October 10, 2003

Klartext and Vulgar Culture

Now we know why the European political establishment is making it a point to ridicule Schwarzenegger's election. Check out some of this quotation from a Reuter's article: "Ronny Zibinski, a 19-year-old Berlin technician, said he liked the idea of a Schwarzenegger-type chancellor for Germany. 'We need someone like that to clean up the mess and blow away the lousy politicians,' he said." It's hard to imagine a similar political revolt in Europe (this century). It would probably be made illegal. But then again, I wonder how strong the bloodlines of democratic rebellion are anywhere in the Western world. Can anyone really withdraw his or her consent to be governed anymore? The U.S. Constitution says governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. It doesn't say anything about government's unjust powers, of which there are many. And Lincoln proved that no one is really free to alter or abolish the government, even if it’s demonstrably true that it’s become destructive to the ends for which it was instituted by men in the first place. It's an intriguing question...really just one of idle speculation on a Friday afternoon. Once political power, and a monopoly on violence, becomes concentrated...does it ever get dispersed again? Consider the French. They traded a Church for a King, a King for a mob, and a mob for an Emperor. True the nobility surrendered its privileges. But that was only under imminent threat. Will Durant described how the revolutionaries “assembled, exchanged complaints and vows, armed themselves, attacked the chateaux, burned the homes of unyielding seigneurs and destroyed the manorial rolls which were quoted as sanctioning the feudal dues. It was that direct action, threatening a nationwide destruction of seigneurial property, that frightened the nobles into surrendering their feudal privileges (August 4, 1789) and so bringing a legal end to the Old Regime.” Incidentally, my desk mate Françoise tells me that the chief privileges which the nobility surrendered were: the right to wear a sword, the right to levy taxes, the privilege of owning land, the right not to pay any taxes at all, and preferential punishment when convicted of a crime. By the way, I’m sure the specific privileges with respect to land and taxes are more complicated than I’ve made them here. But the general point suffices. And isn’t it odd how the privileges of the nobility then sound so much like the privileges of the government today, at least in Europe: the sole right to carry arms, the sole right to levy taxes (and print money), and preferential treatment in the justice system (see Elf trial here in France, Eurostats scandal). Certainly the European political class isn’t going to surrender its privileges in a gesture of solidarity or even self-preservation. Britain, the source of American common law, is considering not even HAVING a referendum on the EU constitution. Can you guess why? The people would trounce it. And that really would be too much democracy, wouldn’t it? But it may be very hard for the bureaucrats in Brussels, Paris, or Berlin to pull this one over on the European populace. We’ll see. But even French PM Raffarin seems to know this. He spoke out today in favor of a French referendum, even though he knows it would lose in France today, and that his boss (Chirac) is not entirely comfortable with it. Still, straight talking might be vogue again, thanks to the Governator. The German word for straight talking, as far as I can tell, is Klartext. There are two sides to blunt political speech. One is that it defeats attempts to make subjects seem more complicated than they are. Tom McClintock scored points for speaking with intellectual clarity about conservatism. He didn't win. But people understood what he stood for. They knew what he believed because he said it clearly. He came off as a man who knew what he believed, and that’s essential for any kind of effective persuasion. On the other hand, it was obvious Gray Davis didn't know what he believed, or that he had public policy positions rather than personal beliefs. It was also painfully clear that he arrived at those positions by triangulating between special interests and polls (the political equivalent of a floating exchange rate mechanism). It's Clintonian talent, and something Bush seems to be practicing when it comes to trade. A little Klartext by the Terminator put all that to rout. And it left Davis politically naked, with no one to blame and nothing to say for himself. It’s one thing to be blunt, using Klartext. It’s another thing to use words like a blunt instrument, perfect for mugging a serious discussion before it can get started. Or for far, far more destructive ends. Europe knows the danger of blunt political speech. Which brings me to one final thought…I mentioned in my October print letter that if there is potential for a rising fascist threat in American politics, it’s a lot more likely to come from the Wesley Clark/Hillary Clinton left than the Josh Ashcroft/George Bush right. Why? Ideological politicians are on a short categorical leash. A liberal can get away with crushing freedom of religion (and murdering kids at Waco), because liberals are known for their defense of free speech. Liberals get a pass when it comes to crushing of dissent. And conservatives get a pass when it comes to running up big deficits. Think Al Gore would be allowed to rack up the kind of deficits GW has? Forget about it. For some reasons, Republicans can talk the fiscal conservative talk, but they don’t have to actually walk the walk. But the candidate/demagogue who wants to start laying the groundwork for a new kind of American national socialism is going to have to come up with a persuasive rhetoric that can flourish in the age of the 24-hour media cycle. I was thinking about this as I rode the train from Paris to London last week. My old rhetoric teacher in college used to tell me that the fist step in characterization is appellation. You start to define things simply by naming them. (One of Adam’s most important tasks in Genesis is to name things.) The calculating political mind is careful about naming things. In modern politics, for better or worse, naming is defining. And definitions are crucial to controlling public debate and its eventual outcome. For example, does anyone really have any idea what compassionate conservatism means? I don’t. But it sounds like something I’d like to call myself. And it forces the listener to associate conservatism with “compassion,” rather than with “tightfistedness,” “prudishness,” “meanspiritedness,” or any other word which some other calculating political mind has managed to associate the word conservatism in the past. It’s actually a fun exercise. Go ahead and try it. Take a word that has one accepted meaning….a meaning that has a whole set of beliefs associated with. And then try and choose a word that completely alters that meaning, or changes it altogether. Here are a few examples off the top of my head. These would be political labels, of course, something a future candidate for public office might call him or herself to nullify an old label or change it’s meaning. You could have “Responsible Liberalism” to counter “Compassionate Conservatism". To counter a “unilateral” foreign policy, without totally selling out the U.N., your foreign policy could be based on a framework of “Multi-Lateral Autonomy.” A future candidate could run as a “Reagan Homosexual" or a “A God Fearing Bill Clinton.” The names don’t have to make any logical sense. They just have to SEEM to make sense. They have to marry your greatest strength with your greatest perceived weakness. And they have to make it easy for people to say what they think you believe in. What you’re looking for is something Hollywood would call “high concept,” something that takes two distinct ideas, marries them together, and creates a brand new third identity which is instantly identifiable and appealing. Picture yourself in a boardroom, being pitched movie ideas. “It’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ meets ‘Animal House.’” “It’s ‘Titanic’ meets ‘Lost in Space.” “It’s ‘A Wonderful Life’ meets ‘Armageddon.’” It’s harder than you think, you see. And that’s why we may have a little time before some Huey Long comes along with perfect political pitch and sings just the right tune to get the folks marching off. If you have some submissions of your own, by all means send them in. I’ll publish the best ones next week. Send them to strategicinsider@aol.com And finally, now that I’ve nearly got my desk cleared off the sundry items that don’t belong anywhere else, the etymology of the world vulgar. I choose vulgar because that’s the word I’ve heard most often from European colleagues over the Governator’s election. Vulgar, of course, means boorish. And to the extent the Arnold is a groper of women and a bully, I suppose the name fits. But the root of the word is vulgus, Latin for “the common people.” The Vulgate bible translated by Saint Jerome at the end of the fourth century brought the scriptures to the common people in a powerful new way. And when the bible was translated into individual vernacular tongues, it was suddenly even more accessible to everyone. Vulgate and vernacular are synonyms. And maybe that’s why it’s so fitting that Californians have elected someone from outside the political class as governor, chucking out a lifetime political hack. American culture IS vulgar. It IS of the common people. And when you apply that to the political process, it’s distinctly anti-institutional. In a vulgar politics, the political class is stripped of the trappings of professional respectability. Politics is revealed for what it really is: shameless pandering, entertainment, and as Rick Rule says often, “an advance auction of stolen goods.” To the extent the Arnold has dealt a blow to the idea of professional politicians, his election is a great thing. Viva la revolucion!


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