Thursday, December 17, 2015
Donald Trump, Politics, And Hollywood–American Excess And Cultural Exceptionalism At Its Very Best
The French are serious people. A few years ago the most popular program on television was called Apostrophes, an hour-long prime-time talk show on books, authors, and literature. It ran for fifteen years on France 2, a major network, and had a loyal, devoted audience. This was no Oprah Winfrey chat show, but an intellectual program which assumed the intelligence of its viewers and compromised nothing in the way of rigorous literary analysis. Discussions ranged from religion and philosophy to fiction and history.
Imagine an Apostrophes on American network television. Impossible. The closest thing is C-Span’s Book TV with a viewership barely breaking 1000 on a network whose average viewership at any one time is just over 13,000. The show, far from the intensive, debate-style roundtable format of Apostrophes, is easygoing with as much attention given to the authors’ biography and interests as to the content of the books.
French intellectuals have always been national heroes. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and modern thinkers have never been relegated to the back pages. The publication of a new book is always an event, well-covered by the press and given fair but demanding analysis.
Educated French have always had an understanding of and appreciation for history. Critical reviews will always begin with references to the relevant past, and frame current arguments within the context of the social, economic, and philosophical context of history. It was not uncommon in the days before pluralism for the working class to be versed on French history, art, literature, and culture. Not all of the millions of viewers of Apostrophes taught at the Sorbonne.
History, art, culture, literature, and political science have always been part and parcel of the French patrimony. One of the reasons why it is hard for older, conservative French to embrace the ‘new’ multicultural France is because the country has always been the self-anointed caretaker and guardian of European Christian culture. Every schoolchild knows La Chanson de Roland, the heroic story of Roland and Charlemagne holding off the Saracen hordes and keeping Europe Christian.
Until World War II and the geopolitical rise of the United States, French was the language of diplomacy and culture; and while some quarter had always been given to German philosophers, it had been done so begrudgingly. France had always claimed the particular brilliance of thinkers like Descartes, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Montesquieu; and scientists like Pascal, Curie, and Foucault.
The point is not to lionize France’s intellectual achievements. The most important early Christian theologians like Origen, Augustine, and Clement were from Africa; and others from Palestine and Asia Minor. The Muslim world in the first centuries after Mohammed was responsible for remarkable discoveries in astronomy and mathematics. Indian philosophy and theology, among the most complex and sophisticated of all religions, originated in the Subcontinent over five-thousand years ago. Greece, Rome, and Persia contributed as much as any culture to human thought.
Just as many Indians can recite the Vedas and verses from the Upanishads; have an intimacy with their mythological, religious, and cultural history; and have incorporate the principles of ancient Hinduism into their daily lives; so the French in a somewhat more limited but equally significant way, internalized intellectual thought.
No one would argue that workers on the scaffold have the same analytical acuity as Énarques or philosophers at the University of Paris; but they have a sense of the importance of intellectual, academic thought, in culture. Nor should the cultural diversity that now characterizes France be minimized. New immigrants, especially non-Christian minorities, have increasingly chosen separatism rather than inclusion into the secular French state. This trend will necessarily weaken French citizens’ ties to and valuation of their Christian past.
Nevertheless, France has always been the most intellectual country on earth, and until the legacy of Versailles, 1989, Chartres, and Roncesvalles have been totally forgotten, France is still a nation of thinkers.
Within certain corners of the United States, so is America. Our intellectuals have the New York Review of Books. Conversations in the salons of Washington and New York still range as widely as any Frenchman on theology, history, and political science; but intellectualism is not the hallmark of America. In fact, the reverse is very much true. American politicians do their best to keep their discourse simple, their conversations country, and their references popular.
George W. Bush, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School understood that his patrician Ivy League background would get him nowhere in populist, grass-roots, down-home America, and he was careful to hide his elite intellectual roots. John F. Kennedy was the closest thing we had to an intellectual in power; but his popularity rested more on his charm, his wife’s beauty, his sexual allure, and his open house to artists. Camelot was beyond the reach of most Americans, but the Kennedys’ Hollywood version was just fine.
Many Europeans – especially the French – are absolutely incredulous at the American spectacle of a Presidential election. Even without Donald Trump, the election cycle would be viewed as a circus, an every-four-year vaudeville show, a rough-and-tumble free-for-all where personality, persona, and image are far more important than ideas of substance. Of course American politicians discuss ‘the issues’, but they are less intellectually solid, historically vetted, and thoughtful conclusive arguments than showmanship.
No savvy American observer feels any such surprise. We know that Hollywood, vaudeville, snake-oil salesmen, circus acts, revival tents, and bare-knuckled prize fights characterize us perfectly. Donald Trump is simply the most outlandish expression of American culture. He is loud, outsized, intemperate, supremely confident, and a win-some-lose-some, a-sucker-is-born-every-minute American genius.
The liberal, ‘progressive’ Left is the only place in American society where people don’t get it. Their assumption is that only the logical, thoughtful, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other analysis is right. They dismiss the Bible-based, evangelical, Pentecostal tradition of the Southern and rural Midwestern United States as ignorant, backward, and downright dumb. There is no room for a charismatic Jesus in Unitarian Universalist Church. No room for climate denying, gun-owning, good ol’ boys. No space for individualists, preppers, or multiculturalism skeptics.
For the rest of us, America is a great country – unique, very exceptional, and exciting. We are culturally exceptional, not politically so. Our Hollywood populism is not simply another different cultural expression from that of Old Europe. It is fundamentally, structurally different. Braggadocio, ambition, individualism, and down-home, music-and-dancing religion are what define us so completely that looked at with some perspective, we are about as different from France as Jupiter is from Mercury.
For the time being, America’s sun has not yet set; and our culture will continue to spread for a while longer. Eventually it will set; and some other cultural paradigm will rise in its place. Islamic fundamentalism, perhaps; or a European cultural mongrel, finally capitulating to demography and economic pressure, and accepting all comers regardless of race, religion, or attitude.
While America is still an exceptional place, Europeans should enjoy the show. Admission is free, and the ride unlike any other. Journalists at Le Monde, France’s intellectual journal of record, write about race, gender, and ethnicity almost as much as we do. However, their articles put race within the context of ancient and modern history and analyze slavery for what it was – a universal component of both primitive societies and advanced empires. Gender is a function of feminism; and Le Monde intellectual contributors weigh in less on rights and more on female legitimacy. Scholarly treatises on Shakespeare’s strong women, the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg and the feminist resurgence in the 19th century, and the socio-political dimension of court and courtyard are common.
In America race, gender, and ethnicity are vaudeville acts. Individualism, ambition, and get-mine entitlement produce hysteria on the stump, riots in the streets, and endless melodrama on television. American exceptionalism indeed includes guns, violence, and a social free-for-all. For all the think-tank position papers on income inequality, tax reform, and the distribution of wealth, most people could care less. Demonstrations against the One Percent and Wall Street were carnivals – all show and no tell; all gyrations and fireworks with no substantive thought to speak of.
For a number of years, the liberal ‘progressive’ Left has succeeded in shutting down many circus tents. The second Wild West has been shuttered. Political Correctness has clotured debate, forced nasty opinions underground, and frustrated tens of millions of Americans.
Along comes Donald Trump and the flaps to the Big Top are open again. Lion-tamers, clowns, fat ladies, babies with two heads, and corpses that come to life. Circuses are performances on the cultural edge. There is nothing tame or temperate inside the tent. Anything goes. Circuses are closing down – too much animal abuse, too much insensitivity for the freaky, short, hairy and ugly. Too bad, because every country needs this kind of uninhibited spectacle.
Circuses may be shutting down; so thank God for Donald Trump. No sanctimony, political correctness, insincerity, or lily-livered toadying. He is a three-ring circus, a one-man vaudeville show, and I am damned glad he’s around.