Visible Language Spoken to Invisible Men: On ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ 8/28/2015

The August 28 episode highlights the "rhetorical schizophrenia" that has poisoned political discourse.

Once, at a dinner party, Simone de Beauvoir found herself seated next to a Jesuit priest in full regalia. His orthodoxy notwithstanding, the Jesuit had perused The Second Sex with considerable interest, professed an open mind about feminism, and greeted De Beauvoir in the spirit of honest discourse. “I look forward to sharing ideas with you this evening, Mdm. De Beauvoir,” he said. She turned to the Jesuit, scrutinized his vestments, and blankly replied, “What could I possibly have to talk about with you?” She then turned away, justified in the knowledge that, when existential principles confront absolutist dogma, dialectics become useless, and it is preferable to spare both parties the embarrassment of a futile, passive-aggressive exchange.

As much as Plato excoriated sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias — celebrities in the Greek polis who charged high prices for their lessons in tortuous rhetoric — he still held out hope that logos could overthrow preconception, and that dialectical skepticism, ideally executed, could win the day. Of course, dialectics are never ideally executed. Fueled by egoism, narcissism, expediency, and ordinary fear, realpolitik lays bare the human limits of dialectic exchange. Clearly De Beauvoir understood that no degree of logos or enlightening politics could dislodge the Jesuit’s faith; at best, they would default to that terrible corruption of logos and hallmark of liberal democracy, “agreeing to disagree.”

Seeing Rick Santorum put himself through empty rhetorical paces on August 28’s edition of Real Time with Bill Maher reminded me of why De Beauvoir rebuffed that priest. As Santorum, drum-major of the derrière-garde, attempted to joke his way through questions on climate change and sexual morality, he created a humiliating spectacle (granted, seeing Santorum try to charm an audience is humiliating in itself). Throughout the passive-aggressive exchange, Maher seemed rather amazed that he was interviewing the deeply unpopular candidate — many have already forgotten his presidential bid — and even asked Santorum, “If you were not at 1% [in the polls], would you be on this show?” That is embarrassing enough. Santorum’s response was good-natured but utterly clueless, akin to the spirit in which the Jesuit engaged De Beauvoir. “People who watch this show never see people like me,” he said, not realizing that one’s presence is far less important than one’s ideas. Obviously, Santorum had nothing new to say: the only thing arch-conservatives love is repetition.

Santorum is no sophist — he is too ingenuous — but he is a hypocrite, insisting that college degrees signify “snobbery” (in a now-infamous speech) while he holds both an M.B.A. and a J.D. and resides in Great Falls, the most affluent suburb of Northern Virginia. Yet his Christian populism has effectively masked his hypocrisies. Sensibly, Maher asked the ex-senator whether he could draw the line between personal belief and public policy, quoting one of his most unfortunate, theocratic proclamations: “Contraception is a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be…” Santorum, blushing and wary of defending before a liberal audience the statements with which he lubes conservatives, responded by saying, “I was talking about my Catholic faith,” as if to reassure us that his faith is unconnected to any future presidential actions.

But there’s the fudge: if his beliefs will not translate into potential legislation, and if, as Santorum himself said, immoral acts shouldn’t necessarily be illegalized, then why should his faith matter at all? If his faith is legislatively untranslatable, what political good does it do? Are conservatives to vote for him on the basis of his admirable but professedly ineffectual moralism? Is he, in fact, so ethically strong that he can resist the temptation to defile the wall between church and state, much as he resists ungodly temptations of the flesh?

Santorum is lying, of course: if elected, he’d do everything within his power to translate his faith into action. One almost longs for the forthright, frothing era of Reaganite crusaders: at least the profane Jerry Falwell, always dripping with hog-sweat and obviously titillated by his own homophobia, made no hypocritical attempt to pose as a likeable everyman. Now, I almost appreciate Falwell’s bigotry; to paraphrase Nietzsche, today hypocrites are not even honest in their own hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Santorum, like Falwell and all Victorians, obsesses about sex to the degree that he obsesses with sexual repression, including (presumably) his own. When he speaks about the worldly terrors of contraception, anality, promiscuity, and so forth, we can only picture him spanning his conjugal bed, dreading the taboos lurking beyond its cushioned borders, attempting to peer over the fence of his Protestant repressions.

Pretending to advocate liberty but then situating that liberty within Christianity’s overall fatalism and apocalypse, conservative Republicans make indistinguishable their sexual repression and their phallic aggression (the latter dressed up as “freedom”). One wishes that fundamentalists were more complex animals, more deserving of the nuanced analysis and the empathy they so fervently lack. But their complement of public erotophobia and private repression too conveniently fits Freudian molds. When homophobic Alabama pastor Gary Aldridge auto-erotically asphyxiated himself and was discovered lifeless, sporting head-to-toe leather and rectal toys, a gloating September 27th, 2009 headline in The Constantine Report read, “What is a Right-Wing Evangelical Christian Pastor without a Rubber Suit and Dildo?” I do not want to gloat or engage in such childish games — but how can we not gloat when hypocrisies are so un-closeted, waved before us like flags on a battlefield?

When Maher’s questions turned to climate change, dialectical embarrassment became asinine deadlock. As soon as Santorum denied that 97% of climatologists agree on the man-made basis of climate change, conversation plunged into mere gainsaying. “It’s a bogus number!” cried Santorum. “No, it isn’t!” said Maher. In the absence of a resident fact-checker or climatologist, Maher suddenly acknowledged the comic infantilism of the proceedings, imitating the antics of a small, flailing child who taunts and contradicts his playmate. As in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or any Marx Brothers movie, language becomes a fool’s pursuit, the non-sequitur becomes normative, and the Socratic process is disclosed as a utopian fantasy. When communication fractures, we’re left with degrees of comedy, and here Maher wound up playing Groucho to Santorum’s uptight Margaret Dumont.

I say none of this out of partisan spite, for partisanship is our inherent problem. More embarrassing than Santorum’s failed display of charm — we know he’s ideologically implacable from the get-go — are Democrats’ corruptions of language, for they are allegedly the party of reason. In a moderately publicized appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Democratic National Committee Chair (and occasional Maher guest) Debbie Wasserman Schultz did everything to avoid a rather straightforward question from the host: “What is the difference between Democrats and Socialists?” A marginally above-average high schooler should be able to muster some response. But Wasserman Schultz was nonplussed, repeatedly saying, “What I really want to talk about is the difference between Democrats and Republicans!” before trailing off into propagandistic talking points.

She could at least have said that Democrats are essentially capitalistic despite their belief in governmental hegemony, or remind audiences that every world economy (exempting North Korea) is to some degree a mixed economy, or argue that “pure” capitalism has never existed outside of pre-civilized barter systems and anarchic agoras. But she, a hack untutored in history, could only clumsily try to spin the question, while Matthews, to his credit, continued to press her. The amateurishness and artlessness of her rhetoric were humiliating and infuriating in equal measure. Were this any other profession, she’d be fired on the spot. Luckily for her, the concision of television appearances allows us to see only the protruding tip of a witlessness presumably fathoms deep.

The American psychologist Rollo May once described a press conference between a skeptical journalist and an American general busily making apologias for U.S. involvement in Vietnam around the time of the Tet Offensive. The journalist badgered the general, trying every rhetorical tactic to get him to admit American wrongdoing, incompetence, and moral failure. But the general — even in 1968, before political spin became standardized — was intractable, albeit in a fumbling, unconvincing way. Ignoring the specificities of the journalist’s questions, the general responded with sunny platitudes, insisting that “We are making progress,” “Fighting for the good of democracy,” and so forth. We’ve seen how incongruities between questions and answers become the stuff of low comedy, but May emphasizes that this disconnect predictably occurs in only one other area of human conduct: schizophrenia. Instead of responding to a question, the schizophrenic, broken off from reality, will delight in his own private language, oblivious to the logic of his fellow speakers. American political discourse could thus be called a kind of “rhetorical schizophrenia,” as the practice of spin mimics the language habits of psychotics ungrounded in reality.

Switching to its panel format, Real Time gravitated toward gun control and America’s latest fatal shooting, the on-camera murder of a Virginia news anchor and cameraman. The conservation went nowhere — or only to the usual, intertwined issues of mental health, failing healthcare, and an excess of available guns — because participants in gun debates always fall silent when constitutionality is raised. Yes, we are all inheritors of the horribly written, over-interpreted Second Amendment, but why do conservatives find guns so much more attractive than everyone else?

There is the blatant Freudian explanation, and the love of heroic firearms is consistent with the sentimentality at conservatism’s core. But I believe the real answer lies in materialism. The Founding Fathers were idealists, but they, too, needed to pin their idealism on something material, metallic, and lethal. Putting aside the imperiled physical home implied in the Third Amendment and the excessive bails and fines prohibited in the Eighth, only the Second directly names a physical object that is immediately comprehensible and that requires no strained reifications. (Some time ago, I wrote an essay, “Pseudo-Innocence and Encased Fantasies: Inside the Unconscious of the National Rifle Association” that expounded on this idea; ) It is thus no accident that sentimentalists and nostalgists should fixate on the Second Amendment above all the others, for it supplies a potent material totem around which intangible ideals can constellate. The cult of the gun is consistent, too, with conservative sexuality: just as religious fundamentalists need the gun’s materiality to destroy an unfit material world, they need the sinful flesh to make a heroic show of resisting fleshly temptations.

In any event, whenever shootings occur, conservatives pretend that their willful blindness to mass murder is the utmost form of patriotism. Against all logic, this has proven an effective strategy. But for them blindness is a luxury rather than a disease, while the logic of causality is just another left-wing conspiracy. Conservatives’ response to the unchecked shootings of African-American civilians reveals their blindness in another guise. Asked about the epidemic of racialized killings in the glum Republican presidential debate of August 6, Ben Carson toed the conservative line with the usual prescriptions: “We need to get past this”, “Let’s move on”, and so forth. On the issue of race — but never religion — historical forgetfulness becomes a virtue and holistic denial a philosophy. The conservative solution is intentional invisibility: without skin or pigmentation, we all become transparent and interchangeable. We should pretend that the hero of Ellison’s Invisible Man bears no bloody scars from the battle royale of his adolescence. At the same time, the rhetoric of denial is so embarrassingly false that its lies become nearly visible. This visibility is apparent in every awkward exchange, every avoidance of the matter at hand, every forced laugh, and every limp talk show appearance. The dialectic has been turned inside out — it is language that is now visible, and we who are absent.