Friday, December 30, 2016

The Joy of Vicarious Aggression

An article in Le Monde this morning sent me to the video clip linked below of Georges Marchais, erstwhile leader of the French Communist Party, with interviewers Alain Duhamel and Jean-Pierre Elkabbach.

When I lived in France in the 1970s, I quite enjoyed the Marchais spectacle. We had nothing like it back home, where Communists were pursued by the FBI rather than by high-profile TV newsmen, and political interviews were rather sedate affairs. It was impossible to imagine even the surliest of American pols--Richard Nixon, say--telling Walter Cronkite to get it into "your little head that I, too, have a brain."

George Wallace might have said such a thing, but I never thought of comparing Marchais to George Wallace, because Marchais, after all, represented the "revolutionary" left and Wallace the racist right. But the two had much more in common than I imagined in my callow youth. Not only did Wallace enjoy strong working-class support in certain regions of the country, he also brought cheer to millions who didn't care a fig for his policy agenda (because they never expected him to achieve power) but immensely enjoyed watching a pugnacious and earthy scrapper stick it to the stuck-up mouthpieces of the powers-that-be. Marchais tapped into the same vein of ressentiment. "You think of me as a worker," he says to Elkabbach, that is, as someone who can't think for himself, who is simply a tool in the hands of other men, be it the capitalist boss or the communist ideologue. But in fact you are the tool, and a greater fool than I because you don't understand when you are being used.

"Bourgeois" viewers used to watch these Marchais performances with fear in their hearts, thinking how they would spirit their savings out of the country if that madman ever came to power. But those without savings loved to watch him spar with the anointed representatives of the officially-sanctioned media. Jean-Marie Le Pen recognized the appeal of Marchais's pugnacity and made it his own. He passed the gift on to his daughter, who has learned to sing the same tune in a different key. But this is an instrument that doesn't need to be learned from a virtuoso. Some politicians immediately recognize its potential and play it with skill from the moment they pick it up: Wallace and Donald Trump are cases in point.

The music may be crude, but countries fall into moods in which the only music they can hear is a music undergirded by primitive rhythms and harsh, simple melodies repeated ad nauseam until any finer harmony become inaudible.