Both films have just been nominated for Best Picture Oscars. I have not seen either of them. That tells you more about my movie-going habits than about the value of the films.
Last Sunday Frank Rich opined about how “True Grit” and “The Social Network” depicted two different sets of values and thus, two different Americas. Link here.
Some will find it strange, but I think that Rich was correct to see “The Social Network” as a reflection of the world that brought us the financial crisis and “True Grit” as an exemplar of a lost America that values loyalty, perseverance, and honor.
From having once been a dogged defender of the counterculture, Frank Rich has lately been turning toward a better set of cultural values.
I have mentioned his pivot before, and I think it is important to recognize it.
I have not been an admirer of Frank Rich-- though I have always recognized that he writes well-- but when a Times columnist takes up themes that have usually belonged to those on the other side of the culture wars, we should take notice.
Rich argues that the values of frontier justice and loyalty that define “True Grit” are a welcome respite from the Wall Street values that have nearly led the nation to financial rack and ruin.
In his words: “That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems as distant as a tintype now. The new 'True Grit' lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by the 19th-century Mattie.”
It almost makes you think that Frank Rich is joining the Tea Party.
Keep in mind, as we rarely do, that the people who were running the financial system into the ground were for the most part Ivy League educated Democrats.
The heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the heads of Citigroup and most Wall Street investment banks, the chairman of the New York Fed… all of them were Democrats.
Let us not forget the congerie of white shoe lawyers, government regulators, private auditors, and media enablers. Given that they were mostly living in Manhattan and Washington, D. C., and mostly over-educated, nearly all of them were Ivy League educated Democrats.
Wall Street money flowed like water into the campaign coffers of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A few dollars were offered to Republicans in the last presidential cycle, but most of the Goldman Sachs money went to Democrats.
Today, Wall Street has been disgruntled with Obama, but the administration is doing its darndest to kiss and make up.
And they may well succeed. Unless the bankers and lawyers begin to understand that they were duped by Obama the last time, they will set themselves up to be duped again.
As I said yesterday, shame on them.
Frank Rich is right to see Wall Street, whether bankers, lawyers, or regulators, as a world where loyalty counted for nothing and where predatory capitalism was the rage.
He is also correct to argue that Wall Street became more like what we think of as the primitive Wild West than the world of “True Grit.”
Wall Street became more of a free-for-all, dog-eat-dog world than the one inhabited by Rooster Cogburn.
But if Wall Street did not become a Wild West show by emulating traditional, American frontier values… where did it go to school to learn these things? It didn‘t learn them from the Tea Party.
As I suggested above, Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe honed their skills and learned their values in the Ivy League.
In truth, and it is not a secret, Ivy League professors have, for quite some time now, been implacable foes of capitalism. Most of them think that the Democratic party is a right wing organization.
More important is the way they teach capitalism, not so much within economics departments, which are often fair and balanced, but within the Humanities.
There, critical theorists portray capitalism as a predatory, oppressive system that sucks the lifeblood out of the economy to line the pockets of the capitalists themselves.
Call it vampire capitalism, if you like, but when the products of these universities alight on Wall Street, they play the game the way they have been taught.
As they do so, they manipulate the system for their advantage. Protected by the endless machinations of government and the legal profession, they usually escape justice.
As Rich puts it: “When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust.
“While ‘Social Network‘” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.”
Enter the Tea Party…
But Rooster Cogburn does not just embody frontier justice. He also typifies, to paraphrase Rich, the values of prudence, perseverance, modesty, and benevolence.
The Ivy League does not teach these things. It is far more likely to teach that the Protestant work ethic is outmoded, declasse, demode, oppressive and repressive of everything that is valuable… like following your bliss and expressing your deep feelings of greed.
As I suggested, Rich sees Wall Street as more like Harvard than the Wild West. He is performing a very deft rhetorical pirouette here, but he is saying that values that people attack as belonging to the Wild West are not really Wild West-- read that, Tea Party-- values. They are somehow being taught and inculcated in places like Harvard.
In Rich’s words: “While ‘Social Network‘ fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.
“In ‘Social Network,’ the landscape is Cambridge, Mass., but we might as well be in the pre-civilized Wild West. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blog post. In place of an honorable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads ‘I’m CEO ... Bitch!’”
I am amused to see Rich calling Cambridge, Mass. a “pre-civilized” world.
Today, with everyone and his brother is calling for a return to civility, it is useful to understand that Ivy League values, those that favor creativity, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and charisma are promoting a return to barbarism.
For example, you would have difficulty getting through too many Humanities courses without reading Freud’s "Civilization and its Discontents.” Even though the book has no real interest to mental health practitioners, it still stands tall for being an unabashed attack on human civilization. It’s thesis is that civilization is built on a foundation of repressed libido.
We don't need any more of the kinds of values that are embodied in "The Social Network," Frank Rich says. What we really need is: “an honorable social code.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, even if I have been trying to do so for more than a few years now.