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Grey Gardens Nation
The 1975 documentary Grey Gardens followed two women, mother and daughter, who lived in an East Hampton mansion — in squalor, surrounded by garbage.
Two members of the Bouvier family, socially prominent and formerly affluent, related to a First Lady, lived in a mansion in a neighborhood of mansions, but in a state of poverty and decay. They had the forms and markers of status, and a famous name, but not the actual lives of high-status people. Their mansion rotted.
In Europe this month to lead the diplomatic response to a war, the Vice-President of the United States responded to a question about refugees by giggling and cackling and babbling in typical form:
And then the “fact-checkers” at Reuters explained that she actually didn’t giggle and cackle and babble, because, okay, she did cackle and giggle and babble, but she didn’t cackle and giggle and babble specifically about the refugees, so it doesn’t count: “It is clear from viewing the longer video in context that Harris and Duda laughed at the awkwardness of not knowing who should speak first. There is no evidence that Harris was laughing at the refugees or the crisis in Ukraine.” The question was about refugees, and she laughed — she laughed a lot — right after the question, but Reuters apparently called no tagbacks before the play, so no points accrue.
So we have an awkward and ineffective playactor who occupies the position of a political leader, but lacks the stature or ability to go along with it, and we have journalists who labor to protect people in powerful political positions from the possibility that people will notice who they really are and what they really do. We have political leaders who aren’t political leaders, and journalists who aren’t journalists: the form without the substance.
Meanwhile, a recent debate on the topic of free speech at Yale Law School — the nation’s top-ranked law school, which produces presidents and Supreme Court justices — began with law students screaming abuse (“I’ll fight you, bitch”) at one of the panelists, before walking out as a group and continuing to shout and pound on the walls of the adjacent hallway.
Now: The students were angry at the panelist, the bitch they wanted to fight, because she’s an anti-trans social conservative, and couldn’t you just die? But the thing that law students are learning to do is be lawyers — advocates for a position in a formalized exchange of competing views, in controversies that play out in open court. They’re training at the profession of making an argument. The point of sitting through an argument made by a person whose views you despise is that you can learn about something you want to fight against; you can see what the enemy says, and how she says it, and so do a part of the work of preparing yourself to advance a different position. So we have law students, people training for a debate-and-exchange-centered profession, who don’t want to hear things they don’t agree with. It’s like a minor league baseball player saying he refuses to touch a baseball, because baseballs offend him, but anyway, when are you assholes sending me up to the major leagues? We have people who want to occupy the profession of the law without preparing for the substance of professional engagement with competing positions: the form without the substance.
(Doing what journalists do, now, the fact-checkers explain that none of this puts points on the anti-free-speech scoreboard: “The students made their point at the very start of the event and walked out before the conversation began.” It is precisely the point that 1.) law students 2.) walked out before the conversation began. In ten years, oral argument before the Supreme Court will be that Woke lawyers stand up and scream I’M NOT GONNA LISTEN TO THIS SHIT, YOU ASSHOLES at the justices, then storm out and descend into a long round of day-drinking while waiting for the court to rule in their favor, because oh my god they CAN’T EVEN.)
Or take Lesley Stahl, please: a journalist whose role is to prevent discussion of a political controversy. She plays a reporter on television, but she isn’t one: the form without the substance.
We have, all over the culture, people who playact roles without doing the work of the roles, who occupy forms without providing the substance. They live in a mansion that someone else bought for them — they have privileged positions in an affluent society built by the labor and wisdom of previous generations — but they increasingly live in piles of garbage. They reside within symbols of status, but their symbols are rotting away beneath them. They were given the culture, but they don’t know how to maintain it.
We sustain all of this high-status cosplay because it’s overlaid across the foundation of a still-affluent society in which people still grow food and drive trucks. But the weight of the overlay is beginning to crush the foundation. In effect, we’re in a contest of persistence between elite cosplayers and low-status producers. We’ll see.