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The Anguish of the Malcontents

From the Scrapbook

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook is not ordinarily in the business of transcription, but a recent interview with novelist Jonathan Franzen—seen on the website of the Guardian newspaper in London—prompts us to reproduce one passage in full. 

Franzen is the 51-year-old writer/activist who gained some celebrity a decade ago when one of his books was chosen to be an Oprah Winfrey “book club” selection, and Franzen responded by publicly disparaging her taste in literature, and worrying that his status in what he called “the high-art literary tradition” might alienate Oprah fans. 

It is no small accomplishment to make Oprah Winfrey seem sensible and gracious, but Jonathan Franzen managed to do it. In the Guardian interview, however, he succeeds, against all odds, in making himself appear even less appetizing than in the Oprah episode. Sporting a few days’ growth of beard, a self-consciously soft, condescending tone of voice, and the kind of ragged wardrobe that fairly screams “high-art literary tradition,” Franzen discusses his homeland from the vantage point of a foreign capital and manages, in a handful of sentences, to personify the smug, disdainful branch of alienated American intellectuals. 

His interlocutor, a Pakistani-born filmmaker named Sarfraz Manzoor, introduces the subject of American belligerence and hypocrisy about “freedom.”

Sarfraz Manzoor: The United States fetishizes freedom and forgets that, actually, there are greater freedoms to be had by having bonds.

Jonathan Franzen: In the last decade America has emerged, even in its own estimation, as a problem state. That is, there were many criticisms one could make as early as the treatment of the Indians—it goes way back​—and our long relationship with slavery. There have been some problems with the country at many points; in the Cold War we were certainly culpable. But the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing enormous trouble around the world in our attempts to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs, or whatever. .  .  . It does make one wonder what is it in the national character that is making us such a problem state, and I think it’s [this] kind of mixed up childish notion of freedom. And perhaps it was really, truly, who left Europe to go over there? It was all the malcontents; it was all the people not getting along with others. 

At this point, Manzoor asks Franzen if he is more “comfortable” in America these days. Franzen visibly flinches, and snickers: 

Ha, ha—no! It was possible while I was writing to look forward to some possibility of significant change. .  .  . Now people left of the middle feel puzzled and sort of anguished because we don’t have an object for our anger, but the right is still as angry as ever. I mean, that’s the worrisome thing about our upcoming elections. .  .  . The right is still just as angrily motivated as ever, and the Democrats are in disarray and feeling, well, we have power but the system itself is so screwed up, and we are relatively the adult party, so we are, you know, we are responsible for trying to make an unworkable system work. It’s this kind of—ugh!—discouragement and dull throbbing anxiety.

To be sure, this is boilerplate to anyone who has spent quality time on an Ivy League campus, or is a steady reader of, say, DailyKos or the New Republic or Huffington Post

But what intrigues The Scrapbook is the fact that Franzen stopped by the White House this past week for a “delightful” chat with President Obama. The subject of their private meeting, of course, was not disclosed; but we would guess that there was discussion of America’s status as a “rogue state,” the “childish” nature of our notions of freedom, the “malcontents” who settled this continent, the “screwed-up .  .  . unworkable system” that elected Barack Obama—and the “dull throbbing anxiety” that people like Jonathan Franzen (and the president?) must now be experiencing about democracy.

Ditch It

One more happy consequence of this election is that President Obama, presumably, will discard his irritating metaphor about the economy being driven into a ditch, with Republicans at the wheel—who must now be content with riding in the back seat while Democrats do the hard work of pulling the car out of the ditch. And so on, and on, seemingly ad infinitum.

In the president’s defense, The Scrapbook is willing to concede that, as metaphors go, we’ve heard worse (even if we recognize its premise is faulty) and it was probably effective the first or second time Obama used it. But after month upon month of relentless repetition—talk about driving something into the ground!—it is The Scrapbook’s sincere hope that this particular rhetorical tic will be consigned to the scrapyard, or join the cash for clunkers program, or whatever.

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