Politics is theater, and nothing illustrates that observation more than modern discourse. Since the collapse of the World Trade Center, the fiction of political moderates, of ruling from the center, has been decimated. While this fiction had long been atrophied, it has, over the past decade, slipped into a sort of hyper-decay, transforming the modern world into a canvas onto which competing realities plant or scorch their respective pigment.
While I have elsewhere diagnosed discourse with being in a state of decay, I’d like to correct my mistake and argue that discourse isn’t in decay. Instead, the upheaval we in the United States are currently experiencing doesn’t indicate decadence—it indicates a battle between cultural and political fictions. These fictions rely—to a degree—on discourse, and in a battle for dominance no side of a fiction can settle for compromise. Compromise enables competing fictions to wed, conceiving new concepts and fictions with which some—or all—parties can be satisfied.
To dominate discourse is to appeal to the majority. To appeal to the majority is to own the initiative to pass legislation designed—at least in part—to strengthen a preferred fiction.
Throughout his reign as princeps, Augustus, whom we now call Rome’s first emperor, manipulated the Roman people by pretending to act as ‘the first person of Rome,’ an honorary title denoting authority or influence. Through a fiction relying on altruism and selfless glory, he dominated the discourse of the Roman Empire, transforming a decaying republic into an autocracy.
On occasion, Augustus articulated plans to retire from public life, but the people refuted the notion by publicly crying and pleading with Augustus to save or to guide Rome. After blubbering and wailing, after speeches in which he’d feign humility and modesty, Augustus would reluctantly agree to invoke his influence for the good of Rome.
Whether apocryphal or not, or staged by Augustus using plants in crowds or legitimate, the scene played to the base desires of the princeps and the Roman people. The role of the reluctant leader played a significant role in Roman lore, and it is a scene it replayed throughout its history. Cincinnatus was pulled from the plow to lead the struggling republic, and, later, Julius Caesar was offered one-man rule but rejected it, opting instead to perpetuate a fiction of representative rule.
Christian lore records numerous saints who sacrifice themselves willingly for the greater good. From Jesus to St. Francis, from Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to Martin Luther’s infamous use of a hammer, some act—or form—of sacrifice occurred to strengthen the concepts and fictions of Christianity.
Whether these people acted as they had is irrelevant. So, too, are truth claims that these events occurred or not, that these people lived or not, doesn’t matter; the message and how it was delivered matters—whether these concepts are useful or not is what matters. Jesus set the paradigm for Christian virtue, and every one of his followers–from his disciples to modern Christians—aspired to glance the apex of Western spirituality: to emulate Him. That is a concept central to Christianity: to follow and to imitate the habits of those to whom you consider yourself inferior.
Like all modern Western states, states born or reborn in the Enlightenment, America founded its lore by paralleling or merging Greek, Roman, and Christian deeds and sayings. George Washington fancied himself a modern Cincinnatus. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams each copied passages from Greek and Roman historians. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay each signed Publius as his name on the Federalist Papers, paying homage to Publius Valerius Publicola, part of the first set of annual consuls to be elected following the foundation of the Roman Republic.
Setting aside arguments about the faith of the Founding Fathers, let’s just say that they used Western religious concepts to pacify or to assuage or to manipulate or to appeal to the people. Thomas Jefferson endowed individual liberty to the non-denominational “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, for example, and George Washington attended church every Sunday.
But these acts were rooted in political fiction, an agreed-to representation of absolute reality. Although Jefferson did, indeed, employ Western religious-sounding language in the Declaration of Independence, he didn’t invoke specific Christian deeds or sayings. Despite attending Sunday services each week, George Washington was a deist, not a Christian, and he made it a point to leave before communion.
Polities require fiction.
In the Roman Republic, SPQR symbolized a symbiotic relationship between the Senate and the People of Rome; but the patricians molded the system to their benefit, leaving the people to fight periodically for something like equal political rights. When Rome collapsed, the people who became Europeans required religious fiction to bind them, employing it as the basis for the prevention of the Islamic conquest of Europe.
Leaping forward, the Germans concocted a political fiction focusing on traitors and cowards in the aftermath of World War I, casting the die in a game resulting in the Second World War. And in America, the people and politicians cultivated, accepted, and, in some cases, embraced a fiction centering on humble origins, on success through hard work and determination, on ‘spirited debates,’ on perseverance and the notion of ‘coming from behind’—the so-called underdog phenomena.
From opposition to one-man rule and deference to democratic principles, Americans found their fiction in the form of liberal democratic philosophy, manufactured from Western concepts born out of a collision between classical literature and philosophy and Christian practices and traditions. These fictions bind people not because they are creative reflections of situations or systems, but because they represent a subjective reality—and the recognition of the concept of political fiction when concepts and fictions are traded and inculcated. People are trained to frame states of affairs through concepts. Whether you’re a theist or an atheist, a liberal or a conservative, a communist or a capitalist, how you interact with the world is, at least to some degree, dependent on your fidelity to your preferred fiction—and how well you were trained in the nuances of it.
If you’re a devout Catholic, for example, then your perception of young parents will be altered by your devotion to the sanctity of marriage. On glancing at them across the aisle in a grocery store, you may not simply see two human beings with whom you are currently sharing a similar situation. Framing them conceptually, in the form of your preferred fiction, you might immediately suspect them of being a young couple who violated the prohibition of premarital sex. If you’re a liberal who encounters a man in a three-piece suit driving a luxury car, then you will possibly conceptualize him as greedy—or even criminal.
Granted, these examples are binary and somewhat cartoonish, but the event of conceptualizing people, systems, or situations is a strong probability. How you view the world is ingrained in you; what you mistake as your ‘opinions,’ ‘beliefs,’ etc., is little more than the depth of your training. How we interact with the world, what we ‘think’ of the world, is inculcated by our personal cultures or societies. We absorb much of our concepts about the world non-consciously by observing how people behave in various contexts. These observations may, over time, provide frameworks through which we construct our subjective realities—and this includes how we interact with specific situations.
Through non-conscious observation and absorption, we provide examples to those around us. If someone adopts my concepts, our relationship might be strengthened by the similar ways in which we frame reality. If this is the case, we will each contribute to the proliferation of fiction. And we won’t even realize we’re doing it; we’ll think we’re simply interacting with absolute reality, and that our perception of it is the only means of accurately ‘seeing’ or ‘understanding’ states of affairs. These fictions will become part of each of us. They will work to frame how we interact with the world, altering, in a literal sense, the state of subjective reality for each of us. Politicians understand the gist of the theory I’ve laid out, even if they don’t or can’t articulate premises similar to those in the above argument.
In an article published in The New York Times Magazine (Oct. 17, 2004), Ron Suskind quoted a senior adviser to President Bush as saying, ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Now, we can dismiss the overall message of the statement as little more than post-Cold War hubris, but we shouldn’t dismiss the notion of ‘creating new realities.’ Although it may seem counter-intuitive, if you take any part of the above argument seriously, then it follows that the anonymous adviser’s confession is a confirmation of the role fiction plays in our day-to-day lives. To create new ‘realities,’ you must alter current ‘realities.’ To alter current realities, you should infiltrate the people, encouraging—intellectually or by training—the proliferation of fictions.
When Mohammed Atta plowed American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he and his fellow actors—including Osama bin Laden—initiated an event in which fictions transformed and solidified. America reveled in a fiction in which she and her people suffered a critical—but not a fatal—blow. In this fiction, the American people were strong, resolute; they cast themselves as victims ordained to confront ‘the enemies of democracy,’ of ‘freedom.’ Those who attacked us, the government and pundits told us, hated our values, our traditions, every foundation of our personal and collective lives.
History, we were told, had presented a challenge to us: defend the Western way of life or perish slowly, in a recurring series of 9/11′s and mini-9/11′s. Collectively, we agreed to this fiction. Political rhetoric and the participation of the media—the onslaught of imagery from that day, of analysis and predictions—reinforced a new approach to an old fiction: America the victim, exemplar of modern Western ‘values’ and ‘democracy.’ Like any large-scale or traumatic event, the crimes perpetrated on September 11, 2001, dissolved into history, and every subsequent reaction or response to it altered or fabricated concepts.
Currently, we’re in a post-9/11 state in which our societies are juggling the fiction of the meaning of 9/11 with a new fiction, one brought to life by the economic collapse in 2007/2008. This transition between fictions, a move that will minimize but not abandon those conceived in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, is focused on two fronts: the construction and ‘meaning’ of the American government and so-called ‘social issues.’
As fictions mature and evolve, as they become common currency assumed to reflect absolute reality, they are read and interpreted widely, by varying groups. Examples can be given in every field of human concern, from religion and philosophy to politics and economics; divergent perceptions are established, created, encouraged, and groups fight for supremacy, to establish their concepts as the only concepts reflecting absolute reality.
When Lehman Brothers defaulted, sending the global economy into a downward spiral, Western societies found themselves confronting competing fictions. In the United States, one side claimed fidelity to the federal government, another side articulated suspicions of the federal government, and some groups denounced corporations while other groups denounced legislation preventing corporations from rehabilitating the economy.
Unlike the crimes of September 11, however, the economic crisis did not present a clear narrative around which the majority could unite. Instead, it presented a shapeless form—a structure onto which various groups could graft their preferred fictions. The right decried deficit spending and regulations and the left blamed corporate influence and unfair tax rates. The left moved to grant universal health care while the right denounced contraceptives and labor unions—both sides clambered to cram their core concepts into the shapeless hull of the crisis. Those who crammed most concepts into the crisis would see the rise of their preferred fictions.
Historically, economic crises invite influential people to bend the will of the masses. The depression in the interbellum years in Germany wrought the National Socialist Party while the depression in the United States enabled the liberals to enact scores of social programs. Recently, the economic crisis in Europe is seeing a subversion of democratic principles in Hungary and the ousting of elected officials in Italy and Greece.
At present, the United States is witnessing a battle for the dominance of fiction. The right is presenting its concepts and fictions as central to addressing the current crisis while the left is challenging the right by proclaiming only its fictions represent reality. But with the majority slipping into poverty and the well-to-do witnessing historic rises in personal wealth, neither side is willing to allow the other side to dominate discourse. So the rich and the poor find allies in politicians using them—or being used by them—to enact legislation and laws to preserve the current state of affairs. The well-to-do want to preserve the gap between rich and poor, thereby sustaining their growth in income; the poor want to protect social programs preventing them from collapsing into unforgivable poverty. Both sides possess concepts and fictions, and they proliferate them by spreading concepts via rhetoric or political action—in which case, concepts are inferred either consciously or non-consciously.
In fictions, whether a ‘truth’ in some way corresponds to absolute reality is not always relevant. To proliferate cultural or political traditions, those seeking to dominate discourse are usually concerned with pragmatic ‘truth’—with the usefulness of concepts, which are determined useful if they seem to appeal to the instincts of groups.
The response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, presented a fiction that dominated discourse. Those who dared to question the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, or those who hesitated when talk of increasing security measures or assassinating presumed terrorists were ridiculed and denounced, were accused of sympathizing with terrorism or ‘hating freedom.’ People and groups who accepted the fiction articulated denunciations, strengthening the position of the political party sharing their fiction.
Following the economic crisis, competing fictions developed, but neither were compelling enough to dominate discourse. As a result, those fictions created divisions between and within groups, leading to the present chaotic state of discourse. The right witnessed a division with the advent of the Tea Party, who focused on a few points of the right’s fiction. Instead of inheriting an appealing fiction, the left relied on past fictions, resulting in indecisiveness or capitulation in some cases. The left’s inability to weave its concepts into a compelling fiction gave birth to the Occupy Movement, which established the concepts for a new fiction.
Competing concepts and fictions between and within groups have created tension in which four separate but related fictions—that is, related through concepts—compete for dominance. The right is attempting to solidify support for its fiction by appealing to concepts: it strengthened its religious tendencies while invoking terms used ambiguously, such as socialism—in the current climate, ‘socialism’ is used in accordance with accepted definition and it’s also used loosely, intended to appeal to a person’s emotions.
So while politicians cram useless amendments into legislation, such as a proposed ‘sacred sperm’ attachment to a bill in Oklahoma, or an amendment requiring state legislators to take drugs tests, as in Georgia and Missouri, we are not witnessing the decay of modern discourse; we are, instead, witnessing a contest between fictions, a series of duals in which, if the last decade is any indication, the victor might dominate the states of affairs for the next decade.