The Hannah Arendt Center’s Roger Berkowitz explores “The Irony of the Elite” by way of Peggy Noonan’s observation on how much real-life congressmen enjoy Kevin Spacey’s dark portrayal of their profession in House of Cards, and Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. Roose’s book presents Wall Street financiers mocking, as Berkowitz writes, “anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street”:
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
Linking to the above post, Glenn Reynolds writes, “This is a disturbing thing to read, coming from the Hannah Arendt Center.” But it’s not at all a new development. As we’ve quoted several times before here, back in 1986′s The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom noted the Weimar-ification of America, by way of the Frankfurt School and other Weimar-era exports, who arrived in America after being expelled from Nazi Germany. Arendt herself was a Weimar-educated German who found success in the hothouse intellectual environment of postwar Manhattan, as illustrated, albeit likely unintentionally, by the New Yorker. Its February 16, 1963 issue, the debut of their serialization of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem thesis, featured on its cover the newly open Pan Am building co-designed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the German Bauhaus, the original wellspring of modernist design, whose lifespan paralleled the existence of the Weimar regime itself almost perfectly, until Hitler shuttered its doors in 1933. (There are numerous actors portraying Arendt’s fellow New York intellectuals clutching rolled-up copies of that issue while they angrily confront her in the 2012 German-made docudrama on that period of Arendt’s life, as we mentioned in our post on that film, last month.)