Burning Down The House

There’s been a backlash, recently, against the meritocratic society. Both Daniel Markovits (The Meritocracy Trap, 2019, Penguin Press) and Michael Sandel (The Tyranny of Merit, 2020, Penguin) have published books on the subject. These thinkers argue that modern societies, believing themselves progressive, have accepted egalitarianism in principle. They give the impression, to the untroubled and advantaged, that they provide an equality of opportunity (or are, at least, moving towards it.) Hard work and resourcefulness can now compensate for any disadvantage. Glass ceilings may exist, but they only trouble high-flyers, and are being dismantled.

Successful people tend to think that they have achieved by their own merit, and thus deserve the rewards that life has loaded them with. We crowd around gold medallists, asking for advice, and they tell us that if we strive, we will eventually make it. That, after all, is their experience. Few of us go to the also-rans for their advice on surviving repeated failure. 

To the victors the spoils, we feel, while the defeated can be left to rot. They have only themselves to blame for their indolence or lack of initiative. Society has discharged its obligation by levelling the playing field in the first place.

The indolent poor! It’s all very Victorian, because the level playing field is a myth. It’s still those who start with inherited advantages who get ahead, only now you can’t blame it on their privilege. Instead, winners can unashamedly revel in their victories, as seen by the invention of “Imposter Syndrome”, which attempts to pathologise humility, and the much satirised “Humble-brag”[1].

Michael Sandel credits the presidency of Donald Trump, and the rise of right-wing populism in general, to the revolt of ordinary people, who are sick of being insulted and humiliated in this way. 

This makes sense to me. Trump’s supporters can’t be blind to his grotesque flaws and vices, his flagrant lies[2], his laziness, and vindictiveness, his repugnant attitudes, his over-riding self-interest, his complete lack of vision, purpose and state-craft. And they must know how privileged, and thus hypocritical, he is. 

But they don’t care. They like Trump because, although he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he’s an unrepentant idiot, and so a spokesperson for a constituency who’ve long been called idiots. They needed a rich kid to get them inside the doors of the halls of power. And now they are going to wreck the place.

I think what matters to many Trump supporters is that he is destructive[3]. They want that. They feel entirely disenfranchised, alienated from the entitled ones, watching from afar their complacent, skilful ease. The system seems to benefit only those who run it, so the Trumpeters want to burn it down. They feel they have nothing to lose, even if Trump dismantles the whole apparatus of state and the traditions of governance.

Donald Trump promises to do just that. He is almost entirely without morals, ability, or sense of duty, and believes that if he can get away with something, it’s ok to do it[4]

His contempt for his own country and its principles is undermining and corrupting the institutions that serve and protect its citizens. But they don’t care. 

All that matters to the Trumpeters is that he upsets the well-dressed, well-heeled politicos they have come to resent so much. The more outraged and astonished the “political elite”, the more the Trump supporters cheer. 

I can’t quite remember how I was going to link all this to the anorexic experience, except to say that perhaps people with eating disorders become similarly rebellious. We are floundering while others glide easily along; We are so fundamentally inadequate that we can’t even feed ourselves. So, we wallow in it. We say, “Oh God, I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; I… Actually, you know what? Fuck this. Fuck you, Dr Complacent. Fuck everything: I refuse.” 

Of course, we don’t say this out loud. Instead, we are timid but resentfully stubborn, perversely insisting on doing what we know to be the wrong thing, the most destructive thing. It’s not just a cry for help, it’s one of anger and frustration; it’s a passive-aggressive rebellion against ourselves and life and the aspirations and strivings that we are incapable of. 

Rioters always burn their own neighbourhoods because they are the only one available to them. 

We’re Burning Down the House, the bone-house: our own bodies.  

Dylan’s angry, bitter humour might also be another facet of this: a rejection; a denial.


[1] Which I love, but did it exist before it was named? Did coining the term create the phenomenon?

[2] He clearly believes that language is not a receptacle to truth; it’s a tool to help you get what you want, and he has no obligation to be honest.

[3] And, sure, some voters probably thought, as a businessman, he could create jobs and others voted for whoever stood against Hillary Clinton, because they didn’t trust her after Bill Clinton’s presidency and because she was a woman, while, no doubt, many just wanted a change from an old order she represented, and many probably automatically voted for whoever was on the Republican ticket.

[4] And the American president can get away with everything because, it turns out, the president is effectively above the law. His power is only limited by convention, in other words, by his willingness to be limited.

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