Crafty Language and Unfulfilled Dreams: On ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ 2015-10-17

Bill Maher’s interview with Bernie Sanders illuminates the tensions of capitalism and inherited wealth, and the inherent uselessness/truthfulness of language.

In her 1937 radio essay “Craftsmanship”, Virginia Woolf identifies in the word “craft” a fundamental problem of language: on the one hand, to craft is to construct, as craftsmen faithfully do, yet the cloudiness of language cannot rival an artisan’s armoire or a handyman’s utilitarian shelving. Further, as a noun, craft is synonymous with “cunning” and “deceit”, a coincidence that should dissuade us from seeking transparency in the semi-random murk of collocated words. With characteristic wryness, Woolf ventures a dual claim about language: “Words never make anything that is useful… and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”

From this duality comes the dispiriting conclusion that the truth, always a trickster, is quite useless, a realization that postmodernists half a century later would welcome as a long-belated liberation. Of course, Woolf’s paradox requires that we consent to its more dubious half: “words tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” But Woolf implicitly distinguishes words, which are neutral, from authors crippled by bias. If we recognize that only authors claim truthfulness — words themselves never make this claim — then we needn’t despair. We can simply blame authors deluded of the truth of their words and let the words off scot-free.

Yet history will not let words off so easily. History has a way of strangling words, painting them with unwelcome masks, twisting them into Gordian Knots, and making them as ineffectual and anti-utilitarian as Woolf supposes. Small words, inheriting the evil of history, soon frighten us; the fear produces the phenomenon of political correctness, the attempt to control or silence words by denying them their twisted yet elucidating histories. Perhaps fifty or a hundred years from now, the lexicon of forbidden words will include the noun “freedom”, now almost irremediably ruined by petty demagogues who’ve managed to equate the word with obdurate self-interest.

Currently, Americans wrangle with a particularly word, “socialism,” that desperately needs elucidation and emancipation. Through the efforts of Senator Bernie Sanders, the word has been freed from its European origins, landing in the collective laps of American gun-toters, churchgoers, and unrepentant, inarticulate freedom-lovers unwilling to peel back the masks of history. With Sanders in tow, October 16’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher tried mightily to demystify socialism for those Americans suffering from residual McCarthyism or (nearly as bad) lingering Gingrich-ism. As Maher emphasized, “The most popular programs are socialist programs,” even among Republicans: social security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration, and especially the military, which Maher often cites as the country’s largest social welfare employer.

Though Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, proposed in 1944, never took flight, characteristics of socialism remain embedded in American life. To some degree, every culture is socialistic and every economy is mixed; socialism is in fact the logical state of human affairs, insofar as civilization mandates the centralization (or federalism) that socialism entails. Capitalism is an ideal, a spirit to which many aspire and only extroverts can achieve; even then, the most bullheaded entrepreneur succeeds only by exploiting extant resources, whether natural or human made. In his essay “Presidents and Problems”, G.K. Chesterton claims that “…capitalism was never a custom, for men never grew accustomed to it. It was never even conservative… for before it was even created wise men realized it could not be conserved”. As a spiritual aspiration — which Republicans see as the willful outgrowth of “personal responsibility” — capitalism is never a resource or commodity to be preserved, conserved, or reserved. As a practice, capitalism, as Chesterton suggests, is anti-conservative, insofar as successful capitalists possess rare and precious personality traits that cannot be passed on culturally, politically, or genetically.

Through the tradition of inheritance, the law attempts to rectify capitalism’s hereditary shortcomings. Rather crudely, inheritance literally becomes a conservation and a preservation of history (in its most quantified form) because there are no subtler or more just ways through which capitalism can perpetuate itself. Because capitalism always relies on future-oriented aspirations and acquisitions, its “spirit” can never be transmitted through mere tradition or indoctrination; it survives, as Marx knew, only by the transmission of its material residue (i.e., inherited capital).

For Marx, we must abolish inheritance to destroy the history that stands in the way of the future. The conservative, not totally unselfconscious, is forever in a bind: he knows that inheritance transmits only capital itself, and not the capitalist spirit (the philosophizing “-ism”), yet he realizes that a system of inheritance will negate his theory of merit, autonomy, and self-discovery. At best, he must fool himself into believing that his heirs — especially sons, who even today mainly bear the family shame of capitalist failure — will ingest the original spirit when presented with the dregs. Through the promise of inherited wealth, the pursuit of happiness magically becomes happiness itself.

In “Craftsmanship”, Woolf muses, rather cannily, that a capitalistic approach to values is preferable to the useless tangle of over-hewn sentences, which never deliver on their promises. She admires the new language of signs, she claims, but she isn’t presaging Barthes. She has in mind the omniscient and chillingly efficient scribe of the Michelin guidebook, who distributes numerical ratings (“One gable, two gables, three gables…”) to hotels and inns. Woolf imagines that one day narrative ideas can be compressed into an economical system of numbers and letters that can reduce windy novels — and perhaps political rhetoric — to “slim and muscular” volumes.

With such a linguistic calculus or postmodern cuneiform presently beyond our reach, Americans find other ways to manifest their rights and their muscularity. For trailer park residents who persistently vote Republican or bizarrely support a flat tax, inheritable capital remains a masochistic fantasy, the ghost of that goddamned aspirational “-ism”. But if capital — economic or political — bolts ahead of the common man’s reach, the manly gun is always nearby, hanging over a fireplace, secured in a cabinet, or fixated on deer or the underclass. Americans’ shiny obsession is no mystery: the gun is only the physical object the Constitution promises us. We have no rights, emanating either from the 18th or the 21st century, to food, water, shelter, medicine, sanitation, education, knowledge — or an inheritance, for that matter. But we have the gun, the all-purpose tool, at once humble and overweening, with which we might potentially claim any prize (put aside for the moment the gun’s alleged, conscripted role in militias). The American ethos resides in that potentiality, which promises everything and guarantees nothing.

The promises themselves turn out to be only potential ones, for the Constitution cannot live up to its words, inflated in ambition but utterly inadequate in substance. Woolf’s comedy about dispensing with sentences and reducing tomes to “thin and muscular” signs is ironic here in an unexpected way: our Constitution is already far too thin, deliberately and problematically under-defined; vascular rather than muscular. We can blame our Founding Fathers’ floundering prose. The Second Amendment provides the right to “bear,” a verb that seems awfully utilitarian, but to bear is not to use. Literally, to bear — from “beran”, Old English for “produce, hold forth, or carry” — is a far cry from “shoot”, “murder”, or even “hunt”. To bear or hold forth is a farther cry still from “to utilize against tyrannical or illegitimate government agents or forces”, or “to brandish, by officers of the state, against indigent and minority populations in an intimidating, disempowering, or life-threatening manner”.

The Founding Lawyers might have written “discharge” rather than “bear”, but they, legal minds fine-tuned to the Woolfian imprecisions of language and presumably infallible in every design, surely chose that more guarded word carefully. Today, we never debate the meaning of the “bear”, as most demoralized liberals have accepted the notion that if one bears, one must also use (indeed, to bear without using seems tantamount to public impotence). Instead, we wrangle about the indeterminate noun “arms”, which once indicated muskets, flintlocks, and non-repeating long guns, and now includes everything short of a sub-machine gun or field mortar.

The Founders, always imagining the future and sometimes believing, along with Jefferson, that each generation should rewrite the Constitution, were men of potential ideas. I really suspect they chose the verb “bear” for the same reason that Jefferson chose “pursuit” — just as the bearing of arms signifies potential energy (not actual energy), one also pursues the capitalist ethos but rarely fulfills it. Emphasizing the cause and forestalling the effect, the Founders understood that they could not be held responsible for actual happenings, only generative ideas. For the conservative, the Founders’ vagueness sagaciously and necessarily opened the door to individual responsibility; for the progressive, the Founders were evasive to the point of cowardice.

It is paradoxical that immaterial capitalistic potential (the “-ism”) lies dormant in a physical, metallic object; paradoxical rather than ironic because Americans nevertheless need a materialistic totem that can project their fantasies (in this case literally, with projectiles). Because the gun symbolizes the lone hunter seeking only sustenance, it represents the Christian virtues of chastity, forbearance, and self-denial; because it symbolizes the conqueror, it also signifies capitalist adventurism and acquisitiveness; and because its mechanism parodies phallic discharge but effects only violence, it once again embodies the Christian ethos, which supplants bodily pleasures with bloody sacrifice.

I was heartened to see that Maher’s climactic rant in the episode not only returned to the issue of mass shootings, but connected our national fixation on hot steel to a quasi-religious legacy of sexual repression — a connection I myself had written about several weeks ago in this space. (Although a public-domain idea, the link between sexual repression and firearm worship bears repeating whenever politicians win office by hoisting weapons and scorning sexual liberty.) Romantic losers clasp to the eroticism of the gun because guns (unlike prostitutes) can be bought legally; at the same time, gun-eroticism pretends to stoicism, presenting itself as far less sentimental than a real orgasm, which conservatives see as little more than crass sentimentality in biological form. The conservative always aims at a higher, less viscous sentimentality, based not only in antiquarian ideals but in the childhood longing represented in the American Dream.

The dream, however, is yet another example of a generative idea that can only fulfill its promise selectively and undemocratically (obviously, an economy of limited resources and needs cannot accommodate 300 million wealthy entrepreneurs). In the dream-state, the American retreats even further into the unfulfilling abyss of potential energy. The capitalist success and longed-for material objects promised by our political documents become in dreams mere shadows of themselves, crafty sublimations that, like language, conjure images designed to dazzle, conceal, and deceive.