The Republicans have just taken over the House of Representatives, and I am on the phone with neo-conservative, diplomat-in-residence, former-speech-writer-for-Henry-Kissinger Professor Charles Hill. He is telling me that post-modernism is a stretch limousine.
“Stretch limousines have gotten longer and longer, until some are now the length of a bowling alley. They have become a joke on limousines,” he said. “But the people riding in them to weddings no longer know this. So it’s a joke on them. In post-modernism, everything is a joke.”
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Post-modernism is our generation’s defining affliction. We take nothing seriously, because there are no sources of legitimacy left for us. Ever since morality and religion were ruled out as foundations for belief, there hasn’t been ground for us to stand on. As a result, we find it hard to stand for anything.
Our consolation prize is a kind of cynical x-ray vision; we see through everything.
“Now, everything is a farce,” said Hill. “When you show the world as farcical, you are demonstrating your intellectual superiority over all other people.”
The trick, in other words, is to stay ahead of the game, so that the joke is always on someone else.
It is three days earlier. The midterm elections have yet to paint the country red from one barely-blue coast to the other, and I am watching television with 215,000 people on the National Mall in Washington.
We stare up at the vast technicolor screens, faces turned toward the pixels like plants to the sun. Few people speak to each other.
This may be the biggest joke in history.
We are here because people on television told us to come. They are not political leaders, but they make us laugh, which makes us trust them. The people at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity are well-behaved for the most part. It’s controlled mayhem — a surreal outing with people dressed as the founding fathers, leaves of marijuana, bears and immigrants.
Above the masses, thousands of signs float, proclaiming maxims and meta-isms.
“Three-word sign,” “Sign my sign,” “ARGH! This sign is so ANGRY!”, they read.
Every time the talking heads on the screens mention the rally, people clap, confirming our presence. It’s as if the comedians willed us into existence — which, of course, they did.
In place of earnestness — the desire for change that drove people to protest Vietnam and march for civil rights — the crowd is awash in self-consciousness and irony. It’s a satirical, mad-cap faux protest conceived by a fake news anchor. And the signs are nothing more than props.
The event is now shaping up to be a media circus, a variety show, a spectacle of liberal complacence with no real direction. On stage, Stephen Colbert emerges from a trap door in a cloud of smoke. Later, commands on the giant screens direct the crowds: “Laugh politely. Laugh like a mad scientist. Cry.” I’m sure someone does.
In place of working for real political change, engaging with those who disagree with us, and promoting causes we believe in, we have gathered here to be glorified Pavlov’s dogs.
One sign sulks: “Congress should do stuff.”
To be fair, there are themes that emerge, as I wander through a pocket of aging hippies sitting on afghans (“Peace. Love. Woodstock. Rallies.”) and smart-aleck kids (“Hyperbole is the Worst”). There is an agenda of sorts: gay rights, immigration, health care. We mock the Tea Party in high spirits, decry the state of political discourse and the polarization of the news media (“Less shouting on the ‘News,’” “Think outside the Fox.”).
But ultimately we are lost — stranded in a wasteland of slogans, whose collective sense amounts to very little. It’s a new nihilism, in which we gamely take up the tools to convey meaning, but have no message to convey. Without a coherent narrative, some turn to pop culture to fill the void.
“Soon Chuck Norris will have enough of this. Then we’ll all be sorry.” “I refuse to believe it’s not butter.” “DOUBLE RAINBOW.” This cacophony of Internet memes and quotes from YouTube videos is out of place on the Mall, where serious men and women have made heartfelt speeches. They cheapen it.
The saddest sign to catch my overstimulated eye reads, “I don’t have a dream so much as a mild preference.”
One 20-something with soulful eyes turns toward me so that I can read, “Make awkward sexual advances, not war,” on a square, cardboard thought bubble he holds above his head. It’s the decline and fall of the sexual revolution summed up in a quip. “My arms are tired,” laments another, held up by some weary adolescent. Even the most lighthearted of statements is too heavy a burden.
Around me, people are climbing trees, walls and lampposts to see the stage. Some kind of medals are being awarded, points given out. A country singer howls, “The least that I can do is care.” And then we are caught up in the current of the crowd, pulled into the hot D.C. metro, to be returned to our college city, which is wracked with crime and poverty. There, dozens of people people protested police brutality weeks ago – they had far more sincerity than today’s crowd.
On the phone, Charles Hill is telling me that the midterm elections were a “repudiation of what the rally stood for.” Essentially, he argues, the rally was mocking a large segment of the American people and their beliefs – or rather, their decision to believe anything at all. And those people voted.
On Wednesday, Republican John Boehner said his party was “humbled” by the results, while the President declared the political shift “humbling.” The governors of Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are now Republicans, and state legislatures that had been dominated by Democrats in Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, among others, are now controlled by Republicans.
Tea Partiers are earnest. At Glenn Beck’s rally, the people who showed up genuinely believed in what he represents and argues for on his show. They don’t organize for kicks or for a laugh — and they get results.
Rallying for things one actually believes in, for liberals anyway, has become something our parents did — a relic of the counter-culture past. We’re too jaded for it — post-earnestness, post-seriousness.
Now the ballots are in, and it looks like joke was on us.