Veep and the Pathetic Notion of Meaning in the US

VeepLast night, I put on the third season of Veep. It’s the show where Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Vice-President Selina Meyer, and she and her staff behave with about as much competence and integrity that I fear is typical of Washington. Whereas I hate watching mathematicians in movies, because no screenwriter understands what they do, we do understand what politicians do: they get elected — and that’s all that matters in the job.

The best part of season three of Veep is where Meyer is trying to figure out where she stands on abortion rights. Of course, she knows where she stands personally. But every public opinion has to be thought over excessively. Much of the comedy comes from the fact that this is all fruitless. The moral of the series is that it’s better just to do what you believe in. But in the show and reality, politicians are too wedded to the importance of their job titles to do that.

The Self-Importance of Little People

If this sounds familiar to regular readers, it should. It is the Paradox of Power, which I have written about before. Politicians normally only have power so long as they don’t use it. But the question on my mind is why that is. Who wants to have this kind of pretend power? As Jack Stanton says in Primary Colors, “Plenty of people playing this game [are] willing to sell their souls, crawl through sewers, lie to people, divide them, play on their worst fears for nothing! Just for the prize.”

What comes across to me in Veep is the self-importance of all the people involved. And that isn’t just politics. This is even more true of people in Hollywood. But at least they are truthful enough to admit just how vile they are. (Note: this is not all the brown-nosing that goes on during media tours; you need to watch documentaries or listen to director’s commentaries.) But the truth is that politics and Hollywood are just really public expressions of this. This kind of self-importance is actually everywhere in the business world.

Money as Game Counter

This is why people work so much in the United States. It’s amazing to see managers at Big Lots who act like they are doing heart surgery on children. They’re just selling stuff! I’m not saying that this is worthless. I have an unreasonable love of Bumble Bee Snack on the Run Chicken Salad with Crackers Kits. But perspective is in order!

Our biggest problem is our obsession with money. The truth is that many people really don’t care about what money can do; they care about money itself; they see money the same way they do chips in a friendly poker game: a way of keeping score. This is a conservative/libertarian way of looking at value: something is worth exactly what someone will pay for it. It should be obvious that this is specious. Here’s just one example: personally caring for a dying loved one has great value that is in no way equivalent to hiring a nurse to do it for you. This is not an issue that we should even have to debate.

Whither Meaning?

This is all related to issues of meaning, of course. As a culture, we get too much of our meaning from our work. That was fine when work came with dignity. But thanks to people like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, we live in a society that is in no way subtle about telling people that their work is unimportant if they don’t make a lot of money.

So we have this Veep notion of what work ought to be. We have people who are doing jobs that are no more important than the work done on an assembly line. But they think it is more important. What will they think as they prepare to die? It can’t be much more than, “I helped a politician stay in power, even though she never used that power to do anything of value.” For any thoughtful person, that would be devastating. But just like the manager at Big Lots, these characters are not thoughtful. They will have wasted their lives, but they will never be aware of it.

Veep and Meaning

Chattel slavery came into existence in the United States as a way of controlling poor whites. As long as you can keep people looking down and feeling good that at least they aren’t as bad off as those people, they will never look up and question those at the top. Selina Meyer’s success is a matter of luck. And the show (to its credit) understands this, with its overuse of deus ex machina. Meyer’s political career is over? How about if the president steps down to care for his wife and Meyer is just named president?

It’s interesting that the only man on the show who seems to have any notion of real value, the president, is not in the show. Of course, that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine a real-life president stepping down to take care of his suicidal wife. As Donald Trump would tell you, he’d won the ultimate prize. What does a wife’s health matter in that case? You can always get another wife. The president is the most powerful man in the world — even if he doesn’t use that power as he would like.

Money and power. That’s all we value. And it will be the death of us.