Sunday, June 28, 2009

The New Tragedy

I'm taking a very short break from indexing Structuring Early Christian Memory to start reading Barry Schwartz's Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (Chicago University Press, 2008). This book continues his Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (2000), which was the first book I read as I began my PhD research. Schwartz's analyses are piercing and nuanced, his writing clear and engaging, and his vision panoptic. Those of us interested in analyzing how the past is taken up into, represented within, and used for the present need to become familiar with Schwartz's work.

A few pages into the Introduction to his most recent book, Schwartz quotes from W. H. Auden's "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" (see here for an excerpt), and then writes:
Classic tragedy presents performers of great feats destroyed by their own flaws; in the New Tragedy, insignificant figures enlarge themselves by means of their own problems. Social and moral distinctions disappear; pity replaces justice. Present-day realities with which Auden's words have affinity are not difficult to identify: nonjudgmentalism, victim-centeredness, radical egalitarianism, multiculturalism. The moral and social leveling supporting the most congenial society in history, a society largely free of ethnic and racial hatred, inclusive of all peoples and solicitous of their rights, is precisely the kind of society in which great mean and women and their achievements count for less, while the victimized, wounded, handicapped, and oppressed count for more than ever before. (p. 8)

I find myself responding somewhat ambivalently to this description of "present-day realities." On the one hand, Schwartz can point to easily documentable realities (as well as to scholarly consensus) to support the notion of American "post-heroic" era. And yet, in light of the 2008 presidential election and its aftermath—and especially the imagery used to portray and depict first candidate and then President Obama—I can't commit myself whole-heartedly to the notion of our current society as "post-heroic." Every time we shop at Target I see a number of products, including children's books, posters and prints, toys, as well as merchandise intended for adult consumption (here, among many others). Obama is more than the American President; for at least the last twelve months—once Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledged what the rest of us had known for a while—Barack Obama has truly become an American hero. I think we have to admit this point before we can discuss and debate the positive and negative consequences of Obama's apotheosis (is that too strong a word?).

But I'm also struggling to think about the "radical egalitarianism" to which Schwartz refers. In American political discourse democracy, like liberty, freedom, and independence, has become an ultimate value. And we are struggling to understand how democracy relates to other ultimate values; for example, how should we relate to the legitimately elected Iranian president—if he is ever recognized as such—given his role in launching Iran's nuclear program? What are America's obligations and interests in Palestine when the people, in 2006, gave surprising support to Hamas over Fatah?

And these foreign policy examples raise hairy questions for American domestic policy, too. Are American democratic practices always beneficial for America? Did the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 harm rather than help American society? What about Obama's election? I don't think we're very well tooled to ask—let alone address—such questions, which I think explains, at least in part, the amount of interest in voter fraud and election rigging since 2000. That is, if democracy is always a positive force in the evolution of social and political organisms, then negative outcomes of democratic contests (including the recent gains of the UK's BNP) must result from irregularities in the democratic system rather than from its inherent processes.

For my own part, I'm uncomfortable with my current ambivalence toward democracy, if only because I can't seem to shake it. What would I put in its place? Which curbs would help steer democratic dynamics in more productive directions, and who gets to decide which directions are "more productive"? I can't help but think that the rule of an uneducated populace is the rule of ignorance, and yet I'm also extremely uncomfortable with the elitist potential of such sentiments. I find myself ill-equipped to raise such issues, in part because I don't see other, more thoughtful and sensitive people raising them.

To return to the idea of America as a [post?] post-heroic society, I'm suspicious of current efforts to argue that certain people are "indispensable" to American government, or the urgency with which certain legislative measures are portrayed. I can't help but wonder if rhetoric such as these rely on the heroic reputations of certain political actors (especially President Obama). I suppose I can only hope that (a) the American public will pursue information and education regarding political questions (whether they pursue liberal or conservative agenda), and (b) that we will choose our courses of action thoughtfully and carefully rather than on the basis of anyone's charismatic and/or heroic persona.

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