Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 2 12:01:30 UTC 2010

Two items that popped up today on the same web page. Once again a pol
gets in not-quite-hot water because of ignoring an open mic. This time,
it's Senator Bennett. This might be worth consideration for a list of
year's top quotes (well, some pithy part of the quote, perhaps, such as
the first or the last sentence):

> "It's all rigged," Bennet said (clip below). "I mean the whole
> conversation is rigged. The conversation, the fact that we don't get a
> discussion before the break about what we're going to do in the lame
> duck. It's just rigged. This stuff's rigged."

Actually, one other open mic pick-up that might be worth inclusion (if
it were not for the usual taboo) is Biden's "It's a big fucking deal!"
in reference to ACA passage. I should have mentioned it before, but it's
just an aside here.

But something else on TPM's page on the Bennett quote got my attention.
The first comment on the post has the following:

> The administration, and congressional leaders of both parties are
> engaged in a Kabuki Theater exercise.

References to "[political] Kabuki [Theater]" are quite common (whether
the words "political" or "theater" are included or not). And the
figurative transformation is rather obvious--the meaning being
essentially the same as in Bennett's comment. The political game is
rigged and everyone's going through stylized motions.

And this appears to be implied in the OED definition of Kabuki:

> A traditional and popular form of Japanese drama which employs highly
> stylized singing, miming, and dancing in addition to acting, and in
> which (since c1650) all the parts are played by males. Also attrib.

The only problem is that there are no examples to illustrate this
particular meaning. Since searching for "Kabuki theater" (or "theatre")
produces all the references to the actual theater, I thought I'd try the
exact combination I gave above in GB. It gave exactly 1 hit.

Acta litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. Volume 27. 1984/5
[Volume number corresponds to year. Otherwise unverified.]
> It is not easy to pinpoint them since we are in a political Kabuki
> theater where everybody wears a mask.

This actually points to a slightly different version--rather than the
game being rigged, in this case, everyone hides the real intentions
(therefore, hiding behind a "mask"). But the general sentiment remains
the same.

A slightly earlier citation comes from New York Magazine, but it is not
even figurative:

New York Magazine. Oct 1, 1984.
30-Second Elections. Edwin Diamond & Stephen Bates. p. 46
> The art of political advertising, we found, has developed distinct
> rhetorical styles and visual techniques. Today's TV-advertising
> campaign unfolds as predictably as Kabuki theater.

Obviously, this one is not really worth mentioning, except that this is
clearly a precursor of the sentiment (unless, of course, the phrase has
already been in use in similar context).

Broadening the search a bit, uncovers the phrase in a more recent

This could be the start of something big: how social movements for
regional equity are reshaping metropolitan America. By Manuel Pastor,
Jr., Chris Benner, Martha Matsuoka. 2009. p. 186 [verified in GB preview]
> At the same time, by dealing with the conflict, naming it, and
> confronting it, they are able to move beyond the polarized roles that
> are usually the stuff of political kabuki theater.

But it gets better still. "Theater" is not at all necessary, as the
phrase more often appears as "political Kabuki".

 From a different issue of New York Magazine:

New York Magazine. Jan 23, 1995. Friends Like These. p. 13
> Only the willfully naive, of course, could take this as anything more
> than a kind of grossly stylized political Kabuki.

Also, James Collins, The State in Early Modern France (2005, p. 253).

> To that point, the political kabuki of minister and Parlement had
> followed the familiar gestures: unpopular royal edict, remonstrances,
> royal rejoinder, suspension of justice by the judges.

More from 1995:

National Journal: The fear is that private investors might not
understand the political Kabuki now being staged in Washington. [snippet
available, but not verified on paper]

Tokyo Business Today: Jiro Sarto, the top official at MOF, was the chief
architect of a recent political kabuki staged to attain the ministry's
goals for tax reform. [text from preview, but visible in snippet in one
of two GB copies]

A couple of earlier citations (1992/94) refer to "a sort/kind of
political kabuki". There are 27 GB citations in all.

The phrase even pops up in Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival (2005).

> "Through tacit agreement the two major parties approach the contest
> for the presidency [as] political kabuki [in which] the players know
> their roles and everyone sticks to the script," "striking poses" that
> cannot be taken seriously.

The phrase is referenced as endnote 7 in Chapter 1. (I don't have the
book, and GB is selective in showing endnotes.)

But the cleanest reference also appears to be the earliest (among those
I found). It's from GNA:

The Montreal Gazette - Feb 24, 1982. Japan's Past is Secret of the
Present. By Keith Spicer. p. B3/3 [GNA p. 15]
> Beyond the raucously free press and the ritual political Kabuki
> theatre of party harangues you discover a foreign press far more than
> the domestic one, not-so-subtly dissuaded from probing behind speeches
> and press releases.

There is also a possible early WaPo identification of "political kabuki"
in Washington:

The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) - Washington, D.C. Oct 17, 1989
[Final edition]
Panama: The Echoes in Europe. Jim Hoagland (op/ed). p. A27 [PQ
available, text from GNA preview]
> Congressional critics of both parties have also given an artful
> display of political kabuki. They staged it as a highly stylized
> drama, in which they played ...

I am sure everyone has heard the phrase multiple times in the last 30

I don't think "political kabuki" or some version thereof necessarily
deserves a separate entry, but it is certainly worth a mention--or, at
least, a direct citation of a couple of examples. The point is that
there are references to political kabuki that skip "political", so it
should be found under "kabuki".


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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