Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Politics Of The Self

I'm a political junky, but I try to handle my addiction with as much class as I can manage. In my college years, I was a bit like the clammy, unkempt junky who shoots up in public and ends up passed out on a park bench. Today I'm a somewhat less clammy, somewhat less unkempt junky with a professional life, so I've learned to indulge my habit more discreetly, as is fitting for secret vices.

Still, a part of me has always resented having to hide my lifestyle from others. It grates on me when people say politics is a private or personal thing. What could be less private than the business of the polis ("the city") or the res publica ("the republic," literally "the public thing")? Nena Eliasoph's fascinating book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life goes a long way toward explaining how this came to be, and how we junkies came to be second-class citizens. Specifically, she notes an inversion of the public and private areas of discourse in recent decades. At the same time when politics has become a hush-hush topic, matters that used to be more private (e.g. sex, relationships, diseases, neuroses) have become mainstays of casual conversation. If you've ever been at a party and found your mind wandering while your hostess entertained the rest of the group with that droll anecdote about the time she accidentally sharted at work, you know what I'm talking about. And you might be a redneck...but I digress.

The question remains, why this inversion? A documentary film I saw recently, Adam Curtis' The Century of the Self, may provide a clue. It deals with the work of Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, who applied Freud's theories to marketing and advertising in the United States throughout most of the last century. The same theories were also applied to political campaigns since at least the late 1970s. In sum, American corporations and politicians systematically trained the public to base their political thinking on deeply rooted, and deeply personal, fears and desires. Most of these emotions are so profound that the individual isn't even consciously aware of them. That's why they're so powerful and at the same time so manipulable. Regardless of what one thinks of Freud as a philosopher or healer, the film does show some evidence that his theories worked as applied by Bernays.

I wonder whether the phenomenon described by Eliasoph in her book could be a side-effect of this conditioning, a consequence of redefining the political and the personal at an unconscious level. If politics is the business of the polis, then idio-tics can only be the business of the idios, that is, the self ("idiot," in Greek, being defined as "the private person, the layman, the ignorant"). No one wants to hear others go on about what are, after all, just their own idiosyncrasies. And it's all the more offensive, far more in fact, when they start questioning mine. Would this explain why people feel the need to guard their opinions like shameful secrets? Might it also explain why civilized disagreement and rational, productive debate seem to be less and less common?

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