Today being Bastille Day, as I have every year for many years I mark the occasion not by celebration, but by wearing black and stopping in at church to pray for my ancestors who were killed by godless leftists in the French Revolution. It is rather fitting, then, that tonight the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, named for the 19th century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, will be screening writer-director Whit Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco”. Both de Tocqueville and Stillman regret the cheapening of traditional values in their own communities and times, but each holds out hope that – in America at least – through the influence of religion such values are by no means dead and buried, despite the best efforts of moral relativism.
In his thinking and writing de Tocqueville – whose parents had had to flee the guillotine – was committed to the restoration of order and tradition in France, so that the ideals of classical liberalism he believed in could grow naturally, rather than through violent means. Stillman, working in the arts rather than public policy, has been chronicling the decline of the urban haute bourgeoisie of which he is a member, as ideals become cheapened through association with and the ascendancy of the seedier side of life. Both in their respective worlds witnessed an erosion of the high value formerly placed on good moral judgement, true talent, and even personal style, and its replacement by an embrace of lowest common denominator pandering.
In “Democracy in America” de Tocqueville (himself a Catholic), noted that Catholicism was flourishing in the United States, alongside many other religions, which in conjunction made sure that while religion did not rule the state, it informed the way people behaved toward one another and in public life. He was pleased to note that, as of 1831 anyway, worship of the state had not trumped the worship of God in the United States, as he had witnessed in France. The accompanying siren song of libertine moral relativism was kept muffled in America by the fact that there was a common moral good, upheld by religious people as being more important than the good of the state:
Hitherto no one, in the United States, has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society – an impious adage, which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages. Thus while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.
Stillman of course is working in the arts rather than political theory. Yet in “Last Days of Disco” as in his other films, Stillman casts an accusing glance at the embrace of libertine behavior. What are supposedly well-brought-up girls like his two central characters of Charlotte and Alice (played, respectively, by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny) doing mixing with men who embrace moral relativism over virtue and self-sacrifice? In probably the most well-known part of the film, Stillman has the idealistic young attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar) criticize the message of amorality which he perceives as integral to Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” in discussion with Charlotte and Alice:
There is something depressing about it, and it’s not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond Cocker Spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She’s great-looking, but – let’s be honest – incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind – an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or whatever he can get…He’s a self-confessed chicken thief, and all-around sleazeball.
What’s the function of a film of this kind? Essentially as a primer on love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches the idea that smooth-talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls from sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house, their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks.
This is a process which continues today, of course. For example, if decades ago the press in the United States was captivated by the (admittedly choreographed) wedding of the elegant and talented Grace Kelly; today media in the United States appears captivated by the (unabashedly choreographed) wedding of – and I am being exceedingly kind here – the inelegant and untalented Kim Kardashian. Whereas the former event allowed us to dream, the latter gives us nightmares. And I suspect – though admittedly without being able to state for certain – that both de Tocqueville and Stillman would agree to some extent that this is a natural result of a decline in the standards of what people ought to aspire to or seek to emulate, as a result of American society turning its back on traditional values of morality, and the attempts to marginalize religion in favor of the worship of celebrities, or of oneself.
Nevertheless, rather than wring their hands, de Tocqueville and Stillman are not pessimists – at least not as far as America is concerned. In looking at the America he observed first-hand, de Tocqueville saw that there was much good coming out of the American experiment with democracy, even if it was by no means a perfect system. His belief that the role of religion in American society is ultimately a positive one should give those who would otherwise despair some hope that not all is yet lost.
Similarly, Stillman sings a lament for the trashing or watering down of American ideals he believes in, but never adopts the attitude that the United States will somehow fully succumb to selfishness. The importance of the words of traditional religious hymns, which come to bear repeatedly throughout “Last Days of Disco”, give him and us at least some sense that the role of religion in American life is, while under attack, never going to be completely barred from the public square. Indeed, the character of Josh, arguably the most religious of the bunch, gives an impassioned proclamation that, “Disco will never die!”, even as he and Alice head off into an old-fashioned, self-sacrificial type of happy ending in which disco music is merely something fun to dance to, rather than providing moral guidance to live by. And Stillman ends his film not with the soul-disco classic “Love Train”, which appears over the first part of the final credits, but instead with the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace”.
In the end, both de Tocqueville and Stillman remain hopeful that, even if it will be a difficult path back, virtue will ultimately triumph, and this will come about because the important role religion plays in American society will provide the stability that such a re-emergence of virtue needs.