Family Portraits

The family portraits of politicians are suggestive of what we want for ourselves. This is not merely because the hangers-ons of politicians make sure that the photos that are released are styled to convey the politician’s brand: it is also because who voters choose, who wins and who loses, is shaped by the politician’s identity as their “real,” familial self, as well as what they promise when making speeches or debating rivals. Would Obama have become President if he’d had three sons instead of two daughters? Would Romney have done better or worse without the five sons? Would Trump be Trump! without all that blond hair around him?




Ebonya Washington had a well-known paper arguing that, holding the total number of children constant, daughters make politicians more liberal; other methodological criticisms aside, her data could just have well have shown that more liberal constituencies prefer politicians with more daughters, and more conservative constituencies prefer politicians with more sons.

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The best portrait of upper-class American life in the late 20th century was, I think, John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, later turned into a pretty good movie with Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing and Will Smith.

When I first saw the movie, I thought of it as a mystery- how did the black hustler entrance all these rich white folks? Who is he, really? How did he learn to play their game so well?

And if I thought it had a deeper meaning, it would have been the obvious one of the title– we’re all just a few steps away from anyone else, and the barriers of class are in the end just illusions that can be stepped through at will. The Stockard Channing, rich socialite character says,

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

But looking at it again, from the jaded perspective of contemporary parenthood (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!”) I think that is wrong. The street hustler who comes into their lives is what the various rich families want: charming, colorful, colorful, connected to the throbbing mystery of celebrity (he claims to be Sydney Poitier’s son), needing their help yet understanding their needs, an ideal child at a time when their own real college-aged children are monsters of narcissism and self-absorbed vanity:

You gave him my pink shirt? You gave a complete stranger my pink shirt?!
That shirt was a Christmas present from you!
I treasured that shirt! I loved that shirt!
My collar has grown from weightlifting.
You saw my arms had grown, you saw my neck had grown, and you bought me that shirt for my new body!
I loved that shirt! My first shirt for my new body, and you gave that shirt away?!
I can’t believe you!
I hate this life, and I hate you!
– You never do anything for me!
– You block me.
– I’m a pathetic extension of your eighth-rate personality.
-Social Darwinism pushed beyond all limits!
– You gave him my pink shirt!
– You want me to be all you weren’t!
-You said “drugs” and looked at me?!

Paul (the Will Smith, hustler character) describes himself as a vehicle for aspiration, in words that could be said of politics as well as imagination:

The imagination.  That’s our out.  Our imagination teaches us our limits and then how to grow beyond those limits.  The imagination says listen to me.  I am your darkest voice.  I am your 4 a.m. voice.  I am the voice that wakes you up and says this is what I am afraid of.  Do not listen to me at your peril.  The imagination is the noon voice that sees clearly and says yes, this is what I want for my life.  It’s there to sort out our nightmare, to show you the exit from the maze of your nightmare, to transform the nightmare into dreams that become your bedrock.  If we don’t listen to that voice, it dies.  It shrivels.  It vanishes.  (Paul takes out a switchblade and opens it.)  The imagination is not our escape.  On the contrary, the imagination is the place we are all trying to get to.

And the Donald Sutherland character, an art dealer, says, making only too clear how the dreams of youth (his and his children) give way to vain cupidity and empty desires:

I loved paintings in the first place, what got me into this. I thought… dreamt… remembered… how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting. I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’ ‘I dreamt of colour. I dreamt of our son’s pink shirt. I dreamt of pinks and yellows. And the new Van Gogh the Museum of Modern Art got. And the Irises that sold for $53.5 million. And, wishing a Van Gogh was mine, I looked at my English hand-lasted shoes, and thought of Van Gogh’s tragic shoes, and remembered me as I was-a painter losing a painting.’

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Steve Sailer often argues that contemporary liberalism– and contemporary elite discourse, which liberals dominate– is a matter of “leapfrogging loyalties.” Liberals gain status by showing off that they care about those far from them more than those close to them. This is no doubt true, but as Six Degrees of Separation suggests, caring about those close to you is hard. They disappoint you, and they remind you of all your failures that you have imparted unto them. The vehicles for our fantasy– whether politicians or less well-sponsored con-men– are often appealing precisely because they are different from us, unconnected and unbounded by our limitations and our past, promising a future no longer dragged down by who we are.

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