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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?