Tag Archives: democracy

Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy.

“The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy on the basis of the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism.” (pp. 25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (pp. 27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Baudrillard says that people either immerse themselves “within the void of the spectacle” and find it exciting or they “get off by feeling less idiotic than the spectacle—and thus never get tired of staring at it.” Many liberals, while reacting on social media about Trump’s antics, “get off” by feeling intellectually superior to him. But it’s hard to outsmart stupid. Political critique enhances rather than demystifies the allure of the Trump spectacle.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large (with tiny hands). Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The society of the selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own (business) interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign (relations) film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.

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Invisible Plastic Shovels

In Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading, Victoria Grace takes politics to the playground. Liberals and conservatives are like children fighting over broken toys in a wet sandbox—punching, slapping, and kicking each other where the sun don’t shine. Our wounds are real but these battles are nothing more than simulated political sideshows trending before they (never really) happen.

While some push for a wall to prevent illegals from stealing American jobs and receiving Social Security benefits, in 2015 the income levels of the top 1% reached a new high while the bottom 99% posted incremental gains.

Migrant workers have clearly rigged tax laws in their favor.

While some insist that Obama is coming for our guns, suicide rates in the United States surged to a 30-year high in 2014, with more than 50% of all cases involving firearms.

Guess Obama missed those homes.

While some label climate change a hoax, a recent study says we can expect the oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp cities across the east coast.

Millions of Americans drowning in debt will slowly drown in their easy chairs.

There’s a common enemy here. To paraphrase James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun democratic strategist: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Long before economics became a science, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. In it Smith refers to the Invisible Hand that guides self-interested citizens in their relentless pursuit of objects, property and status. When hardworking entrepreneurs utilize laissez-faire economic policies to increase their bottom lines, society as a whole benefits. Free markets magically improve lives and deliver us from the evils of bloated government bureaucracies.

So much has changed since 1776. Smith knew nothing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, junk bonds, adjustable rate mortgages, or tax-evading multinational corporations defined as people.

There’s a dark side to global capitalist expansion we can’t deny: greed, excess, a politics of exploitation and exclusion. A blatant disregard for non-human lives and the environment. Poverty, starvation and the spread of disease. Collective despair. Mass incarceration. Soaring anxiety. Obesity. So much obesity. War drones. Amazon drones. Trump Tower. The Clinton Foundation.

One week from the general election it’s a jungle gym out there. As our teachers, parents and legal guardians hang from the monkey bars, we the children fight over invisible plastic shovels in the quicksand that is perpetually now, hyper-connected, consumer capitalism.

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The Art Of The Heel

“Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.” –Baudrillard

Trump is a car fire

He’s the death drive Freud warned us about. Our innate desire to self-destruct for the pure spectacle of it. Sometimes he’s the car, a vehicle for change in reverse. Sometimes he’s the fire itself, a burning in the body politic.

Trump is Moloch

Moloch is the Biblical name of a Canaanite god that demands a costly sacrifice. Ginsberg writes in his masterpiece “Howl”:

“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

In voting for Trump we sacrifice our children, the future, the promise of American ideals—in the name of security and (white) power.

Trump is part of the accursed share

From Wikipedia:

“According to Bataille’s theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring, in the contemporary age most often in war, or in former ages as destructive and ruinous acts of giving or sacrifice, but always in a manner that threatens the prevailing system.”

Trump’s platform stinks. It’s the waste of democracy. A spewing from the mouth we’re desperate to expel. His campaign represents “an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring” of hate we excrete in small amounts to keep the system flowing.

Trump is the sorcerer’s apprentice

Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was published in 1797. As the story goes, an old sorcerer leaves his apprentice with chores. The apprentice, not fully licensed, bonded and insured, enchants a broom to do the work for him, but soon he can’t stop its frenetic sweeping. He splits the broom in two with an axe, but each piece then splits in two, on and on. The old magician returns and breaks the spell, reminding his pupil that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.

Mickey Mouse assumed the role of apprentice in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Trump is neither Mickey nor sorcerer, but the magic itself. He will make people disappear, preferably back to Mexico.

Trump can’t fire Mickey, now a celebrity apprentice, because Mickey’s hands are twice the size of his.

Trump is a human being

The most frightening proposition of all: Trump is just himself. He’s you and I. Out of many, one.

Donald Trump is the fate we’re surprised to meet halfway down the path of our escape route. The brutal truth of our collective demise we couldn’t imagine during the primaries, but after November 8 we will come to realize was waiting for us all along.

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