamentalist Christians who are most up-front about what this all means. One slogan that’s cropping up on bumper stickers sums up the ties between any narrative closure and the fear of experience. It reads, “TRUTH — not tolerance.”

Truth Not Tolerance

Knowing someone else means taking the time to let perceptions and interactions develop. It’s a dangerous process from which one can never withdraw. And real virtue is disturbing and disruptive — look at Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and Louise Michel. But what sells as character today isn’t virtue. It’s the ease with which a politician can take a role in an established narrative — the character of no character at all, an incarnated guarantee that truth is in our possession and that nothing and nobody has to change. The electorate embraces those conventional virtues that are more conventions than they are virtues, and precisely for that reason: their conventionality assures us that nothing will disturb our drowsy self-satisfaction, half contented and half terrified of what might happen if we looked around. That’s one reason American politics has seen the triumph of the Right: the Republican narratives have the insidious potency of cheap music.

This isn’t a competition that real leftists need to enter. We would do better to look somewhere else: at the dread of experience that dominates our world and the terrors of everyday life that make even the wealthy of the industrial world so eager to take refuge in Hegel’s caricature of abstract thinking. And we might ponder why it is that the whole industrialized world, the United States in particular, seems trapped in a self-willed version of what Orwell seventy years ago called “the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats. He will give a reading from his book on Thursday, October 6, 2005, at Robin’s Book Store (108 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 — Tel: 215-735-9600).