Steven Spielberg, whose “Lincoln” biopic opens Friday, recently said he hoped the film would have a “soothing or even healing effect” on a nation exhausted after yet another bitter and polarizing election. [link in original]
I have heard that line, or variants of it before. Many times. Nothing quite animates some folks in the political domain like the urge to be balm-appliers, all the while muttering an ostensibly soothing refrain, much like one might calm down a crying or upset child: there, there, it’ll be better, chill out, take a seat; stop getting so worked up. What seems to happen all too frequently, somehow, is that a nation in which political activism, dissent and disruption–outside the froth, fuming, grandstanding and obstruction on Capitol Hill–is generally imperceptible and only rises to interesting levels in relatively confined pockets–as in the 2011 Wisconsin protests–is all too frequently described as being ‘exhausted’, ‘worn out’ by too much politics.
I have news for Spielberg. If the ‘nation’ is ‘exhausted’, it is made so by content-free political discourse, by inane political commentary, by non-stop vapidity on television, which mistakes analysis for entertainment and force-feeds the polity a warmed-over mix of political pablum. This is not a nation worn out by politics; it is worn out by an absence of politics, by the constant attempts to make politics and its daily intersections with our lived lives invisible. It is worn out by being fed too much of the tranquilizing, lassitude-inducing fluff that Spielberg and his ilk would have us consume on a daily basis. All so that we can have our attention diverted from what goes on outside our windows. (These so-called ‘bitter and polarizing elections’ have, as yet, not resulted in any substantial change in the political cartel of the Republican and Democratic Parties, which continue to take turns sharing the reins.)
As I noted in my post on Sunday, it is all too common for a curious mule-breed class of politicians and media folks to harp on how the nation must get back to calm acceptance of the status quo. Nothing quite animates this class to issue its warnings–as it did, breathlessly and frenetically, in the aftermath of the 2000 election–like the possibility that political fluff like presidential electioneering might actually spark a closer look beneath the hood, that a volatile, street-home-school-workplace level of political organizing and activity might somehow be sustained. But that would mean a disruption. Hence, a need for medication, for balms for the irritated, and Cassandra-like warnings about the evils of instability and of a nation ‘at odds with itself’, of too much ‘bitterness’. The language of ‘soothing’ or ‘healing’ is not accidental: we soothe the agitated back to inertia, we heal the wound that might fester or spread its infection.
The cure for this ‘exhaustion’ is not too curious: a movie about a venerated figure from the past. The frame thus is set. Disputation is to be replaced: perhaps by common adoration, perhaps by a familiar hagiography directed at ‘our ancestors’. Better to return to quiet, adoring contemplation, the holy scriptures in hand: Behold the Great Constitution; Behold the Fathers of the Nation; fall on your knees, you chattering, talkative, irritable, querulous ones.
We are healed.