Real Time with Bill Maher: Republican Nouns/Democratic Verbs, Misguided Narratives

"In an impersonal and often anti-personal world, the individual name cannot compete with the power of corporate hierarchies, which, even more than gods, are invested with unearned prestige."

Given the present carnival we call a presidential nominating process, one can’t be blamed for longing for the age of political mediocrities, bland functionaries, and faceless hierarchies. Bland mediocrity at least has a fallacious air of competence. Mediocrities may depend on a culture of “plausible deniability” whenever banks collapse or bombs fall on the wrong people, but they still have the presence of mind to value what seems plausible. Within the current Republican presidential field, nothing seems plausible — not yet, anyway.

The most implausible development, of course, has been the rise in regional polls of Ben Carson, who disproves every theory of charismatic leadership and, as Bill Maher noted in the October 9th edition of Real Time, assigns Darwinism to the influence of the “Adversary”. Donald Trump, a concoction of televisual bravado and unblushing jingoism, is explained all too easily. But Carson, a mumbling, self-righteous milquetoast, has none of the charisma we typically ascribe to leadership. True, his heart-on-the-sleeve religiosity will snare a small percentage of voters, and he undoubtedly appeals to conservatives willing to embrace a non-threatening (that is, anti-revolutionary) African American, but these personal attributes offer only fragmentary explanations.

But Carson retains, indissolubly, his titular noun: doctor. No matter how clueless his pronouncements or how ignorant his Biblical worldview, he cannot be stripped of his doctor-hood. In an acutely materialistic culture, notable nouns will dominate, and in a capitalistic culture, professional titles are paramount. This alone accounts for his otherwise unaccountable buoyancy; onto this elite and exclusive noun is placed tremendous weight, and into it is invested limitless faith. If the nominating process literally “names” the anointed one, one’s name-title should hover about one’s head like a definitive and defining halo.

The same nominal logic explains Carly Fiorina’s relative (and surely fleeting) buoyancy, for through some miracle of public magnanimity, she retains her title of “CEO” (admittedly, this title is a noun and two adjectives, but figuratively it operates as an overarching noun). Somehow conservatives put great stock in what could be called “titular determinism”, whereby one’s title, as opposed to one’s proper name, invests one with an abstracted value or meaning divorced from qualifying adjectives. Fiorina may be an incompetent and avaricious CEO, walking away with $100 million in assets after hobbling Hewlett-Packard, but CEO-ship is now embedded in her DNA, any inconvenient modifiers aside. Likewise, Oliver North may be deceitful, treasonous, and chauvinistic, but he is indelibly a “Colonel” and thus deserving of a television show. Sarah Palin will always be addressed “Governor” even though she failed to execute a single term, while a raving madman like G. Gordon Liddy is synonymous with “Patriot” (I suppose that’s his titular noun) by dint of his loyalty even to a disgraced administration.

Titular determinism knows no partisan bias, but conservatives do seem to put greater faith in titles, perhaps owing to their deference to hierarchy and authority, and perhaps because their religiosities predispose them to reify the most abstract or general nouns. In pre-modern eras, before names were revealed to be arbitrary historical markers or social constructions, the name wielded great power, enough to summon a demon or hold sway over a god. Thus does Yahweh in Exodus withhold his name from Moses: “Say to the Israelites, ‘I am’ has sent you”, exhorts Yahweh, reducing (or elevating?) his name to a first-person noun primordially joined with the verb “to be”. In the bureaucratic age, the name has been replaced by the professional title as a marker of power; in an impersonal and often anti-personal world, the individual name cannot compete with the power of corporate hierarchies, which, even more than gods, are invested with unearned prestige.

If conservatives invest greater meaning into hierarchical nouns, freethinkers and liberals tend to reject them. The label of “socialist” does not deter liberals — including those who do not identity as socialists — from supporting Bernie Sanders. Why? They realize the label, like every label, is a nearly meaningless shorthand that exposes the inadequacy of language to describe reality. They agree with the content of Sanders’ positions and reject the alleged reifications of a political label that conservatives see as inherently demonic. Invoking the name “socialist” over flickering candles and disemboweled swine does not, it turns out, summon the minions of Beelzebub — though conservatives wish it would.

At this point, you might think, “The present argument is over-generalized to the point of gross stupidity.” Yes, this is a fairly asinine argument, but my overgeneralization is only as asinine as the reality it seeks to describe. Let us assume that conservatives – apparently — are prone to this dual construct of materialism and reification. Freethinkers, rejecting the power invested in nouns, prefer verbs and actions irreducible to material things that subsequently can be symbolized out of proportion. But in an era of gridlock, what does it mean “to do” anything?

The actions of others, particularly political officials, always remain distant and unknowable, and the higher the official’s titular noun, the more it overrides his or her verbs. In the last episode of Real Time, Andrew Sullivan embarked on an endless and seething tirade against Hillary Clinton, repeating the usual criticism: “What has she done? She’s done nothing!” (Note that only liberals are expected “to do” anything — for conservatives, the titular noun of “doctor” or “CEO” suffices, for the conservative is supposed to hold the fort rather than “do”.) Sullivan’s terribly naïve argument somehow underestimates the lingering power of nouns. The whole point of being Secretary of State is that no one knows what you’re doing. When did we forget that the root of the noun “secretary” is “secret”? The secretary — “one to whom secrets are entrusted” — is by definition a figure of mystery and above transparency. Do I really know what Henry Clay or Dean Rusk or Warren Christopher did behind the scenes? If we really knew, we’d likely say they all deserved the firing squad. But to return to the point: when actions becomes invisible and unknowable, we begin to think action-taking itself is impossible and reinvest in the simplistic materialism of the nouns before us. This is the basic temptation of conservatism.

Americans, in all their reductive materialisms, tend toward monologic simplifications, as their brains usually can juggle only one idea (or one noun) at any given time. On the October 13, 2015 edition of Hardball, Joan Walsh identified Joe Biden not as a potential presidential candidate but as “the mourner in chief”, too preoccupied with the passing of his son to re-engage in political life. Again, the imposing presence of one noun delegitimizes the possibility of any others: because he is a “mourner”, he can be only that, since we apparently can maintain only a single identity in a given moment. One is reminded of intellectually bankrupt, sanctimonious sitcoms that exhort children to “just be themselves”, as if 10-year-olds have any clue as to whom they might become, as if we were all shipwrecked into a single identity and were not enmeshed into messily human processes of ongoing transformation.

In seeking to acknowledge the instability of identity and meaning, the recent generation of journalists, emboldened by a dangerously small exposure to literary theory, has clasped onto the word “narrative.” Journalists hoped this word — this noun — would make them appear sophisticated, but quickly it became just another cliché, and a misused one at that. Presumably, journalists use “narrative” to mean “false narrative” (again, the adjective disappears into the noun), hoping to inform us that reality is socially constructed, relativistic, and untrustworthy. What seems to escape journalists — and this is an old postmodernist can of worms debated in the early 1980s — is that their explanations of narrativity are themselves “narratives,” and their meta-narratives are subject to the same skepticisms they apply to narratives that are factually, demonstrably false. What they really mean by “narrative” is “lie”, so they might as well just say, “Fox News is lying about Clinton’s e-mails”, rather than “Fox News has fabricated a narrative about Clinton’s e-mails”. Everything is a narrative, yes?

The term “narrative” will suffice for journalists because it has the appearance of erudition, even though it reverts to a monologic understanding of perception. Journalists’ use of narrative is generally in the singular, with a definite article (“the narrative”), ignoring the fact that multiple narratives automatically come into being simply when one speaks about a narrative (i.e., the narrative and its meta-narrative).

I suspect the journalistic misuse of narrative aligns with the truly egregious phrase “political theater”, which describes anything useless politicians do in public. I am unsure who injected this phrase into journalists’ meager arsenal of jargon, but it does a terrible disservice to theater, which even in its most corrupted forms involves a transformative dramatic arc and which ostensibly exists for the audience’s pleasure. By this measure, political theater is not “theater” of any kind, for the phrase seems to indicate mere rhetorical grandstanding, executed at moments of stalemate rather than dramatic transformation. Furthermore, the “theatrics” of a futile filibuster or symbolic Congressional vote only satisfy the ego of the performer rather than aiming, as true theater does, to please, rouse, or transform the audience. At most, political theater is a bad spectacle best witnessed when the curtains are down. Let us thank American journalists, then, for turning what should be a font of action, the Theater, into a sterile, stillborn object, where verbs exist only in some long-forgotten, idealized limbo, where real movement has been petrified into an impressive, hollow noun.