EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is reprinted with permission from Acculturated.
A few celebrities lost their heads recently.
Two of them were, of course, President Donald Trump in effigy and his would-be executioner, Kathy Griffin. The week has not turned out well for Griffin, and one can’t help but feel pity for her as the corporate guillotines fall on her apparently prosperous career as tipsy New Year’s Eve commentator, mid-level comic, and “Squatty Potty” rep.
The third Famous Person to lose his stack was Robert De Niro, who inflicted upon some college graduates and their families his take on our current political moment. His remarks, delivered in a brief address at a Brown University commencement ceremony, were rather worse than Griffin’s stunt, if not quite as shocking.
“In movie terms, when you started school the country was an inspiring, uplifting drama,” De Niro said, after the university conferred upon him an honorary degree. “You’re graduating into a tragic, dumba** comedy.”
We will first have to set aside De Niro’s offense to good taste. To be sure, the occasion’s dignity was already compromised by the university’s touting its commencement celebrations as having “more than a little celebrity” and yet characterizing the occasion as “a time . . . for taking seriously one’s newfound role in history.” But De Niro’s remarks were also indicative of a certain mindset to which both sides of our political discourse are susceptible: a mindset marked by nostalgia and conditional patriotism.
Let’s take a step into the way-back machine for a moment and consider the “inspiring, uplifting drama” of 2013, when these graduating seniors were just freshmen starting out at Brown. At that time, the United States experienced the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Edward Snowden leaks, and President Obama’s backing off of his “red line” on Syria. Around this time, Obamacare’s flaws were becoming more apparent. These events were many things, but “inspiring” and “uplifting”? With the exception of Boston’s response to the horrors of April 15, not so much.
De Niro’s faulty memory of 2013 is even more remarkable considering his career that year. Excepting his brief cameo in American Hustle, a competent but overrated con film, De Niro appeared in a succession of duds including The Big Wedding, The Family, and Grudge Match. (Insert joke about “tragic, dumba** comedy” here).
The most insidious aspect of De Niro’s address, however, was his conflation of our national story with the man who is currently president. That Donald Trump’s election says something about the country that elected him is undoubtedly true, but to go further and claim Trump’s presidency has rewritten our entire national story into, say, Meet the Fockers, can only be the logic of a very shallow and distorted ideology. Again, we must be fair to De Niro, who for several decades was an incredible actor making truly great movies: Conservatives indulge the same impulses toward myopic pessimism when they rail about presidential birth certificates and the “fundamental transformation of America.”
America is our home, and we should always be able to see what is uplifting and inspiring in her, even when we didn’t vote for a particular president.
In both cases, partisans are indulging in what G. K. Chesterton once accused Rudyard Kipling of embracing: conditional patriotism. “The great gap in [Kipling’s] mind,” Chesterton wrote, “is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism — that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.”
So does De Niro apparently love America when she is on the right side of history (or has elected a president whom he happens to like), and so do certain conservatives love America when her rulers support tax cuts and say the right things about the culture war. The United States in 2017 is a pretty great place to live. Unemployment is low, and divorce and abortion rates are dropping, for example. More importantly though, America is our home, and we should always be able to see what is uplifting and inspiring in her, even when we didn’t vote for a particular president, or when her citizens, under the protection of the First Amendment, do things that we don’t particularly like.
As crass and lame as her gesture was, at least Griffin did not confuse the president with the country he leads. De Niro can’t seem to make the distinction, and that failure is, to borrow from De Niro’s commencement address, the real tragic, dumba** comedy.
— Caleb Whitmer writes for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared.