Martin Plot is a former student, and good friend and colleague. I have learned a great deal from him about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, specifically concerning the temptations and dangers of kitsch. He joins DC with this post offering his critical view of the question of truth in American politics. -Jeff
Many commentators on the Democratic side (including Jeff) are mesmerized by the fact that most in the Tea Party movement, and the Republican Party at large, seem completely delusional, asserting facts that are not so and assuming ideological positions that distort reality almost as a matter of sport. The problem is not, however, one of simple dichotomies between reason and un-reason, and of truth and fiction, the problem resides in the dynamic that is slowly transforming our political regime.
French philosopher Merleau-Ponty explained this in the epilogue to his Adventures of the Dialectic. At two different moments in that text he uses two phrases in an almost indistinguishable way. At one point, he says, in condemning the Soviet dictatorship, that a different regime is needed, one that makes room for opposition and freedom. Later on, almost as if he were saying the same thing—and he was, in the context of his philosophy—he calls for a regime that welcomes opposition and truth. For Merleau-Ponty, truth is opening, or what he calls hyper-reflection and hyper-dialectics, which means opening to both other perspectives and the unfolding of time. Put straightforwardly: hyper-reflection means that even “reason”—or what he calls “the point of view of reflection”—needs to understand that it has its own blind spots. Therefore, it needs to be opened to contestation. Hyper-dialectics, on the other hand, means that whatever is the case today, may not be the case tomorrow. Therefore, present circumstances should never be expected to remain unchallenged.
In this context, the problem with Republican illusions, and lies that are mostly self-delusions, is not simply that they are wrong and untrue. The problem is that they find no opposition, that Democrats are afraid of confronting them openly and on principle, with positions that would have the potential of revealing other, better sides of the phenomena at stake. Republican illusions and self-delusions almost never have to face the clear opposition of those who would render visible, to them and everybody else, the huge blind spots of their narrow-minded perspectives. This lack of opposition, thus of “truth” in Merleau-Ponty’s sense, allows Republican highly idiosyncratic and ideological positions to become not true, but plausible. And this does not only improve their credibility, but, most importantly, transforms the state of opinion at large.
Somebody could legitimately say that the dynamic I am describing is not really taking place, that there are plenty of places in which the Tea and Republican Parties’ positions get challenged and contested. On the Thursday before the mid-term elections, for example, in the MSNBC program “The Last Word,” four Tea Party leaders were relentlessly challenged in their claim that they were fighting against the “socialistic” taking over of the country. Much more sophisticated critiques could be also found in magazines such as The Nation or The New York Review and even in The New York Times; and, of course, here in the blogosphere.
The problem is that when those challenges take place in the current, highly fragmented media landscape, no one who does not already see things from that critical perspective is watching or reading. The fragmented media do not, indeed cannot, stage for the broad public the play of opposition and freedom, and therefore of opposition and truth. The contestation to radical ideologies has to come from the other relevant political positions struggling for power—and, moreover, only this open contestation can force the media to momentarily “defragment,” so to speak. This is one reason why the two-party system may simply not be plural enough, because it simply fails in delivering the democratic regime’s need for opposition, freedom, and truth.