By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
The system devours its own principle of reality, inflates its own empty forms until it reaches an absolute and its own ironic destiny of reversal — Jean Baudrillard
Diplomacy is a rare find in today’s political environment, a commodity that cannot be afforded by either party during an election season that has come to be a perennial exercise in slander, feigned indignation and various shades of vitriol sprinkled with the occasional demand for an insincere apology, a swift resignation, a national boycott or a national pig-out on fried chicken. Reporters hunt for gaffes that run the gamut of racist to sexist to homophobic to ethnocentric to just plain bizarre, and these gaffes then become the subject of satire, parody and facile essays that denounce such examples of idiocy before going on to bemoan the lack of civility in contemporary political discourse while, of course, perpetuating the very acrimonious dynamic that produces such a want of civility. At times it seems as though these gaffes are uttered on purpose, for the sake of drawing harsh criticisms that can then turn the one who made the gaffe into a victim of a cynical political system that wants to restrain free speech and manufacture a centerpiece for the day’s news cycle. If properly turned around, the gaffe will eventually become a rallying cry that will galvanize the base. Though this degree of cynicism may not be warranted, a healthy dose of cynicism is necessary upon opening the paper in the morning. In fact, I’ll even go so far to say that if you’re not cynical, you’re not paying attention.
It seems like the only way to keep people interested in a two-party system that ostensibly has no solutions to the problems our country faces is to simply make the other side out to be traitorous, incompetent or up to a sinister scheme that has potentially ominous consequences for some sector of the general population (a section that is labeled with some euphemism to make them seem more vulnerable, average or important to the overall health of the economy—hence the most recent, and spurious, epithet for rich people: “job creators”). With the type of rhetoric that would have confounded Cicero or Cato, the stakes for each issue quickly go from being a marginal victory for one party to a life or death situation for the nation. It doesn’t matter if it’s true; politics has become almost entirely a form of entertainment (though it should be noted that it has always been, to some degree, a form of entertainment), and entertainment will always demand an element of fiction to maintain a narrative or prolong a grudge.
The problem, of course, is that it’s gotten out of hand. Politics was once a theater populated by actors who knew that at the end of the day the fangs had to be retracted and some actual work had to be done. They knew that the venom was just part of the show, that the rigid ideology to which they publicly ascribed would be subject to alteration and retraction behind closed doors, and that surreptitious deals could be made so that everyone could walk away pleasantly dissatisfied. But now the actors are being replaced by audience members, and these people are crazy, stupid and pissed. It would be like allowing a pro wrestling fan into the ring to battle his idol’s nemesis, and it reveals that Baudrillard may be correct when he said that our culture is attempting to realize the obscene.
Greenwood Park, Brooklyn
Such madness is not limited to our elected officials. The newer entries into the world of politics, whether they’re heading to Congress, screaming into a microphone from their basement or pounding out blogs in all capitals about conservative hypocrites or liberal traitors, are seeking to satiate a bloodlust, and, as a consequence, bipartisanship has become a four-letter word. Add in the lobbying organizations, increasingly polarized media landscape and a populace waiting to kick anyone who seems like a crusader from their pedestal, and you’ve got the perfect storm of hubris, stubbornness and ignorance that may provoke investors (whether foreign or domestic) to stop dealing with this trifecta of failure—hubris, stubbornness and ignorance—and move their capital to a more stable country like China. Given that this is a very real possibility, the debt ceiling fiasco last summer may prove to be the first course in a banquet of destructive impasses that will ultimately bring the American economy to its knees.
Virtually everything in this country has turned into an “us vs. them” dynamic, and, what’s worse, the idea of compromise is seen as surrender. The problem has become so endemic that it now even includes a myriad of arenas that are neither explicitly political nor particularly crucial to one’s daily existence. One of the most recent examples is a new bar that opened up not far from my apartment, Greenwood Park (555 7th Avenue, Brooklyn).
The bar did not upset people for the typical reasons. Though it may have a large outdoor space that has been encircled by shipping palettes, which are not particularly good at dulling sound, noise has not been an issue. Unlike the protest over the potential Hooters a few miles north, the complaints did not stem from locals who wanted to preserve their privacy or their tranquil block in the middle of the largest city in the nation. In fact, no one has found much with which to fault the bar itself. What has so many people so pissed off about this outdoor beer garden, with its solid selection of drafts and decent bar food, is that a lot of people think it’s a bad place for children. While the bar does have a 7pm curfew for minors, the sans infant crowd feels that bars are places for non-minors only. The parental crowd believes that they should be able to have a beer during the afternoon with their child present. The level of animosity was clear when the New York Times not only published an article about the clash between the two groups, but then followed up with an entire page of reader responses that included some rather harsh language from both sides. The reviews on Yelp, that cesspool of unwarranted outrage, have been predictably far more vicious.
Is this really justified? Though I don’t like having children around me while I’m drinking, there are hundreds of destinations where this is the norm: bowling alleys, baseball games, basketball games, restaurants, bistros, relative’s backyards, friend’s backyards, etc. And then there’s the rest of the world. While one could maintain that the bar is one of the last spaces dedicated exclusively to adults, this uniquely American—and Puritanical—sentiment is not long for this world. As drinking a beer or two becomes an increasingly acceptable practice, the idea that children need to stay clear of individuals partaking in such a moderate indulgence becomes silly. True, I don’t believe that children should be allowed in the bar after a certain hour, and that’s because night drinking is very different than day drinking. The latter contains elements of restraint. The former very often does not.
What bothers me, however, is the degree of acrimony between the two groups, and it brings up the age-old problem of freedom-to vs. freedom-from. This leads me back to the exordium of this column: people don’t understand the virtue of compromise any longer, and, as a consequence, don’t understand the very nature of democracy. We are constantly stepping on each other’s toes in this society, and the only way to get along is not simply to live and let live, but to have some degree of civility while doing so. The freedom to bring a child into a bar does not mean you negate other patrons’ freedom to conduct themselves in a manner that is fitting for a bar. On the other hand, a small degree of civility would really not be that overbearing, even if those who are without children should be free to engage in the typical vices that the bar allows. Smoke, swear and drink, but try not to blow your smoke in a baby’s face, recite the Carlin’s seven dirty words just to do it, or get so drunk that you trip over a kid. For parents, the freedom to bring a small child into a bar means that they are free to play, but a degree of civility demands that you supervise them.
In other words, the opportunity to practice civility arises when at least two groups’ or individuals’ freedoms overlap and become contentious, when there is no longer recourse to either ethics or law. Civility is akin to the public sphere, the commons. It is there to facilitate awkward exchanges, but it is a principle as opposed to a guide. Unfortunately, when civility, or diplomacy or compromise, becomes a dirty word, aggression will result, and will often turn into a zero-sum game that has the potential to destroy the most powerful economy in the world, or, in a more microcosmic way, turn what should be an incredible addition to a neighborhood bar scene that everyone can enjoy into the front line of a ludicrous turf war.