Monday, February 17, 2014

House of Cards: A Post-Mortem

Imagine, for a moment, this highly improbable event: President Barack Obama comes clean for the first time to the American people, without the benefit of a single teleprompter. He schedules a special televised address to the nation, with the White House Press Corps, the press at large, the Congress, and an audience of foreign dignitaries and representatives from all the collusive special interests and lobbies that have a line into the Oval Office. He says:

I am here to confess, without shame or reservation, that I am a power-lusting scumbag. I admit that I hate this country and wish to see it reduced to penury. I used every trick in the book to clinch the White House. I don’t mind that I'm the tool of others who hate this country and I will continue to be their proxy in malice. I am a Marxist who has stepped on and throttled others' ambitions, even when those others shared my contempt for this country and, like me, regarded it as their pie to eat. I am willing to commit treason. I have worked to overthrow this country's government by fair means and foul. I have never been interested in the welfare, security or happiness of any American, not even of my supporters and admirers. I've thrown them under the bus the moment they lose value to me, and will not hesitate to do it again. My sole aim has always been to acquire power.

In reference to Kevin Spacey's brilliant TV series, "House of Cards," my own Doug Stampers have been Bill Ayers, David Axelrod, and Rahm Emanuel and his brothers and an ever-changing host of deputies of this and that. Doug Stamper, as you may recall, was the aide who committed crimes for Frank Underwood when Underwood was too busy to commit them himself. But Frank Underwood is my role model, and was even before anyone ever invented him. The staircase he ascended was one of piles of bodies and careers. "People stack so well," to quote my mentor. Love it. From here on in, folks, I won’t lie to you. It won’t be necessary. You know what I am and what I'll do. I won’t bother anymore with lies or subterfuge or double-talk. There's class logic, and proletarian logic, and Marxist logic – and there's my logic. None of those twains will ever meet. And when I'm gone, I'll be haunting you for the rest of your lives.

So, good night, and God damn America.

Such a speech would be paradoxical. Why Kevin Spacey (the moving spirit behind the American "House of Cards"), a career Democrat dedicated to the Democratic Party's totalitarian or "Progressive" agenda,  would invest so much effort in a TV series that can only contribute to the public damnation of his Party and its political philosophy, is a paradox. I briefly posed that enquiry in "House of Cards: A Tale of Pain-Worshipping Killers."

The logical production would have been one that dramatized a Republican conspiracy to seize the White House by finessing the downfall of a Democratic president, as Kevin Spacey's character, Frank Underwood does at the end of Season 2, and to assume the office of president. He accomplishes that by inflicting much pain on Garrett Walker, a fellow Democrat, so much pain that Walker resigns rather than undergo impeachment for crimes Spacey and his George Soros-like co-conspirator, Raymond Tusk (the billionaire industrialist) actually committed. And perhaps that will be the logical progression we will see in Season 3 of "House of Cards."

But, that wasn't the story line in Seasons 1 and 2. Go figure.

Winston Churchill said in a radio address in 1939:

"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." 

I suggested that it was the smug nihilism of Spacey and his co-producers and writers that could explain an act of self-destruction. Perhaps that is the answer to the riddle, swathed in a mystery, inside the enigma. But, will "House of Cards" prove to be Obama's winding sheet, as well as the Democrats'?

Perhaps Spacey and his ilk, including Barack Obama, can afford to indulge in the smug, smirking, nihilistic hubris they express so well because they know that there is no alternative to them in the Republicans. Which there really isn't. More's the pity.

Spacey, being interviewed on ABC's "This Week" by George Stephanopoulos (who plays himself twice in the series) on February 16th, soon after "House of Cards: Season 2" debuted, opined that one reason "House of Cards" is striking a chord in Americans is that they want a Congress "that gets things done."

Perhaps Spacey and Stephanopoulos are tone-deaf, and the chord they hear is just the opposite: Americans don’t want a "very effective Congress that gets things done," especially if those things are done to them and the country. Painfully.

Josef Stalin is reputed to have first said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." Or heads. Or spirits. Or lives. And the question is: For whose breakfast are the eggs being broken?

Some pundits have called "House of Cards" a satire. Others refer to Frank Underwood as a "corrupt congressman." But "House of Cards" isn't satire, and Underwood isn't merely "corrupt." To call an individual corrupt implies that he has betrayed his principles or violated his oath of office. Underwood, as depicted by Spacey, is not presented as an individual who ever had principles or anything to betray. Men without values cannot betray values they never had. Frank Underwood is not corrupt. He was born an incubus, and will remain one to his dying day.

Excuse my failing extrospective skills, but the paradox still obsesses me. Is "House of Cards" an exercise in self-loathing, or self-hatred? Self-loathing, I've read, is regarded in some realms as a sign of adult maturity. As an antonym of pride, it is an anti-virtue.

One thing is certain: A cinematic product like "House of Cards" is reflective of the general sense of self-loathing thrust upon and eating away at the West by anti-Western philosophers and their compliant mouthpieces, who are mostly left-wing academics, other intellectuals, the vast majority of the news media,  and politicians. It has "trickled down" from 18th and 19th century philosophers, beginning, as far as I can see, with Immanuel Kant.

Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher, could solve such as paradox as the self-denigrating nature of "House of Cards" and note that:

To the extent to which a man is rational, life is the premise directing his actions. To the extent to which he is irrational, the premise directing his actions is death.*

The whole of Frank Underwood's character is devoted to the irrational, and the irrationality he practices necessitates inflicting pain to acquire political power. He doesn’t actually want to live; but neither does he want anyone else to survive his death-wish, either.

That is nihilism.

*The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand. 1964. New York: Signet. P. 25.


Pete said...

Thank you, Ed. I was looking forward to your thoughts on the second season.
The three points that stuck with me the most this time around were:

#1 The repeated and outspoken acknowledgement of the main characters that their mode of functioning is "ruthless pragmatism".

#2 The ménage à trois that you mentioned, which was actually quite helpful to me. Watching all the developments up to that point in the series had made me build up a kind of dazing numbness towards the actions of the main characters. The utter disgust that I felt during that scene became a kind of wake-up call to once again remind me of the moral sewer I was observing.

#3 My favorite scene from season 2 is the one in which Claire Underwood is talking on the phone with the First Lady, in the context of Claire's and her husband's ongoing attempt to orchestrate the downfall of the president. She once again succeeds in convincing the First Lady of a fake reality, in which she (and by implication her husband) has a good moral character. She succeeds so well that the phone call even ends with the remark of the first lady that "You're a good person, Claire. Be well!" However, the sincerity of those words catch Claire by surprise and for a moment she can't help but contemplate the utter falsehood of what she just heard. There are a few seconds after the end of the phone call in which you can watch her staring into the abyss of her own soul, choking on it and then momentarily losing her self-control. This scene I think eloquently expresses how miserable these people are and how pointless and selfless all of their lying and scheming.

Watching season 2 made me think several times about the discussion we had last year about season 1 - and I still can't make complete sense out of the show's creators' motives, either. Usually naturalism in art is used to ridicule and demean sincerity, principles, integrity, independence and all the other virtues of men of self-esteem. However, in this television series it seems they are turning one of their favorite weapons against themselves.

The only possible explanation I have for the motives of the show's creators would be part of a wider phenomenon that the Germans in the 1920s experienced as 'Demokratieverdrossenheit' (frustration/dissatisfaction with democracy). The admiring remarks by many commentators for Underwood's ability "to get things done" would fall squarely into that context. Of Course 'Demokratieverdrossenheit' is not limited to Weimar Germany or the industrialized countries of the 21st century - one can find it throughout history, whenever a republic of laws turns into a republic of men. And House of Cards would only be one of countless outlets on television or in the movies to emphasize 'Demokratieverdrossenheit'. Of all the depictions of Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander or even Attila that were captured on film over the past several decades, I can't think of one that has been less than favorable (if not downright admiring).

The unique appeal of House of Cards might simply lie in adapting a very bitter and age-old theme to our present-day context, allowing it to resonate with both fans and creators alike.

Edward Cline said...

I left this comment on an Andrew Klavan article on "House of Cards":


As I remarked in my own two reviews of the second season of "House of Cards," it is paradoxical that Kevin Spacey, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, star, and executive producer of this and the first season, puts his imprimatur on a series in which all the villains and dupes are Democrats, a sprinkling of manipulated fools who are Republicans. I cannot see that Spacey is doing the Democrats any favors by demonizing them in the worst possible way. Perhaps it's a matter of hubris; no matter how black he paints the Democrats, they are invincible, and will always retain murderous and Machiavellian power. Then there are the liberals caricatured in the persons of Underwood's wife, Claire (a distaff Bill Gates), and the pliable and doomed Peter Russo. Zoe Barnes, as a reporter is a status-seeking whore, and a liberal, as well, and sort of deserved to be thrown under the train. A new character, Jackie Sharpe, played by Molly Parker, is a glassy-eyed House majority whip and also a whore. The handful of Republican characters who appear are nearly non-entities; they're RINOs. But, "House of Cards" is superbly done and I have been recommending it to anyone who wants to see a dramatization of power politics in Washington.
My reviews can be read at:


In all modesty, I believe my reviews are a tad more insightful than Mr. Klavan's.


Kizone Kaprow said...

"George Stephanopoulos (who plays himself twice in the series)..."

TV drama doesn't get much more cynical than D.C. pundits and power brokers playing themselves -- or rather more virtuous, almost tolerable versions of themselves -- in House of Cards. I found their fourth wall-demolishing appearances in the series both jarring and nauseating.

An oft-repeated quip describes politics (and people who cover politics at the highest levels) as "show business for ugly people." Are we at the point in our cultural disintegration where the line between reality and fiction has been made irrelevant?