African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language, as I explained at length in my videotaped lectures on Ideological Critique, a sophistication manifested in many ways – in oral traditions, in literary works, even in music. One of the best known and most delightful examples of this linguistic skill and complexity is a verbal game in which one member of a group starts by directing an imaginative and playful insult at another member, who is his or her target. At this, everyone sits up and takes notice, aware that a performance has begun. The target of the insult responds with a variation on the insult that raises its level. The insults fly back and forth, each more elaborate, outrageous and extravagant than its predecessor, until one of the players gets off an insult so utterly over the top that the opponent cannot immediately come back with a topper. At that point, everyone collapses in laughter and the winner is acknowledged. This game is called Playin’ the Dozens, or simply The Dozens.
There is a political version of this game, played by left-wing intellectuals, that consists in making more and more devastating condemnations of contemporary society in an effort to gain the upper hand over one’s fellow radicals as the most unrelentingly negative member of whatever group has assembled. If one player says that Donald Trump is a liar, another replies that Trump is a sociopath. The first player responds that Trump is really different from all Republicans, to which the second responds that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats these days. This is topped by the argument that there has never been a difference between Democrats and Republicans. At this point, another player enters the game and annihilates both opponents with the statement that there could not be a difference, because all are merely mouthpieces for capitalism. Everyone collapses, if not in laughter, than in shared angst.
I was reminded of The Dozens this morning when I read an essay by Chris Hedges posted yesterday on Truthdig entitled “The Death of the Republic.” Taking as his text the Roman “year of the five emperors” [AD 193], a sure sign of a serious Political Dozens player, Hedges rehearses the manifold, structural, incurable evils of our current politics, and concludes “Our Republic is dead.” At which point, presumably, all the rest of us in this contest having been silenced by this pronouncement, we can applaud, relax, and go about our daily business, reassured that nothing any of us does can reanimate the rotting corpse. It is an oddly comforting game, comforting perhaps in the way that post-apocalyptic movies are comforting.
Although I agree with almost every single statement in Hedges’ indictment of modernity, or of America, or of humanity [the precise object of his attack is unclear], I am not at all as a consequence inclined to inaction. Get rid of Trump? Hedges responds, “The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.” Retake the House in 2018? “The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater.” Perhaps one of the risks those of us must face who choose action is that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve. It is a risk I am willing to take.