Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““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.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. 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.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “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.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer "human" in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.
Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, "The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power." Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.
By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many "evil motives" that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.
I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt's work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,
Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.
But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.
To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party's "Brown Shirts," the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler's paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:
Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.
I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the "banality of evil." This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather "perfectly normal men" who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt's thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.
In his essay “Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard: Pedagogy in the Consumer Society” Trevor Norris offers a compelling critique of how these two distinct thinkers approach the question of consumption. His analysis reveals some important affinities between the unlikely pair. While post-modern readings of Arendt often disappoint, Norris succeeds in using Baudrillard’s work to augment Arendt’s understanding of modernity’s grip on man. An important piece that probes a culture of consumption that continually excites but fails to ever truly gratify, Trevor Norris’ essay can be read here.