The Perverse Privilege of Degradation: American Politics in the Age of Assimilation
by Andrew Grossman
Bright Lights Film Journal
A Final Statement of the Obvious
As Irena Salina's documentary Flow: For Love of Water (2008) has argued, at the heart of the 1947 Universal Declaration of Human Rights lies an absurd irony: amidst exhortations for citizenly rights of food, clothing, housing, medical treatment, land ownership, marriage, free expression, cultural participation, and so forth, there is no right to hygienic water, the one substance on which humans are most biologically structured and dependent. We have become so obsessed with draping the ideologies of our Lockean Constitutions in "natural" or God-given principles that we conveniently forget the liquid essence from which we're naturally and actually constituted. Salina's film uncovers Nestlé's privatizing reach into the heart and soil of the Third World, detailing the machinations of the world's largest water conglomerate as it controls aquifers and water tables, manages shantytown spigots, and effectively charges the world's most destitute citizens for the rare commodity of trickling potable water — a totalitarian outcome the United Nations, modernity's greatest democratic failure, could never have foreseen in 1947. But even such egregious exploitation is beside the point, for every post-Enlightenment declaration of human rights has swathed the dirty logistics of the social compact in mystifying rhetorical puffery. Rights are supposedly self-evident and derived innately — unless they require a revolution to secure them, in which case they were, paradoxically, never self-evident (and in fact warranted violence to conjure them into evidence). Self-evidence is a theological myth we sociologists can no longer tolerate. Rights are not rights if they can be either granted or rescinded capriciously by elected or unelected bodies; we instead enjoy merely provisional privileges (as George Carlin liked to point out), contingent upon parliamentary conciliations, bureaucratic relationships, gerrymandered voting blocs, municipal referenda, enduringly ineducable populaces, and all other deliberatively democratic mishaps that slip through a Constitution's philosophical cracks.
Jefferson, who could never bequeath to his progeny "contingent privileges," contrived instead his cannier pursuit of happiness, relegating his key term to a prepositional object and emphasizing with American braggadocio the mythology of the pursuit itself, susceptible to societal enabling or hobbling. Today, when happiness is a commodity scarcer than unchlorinated water, the vocabulary of permanence and transcendence does not poeticize a reality of evanescence and materialism, but instead does injustice to that reality. Freedom remains painfully abstract, not only indefinable but difficult to characterize phenomenologically. We can return to the puzzle Erich Fromm poses in the introduction to Escape from Freedom: is freedom a positive value (the attainment of a new state of being) or a negative one (the removal of social-moral prohibitions)? If we had no taboos against which to rebel, how would we know that we were becoming free? And even if societal prohibitions are removed and we could exist, as libertarians wish, in a "freely negative" space, material contingencies would still imbue that negativity with positive necessities — that is, we would remain unfree to abstain from consumption, labor, entertainment, a militaristic state, Maslovian needs, and so on. Rousseau was once right to say that man is freer within the constraints of society than he is within a Hobbesian deathtrap. Mainstream American politics has now regressed into such egocentricity, however, that we've arrived full circle at a paradoxical society of postindustrial amour du soi, a state in which we, so exhausted by our own communities of progress, cling to a self-interest drained of Rousseau's redemptive ingredient of natural pity. Politics becomes the art of seclusion, language becomes deafness, and all of us become sad little Robinson Crusoes.
Dreading the tragicomedy of the 2012 presidential election, Americans presently stew in a distended state of rhetorical madness: the vitriol of the right manifests as humdrum charlatanism and monosyllabic diatribes about the evils of taxation, while the left dithers according to custom. How oddly unsatisfying it is to see the rights' rival oligarchs reek of such childish desperation — poor rhetoricians, conservatives have only stasis and their own pitilessness to sell. On their best days, they might be what Nietzsche ungenerously called "antiquarian historians . . . who can rest content with the traditional and venerable uses [of] the past"2 and who have no sense of monumentality or planetary holism. But they are not even that, for their minds have no best days, only regurgitated loops of grasping, hedonistic nostalgia. Soon the nostalgia melts into infantilism, a blind worship of even the most abstract benefits of capitalism, as if they (but not we) had forgotten that seminal moment in 2008, when Alan Greenspan appeared before a Congressional hearing and publicly disavowed his — and Ayn Rand's — entire rationalist philosophy. Americans, he belatedly realized, were irrational and thus not legitimate bases on which to propound liable doctrines.
If we believe pizza salesman Herman Cain, the protestors of Occupy Wall Street are not merely irrational but are "jealous"3 of their financial betters, perhaps the most obscenely (if candidly) jejune economic analysis ever uttered by a neophyte demagogue. Cain's naiveté betrays the social function of his own financial success; as Galbraith puts it, "The ostentation, waste, idleness, and immorality of the rich [are] all purposeful: they [are] the advertisements of success in a pecuniary culture. Work, by contrast, [is] merely a caste mark of inferiority."4 Of course, conservatives must pretend that they wish everyone to climb the ladder of mobility, as long as we ascend stoically, and without bitterness, calls for social equality, or remembering that someone must clean the toilets. In practice, however, conservatives must kick out enough rungs to ensure the lastingness of their own imperiled manhood.
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