January 6 2014

What Jefferson Read and Obama Watches

Charlotte Hays

Two articles over the last few days did much to convince me that the collapse of civilization is imminent.

Well, of course it didn’t take much convincing for me, but for those of a less bleak turn of mind this article on President Obama’s TV watching habits should bring you over to my camp. Written by Matthew Continetti, the article is headlined “Obama on the Couch” and it is commentary on a New York Times article by Michael Shear on the president’s television habits.

First off, it looks to me as if President Obama watches a lot of TV, perhaps too much for a guy with a responsible job. The president goes for “anything edgy, with hints of reality”—you know, sort of like our Middle Eastern policy, minus the hints of reality. The New York Times reported that the president likes “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” which provide “the kind of heavy, darkly rendered television that echoes the sadness and strife that make up so much of his workday.”

Just so you know, the president is “working his way through” the DVD boxed set of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and is “keenly awaiting” the next season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” The president is also an ardent fan of Showtime’s “Homeland,” about a fictional version of the CIA, terrorism, and the Middle East. This kind of fare strikes me as decidedly different from the sources to which Thomas Jefferson turned for recreation: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato, to mention a few of the authors Mr. Obama’s predecessor read and recommended to others.  

Continetti points out that many conservatives love these shows, too, so it is a stretch to see them as sources of the president’s politics or policies. What the president’s TV tastes demonstrate is that he watches the same shows that other upper, echelon, well-educated Americans (plus Republicans!) watch.

Continetti brilliantly captures the snobbery coupled with insularity of this intellectually limited elite:

Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards — these are the latest distractions of the well-schooled echelon of society that toils in high positions in finance, academia, media, and the bureaucracy, that binge-watches fashionable shows with determination and marathon-runner stamina, that discusses over dinner recent articles in the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, that laments rising inequality during vacations in tropical locales. To watch such programs is not a sign of critical acumen but of social status. The audience of these cable dramas is wealthy not only in dollars but also in cultural currency: in the ability to detect and adapt to the rise and fall of reputations, to restate the latest critical judgments, to fashion one’s subjective tastes into a coherent and ideological whole. That Barack Obama watches the same television shows as a reader of the New York Times must add an extra thrill, a dash of self-importance, to the experience of being a couch potato. Obama is so much cooler than Republican presidents, after all. …

Anyone who can make it through the piece should conclude that the president is neither a Communist nor a Muslim but a conventional and rather unexciting Bobo, a middle-aged parent of two who unwinds, in between golf and games of pickup basketball, in the accustomed manner of his caste. Ironic, isn’t it: A man whose senses of ego and ambition are continually inflated by his rivals, his supporters, and himself is just another member of a comfortable and confused elite, enjoying television on his large, high-definition set, watching movies in his private screening room, and eating fine cuisine in the most fashionable restaurants while brooding over the prospect of American decline. …

It is ironic that President Obama, hailed as possibly the smartest man ever to occupy Mr. Jefferson’s old (Oval) office, turns out to spend his evenings glued to the big eye. 

I can’t help thinking than an older, more solidly educated, more intellectually sophisticated, less impressionable citizenry might have been less susceptible to the Obama as Genius fever that swept the electorate in 2008 and was still not cured in 2012. This brings us to the second article, Heather Mac Donald’s evisceration of what has happened to the humanities departments at important U.S. universities, notably including the University of California at Los Angeles, which recently abolished course requirements for Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton:

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the "Empire," UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to "alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class." …

Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.

I don’t want to make too much of the president’s penchant for high-class junk on TV. But I do want to note that he epitomizes an elite that is the product of educational systems such as those Heather Mac Donald describes. 

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