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Published on: February 22, 2014
The Weekend Read
The Irony of the Elite

The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in revelations about it.

Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. The folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of a Reagan speechwriter like Noonan complaining about the excesses of the power elites, but she 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 “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. “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt, on the other hand, provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting. In it, 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 T.V. 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 revelations about it. 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, than 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. 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 pursuing 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 smile.

show comments
  • Boritz

    “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.”

    In a 1976 interview Martin Heidegger was asked how the events of the preceding thirty years had informed his understanding of and attitude toward that German political movement he had joined in the 1930s. His reply: Huh?

    This article is right to invoke references to Weimar. That is a useful roadmap for where we are and where we are going.

  • Anthony

    Any determined pursuit of how and why things happen generates passion and exploration; moreover, what can be said about the predominant social institutions, values, and ideologies (of Elites generally) speaks to superstructure girding essay’s theme – essentially we are critiquing an entire cultural and social order. The ruling ideas (as karl Marx once said) are the ideas of the ruling class (allowing for modifications). “Those who control the material production of society are also able to control the mental production” and its elite behavior. So, behavior bemoaned by Noonan, et al can properly be identified as U.S. socialization via orthodoxy disseminated culturally – but for some, chickens coming home to roost appear ironic (“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.”).

  • MarkE

    When I watch ”House of Cards” I think of Nicolo Machiavelli. When I think about Machiavelli, I think about
    Florentine history in a general way. Before we had democracy we had the republic.
    Before we had the republic we had oligarchs. Before we had oligarchs we had the
    warring princes.

    To me the public acceptance of Machiavellian
    behavior suggests we are falling back from the oligarchic to warring-princes
    stage of political development. It certainly indicates a loss of respect for
    the republic and the democratic principles which depend on having a successful
    and respected republic.

  • amoose1959

    Jews are disproportionately represented in the media

    Jews are disproportionately represented in finance

    Jews are disproportionately represented in hollywood

    Jews are disproportionately represented in elite schools

    Jews are disproportionately represented in upper income

    Jews are disproportionately represented in the high IQ group

    From Peggy Noonan “And it is all about the behavior of our elites, our upper classes, which we define now in a practical sense as those who are successful, affluent and powerful. This group not only includes but is almost limited to our political class, Wall Street, and the media, from Hollywood to the news divisions.”

    Peggy Noonan is an anti-semite.

    • Nick

      I’m sure you are not, to have come up with the above thoughts!

      When I think of elites, I think of Bohner, Geithner, McConnell, Obama. I know that they are all tied in with wall street types. I don’t know the names of a lot of the big wall st types (although geithner was one), but everyone I personally know who went to wall street were Christian.

      It takes a certain type of person to project race to profession or to class. Of course, the above may be sarcastic, but I’m trying to figure out exactly where the “tie in” is here (usually sarcasm reaches for something in the subject to work with – this is just blather out of the blue…)

  • http://foobarista.blogspot.com foobarista

    Irony has jumped the shark.

    • Kavanna

      Must be some shark.

    • Jim__L

      Irony requires some level of violation of expectations.

      Once irony becomes expected, the only way to be ironic is to be sincere. =)

  • rheddles

    Fear not. Things will be much better after the crash the feds can’t cover.

  • Jim__L

    It’s gotten so bad that during political campaigns, people applaud advertisements in their own party that they know are misleading or otherwise lack integrity, on the grounds that “this will give us 3 points in the polls.” The worst is when they allow these very ads to change their own minds — when they know the ads are bull!

  • free_agent

    It sounds to me that in these two groups, in order to succeed, one has to spend a lot of time pretending in public that one is something that one is not. In this case, it seems to be the pose that everything one does is at root driven by some grand, altruistic motive. (Oddly, ordinary schmucks don’t have to pretend that.) If you have to do too much of that, there is an overwhelming urge to form a private club where you can be among others like you, let your hair down, and stop having to pretend.

    After writing this, I imagined the Stonewall Club, where gay men and transvestites could go and actually be themselves. The public of the times hated it…

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