After what feels like a very long time, some prominent publications are starting to notice that “kabuki” is being overused when talking about American politics:
Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for “posturing.” The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a “performance, in which nothing substantive is done.” But there’s nothing “kabuki” about the real Kabuki.
Of course, pundits don’t care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word’s true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:
1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.
Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:
5) It sounds Japanese.
Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have “an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate … and policy making is little more than a process of collusion.” For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?
Then there’s NPR radio show/podcast On The Media, reporting on the Slate article. They are guilty too — listen at the end for an entertaining retrospective of their (many) transgressions.
Many thanks to author Jon Lackman for bringing it up! Good luck on that “doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.” Funnily enough, your piece is about something different – the use of art in political invective.
At Mutant Frog, we have long been aware of this painfully cliched metaphor. But maybe we won’t have to worry about it so much anymore. That’s at least two publications that will probably become more self-conscious about trotting out the kabuki cliche from now on. Will others follow?
(Thanks to the reader who sent this in!)