Monday, December 20, 2010
Deception, Delusion, and Division in American Politics: Fruits of the Contact Zone
The U.S. political system has become strangled by the misconceptions, dishonesty, and unfounded beliefs held and espoused by the opposing political parties. The truth is hard to come by and even harder to recognize in the current political climate.
In her essay, The Arts of The Contact Zone, Mary Louise Pratt, a member of the Modern Language Association, relates the challenges of politics to the concept of a social space where “cultures meet, clash and grapple,” accordingly termed “contact zones”. These zones are, clearly, points of contact between two different cultures, and involve certain dynamics, such as an imbalance of power between the two. An example of a modern contact zone exists in American politics, and specifically between the Democratic and Republican parties.
From this constant and dramatic interplay, the culture itself becomes larger-than-life leading to the self-deception of the members of the culture who are invested in a set ideology as part of their self-image. If members of a contact zone, marginalized and dominant, imagine their communities as unified monocultures, then self-deception will almost certainly occur.
Pratt describes the idea of “imagined communities” as illusory boundaries that are drawn by peoples who cluster together as one. Quoting Benedict Anderson, Pratt writes, “human communities exist as imagined entities in which people “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet tem or ever hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion (Pratt 504).” This means individuals buy into the idealistic notion that solidarity necessarily exists between the members of their community.
The striking consequence of such a conceptual entity is the un-shattering extent to which peoples identify with these communes that are comprised of many individuals, whom they will never come to meet or exist with. The idea of a monoculture is relatively the same concept, where essentially the members of such a culture live inside a bubble. The culture is homogenous since every member is relatively similar.
The Democratic and Republican Parties respectively manifest their own descriptions as monocultures, where the opposing party holds little to no value, truth, or aptitude. Each firmly believes the legitimacy of itself and therefore the illegitimacy of the other. Individual citizens, who might share all, many, few, or even none of the beliefs of a party, will align themselves with that party based on suppositions and therefore become part of the imagined community. A faithful Christian citizen who declares himself a Republican will most likely be disturbed when they come into contact with a pro-choice Republican Senator, and the same goes for a gay couple who side Democrat and come into contact with a Representative of their party that opposes same-sex marriage rights. Those instances do occur, and they only contribute further to the idea that it is easy to be self-deceived by one’s identification with “imaginary” structures that are larger-than-oneself and larger-than-life. When this delusion of separateness occurs and reigns over what is thought, said, and done, what kind of world is created? This is an important question to entertain, and will be addressed later.
The historical evolution of both parties has included tremendous growth, transformation, and tension. The idea of transculturation, where “members of subordinated or marginalized groups select and invent form materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Pratt 505), describes this progression on behalf of both parties since at a certain point in time one is subordinate to the other, most notably when the party rules the Presidency and/or Legislature. Pratt states, “While subordinate peoples do not usually control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what gets absorbed into their own and what it gets used for (505)”. What this means is that the marginalized culture has no say in what manifests from the dominant culture, however they possess and exercise the power to utilize and employ those manifestations in progressing their own cultural identity. For example, during the Presidency of Republican George H. W. Bush, the President made various grammatical mistakes in delivering some of his speeches, which were then used against the Republican Party by Democrats to emphasize their “educated, and highly skilled and sophisticated” party identity.
Another example was the curious actions that took place in the Oval Office between Democrat Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky during his presidential term. This sent not only the Republicans but the entire country into shock, which then progressed into anger, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment.
This caused the Republicans to accentuate their “moral character”, which is dominantly Christian, and their steadfast commitment to the ethical responsibilities of government, society, and the individual. In both cases, the phenomenon of transculturation took place yielding more and more refinement of the parties’ ideals and image. Even the original “meanings” of terms such as “Republican” and “Liberal” have evolved dramatically- one could even say they’ve reversed. A Republican in the time of the Civil War in America actually implied a socially liberal individual, whereas presently that outlook is characteristic of the Democratic Party.
The original, classic definition of “liberalism” had to do with commitment to laissez-faire economics and social agendas, which assured small government and extremely limited government intervention. The present view of liberalism is more along the lines of neoliberalism, and is viewed as in support of “big” government. The political spectrum has become completely redefined in terms of labels and philosophy(s).
The significance of this in relation to the phenomenon of self-deception is the expansion on Pratt that transculturation is mutual and constant. At some point the gears are going to shift and the power structure will reverse, whether it be once or many times during the life of the contact zone. This eliminates the absolute need for a contact zone to be evaluated only at a certain point in time regarding the alignment of power between cultures. The issue then again returns to the ideas the members of such cultures claim of themselves and of others, and how and why those conceptions, or dare I say misconceptions, lead to identification, clinging, and delusion.
Autoethnography is an artifact of the contact zone, which in the case of American politics serves to reference the idea that the author(s) of autoethnography, since they react to the delusional opposition of the conflicting culture, perpetuate the self-deception of the culture to which they belong. Autoethnographic text is described by Pratt as “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations other have made of them (501).” What this means is that the text is not simply a living document of the author’s state of mind, but that its dialogue with and between the marginalized and dominant cultures defines it.
A prime example of an autoethnographic text in the context of the American politics contact zone is the recent memoir by 2008 Republican Vic-Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin, titled Going Rogue: An American Life. It serves as a fine example of authoethnography because Palin uses the mental images portrayed of her to produce a text that defines her. In it she writes, “During the oil boom, anyone who questioned the government’s giving more power to the oil companies was condemned: What are you trying to do, slay the golden rose? But when the boom went bust, the golden goose still ruled the roost. By then, state government was essentially surrendering its ability to act in the best interest of the people. So I ran for governor (Palin 4-5).”
Palin played off her comical given nickname from the 2008 Election in the title and content of her book. Notoriously called a “rogue”, though the name was meant to be ironic and critical, she interacted with the criticism thrown at her to come to the belief that she was actually the “rogue” of the party and politics itself. She speaks in this particular excerpt of taking a rebellious stand against the oil corporations and spineless politicians to revert back to government acting “in the best interest of the people”, whatever that may be. Apparently she believed she had the answers.
Speaking of her moral disposition towards Christianity and to oust corrupt, money-hungry oil companies in her home state of Alaska, “I didn’t necessarily get into government to become an ethics crusader. But it seemed that every level of government I encountered was paralyzed by the same politics-as-usual system. I wasn’t wired to play that game (Palin 5).” This “crusader” mentality is what attracted her much attention from her Vice Presidential nomination forward, and Palin has ever since branded herself as the white-knight in the political spectrum.
The cultures as part of a contact zone, and in this case the Republican and Democratic Parties of American politics, have an almost necessitated tendency to become larger-than-life, meaning the imagined communities of monocultures become a force in themselves that is very difficult to tie down. For example, it is nowhere written into law that the U.S. be a two-party system, but it continues on this way. The whole party “apparatus” has so much power and influence- that is in some ways mind blowing- that no challenging party can stand a chance.
It is common knowledge that to be in politics an individual must be aggressive, zealous, and most importantly loyal. Giving your commitment to a certain party requires you always be on their side and “fight for the kill”; in not committing you lose a significant portion of funding, pull and chances of taking the election or staying in office. This process once put into effect leads toward self-deception of members when the political culture becomes part of their self-image and identity; hence anything that threatens that apparatus is “evil” and unwanted.
The basis for solidarity in a politics of ruthless identity differences is practically non-existent. No form of positive change can occur from the bottom up or the top down when citizens and networks are not mobilized to seek common ground on issues most important to them. Deception is vile ground for misinterpretations, misunderstanding, and erroneous, heated arguments, and it ensues chaos especially when it involves politics. This is because the nature of politics, specifically American political theory, albeit very complex, is very sensitive to opposing beliefs and the degree to which such beliefs are held by citizens, and therefore gives the impression of futility. For example, if a seemingly ethical politician and a Bishop become enveloped in a controversial argument over fundamental beliefs, then the ripple effects of those opposing ideologies stir up more controversy in the everyday conversation of many citizens. Some will say the Bishop has a limited geographic and social region of power, while others will say the politician is wrong for his opposition to his own core faith beliefs. The point is that deception is by nature untrue and misleading, and this produces serious consequences for the so-called democratic nation of America.
Everyday Americans are entitled to their freedom to think and act based on true information, and not the illusory “umbrella” ideals of their aligned party. Neighbors, friends, even members of families become so wrapped up, politically speaking, in their own little worlds that failure to realize their own false impressions and erroneous beliefs is inevitable, and more internal conflicts arise. It is, after all, written into the Constitution that domestic peace must always endure.
There is no difference between Northern and Southern regions of the country declaring civil war and “Left” and “Right” wing parties of government becoming mentally, socially, and politically enslaved by misconstrued ideological paradigms. Although Truth is an ever-evading notion, the truth is always a superior fact over the opinions of delusion. Freedom, whatever that term may mean, is impeded when the truth no longer prevails. Since the contact zone is a space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple, then it serves its purpose to draw attention and mind-power to the conflict. But what happens after that- what can be evaluated about the fruits of the contact zone, and how to evolve and progress as a culture, a nation, a people?
This is where the fighting gloves come off, and the shaking of hands comes on. The road to nowhere fast is the road being traveled right now, unless citizens and politicians alike from across the political spectrum awake from delusion, take a deep breath, and search for common ground to build on. It can be done only with motivated will and openness, since self- realization is the antithesis of self- deception.