Tuesday, March 17, 2020


We say in our cynical moments “All politics is theater.” This is true, but there is a positive side to that, if we define our terms well.  Many things are theater, in a loose sense.  For example, I was part of an online discussion years ago after George Bush had gotten off a plane looking crisply pressed after what should have been a multi-wrinkle flight. One commenter noted a brand of $3000 suits that were capable of doing just this, advising us that in high-level international business people were aware of this and noticed the cost of your suit, your shoes, shirt, tie, and all the rest.  He claimed that merely having the right clothes on was enough to make a sale.  I was one of the ones who objected to this, saying this would be a terrible method of making such decisions.  Not at all, he countered.  Shelling out that much money and paying close attention to detail signals that you will play by the rules.  Not necessarily the laws of any jurisdiction, but the unwritten rules of high-level commerce.  I complained that this placed talented newcomers at a disadvantage, but again, the man I was arguing with disagreed.  He and his associates had all learned early to divert not only money but observational skills and advice from others into appearance.  “You don’t put yourself in hock like that unless you plan to stick around.  You aren’t going to break other rules and throw your insider status away. It provides very accurate signaling.”  He told a few anecdotes about this and concluded “Business is theater.”

We might call it theater, but I think a closer word would be enactment. Enactment requires a greater level of commitment than just putting on a show.  If we want to test the sincerity of someone’s commitment to a set of values, we often require enactment.  Basic training in the military includes a lot of enactment of military values, including drill, following orders and cooperation, simulation of real situations.  Church worship and festivals are not supposed to just be spectator activities, but the participant is supposed to enact the Lord’s Table.  It is part of why the fellowship of the saints and attendance at worship are not incidental parts of worship. (Believe me, God is aware how difficult and annoying the people at your church are. That may be the point, that we enact here in this life what will be a reality in the next.)

Much of education is enactment.  Job training (both official and unofficial) includes much enactment. Courtship is enactment. The ceremonial aspects of town meeting – or scout meetings, Rotary, country club membership, sorority rush, or just about anything you can join will involve enactment.  When you go to court, the bailiff says “All Rise,” and the Judge must be addressed in specific ways.  Those who are accused who arrive well-dressed and well-groomed are signaling that they understand the rules and are willing to play by them henceforth.  They are enacting good citizenship. Are some of them lying and attempting to manipulate?  Of course. Yet what are we to say of those who will not even nod to the values of society as expressed in court rules, who wear their beer t-shirts to DUI hearings?  I have heard them when I have accompanied patients to court.  “I don’t care how big he thinks he is.  I’m not going to change who I am for anyone!”  Well, you said it then, didn’t you Sam?

Raising children is about little else.  We don’t want them to just hear our lessons about politeness, we want them to greet others with respect and say please and thank you. We have fewer gestures of politeness now and do not require them.  Boys used to bow and girls curtsey, we would hold doors for others. The custom of holding chairs for women at dinner has nearly vanished.  Fifty years ago at summer studies the boys were required to seat the girls at dinner, which was a combination of discomfort and humor even then, especially the first evening. If any girl was left standing, we all had to get up and start again. That rarely happened after the second day. I am sure the practice vanished soon after, but multiple values were being taught.  Respect for women was the most obvious – and women were already pointing out that this was double-edged – but there was also respect for tradition, respect for formality, calmness and intentionality in eating, engaging in acts in unison as a community. Enactment requires more skin in the game than mere words.  Sometimes the additional cost is small, sometimes the enactment comes close to the price of real demonstration.  Nor is it entirely a positive. Groups can require that you enact their pathologies as well, right from the start, to show that you won’t turn the whole lot of them in, or betray the profession.

Politicians eat ethnic food and shake hands as a way of enacting that they are Jes’ Folks, that they care what happens to you.  They dress well partly to show they have respect for you (or dress down in calculated ways to show the same). We don’t want to just hear them say things, we want to see them do them.  The events they attend, the gestures they make, the people they invite, all of these are small enactments.

1 comment:

Christopher B said...

This is definitely one of Trump's troubles. He knows some political rituals at the intersection with his previous experience as a businessman and showman but, for good or ill, he is tone-deaf to the purely political ones.