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Pragmatism Over Socialism: The New Kibbutz Way

There's an article in today's NYT about the resurgence of kibbutzim. The author attributes this renewed popularity to the fact that today's kibbutzim are "less about pure socialism than a kind of suburbanized version of it." The article further describes … Read More

By / August 27, 2007

There's an article in today's NYT about the resurgence of kibbutzim. The author attributes this renewed popularity to the fact that today's kibbutzim are "less about pure socialism than a kind of suburbanized version of it." The article further describes "urbanites looking to escape the rat race", which effectively evokes a long weekend camping in the Catskills.

Reading this, I was reminded of Peter Beinart's article in TNR several days ago about the progressive netroots' movement, which pointed out the curiously mainstream rhetoric of leading progressive bloggers, defended their pragmatic choice to work from within the system but also suggested the importance of impractical "radicals" like Mike Gravel to the movement. In both instances, post-socialist wisdom is at work, and the question of whether progressivism is fundamentally and forever at odds with the mainstream, whether anything meaningful can come from within the system, is brought to the fore.

Which brings me, by a small leap, to something I know more about. Namely Charles Mee's new play, "Iphigenia 2.0", which I saw several nights ago. Charles Mee is the kind of playwright people choose to call "radical" for his claim, among others, that there is no such thing as an original play, and for his resultant theatrical technique of using blogs, instruction manuals, hip-hop lyrics, et al, to create his scripts, which critics have compared to sampling. Mee said he started writing this play by rereading Euripides' "Iphigenia at Aulis" and making notes in the margins, but rather than really make it new he played it safe, dressing the old thing up in a Gap commercial. The result recalls a precocious college student who sets out to please everybody, happily imagining that the speed with which he cuts and pastes from the internet is the same thing as the fluid stream of inspiration from within, and ends up pleasing no one.

Which is not to say that most of the audience didn't pretend to love Mee's play, because they did. The segment on what makes a "good leader" reaffirmed that, among other things, Bush has been terrible for theater, hijacking the imaginations of lazy artists. And the Chippendale routines performed by men playing soldiers partnered with the Playboy bunny acts for the women were about as interesting (and sexy) as a Calvin Klein billboard testified to the fact that people are still eager to let overt titillation pass for actual subversion (leaving gender roles out of it, for now). The all-out noisiness of the thing is worth contrasting to the restraint of an actually unsettling "political" play like "Masked".

Really, "Iphigenia 2.0" proves that using only elements from the mainstream produces something mainstream. Accommodation is a practical technique for politicians, a cop-out for playwrights. But if theatergoers keep on clapping the entertainers, like the politicians, won't have any reason to budge. If you consider the "renewed"–in the euphemistic words of one leader–kibbutzim and the cries of self-proclaimed revolutionaries like Daily Kos for the dismissal of Mike Gravel, I think it's fair to ask what the point of participating in anything is at all.

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