Americans prefer to avoid comparisons with the French lest the subject involve an area in which we could not possibly hold our own. Having already emerged as the laughingstock in attitudes involving mistresses, bidets, and thrift, we are loath to go up against the French unless it can be demonstrated that we have some real chance of finding common ground on a level playing field.
Lucky us. We do now. As our political and cultural collapse continues, we are having our very own version of the “Revolution of Contempt,” Lamartine’s name for the overthrow of Louis Philippe in 1848.
You remember Louis Philippe. He was the head of the House of Orléans, the lateral branch of the Blood that claimed the throne after the mainline Bourbon branch died out in 1830. Because the Bourbons had believed in the divine right of kings, Louis Philippe set out to show the people what a nice egalitarian monarch an Orleanist could be. He removed the fleur-de-lys from the Palais Royale, styled himself the “Bourgeois King,” and walked around Paris in his sturdy black business suit, carrying his own umbrella, pretending to be no different from anyone else.
The familiarity did what familiarity always does, except that it worked in slow motion. It took Louis Philippe 18 years to breed enough contempt to get dethroned because he did not have modern media to speed things up. By contrast, our three one-term presidents of recent memory all got some help. The contempt directed at the physically clumsy Gerald Ford was mostly the good-natured kind, the laughter of a vaudeville audience at literal pratfalls. Mewling, puking Jimmy Carter collected a lot but it was couched in the word “impotence,” if you can call that couching. As for the first George Bush, he seemed almost comfortable with contempt, as if he had been registered for it at birth.
As long as the media supply the familiarity, viewers will supply the contempt, but today’s media have upped the ante. The word used to mean television, radio, and newspapers — period. Now, with three 24/7 cable news channels, C-SPAN, websites, blogs, tweets, Google, and apps without end for every hand-held device known to man, we can’t get away from our politicians and they can’t get away from us. Now everything is going full tilt as never before; America’s familiarity factories are working three shifts and contempt has become our gross national product.
Contempt, not the economic downturn, is the motivation for the stunning rudeness and snide challenges displayed by voters at town-hall meetings and presidential debates in the last couple of years. Thanks to the up-close-and-personal shots of politicians, especially the unguarded ones we take with our cellphones, secret fears have never been more on display or interpreted with such unabashed glee. We have turned into taunters, ever on the lookout for pleading eyes, perspiring upper lips, nervous gestures, and unconscious habits, and quick to react to them in ways reminiscent of the old movie Vacation from Marriage, wherein Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat were so trapped in domestic familiarity that only the geographical dislocations of World War II could stop them from getting on each other’s nerves.
Our search for clay feet has expanded into a search for irritating habits, so that it sometimes seems as if everybody is married to everybody else. Does the candidate clear his throat a lot? “If you don’t stop doing that I’ll scream!” the viewer snaps at the TV. Is the candidate too pert? “If you wink one more time I’ll put my foot right through this screen!” What of the candidate who keeps pursing his lips or rubbing his right sideburn? “That makes my stomach tie up in knots!” And what if Mitt Romney decides to take one of his stabs at scintillating wit? Caveat contemptor, Mitt, that sudden pain in your ankle is from thousands of exasperated wives all kicking you under the table to send you that timeless spousal message, “Shut up!”
As with lions and human blood, once contempt has been tasted there is no going back, so if political jugulars aren’t handy we can get the same satisfaction from watching a “reality show.” This is the media’s ground zero of familiarity, where you can sit in on someone else’s cancer exam or attend someone else’s drug-counseling session, and where ditzy broads who could be your sister or best-friend-forever turn cartwheels without wearing underpants.
More serious “concerned” Americans may prefer to get their contempt fix from one of the Special Reports on bullying that keep cropping up. If you wonder why this subject has suddenly become so ubiquitous, wonder no more. It has little to do with our schools or “our chillldrunn,” as the wail of concerned Americans would have it. If we strip away the rationalizations we are left with a simple fact: Bullying is organized contempt and our current obsession with it is a manifestation of the breakdown of a culture that is caught in a trap of all familiarity, all the time.
Familiarity does not breed contempt if it’s handled right. A civilized example was tendered by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, leading lady of Victorian England’s theater, who was the first actress to blow her nose onstage, during a crying scene in the 1893 play The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Her realistic touch won the hearts of the audience because they were too far away to see and hear the physical effects of tears. By contrast, the blubbery, smeary bawling on daily display in our television close-ups has a very different effect. We get the distinct impression that we are drowning in the body fluids of total strangers, and we despise them for it.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.