Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ascetic Aesthetics

As I gazed upon Bernie Sanders’ rumpled visage at Roy Wilkins Auditorium, I was struck by something: his utter average-ness. He didn’t look like he’d been chosen by God to lead us to the Promised Land. There was no heavenly corona surrounding a beatific head, no transcendent beauty to mark him as one of God’s elect, no soaring oratory that would lead one to believe he was channeling a higher power. At best, he looked like he might have “bingo.”

He’s no JFK or Reagan or Obama, i.e., a slick, handsome marionette to distract us while the Establishment foists its agenda upon us. He just seemed like a regular guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Apparently, Fate has chosen this Average Joe to take his turn across the stage of History. (Not Fate, really, just kitchen-sink dramas, the frustrations of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie.)

Bernie is an apt representative of the ascetic aesthetics of the Left. If you’ve ever attended a Leftist demonstration, you know what I’m talking about: the repetitive chants, the draining anger or sadness, the thrift-store decorations. It’s as if your loyalty to the cause is being tested instead of reinforced. Are you committed enough to stick around through all this anti-entertainment?

Noam Chomsky openly rejects any attempt to polish his coma-inducing delivery. He has said that he doesn’t want to convince people with rhetoric and theatrics, only the facts. We’re not supposed to be swayed by flashy gimmicks; the truth of the message should shine through.

I’ve often (inwardly) bemoaned this resistance to refinement. But it may have finally come into vogue. We may be witnessing the triumph of substance over style. Of course, this victory is limited in scope and likely to be brief, but we shouldn’t let that discourage us. En masse, people seem to be turning away from the slick, polished mainstream candidates and turning toward the straight-shootin’, rough-around-the-edges “outsiders.”

Bernie’s average-looking-ness defies the strictly stage-managed, unattainably attractive world of television. He sticks out like a sore thumb amidst all that spray-tanned, muscle-toned, teeth-bleached sound stage fauna. His unkempt, white hair and inability to transport his audience via transcendent public speaking skills (a la Obama) brand him a “radical” as much as his platform (which most Americans support, actually). 

In fact, he puts in stark relief TV’s growing obsession with physical beauty. Maybe I’m just getting older and more insecure about my looks and socioeconomic status, but the people on TV news seem to be getting prettier and prettier. Apparently, among women, only those who look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Maxim can grasp the complexities of meteorology. (Luckily for us men, the physical/intellectual requirements aren’t as demanding.)

This may have something to do with the expanding gulf between reality and the version TV presents. As the medium becomes more vapid and detached from the everyday experience of the masses, the fa├žade becomes flashier to keep people glued to their sets in lieu of relevant information. Increasingly, the talking heads’ appearance reflects the content of their shows: vacuous, artificial, deceptive.

Of course, one could argue that TV has always been shallow and populated with gorgeously shallow people. Why have we chosen now to become disenchanted with these “pretty little liars?” I believe it’s because the number of formerly middle-class Americans in dire economic straits has reached critical mass. The flickering cube is no longer enough to distract us from our worsening plight. 

Perhaps the aspirational period of American politics has ended, and we’re entering a more grim, sober and, frankly, resentful period. We’re no longer dreaming of “movin’ on up” to the penthouse; we’re just hoping not to slide into the gutter. If so, I welcome the embrace of substance over style. But I worry about how ugly things could get.