Saturday, July 29, 2017

Slavoj Zizek on Christian conservatives' tolerance for vulgarity // Is the American republic built to withstand a malevolent president? By Michael Goldfarb

Public obscenity is sustained by a concealed moralism, its practitioners secretly believe they are fighting for a cause, and it is at this level that they should be attacked... To paraphrase the old Marx brothers joke, apropos Trump or Kaczynski: you look and act like a vulgar clown, but this should not deceive us – you really are a vulgar clown...

How to account for the strange fact that Donald Trump, a lewd and morally destitute person, the very opposite of Christian decency, can function as the chosen hero of the Christian conservatives? The explanation one usually hears is that, while Christian conservatives are well aware of the problematic character of Trump’s personality, they have chosen to ignore this side of things since what really matters to them is Trump’s agenda, especially his anti-abortion stance. If he succeeds in naming conservative new members of the Supreme Court, which will then overturn Roe v Wade, then this act will obliterate all his sins, it seems. But are things as simple as that? What if the very duality of Trump’s personality – his high moral stance accompanied by personal lewdness and vulgarities – is what makes him attractive to Christian conservatives? What if they secretly identify with this very duality? 

Exactly the same goes for Poland’s current de facto ruler Jaroslaw Kaczynski who, in a 1997 interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, inelegantly exclaimed: “It’s our f***ing turn” (“Teraz kurwa my”). This phrase (which then became a classic locus in Polish politics) can be vaguely translated as: “It’s our f***ing time, now we are in power, it’s our term”, but its literal meaning is more vulgar, something like: “Now it’s our time to f**k the whore” (after waiting in line in a brothel).  It’s important that this phrase was publicly uttered by a devout Catholic conservative, a protector of Christian morality: it’s the hidden obverse which effectively sustains Catholic “moral” politics.

A couple of months ago, Donald Trump was unflatteringly compared to a man who noisily defecates in the corner of a room in which a high-class drinking party is going on – but it is easy to see that the same holds for many leading politicians around the globe. Was Erdogan not defecating in public when, in a recent paranoiac outburst, he dismissed critics of his policy towards the Kurds as traitors and foreign agents?  Was Putin not defecating in public when (in a well-calculated public vulgarity apparently aimed at boosting his popularity at home) he threatened a critic of his Chechen politics with medical castration?
Was Sarkozy not defecating in public when, back in 2008, he snapped at a farmer who refused to shake his hand: “Casse-toi, alors pauvre con!” (A very soft translation would be: “Get lost then, you bloody idiot!” but its actual meaning is much closer to something like: “F**k you, prick!”)? 

And the list goes on – even the left is not exempted from this debasement. The communist side was often not far behind in similar vulgarities. In his speech at the Lushan party conference in July 1959, when the first reports made it clear what a fiasco the Great Leap Forward was, Mao called the party cadre to assume their part of responsibility, and he concluded the speech with admitting that his own responsibility, especially for the unfortunate campaign to make steel in every village, is the greatest – here are the last lines of the speech: “The chaos caused was on a grand scale and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyse your own responsibility. If you have to shit, shit! If you have to fart, fart! You will feel much better for it.”

Why this vulgar metaphor? In what sense can the self-critical admission of one’s responsibility for serious mistakes be compared to the need to shit and fart? I presume the solution is that, for Mao, to take responsibility does not mean so much an expression of remorse which may even push a person to offer to step down; it’s more that, by doing it, you get rid of responsibility, so that no wonder you “feel much better for it” – you don’t admit you are shit, but rather you get rid of the shit in you. This is what Stalinist “self-criticism” effectively amounts to.

The important lesson here is that this coming open of the obscene background of our ideological space (to put it somewhat simply: the fact that we can now more and more openly make racist, sexist and generally xenophobic statements which, until recently, belonged to private spaces) in no way means that the time of mystification is over, now that ideology openly displays its cards. On the contrary, when obscenity penetrates the public scene, ideological mystification is at its strongest: the true political, economic and ideological stakes are more invisible than ever. Public obscenity is always sustained by a concealed moralism, its practitioners secretly believe they are fighting for a cause, and it is at this level that they should be attacked. 

To paraphrase the old Marx brothers joke, apropos Trump or Kaczynski: you look and act like a vulgar clown, but this should not deceive us – you really are a vulgar clown. All this in no way implies that we are hopelessly delivered to the space of media manipulations which carefully orchestrate such vulgarities: miracles can happen; the fake universe of manipulations can all of a sudden crumble and undo itself. 

In the campaign that preceded the 2017 UK elections, Jeremy Corbyn was the target of character assassination by some sections of the conservative media, which repeatedly portrayed him as undecided, incompetent, unelectable and so on. So how did he emerge victorious out of it? It is not enough to say that he successfully resisted it with his display of simple honesty, decency, and concern for the worries of the ordinary people. One should add that he won because of the attempted character assassination: without this attempt, he would probably remain as a slightly boring and non-charismatic leader lacking a clear vision, merely standing for the old Labour Party. 

It was in reaction to the ruthless campaign against him that his ordinariness emerged as a positive asset, as something that attracted the voters disgusted by the vulgar attacks on him, and this shift was unpredictable: it was impossible to determine in advance how the negative campaign would work. 
Corbyn’s accentuated ordinary decency may be an argument for him (for the voters tired of the Conservative media blitz) or an argument against him (for those who think that a leader should be strong and charismatic). The mysterious je ne sais quoi which decided the outcome is what escapes the domain of the well-prepared propaganda. 

the US has, over the past quarter of a century, become ungovernable at the national level. 
The Trump administration, having passed the six-month milestone in office, kicked off the next phase of his presidency with an explosion of crazy, spread over the past seven days. Like sweeps week on The Apprentice, every day saw some headline-grabbing event to garner ratings. It started with leaks against his former bosom buddy, attorney general, Jeff Sessions. President Trump, “sources” said, was planning to fire him. It moved on to a speech to the Boy Scouts of America jamboree, where Trump told the story of a property developer who lost a fortune and was lurking at a New York party with the “hottest people”. Later, there was a tweet announcement banning transgender people from the military.
This explosion of crazy concluded with his new White House chief of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, calling the New Yorker’s political correspondent Ryan Lizza to trash virtually everyone in the White House. He compared himself positively to the president’s dark lord and special adviser, Stephen Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president.” Doesn’t Scaramucci, or “the Mooch”, as he was known on Wall Street, have a mother? Won’t she be ashamed to see him talking like that in public? The week ended with a big name fired: White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

And up on Capitol Hill things weren’t a lot less calm. There was the closed-door interrogation of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, on Russian connections to the Trump campaign. Then came the Republican Senate majority’s inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, featuring John McCain voting yes, to debate the bill, then no, to kill it stone dead – until The Apprentice goes into reruns. All of these events, and a dozen more I don’t have space to mention, create a picture of utter chaos across the American government. Trump has ridden roughshod over not just the customs and norms of presidential behaviour but also basic standards of human decency… read more: