It was entirely predictable that Trump’s first dance as president of the United States would be performed (with some cartoonish mouthing of the words) to the tune of ‘My Way’, playing out in a manner beyond irony the triumph of braggadocio in 21st century public life.
It is hard for anyone with any degree of self-awareness to believe that this is entirely serious. Surely, we think, that degree of ostentatious and clichéd vulgarity must be enacted with a tongue lodged firmly somewhere in a jowly cheek: two tiny fingers raised to the good taste of those who manage the world; the jester releasing his evil-smelling trump (in the colloquial British sense of the word) in the deodorised boudoir of the establishment.
Then comes the awful realisation that this is absolutely for real. The foot-stamping toddler really does want his own way. The occupant of the gilded throne-room really does believe he has a right to rule and annihilate what stands in his path.
What has happened to the world in which modesty is a virtue, lights are hidden under bushels and, whatever you’ve got, it’s unladylike to flaunt it? Even to ask such questions, for someone on the left, is difficult. It puts us on the side of gentility, privilege, convention. It aligns us with that very establishment we thought we were critiquing. And it makes us vulnerable to accusations of snobbery – of being, Heaven help us, ‘North London intellectuals’, deploring the vulgarity of the working class (to a soundtrack of classical music) even while we purport to be placing its interests first.
Its conflicted relationship to popular culture is, perhaps, one of the factors that has contributed most to the intellectual paralysis that seems to have overtaken the British left in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Vulnerable to accusations of elitism, many are uncomfortable talking about the cultural pleasures of cosmopolitan connectedness. They would rather parade a connoisseurship of punk music than of Baroque ceilings, of real ale than of wine, just as it is easier to write a PhD on Eastenders than on Jane Austen if you want to keep your socialist credentials. While some are happy to subject aspects of popular culture to detailed deconstruction (often in impenetrable language), others are afraid of losing touch, or seeming pretentious, anxiously submerging themselves in activities that reconnect them with their roots, from football to rock and roll. But even such immersion can be accompanied, as the late, lamented, Mark Fisher described so eloquently, by a haunting sense of inauthenticity – of being a fraud who has ‘somehow faked his way through’.
In these days of social media, there is perhaps, no innocence left when it comes to the experience of culture: no experience that is unmediated by the thought – even if resisted – of how it can be captured, reproduced, tweeted, misrepresented, mashed up. In a representational world in which just about everything can be both aligned and opposed to just about everything else, the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ comes adrift. This makes even the sense of belonging ambivalent, and fraught with risk.
It may no longer be possible to recreate the kinds of spaces that were available for earlier generations of critical misfits to occupy – the Bohemias (whether in the form of physical districts or social milieux) where intercourse took place between artistic, political and sexual transgression and it was equally OK to criticise the ruling class and consumerism. But perhaps new ones will emerge. In the meanwhile, if we want to communicate beyond our own small circles we have to shout, over the cacophony of social media in which everybody else is doing the same, in the hope that somewhere out there will be another voice that responds to ours, in doing so breaking all those taboos against showing off and opening ourselves up to the accusation of not listening properly to others. We have, in short, to engage in precisely the sort of trumpet-blowing our democratic instincts (not to mention our desire to be liked) warn us against.
The question facing us is how to emerge from this paralysis and start moving again. This requires not only putting weight on limbs we may not entirely trust (and letting go with others) but also deciding whose hand to hold and in what direction to move: to find a way of substituting ‘our’ way for ‘my’ way. And even, maybe, finding some means to do it in a shy way.