< Don't Call It Kabuki


Friday, April 16, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of political theater, this week Manchester, England, was the scene of a premiere. It was the first time British party leaders have ever gone head to head, to head in a live televised debate. Thursday’s debate was the first of three scheduled before the May 6th election. This was pretty much an American show with a British cast, with former Obama advisors helping to prep both the Conservative candidate David Cameron and the ruling Labor Party’s Gordon Brown. Don't know who was directing the third party, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. The three parties hammered out 76 rules of engagement. Among them, the audience had to be politically balanced. Their questions were carefully vetted and had to relate to all three candidates. No cheering or booing allowed. The moderator enforced the rules but was permitted no questions of his own. Snap polls immediately after the event anointed Nick Clegg the winner. Yes, a very American affair, so much so that an American university professor writing for The Financial Times used an American phrase to describe what such debates demand, a blend of spontaneity and Kabuki - Kabuki! Jon Lackman is a Ph.D. student in art history who was really bothered by the way the word “Kabuki” is used and abused. He recently wrote a piece in Slate called It’s Time to Retire Kabuki.

JON LACKMAN: Just imagine the thing that you really love just becomes, you know, an insult in everyone else’s vocabulary, and it gets under your skin. And I'm all for people reaching for a new word when one seems to be necessary, and American politics does seem to demand some kind of linguistic innovation as it descends into ever greater depths. I just don't think this is the right thing that we're looking for. It’s - it’s not only not fair to Kabuki but it just - it doesn't really make sense. There’s really no instance you can come up with where somebody has used “Kabuki” where the word “theater” or the word “ritual” wouldn't have served just as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is we're trying to communicate when we invoke Kabuki?

JON LACKMAN: It’s used basically just to tar something as theater or as ritual, which is to say when people in politics seem to be getting up in front of the public and putting on a show that has little to do with substance and everything to do with making a certain impression.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me some examples?

JON LACKMAN: It got a lot of usage recently with the health care debate, particularly around the Health Care Summit. For example, Frank Rich used it, and Michelle Malkin ran one of her columns with the headline, “Oba-Kabuki: A Box-Office Bomb.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is invoking Kabuki in this way a universal or is it particularly American?

JON LACKMAN: I got curious about that as I was writing my piece, and I did searches both on the Internet and in news databases of French media, German media, Italian media, and it doesn't show up in other languages, as far as I can tell. And it doesn't even show up in English-speaking media outside of America. I could find almost no instances in British media, Australian media, etc.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how about Japanese media?

JON LACKMAN: [LAUGHS] Well, I can't really do Japanese-language searches of Japanese media, but there are some Japanese publications that are either published in English or have an English edition, and I couldn't find instances there either of the word being used this way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You identified the original culprit, didn't you, the person who started the Kabuki cavalcade?

JON LACKMAN: It seems to have cropped up in the early 1960s. This was a time when World War II was a receding memory, but American-Japanese relations were still very tense. And an American official had recently visited the country, the White House press secretary, in order to hopefully pave the way for a presidential visit. When he arrived, his car leaving the airport was quickly surrounded by an angry mob that started banging on the windows and rocking his car. And some reporters believed that if the police hadn't arrived when they had that he would have been killed. And so, this was a time when relations were tense. And along came this Los Angeles Times writer who was writing about domestic politics, and he didn't like what he was seeing going out at the State Department and he decided to refer to it as “shoddy left-wing Kabuki,” with no explanation by what he meant by the word “Kabuki,” which must have been unfamiliar to most of his readers. And ever since then, it crops up all the time, sometimes more than others, but it seems particularly rife lately. And that was what inspired me to write the piece.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You checked On the Media’s archives, didn't you?

JON LACKMAN: I did. [LAUGHS] And there are - instances.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Jon, thank you very much.

JON LACKMAN: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Lackman is a Ph.D. student in art history. His Slate piece is called It’s Time to Retire Kabuki. Bob?


BOB GARFIELD: - should there be some sort of disclosure or disclaimer box that says that you are witnessing Kabuki Theater, please understand -


BOB GARFIELD: - be they Kabuki dancers or law students, in the end it was the senators who took the -


BOB GARFIELD: - on his watch is this bit of PR Kabuki taking place -


BOB GARFIELD: But it all seems like so much Kabuki or shadow puppetry or something. [END CLIPS]

BOB GARFIELD: Oh, like you've never used it!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, there was this one time.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: When it comes to Obama, it really seems that he sheds a sort of cold light of rationality in the sort of political Kabuki that we all see.