The paradox of Leftist utopianism and its dystopian art

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Six By Sondheim” is a new, well-produced HBO documentary that stitches together the many interviews Stephen Sondheim has given over the years since the late 1950s and then ties those interviews in with six of his best-known or (to him) most important songs. NPR enthused that the show leaves viewers wanting more but, as I am not a Sondheim fan, I wanted less — or at least less of the music.  The interviews, however, were interesting.

My takeaway is that Sondheim is a decent, articulate, intelligent man, who thinks deeply about his craft.  I may not like his end product, finding the endless word play emotionally distancing and the music discordant, but there’s serious hard work and lots of talent behind it.

Sondheim has made a living out of thumbing his nose at critics who complain rightly that his songs are not “hummable.”  Certainly that’s part of why I don’t like his music.  I’m simplistic enough to like pop songs that I can sing later.  Although maybe “simplistic” isn’t the right word.  When Irving Berlin rhymes “farmer” with “potato embalmer,” there’s nothing simplistic about that.  It’s a delightful rhyme scheme that captures in three words one aspect of a farmer’s work.  Likewise, there’s nothing embarrassing about Johnny Mercer’s exquisite lyrics to I Remember You.  “When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of it all, then I will tell them I remember you.”  My primary reasoning for disliking Sondheim’s music isn’t that it’s not hummable; it’s that, to my ears, it’s not attractive.

Certainly Sondheim’s subject matter is seldom attractive consisting as it does of strippers, burlesque, broken homes, and psychopathic moms (Gypsy); deadly street gangs (West Side Story); serial killers (Sweeney Todd); a dystopian view of fairy tales (Into The Woods); attempted presidential murderers (Assassins); a man’s throwing away his life’s talent (Merrily We Roll Along); or broken down marriages (Follies).  Listening to Sondheim describe his life, this deeply negative view about relationships and people in general isn’t particularly surprising.

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd

Sondheim’s parents had an unhappy marriage that ended when he was 10.  Before, during, and after the divorce, he was a pawn in his parents drama and, most especially in his mother’s obsession with his father and her manifest dislike for being a parent.  She hated her son and he knew it.  Indeed, when Sondheim was 40, right before his mother went into surgery, she wrote him a letter saying that the worst thing that ever happened to her was to have him.

Sondheim was also a homosexual who came of age during a time when his sexual orientation was unpopular, to say the least.  There’s no doubt that, in the Broadway world, he could easily have found sufficient numbers of like-minded people to form a relationship that went beyond casual sex.  He didn’t, though.  It appears that  his upbringing left him so emotionally constipated that, as he confesses, he was only able to fall in love when he was 60.

Blessedly, Sondheim seems to keep his politics to himself, but he’s certainly part of the zeitgeist on the Lefter side of the political spectrum.  Those who like him are often the same people who sneer at traditional musical theater, with its bright songs and happy endings.

After watching the documentary, I realized that American art and entertainment present a funny paradox.  Leftists tend to create and to prefer art and entertainment that focuses on the sleazy, irredeemable side of human nature.  Many of Sondheim’s plays exemplify this fact, but the list of gutter-gazing art from Leftists is endless.  Hollywood and Broadway Leftists like, and endlessly produce, movies and shows that focus on the bad guys (Tony Soprano, Walter White), depressing situations (Precious, American Beauty), or sordid behavior (just about every movie out of Hollywood lately).

Fred and Ginger

Fred and Ginger

Conservatives tend to yearn for the type of wholesome fare that Hollywood churned out from the time of the Code through the late 1960s.  These shows involve happy people muddling through to happy endings, bad people getting their comeuppances in morally satisfying ways, suffering people rewarded at the end, etc.  The tear-jerkers involved deeply sympathetic characters who tried to do good and failed, not creepy psychopaths who worked hard at being evil and, even when they got their comeuppance, never repented.

Looking at the differing artistic fare the two political cultures generate, you’d think that it was the conservatives who were the utopians and the Leftists who were the harsh realists.  In fact, though, Leftists are the utopians who fervently believe that, if they can just figure out the correct political coercion, they will perfect human kind, turning each man into someone who joyfully, and without greed, rancor, or violence, gives of his labors to support everyone else in the world.  Conservatives, on the other hand, recognize that humankind is inherently greedy, rancorous, and violent, and seek to create voluntarily enforced social, moral, and economic systems that harness and control these innate tendencies in a way that’s simultaneously beneficial to the individual and to society at large.

Presumably, this paradox can be resolved as follows:  Leftists use art to establish that the world, especially the American world, is a terrible place because it lacks the guiding hand of a loving police state.  Meanwhile, conservatives use their art aspirationally, to encourage all people to cultivate voluntarily their better selves, or to put their “baser” instincts (i.e., greed) to a use that lifts up their own lives while improving and enriching the world.

The narcissistic mindset of today’s world

For almost a thousand years, Catholics around the world, as part of their mass, have taken responsibility before God for their own failings:

Confíteor Deo omnipoténti et vobis, fratres,
quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne:
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.
Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem,
omnes Angelos et Sanctos, et vos, fratres,
oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum.

Or, as translated into English:

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my own fault,
through my own most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I’ve always found extraordinarily beautiful the single phrase italicized above:  “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa,” which I translate in my mind as “I have sinned, I have sinned, I have grievously sinned.”  The Latin has a lovely rhythm, and I like the murmuring “m” that is repeatedly cut off by the hard “c” and “p.”

I also like the sentiment expressed.  It’s not that I believe that most of us spend our lives perpetually sinning, especially carrying out grievous sins on a routine basis.  Nevertheless, what appeals to me about the phrase the way it constantly reminds us to be humble.  Making that statement — I have sinned, please forgive me — acknowledges that we cannot control all things and that, with the best will in the world, we make mistakes, sometimes serious, sometimes not so serious.  And when we err, we owe someone an apology.  If there’s no one else to whom we can apologize, there is always God before whom we can make amends.  It is the ultimate statement of personal responsibility and, by extension, individual will.  We act, and we take responsibility for our acts, even if they don’t always turn out so well.

One aspect of moral decline is when people abandon the principles behind this confession and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.  Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim, whose writing and thinking generally doesn’t appeal to me, has a surprisingly firm grasp on this problem. Back in the 1950s, in West Side Story, the Jets cheerfully explain that society at large forced them to become hoods.  They are not responsible for what they do, leaving no room for remorse or redemption:

Almost thirty years later, Sondheim, in Into the Woods, wrote a song, “Your fault,” that makes the same point.  As with “Officer Krupke,” it’s a remarkably astute summing up of a secular culture that has abandoned personal responsibility:

Both Sondheim songs are narcissism in action.  Narcissists simply cannot take responsibility for their own conduct.  They cannot apologize; they can only blame:

Some people have more trouble apologizing than others.  As the gifted psychoanalyst Dr. Nancy McWilliams has written, narcissists have particular difficulty expressing remorse because to them it implies fallibility and personal error, admissions that are psychologically intolerable to such people.

Narcissists are not pleasant people with whom to deal.  They are responsible only for successes, and are quick to blame anyone but themselves for their failures.  If you’re the one standing closest to a narcissist when something bad happens, you can be assured that, when the narcissist is done, he will have himself, everyone else, and possibly you too convinced that it’s all “your fault.”

Bad as this is at an individual level, what do you do when an entire culture goes narcissist, making for a collective abdication of responsibility?  A friend asked me this question (well, he didn’t quite ask that question, but he sort of did) in connection with the fatal football riots in Egypt.  He pointed out that, now that the dust has settled, the rioters are blaming the military police.  Given the routinely thuggish practice of Egypt’s military police, and given the dislocation that generally characterizes Egypt now, the police are certainly a convenient scapegoat.  Occam’s razor, however, dictates that one look a little closer to home:  the two teams have a long history of thuggish behavior towards each other, and it is just as likely, if not more likely, that the rioters used Egypt’s chaos as a cover for bringing to the boil a long simmering rivalry.

Where does this behavior stop?  Interestingly enough, the Obama administration is giving us an easy answer.  It stops when all blame rests in two places:  Israel and the American government (carving out the Obama years as a blameless exception, of course).  The latest manifestation of this new version of the confession (“America has sinned, she has sinned, she has grievously sinned”) is the Obama administration’s decision to block the Iran Sanctions Bill, which officially holds Iran responsible for the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, back in 1983.  The bill is part of a package of legislation that attempts to hamstring Iran financially as a way of preventing the regime from going nuclear and, perhaps, allowing dissidents to bring the regime down from within.

The Obama administration’s ostensible reason for blocking the bill is that it just needs a little more time to talk to Iran because this time, more than three years after Obama was sworn in, Obama and his team are sure that talks will make a different.  Really.  This time.  Oh, yes, this time the president’s gift of gab will work, and Obama is so certain of this, he doesn’t want any sticks near as he waves his oratorical carrots before the Iranians.

Marine families are devastated.  They understand that it’s not just pragmatic negotiation requirements that drive the administration’s stand (especially because negotiation has been less than useful to date).  A principled administration, one that truly believed in America, could never take this stand.  What makes it easy for the Obama administration is that, in any dealings between America and another nation, if something goes wrong, it’s all America’s fault.  It’s therefore no skin off the administration’s back to ignore the facts.

Obama is just the most visible and powerful manifestation of this mindset.  James Taranto caught Abe Rosenthal, at the New York Times making the same call (bolded emphasis mine):

Hey, Remember Pearl Harbor?
Reading the recently launched blog of New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal has become one of this columnist’s guilty pleasures. Here he is inveighing against the latest Republican outrage, or something:

Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, tweeted the following yesterday afternoon: “Jan. 4, 2012, may well be a day that will live on in infamy, as a day the Congress ceded one of its rightful powers to the executive.”

This was alarming. What did the President do on January 4 that would warrant a comparison to Pearl Harbor? Did the president order a drone strike that day, maybe? Or sign a bill authorizing indefinite detention for suspected terrorists? Actually, those things happened on other dates without anyone–to my knowledge–invoking Japan’s attack on a Hawaiian naval base.

Lee was referring to the president’s “recess” appointments at a time when the Senate was not actually in recess, but that’s not what makes Rosenthal’s post so perversely amusing.

First of all, while we’ll concede that Lee’s words were an echo of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who actually said “a date which will live in infamy”), does that really amount to “a comparison to Pearl Harbor”? The opening line of Pat Benatar’s 1981 song “Promises in the Dark” is, “Never again, isn’t that what you said?” Would Rosenthal say Benatar was comparing her romantic disappointments to the Holocaust? (Though come to think of it, it sounds as though Benatar has had a few dates that live in infamy.)

Second and even more bizarre, look at the examples Rosenthal cites of events that he thinks are more comparable to Pearl Harbor: the killing and detention of America’s enemies. A more apt comparison would be to a Pearl Harbor-like strike by the Allies against the Axis. Remember the Battle of Taranto!

I think I’ve beaten this horse to death.  I’ve certainly covered all the items in my mental checklist of ideas for this post:  Past recognition of personal responsibility? Abandonment of that doctrine? America as the narcissists’ ultimate scapegoat, at home and abroad?  Yup.  All there.

America culpa, America culpa, America maxima culpa.