Tom’s been talking a bit about the flap over falp over Rush Limbaugh as head of the Republican party. As a liberal Dem, I’ve been following the story too, with mingled joy (hey, look, the Republican party is eating itself!) and horror (well, ugh…shouldn’t that be done behind closed doors?) (If you want to participate in the repulsion/attraction, try listening to this exchange between AM conservative personality Mark Levin and broad-party conservative advocate David Frum.)
Anyway, one of the things that is interesting to me about the kerfuffle is the extent to which it centers around aesthetics. This is more or less unacknowledged; supposedly, the fight is all about politics. But Limbaugh isn’t a politician; he’s an entertainer, which is to say, an artist (of some sort, and with no qualitative assessment implied.) People listen to his show for the same reason they watch “Lost” or read a comic-book; they’re passing leisure time.
That’s not to diminish Limbaugh’s influence; on the contrary, as you’ll discover if you sneer at Art Spiegelman in public, people take their aesthetic choices very, very seriously. What you like, listen to, watch, read, is central to how you perceive and define yourself — often moreso than what you do for a living (this causes Marxists endless frustration.) Limbaugh’s fans are fans, and they react to attacks on him much the way that other fans react to attacks on their aesthetic taste — that is, they take it personally, and they get really angry.
But if that’s the case for Limbaugh, isn’t is also the case for all politics? How is the identification as “Democrat” different from the identification as “comics geek” or “Buffy fan” or whatever? The answer is, I don’t think it is all that different. Politics and aesthetics are really closely linked, not because given pieces of art have particular political stances, but because politics is itself a branch of aesthetics. Politics is basically a leisure activity which people follow like they follow a favorite TV show or piece of serial fiction. And like aesthetics, politics works through communication and symbols; it’s about manipulating perceptions, creating narratives, or poetry, or emotional reactions. And it has its own genre rules and measures of success. The big problem with Limbaugh, form the perspective of the Republican party, is that, while he’s an extremely good radio show host, he’s a lousy politician. The same skills that serve him well in the one arena (vituperation, for example) don’t work at all in the other. It’s like watching an academic poet try to write a popular TV show without changing his style.
One criticism often leveled at critics is that they’re essentially talking about nothing; or nothing that matters, anyway. Why bother saying that Watchmen the movie is bad? You like it or you don’t like it — why spoil it for other people? For me, anyway,the “why” is at least partly that aesthetics are actually important. They’re part of the way the culture runs itself. Political loyalties and cultural loyalties are aesthetic loyalties, which is part of what makes talking about aesthetic interesting.
So this post is all about strident self-justification, basically. I like to think Rush would appreciate that.