Americans love personality. In the centuries since each individual in his distinction from every other unlike him was raised above competing notions of identity, no culture has exalted the individual personality more than that of the American. It is the altar of existential and political personhood. Be any wild and unaccountable thing, but above all be yourself, radiantly and singularly yourself.
It is because of this socially transcendent credo that of all the ideas about writing and literature I labor to impart to my students, the concept of style is one, superficially, very easily communicated: if nothing else, all over the land and bodyscape, the young in this country be flossin’, baby, they be stylin’.
So it is that we have one of the degradations of the American political scene. Increasingly, against all the apparent evidence for a contrary judgment, we bring ourselves to pass the common sense and praise the personality. If nothing else – and you know, really, by any commonality of sense, there is nothing else – Herman Cain, for instance, has personality. So does Sarah Palin – she’s loaded for bear with it. (Or something.) Arnold Schwarzenegger had personality, and a dick, and is a dick, but somehow, because, of course, California voters wished him to, he persuaded them that he could transform the state, its politics, and its government. Jessie Ventura, the unshrinking former Navy Seal and professional wrestler made the same sale in Minnesota. He made the sale for one reason – he has personality, big personality. Neither one of them transformed anything.
Back in the last millennium we even had that great romance with Ross Perot. Perot, a lesson for some, should have been the whole semester for many. My business-oriented brother, immune, as was I, to Clintonian charm, and longing for some two-party alternative, credited Perot his business acumen and, well – Perot’s got personality. I was not entirely out of sympathy with my brother, but my sister, politically sharp, but maybe a tad less attuned to all the currents, resisted seduction. We had some crackling Adlerian political debate around restaurant tables. Sister has since worn the confirmation of her judgment like a Super Tuesday sweep.
Now, I have nothing against personality. I have it on authority that I possess a little myself. In my youth I was chastised by a Cascade Mountain communard who ran a cross-country Magic Bus for being too much the city hippie – I wasn’t mellow enough and I hadn’t gotten with the program. Personal truth be told, the sight of masses of people prostrating themselves in unison, gesticulating together, or shaking their bodies in common before a holy object makes me soul sick.
But the personality that fills the room and takes it over is often concerned more with its affect on the room than with the room itself. The play’s not the thing, it’s the player, and the audience is only a mirror reflecting back an image to a performer intent on regarding it.
Put the two together – the strong personality and the group that exalts or cowers before it – maybe both – and you get, if not the Stalinist tyrant, then the great man who governs as a form of self-expression, in fulfillment of himself. The governed, then, are the recipients of his destiny’s largesse. You get, perhaps, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg (for great wealth is a form of personality, purchasing our attention), who consents to govern for the pauper’s sum of one dollar in recompense. We are to view the dollar as a gesture of self-awareness: the billionaire shall not take in payment money he does not need from the people whom he offers, generously, to serve with the bounty of his gifts. But great gifts too freely given engender a sense of entitlement, of alternative reward – look at all I have given you. So we get a governor – he who governs – who thinks he need not in a democracy account to his constituents, his employers, for his whereabouts; who persuades himself, and hardly tries to persuade us, that it is a democratic act to overturn through political manipulation an eletorate’s confirmed imposition on him of term limits; and who reveals at last, three years into the Great Recession, that he thinks its fault lies with the low and the screwed, and those (other than him) they chose to govern them, and not with the greatly rich whose greatest aspiration is to become greatly richer. Writes Matt Taibi at Rolling Stone (citing the Capital New York), in “Mike Bloomberg’s Marie Antoinette Moment”:
This is the evil lie Bloomberg is now trying to dump on the Occupy movement; this is where he’s choosing to spend all that third-way cred he built up over the years with the HuffPost sect. And the mayor put a cherry on the top of his Marie-Antoinette act with the rest of his speech:
“But [congress] were the ones who pushed Fannie and Freddie to make a bunch of loans that were imprudent, if you will. They were the ones that pushed the banks to loan to everybody. And now we want to go vilify the banks because it’s one target, it’s easy to blame them and congress certainly isn’t going to blame themselves. At the same time, Congress is trying to pressure banks to loosen their lending standards to make more loans. This is exactly the same speech they criticized them for.”
Bloomberg went on to say it’s “cathartic” and “entertaining” to blame people, but the important thing now is to fix the problem.
Jesus … I mean, for one thing, Fannie and Freddie don’t even make loans. That’s how absurd this whole thing is.
The history, though, is that New Yorkers bought a whole lot of magnitude on the cheap. The city rebounded from 9/11 in an ever business-romantic municipal environment, and now the average rent for a Manhattan apartment is $3331 a month, $4137 for a two bedroom – and those are non-doorman buildings. In a doorman building, the average two-bedroom rent is $5857. If you don’t live in New York, your cornea just hit the floor. You thought the Occupy protestors in Zucotti Park have somewhere else to live.
Yes, the thinking repeatedly goes, he’s a billionaire, but consider what that buck-making ability might do for us. He’s a huckster motivational speaker who once created a fast food chain, and doesn’t know the first thing he’s talking about, but CNN and Gloria Borger think he’s “likable,” even if some women who worked for him, we discover, disagree. But Cain speaks his mind. I like that. Affiliated Ron Paul websites flirt with anti-Semitism. But Paul’s an iconoclast (like Perot – remember him?) I like that. And Rick Perry, a sitting governor, flirts with secession, but he’s real Texas, you know, big and brash, a straight shooter , and when you don’t like a guy’s monetary policy where Perry comes from, you “treat him pretty ugly.” I LIKE that.
We have an entire political party in the United States that don’t know much about history, biology, or no science book, but it does know it loves personality, and what a wonderful world this could be.
We have a news establishment that thinks assessing likeability, and devoting hours to accusations of sexual harassment, while only minutes to policy and intellectual analysis, is the calling of a free press.
The U.S. population in 1790 was just under 4 million; today it is over 300 million. Then we had the minds of the constitutional convention; today we have those stick figures on the GOP debate stages. George Washington, a modest, retiring man who took no factional side and who might, had he wanted it, have become king, declined to run for a third term. Michael Bloomberg connived to take it in city council meetings and then bought it. The humble Abraham Lincoln predicted “the world” would “little note nor long remember” what he said; Herman Cain says we all need to get a sense of humor.
We may be a nation in decline, but we’ll get where we’re going in style. We’ll have personality.
- Lying For Wall Street (jonathanturley.org)
- Matt Taibbi Brutally Thrashes Mayor Bloomberg For Saying Congress, Not Wall Street, Created The Mortgage Crisis (businessinsider.com)
- Conditions Right for a New Ross Perot (newser.com)
- Running for Office in Movies (sadredearth.com)
- Razing Cain (sadredearth.com)
- The GOP’s Media-Manufactured Messiahs (sadredearth.com)
- Occupy Wall Street vs The Tea Parties (sadredearth.com)