“Well I am moved. I want a kinder, and gentler nation.”
— George HW Bush, Republican National Convention Acceptance Speech, 1988
“Got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man.
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand”
— Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World”, 1989
“Ideology is, strictly speaking, only a system which makes a claim to the truth… which is not simply a lie, but a lie experienced as truth, a lie which pretends to be taken seriously.”
– Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989
If the first quotation above has been absorbed into political discourse as an ironical commonplace it is in part because the desire expressed in the statement itself was immediately shown to be false.
George Bush I– now derided on the red blooded Right as too patrician, a kind of ersatz conservative who ruthlessly edged out televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican primaries, clawing his way to the nomination only to prove an Eisenhower-style moderate– invoked kindness even as he perpetuated a cynical-realist foreign policy which most notably led to the first US invasion of Iraq.
After 8 years of Ronald Reagan– a figure whose own postmortem political fortunes have since risen to such a degree that he now occupies a position among conservatives analogous to the one held by Dr. King in the eyes of elementary school children– Bush I seemed to be simply a richer, grayer embodiment of the New Right’s campaign to “take back America”, a project which would mean, soon-to-be-convicted-felon John Mitchell crowed on the eve of Richard Nixon’s re-election, that “this country is going so far to the right you won’t even recognize it.”
The contradiction, then, between Bush I’s call for kindness and the violence of his administration’s policies was easy enough to establish. The violence of capitalism– deforming the lives of the unemployed, the homeless, those deemed redundant by the market– and the violence of what another Republican president called the military-industrial complex precluded the possibility that the nation could be kind or gentle. Neil Young had only to underscore this disconnect with an image, a “machine gun hand”, to perforate Bush I’s election year rhetoric.
Such an operation, demonstrating the gap between expression and reality, is a fundamental practice of ideology criticism– one we encounter daily in casual cynicism and the pervasive irony that characterizes contemporary culture– a procedure encapsulated by the phrase “the emperor has no clothes.” And while we ought to acknowledge the value of calling out the implicit hypocrisy of the powerful– an act which can be as fleeting and automatic as a satirical eye-roll while watching commercials– we should not feel content in having drawn attention to the irreconcilability of words and deeds. Ideology, after all, is not simply a content, a misleading appearance which conceals the truth. It is altogether more complex than either a bundle of consciously adopted beliefs or crude “false-consciousness”. The latter version of ideology is in truth a form of evasion, an emergency exit from political problems, as with the standard interpretation so often advanced by observers of American life who– when pressed to explain the apparent persistence of the Tea Party Movement (admittedly a confection of grass-roots rage, media obsession and regular “astroturf” cash infusions)– observe that whether or not it is merely a kind of reflex or a genuine political tendency Tea Partiers themselves actively aid in their own disenfranchisement. They’re too stupid, you see, the false-consciousness thesis implies, to understand that they support policies and political figures who ultimately work against ordinary people’s best interests.
In his first work in English Slavoj Zizek examines ideology as something more than the act of masking reality. To establish the necessity of a theory of ideology which goes beyond, as Marx wrote in Capital, the formulation “they do not know it, but they are doing it” Zizek proposes that at present almost everyone is already aware of “how things are” but persist in behaving as if they do not. Marx’s formula, then, must be revised: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it as if they did not know.” The key here for Zizek is to question on where exactly ideological illusion lies– in knowing or doing? By way of example he discusses money. People understand that money is purely symbolic– cash, of course, is nothing but strips of paper covered in ink– but they use it and invest it with meaning anyway. In this case the illusion lies not in knowing but in doing: we realize currency has no “reality” but even so we act “as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth as such.”
“The illusion,” he continues, “is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called ideological fantasy…. The fundamental level of ideology… is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social realty itself…. Cynical distance is just one way… to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic distance, we are still doing them.”