The popular culture of the West is a mess these days. Add up the vulgar lyrics and misogyny of rap music to pathetic movies like 50 Shades of Grey to public obsessions like Bruce Jenner as he breaks out of his male cocoon and metamorphosizes into a female, and we are left with very little to praise. It all seems like a replay of the Roman satirist Petronius’s brilliant first-century AD novel The Satyricon, which chronicled the moral sinkhole into which the Roman Bay of Naples had plunged.
What then explains the two current and very different hits on television and film, the British aristocratic soap opera Downtown Abbey and the story of the American ace sniper in Iraq, the late Chris Kyle?
The vast majority of hit movies and television sensations usually express a schizophrenic attitude toward Western values. On the one hand, they wallow in a rich, decadent culture that is the product of market capitalism and unfettered democracy. On the other hand, they ridicule Western politics and traditions that account for such bounty. That dichotomy apparently serves as a psychological penance for such crass materialist obsessions. Nothing is more surreal than watching the youth-obsessed, half-educated, and would-be socialist celebrities congregate at the Oscars, to applaud multimillionaire fellow pampered actors and actresses—who spend more on an evening’s clothes than most families live on in a year—as they demand equal pay for zillionaire actresses and call on the oppressed of the world to flock to their cause. Life, after all, has not been all that bad to Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette even though Johnny Depp makes more per film than they do.
True, both Downton Abbey and American Sniper are well crafted, nicely produced, and have fine actors. But dozens of other movies and television shows meet those criteria too. So why would postmodern Westerners stay glued to their televisions on Sunday nights to enjoy the daily lives of the prewar English manorial class and their hordes of obedient and often well-adjusted and patriotic servants? Stranger yet, why are the Granthams for the most part portrayed as decent people, their servants relatively happy—and, in this age of cynicism, sarcasm, and nihilism, why is the reactionary idea of noblesse oblige taken seriously?
In a very different vein, why would Americans identify with a combat veteran who—as Michael Moore reminded us— blew apart indigenous people with a sniper rifle, in a war that for a decade Hollywood, the media, and most of the Democratic Party insisted was unwise, unwarranted, and unethical? The public senses something in these two vastly different works that it silently, and in the guilt-free privacy of the movie theater or living room, appreciates.
Each in its own way resonates with a public’s nostalgic sense of loss. They are like Virgil’s Aeneid—finished in 19 BC in the final death throes of the rural Italian Roman Republic as it transmogrified into a vast Mediterranean globalized empire—which sought to remind Romans of who they had been, where they had come from, and what was lost and not coming back. Both Downton Abbey and American Sniper bring to mind Hesiod’s age-old theme of the ethical regress that accompanies material progress.
For this generation of contemporary Westerners, is there is a fascination in watching people, even rich lords and ladies, sit and speak as they dine together rather than eat on couches in sweat pants in front of the television each evening? Amid Facebook and Twitter, do cocooned Westerners miss things like attending clubs, socials, and community councils? In an age when most Americans cannot name their great-grandparents, is the public curious about a lost age when one measured his worth in terms of not dishonoring his ancestors and ensuring that whatever he inherited he added to rather than consumed? How can a poor Irishman like the widowed Tom Branson admire his in-law English aristocrats, as if they were fellow decent humans rather than class oppressors? Are formalities that we now write off as minor or irrelevant—how one shakes hands, the lost arts like etiquette and pleasant diction, a rich vocabulary, the avoidance of slang and profanity—not that really minor after all?
Westerners may not like the politics of Downtown Abbey or the social structure and assumptions it represents, but they seem to appreciate the order, civility, manners, and beauty that it celebrates and which seek to mitigate the coarseness of our everyday existence. They miss something in their supposedly rich material and egalitarian lives that is weekly rediscovered vicariously inside Downton Abbey. In place of a vulgar buffoon like Miley Cyrus gyrating on stage half-naked as she dumbs down culture to its lowest common denominator, or a crude and talentless Kanye West crashing another award ceremony to whine about his latest ism, Westerners still like to escape on Sunday nights to the fair-play and civilized behavior of a plodding Lord or Lady Grantham and their politically-incorrect hierarchy.
American Sniper is also an unapologetic reaffirmation of some lost classical values. It is the antithesis of almost all recent (and failed) Hollywood condemnations of the Iraq War, not by virtue of any pop editorializing on why the war was necessary or fought well, but by the value system emblematized by Kyle and his comrades. His code of ethics can be summed up by the final comments of E. B. Sledge in his classic World War II memoir of fighting as a Marine on the Pacific Island of Okinawa, With the Old Breed: “Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country—as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, ‘If the country is good enough to live in, it'’ good enough to fight for.’ With privilege goes responsibility.”
Kyle is this generation’s version of Shane from the 1953 movie of the same name, an updated Old West gunslinger who uses his skill for what he feels is a just cause and for people he believes are better than their enemies—and thereby willingly accepts his own ostracism and perhaps even his unhappy fate.
Kyle is not just a good shot, he is a superb marksman, by far the best of his generation, who risks his life to provide cover for Americans. He is also unrepentant, confessing pathos not about taking lives per se, but not taking enough bad lives to save more good lives. He assumes that there are bad people and good people and the former must be stopped to save the latter. To do otherwise would be the real immorality.
For the character of Kyle, the American does not have to be perfect in war to be good. Kyle can be, of course, deadly and unapologetic about his sniping, which he interprets as saving his fellow soldiers rather than gratuitously killing the enemy. But he also does not torture, rape, and indulge in the sort of atrocities that al Qaeda normalized in Iraq, and ISIL, true to script, has now institutionalized.
Americans know they are not saints in the age of waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, but they tire of hearing from their politicians and their popular culture that they are no better than others, when they sense that they most surely are. Kyle’s story pushes back against the slur that Americans in war act like the Nazis, Brownshirts, or the Khmer Rouge—or that al Qaeda and Baathists are modern Minutemen. For Kyle, the American army in Iraq—at times naively, often at cross purposes, and sometimes futilely—was aiming at something different from what radical Islam or Saddam’s Baathists were. In the impending battle against ISIS for Tikrit, both defenders and attackers will not follow rules of engagement that governed Kyle’s lethal sniping.
In the chaos of contemporary culture, Americans miss the lost civilizing decorum of aristocrats—without necessarily wishing to become aristocrats themselves. And amid their postmodern lives, they are also thankful that there are still a few premodern Chris Kyles left among them when the uncivilized appear on the horizon.