Saturday, April 21, 2012

One of a Kind

It'll soon be two months since conservative gadfly and media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Although I knew who he was, I was not a follower and so I read and listened to the many obituaries, both kind and unkind, with interest.  As I did, I became increasingly intrigued with Breitbart's persona as distinct from his person and decided that while he was certainly unique, he was also representative of a type, a type, that is, of contemporary conservatives.

The type I'm thinking of is relatively young, say, mid-twenties to mid-fifties.  The age-spread is significant as it marks the group as a product of the Sixties, not exactly children of the Sixties, as were their parents or older siblings, but undeniable heirs to its legacy nonetheless.  Importantly, that legacy includes an element that serves to distinguish them from their conservative elders with whom they otherwise share a defining ideology.

The distinction is more a matter of style.  The elders' disposition, consistent with their politics, is, well, conservative.  But the contemporary conservatives I have in mind are in this respect more like their liberal antagonists, i.e., loud, brash, impatient, confrontational.  Where they differ from them, aside from political ideology of course, is that these contemporary conservatives judge the promise and project of the Sixties as altogether fraudulent, or at least doomed for failure from the very start.  For that reason, they are quite often temperamentally disappointed, disillusioned, angry even.

What brought me to writing about this now instead of almost two months ago was my reading just yesterday of a very favorable review by Thomas Hibbs of Whit Stillman's new movie, Damsels in Distress, his first film in over a dozen years. (If you're not already familiar with Stillman, I'd encourage you to become so, but that's not the point here.)  At one point in the review, Hibbs reproduces this dialogue from a scene in the movie:

Violet: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
Fred: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.”
Violet: You think decadence has declined?
Fred: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
Violet: How?
Fred: “How” or “in what ways”?
Violet: Either.
Fred: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality –
Violet: What?
Fred: Homosexuality. It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes. Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.
Violet looks a little shocked.
Fred: It’s pretty disillusioning.
Violet pauses in thought for a long moment.
Violet: Are you gay?
Fred: Not especially, but in another era it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.

Hibbs mentions Oscar Wilde in passing in his review, but I'd already thought about him before when I was considering the type of conservative I've described above.  The story goes that when Wilde was first introduced to ice cream, he said something like, "Mmm, this is really good.  A pity it's not a sin to eat it." 

The character in Stillman's film discovers something that Wilde seemed to know instinctively, and that also, I'll argue, that the contemporary conservatives I'm describing know as well.  That is, that the bohemian depends always upon the bourgeois.  To be sure, the bohemian knows that in order to be himself he must always challenge convention.  His code is épater le bourgeois, shock or "stick it to" the smug middle class and their equally smug middle-class sensibilities.  But he also knows that he must never seek to destroy them.  Why?  Because a bohemian's very existence, not to mention his meaning, is derivative.  No genuine bohemian is ever a nihilist. 

But part of the promise and project of the Sixties is that in fact he is just that.  This, I think, explains some of the disappointment, disillusionment, and anger of many contemporary conservatives.

Sixties liberals have ruined bohemianism just like they've ruined almost everything else.

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