Political Kabuki

I've always been a big fan of Japanese culture. In high school, I was a fan of Japanese animation, descending into a sort of sub-subculture among nerds at my school for the 3 or 4 of us who, instead of getting stoned, just watched Akira. By college, I'd become a little more refined in my taste, learning the language and the finer Japanese arts. My former long-time roommate was a Japanese citizen and introduced me to the truly refined elements of Japanese cuisine, namely candy that looks like hamburgers, plum wine, and Wild Turkey (wildly popular in Japan, don't ask). With this in mind, you can imagine how excited I am to find that Japanese culture has come to dominate our current political discourse! No, this has nothing to do with the Toyota recall. It has to do with the fact that every major legislative struggle has become Kabuki theater.

One of the most important features of Kabuki is what's called the “mie.” This is when the main character arrives on stage and takes a dramatic, powerful pose to establish his character (only men do Kabuki). This might consist of a strong pose along with a loud shout from the audience of the character's name, or it might just consist of a town hall meeting with shouts from the audience of, say, “yes we can.” Some plays last a full day, but it seems they can last for months on end as well if recent events are any sign. The lines are written and memorized, the actors sing and dance the same songs they've done a thousand times before, and makeup representing anger or jealousy or maybe conviction for working people substitute for genuine expressions of emotion at times. The middle acts move from long, drawn-out back-and-forth dramatics to a deadly battle by the end, only to end with a very short whimper of a conclusion meant to satisfy.

It's getting painful to bother watching this American Kabuki. In town halls and “health care summits” and never-ending drama on the floors of congress, we watch the back-and-forth drama between the right and its small government makeup, and the Democrats with their makeup of deep concern for the plight of working people. It keeps going, the same play playing live on stage each day for longer than most Broadway musicals. Some people genuinely care, but we can't help but think that this holding out for a public option, or even more foolishly, single payer, to come out of these negotiations is just the continual caking of makeup over the truth of failure and the inevitable disappointment. Yet we press on towards further battles and what some hope is the eventual climax and ending of victory. Some people keep getting drawn back in by the compelling villains, staying not so much to watch the hero win, but to jeer at the Palin-monster and cheer the valiant mega-burns from hapless pundits in populist makeup. It's a fun escape, but it does nothing to change the script.

Labor leaders have engaged in the same play with regards to legislative efforts to better labor's lot as well. Just look at Rick Trumka's appearance on Bill Moyers' show as discussed in Robert Fitch's recent article. Trumka certainly thinks that his makeup of labor resurgence is enough to keep people in the theater. Labor is seated on the edge of its seat, hoping the ending will be different this time. But some of us, aware of the dramatic irony, know the ending before the characters on stage do.

We've watched this play over and over and haven't forgotten the ending or convinced ourselves that some cosmic imbalance will magically alter time and space and the script. For any thing to change, the script needs to be rewritten, the makeup changed, the “mie” passed to a new character, or to a new ensemble. The people need to start by just leaving the theater now. Until then, negotiations over health care, labor issues, and more in Congress will continue to be a well-meaning form of Kabuki, concealing the real pain of the American people and the failure of politics under layers of expressive makeup, heroic poses, and stale audience cheers.

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