The Deadly Quest for Grace

The libertarian economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams likes to describe the difference between voluntary market transactions and involuntary government requirements in simple terms. Market exchange, he says, is like seduction: “You make me feel good, and I’ll make you feel good.” Government action is like rape: “The essence of our relationship with government,” he says, “is that if we don’t make them feel good, they’re going to make us feel bad.” Democracy is no improvement. “I don’t think gang rape is any better than individualized rape,” he says. “Just because you vote to rape somebody doesn’t make it right,” he says.

This analogy goes over well with true believers. But most people won’t buy it. (I doubt most libertarians, in their heart of hearts, accept it either.) Few Americans think that paying taxes, registering the car, waiting in customs lines, or separating trash using mandatory recycling bins is anything like being raped. Lousy sex, maybe, but not rape. Even when the interaction is unwanted and unpleasant, most of us, most of the time feel we’ve given consent. The reason is what Martin Gurri calls “the authorizing magic of legitimacy.”

Glamour is another sort of magic, a trick in which the audience knowingly suspends disbelief. It’s an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true.”[1] Glamour presents an idealized picture, in which flaws, distractions, costs, and complications are hidden. Courtship and love are never as easy as a Fred and Ginger routine, a beach vacation never as unmarred by delays and difficulties as a travel brochure. Military comradeship is real, but the “glamour of battle” edits out the boredom and blood. Glamour, like legitimacy, survives only behind a “well-wrought veil” that reveals only partial truths.[2]

The years I spent thinking about glamour made me appreciate—against both my psychological inclinations and our professed social norms—the cultural and personal value of such inspirational illusions. Glamour can be used for evil but in its benign incarnations it gives direction and meaning to our personal projects and often creates social benefits. Following Adam Smith, I’ve even suggested that economic prosperity depends on illusions.

Glamour’s greatest dangers, I’ve argued, lie in forgetting what is left out and demanding that the real world conform to the image. “Without a backstage, the quest for grace threatens to turn tyrannical, subordinating the complexities and flux of life to a unitary and artificial ideal,” I write in The Power of Glamour.

All utopias, whether hateful or benevolent, trade in glamour. As literature, they offer only a graceful setting—no narrative, no conflict, no depth of character, no change. They edit out the dynamism and complexity of social interactions to compose a static image of the ideal. As philosophical thought experiments, utopias can be illuminating. As political programs, they are at best impractical. At the extreme, they become deadly, as the quest for grace becomes a demand for purity, with no room for anything or anyone that might disrupt the guiding vision—whether religious dissenters or ethnic minorities, competitive markets or artistic innovation, scientific discoveries or contradictory ideologies. Perfect grace cannot tolerate the unpredictability and diversity of real human beings.

In his response essay and his important new book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, however, Gurri suggests a different danger: nihilistic rage arising from disillusionment. We hate our political representatives for the same reason we identify with them: because they are imperfect human beings who cannot deliver the mutually inconsistent, and sometimes flatly impossible, goods for which the public longs. We despise the system that fails to fulfill promises of effortless happiness and harmony.

The result, Gurri warns, is a dangerous and increasingly popular version of political glamour: the “glamorization of revolt,” with no consideration for what follows. The contemporary nihilist, he writes in his book,

is morbidly, monstrously, against. He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow….His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless. He expects perfection. He insists on utopia….Every encounter with the human condition, every social imperfection and government failure, triggers the urge to demolish. Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous in his ingratitude—a feeling sometimes validated by late modernist governments bent on the promotion of universal happiness.

The problem is not that contemporary life is bad but that it is not perfect. It doesn’t conform to the glamorous ideal. And so the institutions that support it must be destroyed.

I am reminded of the peculiar state of many of America’s affluent, well-educated young women. They live in a culture that recognizes the widest range of beauty standards—body type, facial structure, skin color, et cetera—in the history of the world. They are free from the disease and deprivation that marred the faces and figures of their foremothers. They have access to the most effective beauty technologies ever invented. Most important, they have the greatest opportunities in the history of womankind for successful lives not based on their appearance.

But they do not rejoice in their good fortune. They do not highlight their best features and play down their flaws, as women were taught in the heyday of movie glamour. Nor do they ignore their appearance to develop less superficial qualities. Instead they rail. They rage. They wallow in the misery of their imperfections. Not just teenagers but grown women with independent careers and supposedly serious minds support a journalistic industry dedicated to complaining that they feel bad about their looks. They demand universal beauty, a component, presumably, of the modernist promise of universal happiness. Here, too, the problem is not that life is bad but that it is not perfect.

The nihilistic glamorization of revolt is indeed dangerous, and I certainly have no easy answer to it. But as I contemplate the parallels between Gurri’s political nihilists and the perpetually enraged readers of Jezebel it occurs to me that a widespread understanding of glamour might teach us to live more easily with the tension between aspirational ideals and real-world achievement—to recognize and accept what glamour conceals without losing the insights and inspiration it supplies.




[1] A phrase I take from Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987). For a fuller discussion of its application, see chapter two of The Power of Glamour.

[2] For a discussion of Burke’s use of transparency versus veiling, see Jerry Z. Muller, Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) pp. 20–21, 80–82.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Virginia Postrel argues that it’s a mistake to excise visual appeals from politics. The truth is out there, and yes, we must ultimately rely on empirical work to find it. But to persuade may after all take more than facts and figures. To fight the undeniable glamour of bad public policies, good public policies must respond with a glamour of their own.

Response Essays

  • In the realm of visual persuasion, Grant McCracken distinguishes luxury from glamour. The former, he finds, is the tool of political power: Luxury is obedient to, and intimately connected with, the state. The state’s messages are its own, more or less. Glamour, though, can come from oppositional groups as well as from the center. Quite often, the state’s attempts at glamour backfire, particularly when it misjudges the public mood, or when its messages reach the wrong audience.

  • Autumn Whitefield-Madrano looks at the attractiveness of political officeholders. She connects it to scientific research showing that composite faces, made up of the average of many different people, tend to be rated more attractive than most real-world individuals. She suggests that many people seem to look for a similar kind of average when they choose their representatives. And it shows: Politicians tend strongly to be just kind of nice-looking — neither unattractive nor stunningly beautiful. Is this any way to choose a nation’s leaders?

  • Martin Gurri suggests that the world’s elites have lately lost control over the visual. Anyone can publish images today, and it’s changing the world. Images legitimize, because they help to tell stories, and no social order can sustain itself without stories that justify its existence to the people. But when the people themselves can circulate competing images, they can also circulate some very effective competing stories. It’s not a coincidence, then, that trust in government is at a low ebb around the world today.

    Warning: This essay contains images of graphic violence.