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

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.

Daniel Pipes' superb 1997 book Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From dissects the phenomenon in Communist and Arab dictatorships. What does that have to do, though, with the absurd Ms. Kardashian? On the surface, the behavior of paranoids, who see significance in random and unrelated facts, is identical to the consumers of gossip, who also see significance in random and unrelated facts. Courtiers at Versailles, or bureaucrats in a dictatorship, are functionally paranoid, whatever their inner mental state, because Stalin as well as the Sun-King created a dystopia in which there is a great deal about which to be paranoid.

Here, I think, is the secret of Ms. Kardashian's celebrity: In today's America, rewards and punishments seem almost as arbitrary as they did in the Bourbon court. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when millions of star-struck  kids set off to study science -- the world recaptured nostalgically in the 1999 film October Sky -- the vast majority of Americans stare uncomprehending at the number nerds who build software companies or trade at hedge funds. Quantitative faculties at top universities would shut down if Chinese and Indian students stayed at home. Whether the success story involves a popular figure like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or hated figures from Wall Street, most people simply cannot imagine themselves doing what they do, the way the coal miners' kids of the 1950s could imagine themselves as rocket scientists.

By the same token, Americans do not understand why they have been afflicted with falling home equity and poorer job prospects. The gap between winners and losers yawns wide. It doesn't help to explain that America's $6 trillion imports of capital between 1998 and 2007 pumped air into the housing bubble, and that the people in effect created their own Ponzi scheme. Americans do not understand their own unpreparedness to confront a global market in which America's monopoly on markets and talent is fraying.

Nonetheless people need a success story with which to identify, and the arbitrary elevation of undistinguished individuals provides a proxy. Very few people can imagine themselves founding a biotech company that applies quantum mechanics to molecular processes, but anyone can imagine becoming a celebrity who is famous for being famous. The definitive celebrity who is famous for being famous, of course, is Barack Obama, the one-term senator from Illinois without a single accomplishment to his name -- not an article in a law review, not a piece of legislation -- who levered himself into the presidency.

I don't mean to imply that all is lost. America remains the world's greatest country with vast resources of energy and creativity. But we are losing time. A physics professor at MIT told me the other day that the Chinese students at MIT now have a better chance of obtaining a six-figure salary on graduation if they go home to China than if they stay in the United States. Restoring entrepreneurship -- the chance for ordinary people to succeed on their work and talent -- is the answer. We have time, but not all the time in the world. If we fail (and if the celebrity-in-chief is re-elected next year), we may become a different kind of country.