Loving the Skin We’re Almost In
POLITICS & CULTURE
Loving the Skin We’re Almost In: Casting out Cynicism in Favor of Change
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
In my last Bread and Circus article I wrote about the very real possibility that our current global culture is in a moulting phase, a new “Axial Age”. As unsavory as that image might be, the regenerative construct of a snake sloughing off its old skin is rife with mythic symbolism and rich metaphors. It represents a natural process of rebirth and growth of an epic, cyclical nature, one at odds with our increasingly literal-minded, sterile, industrial culture.
To my mind, such a stagnating lack of cultural imagination is currently playing itself out in very distasteful ways in our political process. Personally, watching the downward spiral of the tenor of the presidential debates recently I feel compelled to condemn the ludicrous negative attitude of establishment figures towards hope, change and renewal-–an entrenched stance found on both sides of the aisle. And I’m not alone. On Saturday morning (March 1, 2008)—a couple days after I wrote the first draft of this article in fact—the New York Times ran two op-eds that shared my dour assessment of the current presidential race. Both Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich decried the dirty pool and grasping tactics of Barack Obama’s main competitors in pieces that pulled no punches.
Belittling Obama’s popular momentum with derogatory phrases like David Brooks’ “the Pope of Hope” or Clinton’s mockery of “everyone getting along” is nothing more than petty calumny and reeks of sour grapes. Though populist candidates scoff at them, eloquence and inspiration are not in and of themselves hollow. I will concede that hollow rhetoric of course exists and is reprehensible. But, as history proves, charisma and imagination paired with wit and wisdom are admirable, and seminal to unifying leadership and communitas.
I believe that Obama’s detractors gain traction in the media because, in the Western tradition, we regularly perceive a false dichotomy between passion and intellect thanks to our ancient Greek cultural roots. Any sense of emotional display in Classical Antiquity was thought to negate the cool, calm and collected intellect. One false move in Greek society and you became no better than a “xeno,” lumped in with the pool of inferior cultural outsiders that included all non-Greeks (i.e. barbarians) and even the mythological figures of drunk and randy centaurs and satyrs.
I would argue that in the Oriental tradition, conversely, this separation was never supported. In the Chinese civil service exams that began under the Han Empire (206 BC-220 AD) in the first Axial Age, for example, students were tested in the highly diversified “Six Arts”: music, archery and horsemanship, arithmetic, writing (including poetry) and knowledge of public and private Confucian rituals and ceremonies. If a gentleman was to enter “la crème de la crème” of Han society, he would have to be a courtier not entirely unlike Baldassare Castiglione’s ideally balanced, or contrappostic figure, complete with an emotive, aesthetic and rhetorical sense. On the surface at least, in this way the Chinese notions of yin and yang might be likened to the West’s contrapposti, or balance of opposites. This discounts, however, the very big exception of the prevalent Western aversion to public flamboyance which limits a true expression of exuberance.
The West’s privileging of dry intellect further reminds me of a salient comment of Pope Benedict’s. In his now infamous Regensburg address the Pope said that faith without reason gives rise to fundamentalism. Reason without faith, meanwhile, produces an impotent secularism, unable to answer human questions of origin, destiny and meaning. As I’ve demonstrated in other articles, in principle I feel that this is sound judgment, one that forms a corollary to the debate at hand. For without a doubt we need both head and heart to make our way through the world—especially in the fractured, hurting world we’ve inherited. And, I must say, Obama’s opponents have not brought both head and heart to the table.
Admittedly, in some ways it is probably true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Plus ça change…n’est-ce pas? Without a doubt, human beings are deeply conventional creatures. After all, how many centuries did the ancient Egyptians wake up to the same outward markers of culture and political might? Or, the Catholic Church for that matter? That said, what makes us survivalist organisms is our adaptability, our protean ability to meet physical and cultural challenges with biological and intellectual creativity and aplomb. Humans are not an ageless presence, but a constantly evolving species with amazing potential.
If we are entering into a “new Axial Age” as some have suggested, change will sweep the globe with or without our consent—dramatic change which already seems afoot. It is likely that the members of our government bureaucracies will nonetheless continue to wage a war against the new wave of democratization and globalization in order to hold onto their perceived power. They’ll continue to embrace the devil they know rather than the one they don’t. Among friends and colleagues I’ve even heard arguments made that voting for the establishment candidate ensures that the boat won’t rock, that we’ll maintain course and find safe harbor. We’ll relive “the good ol’ days”. This is naive thinking at best, head burying at worst. We cannot afford to cater to fear of the future, to lockstep politics or to the post-modern form of antidisestablishmentarianism—maintaining the legacies of two ruling clans as a state-sanctioned religion. There is too much at stake.
Voters have already seen a foretaste of what a lack of inspired leadership looks like. We’ve seen alarmist television ads with middle-of-the-night attacks, xenophobic pictures of people in traditional Somali costume, or harping on a foreign middle name (which has the “insidious” meaning of “good looking”). Such tactics are cheap, and do not elevate or further the dialogue. They are means that scheming opportunists throughout history would recognize as low-down and dirty weapons (however effective).
Honestly, I had expected better. Now, I know better. As ancient Hercules at the crossroads of Virtue and Vice taught us, the high road may be steep and narrow, but the low road will inexorably lead to moral obliteration-a fate worse than death.
Sometimes change is thrust onto us, as when an unanticipated event occurs, or a seminal discovery made. Usually, however, the winds of change blow for many moons while some choose to sense them, and others to ignore, downplay or ridicule them. In any event, this change will arrive. We must, each of us, make the decision to embrace it and ride the wave, or to founder in our quotidian paralysis. I say, “carpe spes!”
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.
Image credits: [upper] United States Senate photograph of Barack Obama, public domain; [lower] Han dynasty image, public domain courtesy Wikipedia.