In a COVID-19 induced binge of quasi-“old” movie watching, I once again viewed a movie which I first enjoyed over nine years ago on June 25, 2011 in a Bethesda movie theater. Flash forward to August 2020, a different time with different “norms” and medically necessitated protocols: I watched this movie on a big screen, smart TV in my Annapolis condo at the current social distance with my mask at my side should I need it.
The movie I watched both times was “Midnight in Paris.” The story, which one capsule review suggests creates a “larky, slightly tart, and altogether bountiful mood,” tells the story of a “would-be serious author,” whom I naturally identify with, visiting Paris in 2010. There, while he enjoys French wine to arguable excess, he is transformed back to the Paris of the 1920’s where he engages in and observes conversations between his heroes and heroines, writers and artists of that era, F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Gauguin. The conversations between these characters, based on caricatures of their earlier life progenitors trading barbs between dry martinis and their favorite wines, bring to life the ironies of all our human existences both then and now.
My favorite exchange occurs when the lead character, “Gil” portrayed by Owen Wilson, asks the famed author and critic, Gertrude Stein, to read and critique the book he is writing to establish himself as a serious writer in lieu of his current professional life as a well salaried “script writer” in Hollywood. She does so and later encouraged him to keep at it because it is the important job of a novelist to relieve the boredom of his readers.
As I thought about that exchange, including Gil’s reflection thereafter on Gertrude Stein’s advice and his subsequent determination to risk his ability to earn a future economic livelihood as well as forego his plans to wed a woman with little imagination or interest in his work to be a serious writer, I thought about whether that very basic human desire to relieve our own boredom with the routine of our daily existences is motivating the problems that we are having in our political life.
The political class, in particular, seems to be prone to this very human desire to lead (1) an interesting and (2) a meaningful personal and professional life and to equate doing so with holding public office. For this reason, as New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai has pointed out, “The political system is imperiled mostly because too many of our politicians just can’t seem to imagine any worse fate in life than losing an election.”
This phenomenon is not necessarily to be expected in the 21st century. In fact, the members of the political class, who seem almost universally susceptible to it, are missing what Matt Bai articulates and those particularly younger members of the newly “flattened world” experience on a daily basis — “the modern ethos of career adventurism.” That “career adventurism” experience almost inevitably entails for the children of the millennium and even the younger Baby Boomers, cycling or shifting through a succession of jobs during their professional lives.
This is unlike their parents, who may have worked at the same firm or factory for 30 years or more, and have a pension, Social Security, and Medicare into which they contributed to show for it. These mostly younger professionals and workers at best have a 401K. Many do not expect to have Social Security and/or Medicare “as we know it.”
This is in stark contrast to many of our politicians who still cling to their offices at almost any cost, to conscience or constituency as if they could not bear to even think about holding another job. As Matt Bai points out, “it is this outmoded sense of entitlement” that lobbyists, the media and other sources of “outside pressure exploit to pray on politicians’ insecurities about their ability to hold on to the only part of their daily routine that makes their lives interesting and fulfilling.”
The problem then is not with the lobbyists, the media, or the proliferation of money in politics. The problem is with the people whom we are electing and appointing who simply choose far too often not to do what they know is right and face the possible political consequences of their actions.
The standard to which we hold these people should certainly be no lower than any other occupation. Most of us would not knowingly harm or defraud our clients or customers just because we were ordered by our boss to do so even at the risk of losing our job. Admittedly, federal and state legislators don’t face moral dilemmas this stark. But they are required to choose constantly between the welfare of their constituents and their own self-preservation politically.
The question we should answer is whether it is really so outside the bounds of human nature to expect politicians to serve the interests of the people who elect them even when their own re-elections are at risk. Most of the time politicians understand what the right thing to do is or they choose not to understand it. This writer thinks it is not unreasonable to expect politicians to understand and do the right thing, although as Upton Sinclair said “way back” in 1935, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Our politicians may or may not need to be “rescued” by public financing, stricter regulation of lobbying and lobbyists or other systemic remedies that may be legislated. At least in the short-term, they just simply need to go to the movies and see “Midnight in Paris.” Then they need to think about the movie they just saw with a view toward putting their lives and careers in perspective.
— STEVEN I. PLATT
The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.