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Houses of Cards

House of Cards, the Netflix original series, just might be the best of a genre that ought to be called the “political sleezie.” Wildly entertaining, it stars Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire. Majority Whip Underwood is so underhanded it makes you feel guilty that you almost root for him to succeed.

The term “house of cards” dates all the way back to John Milton in the 17th century and still means what Milton’s figurative phrase meant then: a flimsy, morally reckless structure that threatens to come down on the heads of its builders.

It’s not hard to see in recent history something like card house sprawl. Wall Street? Congress? Most state governments? Higher education? Public education? Bridges, dams, and levees? Cards are cheaper than brick, and in so much of what we do we look for the best return on the cheapest investment.

And beyond individual institutions the climate crisis, the ultimate huff and puff, is threatening our global Cathedral of Cards. Civilization that in our arrogance seemed so permanent is not so invincible after all.

“I’m just a lowly House majority whip,” the powerful Underwood says in House of Cards. “I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving.”

I doubt anyone will argue with that “choked by pettiness and lassitude” line. The approval rating of Congress is so low one wonders if they’re playing a comic game of limbo, forever bending backwards under a lower and lower bar.

I’m tempted to agree with Chamfort, who wrote, “The only thing that stops God from sending another flood is that the first one was useless.” But only tempted, because I’m not altogether certain there’s not another one coming some day soon.

Now that I think of it, the tone of House of Cards is much like that of Chamfort’s. Congressman Underwood drawls his stinging aphorisms with more than a little humor. He’s mad with power, but not so mad that he doesn’t recognize his own folly right along with the folly that surrounds him.

Does humor open our eyes to dangerous cynicism and help us find new ways, or does it just make us all the more cynical? I think it’s the former. Maybe I should say I think most of us think humor is at least a palliative if not a cure. But is it enough to awaken us before our houses of cards all fall down? Maybe.

Corruption is more contagious than a cold. When all around us begin to play cards with the future we join the game. Ask an honest business person if she likes the constant campaign shakedowns and bribe-driven political culture in America and she will likely say no. And mean it. But everybody’s doing it, and survival appears to depend upon it.

A biting humor can put the lie to that peer-driven passivity. I think it might even work better than tragedy because it’s not cathartic. It sticks in the throat.

I think the makers of House of Cards believe this too. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a comedy. But you can’t listen to Underwood’s sly observations on his own clever deceptions and machinations without smiling a little.

Kevin Spacey starred in a well-reviewed stage version of Shakespeare’s Richard III before filming House of Cards. That was good prep. But now that they’ve found poor Richard’s bones under an English car park, the hunchback king’s defenders are discovering new audiences for their revisionist view of Richard as a just ruler. All that evil stuff was just from attack ads from the Tudors.

And that’s what a show like House of Cards can do for us. It makes us look again, and maybe we’ll find some better angels before the grave.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith