“It was . . . Soap Poisoning!”

Abstract logic is the weapon of choice of most teenagers. Certainly this tool can intoxicate, but . . . it can often be fool’s gold.

For example, a parent tells their teenage driver to be home from a night out with friends at no later than 10:30. The teen arrives home at 10:50 and shrugs, “It’s not that big of a deal.” The teen will often attempt to atomize the parental rebuke with logic: “It’s just 20 minutes. if I was 20 minutes late coming home from work you wouldn’t care, or 20 minutes late coming home from school, you wouldn’t care. So to get angry about this particular 20 minutes only shows utter arbitrariness in your distinctions. It is your power, and your power alone to define what constitutes a meaningful 20 minutes is why I am in trouble, and no other reason.”

Ah yes, nothing burns so fiercely in the teenage soul as the apparent arbitrary nature of various parental decisions and distinctions. The teenager may suffer consequences, but they will suffer them rejoicing in their moral superiority. They see, they know the Injustice, and dream that perhaps one day, one day, parents will be struck by a terrible self-knowledge . . .

Reading Murray Edelman’s Constructing the Political Spectacle left me feeling that I was listening to a 16 year-old who thinks he has discovered the secret truth of the universe that somehow everyone over 30 for the last several millennia has missed.

Edelman’s bases his book on the idea that our politics do not reflect an objective reality that we recognize, but a constructed reality made by those in power. Often, politicians will do things to perpetuate their power artificially by creating enemies or crises. We create such things via the terms we use, or the definitions we create. Very skillful politicians construct reality with tone or posture. It seems to me that Edelman believes we are puppets on the strings of language, a fairly standard postmodern perspective.

As an example of his perspective, Edelman discusses the idea of a political crisis through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We called the Russians placing missiles in Cuba a “crisis,” one that nearly triggered war. But we had missiles just as close to Russia as they did to us–many more of them, in fact. Another narrative of seeing the Russians striving for greater global security through strategic parity emerges. Which narrative we pick will depend on which definition we use, and the definitions those in power chose elevated the government’s status. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” was a crisis only because we defined it so–we could have easily chosen other language to create a different reality.

Certainly we have to get below the surface narrative that favors our side, but the equivalency Edelman attempts make sense only in a pure abstraction. In the real world we know that placing missiles under a cloak of deceit (which the Russians did in Cuba) means that we have to see beyond merely where missiles are located and how many each side has. In the same way, we know that when a teenager comes home 20 minutes late from school, and another time comes home 20 minutes late from being out with his friends at night, the difference between these two 20 minutes is hardly arbitrary.

Other problems exist with the book . . .

  • He discusses how political leaders have power in part because of their visibility. They can control the symbols by which they are viewed, which in turn makes them seem more than just figments. But every leader since the dawn of time has been invested with some kind of symbolic/semi-sacred (in some cases fully sacred) authority. Has every civilization simply not had the advantage of getting to Derrida’s philosophy? It seems much more reasonable to assume that these symbolic forms mean something real, and are not just pure manipulations.
  • He discusses how political leaders might create enemies to boost their power, i.e. Wag the Dog. Sure, it can happen sometimes, but some enemies are real. ISIS is not a semantic construction. How would Edelman propose we tell the difference between real and fake enemies?
  • He criticizes the use of semantic and symbolic constructions to achieve collective action. Yes, this can be bad sometimes, but he never reminds us that it can also be done for good ends. I had the suspicion that collective action itself was presumed guilty, but surely we cannot exist apart from some occasional collective action.

As I read my frustration with Edelman grew, and not so much even because I am conservative and every example he used in the book made conservatives (or those with power, such as generals) the bad people for how they used symbols and defined the terms. After all, people can write books that critique conservatives, and I can learn from them. No–my frustration stemmed from the assumptions his arguments made about those on the left, and even himself. Edelman’s thesis leaves us with the following choices:

  • Only bad conservatives know how to wield symbols and construct the political spectacle in their favor, which makes those on the left either blind sheep or slaphappy stupid.
  • Those on the left can construct political realities but not get others to follow very often, which seems to cede much of the high ground to conservatives–maybe their policies really do represent the majority of citizens?– or assume that the great mass of people are dumb and easily manipulated, but only by conservatives (the left must lack the talent?)
  • Every unified political action is nothing more than symbol and word manipulation, which means that those on the right and left are “bad” when they try and do this.
  • Not to mention, Edelman himself becomes “bad” for trying to impose his narrative of definitions and language on me, the innocent reader. “Don’t impose your ‘there is no Narrative’ narrative on me, man. I just want to live and let live.

I have been quite critical of Edelman, but he, like other postmoderns, latches onto an important truth. The teenager has to arrive at a point where they realize that their parents are not gods and that the world they live in–constructed largely by their parents–has many arbitrary elements in them. Applying these insights into society and politics has its place. The Enlightenment modern project needed taken down a notch or two. But the teen can’t stay in a constant critique. He needs to build something, but Edelman gives us no tools for the task.

Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute has a helpful breakdown of different kinds of education. First, there is the Pragmatic education, then the Traditional, then the Wisdom education. Each type, Kern reminds us, is based on faith in something.

  • A Pragmatic education bases itself on the belief that all that is worthy is what can be seen, measured, and useful for his brute survival–food, water, shelter.
  • A Traditional education respects the past and knows that things exist beyond what he can see or measure–his society, or heritage, for one. He believes in the value of this inheritance, and receives the proper training to honor that tradition and to sacrifice for it.
  • A Wisdom education tries to do more, to stand outside the Tradition and ask questions of it. It tries to get at the roots of a society. It can lead one to see faults within the Tradition and hopefully correct it when needed. If the Traditionalist has faith in an unseen inheritance, it is still an earthly oriented inheritance. A Wisdom education believes in something transcendent above all traditions. 

One might think that Edelman gives us wisdom, because of his ability to see through traditions. I disagree. First, true education has to lead us somewhere, and Edelman merely deconstructs. Second, a wisdom education has to involve love, has to involve a giving of oneself to something higher. No societal critique works without roots in love of the Tradition.* I sense nothing of this in Edelman. He gives us logic-chopping straight from the freezer.

But even a “Wisdom” education rooted in love of the Tradition would not fully complete our education. Kern reminds us that there remains a fourth and final stage of education, one that even many Christians miss, just as the Corinthian church in St. Paul’s day missed it. The proof of their failure was their disunity. They used all of their wisdom to fight with each another. Indeed, being able to evaluate a tradition doesn’t mean that we will agree on what is right or wrong about the tradition. Perhaps one might arguably see some of this division of mind present even in Solomon, the wisest of the wise, and the presumed author of the somewhat confusing book of Ecclesiastes.

The final stage of education, then involves something beyond critique, and into the realm of Play, into the great dance of the Triune God, where unity and diversity cohere in the foundation of Being itself, where we are fully united one with another but are never more our own unique selves simultaneously.

Herein lies the Secret of the Gospel, and the answer to Edelman.


*If we could summarize the basic problems with the political Left and Right, it would be

  • The Right wants to uphold the Tradition with little to no critique of it.
  • The Left simply critiques the Tradition without any love for it (or, if they praise America, they praise it almost exclusively for being able to correct its mistakes–a perpetual motion machine of self doubt, and sometimes, self loathing).

Both sides have something to offer, and both sides often see with one eye closed. As I mentioned elsewhere, the first half of the 20th century shows us the horror that unquestioning love of a Tradition can bring. Since then we see the spiritual and moral vacuum of deconstruction with no place to stand with no map available.


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