The Silence of the Lambs and the contemporary American elite

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The Silence of the Lambs is almost 30 years old. But it is one of those classic films that has entered the general culture so that people who weren’t alive when the film came out can recognise classic lines or moments from the film.

Who does not get the resonance of “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”?

Members of the contemporary American elite, who are too settled and senior in some network or hierarchy to see themselves as Clarice, the plucky young FBI agent played by Jodie Foster, surely would identify with Jack Crawford. The wise, experienced and perceptive defeater of monsters; mentor to the Clarice’s who come into their orbit. Scott Glenn gave the character an engaged and engaging gravitas, who would not want to identify with him?

If the American elite, particularly the progressive elite, were made up of Jack Crawford’s, the US would be in much better shape.

But neither Clarice nor Jack Crawford is the character from the film classic who best describes the typical member of the contemporary American elite. That goes to Dr Frederick Chiltern, played with such wonderfully sleazy arrogance by Anthony Heald.

It is all there. The condescension. The arrogance. The overblown sense of understanding. The destructive careerism. The false sense of being in control, of being able to use the monster of the moment for their own benefit.

And what happens to him in the end? Having let the monster loose through this own self-serving careerism, the last we see of Frederick Chiltern is his frightened flight to a false sanctuary, the monster he let loose wandering, unhurried, after him, toward that fatal consumption that Lector’s line to Clarice (“I am having an old friend for dinner”) moments earlier foreshadows with such delicious menace.

As we have watched US cities burn in nightly riots, and new forms of the totalitarian urge rampage through US institutions, the statues expressing American heritage be torn down, the explicit wish to abolish the American, Western and Enlightenment projects be violently proclaimed, much of the US mainstream media turn itself into vehicles of cult activism, people be intimidated into going along with moral urgency of the moment, for fear they will get the hose of mobbing stigmatisation, the lesson of Frederick Chiltern is there for those with eyes to see. This has all got as far as it has because an army of Fredrick Chilterns thought that the monsters would be useful for their careers, that they would remain in control and so could prosper from letting moralised rage do its thing.

That is not how these patterns play out.

How many will find out that they were not noble Jack Crawford’s but Frederick Chiltern’s, destroyed by their own careerist arrogance? And will they have that moment of self-realisation before the monsters they let loose come for them?

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