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.
"I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions… Don’t take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself.”
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.