Friday, January 26, 2007

Secular Messianism

While the Internet may have given me an advantage in providing an early analysis of Jim Webb's response to the State of the Union, I am still a bit surprised to see that Webb is becoming a bit of a bandwagon with folks still rushing to board. Of all the other pieces I have read after committing my own impression to text, I was probably most impressed with Scott Ritter, to the point of continuing my own line of reasoning by responding to his response to the response (so to speak)! While Ritter's analysis was limited to the Web version of The Nation, the editors have now delivered their own version of the story for the February 12 print edition; and that editorial now has its own Web page. Then there was E. J. Dionne's column for The Washington Post, which I first saw printed in The San Francisco Chronicle and then found on Truthdig. In this latter form it has accumulated eighteen comments (one of which is my own). Finally, there was Jon Stewart's take on both the State of the Union address and Webb's response, again available through the fine editorial graces of Truthdig. Stewart's impersonation of the typical Bush ideologue struck dumb by Webb's straight talk said it all, reminding us that the best humor is not always in the words.

However, just as everyone had their turn to vent after Bush delivered his speech on his "new" Iraq policy, I think it is again time to put this particular news flurry in perspective. For my part, given how much of yesterday's writing turned out to be about reflection, I feel a need to reflect on there this past week fits within the greater flow of history. More specifically, I find myself thinking back to the Democratic Convention in 2004, the last time we felt it was within our grasp to "throw the rascal out." Today John Kerry is but a shadow in my memory, recognizable perhaps only because of that rather foolish announcement he made this week about not seeking candidacy in 2008. Rather, just about all I remember is that obscure congressman from Illinois whose oratory reminded us all of what our values were, why they were in jeopardy, and why it was so urgent to do something about it all. That congressman, of course, was Barak Obama; and the speech was instrumental in elevating him from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Now his ambitions are aimed beyond the Senate; and a national conversation has begun (again, in Web journalistic fora such as Truthdig) over whether or not he is "Presidential material."

Alas, the spotlight has a narrow focus; and, for all the attention Hillary has been getting, it now seems to be pointing at Jim Webb. This time the galvanizing oratory came from a man who has just take his seat in the Senate; and suddenly he is the subject of those "Presidential material" conversations! Is the only "lesson of history" the evidence of how great a case of Attention Deficit Disorder this country has?

As the title I selected for this piece indicates, much as I like to harp on short attention spans, I have an alternative diagnosis in this case. We know the extent to which the "Messianic meme" has been infecting our national consciousness when we see the Left Behind books getting far more attention than any "fringe literature" deserves; but, even beyond the texts that are overtly religious, we see it in a preference for stories of crisis that end up getting resolved by the good old-fashioned deus ex machina trick. The strongest impact of 9/11 is the extent to which, as a country, we now seem to have the collective belief that we are in a mess; and there is this general longing for the "narrative device" that will extricate us before the final pages of the story. The only reason that religion has been getting so much attention is that, as an institution, it has more experience with that "narrative device" than the secular world does.

So, when we saw Obama address the Democratic convention, we all suddenly held our breaths waiting for someone to read the inevitable line from the script: "Is he The One?" Now we are seeing Webb's performance get the same treatment. (Let me be clear about one thing, though: I am not using the word "performance" with any pejorative connotations. I subscribe to the Genette "architecture" of "narrative reality," which has three parts: 1. What you want to say. 2. How you structure your text to say it. 3. How you deliver that text. Without the performance element, the text does not "take.")

Where I do want to get pejorative is over this whole disposition for Messianism. I once heard Paddy Chayefsky being interviewed on NPR when everyone was flocking to see Network. He recalled that he had come to public attention by writing a play for television called "Marty." In its time (1953) people were saying that it was the most important dramatic event to appear on television. In spite of this success, though, Chayefsky was never invited to write another script for television. Chayefsky reasoned that he had undone himself with the success of the story he had told: Marty is an unattractive but good-hearted butcher in the Bronx who can't get a date. One night he meets a girl who is rather plain but also good-hearted; and, with a surprising minimum of narrative complication, they ultimately realize that they can be happy with each other. Chayefsky explained that this kind of story was anathema to commercial television, whose "gospel" was that you could only find happiness through a new car, better hair creme, or fresher smelling mouthwash. Marty's "sin," as it were, was that he was able to solve his problem through his own devices rather than buying some deus ex machina consumer product; and advertisers just did not want any more stories like that being told on television, particularly if it turned out that viewers liked them!

The reason I like to tell this anecdote is that its moral is that the deus ex machina is a device of fiction. Like it or not, it is not an instrument of the real world! If we are in a mess, then they only way we are going to get out of it is through the exertions of our own devices. No Presidential candidate, no matter how audacious his vision and/or oratory may be, is going to be the Messiah that saves us. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we are likely to get out of the mess!

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