Magazine article Tikkun

Lost in Translation

Magazine article Tikkun

Lost in Translation

Article excerpt

Democracy begins to fail, and political life becomes impoverished, when society can no longer translate private problems into public, social issues. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening in the United States today. In a post-9/11 world, the space of shared responsibility has given way to the space of private fears; the social obligations of citizenship are reduced to the highly individualized imperatives of consumerism; and the language of public life is emptied of all substantive content and becomes a playground for endlessly enacting and reinforcing the banal privatized fantasies produced by shopping malls and celebrity culture.

As the public collapses into the personal, the personal becomes "the only politics there is," to quote anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff. Under such circumstances, the language of the social is either devalued or ignored. Public life is often reduced to a form of pathology. In contemporary political discourse, "public schools," "public transportation," and "public welfare" have become dirty words. All dreams of the future are now modeled around the narcissistic, privatized, and self-indulgent needs of consumer culture and the dictates of the alleged free market. Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a giant reality-TV show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations, and problems.

As the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly private discourse, it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how individual misery could be translated into public concern and collective action. Instead, individuals are told that the misery they feel is a personal flaw that they must bear in isolation. Poverty, for example, is now imagined to be a problem of individual character. Racism is merely individual discrimination or prejudice. Homelessness is reduced to a choice made by lazy people. Misfortune is viewed as a private disgrace that deserves only a sneer. At the level of social policy, public officials make lyrical pronouncements suggesting that a crisis such as water pollution can be solved by buying bottled water.

A democratic politics may take many forms, but central to it is the need for individuals, groups, and social movements to be able to translate individual problems into public concerns. Such a challenge must be central to any progressive politics of hope and meaning. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for seeing ourselves as citizens who govern as well as those who are governed. …

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