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.
The response has been swift and negative to the Rolling Stone Magazine cover—a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who with his now dead brother planted deadly homemade bombs near the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. The cover features a picture Tsarnaev himself posted on his Facebook page before the bombing. It shows him as he wanted himself to be seen—that itself has offended many, who ask why he is not pictured as a suspect or convict. In the photo he is young, hip, handsome, and cool. He could be a rock star, and given the context of the Rolling Stone cover, that is how he appears.
The cover is jarring, and that is intended. It is controversial, and that was probably also intended. Hundreds of thousands of comments on Facebook and around the web are critical and angry, asking how Rolling Stone could portray the bomber as a rock-star. They overlook or ignore the text accompanying the photo on the cover, which reads: “The Bomber. How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.” CVS and other retailers have announced they will not sell the magazine in their stores.
That is unfortunate, for the story written by Janet Reitman is exceptionally good and deserves to be read.
Controversies like this have a perverse effect. Just as the furor over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem resulted in the viral dissemination of her claims about the Jewish leaders, so too will this Rolling Stone cover be seen by millions of people who otherwise would never have heard of Rolling Stone. What is more, such publicity makes it ever less likely that the story itself will be read seriously, just as Arendt’s book was criticized by everyone, but read by few.
Reitman’s narrative itself is unexceptional. It is a common story line: young, normal kid becomes radicalized and does something none of his old friends can believe he could do. This is a now familiar narrative that we hear in the wake of the tragedies in Newtown (Adam Lanza was described as a nice quiet kid) and Columbine (Time’s cover announced “The Monsters Next Door.”)
This is also the narrative that Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana embraced to defend the Cover on NPR arguing it was an "apt image because part of what the story is about is what an incredibly normal kid [Tsarnaev] seemed like to those who knew him best back in Cambridge.” It was echoed too by Erin Burnett, on CNN, who recently invoked Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.” In the easy frame the story offers, Tsarnaev was a good kid, part of a striving immigrant family, someone who loved multi-racial America. And then something went wrong. He found Islam; his family fell apart; and he became a monster.
This story is too simple. And yet within the Rolling Stone story, there is a wealth of information and reporting that does give a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of Tsarnaev’s journey into the heart of evil.
One fact that is important to note is that Tsarnaev is not Eichmann. Eichmann was a member of the SS, a nationalist security service engaged in world war and dedicated to wiping certain races of peoples off the face of the earth. He committed genocide as part of a system of extermination, something both worse than and yet less messy than murder itself. It is Tsarnaev, who had no state apparatus behind him, who become a cold-blooded murderer. The problems that Hannah Arendt thought that the court in Jerusalem faced with Eichmann—that he was a new type of criminal—do not apply in Tsarnaev’s case. He is a murderer. To understand him is not to understand a new type of criminal. And yet it is a worthy endeavor to try to understand why more and more young men like Tsarnaev are so easily radicalized and drawn to murdering innocent people in the name of a cause.
Both Eichmann and Tsarnaev were from upwardly striving bourgeois families that struggled with economic setbacks. Eichmann was white and Austrian, Tsarnaev an immigrant in Cambridge, but both were economically disaffected. Tsarnaev wanted to make money and, like his parents, dreamed of a better life.
Tsarnaev’s family had difficulty fitting in with U.S. culture. His father was ill and could not work. His mother sought to earn money. And his older brother, whom he idolized, saw his dreams of Olympic boxing dashed partly because he was not a citizen. He increasingly turned to a radical version of Islam. When Tsarnaev’s parents both returned to Dagestan, he fell increasingly under the influence of his older brother.
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev appears to have adopted an ideology that provided a coherent and meaningful narrative that gave his life significance. One can see this in a number of tweets and statements that are quoted in the article. For example, just before the bombing, he tweeted:
"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."
"If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that's left is to take action."
"Most of you are conditioned by the media."
Like Eichmann, Tsarnaev came to see himself as a hero, someone willing to suffer and even die for a noble cause. His cause was different—anti-American jihad instead of anti-Semitic Nazism—but he was an ideological idealist, a joiner, someone who found meaning and importance in belonging to a movement. A smart and talented and by most accounts good young man, he was lost and adrift, searching for someone and something to give his life purpose. He found that someone in his brother and that something in jihad against America, the land that previously he had so embraced. And he became someone who believed that what he was doing was right and necessary, even if he understood also that it was wrong.
We see clearly this ambivalent understanding of right and wrong in the note Tsarnaev apparently scrawled while he was hiding in a boat before he was captured. Here is how Reitman’s article describes what he wrote:
When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jihad [Tsarnaev's nickname] appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."
Eichmann too spoke of his shock and disapproval of killing innocent Jews, but he justified doing so for the higher Nazi cause. He also said that when he found out about the sufferings of Germans at the hands of the allies, it made it easier for him to justify what he had done, because he saw it as equivalent. The fact that the Germans were aggressors, that they had started the war, and that they were killing and torturing innocent people simply did not register for Eichmann, just as it did not register for Tsarnaev that the people in the Boston marathon were innocent. There are, of course, innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have died at the hands of U.S. bombs. Even for those of us who were against the wars and question their sense and justification, however, there is a difference between death in a war zone and terrorism.
The Rolling Stone article does a good job of chronicling Tsarnaev's slide into a radical jihadist ideology, one mixed with conspiracy theories.
The Prophet Muhammad, he noted on Twitter, was now his role model. "For me to know that I am FREE from HYPOCRISY is more dear to me than the weight of the ENTIRE world in GOLD," he posted, quoting an early Islamic scholar. He began following Islamic Twitter accounts. "Never underestimate the rebel with a cause," he declared.
His rebellious cause was to awaken Americans to their complicity both in the bombing of innocent Muslims and also to his belief in the common conspiracy theory that America was behind the 9/11 attacks. In one Tweet he wrote: "Idk [I don’t know] why it's hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess fuck the facts y'all are some real #patriots #gethip."
Besides these tweets that offer a provocative insight into Tsarnaev's emergent ideological convictions, the real virtue of the article is its focus on Tsarnaev's friends, his school, and his place in American youth culture. While his friends certainly do not support or condone what Tsarnaev did, many share some of his conspiratorial and anti-American beliefs. Here are two descriptions of the mainstream nature of many of his beliefs:
To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo.
This is not an uncommon belief. Payack, who [was Tsarnaev's wrestling coach and mentor and] also teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an "inside job." Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds.
The article presents a sad portrait of youth culture, and not just because all these “normal” kids are smoking “a copious amount of weed.” The jarring realization is that these talented and intelligent young people at a good school in a storied neighborhood come off so disaffected. What is more, their beliefs in conspiracies are accepted by the adults in their lives as commonplaces; their anti-Americanism is simply a noted fact; and their idolization of slacking (Tsarnaev's favorite word, his friends say, “was "sherm," Cambridge slang for ‘slacker’”) is seen as cute. There is painfully little concern by adults to insist that the young people face facts and confront unserious opinions.
In short, the young people in Tsarnaev's story appear to be abandoned by adults to their own youthful and quite fanciful views of reality. Youth culture dominates, and adult supervision seems absent. There is seemingly no one who, in Arendt’s language from “The Crisis in Education”, takes responsibility for teaching them to love the world as it is.
The Rolling Stone article and cover do not glorify a monster; but they do play on two dangerous trends in modern culture that Hannah Arendt worried about in her writing: First, the rise of youth culture and the abandonment of adult authority in education; and second, the fascination bourgeois culture has for vice and the short distance that separates an acceptance of vice from an acceptance of monstrosity. If only all the people who are so concerned about a magazine cover today were more concerned about the delusions and fantasies of Tsarnaev, his friends, and others like them.
Taking responsibility for teaching young people to love the world is the very essence of what Arendt understands education to be. It will be the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center upcoming conference “Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen.” Registration for the conference opened this week. For now, ignore the controversy and read Reitman’s article “Jahar’s World.” It is your weekend read. It is as good an argument for thinking seriously about the failure of our approach to education as one can find.
The white smoke ushered in a Pope from the New World, but one firmly planted in the old one. Pope Francis I is from Argentina but descended from Italy. According to the Arch-Bishop of Paris, quoted in The New York Times, the Pope was not of the Curia and not part of the Italian system. At the same time, because of his “culture and background, he was Italo-compatible.” Straddling the new and the old, there is some glimmer of hope that Francis I will be able to reform the machinery of the ecclesiastical administration from the inside.
Amidst this tension, the new Pope signaled his desire to be seen as an outsider by choosing the name Francis I, aligning himself with St. Francis as protector of the poor and the downtrodden. At a time of near universal distrust in the ecclesiastical order, the Pope and his supporters present the choice of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio as an affirmation of simplicity and humility.
And in some respects the new Pope does appear to be a Pope for whom the life of Jesus and life of St. Francis serve as an example of humility and service. At least if such stories like this one told by Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter are to be credited:
In 2001 he surprised the staff of Muñiz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters that “society forgets the sick and the poor.” More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests at the time. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”
Some complain that the Pope abjures liberation theology for its connection to Marxism and rejects the using of the Gospel for political and economic transformation. Nevertheless, stories like the one above are important and show an exemplary character in Pope Francis I.
Bigger questions arise about new Pope’s past connection to what is called the Dirty War in Argentina, the period from 1976-1983 in which a brutal dictatorship stole children from their communist parents and gave them to military families while also disappearing political and ideological opponents. As one of my colleagues wrote to me, “Almost alone among major Latin American Churches, the Argentine Church officially allied itself with the military in a campaign to eradicate political dissidents (mostly left-wingers).” Bergoglio was a Catholic Church official during this period and he has been accused by many in Argentina of either not doing enough to oppose the regime or, more scandalously, actively collaborating with the dirty war. In 2005, a formal lawsuit claimed that that Bergoglio had been complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The priests were working in a poor barrio advocating against the dictatorship. Bergoglio insisted they stop and they were stripped from the Jesuit Order. They disappeared and months later they were found drugged and partially undressed, according to the reporting of Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter.
Margaret Hebbelthwaite, in the Guardian, defends Bergoglio, whom she knows and respects. “It was the kind of complex situation that is capable of multiple interpretations, but it is far more likely Bergoglio was trying to save their lives.” And this is the account Bergoglio gives himself, as Schmall and Rohter report:
In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.
I of course have no idea whether Bergoglio is the victim of baseless calumny, as he claims, or whether he actively or meekly collaborated with a ruthless dictatorship. What is clear, however, is that at the very least, Bergoglio and his colleagues in the Argentine Catholic Church over many years looked the other way and allowed a brutal government to terrorize its population without a word of opposition.
With that history in mind, it is worthwhile to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Christian Pope,” published in the New York Review of Books in 1965. Arendt was reviewing Journal of a Soul, the spiritual diaries of Pope John XXIII, the former Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The Jewish thinker has little patience for “endlessly repetitive devout outpourings and self-exhortation” that go on for “pages and pages” and read like “an elementary textbook on how to be good and avoid evil.” Arendt had little patience with such things and little hope that clichés, no matter how well meaning, would have much impact on the moral state of our time.
What did fascinate Arendt, however, were the anecdotes Pope John XXIII tells and the stories about him that she heard while traveling in Rome. She tells of a “Roman chambermaid” in her hotel who asked her, in all innocence:
“Madam,” she said, “this Pope was a real Christian. How could that be? And how could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter’s chair? Didn’t he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?”
Arendt had a simple answer for the maid. “No.” She writes that Roncalli was largely unknown upon his selection and arrived as an outsider. He was, in the words of her title, a true Christian living in the spirit of Jesus Christ. In a sense, this was so surprising in the midst of the 20th century that no one had imagined it to be possible, and Roncalli was selected without anyone knowing who he was.
Who he was Arendt found not in his book, but in the stories told about him. Whether the stories are authentic, she writes, is not so important, because “even if their authenticity were denied, their very invention would be characteristic enough for the man and for what people thought of him to make them worth telling.” One of these stories shows Roncalli’s common touch, something now being praised widely in Bergoglio.
The story tells that the plumbers had arrived for repairs in the Vatican. The Pope heard how one of them started swearing in the name of the whole Holy Family. He came out and asked politely: “Must you do this? Can’t you say merde as we do too?”
My favorite story tells of Roncalli’s meeting with Pope Pius XII in 1944 in Paris. Apparently Pius tells Roncalli that he is busy and has only 7 minutes to spare for their conversation. Roncalli then “took his leave with the words: “In that case, the remaining six minutes are superfluous.”
And then there is the story of Roncalli’s reaction when he was given Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which portrayed Pope Pius XII as silent and indifferent to the persecution and extermination of European Jews. When Roncalli was asked what one could do against Hochhuth’s play, he responded: “’Do against it? What can you do against the truth?’”
These stories are essential, Arendt writes, because they
show the complete independence which comes from a true detachment from the things of this world, the splendid freedom from prejudice and convention which quite frequently could result in an almost Voltairean wit, an astounding quickness in turning the tables.
Arendt found in Roncalli the kind of independence and “self-thinking” she valued so highly and that unites all the persons she profiled in her book Men in Dark Times. For Roncalli, his “complete freedom from cares and worries was his form of humility; what set him free was that he could say without any reservation, mental or emotional: “Thy will be done.”” It was this humility that girded Roncalli’s faith and led to his being content to live from day to day and even hour to hour “like the lilies in the field” with “no concern for the future.” It was, in other words, his faith—and not any theory or philosophy—that “guarded him against ‘in any way conniving with evil in the hope that by so doing [he] may be useful to someone.’” A true Christian in imitation of Jesus, Roncalli was one who “welcomed his painful and premature death as confirmation of his vocation: the “sacrifice” that was needed for the great enterprise he had to leave undone.”
There was one exception, however, to Roncalli’s sureness of his innocence, and that was his action and service during World War II. Here is Arendt’s account:
It is with respect to his work in Turkey, where, during the war, he came into contact with Jewish organizations (and, in one instance, prevented the Turkish government from shipping back to Germany some hundred Jewish children who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe) that he later raised one of the very rare serious reproaches against himself—for all “examinations of conscience” notwithstanding, he was not at all given to self-criticism. “Could I not,” he wrote, “should I not, have done more, have made a more decided effort and gone against the inclinations of my nature? Did the search for calm and peace, which I considered to be more in harmony with the Lord’s spirit, not perhaps mask a certain unwillingness to take up the sword?” At this time, however, he had permitted himself but one outburst. Upon the outbreak of the war with Russia, he was approached by the German Ambassador, Franz von Papen, who asked him to use his influence in Rome for outspoken support of Germany by the Pope. “And what shall I say about the millions of Jews your countrymen are murdering in Poland and in Germany?” This was in 1941, when the great massacre had just begun.
Even in his questioning of himself in his actions during the war, Roncalli shows himself to be a man of independence and faith. Yes, he might have done more. But unlike so many who did nothing, he made his dissent known, worked to do good where he could, and yet still fell short. And then struggled with his shortcomings.
These stories of the self-thinking independence of Pope John XXIII offer a revealing and humbling reflection in relation to the new Pope Francis I. Like Roncalli, Bergoglio is praised for his humility and his simple faith. And like Roncalli, Bergoglio served the Church through dark times, when secular authorities were engaging in untold evils and the Church remained silent if not complicit. But Roncalli not only did speak up and act to protect the persecuted and hopeless, he also worried that he had not done enough. He was right.
Many are accusing Pope Francis I of war crimes and complicity. I worry about jumping to conclusions when we do not know what happened. But the new Pope carries baggage Roncalli did not—formal accusations of complicity with terror and torture. It is human to respond with denials and anger. It would be befitting, however, if Pope Francis I would throw aside such defenses and let the truth come out. That would be an instance of leadership by example that might actually serve to cleanse the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church.
On this first weekend of Pope Francis I new reign, it is well worth revisiting Hannah Arendt’s The Christian Pope. It is your weekend read.
A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.
Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.
The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”
Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.
It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.
Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”
Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”
The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”
The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”
There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:
One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.
Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.