When Political Discourse Becomes Popular Non-Fiction


In a time of extreme insensitivities and extreme sensitivities it becomes difficult to navigate through discussions of difficult political and/or social issues. More recently, in this “Obama era,” there has been an attempt to push back against political egoism and cynicism through a renewed rhetoric of socially universal values. These values, however, become universalized through vagueness not through rigorous development. Heart, play, love, hope and change are flaunted as such new universal values, and it is through these new universals that issues are formulated. We expect heart, and politicians respond with heart, and as a result politics has gone the way of the non-fiction bestseller. This articles asks what is at stake when political issues begin to sound like the next bestsellers.

by Jesse P. Hiltz

When Gilles Deleuze wrote his book on Michel Foucault (called simply Foucault), he described what he called “the diagram.” The diagram, he tells us, is an obscure mapping between the relations that exist at a given time. These are relations of various kinds: social, practical, political, force, etc. The diagram of a period is an abstraction: the relations between relations. Most importantly, because what we say and see are formed out of these relations and forces, the diagram that maps the relations between these relations will characterize the period, not as a rule or a world view, but as something that makes the various things we see and say resemble each other in a way we can’t clearly articulate. One of these relations of relations exists between parallel trends in liberalist rhetoric and popular non-fiction.

Dave Bidini has written a book which meets all the criteria for success in contemporary non-fiction. Home and Away: The Story of the 2008 Homeless World Cup combines elements of the travel memoir, gonzo-esque sports writing, and commentary on a hefty social issue; a  winning combination for a world obsessed with “Real People.” Not to mention that Bidini is also a founding member of the Rheostatics, which increases his cultural capital with GenX Canadian’s who buy these books. But Bidini is only our starting point. I have nothing in depth to say about his book,  per se, and it seems like others don’t have many substantial things to say about it either.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Radio One’s Q, Bidini discussed that while the players in the Homeless World Cup face numerous hardships, he was struck by the universal value of “play” exhibited at the games. There, the focus was not on champions as much as it was on heart. The Globe and Mail ‘s review of Bidini’s book, written by Grant Shilling, does not stray too far from this narrative either, and treads pretty lightly around the book’s “issues,” i.e. homelessness. And we can understand why the review is so soft given that Bidini’s writing is considered and described as sports writing — a genre which has always occupied a strange “untouchable” position with newspaper book reviewers, as if a bad review of a sports book is somehow in poor taste. (This would really piss off a friend and colleague of mine, who is constantly agitated by the very true fact that sport has been treated as either not worthy of critique, or exempt from critique because of its supposed pedestrian populism.)

“Non-fiction books”, a wide and expanding genre, and more specifically memoir and travel writings, have offered Canada’s readers a way to feel like they have come into contact with difficult or “real” social issues, while also keeping those issues at a safe distance, far removed from the reader’s immediacy. I have no doubt that Bidini’s book will do well because he can introduce the theme and details of homelessness (and foreign poverty, which even more interesting to us), while creating a buffer between the reader and the actual problems, by way of “sport,” “heart,” and so-called universal values of “play.”

The experiences of the writer, through their non-fiction, lets the reader feel more “in touch” with “hard issues” by ushering in a taste of our embarrassing social situations through other, more palatable, means. Yet, the comforting and heart-warming narratives of heart, play, and cooperation, let us feel for others, without requiring that we do anything about it. (They may be homeless, but at least they have heart, play, and soccer. I’m touched.)

This is no fault of the writers. In fact, what they write could actually lead to some change. However, the issue remains: a reason why people are reading these non-fiction books is partly a product of the same structures that lead to the social issue to begin with. The moment an author gets too preachy, the sales will surely drop. The same can be said of electorate voting practices when a leader appears to talk too much. Thus, this is not just a comment on late-Capitalism, but also a manifestation of the diagram as well.

Let’s also take the example of Eat, Pray, Love, a book and of course film, which Oprah praised for its heart, and others have bombed for its new age bullshit. The debate over this “travel memoir” touches on important issues ranging from existential crisis and self-discovery to excessive spending and self-indulgence. Whether the book is “good” or not doesn’t seem to make a difference to sales or to those who recommend it (and why shouldn’t rich women go on vacation?). This book brings the very real nihilism of the twentieth and twenty-first century close enough to smell, but escapes the issue through privileging narratives of spending, self-discovery, and Orientalist distraction. In the end, its starts a movement, as Oprah calls it, of a different kind, which calls for every woman to take her own spiritual journey. Can’t argue with that… and maybe this is the problem.

Some will say: Look, not every book has to tackle the “issues” they come up against, as you seem to think they should. Some are just for good evening reading. And, who are you to say that these books don’t affect people and what they care about?

Fine. My answer will draw on something I hinted at during my post: Case Against the Bully Narrative. As Žižek has recently pointed out in his Op-Ed for The Guardian, liberal multiculturalism has us believing that acknowledging the differences of others is the same as unconditional liberal acceptance. It is not. In fact, Žižek argues, instead we’ve created a safe distance between us and the foreignness of the other by placing them within the spaces we’ve allotted them: we can live “together” as long as I’m not too put out by having to deal your issues or practices. With that characterisation, populist liberalism is just as bad as populist conservatism when it comes to way we speak about our issues.

This kind of “soft” political discourse is not simply a dumbing down of political rhetoric and practice. To a certain extent, this second order discourse of new universal values can be seen as a response to egoist and cynical attitudes that the public had toward politics in the 1990s. A 2001 article by communication researchers, David G. Levasseur and Diana b. Carlin, observes that in focus groups in the United States the public discussion of politics issues have shown a number of disturbing trends. They write:

Our examination revealed a troubling argument pattern; citizen discussions of public policy were dominated by egocentric arguments. When arguments focus on the self, the deliberative process is unable to arrive at the kind of communal outcomes envisioned in a healthy public sphere. Such egocentric arguments help build the presumption that everyone is consumed by his or her own selfish interests. Citizens see politicians out to secure their own interests, offering strategic rhetoric that merits strategic analysis. As everyone engages in this dialogue of self-interest, cynicism thrives and quells debate. (423)

It does not take much effort to extend this conclusion to Canada. The discussion of health-care and education in this country also tend to revolve around the management of personal interests – did Hannah Arendt not warn us decades ago that the private sphere was impeding on the public. And, just as Levasseur and Carlin’s research demonstrates, “everyday” people’s political interests find most of their motivation, evidence, and affirmation, not from knowledge, but personal stories in which the political process is imagined as egocentric and cynical. Unfortunately, this popular image of politics reduces the political process of debate and discussion to a disconnected collective of egotistical individuals fighting each other to promote their own interests. Group politics or common interests are barely able to come up in such a presumption about politics. (Levasseur and Carlin also note that because of this discontented attitude toward politics people tend to say “the” government, and never “our” government.)

After such research and prevailing cynical and egoist opinions, we can understand how it was that Obama had such a landslide victory in the last election. He proposed safe, vague, and pedestrian values that most cynical egoists could agree on: hope and change. Obama’s campaign speeches were powerful, well written, and well spoken, but now that we know that trick, we had grown cynical again and his speeches struggle to make a lot meaning out of very little change. As comedian Norm MacDonald said during a routine in Toronto: “I’m not into “Hope,” you know? When has “hoping” for something ever really worked out?”

In particular, the rhetoric surrounding the US health-care bill was not very grounded in practice or knowledge for either Democrats or Republicans – not a lot really changed in the policy (except now excluded people can buy issuance, so the companies still win.). Again, there’s a gap between what we say and see. But that’s not news. It is becoming more obvious that the way the issue are formulated has changed – there’s so much more “heart” now to make up for our cynicism. Now, we expect heart, and politicians respond with heart, and as a result politics has gone the way of the non-fiction bestseller.

Liberalism (both Liberal and Conservative liberalism) in the US and Canada has come to resemble sports writing and travel memoirs. The style through which we regard the “issues” acts as a buffer between us and these issues, as a second-order discourse. How? We know that every issue is characterized by how we discuss it. There is no such thing as “bare” homelessness. Homelessness cannot make sense outside the ways that understanding and practicing how we can own a home, make money, and myriad of other conditions. Analysts and politician, and most of us too, have ways of understanding the “reality” of these issues according to our own political position, income bracket, etc. But when it comes to acting on them, we participate in a second order of discourse, which takes its cues from the liberalisms of both the left and the right: this is the ways of speaking that we see with both Bidini and Eat, Pray, Love.

This way of speaking offers a way to by pass some of the taboos of liberal multiculturalism. By operating according to this second order discourse one may introduce new “universal values,” which are so vague and undisputed that everyone can agree. Eating, praying, loving, playing, and hoping, are all such forms of new universal values. This is unfortunate, because when one attempts to push back against this second-order discourse of new universal values, we come off as either fascist, nihilist, or just plain grumpy: who doesn’t think playing, eating, and loving are good?

However, it can be confusing trying to figure out whether nihilism is catching up to these new universal values. They are easy targets. In the US, there is lots of talk of the downfall of this new universal liberalism. In some ways it is formulated as the collapse of the “Obama Myth,” making political discontent an “image” issue I think that this potential collapse is more diagrammatic, in Deleuze’s Foucauldian sense. Last week’s episode of 30 Rock made a comment on our coming disbelief in this second order discourse of liberalism. They introduce a black congresswoman played by Queen Latifah, who, because of her upcoming election, feigns fits of evangelical urgency, and spouts a string of unconnected, value laden words  such as “troops, flag troops, freedom, etc.” Her character goes on to admit later that while these displays are ridiculous, she does feel strongly about serious political issues, but this is what is expected and it gets results.

This last point is key. We’ve never grown tired of complaining about politicians “playing politics,” which is a defeatist way of pretending that the ridiculous rhetoric is the sole practice of politics. We are especially guilty in Canada of this kind of complaining – we don’t like elections, we say, because we don’t like the bickering. Yet, while we recognize that there are two levels of discourse going on in politics, are we to condemn the second order as superfluous jabbering, as Queen Latifah’s character notes, when we come to expect it?

The recent scandal in Ottawa concerning veteran’s privacy provides us with a good example of the expectation and mobilization of this second-order discourse of new universal values. The Prime Minister “displayed outrage” at the breach in privacy and blamed bureaucracy, adding to popularity to his new universal value (privacy) even though it has been demonstrated that the Harper government already knew about the circulation of the documents before the cat got out of the bag. This “outrage” is, of course, feigned, but the issue isn’t that it is dishonest. The issue is that everyone, public and private, is feigning outrage with regard to this story. As if no one in the government knew this was happening – of course they did. Not to mention the fact that the person whom the psychological records described is a active, self-marketed leading critic of the Canadian veteran’s benefits. The possibility that the government was using his psychological record to “discredit” him before meetings and such is disturbing, but isn’t it more disturbing to realize that we assumed that this kind of thing didn’t happen already.

So what does the Prime Minister’s outrage mean now? Most will never ask that question for the same reason they will not critique the appearance of these new universal values of play or love in popular non-fiction – it looks bad, and even worse, it still looks “cynical.”

There is a saying: “It’s bad to call the king an idiot when everyone knows otherwise. It’s much worse to call him an idiot when everyone knows it’s true.” This is the kind of operational game we’re playing. We all know that the government does much worse things than pass around some activist veteran’s documents. Really, this issue is a safe way for us to all get upset, have a call to arms, call for accountability, on an easily remedied non-issue. This situation is perfect for a second-order new universal value discourse because it is easily fixed. Someone might get fired, and no one of substance even get mentioned. But you can be sure there will be a lot of noise made during it to show just how “outraged” we all really are.

Photo by Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Stark issues that call out the extreme manifestations of how we operate seem untouchable. They are far too real for mediation. At the same time that we are crying about the veteran’s botched self-branding, the RCMP are investigating multiple government corruption allegations in regard to construction contracts. (By the way, the news coverage of the activist veteran’s story displayed his sensitive documents on TV, in the public eye, where as before only government officials saw them. They even showed, on air, passages from documents describing his suicidal tendencies. I wonder if he was dramatically outraged at the CBC for actually airing his dirty laundry… Nope. But that missing point is also too close for comfort – that the news could be agitating reactions to the stories it covers by creating and also feigning outrage.)

Another example of extremely sobering, but mostly unseen news, is the US soldiers on trial for starting their own kill squad in Afghanistan, who killed civilians and then took photos and fingers for keepsakes. We haven’t been hearing too much about that around here; there is no room for finding a new universal value in this story. Rather, it presents us with the suspension of values in war and displays a series of acts too complex to create a second-order liberal discourse that can find “heart.” Perhaps we’ll get to read a sappy story about healing and recovering, down the road, but not now.

News, politics, and non-fiction seem terrified to remove this buffer of the second-order discourse of new universal value. They know we’ll complain if the world seems to cynical, depressing, or terrifying: we will talk about the homeless, but only if they’re playing soccer; we will discuss the despair in our lives, but only if we can stuff our face in Italy while we do it; and we will be outraged at bureaucrats, but only if the issue promises a non-committal catharsis. Though, just because we recognize these kinds of second-order discourses and this sneaky introduction of new universal values, don’t expect to see too much change. What is also diagrammatic about our particular society is the call for constant reform, but a willingness to accept the old repackaged in a new way, and to that, I express my sincerest cynicism.

Further Reading

Dave Bidini, Home and Away: The Story of the 2008 Homeless World Cup

David G. Levasseur and Diana b. Carlin, “Egocentric Argument and The Public Sphere: Citizen Deliberations on Public Policy And Policymakers,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs. Vol.4, No. 3, 2001, pp. 407-431

Elizabeth Gilbert,  Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault

Slavoj Zizek, “Liberal Multiculturalism Masks an Old Barbarism with a Human Face” in The Guardian Sunday 3, October 2010

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, esp. Chapter 7, “Truth and Politics.”


3 thoughts on “When Political Discourse Becomes Popular Non-Fiction

  1. I hadn’t known about that kill squad story. I agree with what you’re indicating here – indeed, it’s been an increasing (or perhaps growing) phenomenom over the past decade or more. But are there solutions? Are political parties more on the fringe (such as EU’s Pirate Party, and to a lesser extent Canada’s Green Party) part of such a solution?

  2. Do you mean, are there solutions to the issues, or to the discourse problem? There are always proposed solutions to any issue, but no solution will be universally satisfying, and thus the issue remains or lingers in some capacity long after its been “solved.” Tristan Cleveland quoted something that makes a lot of sense to me. He said something like when you are proposing your ideas and trying to make them happen (politically or otherwise), you are expressly trying to make some else lose. We live in a country that is obsessed with the idea of consensus, and when we don’t get consensus we feel like our politics have failed. When actually, consensus is almost always an excluded result within politics. This is where the new universal value comes in. The “hope” for consensus, for example, is at the root of this second-order discourse because it is a “hope” that there will be a consensus on something, no matter what it is. It is “second order” because this new discourse doesn’t ask you to have consensus on the issue (the primary), but rather, it asks you to have a consensus on the “hope” for consensus, hoping we’ll all agree. Fringe political parties are no better at cutting through this vague fog of values. Saving the earth is just as vague and populist as being fiscally conservative.

  3. One should not expect any solution to be universally satisfying though, that is just looking for a slice of heaven in reality – it cannot exist. But, as you indicate above, that hope for consensus is most certainly there. I won’t lie, I’ve been a part of that too in the group managing I’ve done and attempted to find consensus on some issues when really none is needed. Tristan is correct, and Canadians (indeed, the Western world in general) needs to realize what he’s saying – and more importantly, just deal with it! The Canadian/Western trend of having everyone content is just leading to no one being truly happy. It’s more like passivity than anything else.

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