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« Breaking: Obamacare is a Train Wreck | Main | Jan Brewer Does That Thing You All Knew She Would and Vetoes SB 1062 »
February 26, 2014

On Decadence, Irony, and Humanity

I'm not going to extensively quote these pieces; if you're interested, you'll read them.

Ed Driscoll summarizes a current discussion, sparked by Peggy Noonan, about the decadence of our "elites" -- our political elites, our financial elites.

Noonan's piece takes political elites -- Congressmen -- to task for using their time to film themselves repeating the most cynical and evil lines from House of Cards. She also takes financial elites for their Kappa Beta Phi secret fraternity, one meeting of which was just infiltrated by a reporter, who of course writes about it breathlessly.

She faults both groups for highlighting their cynicism about the system they serve -- Congressmen, by having great fun in speaking the evil Frank Underwood's Machiavelli-on-Bath-Salts philosophy, and the Titans of Wall Street, for putting on skits and musical parodies (sometimes in drag-- eek!) in which they make various cynical statements about just calling on "The Fed" should they get into trouble again, or dreaming of their seven-figure bonuses.

The Hannah Arendt Center explores a historical example of the Decadence of the Elites, the Weimar Republic's embrace of The Three Penny Opera. Apparently this was contrary to the author's, Brecht's, intent, as he intended it to be horrifying. Instead, it was greeted with laughs. (I have no earthly idea if this is true; I am second-hand reporting what I've just read.)

Here are some of Noonan's observations:

“House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.

Or maybe they’re just stupid.

But it’s all vaguely decadent, no? Or maybe not vaguely. America sees Washington as the capital of vacant, empty souls, chattering among the pillars. Suggesting this perception is valid is helpful in what way?


It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town. But I’m not sure it shows that.

We’re at a funny point in our political culture. To have judgment is to be an elitist. To have dignity is to be yesterday. To have standards is to be a hypocrite—you won’t always meet standards even when they’re your own, so why have them?

* * *

And all of it feels so decadent.

No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”


They’re all kind of running America.

They all seem increasingly decadent.

What are the implications of this, do you think?


[Y]ou see these little clips on the Net where the wealthy sing about how great taxpayer bailouts are and you feel like . . . they’re laughing at you.

What happens to a nation whose elites laugh at its citizens?

What happens to its elites?

Okay so some people probably like Noonan's general anti-"elite" message. I usually respond to this kind of message-- but not this one.

Here's my problem:

I wonder if the titans of Wall Street understand how they look in this.

At least they tried to keep it secret. That was good of them!


All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it?

And all of it feels so decadent.

Don't they know how frivolous they look when they behave frivolously?

I don't dig this idea that we must maintain what is essentially a Corporate Rulebook Code of Conduct in our individual lives at each and every moment, including our private ones.

While Peggy Noonan gets knocked a lot for her politics, one thing I like is her actual writing style. She manages to convey a tone of seriousness while nevertheless remaining graceful and light, and she does this through (read her closely) a wonderful rhythm of her sentences.

But having praised Noonan's writing, let me say next: She has never been funny. I'm not sure she even tries. If she's attempted forays into irony, dark humor, gallows humor, or sardonic bite, I don't know them.

She is usually fairly earnest. And I like that. I like the earnest mode of expression. I use it myself. I'm using it now. To the extent I criticize people on the earnestness vs. sarcasm front, it's usually telling people to stop trying to make everything into a sarcastic one-liner, and occasionally attempt the novel innovation of the Simple Declarative Sentence.

But while I certainly respect the earnest mode of expression, I often get the feeling that those who only write in that mode do not at all respect the ironic mode of expression. I see things claimed like "You shouldn't even say that!," as if saying something with obvious ironic intent was close enough to actual endorsement as to be worthy of forbiddance.

There was a young kid, back in 2004 or so I think, who wrote a book called "The End of Irony" or something like that, basically calling the entire mode of expression worthless and ready for the rubbish bin.

Now I do think that the Wall Street guys, in their sketches, reveal some truth. Jokes -- dark jokes, gallows humor -- is often used as means of revealing a truth which would be unpalatable or unacceptable were it expressed by any direct means. People prefer a distancing lens for their harsh truths.

So when the Wall Street guys say something along the lines of having The Fed in their pocket-- I do take that as a kidding-on-the-square admission that perhaps they have far too much pull with the Fed, to the point where even they are uncomfortable with it, and have to express this discomfort through a joke.

I would say the same thing about the Congresspeople delighting in Frank Underwood's cynical lines-- I'm sure these people are fully aware of the hypocrisies of high public office, and feel that parroting Kevin Spacey's line is a "safe" way to express this.

So I'd take this all as somewhat meaningful. I'd look into it. I'd add this data to the vague pile of Things I Think I Suspect I Know.

But I hate this idea that we're all supposed to act like Boy Scouts, or Corporate Spokesman Representing an Important Family-Friendly Brand, at literally every moment of every day.

Humans are built this way. They're not made to be Feel-Good Pro-Social Messaging Machines. At least not every hour of every day, even in their private moments. Even in their stupid-sketch-revues in their secret-society-parties. Some people would go crazy if they were compelled to utter nothing but Positive and Affirming Messages all day. I think I'm one of them.

If Noonan can manage this, even in her private conversations when she thinks no one's watching, well, I guess that's... good?

But I don't want to live under this standard, where the entire world is ready, willing, and eager to patrol my private sardonic, sarcastic, obviously not seriously intended statements for any deviation away from the Corporate Rulebook Code of Proper Employee Conduct.

We have to give each other some space for humanity here, for crying out loud.

I guess what I'm saying is I'm far more worried about actual corruption and self-dealing among Congressmen and Wall Street guys than I am about them making gallows humor jokes about such things.

It's the actual corruption and self-dealing that would be a concern, not their expression about it, nor their lack of concern about "how it looks."

Doctors have a famously cynical saying:

"You're not really a doctor until you've killed your first patient."

Does that make them monsters? Do doctors despise life, and laugh about the loss of it?

Of course not. It's a dark joke they tell to cope with the unsettling fact that many patients will die under their care, and some of those patients will die because they screwed up.

Most occupations have a risk of bad outcomes if the practitioner errs. Doctors, soldiers, cops, firefighters, and EMTs are the workers whose screw-ups result in actual human deaths.

So yes, I'd expect each of these professions to have crafted some dark, cynical humor about the deadly stakes of their occupations.

And no, I wouldn't assume that every casual soldier-joke about killing someone accidentally is actually proof that the soldier is indifferent to killing someone accidentally.

I'd assume it was a joke. Gallows humor, and not the sort of thing that would play outside the profession, but within the profession, a commonplace method of dealing with uncomfortable truths.

The New Yorker article about infiltrating the Wall Street Kappa Beta Phi party contains this statement:

Whenever I’d interviewed CEOs and chairmen at big Wall Street firms, they were always too guarded, too on-message and wrapped in media-relations armor to reveal anything interesting about the psychology of the ultra-wealthy.

Well! I guess now you know why they've made themselves into boring robots who won't tell you anything at all except to quote from the Corporate Guide to Media Relations. Because the moment they get a little real, get a little human, get a little raunchy, get a little I-don't-give-an-eff, you make a federal case about it.

But you already knew that, right?

I just wonder how many of these Secular Saints who push for this kind of absolutist zero-tolerance rule regarding any edgy or Non-Corporate-Approved Messaging could possibly survive under that regime if they themselves were put under this kind of scrutiny, this kind of Talmudic searching of every word, inflection, and metaphor for Hidden Evils.

digg this
posted by Ace at 07:00 PM

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