Monday, June 15, 2015

Style in Politics: The Naked Toreador

The past week has seen an inordinate amount of talk about Manuel Valls' ill-advised jet jaunt to Berlin to watch a soccer match between Barcelona and Juventus. I will not add to the moralizing. As this article points out, the most prominent critics are frequent beneficiaries of the largesse that the political class regularly lavishes on itself in the form of state dinners, receptions with caviar and petits fours, conferences and retreats in the cushiest of settings, etc. Having enjoyed some of these favors myself, it would be hypocritical of me to cast the first stone, and in any case, it is not only the political class that treats itself well: toutes proportions gardées, the business elite, academic elite, medical elite, judicial elite, etc. do the same. One is often made uncomfortable by the contrast between, say, an academic colloquium on the evils of inequality and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it. To be sure, in this case Valls is Caesar and should have known that, not to mention Caesar himself, Caesar's wife--and children--must remain beyond reproach. He has paid a price for his lapse of judgment.

More interesting, perhaps, is to reflect a moment on the importance of style in politics. Valls has cultivated a style unique among contemporary Socialists. It is masculine, visceral, and direct. There is no pretense of intellectualism and relatively little flourishing of principles. Pragmatism is its watchword. Every inflection, every gesture is meant to say, "I am a man who gets things done." In this he resembles Sarkozy, but without the nasty undercurrent, the irrepressible Nixonian expression of resentment and persecution. Sarkozy always seems to be (over-)compensating for an inferiority complex, whereas Valls exudes the confidence of a man more than comfortable in his own skin, always on the right foot, and certain of his seductiveness. He taunts the bulls with a toreador's duende.

His lapse has compromised this carefully constructed image. Backtracking from his initial defiance, he appeared before the press in civvies, as it were, without his sequined skin-tight torero costume, and admitted an "error of communication" for which he would pay reparations in the form of picking up the tab for his children's transportation. A small thing--far smaller, surely, than Hollande's rapid descent from "exemplary president," whose motorcade stopped at every traffic light, to national laughingstock, whose motor scooter stopped at his mistress's apartment. But in the age of mediatized politics, small lapses become recurrent images of weakness and dishonesty. The visual media are a double-edged sword: they magnify and personalize power but also mercilessly cut it down to size with a thousand trivial cuts.

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