Like Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees, I ventured briefly into the role of anthropologist several years ago, listening most days for extended periods of time to a national radio show host to gather the necessary evidence needed to identify the patterns of his narratives. Unlike Goodall, I was fortunate that my ape, I mean subject, was on the radio and my listening never disturbed his natural habitat. In many ways, this amateur ethnography was anthropology gold.
Two moments from those observations stand as powerful evidence of the conservative narrative and cultural norms of the U.S. both reflected in and perpetuated by the daily monologues lifting Rust Limbo (a pseudonym to protect the innocent) to unprecedented market success.
Evidence One: Limbo punctuated many monologues with references to “Ann” Rand. Naturally, I must assume that he means Ayn Rand, reigning Queen of literary philosophy presenting the rugged individualism myth to an eager Communist-hating America.
Evidence Two: Limbo often quoted Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “since brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet, 2.2.1184). Limbo always effected what he seems to have meant as a scholarly tone with each citing.
From these patterns of discourse in Limbo’s monologues, we can draw a couple conclusions. First, the neoconservative anti-intellectualism in the U.S. often assumes a pseudo-intellectual pose. Limbo never graduated college, and from his misnaming Rand and misunderstanding Polonius’s character entirely (see below), the irony of pretending to be scholarly must not be ignored.
Second, and more importantly, Limbo’s misunderstanding and often citing Polonius highlights the power and persistence of the Polonius character both existing and thriving in America.
Act I: The Polonius Chronicles
Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia as well as counsellor to the King, is often quoted, and nearly as often, completely misunderstood. Polonius, as a foil to the scholarly and ethical Hamlet, is a self-serving blowhard, serving always himself by serving always the King in power.
When Polonius claims “since brevity is the soul of wit,” the audience recognizes that Polonius himself is the personification of long-winded and empty pontificating. When Polonius offers advice to his own son,
This above all — to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. (Hamlet, 1.3.564-6),
the audience witnesses a man who has created his entire existence around not being true to himself, but offering allegiances to any King as hollow as his language—just to maintain his own privileges.
The play and the character of Polonius, then, can be fairly read as an allegory relevant to the U.S. today, a narrative more accurate than Rand’s novels or philosophy, in fact.
Let’s not, however, misunderstand the players and their symbolic value. The shifting Kings in Hamlet’s world are not our competing political parties. The ever-shifting but never-changing King in the U.S. is Capitalism, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand.
And that King is served by the hollow words and allegiances of our political, media, and corporate leaders—each a Polonius.
Americans, like Limbo, misinterpret and echo the Polonius character over and over, as if uttering the words enough will render them true.
In the current education reform debate, the Polonius character is front and center, marching to familiar mantras: “Poverty is not destiny,” “no excuses,” and
“As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher.” (How to fix our schools)
The Polonius character in its many manifestations offers hollow slogans to maintain a status quo of inequity that lies beneath the masks of rugged individualism, meritocracy, and the Great Lies of Capitalism—choice and competition.
Act II: The Invisible Hand Puppet Theater
This began as an idea for a political cartoon. While I dedicated myself to becoming a comic book artist during my teens, I turned, as Hamlet would say, to “words, words, words” in college.
Thus, even though a picture is worth a thousand words, let me draw here in words that cartoon.
The title is “The Invisible Hand Puppet Theater.”
And the first panel has a starburst balloon announcing “Starring Arne Duncan as The Invisible Hand!” That panel has a drawing of a right hand with a white glove. I envision drawing that glove with dashed-line stitching around the outline of the glove to give the impression of “invisible,” and then for the arm extending out of the glove, labeling the puppeteer as “Bill Gates.” The word balloon from the Duncan hand shouts, “Race to the Top!”
There would be several panels, each starring a different Polonius—Michelle Rhee, for example. And the arms would be, of course, assorted Waltons, Broads, Kochs, and the like.
The billionaires, you see, are the great American puppeteers who keep the Invisible Hand always front and center.
The last panel, smaller and in the lower right-hand corner, is a raised left-handed fist in a black glove, in the fashion of the 1968 Olympic protest. The comment balloon from this fist responds, “Bull$#!+.”
While I believe this political cartoon could have power because of its genre/medium, I also respect the power of words, the ability to expose the truth behind the Invisible Hand.
The Invisible Hand is giving most of us the finger—the middle class, the working class, the working poor, and the poor. It is not the finger saying we are number one. No, this middle finger of the Invisible Hand is the gesture of the 1%.
They are number one, and the Invisible Hand is both their King and their Wizard.
Act III: The King Imperative
Martin Luther King, Jr., made a powerful and ignored argument about poverty in 1967:
“As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor….In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else….We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
Many years before King’s rise to assuming the mantle of America’s conscience (the antithesis of the Polonius character), James Baldwin identified the myopic idealism destroying the potential of American democracy and equity:
“The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.” James Baldwin, “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” (1948)
And then a handful of years after King called for confronting American poverty and inequity directly—not through our faith in the magical thinking of the Invisible Hand—Baldwin confronted the faces of inequity plaguing the veracity of the American Myths of equity, meritocracy, equality, and justice:
“The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men….It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many….” James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street” (1972)
The choice before Americans, most of whom are workers and not the elite coasting on the jet-stream of their privilege, is between the hollow cliches of the Polonius character and the action necessary in following the King Imperative, the call to address poverty and inequity directly.
And it is ours, the 99% saluted rudely by the Invisible Hand, to take the reigns of direct action because, as Baldwin explained:
“There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it.” James Baldwin, “A Review of Roots” (1976)
This is something no Polonius will say: Capitalism, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand—none of this will ever address inequity and poverty.
The Market responds to capital, and the impoverished have no capital.
The Market would only seek equity if we somehow monetized equity. The ugly truth is that poverty and the threat of poverty generate capital for the privileged. It benefits Capitalism for poverty to thrive, not to be erased.
The indirect and magical thinking of the Invisible Hand has has decades upon decades to cast its healing spell, but instead because of its spell of delusion, we ignore today a staggering level of childhood poverty, economic inequity, and stagnant class status that contradicts the Polonius claim of American exceptionalism, unless we consider it exceptional to believe in the wizardry of the Invisible Hand to address magically those children in poverty, those families slipping further and further behind the protected 1%, and the dream to reach beyond the success of ones parents turned into a nightmare of debt and servitude.