Robert Fulford's 1998 column about Seinfeld

(Globe and Mail, May 13, 1998)

The words of philosophers sometimes explain the way we live now, and Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto did that for me last year when he wrote about "the discourse of compassion." He was describing the way we frame public events in the 1990s. To an extent that no one could have predicted, compassion has become the governing rhetorical style of our times, and the standard by which everyone is judged. If we can show compassion, then we are good people. If we cannot, we are not. This may have nothing to do with what we accomplish. Displayed feeling, not action, is what counts. Compassion, in our time, is essentially a performance art.

Seen against this background, we can consider Seinfeld an event in emotional history as well as a television show. From the beginning, Seinfeld has placed itself outside the discourse of compassion, ignoring the main current of contemporary feeling. On Seinfeld, people do not hug or dissolve in tears. (Tomorrow night's final episode may break those rules, but it seems unlikely.)

Politically, Seinfeld ranges from standard-liberal to don't-bother-me conservative. But emotionally, it's radical. It differs fundamentally from all earlier TV comedy. By contrast, Mary Tyler Moore and MASH drowned in tears. Seinfeld has many qualities--on good nights the script is as well crafted as anything ever written for television, and the performers demonstrate wonderful style and energy. It's high-level farce. But what makes it unique is emotional distance.

Clifford Orwin called his essay on compassion (in The Public Interest, a Washington quarterly) "Moist eyes--from Rousseau to Clinton." He traced the 1990s mood back to the 18th century and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who "founded not only the cult of compassion but also that of sincerity." Rousseau taught that we may act badly so long as our feelings are sincere and so long as we show goodness of heart. As Orwin sees it, "Rousseau invented liberal guilt." A guilty liberal is someone who does nothing for the poor except moistly sympathize. A guilty liberal knows that at some level it feels good to feel bad about social problems.

Long before the Lewinsky scandal, Orwin explained how it works for Bill Clinton: "Other parts of Clinton's anatomy may wander, but the public appears convinced that his heart remains in the right place." Clinton is good because he shows his feelings. Vice-president Al Gore made a strenuous claim for similar virtue by discussing in public his son's near-death and his sister's death from cancer.

Public compassion reached new intensity last summer in the orgy of mourning that followed the death of the Princess of Wales. In this case compassion became so hysterical that it approached totalitarianism: those failing to show sufficient sadness were condemned as inhuman. The queen became compassion's victim, forced to express acceptable feelings or lose status with the public. As the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote at the time, "The coercive demand that people should perform their feelings has become extortionate....Emotions are considered to be real only when one is seen having them."

While Clinton remains the world's compassion champion, Prime Minister Tony Blair has demonstrated great talent and may in the end outperform the master. Last summer Blair jumped so nimbly on the Lady Di bandwagon that (according to a correspondent in the New Yorker) his speed frightened even some of his friends. More recently, when accused of improperly accepting campaign funds, he declared himself "hurt and upset" by the criticism. With that quick, deft tug at public emotions, he not only requalified himself as vulnerable and caring but also created a new context for discussing his future mistakes. He was saying that, just as he shows compassion for others, they too must take his feelings into account and not wound him.

In Canada, as Richard Gwyn noted in a Toronto Star column last week, we have adopted "false feeling, feelings without commitment, feelings displayed for show"--to quote a British study called Faking It: The Sentimentalization of Modern Society. This lesson has been learned by Preston Manning. In the debate over compensating hepatitis victims, Manning and the Reform Party, violating their own history, have learned how to out-compassion the Liberals. They have been rewarded for their shamelessness by the acknowledgement that this makes them an effective Opposition.

Compassion is totally alien to the Seinfeldian world. No matter what happens, Seinfeld characters remain unmoved. Events do not matter to them on any level except the surface: there are no ecstatic highs, no tragic lows. Jerry and his friends suffer from what a psychiatrist might call "affective deadening," the inability to respond in the way that ordinary people find appropriate. The characters don't reject emotion: they simply fail to notice the possibility of it. Instead of emotion, they have annoyance. Of course there are no children, those notorious carriers of emotion, and love never becomes important enough to produce painful feelings. There are no moist eyes.

Is such a condition enviable? Of course not. If taken seriously, it's a world of impotence that never reaches above the infantile. But in the context of these times, it's refreshing. Seinfeld may be remembered best as a weekly moment of relief from the stultifying air of a self-admiring society drunk on a belief in its own compassion.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image