The Exceptionalist’s “Boyhood”

Ordinarily, I completely ignore contemporary U.S. movies—which manage, from year-to-year, to attain new lows of infantilism, incoherent nihilism, and sheer vapidity (cf. my previous article “Reviving Radical Populism in Films”).  Yet lately, I found myself disturbed by the uniformly ecstatic reviews of Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood.  The premise of the film seems boring enough, unexceptional, barely even a “concept”: every year the cast and director got together, made up a “script” as they went along, and traced a boy’s growing-up, from ages 6 to 18.

Morbidly curious, I forced myself to watch the usual clips available on Youtube, etc.; and was not surprised to encounter the usual hackneyed situations and stereotypes (divorced mom goes back to school, her nasty boyfriends, the kids’ good-natured but immature dad, etc.—all packaged within a marginally middle-class, white social milieu—with the customary pop-music references as soundtrack).

So, the film itself is not worth mentioning—except for the Americo-centric “group-narcissism” it so witlessly reveals and dramatizes (although “drama” is hardly the word for the meandering non-plot praised so highly as “realism”).  In this cinematic “masterpiece,” gushed New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, “you may see your own face in those faces, your own children’s, too.”  There you have it: a self-referential, solipsistic “story” about “us”: “these are people you know, maybe people like you.”  “The story,” she intoned reverentially, “is blissfully simple: A child grows up.”  One can only hope for such “bliss” in really real life — say, in places like Iraq.  Dargis concluded rhapsodically: this “masterpiece” is a “tender, profound film.”  One could dismiss this mind-deadening drivel—if all the other film “critics” (sic) were not in complete agreement.  At best, one could attribute such an abominable failure of critical acumen to a “dozing of the American ‘mind’” (to amend the title of Allan Bloom’s 1987 book).  But there is something more insidious and morally excrescent at work.

Historically, the “petty-bourgeois” class has often been disparaged as narrow-mindedly selfish, indifferent to the sufferings of others — as long as “I’ve got mine.”  Let’s say the boy in the movie reminds me of me—or, of my child.  (Not, say, the little boys and girls in Newtown—so horrifically slaughtered—those were “somebody else’s” kids.)  But I’m disturbed by a deeper trend: fight those wars, kill anybody you want — just “keep my family safe.”  Guantanamo?  Sure.  Sanctions killing thousands of innocent children?  Yes, yes—whatever you want—just “keep my family safe.”  One only “identifies” with kids like one’s own—while the U.S. military (as well as sanctions) has killed ten of thousands of innocent children somewhere “far away.”

But then—obviously–it is no longer “far away” (i.e., conveniently hidden from the awareness of ostrich-like American citizens).  Even 50 years ago, McLuhan was describing the TV-enabled “global village.”  Now, anyone with the Internet can access—in five seconds!—real photos of children maimed, children burned, children killed—by the U.S. military, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Any morally functioning person, any American who recognizes the universal rights of children, can instantaneously view real footage of wars conducted by the U.S. military (on Youtube, through Wikileaks, etc.).  And what of the murderous practice of imposing genocidal sanctions on vilified nations such as Iraq (1990s)? Millions of Americans heard (or heard about) our then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright matter-of-factly state on CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” (1996) that the resulting deaths of some 500,000 children in Iraq had been “worth it.”  (She did not dispute the accuracy of the UN’s own figures; and was shortly promoted to become Secretary of State).

Complacency, ignorance, willful blindness?  This is more than a failure of “moral imagination” or “sympathetic identification.”  And it is more than old-fashioned racism and ethnocentrism.  I can only conclude that the “culture of narcissism”– which historian Christopher Lasch scathingly critiqued 35 years ago—has gotten a whole lot worse.  How else to explain the prevailing—and morally revolting—indifference of the vast majority of Americans to the killing and displacement of millions of ordinary people in Iraq and Afghanistan—by the U.S. invasions and occupation?

NOTE: For more in-depth analysis, see my previous articles: “Innocence Exhumed” and “Blood, Oil, and the American Dream

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.