Wednesday, January 18, 2017

David Brooks on Our Current Lord of Misrule

David Brooks in "The Lords of Misrule" (NYT 17 Jan 2017) has written a column that prompts the need for reflection. In his column, Brooks begins with the ecstatic dance of David before the Ark of the Covenant and reflections about the juxtaposition of Dionysus and Jesus as occasions for ecstasy and release. He then moves to the perhaps more familiar practice of a carnival in the Middle Ages. 

Brooks doesn't fool around

Brooks describes the medieval practice of a carnival as a time for the lord of misrule, an apt phrase. Brooks also refers to the practice as "the feast of fools." It is a time when social hierarchy and decorum are set aside; the fool becomes king, men and women cross-dress, the beggar acts as a rich man, and sex is promiscuous. It is, as Brooks says, a "time to blow off steam." 

Where is Brooks going with this listen in cultural history? "We’re living with exactly the kinds of injustices that lead to carnival culture, and we’ve crowned a fool king." Harsh, but true. He continues: 

His tweets are classic fool behavior. They are raw, ridiculous and frequently self-destructive. He takes on an icon of the official culture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the message of the tweet. It’s to symbolically upend hierarchy, to be oppositional.
Brooks continues, 
Anybody who writes for a living knows how to manipulate an outraged response, and Trump is a fool puppet master.
The sad part is that so many people treat Trump’s tweets as if they are arguments when in fact they are carnivalWith their conniption fits, Trump’s responders feed into the dynamic he needs. They contribute to carnival culture.
The first problem with today’s carnival culture is that there’s an ocean of sadism lurking just below the surface. The second is that it’s not real. It doesn’t really address the inequalities that give rise to it. It’s just combative display. 
Brooks goes on to say that he will no longer attempt to pay attention to what the "puppet master" tweets. (Trump's favorite mode of communication because it fits his 4th-grade vocabulary and verbal bluster.) Brooks, instead, will attemptonly to track what Trump does. 

Good luck. 

But for some reflection: 

1. By resolving to cover only what Trump does and not what he says, Brooks is playing into Trump's destruction of politics. Politics is speech; speech is the essence of politics. (Hannah Arendt). When speech is degraded by actors such as Trump, politics is degraded. (See my recent reflections on Orwell's "Politics & the English Language".) So how does someone like Brooks--or any of us--deal with a political leader who demeans speech? Do we concede that his words mean nothing (the Kellyanne Conway argument)? Understand that the opposite of politics and speech is force, the mode of tyranny. When speech can not longer resolve disputes and make plans, we resort to force. Some, of course, prefer this--usually the folks who have a monopoly or near monopoly on the means of violance.  

2. How did the lord of misrule come to power? Were enough voters foolish enough to elect a fool who is really a puppet master?  But is this fool sharp enough to continue the "puppet master" role? We have to think seriously about the dynamics of this phenomenon (which I intend to do in future posts). 

3. What will it mean in real time to be led (if we are led) by a lord of misrule, a fool? Does that mean the the fool-king's courtiers and ministers--his collection of billionaire businessmen and women and political hacks--will rule in his (mental) absence (along with the fools in Congress)? Because Trump has few, if any, core political beliefs or any firm agenda other than massaging his ego and fattening his bank account, we can anticipate that power will flow to his courtiers and ministers. We will see more of the politics and pageantry of a royal entourage than we've ever beheld in American history

4. Sometimes fools reveal a hidden wisdom, for instance, Shakespeare's fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night, Puck and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer's Night Dream, and poor Jack Falstaff, to name but a few of the better known of Shakespeare's fool characters. So is there some hidden wisdom in Donald Trump? Some supported him in the belief that he would so upset the existing order that it would beget a great change that would bring the change that people crave even as they cannot articulate it. In other words, "Bring on the Revolution!" or "Apocolypse Now!" As a Burkean convservative (in some respects), I shudder at this prospect. The fool is too likely to become a tyrant once he can no longer entertain and distract us with his Twitter jests. The fool gains his crown by entertaining and flattering the crowd, and when the crowd begins to sour on his act, they will become more demanding. The act will have to change. Will the fool voluntarily adbicate his power? This fool--narcissist that he is--seems incapable of such a gesture of self-abnegation. Instead, we can expect to experience a doubling down of his antics and more brute assertions of his power and authority. 

So in the end, who are the fools? 

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