THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
"The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group."
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
In a supposedly classless society like ours, we expect people in high places to be like everyone else: to follow the same rules, to behave in the same way, to live their lives more or less the way the rest of the people do — only with more stuff. For politicians who fail to worship at the altar of the egalitarian creed, the consequences can be severe. Americans don't like eggheads, at least not in public office. If you want to be mayor or governor or president, you had better give the impression that your primary motivation is to solve the problems of regular folk. Better yet, you should try your damnedest to look like regular folk. Hence George W. Bush's cloying down-home demeanor, John Kerry's ice hockey photo ops, Rick Santorum's sweater vests, Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain," and on and on. The potential for hypocrisy in this system is naturally rife, and these rules are broken nearly every moment of every day. But we worship at the altar of "the people" with the glum devotion of the faithful, as though the pillars of society would crumble if we deviated from the accepted line.
The United Kingdom offers a striking contrast. In "Philomena", Steve Coogan plays a character familiar to viewers of modern British movies and television: the self-important, unapologetic snob. Though the character is based on a real person, the journalist Martin Sixsmith, Coogan's portrayal presents such a perfectly articulated version of this archetype that his resemblance to an actual human being is immaterial. The Sixsmith of the movie is the kind of mean-spirited bastard who in previous eras we would have assumed was to the manor born. But modern-day Britain has sprouted a new social stratum, a parallel elite that has hemorrhaged into the growing gap between the middle and upper classes. In this country we might call them yuppies, but this is too weak a tea to define its British counterpart. What distinguishes the members of these mostly well educated and recently enriched business and professional ranks are their assumption of the most hideous aspect of the upper classes to which they aspire: their frank disdain for the rest of humankind.
A brief look at the phone hacking scandal that has shaken the London tabloids will make this clear. American and British journalists both imagine themselves to be crusaders against corruption in government and human depravity everywhere. But the differences in method and style are radically different. If you have ever watched a British television journalist interview a very high-ranking government official — say, a cabinet minister — you will notice immediately that there is not even a pretense of respect for the office. Such interviews begin with the general premise that there is nothing a politician can possibly say that is not a pack of lies, and it is therefore every reporter's solemn duty as the public's representative to expose them all as self-serving, prevaricating vultures. Consequently, interviews tend to look more like the sadistic grilling of freshman law students by Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase" than a serious attempt to explore an issue of public importance. A Presidential press conference is, by contrast, a case study in polite discourse.
The self-elevation of journalists like the quasi-fictitious Mr. Sixsmith to positions of equal importance and even higher moral authority than those who govern the country, has the peculiar effect of isolating them from the very people for whom they purport to be champions. In a class-laden society, in which one is judged (harshly) by one's very accent, getting to the top of one's profession is not enough. By definition, either you have earned the right to rub elbows with the powers that be or you have not arrived at all. And so we have the spectacle of tabloids no longer satisfied to train their sights on the powerful alone but to see ordinary citizens as fair game, as well. The scandal erupted, one may recall, when editors and reporters at the now defunct News of the World saw fit to hack the phone conversations of a missing girl, leaving the impression with readers — including her desperate parents — that she might still be alive when it was widely known that she had already been murdered. (If it seems somewhat peculiar that top executives in Rupert Murdoch's company would have become neighbors, colleagues and even personal friends with the prime minister and others of his station, it is only because Americans consider obliviousness about social distinctions a matter of national pride.)
It is impossible to explain the wanton cruelty of these "journalists" except as the actions of a class of individuals who have come to view others as inferior. When the missionary zeal of journalism to root out official wrongdoing and expose official hypocrisy is brought to bear on those who have no official role in society, then the profession has lost its way. Worse, is signals a shift in the social balance. Those who were an erstwhile voice for the powerless have now cozied up to the powerful, thus depriving the lower and middle classes of a primary means of redressing grievances against a society that is altogether reluctant to notice them.
The American Way
While the veneer of respectability for public institutions has grown worryingly thin in America, it is not entirely worn away. We still expect and demand that the "elite" — the elected few, the self-appointed multitude who advocate for positions on all manner of issues, and the many who report on them — at least pretend to be toiling on the public's behalf. The reason why the character of Congressman Francis Underwood, as played by Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards," seems slightly unreal is because he is too overtly devious and self-serving. Of course, there are American politicians who are as ruthless and conniving as Underwood, but in real-life politics we don't generally tolerate or reward so blatant a display of naked ambition. One has to care about the public good, or at the very least put on a good show of caring. When Ian Richardson played Francis Urquhart, in the original British series upon which the American version is based, we experienced no such qualms about his character. It seemed perfectly natural to us, as it presumably was to the British viewing public as well, that a man born to influence and money, Oxbridge educated and supercilious to a fault, would feel entitled to a seat at the Cabinet table as though by right. Indeed, we would expect him to find no use whatsoever for the rest of humanity, except as pawns in his personal pursuit of power.
Americans have also experienced their own divergence of private ambitions and public ideals, though with a somewhat different character. The rise of a yuppy class in this country over the last 30 years or so has given rise to an irreconcilable conflict of impulses: we have grown exceptionally demanding of public institutions even as our trust in them has deteriorated sharply. Elected politicians, from the local level to the federal, are constantly beset with requests for action, mostly in the interests of a motivated minority, often on behalf of a single company, organization or individual. Few of these requests are by or on behalf of the poor, but mostly by people with the wherewithal to make a strong case and put up a good fight. Somewhere along the way, politicians figured out that one of the most effective means of staying in office for the long haul is constituent service; that is, doing a lot of small favors for a lot of people who will support you, or at least not actively oppose you, at the next election. Our public servants do not work for the general public good but only for their own public's good. No longer do state representatives go to their respective capitals mainly to see to the business of the state, or Congressmen to Washington to take care of the business of the nation, as much as to make sure the voters back home get the traffic light, water treatment plant, fire house, military installation or other bit of taxpayer-funded largesse they can manage to steer to their own districts. (Whether the official elimination of "earmarks" in Congress will change this state of affairs is a dubious proposition.) Thickets of laws and regulations are written to satisfy one constituent group or another, often in conflict with previously promulgated laws and regulations, resulting in unending rounds of lobbying and litigation, which serve the interests of yet more interest groups.
We tend to see conflicts within government today as motivated largely by ideology, but they are at least as much the result of the public's desire to have the government address its every little need, and for those in office to see these desires as opportunities to further secure their own power and position. Like Britain's elitist wannabes, America's echelons of the upper middle class likewise want to have it both ways: to enjoy the fruits of their success with the trappings of the good life, but to wear the mantle of dissidents whenever they feel the self-righteous urge. There are millions of successful people who have reached high levels of achievement in business and the professions by following a prescribed path — college, graduate school, work, family — but feel perfectly free to condemn that system and demand that it change whenever something happens that they don't like in their town or neighborhood. We see this playing out right now in the openly dismissive tone of education officials across the country toward middle-class parents complaining about changes in testing and curriculum. Even the Secretary of Education has been criticized for unguarded comments suggesting that suburban moms are unhappy with education reform only because they are being confronted with the knowledge that their kids may not be as brilliant as they thought they were. From the perspective of Washington, there is clearly frustration with those who adopt the time-honored methods of radicals, not to foment change but to defend the status quo, even when its preservation would mean millions of other people's children continuing to be left in the dust.
Perhaps this is a legacy of the 1960s, when people started to see outspoken opposition as not only a legitimate right but the most expedient means of getting your way. Form a committee, organize demonstrations, send letters to Congressmen, make a spectacle at official meetings — all very well and good when the movers and shakers of such efforts are the weak and downtrodden. But it's harder to be sympathetic when the picketers are socially indistinguishable from the picketed. Those who want the trappings and protections of "the establishment" but reserve the right to rebel against it whenever it suits them are no different from the reporters who make small talk with members of Parliament at cocktail parties, then go right back to their laptops and trash them in the tabloids. You can stand up for yourself and your class interests, or you can stand up for the greater good, but you can't do both.
Until we acknowledge that we even have social classes in America, this illusion will be nearly impossible to shatter.
December 15, 2013
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