Junk Politics

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“Junk Politics: The Trashing of the American Mind” (2003) by Benjamin DeMott

(Author’s note: excerpts in italics are from the 2003 Preface to Junk Politics)

Its 1966.

Prof. DeMott and I bump into each other in the cafeteria line.

“Clough, you’re a fine arts major, right?” (We were familiar to each other: I had taken American Studies with DeMott and was taking his literature course, “Comedy.”)

“Well, yes, I am also an English major.”

“Hmm. Ok, but I need your opinion as a fine arts major.”

“Sure.”

“What do you think of this typeface?” DeMott holds up a copy of The New York Review of Books.

“Pretty small type. Seems like a job to read.”

“Yes. Very gray. Very off-putting. Hmmm?”

What ensued was a discussion about the opacity of typeface and layout design — he juxtaposed (then) Time magazine’s format to NYRB’s as “refreshing” and “modern.” I agreed and added that I, too was drawn to Time’s inspired layout despite the conservative tilt of Time’s political analysis. Easier to read, easier to participate in.

Characterizing. the ‘trickle down intellectualized’ NYRB page design, DeMott challenged me to look at America, the state of its political discourse, it’s culture, it’s media, from the lens of collectivity and its concomitant “difference.” 37 years after our chat, Junk Politics, a compendium of DeMott’s essays, was published. It could have been yesterday. My Rip Van Winkle slumber has paused. I am reading a book about the current American political dramascape that’s 18 years old.

Junk Politics argues that our political discourse has become obscured by false personal narratives, what DeMott called “personalization,” triggering an aversion to reasoned political discourse, revealing a parallel aversion — complicity, really — with social injustice.

What exactly is junk politics? It’s a politics that personalizes and moralizes issues and interests instead of clarifying them. It’s a politics that maximizes threats from abroad while miniaturizing large, complex problems at home.

18 years later, we live in a “divided society.” Question is, has our Rip Van Winkle slumber ended?

It’s a politics that, guided by guesses about its own profits and losses, abruptly reverses public stances without explanation, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized. It’s a politics that takes changelessness as its fundamental cause — changelessness meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that, decade after decade, strengthen existing, interlocking American systems of socioeconomic advantage.

This past news week, May 3–7, America experienced a “DeMottian moment.”

Rep. Briscoe Cain, speaking before the Texas State Legislature. Courtesy KHOU TV.

As reported by Rachel Maddow on Friday, May 7 (MSNBC, “The Rachel Maddow Show”) a picture emerged during the Texas Legislature debate over proposed draconian voting restrictions. Maddow convincingly let the video recording play, no comment-interrupting. A Democratic State Representative asked a direct question of the voting restriction bill’s proponent, Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain, Chair of the Texas Election Committee. Rep. Rafael Achina, referring to Article 6, section 4 of the Texas Constitution, challenged Cain to reflect on the bill’s text and argument:

“Were you aware of where the phrase, ‘purity of the ballot box’ came from?”

Achina went on to answer his and the public’s question for Cain, “it comes from a time when blacks were not allowed to vote (in Texas.)” Cain’s reply was unconvincing and surly:

‘Well, I was unaware of the history (of “purity of the ballot box”).’

Ignorant of the historical context of this phrase, of the regressive nature of its derivation, of the implied discrimination and reduction of voter’s rights to sustaining civil injustice. This is Briscoe Cain, whom controversy follows like flies on Texan cow pies. Not even the cable video op showing a bevy of young white Texan ladies flanking Cain could pretty up his presence.

‘Sorry about that, but really? So what,?’ was Cain’s inference.

“It’s in the Texas Constitution,” was Cain’s feckless response.

Translation: This does not apply to me. And (it shouldn’t) to you.

DeMott would have exposed Cain’s “answer” for its pomposity laced tongue waggling.

…it’s a politics marked not only by impatience (feigned or otherwise) with articulated conflict and by frequent panegyrics on the American citizen’s optimistic spirit and exemplary character, but by mawkish fondness for feel-your-pain gestures and idioms.

Is DeMott shrill? Or is this the voice of conscientious consciousness, the opposing voice to “willful ignorance?”

If “personalization” is not sufficient to gag on, what crowds out and confounds our public space is a cloying, “understanding” civility.

“I think (Sen.) Joe Manchin is a ‘good guy.’”

-an unapologetically accepting remark by a “liberal bro’”

Like Time’s visual appeal concealing a conservative mind-set journalism, “civility” lures the participant away from acknowledging social change and lack thereof. What DeMott calls out “civility” is a fraudulent intellectualizing where a penetrating look in the mirror is required:

What is the real American malaise? Why is this country in trouble?

“Lately, the leader classes have been floating a fresh answer to these queries, talking up a ‘root cause’ of national woes. Not race, not class, not dirty lyrics or cheap scab or toe-sucking consultants, nor under- or over taxation. The republic is suffering from rampant intemperateness on the one hand (loss of inner check on which social discourse depends) and distaste for associated living on the other. Citizens are shouting too much…They’ve forgotten how to listen and respect and defer…Our not-so-secret malaise is, in a pet leader-class phrase, the ‘decline of civility.’” (pg.4)

DeMott pokes holes in the argument(s) posing “us” as “above” politics and power sharing. “We” soberly avoid rhetorical stances but descend quickly into ad hominem attacks and “mawkish” personalizations.

Great causes — they still exist — nourish themselves on firm, sharp awareness of the substance of injustice. Blunting that awareness is a central project of junk politics

DeMott avoids the here’s-the-analysis-of-our woes and the incipient fix-it bromide(s). Junk Politics does not succumb to power struggle rhetoric and “elite-speak.” DeMott digs into what’s motivating our repressions. Trapping our resources. Confounding our values.

Behind each propaganda is an anxious and eager propaganda-seeker.

Anatomizing junk politics calls for attention to the striking multiplication, in recent days, of methods of bypassing great causes — styles, gestures, strategies that trivialize basic issues, diminish the visibility of pertinent social and moral choices, and instill suspicion that, in the phrase ‘political differences,’ the word ‘political’ signifies either ‘faked’ or ‘pointless.’

Fast-forward, post 1/6, “Junk Politics: The Trashing of the American Mind” exhumes the self-aware: we have let the ‘totalitarian impulse’ into our house.

And we feed it.

May 12

Writer, essayist, dreamer.