April 15, 2010

Putting the Kibosh on Kabuki

Jon Lackman says it's time for pundits to stop using the word Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing":
Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally Kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.
As one who has used the word Kabuki in this way, I must say Lackman completely misses the point of what people mean by it in political contexts. It doesn't really have anything to do with Japan per se, but more to do with American distaste for artifice, whether employed for the purposes of art or the purposes of politics. Our national culture is strongly shaped by the legacy of the plainspoken Protestants who settled here -- Puritans, Quakers, and the like -- as well as our origins as a republic, when we dispensed with the artifice of monarchy and tried to develop a government more in line with natural law. As a result, we reward politicians who sound like they're being straight with us and saying what they mean, which is often the opposite of what we usually get in, for example, Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Of course, being plainspoken can be an artifice in itself -- our history is rife with men and woman of privilege, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, who passed themselves off as just folks. And then there's Sarah Palin, who has made ignorance about public policy into a badge of honor. Meanwhile, politicians who can't pull it off -- think George H.W. Bush at the supermarket or John Kerry windsurfing -- get hammered as elitist or out of touch.

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