The End of Prestige
To understand the damage the storm of scandal is creating in Hollywood, the media and Washington one must go back nearly a hundred years to a time when prestige ruled the world. Whenever a small group of people rule over multitudes coercion usually becomes an impractical method of subjugation. The only alternative to physical control, as 19th century Europeans found, was bluff, or prestige as it was then called. Prestige made it possible for a few to govern numerous (and often violent) subjects.
Prestige was almost entirely psychological, based on instilling a genuine respect and admiration among the ruled. The technological advantages of Western civilization gave Europeans a head start among the teeming millions but it was never enough. Much also depended on what the British called "putting up a good show". Since empires relied on maintaining prestige, controlling Europeans who had fallen away from the 'image of the Raj as the Raj wanted to be seen' was of paramount importance. Authorities kept a close watch on vagrants or bums who ruined the brand and removed undesirables from the colonies before they could bring "the side" down.
At its best carrying the "White Man's Burden" meant strict quality control, holding Europeans to an almost impossibly high code of honor. That idea forms a large thematic part of the 1935 movie "Lives of a Bengal Lancer". The protagonists (who have manfully endured bamboo slivers pushed under their fingernails by the odious Mohamamed "we have ways to make you talk" Khan) explain how the Code works to the wavering Lieutenant Stone. It meant never showing weakness and being ready to sacrifice oneself at any time for something immeasurably greater than any individual. Torture is nothing they impress upon the young officer because:
"Ever the faith endures, England, my England, take and break us we're yours, England my own. Life is good, joy runs high, between English earth and sky. Death is death, and we shall die, to the song on your bugles blown, to the star on your bugles blown."
Those themes are reprised in the 1937 movie, Wee Willie Winkie in full Hollywood splendor. It was the Raj as the Raj wanted to be seen.
European colonization was in some sense the longest running hit play in history. It was a performance that ended only by a humiliating eviction from the theater by the empire of Japan in 1942. When Yamashita brought the curtain down he ended the suspension of disbelief so critical for the thing to work. Though the British eventually returned victorious to Singapore in 1945 the magic was gone. Prestige had fled away. Ten years after "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" the bugles had ceased to blow.
In the unending exposes of financial, moral and sexual turpitude we are witnessing a similar humiliation of a ruling elite. The critical role played by prestige in upholding the current status quo was no less important for the Western elite than it was for the old District Commissioners. Not so very long ago the elites were accepted as woke, part of the mission civilisatrice; better educated, better looking, better dressed, destined to greater things, the smartest people in the room. They could pronounce on matters of morality, politics and even the climate. What a shock it was to find through the Internet and social media it was all a sham; and these gods of Washington and Hollywood and the media were deeply flawed and despicable people.
Given the lack of quality control and penchant for recruiting rather than expelling the scandalous it's amazing in retrospect the prestige lasted so long. All the same, now their fallibility has been exposed under the spotlight of technological innovation, the spell is broken. The elites may still rule but the sullen masses no longer flock to their door as they did of old. Perhaps the single most destabilizing political development since the WW2 has been the destruction of ruling class prestige by the Internet.
Where the comparison between the old empire builders and modern cultural elites fails is that the loss of European prestige did not mean the end of prestige itself; it only changed who possessed it. The fallen tinsel scepter of the Raj was scooped up by Communist insurgents, the Big Men of Africa and caudillos of every shape and description because the play still commanded an audience.
Today the audience has turned away disgusted and the actual property of prestige is under threat. In the post-Twitter world it seems difficult to inhabit the haunted palace of celebrity ever again. Not only is it ludicrous to conceive of the places formerly occupied by fallen idols being reoccupied by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon or imagine Breitbart, Red State or PJMedia usurping the sacred precincts once reserved for the NYT or the Washington Post but brute fact is they can't. With every part of the palace including the toilet now covered by CCTV cameras, Internet and social media, no one can be larger than life again.
Prestige as an instrument of governance is probably dead until we either resuscitate privacy or -- as seems more likely -- destroy it altogether. Then it can be awarded to some enterprising soul who like the fictional Truman Burbank of the Truman Show, consents to live out his life before thousands of hidden cameras, obeying every conceivable politically correct edict so as never to give offense. But prestige purchased at such a cost will not be worth the price.
The alternative to prestige is to live under shorter-lived ruling classes and more rapidly changing narrative arcs. Ironically this concept enjoyed a vogue in the 18th and 19th century under such concepts as term limits, rotation in office and amateur democracy. Not until 150 years ago did the professionals start to take over. "The practice of nomination rotation for the House of Representatives began to decline after the Civil War. It took a generation or so before the direct primary system, civil service reforms, and the ethic of professionalism worked to eliminate rotation in office as a common political practice. By the turn of the 20th century the era of incumbency was coming into full swing."
Now with the decline of prestige leadership the time for amateur hour may be here again. As late as July, 2017 Vox could still write with confidence that "political amateurs are a threat to democracy. What we need is more expertise and experience, not less." Today that advice seems doubtful. Now that we know the kind of experience our betters actually possess, maybe we can do with less.
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