As a measure of how much things have changed - not just at the AJC, but in the culture - consider the object in the foreground of the magazine's cover photo. It was an abalone shell lamp featuring the crucified Christ flanked by a plastic palm tree and a towering flamingo. As I wrote in the Sunday magazine article, the lamp reduced Christianity's pivotal tragedy to an accident in the Everglades.
In a time when people take seriously a movie like Mel Gibson's Christian S&M fantasy The Passion of the Christ, it's hard to imagine any contemporary magazine poking fun at a religious image. If the image of my abalone shell lamp were published now, it would be without irony.
Hal Foster, a Princeton professor, takes up the subject of "kitsch in George Bush's America" in an essay in the July 7 London Review of Books. It's a good lesson in the way kitschy images, which depend on an excess of sentimentality, emerge to keep us from seeing the true pain of existence. They stand in for the truth.
The most conspicuous example is imagery of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Almost as soon as the marketers could get to their desks after 9/11, we were flooded with kitsch. I most remember the twin-pack of liter bottles of soda topped with a fireman's helmet. Television commercials of all types evoked 9/11, suggesting that true patriots should buy their products. Meanwhile, television news anchors sported memorial lapel pins of the American flag, while they decided not to "traumatize" Americans with images of people leaping from the towers to their deaths. The entire event, as Foster argues, turned into "a new story of Christian sacrifice and revenge," emblematized through kitsch but not explicitly represented.
Similarly, while the administration forbids photographing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq and refuses to keep count of the many thousands of Iraqis killed in our "liberation" of that country, we are encouraged to "support our troops" by plastering yellow-ribbon stickers on our cars.
Such a symbol obviously keeps the gore out of view. But it also links to the Bushies' continual claim that opposing the Iraq invasion and occupation is wishing death on the troops. So the symbol, whose alleged connection to the Civil War is a fabrication, actually ends up supporting administration policy.
The phony historical connection reiterates the right's superficiality. Another example Foster cites is the brouhaha over displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses around the country. The right represents these as historical monuments to the Founding Fathers' Christianity. So important are they that the Supreme Court will be deliberating their fate later this summer.
But far from being historical monuments, they are pure kitsch only dating back to 1956. At that time, Cecil B. DeMille paid to install several hundred images of the decalogue in public spaces to promote his film The Ten Commandments. Their presence had nothing to do with a constitutional authorization of the blending of church and state.
Of course, they have come to represent that contemporary, fundamentalist notion - instead of the Hollywood kitsch they originally were. As Foster notes, when you combine such a strong symbol of convergence of church and state with the huge deficit, you see the workings of Bush's agenda. The deficit becomes a reason to eliminate social support programs, which in turn drives people toward the church, which Bush directly advocates through his "faith-based initiatives."
One of the things most noticeable about kitsch is its self-congratulatory aspect. To the kitsch artist and admirer with no sense of irony, it's not enough to represent something. The image must also be self-complimentary, smug. It assumes what it represents is true and so sentimentally compelling that there is nothing to debate. The flamingo overlooking the crucifixion and the Hollywood advertisement on the courthouse wall assume in their banality that Christianity is true, that it rightly pervades everything, including the state, and that it should not be subject to debate and aren't we blessed to know this?That attitude summarizes the Bush administration in nearly every respect. Time and again, the president has substituted sentimentality and falsehood for reality. The imperial debacle in Iraq is passed off as the spreading of democracy. Its undepicted carnage (far exceeding Saddam Hussein's) is described as a sacrifice - like Christ's - that people are willing to make for freedom. At Bush's talks, where people sign a loyalty oath, you can see the wet eyes and smug pain of those who conflate the violence of sacrifice with the violence of revenge against the infidels.
The inherent problem with kitsch, of course, is that its dishonesty and shallowness sow its own destruction. Eventually, people are confronted with reality. Do I really value a sentimental, kitschy notion of stem cells as human wannabes more than I value their capacity to heal my sick child? In nearly every way, opinion is turning against George Bush's world of cowboy kitsch. But we will be living with the costs for many years.
firstname.lastname@example.orgCliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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