Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The American Reverence Problem

 

Last year’s huge hit film Greatest Showman, with its highly fictionalized story of P.T. Barnum’s rise from the slums to the apex of American success and society, could be thought of as a case study in what makes American’s quintessentially themselves. There is however one scene that makes another and for the purposes of this essay, more important point about the American character: The meeting with Queen Victoria. For the three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet, the meeting threatens to end in disaster when the Queen makes a remark about Tom Thumb’s height and gets from him the response “You ain’t exactly reachin’ the top shelf yourself, sister.”

And everyone in the room holds his/her breath waiting to see how the Queen responds to this irreverent remark concerning her person. Will she be offended at the lack of deference to her state? Will she ignore it? Or will she be able to laugh at herself? She does, they do, the audience does (it was a laugh line after all) and the film goes on. More than anything else, though, this one line of dialogue is what distinguishes Barnum’s Americans from the British subjects in the scene. Not attire, status or fame, but the attitude toward a person who is supposed to be and is accustomed to being treated with deference and even reverence by others in society. The Brits are shocked and the Americans are all kicking themselves for not having made the remark first.

Irreverence is, I would say, certainly an element in some humor and even a healthy one. In the classics of our national pieces of literature, we all enjoy seeing the Tartuffe get his comeuppance and the “Man nach der Uhr” get shafted on his own obsession with punctuality. In modern and specifically American comedies, we root for Otis Driftwood as he takes the air out of Mr. Gottlieb or Major B.F. Pierce taking down Major Frank Burns a peg or two through total disregard of or respect for the positions of the respective objects of our contempt, who are invariably authority figures in these comedic situations. This element of character, the irreverent but clever character who triumphs over the stodgy authority figure is also an element of films, books, television shows, of course, and it seems to me one typical of the culture of the United States. Americans, being born rebels with a righteous cause, seem to reflexively believe that any rebellion is justified and any authority figure, from king to president to beat cop is a suitable target just for being a figure who expects deference and respect.

In the impulse to challenge authority where the person bearing it seems undeserving, there is at the base a good motive at work: The desire to see a consonance between the reverence and respect shown to an office or station and the character of the person who holds it. The problem is: at what point did this lack of reverence become a kind of contempt that is irredeemably socially corrosive? When did it become acceptable to move on from a mild irreverence aimed, perhaps correctively, at deserving targets, to reflexive contempt for concepts or persons that ought to be revered? The ultimate end of the spectrum moving away from reverence for that which should be revered is contempt and scorn for everything and everyone. It is having effects on our society which we may not be able to stop. From my experience, reading and observation of the past three decades, give or take a bit, the Marxist turn in our culture bears the greatest culpability in warping what should be a harmless and even beneficial impulse in cultural criticism into a destructive force. That is of course, Marx’s aim, as well as that of his acolytes and generations of worshippers. Everything has to be seen as an apparatus of oppression, and reverence for concepts like patriotism, love of family, the accumulated wisdom of civilization, that reverence has to seen as a false consciousness serving the ends of oppression. Of course, once the apparatus and the false consciousness have been identified, they have to be destroyed. For the glory of the world worker’s revolution. Or the liberation of the marginalized. Or to save Gaia from the depredations of capitalism. Fill in your favorite gout of leftist cant here. The end result is: Nothing can be left to revere, nothing to hold in awe, and certainly no person may be left with a sense of inherent, deserved respect.

Nothing? Yeah, nothing. As in, not even the memorials to the victims of Auschwitz, the Normandy memorial or to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. These locations, among others, ought to be sites we treat with real reverence, given what they represent, but have been used by young Americans of all people as sites for selfies with a decidedly not reverent character. Yes, that’s old news (2016 and before) due to rules that had to be posted banning selfies and even the possession of selfie sticks at such locations, not for reasons of safety but of propriety. Why on Earth should it be necessary to issue such a ban? Because a generation that has been taught to revere nothing will and does have contempt for everything. Recently deceased German theologian and philosopher Robert Spaemann noted that while insight into truth can only come in a state of freedom, behavior can and sometimes must be coerced. It seems to me that the more a society finds need to legislate behavior, the greater its drift away from any notion of truth that is to be accepted, honored and revered.

It would be easy, though time-consuming, to add several hundred words with examples of how the irreverent bent in American culture is entirely based on challenging or deflating authority or attacking what others revere or venerate, and were this an academic paper or a piece of paid writing, I would do exactly that. But it is neither, and instead I just want to posit the following and ask a question.

The proposition: America has developed a problem with reverence- we just don’t harbor it for anything or anyone- which is already producing and will continue to produce results in human behavior that are destructive to a free society.

The question: Can this be reversed?

There are 38 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Randy Webster Member

    Hartmann von Aue: For those three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet,

    I like having rock for a roof.

    • #1
    • December 24, 2018, at 4:42 AM PST
    • 10 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Hartmann von Aue:

    The proposition: America has developed a problem with reverence- we just don’t harbor it for anything or anyone- which is already producing and will continue to produce results in human behavior that are destructive to a free society.

    I would say your proposition is true. I know I had great difficulty in coming up with topics to write on Veneration. In one, I wrote about who some other people are venerating, even though the main point was that I didn’t understand it. In the second, I wrote about a class of people who get things done. That was the old quintessential American style of reverence, but that is not as common these days. Young folks are venerating celebrity itself, and when the celebrities turn out to be all too human, the young turn to cynicism.

    The question: Can this be reversed?

    No idea.

    • #2
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:01 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. StephensJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I think that like people, cultures and societies have a shadow. Right now, we are in denial about it, so it gets darker and worse. I think our issues with finding what to revere stem from the ignored energy of our collective shadow. I think that same energy drives school shootings, suicide rising, etc. 

     

    • #3
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:01 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: For those three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet,

    I like having rock for a roof.

    I’m right there with you, Fred.

    —Barney Rubble

    • #4
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:05 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. David Carroll Thatcher
    David CarrollJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thought-provoking post.

    The cultural American irreverence that set us apart was never mean spirited. Marxist disdain is. That is not merely a difference of degree, but of kind.

    Similarly, I don’t see the inappropriate selfie as being of the same character as American irreverence. It more about emotional immaturity.

    One of my favorite examples of American irreverence was featured in a post, I think yesterday, about the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. German troop surrounded the American-held city of Bastogne and sent a formal note demanding surrender. The American commanding officer’s written response was “Nuts!” (The holding out of Bastogne was a defensive bright spot in the otherwise successful initial German surprise attack.)

    • #5
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:05 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  6. The Reticulator Member

    Hartmann von Aue: For those three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet, the meeting threatens to end in disaster when the Queen makes a remark about Tom Thumb’s height and gets from him the response “You ain’t exactly reachin’ the top shelf yourself, sister.”

    You mean I’m not the only one? Well, thanks for allowing for it.

    As to reversing the trend, I have been less than reverent towards Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and have been taken to task for it.

    • #6
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:20 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  7. Kevin Schulte Member

    Hartmann von Aue: The question: Can this be reversed?

    True reverence comes with a profound understanding of our position with a holy, just and loving God. Emphasis on the holy and just part. This brings humility that reverence for all things worthy springs from. 

    I am of the opinion it will only get worse . A national revival is the only thing that would correct it.

    • #7
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:35 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  8. ST Inactive

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I have been less than reverent towards Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and have been taken to task for it.

    I heard that.

    • #8
    • December 24, 2018, at 6:38 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. ST Inactive

    Somebody else mentioned this on another thread and I agreed that we began our trip to hell in handbag when we kicked God out of our schools in the 60s. The descent seems to be getting faster.

    • #9
    • December 24, 2018, at 6:42 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  10. Randy Webster Member

    ST (View Comment):

    Somebody else mentioned this on another thread and I agreed that we began our trip to hell in handbag when we kicked God out of our schools in the 60s. The descent seems to be getting faster.

    I used to draw a graph where the two lines represented your control of your life and government control of your life. They started in 1783 or so, and were pretty flat for a good while. Lately they’ve been accelerating in opposite directions; the government control line is almost vertical going up, and the personal control line is almost vertical going down. It’s a true zero sum game, except that it’s not really a game, is it?

    • #10
    • December 24, 2018, at 6:53 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. Kevin Schulte Member

    ST (View Comment):

    Somebody else mentioned this on another thread and I agreed that we began our trip to hell in handbag when we kicked God out of our schools in the 60s. The descent seems to be getting faster.

    Yes !

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I used to draw a graph where the two lines represented your control of your life and government control of your life. They started in 1783 or so, and were pretty flat for a good while. Lately they’ve been accelerating in opposite directions; the government control line is almost vertical going up, and the personal control line is almost vertical going down. It’s a true zero sum game.

    And Yes ! They are brother and sister, married and producing children.

    • #11
    • December 24, 2018, at 6:59 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ST (View Comment):

    Somebody else mentioned this on another thread and I agreed that we began our trip to hell in handbag when we kicked God out of our schools in the 60s. The descent seems to be getting faster.

    We replaced God with this weird “self-esteem” frabba-jabba. The kids are too chuffed with themselves to realize that they don’t know anything, especially history. Historical figures are judged according to today’s standards. Of course they all fall short.

    None of the people your ancestors admired, respected, and, yes, revered deserve to be even remembered. Nothing to see here, kids. Time for another showing of An Inconvenient Truth.

    • #12
    • December 24, 2018, at 8:57 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  13. Vectorman Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    The kids are too chuffed with themselves to realize that they don’t know anything, especially history. Historical figures are judged according to today’s standards. Of course they all fall short.

    As if most of today’s standards are valid. True racism, pure sexism, upper class snobbery, etc., that are destructive to individuals should be discouraged. However, just because you like Opera over Rap* shouldn’t cause you to lose your job. Likewise if you know the proper meaning of niggardly.

    * There are a few good Rap songs, but over 95+% are junk and destructive to the culture.

    • #13
    • December 24, 2018, at 9:24 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    ST (View Comment):

    Somebody else mentioned this on another thread and I agreed that we began our trip to hell in handbag when we kicked God out of our schools in the 60s. The descent seems to be getting faster.

    Right there with you, ST… 

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    less than reverent

    Interesting choice of words, Ret…It seems we as a country and culture have also – in some sense – replaced the Deity with a type of religious fervor applied to the political. It gets expressed in debates over strategy/policy/candidates/officeholders, etc. The Psalmist cautions us with respect to this (Psalm 146:3-5). Christ also addresses what constitutes a helpful balance (Mark 12:17)

     

    • #14
    • December 24, 2018, at 10:07 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  15. Boss Mongo Member

    David Carroll (View Comment):
    The American commanding officer’s written response was “Nuts!” (The holding out of Bastogne was a defensive bright spot in the otherwise successful initial German surprise attack.)

    As well as (often appropriate) irreverence, you have to love American pugnacity.

    • #15
    • December 24, 2018, at 12:28 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  16. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    Hartmann von Aue:

    The proposition: America has developed a problem with reverence- we just don’t harbor it for anything or anyone- which is already producing and will continue to produce results in human behavior that are destructive to a free society.

    I’m not sure that this is a bug. It’s something of a feature. 

    Sure, there needs to be a balance, but the initial condition in the world seems to be reverence to a master, which isn’t conducive to a free society, either.

    • #16
    • December 24, 2018, at 2:07 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  17. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    Thought-provoking post.

    The cultural American irreverence that set us apart was never mean spirited. Marxist disdain is. That is not merely a difference of degree, but of kind.

    Similarly, I don’t see the inappropriate selfie as being of the same character as American irreverence. It more about emotional immaturity.

     The American commanding officer’s written response was “Nuts!” (The holding out of Bastogne was a defensive bright spot in the otherwise successful initial German surprise attack.)

    Good points. I think the cultural Marxist spirit got into American culture through our irreverence as a back door, if you will. My sense is that in the last 55 years or so, the hermeneutic of suspicion and the Marxist drive to discrete every revered institution turned an impulse that can be healthy and corrective as an acid to assail social cohesion. It may seem a great leap from the Marx brothers making officer Henderson look like a fool to Abby Hoffman flipping off a judge in a courtroom, calling the court BS and then getting lauded for these actions by a significant portion of one political party in the U.S., but, looking at the history, that distance was exactly one generation. I think it’s a case of one-way escalation: What was funny and transgressive yesterday is banal and tedious today… so the targets of irreverence have to be more and more those previously thought to be beyond assailable. And the degree of irreverence has to constantly be ratcheted higher, since what got the laughs or the shock response then won’t now. 

    I do think the irreverent selfies at Auschwitz and other memorials do show yes emotional immaturity as you say but also what should be a stunning lack of respect for the significance of the sites. I’m not sure the Bastogne example really does. We revere or venerate that which our “in-group” deems worthy of reverence or veneration and the “Nuts!” response seems to me more like defiance in the face of an enemy that an act of disrespect toward something or someone the speaker’s own culture deems deserving of reverence or veneration. 

    • #17
    • December 24, 2018, at 2:21 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  18. Boss Mongo Member

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    I think it’s a case of one-way escalation: What was funny and transgressive yesterday is banal and tedious today… so the targets of irreverence have to be more and more those previously thought to be beyond assailable.

    H, I think that the desecration of those objects and concepts once thought to be due respect and held with reverence–with a little irreverence thrown in when and as appropriate, per you OP–have been made vulnerable because we have become so materially wealthy that the values, morals, and ethics that were “best practice” for ensuring survival are no longer necessary. Our poor are the wealthiest poor on the planet. No one wonders whether they will be able to survive the day, the week, the month. The Judeo-Christian ethic that gave us the best chances of surviving and thriving are no longer imperative. Thus, we wind up with 57 genders and a virulent social upheaval whenever anyone states that there are only two.

    Tell you what, once the Chinese set off that EMP device in our upper atmosphere and we’re back to pre-industrial standards of living, all the frivolous stuff will go away. At too high a price, for sure.

    Great post.

    • #18
    • December 24, 2018, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  19. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    People no longer even understand the concept of reverence I think. We’re so damned egalitarian that we are offended when anyone ever claims to be different in any way that can be construed as “better”, except in a couple of allowable areas like athletics and wealth. If there is one still prevailing sin of the American ethic, it is the notion that nobody ever deserves to be better or more respected or more valued as a person than anyone else. I can understand the aversion to respecting royal titles merely on the basis of heredity, but when it spreads into so much else, then apparently the only thing people do value is irreverence at even the most somber and serious events or places. I think this is why we have the problem of selfie-sticks at memorials – people scoff at the notion that even the innocent dead should be seen as “better” than us today, no matter how many their number, or how grim their ends.

    • #19
    • December 24, 2018, at 7:34 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  20. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    People no longer even understand the concept of reverence I think. We’re so damned egalitarian that we are offended when anyone ever claims to be different in any way that can be construed as “better”, except in a couple of allowable areas like athletics and wealth. If there is one still prevailing sin of the American ethic, it is the notion that nobody ever deserves to be better or more respected or more valued as a person than anyone else. I can understand the aversion to respecting royal titles merely on the basis of heredity, but when it spreads into so much else, then apparently the only thing people do value is irreverence at even the most somber and serious events or places. I think this is why we have the problem of selfie-sticks at memorials – people scoff at the notion that even the innocent dead should be seen as “better” than us today, no matter how many their number, or how grim their ends.

    • #20
    • December 24, 2018, at 8:01 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  21. JustmeinAZ Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: For those three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet,

    I like having rock for a roof.

    Me too. Mr AZ says he lives inside the rock. Is it on Netflix yet?

    • #21
    • December 24, 2018, at 9:55 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  22. Gil Reich Inactive

    Good post.

    America has always been the rebellious nation, founded by the people who left the old world behind. Irreverence and rebelliousness are connected.

    And America is the nation second most influenced by Jews and Judaism. Partly because of direct Jewish influence, but mostly because American Christianity is generally of a very Jew-friendly variety.

    And Judaism is the most rebellious and irreverent of religions. We gave the world the word Chutzpah. “Reverence” is from Latin.

    Jews’ best stories are of our heroes standing up not just to mortal kings of kings but to God Himself, demanding He live up to His values and commitments.

    It’s an irreverence for hypocritical and superficial displays, and at the root of this irreverence is a reverence for certain values.

    America has a lot of the good kind of irreverence, and for the most part it has served it well.

    At its best, American irreverence has its own reverence, seriousness, respect and responsibility. Frank Sinatra saying the things one truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.

    When the irreverence is not rooted in a deeper reverence we have a problem.

    But I think don’t think this problem is rooted in America or in its mostly good irreverence.

    It was Europeans that developed Utopian theories based on strangling the last king with the entrails of the last priest.

    One walks through London irreverently, seeing museums and attractions dedicated to the worst of history. Floods and fires, torturers and serial killers.

    One walks through Washington DC reverently, awestruck by monuments with declarations that stir the heart and connect past to future.

    In London you’ll see excessive reverence to Buckingham palace and rejected, powerless royalty. And no reverence to 10 Downing Street and actual living responsibility and power. And you’ll see beautiful churches with no worshipers.

    In America you’ll see a White House that’s far less than Buckingham Palace but far more than 10 Downing. And you’ll see living religion.

    From one perspective America is the irreverent nation. From another, it’s the most reverent nation of the Western world. The only nation (other than Israel) that attempts to live up to the views of its founders.

    So

    The proposition: America has developed a problem with reverence- we just don’t harbor it for anything or anyone- which is already producing and will continue to produce results in human behavior that are destructive to a free society.

    The Western world has developed a problem with reverence, with the reasons and consequences you mention. America has some of this problem.

    The question: Can this be reversed?

    It’s worth trying.

    • #22
    • December 25, 2018, at 3:27 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  23. David Carroll Thatcher
    David CarrollJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It would be very American to refer to Queen Elizabeth as “Toots” but do so with affection.

    • #23
    • December 25, 2018, at 4:23 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  24. Al Sparks Thatcher

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    It would be very American to refer to Queen Elizabeth as “Toots” but do so with affection.

    She already has a nickname.

    • #24
    • December 25, 2018, at 5:30 AM PST
    • 1 like
  25. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue: For those three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet,

    I like having rock for a roof.

    Me too. Mr AZ says he lives inside the rock. Is it on Netflix yet?

    We watched it on Amazon. Out of curiosity borne of comments made by numerous friends about the film, I had watched the first 20 minutes on the plane back to Germany from the States and that convinced me to buy it. Neither I nor Vrouwe are enthusiastic fans of musicals, so we were not automatically inclined to like it. 

    • #25
    • December 25, 2018, at 5:42 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  26. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I think that the point that American irreverence started to get toxic can be tracked with the popularity of David Letterman’s career at around the mid to late 1980’s. 

    His popularity wasn’t yet at its height, but he was popular with college students. It was before Johnny Carson retired and he was hosting Late Night with David Letterman which came on after the Tonight Show ended.

    He would be excessively rude to guests until they stopped coming on, and he had to back off a little. With his snark, he was a 40 year old teenager.

    Like I said, he pulled back a little, but I would say he embodied American irreverence and it’s domination of American culture to its unhealthy degree.

    Today, what we’re seeing in part is a reaction against that snarkiness. But as comedians like Jerry Seinfeld (whose own Jerry Seinfeld Show was a part of that irreverence) today are saying, we’ve lost our sense of humor.

    Nor would I say they really led that trend — they were followers. Look at old clips of Letterman or Richard Pryor — another comedian whose humor got toxic.

    I’m amazed at how much I, still to this day, do not like the old Merv Griffin Show. But Pryor and Letterman used to appear there, and they were very different comedians then.

    They saw the irreverent trend and followed it. 

    • #26
    • December 25, 2018, at 6:05 AM PST
    • 1 like
  27. Arahant Member

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    It would be very American to refer to Queen Elizabeth as “Toots” but do so with affection.

    She already has a nickname.

    Her name is not Battenberg. Battenberg was Philip’s mother’s name. He is of the House of Oldenberg, the same that rules Denmark.

    • #27
    • December 25, 2018, at 6:19 AM PST
    • Like
  28. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I’d like to take a moment, since it was mentioned, to comment on the U.S. Presidency and the reverence it’s held.

    This is a relatively new phenomenon starting with World War II and extending into the Cold War. A lot of the reverence is due to the president’s status as head of the military, also referred to as “Commander in Chief”. One of the modern symbols of the presidency is the airplane he flies in, which is operated by the U.S. military.

    I’ll add that when he flies in it, it disrupts domestic airline traffic. That’s not all he disrupts. Rob Long has talked about how the present incumbent disrupts New York pedestrian traffic, since he does live in New York City’s Manhattan. And his motorcades in large cities like Los Angelos can disrupt traffic for thousands of people.

    Before FDR, the presidency was respected more, with less reverence.

    The reverence that the Oval Office gets is unique to any other democracy. The UK’s Number 10 Downing Street was mentioned. I don’t know of any democracy that also treats their office as a kind of throne room.

    The presidency is an example where the reverence has gone too far. The present incumbent is starting to make the office a bit of a joke. Most people deplore that. I’m not.

    • #28
    • December 25, 2018, at 6:36 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  29. Al Sparks Thatcher

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    It would be very American to refer to Queen Elizabeth as “Toots” but do so with affection.

    One other thought on the term, “toots”. Today I only see it applied exclusively to old women. It’s become patronizing, not risque.

    I’d be careful using it.

    • #29
    • December 25, 2018, at 6:43 AM PST
    • Like
  30. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    It would be very American to refer to Queen Elizabeth as “Toots” but do so with affection.

    She already has a nickname.

    Her name is not Battenberg. Battenberg was Philip’s mother’s name. He is of the House of Oldenberg, the same that rules Denmark.

    Come on. It’s a nickname. Nicknames don’t have to be “true.”

    • #30
    • December 25, 2018, at 7:26 AM PST
    • Like

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.