Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, September 19, 2014

Obedience to Authority: The Masterpiece Theater Edition

Authoritarian thinking requires a lot of denial, as we have often discussed in the past. Since you cannot question or deny what you are told, you must studiously ignore or try to suppress any disagreement. It's very difficult to block out most of the world so authoritarians always want others to make it easier for them by never disagreeing with authority.


Of course this includes preserving the concept of authority and hierarchy itself. This often creates a problem because most of the fun things in life are a rebellion against authority, a freeing of the mind, body and spirit. Art, music, theater; youth, dancing, some intellectual and emotional growth. Every generation rebels against earlier ones and needs to interpret their world through their own eyes.  Popular culture, especially a commercial popular culture like ours, is liberal by nature.  A commercial society needs to create demand constantly, and a good way to do that is to push the new and different. Popular culture churns constantly.


This makes the conservatives quite upset. They feel they have been judged and rejected as uncool, even though they rejected popular culture to preserve their authoritarian bubble, not the other way around. They want popular culture that reinforces their worldview, especially if it flatters them in some way. They want the popular culture of earlier times, when authority was not questioned. Sadly, for the reasons given above, the art of earlier times also often rebelled against authority. But that is a fact. Other facts include: the fundamentals of human nature do not change and great art often addresses universal experiences. None of this matters to the conservative, who typically is not overly nice when it comes to honesty and reality. They can't repress most of their psyche without trying to take out everyone who gets in the way.


Which finally brings us to our Princess of Paper Towels, Megan McArdle. For a long time, McArdle has been telling us that the middle class is just fine-n-dandy and all those systematic problems that so devastated the rich did not lower many middle class fellow Americans to poor Americans. She did this because the greatest yet most amorphous fear of our lives is losing our middle class status.


We commit a lot of crimes to keep that status, and ignore a lot of immoral acts. We vote for candidates that we know are screwing our poor and killing other countries' poor. We ignore our own poor and their struggles to join the middle class. We let corporations use us up and throw us aside. We watch the monumental persecution of African Americans and sigh. We don't like any of this or want any of this and we do what we can to help, but the alternative is giving up our safe lives for a violent life fighting poverty. Nobody wants that and every one of us, every single person, wants better for ourselves and our kids.


We do not really see the poor as Americans. They can't vote or buy or do anyone any favors. They aren't very visible. They're usually quiet and obedient. They're not quite Christians either. God rewards good behavior and punishes bad. Successful people are people who are smart and moral and work hard and don't need help. When you fail and are kicked out of the middle class, you are nothing. McArdle knows this; she says the poor don't really exist all the time. And she gets more than a little miffed when the entire world won't go along with her emotionally stunted and empathy-free conclusions.


Libertarians want to take over popular culture so they can live exclusively in their lovely mental fairy castle, where they are the benevolent and technologically advanced ruler of an extremely attractive populace. They want their authority and superiority to be recognized before all the world. They want to be cool but they'll settle for omnipresent.


I’ve spoken before about the lack of drama in middle-class life these days and how it has affected television and movies. Wait, wait -- before you start penning your angry comment, let me make it clear that I am not saying there are no conflicts, challenges or struggles in middle-class life. But the stakes are (thankfully) a lot lower. Having sex, or a baby, outside of marriage is no longer a sin that could see you cast out of decent society.



McArdle has always had the oddest way of addressing her readers, as if she is the Voice of Reason before an angry populace eager to defend its incompetence and therefore ego and now I suddenly realize that she is addressing everyone as if she is Jane John Galt and they are James Taggart or Wesley Mouch. Another mystery solved!


Of course McArdle brings up moral issues to distract from economic issues. Why not, it works for everyone else.


Widows and orphans don’t starve to death. There are plenty of ways to support yourself other than becoming a downtrodden servant or marrying money. Young people rarely die of sudden, or dramatically lingering, illnesses. Women in horrible marriages can leave them.



And every single one of these situations would change if McArdle got her way. The widows and orphans would not have Social Security. The worker would have no power to improve his situation, something that is of course actually happening again. Medicare and Obamacare help ensure people can get care and the government finances research for cures for illness. Liberals fought and won the right to divorce, have an abortion, use birth control, and earn opportunities for women. Conservatives would take it all away, and libertarians would let them because the scum don't deserve rights anyway.


These are all great advances in human flourishing, but it has done away with most of the stock dramatics that sustained the fiction and theater of yesteryear.



Because people no longer lose their homes and businesses. They don't have to fight for the right to privacy and self-sufficiency. They are not unemployed or chronically underemployed, especially in service jobs. They didn't die because they lost a job and health insurance.


I suspect that’s the reason so much of today’s critically acclaimed television dips into the criminal underworld, where there’s still plenty of life-and-death drama to go around.



Crime in drama: A new concept!


TV also borrows heavily from the past, of course, and fictional worlds where the mores of our past still apply. So far this year, I’ve watched "The Knick," "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Outlander," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Downton Abbey." Oh, I complain about the various anachronisms -- the clothes are too clean, the lives of the servants are far too easy and don’t even get me started on, um, almost everything in "The Knick." But these are forgivable errors, occasionally almost lovable.



McArdle has shown almost no knowledge of history and considerable ignorance of domestic history.


The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows' inability to commit to that drama -- to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can’t resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern -- and so they sap the conflicts they’re portraying of their meaning.



Likewise, the seventeenth century should have never presented dramas set in ancient Greece and Rome, or early Italy, or even the Tower of London. Someone tell Shakespeare at once.


Every poor person lives in unmitigated squalor; every person who is not poor is grotesquely oblivious or spouts absurd social Darwinist dogma. Race and gender relations are handled with the subtlety and gripping realism of an ABC Afterschool Special, and every likable woman must, of course, at least secretly aspire to work outside the home. In period dramas, the personal is always, always political.



So many, many, many hot buttons for McArdle; so much denial to call up at once! How offended she is to be confronted and affronted with poverty, racism, sexism, and repression during more conservative times! The past was better, doesn't everyone know that? America was rich and successful and feared. People knew their place. But the personal has always been political, no matter how much she feels compelled to deny it.


This is not, of course, how anyone actually experiences life, outside perhaps a handful of activists.



"Drama is life with the dull part left out," said Alfred Hitchcock. Dramas portray conflict. No disagreement, no conflict. No conflict, no drama.


The art of the time was often concerned with the unfairness of social convention, but it also managed to show people struggling with what they wanted to do and what they ought to do. This is very dramatic. Modern period pieces know what these people ought to do: They ought to blow it all up and join the 21st century, for heaven’s sake. This is … not very dramatic. After a while, it becomes really very irritating.



The struggle between what one wants to do and what one ought to do can take many forms. It can be a struggle for self-control, for coming to terms with difficulties and mistreatment, for finding one's place in the world, for understanding one's relationship to others. That is not the struggle in McArdle's eyes. As with all authoritarians, her struggle is with obedience to authority. Yours, not hers.


I’ve been thinking about this because I just finished watching "Srugim," an Israeli drama about modern Orthodox singles living in Jerusalem. One of the creators of the show grew up observant; most of the others working on it did not. Yet it managed to be interesting, touching and completely refreshing, because there was nothing else like it on television.

The most refreshing thing about it is that it was not intent on showing you what stunted, appalling lives these anachronistic characters lead (but such beautiful horses and pretty clothes!). Instead, wonder of wonders, it dramatized conflicts that don’t even exist in the secular world. Some of them were trivial (what do you do when you forgot to turn off the refrigerator light before Shabbos?). Some of them were profound (what do you do when you realize you’ve stopped believing in God?). It showed you what is exotic and beautiful and appealing -- and confining and difficult -- about living a life within all-encompassing moral rules. It understood that there are trade-offs, and that choices can simultaneously be capable of creating great meaning and great pain.



The idea of McArdle wrestling with moral dilemmas or appreciating others who do is laughable. Even if we did not agree with studies that clearly demonstrate the lack of empathy in libertarians, McArdle has demonstrated this callousness dozens of times. McArdle claims that one finds meaning in submission to authority, that is, it one gives purpose, structure, and guidance. The authority tells you who you are and what to believe, how to believe it, and how to interact with others and the world.


Not many of us know who we are and we are dying to be told everything about us to end the suspense. Who am I? means am I good, do people like me, do I have value, am I special? The authority gives all the answers and asks only obedience in return. This obedience gives the authority utter freedom to act as it pleases, which satisfies its needs.


But, again, the issue is not moral, it is economic. Moral rules have to be followed to retain belonging to the group, since that is how discipline is maintained in many authoritarian structures. McArdle wants everyone to just shut up and do whatever the economic elite want them to do. But instead she has to tolerate intelligent people like Paul Krugman telling her she is wrong, scientists telling her she is fear-driven, authoritarian, a low-effort thinker, and everyone telling her she is morally vacant. It's getting harder and harder to maintain econoblogger authority and she's starting to get pissed off.


The problem is not 21st century morals, it's 21st century economics, her bread and butter and Himalayan salt. McArdle claims to be agnostic and lived as if the moral rules of her tribe don't apply to her. She had premarital sex and cohabitated with one (or more) man before marriage. She takes birth control; as far as we know she has never been pregnant. (Discussing such things might be uncomfortable for McArdle, but we all know that women must feel sexual discomfort if others want her to.) No, it's not moral issues that make McArdle nostalgic.


It's economic power, for the elite few and the women who were related to them. McArdle does not protest that these contemporary Israeli women are able to have some economic independence, taking power away from men's economic control. She praises the Israelis' sexual obedience.


It was a sort of combination between a sitcom and a drama, so many of these conflicts probably ended more happily than they would in real life. But they do not end with the pat assurance that an American television show would have brought to it for fear of seeming to endorse some sort of retrograde sexual morality. There is more than one right answer, and all of those answers are often hard. "Srugim" was done by a secular cast for a largely secular audience. There’s no reason that we can’t do the same thing with our own past, except that the makers -- and maybe audiences -- seem to lack the imagination.



Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still be watching all of my period dramas this year. But I do wish I had more "Srugim" and less preaching.



Of course she'll be watching all of her period dramas. Those were the days, when everyone publically acknowledged your superior station in life. Poorer people bowed to you and stood aside so you could go first in line. Your clothes were infinitely finer than those of the poor, your hands whiter, your skin softer, your hair smoother. The riffraff weren't allowed in any of the places you frequented. You never had to work; you could hire servants for a few bob and they couldn't ever sue you. God was an Englishman and for 60 minutes, so are you.


At least, that is what you planned. Instead your happy fun time is ruined by all the contemporary writers who refuse to obey, who meanly inject rebellion against authority when there should be none. It has become "really very irritating," and McArdle wants you to stop at once. For the sake of the children, of course.

15 comments:

mew said...

"One of the creators of the show grew up observant; most of the others working on it did not."

Maybe I'm missing some context here, but through watching this Israeli tv show, she's somehow managed to distinguish the observational skills of the assorted crew members?

Mr. Wonderful said...

"The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows' inability to commit to that drama -- to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can’t resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern -- and so they sap the conflicts they’re portraying of their meaning."

This may be the stupidest thing she's said in her life--and I've more than once defended her against the charge of stupidity by saying, No, she's not stupid. She's dishonest.

Does she really think that ANY novelist or dramatist, since the Greeks, wrote using non-contemporaneous characters (such as gods, or figures from the past) from the moral p.o.v. of anyone other than their audiences? Does she think that the dilemmas on Boardwalk Empire wouldn't make sense to people who actually lived back then? Ditto Downton Abbey and all the rest?

Does she think Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar for an ancient Roman sensibility?

And are the contemporary issues of returning vets, drug addiction, fatal diseases, suicide, and child abuse not dramatic enough for her?

It's what I've been saying here repeatedly: Megan McIdiot thinks that an explainer's expertise in financial matters qualifies her to opine on literally anything.

Mr. Wonderful said...

"Likewise, the seventeenth century should have never presented dramas set in ancient Greece and Rome, or early Italy, or even the Tower of London. Someone tell Shakespeare at once."

Sorry, Susan. I got so pissed off I wrote the above before reading the whole thing. That'll learn me!

Gary McCammon said...

McArdle claims that one finds meaning in submission to authority, that is, it one gives purpose, structure, and guidance.

I think maybe she went from watching her soap to "Kindergarden Cop" and just didn't notice.

Yastreblyansky said...

@mew--Not to do with detective powers; "observant" in the context means following the rules of kashrut, not observant means eating bacon etc.

Yastreblyansky said...

Really nice piece.

KWillow said...

Widows and orphans don’t starve to death. There are plenty of ways to support yourself other than becoming a downtrodden servant or marrying money. Young people rarely die of sudden, or dramatically lingering, illnesses. Women in horrible marriages can leave them.

Stupid lie piled upon stupid lie upon stupid lie. I just loathe this woman, laughing at her stupidity isn't enough, because she is a willing, even proud, servant of Evil.

KWillow said...

And another thing! A lot of people don't much care for Shakespeare plays, or the few Greek & Roman Dramas we have; and I know most "average" Americans would die of boredom watching a contemporary Victorian play, or even a movie made from a Victorian book such as ... Oliver or David Copperfield (snoozefests, tho the books are good).

Can anyone imagine ArgleBargle enthralled by Antigone (c. 442 BC)
Oedipus the King (c. 429 BC)?

She's a snob who loves modern Pop culture, but puts it down in an effort to appear intellectual. Pffft!

(HT Wikipedia)

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, yastreblyansky.

mew said...

@Yastreblyansky
Now I feel dumber than Megan. Great.

Anonymous said...

She's a snob who loves modern Pop culture, but puts it down in an effort to appear intellectual. Pffft!

This. Exactly this.

Clever Pseudonym said...

I'll wager Megan's one of those obnoxious people who tells people at parties she only watches PBS.

Susan of Texas said...

Heh, but would that be hip enough? P. Suderman will cover the Battlestar Galactica/Halo end of the room, but someone must tell everyone what to think about the topic of the day.

Clever Pseudonym said...

The proper hipster intullekshool claim would be "I don't even own a TV," but that wouldn't vibe with Megan's need to have The Most Expensive One.

Susan of Texas said...

Oh, I think she did that back in the day--she said that the really rich kids didn't have tvs in their rooms. Ah, here we go:

"[John Scalzi lists] the number of ways that he, who was not privileged, nonetheless registers as privileged by this checklist. I, who had a pretty soft upbringing, must also protest. Many of the things on the list have nothing to do with "privilege", and in fact, I didn't get them, because my parents poured pretty much all of their disposable income into educating me: vacations, for example. Many of the other things on that checklist--getting a new car from your parents, going on a cruise with your family, having a television in your room--were rare among my ultra-privileged private school classmates because they were seen as vulgar; not having those things was a sign of higher social class."

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/01/the-p-word/2482/

McArdle wasn't privileged like the rich kids because she had less money but she was still just like the rich kids because she didn't have vulgar new cars tvs, or bourgeoisie vacations.

So there!