Inspired by a lovely photo of motherly affection and play, Samantha Bee diminished Ivanka Trump with ugly remarks. Such simplification comes from an ugly perspective, characteristic of the Hollywood that applauded Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roman Polanski, its politics represented by Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Power is all – in boardroom, bedroom, Congress. Bee’s offensive comments were the quintessential vision of “progressives” and post-modernism – power the essence of any relationship, category the essence of identity.
Raymond, in Gramscian Damage notes that “in the 1930s members . . . got instructions from Moscow to promote non-representational art so that the US’s public spaces would become arid and ugly.” Ugliness begets nihilism begets decline begets suicide. Beautiful (productive, generous, transcendent) ideas are seldom couched in ugly words. The beauty of the individual – a portrait domestic or heroic – is replaced by spiritless representations of the group – the “worker,” “farmer.” Few visions are less likely to produce felicity than seeing familial, parental, spousal relationships in terms of power and “category.” (Nor ones more likely to destroy these bonds.)
Bee’s choice of noun has been the focus of complaint. I’m generally a bit foul-mouthed (more so than my husband) but I don’t believe I have, literally, ever used that word. I noticed others said that and innocents (my age) needed definitions. Its more clinical cousin – vagina – was also a quiet (if not vulgar) word until the Vagina Monologues and the Vagina March. Such exposure was meant to dispel the mystery of women’s sexuality. Maybe it worked. While the less formal word gave Bee a larger audience, she made it less powerful. And our language a little uglier.
The word’s ugliness derives from what it does – carving away personhood to a part. Pinker’s subtitle to The Stuff of Thought is “window into human nature.” He sees categories that seem to mean the same but are hugely different: the sex act is described in many ways, but they can generally be divided into the concept of (1) to, e.g., screw you and (2) with, e.g., sleeping together. “To” implies a power differential. Bee sums up a particular woman’s essence with a 4-letter term to which something can be done; hers is not a sense of sexuality that implies mutuality, in which a good deal more than organs are joined. Not surprisingly, the post-modernist obsession with power leads Scaachi Koul to defend Bee’s position, narrowing the relationship to categories and power differential; Bee becomes victim and Ivanka feckless oppressor.
What followed was also appalling. Apparently attractive woman as sex object limits the perspective of the Samantha Bee and Bill Mahr persuasion. Most of us assume women are partners and opponents, thinking and intuitive, active on the stage of life, not just static objects acted upon. And we certainly see mothers and daughters and sisters as major roles. Of course, Jordan Peterson is right about the power of sexual desire; it is dangerous to ignore as a factor in human interactions. But it is often not a large factor. And familial, parental love is at least as central to an understanding of others. Bee deprecates it even as her argument (somewhat faulty as it turned out) berated them for the separation of families. Bee’s meme (unlike Peterson’s realistic remarks) is degrading. Of course, this is satire, but the humor (minimal at best) arises from the shock of positing that these “others” break the universal taboo of incest. Shock is not humor. But by then we realize we are playing her game when we react. It is what it is and she what she is.
In his campaign, Trump shocked. But the left has been playing with mud for decades and the amount thrown on Bush and Romney, Palin and McCain made me (and I suspect others) eventually not just cut Trump slack but cheer when he fought back. Well, what did you expect? If he coarsened the public square, it was one already knee deep in mud.
If your context for speeches is great leaders, certainly next to the beauty and depth of Washington, of Lincoln, of Churchill, he seems small. We see his words as (often) the first response of someone who can be pugnacious, fights hard, is often sympathetic, feels traditional emotions strongly, and sees his role as motivator. Too often self-referential, too full of superlatives; the wall will be great, grand, big, beautiful; MS-13 is made up of animals. But we know what he means. His transparency means we don’t expect precision but we can see what emotion impels both action and words. (The left says he lies, the right says he meets campaign promises – there is lying and then there’s lying.) He’s no Lincoln, has neither Lincoln’s humility or eloquence.
We might remember, though, this is a nation that barely respects Washington and in which the days devoted to Washington and Lincoln have fallen off the calendar. This is a world of simple, repetitive lyrics – in church as well as the top 40. We send messages in a shorthand that reduces our vocabularies to fit the aim of Big Brother rather than Churchill. Trump can reach higher but I don’t see how his opponents can reach any lower.