Not long ago I read that Ethan Hawke — who is a movie actor, for those of you fortunate enough not to have had to witness, as I have had to do, any of his characteristically hang-dog appearances on the silver screen — said that President Bush was “probably the least prepared person to be president of the United States that’s been elected in a long time, if not ever.” The quotation speaks for itself. As does the fact that the Washington Post reported it with a straight face, demonstrating no apparent shame for citing as an authority on the President’s preparedness for office a man who has never in his life done anything but impersonate other people in front of a camera.
Well sure, you may say, but we ought to be used to it by now. If we can suffer Barbra Streisand or Richard Dreyfuss or Janeane Garofalo or any of dozens of other “stars” to pronounce on matters of state, why not Mr. Hawke? He may be a self-important little nincompoop, but no more of one than most of those in a profession for which both self-importance and nincompoopery are positive qualifications. At least he’s well-prepared to do his job! All true, of course, but the problem isn’t so much that the Hollywood airheads are piping up, it’s what they are piping up to say. It’s one thing to assert that, say, the Prescription Drug bill is too favorable to the pharmaceutical industry; it’s quite another to say, as Ms. Garofalo did recently, that the Prescription Drug bill was effectively a “you-can-go-f***-yourself-Grandma bill.” The one is a political argument, however defective; the other is — well, to call it wrong would be to dignify it as at least making sense. It is not attached to the world of reasonable discourse at any point.
It’s tempting to suppose that the celebrity culture — in which any mental prepubescent who drifts into the vacant eye of a television camera for more than a moment is expected to pronounce on matters of war and peace and good government for the enlightenment of his less fortunate fellow citizens — has simply increased our tolerance for fatuous political speech and outrageous invective. Perhaps it has done so, but if so there are a lot of other factors tending in the same direction. Mark Steyn, for instance, notes that the architecture correspondent of the Toronto Star, one Christopher Hume, has recently written: “As the United States descends into fascism, the importance of Canada, North America’s only civil society, is greater than ever.” With the best will in the world, you couldn’t call the architecture correspondent of the Toronto Star a celebrity, and yet he seems to arrogate to himself the right to say things stupid enough to recommend themselves even to Ethan Hawke. Even to Janeane Garofalo.
A couple of months ago, I noticed something similar in a review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times of a new production Pirandello’s Right You Are — which, by the way, leaves off what in the circumstances would seem to be the significant subtitle: If You Think You Are. “This,” wrote Mr. Brantley, “is the Italy of Benito Mussolini, a time in which civil liberties were, to put it mildly, under siege. Draw whatever parallels you like with contemporary life in the United States.” As it happens, I don’t like to draw any parallels with contemporary life in the United States. Nor, I would think, would anybody else with a modicum of respect for either history or civility. But it occurred to me that a comment like this tossed off in the middle of a theater review — or an architecture review — can hardly be intended as serious analysis. It is, rather, a kind of marker of the author’s solidarity with his imagined audience, a kind of secret handshake to be understood within the fraternity that identifies itself by Bush-hating — just as it used to identify itself by Reagan- or Nixon-hating.
It’s a reminder of the extent to which American politics are essentially pre-political, which is to say tribal. We identify ourselves by the tribes to which we belong, or seek to belong, membership in which is determined not by political convictions as they are usually or practically understood but by common loves and hatreds. Thus Mr. Hawke is neither attempting and failing to say something reasonable nor is he asserting his shamanistic powers as a celebrity by saying something unreasonable. He’s simply identifying himself as one of the tribes of artists — yea, even unto the architecture correspondents and the theater critics — whose tribal identity might collapse entirely if it didn’t have George W. Bush to hate. To them he stands for an official culture — even though there is no more official culture — with which artists have considered themselves to be in an adversarial relationship for 200 years. How else, nowadays, are they even to know that they’re artists? Besides, even though comparing George W. Bush with Mussolini is absurd and outrageous in any real-world sense, it is the kind of thing that those who feel drawn together by their hatred and fear of a common enemy will say to keep each other’s spirits up.
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