Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.
I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)
I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.
Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.
Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)
Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.
And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)
To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”
But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.
When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)
This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.
Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)
What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.
We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.
We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.” At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.
Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”
Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.
But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well. But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.
There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)
Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.
Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)