The old tale about the walled city of Verona has something to tell us about the present political situation in the United States. Over time, the story goes, the population inside the wall grew and the city became overcrowded. The problems from this circumstance mounted, until one day the bishop decided something had to be done and called a meeting with the chief rabbi. The bishop said, “The overcrowding has become unbearable. The Jews must leave.” The chief rabbi said, “Leave? But we have lived here for generations! Surely we should talk about so drastic a measure.” The bishop replied, “But who should talk? We could have a debate. But everyone in town cares about the subject.” The rabbi proposed, “We could hold it in the amphitheater; there is room for everyone.” But the bishop said, “No one could hear us there. It will have to be a silent debate.” And so they agreed.
The appointed day arrived. Everyone turned out and watched expectantly as the bishop began. He raised his right hand up to the sky. The rabbi brought his right hand down and pointed to his left palm. The bishop held up three fingers. The rabbi held up one. The bishop reached under his chair and took out a wafer and ate it, and a glass of wine and sipped it. The rabbi pulled out an apple and took a bite. At that moment, the bishop leapt up and said to the rabbi, “You are right, the Jews can stay. We in Verona will have to find another way to solve our problem.”
A crowd gathered around the bishop, excited and perplexed. “We followed the debate very closely, but what exactly was said?” one person asked. “Ah, the man was brilliant,” exclaimed the bishop. “I said, ‘The Lord of All commands that the Jews leave Verona today.’ He replied, ‘But the Lord is here in Verona with the Jews, too.’ I answered, ‘The three aspects of the Trinity–the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost–guide us on this matter.’ And he answered, ‘But there is just one Almighty, one King of the Universe.’ I responded with the wafer and the wine to say, ‘Jesus died for our sins so the Christians could be saved.’ But he responded with the apple, noting ‘We are all children of Adam and Eve.’ And indeed we are. We are in this together; we will work it out together.”
Meanwhile a crowd surrounded the rabbi. “Rabbi, rabbi, rabbi, what happened?” they cried. “I have no idea,” said the rabbi. “The bishop said, ‘The Jews of Verona must leave here today.’ I answered, ‘We are staying right here.’ He returned, ‘I will give you three days to pack.’ I offered, ‘We’ll take a week.’ Then he ate his lunch and I ate mine.”
Many messages are embedded in this story. The one we focus on here is the way the bishop and the rabbi embody contemporary American concepts of representation as defined by the US Supreme Court. The clerics “represented” the citizens of Verona in a public conversation. But it was a conversation conducted exclusively through the use of publicly incomprehensible symbols. Although professing to seek a forum with room for all the citizens of the town, the bishop and the rabbi in fact communicated not at all with those seated in the amphitheater. Their authority attracted a rapt audience, but the citizens themselves were not engaged in the process of decision-making. This was representational synecdoche–the part substituted for the whole. The rabbi substituted for the Jews, the bishop substituted for the Christians, and their silent interaction substituted for the conversation of democracy.
American democracy is today constituted by elites who are charged with policy deliberation and are presumably held accountable through elections. Those elections, however, often offer little real choice and thus fail to engender meaningful dialogue between voters and those who win elections. Like the bishop and the rabbi, these elites operate at a disconnect from–and are often unintelligible to–those they “represent.” Big-money politics and the media have reduced voters to spectators, like those earnest citizens who observed the silent dialogue in Verona’s amphitheater. The political parties are almost empty shells whose primary function is to raise money on a vast scale to finance costly media-based campaigns. Even party conventions, which once offered the possibility of rich democratic participation for some activists, are now carefully stage-managed events. Coded gestures and rhetorical winks stand in for complex ideas; dialogue and community participation are absent. Candidates are produced and packaged for a television audience, celebrated and orchestrated with elaborate story lines, a sales pitch, message discipline and a showcase of “people who symbolize what [the candidate] stands for,” as President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, pithily put it. The entrenchment of the two major political parties has contributed to an institutional torpor that sucks the vigor out of political debates.