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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Kabuki

Shortly after I moved to Washington, DC in 80's to start a new company, I was invited to the home of a senior executive with deep political ties. I knew no one, other than my host and our acquaintance was quite brief to say the least. I do not flatter myself that my presence was of any consequence but being new to the city and as yet unknown I suppose I had novelty going for me. Wandering around the oversize grounds of his urban estate small groups of people mingled, engaged in conversation, drank copious amounts of alcoholic beverages and held forth on matters grave and slight.


Over time I learned that this was typical sort of gathering for a certain group of influential people in Washington and those who pretended to be. But new to the city and naïve to its ways I drifted from one conversation to another, until my host introduced me to a man whose name I was supposed to recognize but did not. I can say that this gentleman was quite taken with himself. He appeared to know everyone or knew of them, and he proceeded to waltz me around the gathering whispering names and vitae. There were the usual collection, members of Congress, staffers at various agencies, lobbyists, lawyers and self-important people, the kind one meets at such gatherings.


It did not take long for me to begin looking for a polite way to excuse myself, I'm not much for small talk in the best of circumstances. Before I could make my way to the exit my talkative acquaintance pointed to a fairly nondescript individual standing in the center of a circle of attentive men and women. My narrator supplied the name, a man who had briefly been a presidential advisor in a prior administration. Having dazzled me with this knowledge, my guide began to deliver a short epistle on the workings of the world--or to precise the world as seen inside the beltway. It’s not that I was so jaded as to dismiss this information but it wasn't the secrets of the universe he was unlocking. And then, out of nowhere he delivered a line that was so over dramatic it almost seemed caricature. “Once you’ve been here a while you’ll understand it’s all Kabuki,” he whispered in what I can only describe as conspiratorial tones.


Nearly 40 years later, the truth of that insight is fully apparent. Art and politics have a great deal in common, even more so today. The posturing and pretension of deep conviction are the Kabuki masks players use to display emotions; the play itself, well that is just a show put on to distract the audience, us, from the lack of any meaningful outcome. You don't have to journey far to see Kabuki today, it is presented nightly on our Television and computer screens in the form of political commentary. The plays and the players are not limited to a single party but have in common a flair for the dramatic the display of shock, outrage, and the scandalous revelation. They vie with one another to present a pandering stream of babble tailored to ignite a tweet storm and maintain their ratings with utter disregard for facts, journalistic standards or consequences. I had the privilege, if one can call it that, of meeting a few of these pundits before they were household names. Earlier in their incarnations they were merely opportunists. Today they are opportunists with a large following.


To be fair, it is a matter of record that these self-styled savants are, to be polite, entertainers. They have no credentials, no formal education in political science, have never held office, or for that matter done anything of consequence beyond stirring the political pot for personal gain. They are performers wearing costumes of omniscience. On those rare occasions when the spectre of accountability rears its head they will readily admit they are not presenting news but opinion, dressed up, masks and all, to look and sound like legitimate reporting. Their performances are manufactured for the moment, never dwelling on an issue longer than the current news cycle. Stories trend like distant journeys in Japanese theater, the actors stand still while the backdrop diminishes from sight.


The theatrics are so clumsy and apparent it seems hard to believe they are so successful, and yet there is an audience waiting with bated breath to take in the nightly carnage, to share in the mock moral outrage at the supposed villainy exposed by these performers. Theirs is an audience titillated by conspiratorial wet dreams and conjured train wrecks; theater for the masses. In a world in which celebrity, and preferably scandalous celebrity are all the credentials one needs for public office, this is what passes for political discourse.


Eventually, the current crop of opinionators will begin believing their own press. They will fall by the sword of hubris, victims of their self-esteem, misjudging public sentiment or caught in flagrante in some petty morality play. But we need not worry, there is a cast waiting in the wings to replace them and an audience all too willing to believe they are peddling the truth. Bertold Brecht foretold it: “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in real political life. He does not know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicine, all depend on political decision. He prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He does not know that from his actions comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and worst of all the corrupt officials, ...........” It's all Kabuki to me.

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