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Dictatorship, The Duc de Saint-Simon, and Kim Kardashian

December 14th, 2011 - 6:38 am

According to a review of Joseph Epstein’s new book on gossip, the author argues that

…gossip is a delicious human vice, one that people should most certainly indulge, but in moderation. The problem, as Epstein sees it, is that the old, intimate style of gossip, practiced in the neighborhood, or within the royal court, or among friends and frenemies — a style that required tact, discretion and wit — has been replaced in the age of mass communications by the crude violation of tabloid and Internet gossip.

What distinguishes the “delicious human vice” from the mass market item?

As an example of the old gossip, Epstein offers a chapter on the Duc de Saint-Simon, Louis XIV’s court yenta. Saint-Simon was the most discreet gossip imaginable. He arrived at Versailles in 1691, at the age of 16, and three years later he began taking careful notes on everything he saw and heard. He wrote up his memoirs after leaving court; they were published quite posthumously, in 1788, making Saint-Simon, as Epstein admits, less a gossip than a gossip historian.

But Saint-Simon was a great aesthete of gossip and, according to Epstein, “deplored raucous, scattershot, motiveless gossip, or so he claimed. His own gossip tended to be subtle, well aimed, and (he would assure you) never out of line because of the purity of his own motives.”

Kim Kardashian and Saint-Simon are an unlikely pairing, but the highbrow-lowbrow distinction is less important than what they have in common. In a celebrity culture, people are famous for being famous; in court culture (royal, authoritarian, or corporate), people are promoted for being promoted, or punished for being punished. It is a commonplace that Stalin’s terror succeeded because it destroyed people at random, but promotion at random is the flip side of the coin. Severing reward from accomplishment is just as important to autocrats as separating punishment from crime. To wield arbitrary power, the king/dictator/CEO must wield power arbitrarily.

That is when gossip reigns. Every dictatorship lives off a rumor mill; no-one knows who will be rewarded or punished in the next round, so the principal occupation is speculating about it. Gossip also provides a store of weapons to be used against prospective rivals; since no-one knows who will be a friend and who will be a rival in the next round, everyone gathers dirt on everyone. The same principle applies to a fixed population of marriageable women competing for the same population of prospective husbands, for example.

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