A convention is not the conventional. A convention is a rule, a standard, a procedure and its meaning. The conventional is the loss of meaning. It is a practice stripped of its purpose, a rule worn by time and unconsciousness of its originating intent. The origin of the conventional, like that of the convention from which it erodes, is in the intent of the convention, but the purpose of the conventional is only the conventional. The meaning of the conventional is its meaninglessness.
Those of the conventional national convention (CNC) I talked about in part one are promoters of the conventional. They conceive themselves as proponents, or at least representatives and analyzers, of normative social conventions – middle class life in its social values and economic aspiration – but they become in their activity, reduced by habit and mutual reinforcement and the collective norming of their own thinking, sheer conventionality. Political commentary among journalists and the political class intensifies this tendency by its resolute descriptive superficiality. Driven by polling that reduces people to demographic forces and trends, and compelled as reporters, they believe, to describe, as if the true nature of reality, the surface manipulations of the political class, and reveling in the game of which they become master chroniclers, journalists more than describe – they promote the fiction of this reality and enable it to prevail.
Rather than commit themselves, for instance, to opposing deception in the political process, journalists uphold a convention to acknowledge or “expose” it, but continue to report on and analyze it as a feature of political reality; they thus accommodate it and acquiesce to it. Even small-scale deception and manipulation, like evasive non-answers to direct interview questions and canned contentless responses, accordingly become accepted as conventions of the political process. Journalists and professional Pol commentators then analyze the effectiveness and prospects of illusions as standardized political behavior and ratify their conventionality by systematically – as part of the system that affirms their legitimacy – reporting on their electoral results as if they reflect anything other than a constructed reality.
The CNC thus becomes not the creator of the simulacra, but the distributor of it. Beguiled by the nature of the matrix, members of the CNC willingly enter it – and an illusion mistaken for reality is the essence of conventionality.
Let’s look, as an example, at a David Brooks column of over three weeks ago. Brooks is in that category of conservative whose mouths liberals do not actually want to stuff with the foreign objects that come out pouring out of them. Liberals, if they are not too rabid themselves, will often enjoy listening to Brooks. Gently avuncular, his is a soothing and reasonable presence. He does not attack the liberal philosophy; he considers the nature of our world and his responses to the complexities he finds there tend to the conservative. This middling mood bespeaks what Brooks tends in his own manner to uphold: middle class life at its best.
What is middle class life at its best?
The answer really is not hard to reach. Life is short, oh so, with increasing age and awareness, short, and it can be, and even is for most people, difficult if not, often enough, miserable. The travails, and beyond them, tortures that can befall one are enough to break the heart and spirit, if not end one’s life, and to be delivered from them into relative peace and assurance is a blessing, whatever its source. A clean and comfortable place to live without significant physical danger, the pleasure or simple serenity of the day, the possibility of love fulfilled and lasting, good children playing and learning, the space in the world and in time for one’s senses to enjoy the miraculous contact with the earth and atmosphere they touch – simply being alive – how can one challenge this, at once, rudimentary and ultimate good? Do you know a better one for all?
Inevitably, though, the conditions into which one is born or that one attains for significant duration become normalized, however the greater world and history may differ from them. And norms provoke reactions. Something there is in the world that does not seek a stasis, for all its allure to the many. In Lawrence Kasdan’s film Grand Canyon, a paean to middle class desire, there is an early scene in which a solid African-American tow truck driver rescues a white middle class father and son from an encounter in a bad Los Angeles neighborhood with Black street toughs. But the essential encounter is actually between the African-Americans.
Says Danny Glover’s tow truck driver, facing down the gangstas: “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Of course, the viewer is meant to agree. A father is supposed to be able to take his son to see the Lakers play and get them both home safe, and not be robbed and maybe shot if his car breaks down in Inglewood. Who would want the evening to go any other way? That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Somewhere, though, if only to appreciate the aspiration even more, there has to be the voice that asks, “Says who?” and where and how often was it ever? The way it is supposed to be.
Beyond the danger and violence that border the dream of the middle class, there is also at play in the world the dynamic energy – the creative force and destructive power – that founded the civilizational superstructures upon which middle class life could be constructed, and cleared the space in which it could thrive and grow. That creative force and those destructive tendencies – the universe was created in violent energy – do not subside into, are not vanquished by, bourgeois ascendance.
I switch to the French “bourgeois” precisely because it carries all of the political implications that “middle class” does not. The middle class is founded on, persists by, conventions. Courtesy, politeness, neighborliness yet discretion, the list goes on – the character of middle class life at its best cannot arise without them. Conventions have a purpose and a meaning. The bourgeois is middle class life that has lost full consciousness of what it is, out of what arisen, and against what odds and infirmities of existence, and to what end. The bourgeois is middle class life that has lost its meaning. It is conventionality.
So we return to Brooks, for whom the ground has been prepared. Brooks writes three columns a week for The New York Times, so there is every reason that the larger number of them should pass without significant attention. However, “The Next Two Years” received that attention, if only from Tom Junod at Esquire. Junod caught something in Brooks’s column that no one else did, something real, and he came down on it hard, but beyond a couple of bloggers and some tweets, no one paid much attention to him either.
The first notable point to be made about the column – a guide to the resurrection of President Obama’s political fortunes leading up to 2012 – is how completely commonplace and simply uninsightful and wrong seem all of Brooks’s observations and recommendations. It is in almost every respect an unimpressive effort – unimpressive except for what Junod caught. It is the sentence that explains the feebleness of the effort and that exemplifies the nature and problem of the CNC. Leading into it Brooks states,
Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones.
This is an observation not unlike one of my own a couple of weeks later.
What polling on the issues – particularly economic safety-net and quality of life issues, but many others now, too – tends to support is that the U.S. is actually somewhat center-left. This is not pre-Depression America and no one but the hard core right and libertarians wishes it were. What is center-right is the nation’s cultural self-perception, borne of the national mythos. It is the reason the U.S. cannot pursue even the best of European social-democratic policies in anything like a European manner. The Right will always appeal to that mythos and self-conception to rouse resistance against policies and programs it can taint as contrary to the American way.
The challenge to the Democratic Party and to liberals is to find practical solutions, simply as the manner of doing political business in this country, to what they will most successfully understand as not a bug, but a feature.
However, Brooks’s idea for meeting this challenge is quite remarkable.
Culturally, [Obama] will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.
Understandably, Junod went off on this, zeroing in, especially, on “punctuality.”
This sentence is either frankly racist or frankly forgiving of racism. This sentence would never have been written about a white politician. This sentence makes accusations, implicit and explicit, against the President of the United States of America that have nothing to do with anything he’s done and everything to do with who many white Americans think he is. Has there been any indication that Barack Obama does not believe in the “old-fashioned bourgeois virtues?” Has the man been anything but bourgeois to a fault? Has he not believed in “order” so deeply he’s sacrificed his presidency to its maintenance? Has he not been so “self-disciplined” that he’s regularly accused of being robotic? Let’s leave aside the inflammatory rhetoric of “personal responsibility”: Has Barack Obama ever been accused of being late? And if not, where the hell does “punctuality” come from? Of course, what makes this sentence — and this column — so untypical of the Brooks canon is that we know exactly where it comes from, and where it comes from can never be construed to have anything to do with reason, rationality, fair-mindedness, optimism, or moderation. Let’s face it: In the august pages of the greatest newspaper in the world, the oracular optimist of the Republican Party has just opined that what our first black president must do in order to win a second term is prove to good, hard-working Americans that he doesn’t abide by Colored People’s Time — and that he’s not a shiftless… well, that’s he’s not shiftless.
Brooks’s recommendation is as bizarre and objectionable as Junod takes it to be, and for just the reasons Junod offers, though I think it is explicable nonetheless, and not in the way Junod characterizes it. I do not believe there is anything remotely racist in Brooks, and I doubt Junod, who recognizes how uncharacteristic the sentence is, does either. Junod is simply at a loss beyond the obvious conclusion.
What I think instead is that Brooks has produced a column, and a key sentence in it, that is the essence of conventionality, the very representative of the middle class ideal reduced to bourgeois meaninglessness. Though Obama is worldly, sophisticated and liberal – as are many middle class people – and culturally diverse and unusual in himself, he has pursued and exemplified in his adult life all of the middle class virtues. The conventional bourgeois strain in American life, as it does in other cultures, tends to the nativist or culture-bound, and reduces the middle class ideal to unimaginative and restrictive forms and practices that find their reason for being only in themselves and their self-reflection. It is this limiting superficial response to Obama, this definitive drive to ostracize him as the “other,” against all meaningful evidence to the contrary, that is the broadly conventional character of bourgeois conservatism.
Brooks, by writing a column that acquiesced to this wildly inaccurate and conventional narrative about Obama – acquiescence in the guise of practical political advice for working within the illusion – performed precisely in the manner of the conventional national convention. If only there could be a value-detracted tax.
- The Conventional National Convention I (sadredearth.com)
- CNC (Conventional National Convention) Delegate (sadredearth.com)
- The Future of American Conservatism (sadredearth.com)
- Why is professional Britain so white and middle-class? Where are the kids I taught? (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- David Brooks Feels Bad for the Middle Class [Class War] (gawker.com)