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.