Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Age of the Ribbon

Pamela Haag, in "Death by Treacle," writes about false intimacy and ersatz emotionalism in our times. A few excerpts from an article very much worth reading in its entirety:
....On some days you’ll see makeshift shrines for victims of car accidents or violence by the side of the road, placed next to a mangled guardrail or wrapped around a lamppost. As more people hear of the tragedy, teddy bears, flowers, and notes accumulate. Princess Diana’s was the biggest of such shrines, a mountain of hundreds of thousands of plastic-sheathed bouquets outside her residence. Queen Elizabeth resisted the presumptuous momentum of all the grief but finally relented and went to inspect the flower shrine and its handwritten messages, a concession to sentiment depicted in the movie The Queen. Maybe I was the only one in the theater who thought the Queen was right; I rooted for her propriety over Tony Blair’s dubious advice that she drag the monarchy into the modern age by publicly displaying a sentiment she probably didn’t feel. The mourners didn’t even know Diana, the queen reasoned by an obsolete logic of restrained stoicism, and the palace flag didn’t fly at half-mast even for more illustrious figures. But she caved in the end. We most always do.

Sentiment surfaces fast and runs hot in public life, and it compels our attention. On good days I dimly register this makeshift iconography of people’s sorrows, losses, and challenges. Some of them have been my own, too, but I don’t have ribbons. On my dark days I believe that pink ribbons and 5K runs and temporary shrines and teddy bears and emails exclamation-pointed into a frenzy—the sentimental public culture—is malicious to civil society and impedes in one elegant motion our capacities for deliberation in public life and intimacy in private life. On the days I’m feeling melodramatic I suspect that we are in the grips of death by treacle. ....

.... It may even be the case, ironically, that the proliferation of a cloying, saccharine culture has contributed to a less forgiving, meaner attitude in public life. After all, the flip side of a sentimental public culture of weepy confession, fast if not fraudulent empathy for victims, and the infusion of emotion into public discourse is that it establishes precedent for the public, political currency of all the darker emotions on the spectrum of sentiment: anger, fury, and hatred. When emotions of one, gentle kind are privileged in public culture and invited into political discourse, then emotions of another kind can slide in just as easily and gain stature and political relevance, too. ....

.... Cultural historian Warren Susman charted the shift from an American culture of character in the 19th century to a culture of personality in the 20th century. The culture of character valued personal virtues like hard work, achievement, and duty; the culture of personality revered those who were fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, and forceful. .... [more]
The American Scholar: Death by Treacle - Pamela Haag