Not intending to go all political here, I just really enjoy observing culture, narratives, and human behavior from the perspective of story lines. Real life unfolds just like a novel sometimes.
Walter White has been on mind lately, the fictional character from the series “Breaking Bad.” For those who don’t know he’s a chemistry teacher playing by all the rules, when he gets sick, has financial trouble, and realizes the deck is stacked against him, he’s trapped in a game he cannot win. He’s a good guy doing everything right and suffering greatly for it, so he starts cooking meth on the side to help pay off some of his medical bills. From there on out the story explodes. Literally.
That theme of “good guys finish last” or “there’s no reward for playing by the rules,” that realization that the system is corrupt and we no longer seem to be living in a meritocracy plagues a lot of people from my generation, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and if I do what I am supposed to, the system will simply crush me and spit me out. And it does, it frequently does. Walter White captured that sense of injustice, that awareness that in the game of life, following the rules is how you lose. Good guys finish last.
Two articles I came across this week gave me some more food for thought. The first is by David Ernst, Donald Trump Is The First President To Turn Postmodernism Against Itself. A really fabulous article that speaks of heroes and anti-heroes. He too speaks of Walter White, Tony Soprano, Scarface, these bad guys we all secretely cheer for, on the down low at least. He captures that spirit well by saying of Al Pacino’s character, “All these well-to-do Miami types wouldn’t be caught dead associating with someone like Tony, even though they know full well that the cocaine business is making them all rich, and many of them probably abuse his product.” Al Pacino’s character turns “polite society” on its head simply by seeing it for what it really is.
So by the time Donald Trump comes along in the tale, David plays off that same theme, “In other words: even if I have been a no-good, rotten, disgusting scoundrel, what does that make you? At least I don’t pretend to be decent; you people, on the other hand, have the gall to pretend that you’re any better than I am. Let’s dispense with the fiction that you would have treated me with any less contempt if I had bothered to live up to any of your standards of decency in the first place, and acknowledge that they have nothing to do with decency per se, and everything to do with power.”
“Deplorables,” proudly deplorable, and that is exactly how it went down.
The other article, Those Stung by Wasps by Rod Dreher, could not be more of a contrast, a kind of cluelessness that makes me want to scream in frustration. You are not listening, you refuse to hear, you are not even observing the data right in front of you. He says, “The astonishing audacity and recklessness with which Trump has begun his presidency is a bad sign.” A bad sign for whom? Has anyone ever ran for president without some reckless audacity? He continues, “As every well-raised Southern child knows, manners express morality.”
That punches me right in my little working class heart, it triggers all sorts of classist issues and deep-seated resentments about “polite society,” about the upper crust who can smile so coldly, so politely, while stabbing you right in the back. Make no mistake, he isn’t speaking of saying “please” and “thank you” here, he is speaking of “manners as morality,” as in the way we may be planning to do great harm to a few thousand people, but we will be doing it within the bounds of polite society, in a civilized way that reflects our genteel upbringing and good manners, and this is somehow morally okay because we are all “the right kind of people.”
Ahh, the banality of evil, the moral ambiguity of “good manners.” I always find that kind of duplicity deeply disturbing. There’s a kind of genteel civility, good manners and integrity, among those we shall call the “non elite,” the outsiders. Many of the Rod Dreher’s of the world cannot see it, they do not even understand it, but a few million people walked into a voting booth on election day, banking on it.
And where is polite society, the mannered elite right now? Rioting, looting, protesting….