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America the Baroque

The term Baroque was coined in the Iberian Peninsula--it is said to come from the Portuguese term for deformed pearl--to speak of the ornate cultural products generated in Spain and Portugal during the time when both nations (they were actually joined dynastically between 1580 and 1640) were simultaneously great powers and societies in the throes of self-evident decline and social dislocation. Give or take a few years, the esthetic had its heyday in those places in the period between 1580 and 1700.

During this era, the Iberians were engaged in two grand enterprises. One was running their vast seaborne empires. The other was waging an ideological and military struggle--the Counterreformation--against those who were challenging Catholicism’s long-standing role as the prime definer of Europe’s social matrix.

It has been said that the Baroque sprang from the need, which arises in all perpetually warring cultures, to restrict the normal flow of reasoned thought and cultural energy in the society. 

Perhaps the best way to visualize the phenomenon is to think of what happens when you try to direct a fluid flow of, say, 100 pounds per square inch of force into a pipe with a capacity that is only half that amount. Some water will be pass through the tube.  But an equal amount will spray out in random torrents at the place of input.

Those interested primarily in esthetics can, and will, make the case that the torrents of water shooting from the place of the undersized opening are quite beautiful, especially when the light of the afternoon sun shines through them. 

However, no serious engineer would ever say that arranging water flows in this fashion is the most efficient way to irrigate the garden at the far end of the tube.   

We are a Baroque society. 

The flow of ideas into our public square is heavily mediated by an implied demand to accept certain core assumptions. Among these are the beliefs that a) nothing can challenge the unregulated market when it comes to providing the best quality of life for the most amount of people b) the world is replete with military and insurgent actors bent on “taking us down”  and   c) what is good for Israel is good for the US. 

The person who fails to acknowledge the “inherent” truth of these orthodoxies is quickly labeled as “naïve or “unserious” and is banished from any significant role in the opinion-making or policy making apparatus of the nation. As a result, the country has no ability to engender and sustain a free-ranging, outcomes-focused conversation about our most pressing social and political problems.

Knowing this but still squeamish about acknowledging it, we have, like the inhabitants of imperial Spain and Portugal before us, learned to cover up the tragedy of our own impotence by basking in largely peripheral esthetics.  We celebrate black presidents for their blackness and alleged intelligence and style while largely ignoring whether they have a moral compass,  or a the ability—which is about the least one can ask of a person entrusted with such immense power—to sketch out a compelling vision for the future of the nation.

Ours is a society in which the crafty and articulate temporizer has much more social cache than the speaker of plain truths. We call the first thoughtful, reasonable and well-balanced. The second is inevitably described as rash, negative or unrealistic, even when his or her grasp of observables is clearly more detailed and historically-informed that that of the former 

In short, the first asks us to do what we have been trained to do as imperial subjects: comment on the beauty of today's sunlight filtering through the airborne specks of water. 

The second, uncharismatic sort that he is, simply asks us to consider how much more green and fertile the garden might be in the future if it were to receive its full allotment of water.  

For today’s Chinese and the Brazilians this “boring” second vision is, still quite alluring. For us, it seems, the contemplation of the man-made rainbow is consistently much more attractive. 

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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